Had he lived to see it, the Hungarian 1956 would have also been George Orwell’s Revolution. His most acute, but also most generous mind would have understood and appreciated a modern nation’s rising in unprecedented unity, and also with striking magnanimity.

Stalinist Hungary indeed was created to be a version of Animal Farm – but when the inmates revolted and shook down dictatorship, the driving force was not mere revenge, but also human dignity, the feeling of brotherhood and the immediate urge to create a new order. A new order in the sense of returning to normalcy, but also restoring order in the metaphysical sense. As French Catholic philosopher Chantal Delsol1 argued, speaking about the peaceful revolutions of East Central Europe in 1989–90, true revolutions are attempts to restore the order of existence. And with this reference we have, at the very outset, begun to draw the large historical arc of which 1956 was a glorious peak, and 1987–1990 another, and whose starting point in Hungary must be sought in 1944–45.

But let us return to the horrors of the Animal Farm experiment of the Hungarian Communists that started openly in 1948 after three years of latent preparation, and collapsed spectacularly in October 1956. If dignity and magnanimity were demonstrated on the streets and in the revolutionary committees and councils of Budapest and the whole of Hungary in 1956, no doubt there was also ferociousness, bravery and self-sacrifice on the barricades, among poorly armed freedom fighters, men and women, and teenagers throwing Molotov cocktails on Soviet tanks and armoured vehicles. There was, inevitably, the sporadic mobbing of arrested officers of the political police – after the massacre of hundreds of demonstrators at the Budapest Radio on the night of 23 October, and the slaughter of close to nine hundred peaceful civilians at the Parliament on the morning of 25 October.2 And again, there was the magnanimity of the revolutionaries who let free the captured Soviet soldiers after disarming them.

The ferociousness, the rejection of a lukewarm political compromise ever after the Revolution set out on its own course, demanding a free election with democratic parties, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary, and ultimately the dignity of the citizen exceeded the demands of the June 1953 workers’ uprising in Berlin, the 1956 summer rebellion in Poznań, Poland, and the Prague Spring of 1968. The explanation can be found not only in the unparalleled and systematic terror of the political police, which was the core institution of Hungarian Stalinism, but the entire eight-year nightmare of the system that was set in motion by the clique of Mátyás Rákosi, who liked to describe himself as the best disciple of Comrade Stalin, and boast of his special relationship with the Soviet leader.

According to an anecdote, whose source I cannot spot but find very authentic, Mátyás Rákosi said the following in the Kremlin once, at a closed gathering of the leaders of Communist East Central Europe, in the early 1950s. “You have an easy job, Comrades – but I am trying to build Socialism with nine million fascists.” Nine million, a little more, was the population of Hungary at the time. That little faction more obviously consisted of the activist avant-garde of the Hungarian Communist Party, a dedicated elite bent on building the most cruel and inefficient utopia of history, on the shoulders of the occupying Soviet Army and secret services. Rákosi was known for his acerbic wit, but perhaps he was not aware of the pathological alienation and the paranoid obsessions revealed by his statement. Such was the mind of “a great leader of the people”, as one of his official epithets went. A true plebeian indeed, as one would expect from a leader of the Left.

This stunning statement perfectly encapsulates the mentality of the small Muscovite Bolshevik group that Stalin ordained to be the rulers of Hungary after the Second World War. But truly, was the Rákosi clique any different from the Communist rulers of the other occupied countries of East Central Europe? An adage circulating in the 1950s said: “The Hungarians received as a punishment what the Czechs and Poles received as a reward.” In the larger picture there seems to be much truth in this witty observation, which neatly sums up what the Paris Peace Conference of 1947 had brought for East Central Europe – the absurd Soviet territorial expansion, a 200-year-old Czarist dream, sanctioned by the Western Allies.

Yet the Soviets made sure that Hungary’s punishment was to be real punishment, more cruel in fact, than the severity of the so-called rewards for the Czechs and the Poles. As it appeared to the famous Yugoslav Communist leader Milovan Djilas during his conversations with Stalin in Moscow during the Second World War, the Hungarians were something of a psychological complex on Stalin’s mind. He respected them and he hated them. On the one hand he noted to Djilas that the Hungarians (and the Poles), who were ruled by strong aristocracies, are strong and proud nations. Strong aristocracy here evidently must be understood more broadly, as a strong traditional elite.3 On the other hand, speaking to Djilas of his blueprint of the new post-War order for East Central Europe, he bluntly said: as for the Hungarians, they are a mere question of box-cars.4 As it was to turn out, this cryptic statement referred to adequate railway capacity for transporting hundreds of thousands of innocent Hungarians, mostly civilians, to the Soviet Union for malenki robot, “a little work”, beginning with 1945, or better, late 1944. These prisoners of war – for that was the precise description of their status – were to work in the mines, on the fields, clearing away debris, reconstructing the war-damaged Soviet industry. Apart from the brutal psychological effect of these deportations on the war-ravaged nation, most of these Hungarians were never to return home. They became part of the one million war dead of Hungary – along with the fallen soldiers, the war prisoners who perished in the gulags, the Jewish people deported to death camps or shot by the Nazis in 1944, and the civilian victims of the war theatre in Hungary in 1944–45. The malenki robot transports were made up of men and women, sometimes selected with purpose – like ethnic Germans because they were Germans, or the Hungarians of Bereg County in the northeast, which the Soviet Union was planning to annex within its own borders. But in most cases they were just picked up on the streets, or arrested in their homes, as war bounty in the form of manpower.

Like many men who had a key role in the reconstruction of Budapest and its services after the devastation of the siege of 1944–45, my father, an electronic engineer, held a Russian language pass signed by the Soviet military authority, stating his indispensability in Budapest. Yet on one day as he walked to his offices at the Ministry of Post and Communications, he was picked up by a Soviet Army unit in Fő Street, near the Buda bridgehead of the destroyed Chain Bridge. Ignoring his pass, the soldiers herded him into the courtyard of a big building, to line up in a group to be taken to malenkij robot. People knew the trick: you should not stand in the front rows, because then you fall within the quota to be deported. My father, who hated tossing and bustling, found himself pressed closer and closer to the front positions. The Soviet commander, enraged by the frenzied hassle of the captured, suddenly shouted “About face!” The soldiers then separated the first two hundred men from the rest, perhaps never to be seen by their families again. My father, now standing toward the end of the queue, was saved narrowly by grace, and by his good instincts and his composure.

This and other similar stories are known to us because the protagonists survived and were able to tell them. There have been other such stories preserved among the legends of many families, stories of resourcefulness and saving grace, but they are the exception. Stalin probably not only apprehended the strength of the Hungarian elite, but he regarded harshly Hungary’s violent putting down of the brutal 1919 Commune, and the strong anti-Bolshevik stance of Hungary’s establishment between the two Wars. Therefore, he designed a more cruel fate to Hungary than Germany’s other war allies in the region, Romania and Slovakia. That is why he must have picked the madly vengeful Mátyás Rákosi to be the Communist plenipotentiary in defeated Hungary. Rákosi was kept in Regent Horthy’s prison for sixteen years for subversive activities, as a Soviet agent. True, as many reliable records tell us, Rákosi and his close associates enjoyed a privileged condition in the Szeged “Star” Prison, civilised comfort and access to books. True, as one of Rákosi’s comrades in the prison, Zoltán Vas, observed later, their custody in Szeged most probably saved their lives from Stalin’s Great Purge of the late 1930s, in which many Hungarian émigré Communist leaders were exterminated, including Béla Kun. True, Stalin had a contempt for Rákosi, and when the latter demanded after the War that Regent Horthy be brought home from Germany where the Nazis had deported him and tried as a war criminal, Stalin flatly refused him. He said that Horthy enjoyed his respect for personally appealing to him for an armistice in September 1944. Characteristically, Stalin liked to use men whom he despised. Rákosi was passionately vindictive, and seen as fit for the job by Stalin.

We know that Bolsheviks were masters of spin. The word was brought into use by media experts in the USA – but who has ever pondered over the fact that Communist agitation-propaganda, “agitprop”, as they called it, was far superior to anything the advertisement industry or political spin masters ever invented in the West. As Arthur Koestler revealed in retrospect, reviewing his years as a Communist, Lenin’s chief invention and his heritage to the Communists was the creation and cultivation of an ideological language in order to re-interpret and mask reality.5 They invented and kept reshaping a dumbed-down vocabulary for labelling friends and foes, which then could justify the ruthless extermination of the latter. Language was a weapon in Communist usage. As early as 1920, in revenge for the fall of the Hungarian “Soviet Republic”, Mátyás Rákosi and his circle invented the label “Horthy regime”, at a time when Admiral Horthy was not yet in full control of the country.

Again, released to Moscow in 1941, during the two-year period of improved relations with the Soviet Union, Rákosi further develops the aggressive Bolshevik dictionary, eyeing future goals. Speaking regularly to Hungarian war prisoners from 1942 on, he coins the phrase Horthy-fascism. Horthy may have been a reactionary and a class enemy in Communist terminology, but he had never been a Fascist, and even less a Nazi. True, Hungary suffered from grave problems of inequality, and willy-nilly, in order to appease Hitler, brought laws that curtailed the rights of Jews. Yet Horthy, who hated Hitler, was deposed in a Nazi coup in October 1944, because of his secretly negotiated armistice with the Soviet Union and his radio announcement of breaking with Nazi Germany. Making himself a truly hated enemy for Nazis, he prevented with loyal associates in the administration and the armed forces, throughout the summer of 1944, the deportation of Jewish people from Budapest to German death camps – at that time he did not have effective power over other parts of the occupied country any more.

Yet, just as Rákosi planned it, the invention of “Horthy-fascism” came in handy for the Muscovite Hungarian Communists from late 1944 on, as their Party, still a small minority in the new democratic National Assembly, began its sneaking four-year campaign against the remnants of the old civil service and officers in Horthy’s Hungarian Army even though they may have had a fine democratic and anti-Nazi political record. In the end, against the entirety of the upper and middle classes. Of course, like in the Soviet Union, agitprop talk needed the open or secret threat of a strong arm. That was provided for the Communist Party first of all by the occupying Soviet army, which was to remain here for the entire period until 1991. The Soviets also chaired the Allied Control Commission in Budapest, with Kremlin strongman Field Marshall Kliment Voroshilov at the helm. Their allies were the new secret police, which they had infiltrated and largely controlled from the very first day of its birth, in December 1944, in Debrecen. Horthy-fascism was a term effectively used then in the press of the Left against the defendants of the first showcase political trial, that of the Hungarian Fraternal Community, based on false charges of treason. The main targets of the trial were politicians with strong connections with the Smallholders’ Party, the majority group in Parliament, and creditable anti-Nazis, most notably people like Domokos Szent-Iványi, leader of the clandestine anti-Nazi Hungarian Independence Movement during the War, who had negotiated Hungary’s armistice agreement with Molotov in Moscow in September–October 1944. In brief, the immense trial that handed out sentences to 228 convicts, was aimed at singling out prominent patriots with integrity, people who might stand up again to a totalitarian power.6

Then, with the emergence of the Cold War, from 1948, new phrases enter the Orwellian dictionary of the Communist agitprop. A priest is by definition one who comes to be described as a clerical reactionary. Anyone being a sore in the eye of the Communists can become a bourgeois element, a class alien, an imperialist agent, a saboteur and a kulak. These last categories rise to prominence especially when the Communist mismanagement of the economy leads to catastrophic shortages by 1950, and near-starvation in a country that even in 1945 reaped one of the record harvests of Europe. You cannot buy proper shoes any more because of saboteurs of production in the factories and saboteurs among merchants, and you cannot buy butter or eggs because of the kulaks who are hoarding and hiding their produce. In 1950 many Jewish people, entire families who survived Nazi terror are deported from the cities to distant farms in the country among other class aliens, aristocrats, Horthyites and bourgeois elements, commanded to leave behind their apartments and personal belongings, to perform forced labour. Then it is not the upper and middle classes any more – any person belonging to any class could be branded as an enemy in Rákosi’s system. To make a long story short – during the eight-year reign of Hungarian Stalinism, but mostly between 1948 and early 1953, 600,000 Hungarians came to fall under legal charges and many of them under detention by the police and the juridical authorities – out of a population of less than ten million people. Add family members to the number of the citizens so inflicted, and you go easily above two million.


No wonder that Hungarians receive with almost unanimous relief the news of Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953. In our class at school next day we have to stand in silence for a minute, and most of my schoolmates bend down their heads – not in mourning, but to hide glances of relief or outright joy. Life on the streets was also commanded to halt for minutes of silence, and the attitude of the adults there is similar, except for a few hysterical party members sobbing theatrically on the departing of their demigod.

The new Soviet leadership, divided as it may have been on many matters, recognised the symptoms of a deep crisis of the Communist Empire. Mátyás Rákosi was summoned by them to Moscow, heading a high level delegation. On 13 June Lavrentiy Beria, who was likely to have had a share in planning or precipitating the death of Stalin, brutally dismissed Rákosi before his comrades on the occasion, accusing him of having a “personality cult”, that is, his dictatorial style, and his blame in the collapse of the absurdly centralised Hungarian economy. Beria also announced that Imre Nagy, present there as Deputy Prime Minister, would be the new leader of Communist Hungary.

This moment is captured perfectly in Peter Unwin’s dedicated but judicious monograph of Imre Nagy, Voice in the Wilderness.7The personality and career of Imre Nagy are charted in relevant details in the book. Unwin served two terms, separated by several years, as Her Majesty’s diplomat and envoy to Budapest during the Kádár era. I knew him as a highly cultured and sociable man, who also understood the complexities of the policy-making process on the highest levels of power. He maintained connections in all walks of Hungarian society, ignoring the sensibilities of the government, and he gained a rich knowledge of the present and the past. He knew many Hungarians who were close to Imre Nagy or were active in the Revolution. Domokos Szent-Iványi, in his English-language memoir of the Moscow armistice negotiations in the autumn and winter of 1944, also recorded a characteristic impression of Imre Nagy as a shy, taciturn and insignificant-looking man.8

Nagy, along with other members of the Muscovite Hungarian detachment in Moscow, including Ernő Gerő, Zoltán Vas, and sometimes Mátyás Rákosi, was sitting at the opposite side of the table, along with Molotov, Dekazonov and Marshall Kuznetzov during many of the innumerable negotiations that included the planning of Hungary’s new political structure and the distribution of key positions between the democratic parties after the imminent defeat of the Nazi German Army. Already then, Imre Nagy may have been deeply suspicious of the Rákosi coterie, of which, despite his fifteen-year stay in Moscow as a Communist in exile, he was not a member. That must have been the reason why Szent-Iványi never heard a word from him during the negotiations.

He was an extremely cautious but persevering man, knowing the viciousness of Rákosi, and he was biding his time. As opposed to the middle-class Rákosi group, he came from humble peasant origins, fought as an enrolled soldier in the Austro-Hungarian Army in Russia. He became a Communist as a prisoner of war, and fought on the Bolshevik side in the civil war. From 1945, he worked in key positions in Hungary, carrying out land reform and the collectivist modernisation of agriculture. He was not part of the power centre, and was not involved in the running of the coercive mechanisms of the Communist state. He attempted to bring reason and expertise into the central planning of agricultural production, and was also noted for his patriotism, as much as this should have been revealed by a cautious member of the Communist leadership.

But now, with the mandate he received from Beria and Malenkov, the Kremlin’s chief reformers at the time, Imre Nagy suddenly showed his true fibre. He demonstrated extreme concentration and energy in proclaiming his policies of the New Phase. 4 July will remain to many a memorable day in Hungarian history too. Though not among our official holidays, anyone who was growing up then will remember the evening of 4 July 1953. It was a blazing hot summer day as it should be in early July in Hungary, and in the evening darkness, as I was walking home in my twelfth year, all windows were open in the city to let in a cool breeze, and from every window Imre Nagy’s maiden speech as Prime Minister resounded forth from radios, often from radio sets placed on the window sills. It was a somewhat rasping but pleasant and unobtrusive voice, with intimate overtones of his native dialect of southwest Hungary. As the major Hungarian essayist living in exile in London at the time, and working for Radio Free Europe, Zoltán Szabó said, the unbelievable happened after so many years of Communism: a human voice speaking in Parliament, to real human beings. A Hungarian to fellow Hungarians. Morally and intellectually, Communism as a doctrine fell in Hungary in that moment – although in the world of power it remained here to pester us for another 37 years, an obtrusive carcass.

It is curious how an earnest and warm voice, using simple language, can change the world just as much, or even more, than the contents of what he says. Zoltán Szabó was right; this was what Imre Nagy created immediately, in his first public performance: authenticity and credibility in a world of lies. He added: Imre Nagy may have been unaware of the full immense effect on the nation of this speech and his voice. He found his way to the hearts of the people, and at this moment already his road to martyrdom was fatally decided, Zoltán Szabó argued later, even though he remained a Communist Party politician, much dependent emotionally on his party for a long time to come yet, until late October 1956.

In the narrower circle of his comrades, at the protracted meeting of the party’s Central Committee on 27–28 June, he already stated, “as a true Marxist-Leninist” of course, that Hungary had become a police state, and its government a “shadow government” in the service of the Communist Party. He demanded that the Party had to resort to “self-criticism” – a favourite phrase of party speak at moments of, true or feigned, Communist reform.

In the historic Parliament speech itself, on 4 July, he promised the restoration of legality, that is the curbing of police rule, and bringing the hated ÁVH, Rákosi’s political police, under the supervision of the Interior Ministry. He promised a partial amnesty for political prisoners, the stopping of deportations and forced labour, and more tolerance for religion. He promised a sharp rise in living standards, and the restructuring of the economy. He would abolish costly development priorities in heavy industry. He would, most importantly, re-structure agricultural policy, ease the burdens of the peasantry, such as the absurd quotas of produce tax collection, and grant the right for peasants to return to individual farming if they wish. To further strengthen his credibility, he made sure that his most urgent and important reforms were all codified in Parliament within a month.

The effect was predictable: and immense relief in society. Nagy himself enjoyed the great opening, he was pleased to see hope, self-confidence and social creativity emerge soon after his moves in all walks of life, even though many of the planned reforms would require time to be put into place, and resistance to his reforms lurked in many pockets of power. To achieve the release of political prisoners took time – for instance, it took legal procedures of a whole year to set free János Kádár, sentenced to prison by Rákosi’s court. Too many people still in position had been involved in the excesses. The nation seemed to understand the rules of the game, and played it well with Nagy: success depends on a graduated approach in the complicated situation. Although the refreshing breeze of a new freedom of speech swept through the country, and the sins of the Stalinist past came to be discussed widely, passions were kept in check.

It was the Soviets who caused the trouble that was to peak in the Revolution of October 1956. No doubt also owing to the incessant infighting in Moscow, the opinion began to prevail in the Soviet leadership that Imre Nagy’s New Phase was too fast and dangerous. Supported by Rákosi’s strong base in the Hungarian party, led by his ominous grey eminence Ernő Gerő, in early 1955 the Kremlin decided that Rákosi must be brought back to power. They ignored the law that many political thinkers have observed: when you lift off the lid from boiling water, you must keep the kettle open at least half way. And Rákosi had not learned the other lessons, either, of his fall. He came back to power with the intention to take personal revenge in the spring of 1955, even though the progress of reforms at large could not be turned back in the Soviet Empire, and Stalinism became a dirty word. Imre Nagy was willing to practice partial self-criticism, but his letter to the Party leadership was not regarded as sufficiently self-effacing, and he was ousted from the Hungarian Communist Party. After suffering two heart attacks, he recovered slowly, and withdrew into private life. But he did not budge. He wrote memoranda defending the feasibility and Marxist foundations of his reforms. By now he was surrounded by a large group of reformist intellectuals and politicians, the so-called revisionist wing of the Communists, who regarded him as their leader.


Tension was rising so high in Hungary in 1955–56 that the Soviets were again driven to interfere. In June 1956 Rákosi was finally deposed and, in the wake of old Czarist practices, was sent into exile in the Asian parts of the Soviet Union. But instead of bringing back Imre Nagy, Anastas Mikoyan appointed the evil spirit of Rákosi, the dull hard-line apparatchik Ernő Gerő, to be Prime Minister. This was a grave miscalculation – an affront to the whole Hungarian nation – which was read as an indication of more of the same to follow.9

Added to the developments of the June Poznań uprising, and with news of unrest in Warsaw, all was set in Hungary for a major opposition protest – and huge student demonstrations took place in Budapest and the major cities on the afternoon of 23 October, in sympathy with the Polish nation, and presenting the radical demands of the Hungarian nation for constitutional and political change. The political police fired into the unarmed crowd at the building of the Hungarian Radio on the evening when the demonstrators pressed for the proclamation of the Hungarian youth, with their list of political demands, to be broadcast – and armed conflict at the Radio block of buildings broke out. Hungarian troops ordered to the spot by Gerő’s “Military Committee” handed their weapons over to the demonstrators, some of them participating then in the siege of the Radio themselves. At the same time, another huge cheering crowd toppled the enormous Stalin statue in City Park, and hauled its severed pieces to the centre of Budapest. With this, the Hungarian Revolution, unplanned and without leaders, had started.10

Some did seem to plan it, although not on the scale it happened. There is much evidence that hardliners in Moscow and Budapest decided in the summer to ignite a small scale conflict, in order to finally do away with the Imre Nagy faction of the Party, and to teach a lesson to the proverbially hot-headed Hungarians. Another strategic goal may have been the creation of a pretext to finally install an immense military presence in Hungary, a gateway to Yugoslavia, Austria and Italy. As American reconnaissance from space clearly indicated, Soviet armoured divisions took up positions in Ukraine and in Romania, in a huge semi-circle along the Hungarian border during the summer. And how do you explain the fact that General Serov, head of the KGB, appeared in Budapest in the summer, introduced under a false name to Budapest Police Commissioner, Sándor Kopácsi, by Ambassador Yuri Andropov, as the new military attaché of the Soviet Embassy?11 Andropov advised the reformist Kopácsi with a meaningful emphasis that he should consult the new attaché in all delicate matters in the months to come. Can we imagine Allen Dulles of the CIA taking up residence in Western Germany for months, under a false name, because of, say, a military threat from the East?

Provocation was certainly an element in igniting the spirits of Hungarians – but the outcome, an armed revolution that humbled the Soviet Army units stationed in Hungary was certainly not in the calculations of the masterminds of the Kremlin and Gerő. So much for politicians who like to meddle in engineering history. And I agree with Hannah Arendt that the Revolution itself was not a mere response to probable provocation – it was an immense surge of soul and community wisdom in a whole nation, an event that remained unique in modern history.12

There is no space here to detail the events of the Revolution and War of Independence that triumphed by 30 October. In search of a political solution, Gerő and his desperate friends brought in Imre Nagy on the night of 23 October to become Prime Minister. Yet Nagy, arriving from a holiday, was pathetically out of touch with the situation, and set an unfortunate tone before the hundreds of thousands waiting to hear him on Kossuth Square late evening. “Comrades” – he started his speech in feeble voice, to be booed by the audience. Nagy was not ready yet to accept an anti-Communist Revolution, despite strong pressure from his close circle of reformist intellectuals. Declarations of ceasefire, unobserved by both side, were issued by Nagy in the days to come, while he kept reshuffling his government, and kept consulting the two “liberal” emissaries of the Kremlin, Mikoyan and Suslov, who were commuting regularly between Moscow and Budapest – no doubt, enjoying their trust, he tried to persuade them that concessions, the admission of the most urgent national demands would appease the fighters and open a peaceful way out of the mess.

As Unwin writes, on 28 October “Nagy made the most significant of his broadcasts so far. He announced a ceasefire; immediate Soviet withdrawal from Budapest; negotiations about Soviet withdrawal from Hungary; and the abolition of the security police as soon as order was restored. On 29 October he went further and disbanded the security police with immediate effect. With these commitments he at last won attention, closed the gap between leadership and insurgents.” On 30 October Mikoyan and Suslov spent the whole day in Budapest, “bringing with them the text of the Kremlin’s declaration” on changing relations with the Socialist states. When “they left Budapest, Mikoyan and Suslov remained committed to support for Nagy’s government and its decision to concede a multi- party government”.13

But the dramatic reversal of the Kremlin’s behaviour already took place on that night as Mikoyan and Suslov were flying back home. The balance tipped towards the hardliners and the Army leaders who clamoured for revenge for their humiliating losses on the streets of Budapest. “It was decided”, Unwin sums up, “that the Hungarian Revolution must be destroyed by force. It may have been assumed that Nagy could be detached from the revolutionary leaders and perhaps even put in charge of an administration obedient to Soviet orders.” As it turned out, the man who could be detached was to be János Kádár, who suddenly disappeared from Budapest.14 Imre Nagy did not budge at the news of new troops pouring into the country from 30 October, and began his fatal journey toward martyrdom. He negotiated throughout the last days of the week with the democratic coalition parties on the composition of a new representative government, and with representatives of various social groups and revolutionary councils bent on establishing a new order, while General Béla Király united and consolidated the insurgent forces in a newly created National Guard. At dawn on Sunday 4 November, however, Soviet forces started Operation Whirlwind, a general attack on the country and its capital, with an armoured force bigger than the German army that occupied Paris in 1940. That was the beginning of the end for the Revolution, at least on the level of military operations and political revival.

However, the life of the Hungarian Revolution just blossomed out in that fatal moment. Not only among Hungarians who in the following months tried all forms of armed and peaceful resistance, of tough negotiation, of demonstrations and protest against the Kádár regime that only slowly consolidated itself in the spring of 1957. The life of this revolution blossomed out in all of us Hungarians who lived through it, and in everyone in the wide world who sensed its essence together with us. A flower of spiritual light that would not fade.

George Orwell would have recognised it, as I wrote at the outset, but he was no more alive. But there was Albert Camus, another incorruptible spokesman of human freedom, who got ostracised by Jean-Paul Sartre and his friends for his unflinching condemnation of Soviet aggression, and of the West’s moral and political failure to do what could have been done on behalf of the revolutionaries and the country.15

This time I would rather recall a few of the observations that another profound thinker on freedom recorded in 1957. In her detailed and well-informed analysis of the Hungarian Revolution, in Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote: “This was a true event whose stature will not depend upon victory or defeat: its greatness is secure in the tragedy it enacted. What happened in Hungary happened nowhere else, and the twelve days of the revolution contained more history than the twelve years since the Red Army had ‘liberated’ the country from Nazi domination.”16

In full agreement with the observations contained in the secret 1956 Diary of Gyula Illyés17, who was one of the leaders of the revolutionary intellectuals in Hungary, Hannah Arendt marvels at the way in which the Revolution was initiated by the prime objects of indoctrination, “the over-privileged” of the Communist system: intellectuals of the left, university students, and workers, the Communist avant-garde: “their motive was neither their own nor their fellow- citizens’ material misery, but exclusively Freedom and Truth”. This, she continues, was “an ultimate affirmation that human nature is unchangeable, that nihilism will be futile, that […] a yearning for freedom and truth will rise out of man’s heart and mind forever”.18

She also reflects, in the same mood of optimism, and foreshadowing Chantal Delsol’s metaphysical observation, on how in spontaneous revolutions, ever since the European 1848, order was immediately created by a freely convened gathering of citizens. Indeed the wonder of the restrained and resourceful operation of Hungary’s spontaneously formed revolutionary and workers’ councils was one of the great social achievements of the Revolution of 1956.

There was an unmistakable historical streak working there. Taking into account the names of the participants of public life then, we find many prominent or lesser- known figures of the Hungarian centre that emerged in the reform movements of the 1930s. They were also the active movers of the clandestine anti-Nazi resistance of 1944, of the democratic parties and reconstruction between 1945 and 1948, and – with the unfading memory of 1956 in their minds – they or their family descendants and friends took a significant role in the new democracy beginning in 1990. It is perhaps in accord with Hannah Arendt’s affirmation, that this streak had continued to thrive for sixty years, and on to our day, despite decimations under Communist terror, despite the loss of 200,000 émigrés after the Revolution, and despite the stupefying 30 years of János Kádár’s “liberal” socialism.

Arendt also observed as a unique trait of the Hungarian Revolution the unanimity of the nation in the spirit of the uprising:

The amazing thing about the Hungarian revolution is that there was no civil war. For the Hungarian army disintegrated in hours and the dictatorship was stripped of all power in a couple of days. No group, no class in the nation opposed the will of the people once it had become known and its voice had been heard in the market place. For the members of the ÁVH, who remained loyal to the end, formed neither group nor class, the lower echelons having been recruited from the dregs of the population: criminals, nazi agents, highly compromised members of the Hungarian fascist party, the higher ranks being composed of Moscow agents, Hungarians with Russian citizenship under the orders of NKVD officers.19

Dating from 1957, and echoing the United Nations Special Report of the same year, this analysis carries weight because of the widely acknowledged integrity and credibility of its author. It has a special significance since Soviet and Kádár’s propaganda from the very outset branded the Hungarian events as a rebellion of fascists, anti-Semites, reactionaries and imperialists. The accusation is startlingly echoed to this day by some of the more articulate descendants of the ÁVH subculture and by present-day Russian television commentators speaking on the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution.

Let us now put aside the well-known moral and intellectual support of the vanguard of intellectuals like Arendt, Camus, Silone, Djilas, Madariaga, E. E. Cummings and T. S. Eliot, and quote from a latter dated 6 November 1956, by the fledgling poetic genius Sylvia Plath, writing to her mother in Boston, and reflecting the state of mind of the students in Oxford, as well as that of his fiancé, the rising British poetic genius Ted Hughes:

[T]he Hungarian and Suez affairs have depressed me terribly. After reading the last words from Hungary yesterday before the Russians took over, I was almost physically sick /…/ The whole world/…/ we felt was utterly mad, raving mad. How Britain’s crazy hope for quick success /…/ covers the real cry of the Hungarians is disgusting. It makes the West having no appeal against Russia in the Hungarian case. Eden is, in effect, helping murder the Hungarians.20

Sensing acutely Anthony Eden’s blind, raving vanity that tragically narrowed the West’s political room for effectively checking the brutality of the Soviet retaliation against Hungary, Plath’s is the voice of the “next generation”, speaking from a moral high ground that always surpasses the pragmatic wisdom of the politicians in dramatic historical moments. It expresses the real meaning, let us say the meta- political meaning, of the events. What we witness in this judgement is the sudden coming of age of a generation, a spiritual moment that the politically more precocious John O’Sullivan recorded in his essay in the September 2016 issue of Hungarian Review.21Their best representatives shaped the political traditions and attitudes of the moderate political centre of the West in the 1980s and early 1990s. To me these memories of October–November 1956 carry an especially warm connotation, because in the early 1990s during official meetings on the side of Prime Minister József Antall, as his Senior Adviser, I heard them repeated by such leaders as Chancellor Kohl, Paris Mayor and later President Chirac, President Havel and many Polish politicians: the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 had a special significance in their mental development. They immediately trusted us as descendants of that tradition, and this aura created a favourable climate, which made the process of our political return to Europe a matter of course. Thus, 1956 as a spiritual constellation proved to be the guardian of our regime change, not just in our hearts and minds, but in international politics, too.

It is not an overstatement to say that the future politicians whose political imagination was born in the autumn of 1956, as John O’Sullivan phrased it, the leaders of the world in 1990, recognised the significance of the Revolutions of 1989–90 because of their initiation into the idea of freedom by the Hungarian Revolution.


1 Delsol, Chantal. Éloge de la singularité: essai sur la modernité tardive. La Table Ronde, Paris, 2000.

2 In a characteristic absence of a reliable official record of the dead, I accept the estimate extrapolated from an abundant variety of secondary evidence, given in Gábor Jobbágyi: “Bloody Thursday, 1956: The Anatomy of the Kossuth Square Massacre”. Hungarian Review, January 2014, p. 70.

3 Djilas, Milovan, in: Thorpe, Nick, The Unfinished Revolution: Power and Powerlessness in Eastern Europe. Reportage Press, London, 2009. p. 33.

4 Djilas, Milovan. Conversations with Stalin. Penguin Books, London, 1969. First hardcover edition 1962.

5 Koestler, Arthur. Darkness at Noon. A Novel. First edition The Macmillan Company, London, 1941.

6 Szent-Iványi, Domokos. The Hungarian Independence Movement. Hungarian Review–Magyar Szemle, Budapest, 2013. pp. 579–597.

7 Unwin, Peter. Voice in the Wilderness. Imre Nagy and the Hungarian Revolution. Macdonald, London and Sydney, 1992. pp. 83–85.

8 Szent-Iványi, pp. 555–6.

9 Unwin, p. 130.

10 Congdon, Lee–Király, Béla K.–Nagy, Károly, (eds.). 1956: The Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence. Social Science Monographs, Boulder, Colorado, 2006. Distributed by Columbia University Press.

11 Kopácsi, Sándor. In the Name of the Working Class: The Inside Story of the Hungarian Revolution. Tr. Daniel and Judy Stoffman. Foreword by George Jonas. Grove Press, New York, 1987.

12 Arendt, Hannah, in Congdon–Király–Nagy, p… See also Jobbágyi, Gábor: “Provocation? – The Outbreak of the Revolution of 1956”. Hungarian Review, November 2011, p. 98 ff.

13 Unwin, pp. 157–158.,

14 Unwin, p. 163.

15 Camus in Congdon–Király–Nagy, pp. 579–590.

16 Arendt in Congdon–Király–Nagy, p. 622.

17 Illyés, Gyula. Naplójegyzetek 1956–1957. Atlantisz sorsára jutottunk. (Diary Notes 1956–1957. Submerged With Atlantis.) Edited by Mária Illyés and István Horváth. Magyar Művészeti Akadémia– Magyar Szemle, Budapest, 2016, pp. 34–36. Excerpts in English: in this issue of Hungarian Review.

18 Arendt in Congdon–Király–Nagy, p. 627.

19 Ibid.

20 Plath, Sylvia. Letters Home. Correspondence 1951–1963. Selected and edited with commentary by Aurelia Schober Plath. 1975. First paperback edition: Harper Perennials, New York, 1992. p. 284.

21 John O’Sullivan, “Hungary 1956: The Awakening of my Political Imagination”. Hungarian Review, September 2016, p. 101 ff.

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