INTERVIEW WITH ISTVÁN B . RÁCZ, 19571
Columbia University Research Project Hungary, 1957–59
István B. Rácz was born in Túrkeve, Hungary, in 1923. He was educated at the local Jewish school because his mother knew that he would get the best education there. He was Calvinist. He went to the University of Economics in Budapest. He was involved in the Független Ifjúság, the Independent Youth Party, and got elected in 1945 to represent them under the Smallholders’ Party2 in the Hungarian Parliament. Between 31 March 1950 and 25 October 1950 he was detained by the Communist ÁVH, the State Security Authority, and from 26 October 1950 to 16 September 1953 he was a prisoner in the forced labour camp at Recsk. Following his involvement in the Revolution of 1956, he escaped to Austria on 4 December 1956 and went on to West Germany and France with other Hungarian patriots, before finally settling down in the United States. He died in 1994.
CU: I would like to ask you about the action you saw. Did you fight alone or belong to a group?
IBR: I did not strictly belong to any one group. The very nature of any assignment placed upon me the necessity to be at different parts of the city. I was at Széna Square3 several times; I was also a couple of times at Móricz Zsigmond Circle.4 That was until 4 November. After 4 November , a determined effort was made to adopt guerrilla warfare tactics, once we recognised that regular fighting methods could not be applied against the overpowering might of the second [Russian] invasion.5 The procedure adopted was to split up into smaller groups, to take cover in a house and to proceed from this base to a preferably distant location, there to engage in battle with the Russians and, upon inflicting damage and confusion, to suddenly retract to the base again.
It was our endeavour to bring about a unified and identical point of view in this respect among the writers, the leading members of the Petőfi Circle,6 and the leaders of the guerrilla groups. Having this aim in mind, we visited all the universities and discussed this new fighting procedure with leaders there. It was in this capacity of a liaison officer that I visited the Kilián Barracks,7 the resistance groups at Corvin Alley,8 at Széna Square, and at the Office of Statistics, to where the forces of János Szabó9 had retreated. They later left the city altogether and assumed new positions at Pesthidegkút.
Unfortunately, I cannot fix the exact time of these events; the situation was rather confused and fluid, where day and night flowed together and became quite indistinct.
CU: What was the origin of the group? Did it grow out of any existing group (army, students, workers)?
IBR: Let me describe the emergence of one group, the one which operated on Móricz Zsigmond Circle. The heaviest fights took place there on 5 and 6 November, when the whole plaza was destroyed. But let us go back to the formation of the group.
At the beginning of the first phase of the Revolution, the news spread that the Russians were on their way to invade the city. They were reported to be proceeding from the direction of Budaörs. Large groups of people stood around or walked on the streets. When the news that the Russians were coming reached the plaza, people began to build barricades. I, too, joined them and became one of a chain, handing pieces of stone to those erecting the walls. While we were building the barricades, I could observe only five or six men who were actually carrying arms. In the immediate vicinity there was a school building and the school janitor was also in our group. The barricades extended from house to house and we left only a narrow pedestrian path open. The janitor told us that he left the school building open and that we may use it if the need should arise.
One man in the crowd worked especially hard and made skilful and smart arrangements as the barricades were being built. The others saw that everything he did was right, and whatever he said made good sense, and therefore they did whatever this man told them to do. He became the leader, the commander. He told me also to go into one of the houses. We escorted the women to safe places. The Russians arrived in about three or four hours. They came from three different directions, proceeding from the outskirts of the city. They stopped in front of the barricades and began to shoot. They were too far away, out of our range, so we could not return the fire. The Russians did not have infantry.
At the instruction of the “commander”, three or four smaller groups left the buildings which served as our cover, and using various side streets, tried to reach a position where they could attack the Russians from the side. The strategy was to try to disturb the Russian formation at various points from the side. The attempt was highly successful and the Russians retreated in about two hours.
This was not such a big thing really. Altogether there were only two or three wounded in all. The barricades were built well and they served an excellent purpose. The Russians could not move past them. The city here had large and wide avenues; there was no possibility for us for an intensive attack.
As to who the “commander” was, I don’t really know. No one in the group seemed to know him personally. He issued his orders in an intelligent and sympathetic manner and everyone listened to and obeyed him. Nobody contradicted him. The Russians left and I, too, took leave of the group. The whole thing took place in the early afternoon hours. There were men, women and children. After the battle was over, people who were not needed any more left the place. This one man took upon himself the responsibility to both build the defence line and to actually direct the defensive operations. There were a few people who disagreed with him at the time we were building the barricades. Others disagreed with him as to what the type and location of the barricades should be. He had a winning personality and he patiently explained why things should be done exactly this way and why the counter-proposals would be disastrous. The others listened and understood him and his plan, and accepted both the plan and the man.
In other localities, things were slightly different. At Széna Square, for instance, Uncle Szabó used to call a small citizens’ meeting. His men assembled and Uncle Szabó […] explained the situation and told of his plan to meet it. There was hardly any contradiction or dispute, for everyone knew the general situation quite well. A citizens’ meeting was called on 12 November, or 13 November, the last meeting of the Szabó group, when it was decided to abandon Budapest and to go to Pesthidegkút.10 The procedure was similar to previous meetings, except that at this one Uncle Szabó himself had to be convinced that his ideas were not acceptable. Uncle Szabó wanted to remain in Budapest, come what may, until the United Nations’ intervention arrived. But the probability of such intervention dwindled, until, on 12 and 13 November, it became quite hopeless. The Budapest buildings, all agreed, afforded no protection against Russian artillery barrage and Russian infantry troops.
CU: Who joined it? Was anybody recruited? Was anybody allowed to join? Who decided who could join?
IBR: More often than not this did not amount to a question at all. If someone came to the Kilián Barracks, for example, and said there that he wanted to fight, he was given every opportunity to do so. Or, if a man wanted to fight, he simply went to Széna Square, stopped at one of the corners, and fought. Nobody questioned him, nor did anyone hamper him in any way.
On the other hand, the Széna Square group, under the direction of Cserbakői,11 executed one of their own members, after it became evident that he was an ÁVH- man. This, however, took place after 4 November. Up until then, those who wanted to fight did so; those who did not, did not.
Generally speaking, there was no recruiting. There was no time for this. And there was no organisation, nor were there any personnel available for this purpose. I know, for instance, that trucks were sent out to the neighbouring villages, and any person who wanted to come into the city was offered a ride. But there was no organised recruiting.
CU: What later became of your group members?
IBR: Not all the groups had the same fate. Those fighting on Corvin Square were forced to abandon the plaza around 6 or 7 November. They moved first from Corvin Alley to the Ninth district and fought there for a while, then retreated to Óbuda and, retaining their weapons, they set out towards the West. They crossed the Austrian border between 20–6 November.
The Széna Square forces retreated on 12–13 November to Pesthidegkút. There they remained, as a closed and organised unit, for four or five days, when some of them hid their weapons and, under the leadership of Cserbakői, returned to Budapest. János Szabó and three of his comrades were betrayed by someone and were seized by the Communists in a weekend house. I did not witness the arrest myself, but I have it from an eyewitness who is now living in Western Europe. My informer was a close friend and co-fighter of Szabó. Szabó and others sent him to Budapest to settle some pending family business, both of his own and of some others. He was to return and join Szabó at the weekend house and the entire group was then to leave for Austria. As he was returning and reached the vicinity of the weekend house, he was witnessing, from a safe distance, the last stages of his comrades’ seizure. Russian and officers’ detachments of the Kádár regime were kicking and throwing Szabó and his friends to a waiting military truck. Cserbakői, too, fell into Communist hands and became their prisoner in Budapest on 13 November. A few members of the Szabó group did manage to flee to safety and crossed the Austro-Hungarian border in the last days of November.
The Dudás group. Dudás12 maintained himself in the Szabad Nép building during the entire period. I saw him there, for the last time, on 4 November. I took Franz Germani, the Budapest correspondent of the German periodical Der Spiegel to Dudás’s headquarters. I met Mr Germani in the morning hours of 4 November at the church on Deák Square. He approached me, and I willingly took him to Dudás’s headquarters. Unfortunately, we could not talk to Dudás; he was wounded shortly before our arrival. We saw his assistant instead, a first lieutenant of the Hungarian Army. The Russians were reported as proceeding from the direction of Keleti Railway Station and the entire Dudás force was in a state of general alarm. We remained there for only one hour and just about managed to leave the scene before the arrival of the Russians.
That day (4 November) witnessed the greatest single attack which was ever undertaken against the forces of Dudás. They stood their ground and defended the Szabad Nép building till late in the evening, suffering very many casualties. They then gave up the building and retreated. This was one of the most formidable and most significant forces of the Revolution. Against this force the Russians proceeded most savagely and with resolute determination. As a result, it was this group whose members scattered and dispersed almost completely.
After 4 November, the Dudás force disintegrated into smaller units. Dudás himself remained for another four days in one of the buildings of Eötvös Loránd University. Then some of his loyal worker-followers removed him to Kőbánya, placed him in a factory there, and watched over his safety day and night. The majority of the Dudás group consisted of factory workers of Kőbánya, and these people continued to defend their leader so [effectively] that the Russians were never able to take the Dudás factory, nor to liquidate the remaining portion of his group. It was Kádár13 who, plotting for the arrest of Dudás, brought about his capture. Kádár invited his adversary to a conference in the Parliament building. Dudás, in good faith, accepted the invitation, and, as soon as he entered the Parliament building, he was arrested. The first lieutenant, Dudás’s deputy, was also arrested and sentenced. Two other important Dudás assistants are now in Canada.
CU: What sort of supplies and arms did the groups have? Where from?
IBR: The revolutionaries had hand weapons; machine guns were rather rare. Dudás had a few smaller arms, such as submachine guns, and especially rifles were available in great quantities. The most important and the most effective anti-tank weapon was the so-called Molotov cocktail.
The weapons we possessed we got from Hungarian Army arsenals and warehouses, an operation facilitated and made possible by the Hungarian Army itself. The initiative in this connection came from citizens of Budapest, particularly from people who were only recently discharged from the Army. These people gave us the clues and tips as to the location of military warehouses, etc. I know of no instance where the Army would have refused to open to us its warehouses or would have refused in any way its cooperation. As a matter of fact, in most instances the Army itself undertook to transport both the available weapons and ammunition to prearranged localities at predetermined intervals.
The victory of the Revolution, in its first phase, was due to the Molotov cocktails. Rifles served only for personal protection at times when, after the tanks were ignited, one was obliged to take up the struggle with the tanks’ personnel.
But even more important than all this was the fact that the Hungarian Army did not use its own might and weapons against the Revolution. The Army held the key. While they did not support us en masse actively, they did not turn against us either, and supplied us with the weapons we needed. The Army continued to be beyond the reach of either the ÁVH or of the Rákosi14 clique, and individual soldiers either became active participants on our side or quit the Army and went home.
Between Törökbálint and Diósd there is a sizeable and important Army arsenal, from which we received immense quantities of ammunition and weapons. It was precisely this fact that made the Móricz Zsigmond Circle area so important. The supplying of the Revolution with both arms and ammunition took place on this route. This is why the Russians fought with such savagery and determination against this area.
CU: How was the group organised? Was there any discipline?
IBR: There definitely was discipline. And for two reasons: first, there was a danger, felt both by individuals and groups, which made disciplined behaviour an imperative necessity. Second, leaders of fighting revolutionary groups were absolutely recognised and respected by all members of the group. These leaders were elected in many instances by the group members and enjoyed the unqualified trust, confidence and esteem of every member of the group.
I never did like military discipline, but this was a voluntary discipline and relationship into which everyone entered entirely of their own free volition. Because we lived so long under a dictatorship, and because we were subjected for so long to an unwanted and oppressive discipline of the party, we were extremely careful and we made doubly sure to elect to positions of leadership only those whom we considered to be our real leaders.
While an immense danger faced each and every one of us, and our nation as a whole, and though we were in the middle of a savage war, we made sure that democratic processes were strictly observed and followed even within semi- military organisations. In the Kilián Barracks regular meetings were held and matters of principle were thoroughly aired and discussed before any decisions were reached. On one occasion Maléter,15 the commander, was voted down in connection with an organisational question, and he was obliged to give up his view and to abide by the majority’s wishes.
The same may be said of the Széna Square group. Szabó, who wished to remain in the city even after 12 November, was obliged to comply with the majority’s wishes and to withdraw his troops from the capital. People, even in the most difficult and perilous situations, continued to search for ways and means of just, equitable and democratic solutions. […]
CU: Did you discuss plans or exchange information with anyone?
IBR: During the first phase of the Revolution, there was practically no contact between the various groups and discussions of plans or exchange of information did not take place. Actual contact was only created later, after the victory of the Revolution. Groups physically close to one another did maintain a sort of practical relationship in that they supplemented one another’s weapon or ammunition needs and the like, but there was never any attempt to consolidate plans or discuss policy among the various groups.
During the second phase of the Revolution, determined attempts were made to bring about some sort of a unity, but even then centralisation was neither intended nor desired. I, too, was engaged in such a synchronising operation. Dudás, for instance, visited the Széna Square group on 26 October, spoke to the men there and told them of his ideas and plans. But this was about all. I don’t know of any other such instance. Central synchronising organs did not exist at all. I wish we had had them. This is why we tried to bring about some sort of a centralisation after 4 November.
CU: Among the various revolutionary groups, who had the greatest authority? Why?
IBR: Undoubtedly the Kilián Barracks, the Corvin Alley, the Széna Square, and the Dudás groups had the greatest prestige and the greatest authority. There were several reasons for this: these were the largest groups and the leaders of these groups, because of their personal qualities and because of their success in battle, became both recognised and respected. Dudás, besides being the commander of the largest single group, also edited and published a national newspaper. Both the Kilián and the Corvin Alley groups published a mimeographed newspaper of their own. Dudás’s paper, Magyar Függetlenség [Hungarian independence], was widely distributed, first in the city, later also in the provinces. The distribution in the provinces was not organised in any way; whenever a truck or car left for Szeged or Debrecen or some other city, it carried a large number of Magyar Függetlenség with it.
CU: How did the Soviet troops behave during the whole crisis? Were there any differences of behaviour among them?
IBR: The behaviour of the Russian troops varied widely. After the events of 23 October, the Russians first of all occupied the Parliament building, the buildings of the Defence Ministry and of the Ministry of the Interior, and all the Danube bridges. The Russians took their prisoners to the Defence Ministry. At times there were as many as 3,000 prisoners there.
There were heavy fights in the immediate vicinity of the Defence Ministry. People mistakenly thought the ÁVH headquarters to be situated on Jászai Mari Square. There were many casualties. Revolutionaries usually entered the nearest building, called the ambulance, and the wounded were taken away.
Another incident took place on Néphadsereg Street;16 the Russians were firing in the direction of the Defence Ministry. A pedestrian, who was not even a freedom fighter, fell wounded and was bleeding profusely. Revolutionaries pulled in the wounded man under the gateway of house No. 6. The ambulance arrived and, as soon as the white-coated doctor stepped out of the car, the Russians, standing only 200–300 metres away, began firing and killed the doctor. The wounded man continued to bleed. Another ambulance was called and, as soon as the doctor stepped out he, too, was killed by the Russians. The wounded man died in the meantime. The Russians did not fire except when the ambulance arrived.
Take another example: in Győr, the Russian commander refused to shoot even after ordered to do so by his superiors. He was quickly replaced and was later taken away. In the Kilián Barracks there was a small Russian detachment, about 30–40 people, who deserted their units and came over to our side in the early hours of the Revolution. They stood their ground to the bitter end, giving their lives for Hungary’s freedom.
CU: What about Russian students in Budapest?
IBR: I have no knowledge of Russian students studying in Budapest.
CU: What about Chinese and other foreign students?
IBR: There were a few foreign scholarship students from Korea, North Vietnam and other countries, who studied at the Budapest University of Technology. Eight to ten took active part in the Revolution, and a couple of them even crossed the Austrian border. I was asked by the Attaché of the North Vietnamese Legation in Paris what I knew of North Vietnamese students and of the role they had played in Hungary. The majority of these students studied at the Budapest University of Technology and they participated in the Revolution there. Others, a smaller group, joined the Kilián forces. These foreign students returned to the student hostels after the victory of the Revolution and remained there till the middle of November. ÁVH-men interrogated them and informed them that they would be recalled by their own governments within a few days. Those who left Hungary and went over to Austria did so because they feared that they would be called to account by their own governments. These were North Vietnamese and North Korean students. I had a long conversation with them in Vienna.
If you are interested in more details, the North Vietnamese Legation in Paris would be the most logical source. These students held a well-attended press conference in Vienna, at the beginning of February. There are detailed reports in the Vienna newspapers.17
CU: How much influence do you think Soviet authorities exerted in Budapest?
IBR: It is obviously difficult to gauge the extent of the influence Soviet authorities exerted. As far as the Soviet military authorities are concerned, ordinary Russian soldiery was confined to its barracks before the Revolution. Higher Russian officers undoubtedly maintained some contacts with Hungarian officials, both military and civilian, but just how much influence they exerted I am not able to tell you. Russian political influence and Russian economic involvement were immense; there were joint Russian–Hungarian undertakings and establishments, and Soviet Russia was the greatest single customer of many a Hungarian factory. It is my firm belief that nothing occurred in Hungary that was not Russian-directed or that did not bear the seal of approval of the Russians. Hungary’s position and status was similar to that of a colony, with Russia assuming the role of the mother country, except that instead of the office of the Inspector General, the Russians permitted the functioning of a quasi-formal government. This was the situation before the Revolution.18 During the Revolution those Russian troops that were engaged in combat against the freedom fighters were in no position to exert either political or economic pressure on us. On the other hand, various representatives of the Soviet Government frequently visited Budapest, with Mikoyan19 alone visiting our capital on four different occasions. The Russians considered it important to keep themselves informed of the Hungarian events and they no doubt tried to exert what influence they could both on the progress and direction of the events. During the period of Imre Nagy’s20 captivity in Akadémia Street, the Hungarian government was completely at the mercy of the Russians. Both Mikoyan and Suslov21 appeared there frequently.
After 4 November, everything happened according to the dictates and wishes of the Russians. Kádár formed the Szolnok government on Russian pressure.22
On numerous occasions Kádár freed certain Hungarian prisoners who were captured during the Revolution, that is to say, Kádár issued orders of release, which subordinate Russian officers, acting as prison commanders, simply ignored and refused to abide by.
The liquidation of the Revolution, both of individuals involved in it, and of institutions and changes which the Revolution had brought about, was undertaken on direct Russian pressure. Colonel Mátyás,23 an ÁVH officer, limited himself to signing the arrest orders only. The actual interrogation and further fate of the prisoners was completely in the hands of the Russians.
The mere fact that Russian military tribunals were sitting in judgement over Hungarian citizens and sentenced them clearly indicates both the scope and extent of Russian influence in Hungary. Such a Russian military tribunal sentenced 40 individuals in the city of Debrecen alone. Another Russian military tribunal operated in the city of Kecskemét.
A very close friend of mine was arrested in Budapest on 8 November 1956. We had been imprisoned together at Recsk before the Revolution. He was active during the Revolution in Christian Democratic circles. His arrest occurred during the deportation days. People were simply picked up from the streets. He, too, was arrested while walking on the streets of Budapest. They found a Russian-language leaflet in his briefcase. He was brought to the Defence Ministry building first and was transferred later to Debrecen, where he was sentenced by a Russian military tribunal. I don’t know what the sentence was, nor am I at liberty to disclose his name at this time.
Russian military tribunals operated on the supposition that Hungarian citizens tried and sentenced by them had committed crimes against the Russian Armed Forces. These Russian acts flagrantly violated Hungarian sovereignty and also constituted a clear violation of the Hungarian Constitution. As far as I know, the Warsaw Pact delegates no such sovereign rights to Russia.
We gave wide publicity to these Russian acts in Europe and, presumably as a result of our action, the tribunals ceased functioning. They do not operate any longer. However, if the Russians would have had a legal right to proceed, I doubt it very much if they had stopped.24
CU: In substance, what institutions collapsed and what institutions (and controls) remained intact? […] What happened to the uniformed (blue) police?
IBR: The blue-uniformed police served well, in essence, during the Revolution.
There was a world of difference between this force and the [grey-uniformed] ÁVH. They, too, used to be supervised by the ÁVH, and the blue police did not take kindly to this interference. There were blue police units which remained intact as units. They moved around freely and unmolested. ÁVH members in numerous instances put on blue police uniforms.
There was a fine cooperation between the blue police and the university students. The students received many weapons from the police force. Sándor Kovács, a lieutenant colonel of the Budapest blue police force, answering to the organisation of the National Guard,25 armed a great number of the students. The National Guard was organised [as follows]: a group of students, under the direction of a police officer, assumed the duties of maintaining peace and order. The police, as such, did not take part in the Revolution.
CU: What happened to the ÁVH?
IBR: The ÁVH fell to pieces completely. The government threw the ÁVH into battle to fight on the side of the Russians in the first phase of the Revolution. The fact that the ÁVH began the actual shooting and slew the first victims of the Revolution would have sealed the fate of this group even if they had not had their dreaded notoriety. All the dirty jobs which Rákosi and his cohorts wanted done were entrusted to the ÁVH. No other group was reliable and trustworthy enough.
In 1950–1951, ÁVH-men were sent out into the villages and were entrusted with the organisation of cooperatives. It was their job then to liquidate the independent farmers. These people would descend on a village, would enter the house of an [independent farmer] and would ask him in a “friendly” tone why he did not want to join the cooperative. They would continue asking why the peasant excited the other peasants and why he agitated against the cooperative. This “friendly” visit was [more than] sufficient. The following day the intimidated peasant ran helter- skelter and signed up voluntarily as a member. Or, if he did not give in so easily, the ÁVH had ready-made trumped-up charges against him. […]
All these activities did not make the ÁVH [likeable] in the eyes of the people. In the factories, the ÁVH held equally tight controls over the workers. Such offences as plant sabotage, instigation against production and against the norm fell under their jurisdiction. And they did not treat their victims with gloves on their hands. Even the most loyal of Communists were taken aback when a harmless enough person was imprisoned just because of a mild slip of the tongue.
During the Revolution, these people [the ÁVH] disguised themselves as physicians and as attendants and supplied ammunition with Red Cross ambulances to sealed- off ÁVH units. All these activities of theirs justified and made it necessary that the Revolution turn against them. Already the first revolutionary slogans were directed against them and the antipathy and wrath of the population not only did not subside, but it became more and more intense as the days went by.
There were in this detestation and hate of the ÁVH many other things too; take, for instance, the times when, because of the great capital investments made by the government, people were not making enough money to provide the minimum food requirements for their families. [The ÁVH-men] lived in great luxury and they did not even try to keep their good fortune a secret. This, too, turned the people against them. They acted as kings then. There were innumerable instances where young people were jailed simply because they [told an ÁVH member to behave] at dance parties, where the ÁVH man did not know how to or did not want to behave.
During the first days of the Revolution, the ÁVH was completely beaten and destroyed. At the time of the victory of the Revolution, there were no more ÁVH units. Many of them donned blue uniforms and tried to save their skin as individuals. In the provinces, most ÁVH units were arrested.26 On 1 or 2 November, a government proclamation was issued in Budapest ordering all ÁVH members to report to Markó Street, so that their background could individually be investigated. Those who had not committed crimes [and went to report] would not be held responsible just because they were members of the ÁVH. Many an ÁVH-man went to Markó Street and reported.
The ÁVH, or at least many of them, put all their trust in the Russians and hoped for a Russian victory. These people resisted and fought to the end. They were annihilated. Even if we do not approve of lynching, we can understand the attitude of the people and we can understand the motive behind their actions.27
The high-ranking officers of the ÁVH fled during the first days of the Revolution to Akadémia Street, and from there they left the country under heavy Russian cover.
CU: Now that it’s all over, have you had any further thoughts about it?
IBR: Yes, I think very much about the Revolution. Subjectively considered, the Revolution was the greatest and fullest experience of my life. I was, on a number of occasions, in important situations where I could observe significant historical events between 1944 and 1947. But in all my experiences I have never seen an event more beautiful and more interesting than the Revolution. I came to know only later that the Revolution was regarded as such not only in Hungary, but throughout the world.
CU: What do you think, was it a useful thing or not?
IBR: I have the feeling that the Revolution was unavoidable. Its usefulness is a question of secondary importance. To that question I answer with a yes and a no. In a certain respect the Revolution was useful; it answered decisively many a burning question which existed in Hungary and troubled the lives of most Hungarians – questions which could not have been answered any other way. On the other hand, 50,000 Hungarians died in the Revolution and yet the situation is not much better now than it was before.28 I really do not know if the balance is a positive or a negative one. One thing is certain: no matter how the situation in the world, and in Hungary, may develop, the results and achievements of the Revolution will continue to be cited and used as primary sources. Also, if a revolution is at all endowed with the power of creating rights and legal claims, then the Hungarian Revolution undoubtedly bestowed upon Hungary the right to independent and democratic existence.
CU: When did you decide to leave Hungary?
IBR: I decided to leave Hungary on several occasions. Between 12 November and 4 December, I made such a decision five times. It was not easy. I am no longer a very young man, and the years which I spent in jail had their effect. But I had already spent five years at [the forced labour camp] in Recsk. I had to choose between renewed incarceration and exile. And finally the thought of Recsk prevailed. I think quite often, though, that perhaps it would be better if I were at home among friends, no matter under what circumstances. I cannot help feeling ashamed, knowing that one of my best friends is sitting in jail, sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment, while I am out here, free, but unable to help him. I left Hungary on 4 December 1956.
CU: Did you think of doing anything other than leaving Hungary?
IBR: We were in the Revolution. My friends were sentenced to jail terms or were executed. If I had stayed at home – something I was seriously considering – I was thinking of engaging in illegal activity; after 4 November there was a military dictatorship in Hungary. There was no other possibility but illegality.
At the time I left Hungary, a comparatively late period, escapees were required to pay huge sums of money to those who helped them across the border. I came to Austria without paying a forint; the truck which I boarded was loaded with people who had paid heavy sums for their passage. Fortunately, the driver and another man, a former director (the two were in charge of the truck), knew me personally and they realised that I had to flee. They let me ride with them free of charge.
Our trip went on smoothly until, somewhere between Győr and Mosonmagyaróvár, we encountered both Hungarian and Russian troops. The commander of a Hungarian tank unit, a lieutenant, stopped our vehicle and the Russians forced everyone down from the truck, taking away our identification papers. The Hungarian officer, obviously trying to help us, called out to the driver: “Let me see your trip ticket!” The driver did have a forged trip manifest, authorising him to go to a nearby village, but only a few names were on it. The lieutenant, in a remarkable outburst of both ingenuity and humanity, read the document, adding fictitious names to it as he came to the end of the line. We immediately grasped the situation, and one by one, the whole group climbed back on the truck. We were saved.29
Original text selected and revised by Hungarian Review
1 The present edited excerpts have been selected from the original transcript of an interview (No. 152) conducted as part of the Columbia University Research Project on Hungary (CURPH), prepared by the Columbia University School of International Affairs in the wake of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The interview was turned into a book as edited by Emőke B’Rácz, the daughter of István B. Rácz.
2 Founded in 1930, the Smallholders’ Party became the major Hungarian political party after the war. Winner of the parliamentary elections with 57.03% of the votes in 1945, it was nevertheless obliged by the Soviet occupation authorities to form a coalition government and cede the key ministries to the Communists.
3 One of the major centres of the Revolution, where 800 to 1400 armed men commanded by János Szabó (“Uncle Szabó”) tried to resist the Soviet invaders on 4 November.
4 Another major centre of the Revolution, where 200 to 300 revolutionaries (including several members of the Hungarian Army) fought the invaders on 25–26 October and after 4 November.
5 The first Soviet invasion took place on 24 October.
6 Movement created in March 1955 by intellectuals sympathising with the reform Communist policies of Imre Nagy.
7 Located near Corvin Alley at a site of strategic importance, Kilián Barracks was one of the focal points of the events taking place in October–November 1956. It was here that the Hungarian National Guard was created on 31 October. Insurgents and soldiers of the Hungarian Army defended the building against the Soviet invaders until 6 November.
8 The insurgents gathered in Corvin Alley took the field against the Soviet troops as early as 23–24 October. After 4 November, 1000 to 2000 armed civilians fought here under the command of László Kovács and Gergely Pongrátz. It was at this location that the Soviet troops suffered their heaviest losses.
9 Addressed as “Uncle Szabó” by the insurgents mainly composed of industrial apprentices, János Szabó was the commander of the revolutionaries fighting at Széna Square. Although he treated with humanity the prisoners belonging to the State Security Authority, he was sentenced to death and executed on 19 January 1957.
10 According to historian László Eörsi, the meeting took place on 7 November.
11 After the Revolution, Endre Cserbakői (1931–1987) was sentenced to life imprisonment, reduced later to 15 years. He was liberated under the 1963 amnesty decree, but the court soon discovered that he was a “recidivist” and he was imprisoned again for the remaining years of the initial sentence.
12 Member of the illegal Transylvanian Communist movement before the war, József Dudás (1912–1957) moved to Budapest in 1940 and took part in the anti-Nazi resistance in 1944. He adhered to the Smallholders’ Party in 1945 and was detained several times in the late forties and the early fifties. In the last days of October 1956 he founded the Hungarian National Revolutionary Committee, occupied with his men the seat of the paper Szabad Nép and launched his own daily Magyar Függetlenség [Hungarian independence]. Refusing to recognise the government of Imre Nagy, he came into conflict with his own group who decided to relieve him from command on 3 November. He was executed on 19 January 1957.
13 First secretary of the Hungarian Workers’ [Communist] Party and member of the second Nagy Imre government during the Revolution, Kádár was transported to Moscow on 1 November 1956 where he was charged with the creation of a government liquidating the conquests of the Revolution. He formed a “Revolutionary Workers’–Peasants’ Government”, founded the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party and assumed power with the help of the Red Army. He remained the omnipotent leader of the country until 1988.
14 One of the founders of the Party of Communists in Hungary and a leading figure of the ephemeral Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919, Mátyás Rákosi (1892–1971) emigrated to the Soviet Union in 1920 where he took part in the direction of the Communist International. After returning to Hungary in 1924 he became one of the leaders of the illegal Communist Party and was arrested the following year. He was released to the Soviet Union in 1940 in exchange of the banners of the Hungarian Army seized by the Russians during Hungary’s war for independence in 1848–49. After the war he became general secretary of the Communist Party, and consequently the omnipotent ruler of Hungary until 1956. That year “Stalin’s best Hungarian disciple” was forced to move to the Soviet Union and spent the remaining years of his life in the town of Gorky.
15 Officer of the Hungarian Army during World War II, he fell into Soviet captivity and volunteered to fight the Germans in 1944. Colonel at the outbreak of the Revolution, he was ordered to “re-establish the order” in the Kilián Barracks, but he joined the cause of the revolutionaries. On 2 November 1956 Imre Nagy appointed him Minister of National Defence with the rank of major general. Member of the Hungarian delegation sent to discuss the withdrawal of Red Army troops at the Soviet headquarters in Tököl, he was arrested by Serov, head of the KGB, and imprisoned. He was executed on 16 June 1958.
16 Today Falk Miksa Street in the 5th district of Budapest.
17 At that time approximately 1000 North Korean secondary and university students pursued studies in Budapest. Some of them joined the revolutionaries.
18 The Hungarian Communist Party leadership and the members of the government were placed under the control of Soviet “advisors” whose approval was needed before the implementation of every important decision.
19 Member of the Central Committee and the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Anastas Mikoyan (1895–1978) initially opposed the deployment of Soviet troops and wanted to rely on the Hungarian government and its armed forces in order to stabilise the situation.
20 Imre Nagy (1896–1958) was taken prisoner at the Eastern front during World War I. He fought in the ranks of the Red Army during the Russian civil war and entered the Communist Party in 1920. He returned to Hungary in 1921 and joined the illegal Communist movement. In 1929 he went back to the Soviet Union where he became one of the leading figures of the Hungarian emigration. After the war he was appointed successively Minister of Agriculture, Interior and Provisioning before becoming Prime Minister in July 1953. The reforms he initiated provoked the hostility of the Party leadership which obtained his exclusion from the Party and his relief in April 1955. On 24 October 1956 he was re-elected as member of the Politburo and appointed as Prime Minister by the Party leadership. Arrested on 22 November 1956, he was first deported to Romania then transferred back to Hungary to be sentenced to death and executed in June 1958.
21 Mikhail Suslov (1902–1982) belonged to the party officials implementing the mass repression under the leadership of Stalin in the 1930s. Elected to the Politburo in 1950, he became the chief ideologue of the regime. He played a major role in the fall of Khrushchev in 1964.
22 Created by Kádár in the city of Szolnok on 4 November, the “Hungarian Revolutionary Workers’–Peasants’ Government” immediately asked for Soviet help in order to “defend socialism in Hungary”.
23 Member of the Belgian Communist Party since 1928, László Mátyás joined the cause of the Republicans in the Spanish civil war. He fought in Africa against the Germans in the ranks of the British army, then moved to the Soviet Union where he became a political commissar of the Red Army. After returning to Hungary in 1948, he spent five years in prison after a show trial. Rehabilitated in 1954, he joined the State Security Authority where he was promoted to the rank of colonel in July 1956.
24 According to a report signed by Georgy Malenkov, the Red Army arrested 7,250 persons in Hungary in November 1956, out of whom 860 were deported to the Soviet Union. About 400 were executed by the Hungarian authorities; 21,000 were imprisoned and 16,000 interned.
25 The National Guard was created by Béla Király on 31 October 1956 with the aim to coordinate the action of the armed civilian groups with that of the police and army units. Approximately 18,500 people joined it in the first days of November.
26 Although the State Security Authority was officially disbanded after its troops opened fire on demonstrators on Kossuth Square on 25 October, its members were not demobilised and most of them were ordered to put on ordinary police uniforms.
27 During the siege of the party headquarters located on Köztársaság Square on 30 October, the insurgents killed 20–25 ÁVH soldiers, of whom 9 were brutally lynched. The propaganda of the Kádár era exploited this episode to besmirch the Revolution.
28 This number is largely exaggerated. Official statistics speak about 2,652 dead between 23 October 1956 and 16 January 1957, but this number does not include those executed during the repression. No exact date is available about the victims of the Revolution, but their number may be estimated with good reason at several thousands, maybe even ten thousand.
29 150,000 to 200,000 Hungarians crossed the borders of the country between the first days of November 1956 and the end of February 1957.
Notes by Gábor Nyári