In the war the Gestapo laid hands on Mitzi’s possessions in Austria, and after the war the Communists laid hands on her possessions behind the Iron Curtain. Real estate, it turned out, could fly away. These were facts of life; totalitarian orders were doing what they had been set up to do. Conscripted for military service, I found myself stationed in Germany in 1955. When I had leave, I went to Vienna. The Russians had signed the treaty that ended their zone of occupation but fear of what they might do next was in the air. The house in which I had been born was war-damaged, soon to be disposed of. One day that summer, my company commander drove me to have a look at the Iron Curtain. There we were staring through field-glasses across an open field when firing burst out on the far side of the fence with its watch-towers and barbed wire. A deer came crashing through the undergrowth. I well understood that the border guards would have made sure to shoot dead a would-be escaper.

I was in barracks back in England in July 1956, when Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser sprang the surprise of nationalising the Suez Canal. Accepting Soviet financing for a new Aswan Dam, Nasser was adopting a Communist position against Western interests. Of course I knew nothing about the high politics evolving behind the scene. Orders for my regiment to go to Egypt were abruptly cancelled, and I was given permission to go up to Magdalen College, Oxford.

Government policy was shifting unmistakably towards armed intervention in Egypt, and angry demonstrations against it were staged day after day in the centre of Oxford. The university had long since been a stronghold of the Left. The dominant topic of intellectual discourse in the colleges and the tutorials was where the line should be drawn between Communism and Socialism. The use of force was the unresolved question. Equality was held to be the foremost social good, from the Communist point of view so desirable that force in whatever degree is necessary was justified to implement it. Clearly incompatible with equality, liberty was seen as a secondary good, too close to capitalist privilege for comfort and so perhaps not a good at all. The popular writer Sándor Márai in his memoir has a telling little anecdote about the difficulty Communists have with liberty. He spent the end of the war deep in the Hungarian countryside, and when Soviet soldiers first came through where he was, he understood that they couldn’t give him any liberty because they had none for themselves – in short they were not liberators but occupiers.

Behind the scenes, this time in Moscow in February 1956, Nikita Khrushchev, the ebullient General Secretary, had taken advantage of the Twentieth Party Congress to criticise Stalin for resorting regularly to much too high a degree of force. Supposedly secret, it was risky for Khrushchev in so many words to be conceding that thanks to gulag and the post-1945 occupation of the countries of the Soviet Bloc, Communism in reality was a criminal enterprise – one, moreover, which incriminated him as well as all the Party delegates in the hall. However, the Kremlin was facing varying degrees of dissent, rioting and political demonstrations in Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia and throughout the Soviet bloc. Filtering to the outer world through Party channels, Khrushchev’s address was a necessary and sufficient cause of the Hungarian uprising.

On 3 October The Times of London had a prediction wide of the mark: “Hungary faces a dismal autumn and winter in the face of the twin evils of a poor harvest and a grave fuel shortage.” Not a word about the struggle between the outgoing Mátyás Rákosi and his high-degree-of-force cohort or the rehabilitated Imre Nagy and his renounce-of-force cohort. Without any preliminary reporting, The Times at last brought the story up to date on 24 October. “Tens of thousands of Hungarian university students, workers and soldiers made a demonstration in the centre of Budapest today shouting ‘Out with the Russian troops’ and ‘We want a new government with Imre Nagy’.” Deadpan, the report concludes, “Later the crowd tried unsuccessfully to pull down a 26 feet statue of Stalin”.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, dramatic events were breaking the lock the Cold War had imposed on the balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union. If Washington held that the Hungarians were in the right, would it support them in word, or better still, deed, and if so, how and with what? What would or should Khrushchev and the Politburo decide? If it was wrong for the British to use force in their own interests, how could it be right for the Soviets to use force in their own interests? The Communist faction in my college went into a huddle to thrash out this dilemma. I felt that I did not have an informed opinion about the rights and wrongs that Nasser was raising, but I had no doubt of the moral injunction to support the Hungarians. A small number of the more adventurous did go out to Budapest, and one of them – Robert Oakeshott, nephew of the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott – was said to have addressed a large crowd at Sopron and holed up at one point with Colonel Maléter in the Kilián Barracks. An adventurer who had been educated at Eton, Godfrey Meynall is the only Englishman I am sure actually fought with a weapon in his hand, perhaps emulating his father who in the 1930s had won a posthumous Victoria Cross on the North-West Frontier, Taliban country nowadays. At Cambridge, Dr Noel Moynihan organised a charity, Aid To Hungary, recruiting some twenty helpers to attract and distribute aid from quarters in a monastery on the Austrian side of the frontier.

Imre Nagy did not at first appear to have the stuff of heroes. Along with other foreign Communists, he had spent the war years in Moscow in the Lux Hotel, that antechamber of the Lubyanka. Evidently Khrushchev, General Ivan Serov, the senior secret policeman present in Budapest, and Yuri Andropov, the future General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and at that time Ambassador to Hungary, engaged in maskirovka, the classic Russian game of covering the traces of some foul deed. In a series of broken promises, entrapments and kidnappings, they arrested Nagy, Maléter and a dozen others now destined to be spirited away to Romania for a kangaroo trial and judicial execution. As sporadic fighting petered out, Gyula Háy, formerly a Communist playwright as eminent as Bertold Brecht, earned another measure of international fame with an appeal on the radio repeating the cry of “Help” six times. Like Sándor Márai earlier, like every Hungarian, he had come face to face with armed occupiers pretending to be liberators. Leaving the studio after the broadcast, he writes in his autobiography Born 1900, “Out in the corridor we saw the first Soviet soldiers coming round the corner”. Moscow radio made its pitch on 5 November: “This morning the forces of reactionary conspiracy against the Hungarian people were crushed.”

In a letter dated 8 November and published in the collection of his correspondence with the title Enlightening. Letters 1946–1960, Isaiah Berlin records that I had thoughts of leaving as a volunteer for Hungary. A highly influential personality not just in Oxford but in the wider intellectual world, he was Professor of Social and Political Theory. I was free to call on him at will because my mother had been a lifelong friend of his wife, née Aline de Gunzbourg. “Hungary is a very romantic cause”, he wrote with a lightly dismissive touch, “all sorts of young men want to go there and die for liberty, although plainly they cannot be of any use now that the Russians have crushed the resistance.” My instinct was good, he allowed, but not to be indulged: “One must not take oneself so seriously … one must just carry on with whatever one is doing without feeling that the safety and happiness of the world depends upon one’s position.”

At the time, I did not keep a diary, and so I cannot exactly date my movements, but I went to Vienna at the start of the Easter vacation of 1957. There I stayed with Dr Hans Mailath-Pokorny, who had been my grandmother’s man of business before the war and was an angry pessimist. Also living in the apartment was Dieter, a relation of his in his early twenties who had just escaped from Hungary and was plainly in a state of shock. Through him, I spent time with refugees. I saw the photographs taken by the brave and brilliant Erich Lessing of freedom fighters holding the national flag with a hole in the middle where they had cut out the Communist emblem. In numerous shots, grim circles of freedom fighters wearing more or less identical hats and belted coats would be standing assembled around the corpse of an ÁVH secret policeman who had been lynched. One sequence showed an ÁVH man hanging by his feet from a tree, his shirt ripped off to display a torso with open wounds.

Dieter arranged for someone to drive me to Budapest. At some street-corners in the city, the crews of Soviet tanks tried to fraternise with little or no success. Debris was piled high on pavements. Bullets had pockmarked facades and some shutters were hanging at an angle. A university professor of English literature, most probably a secret policeman, attached himself to me, and asked if I would like to interview György Lukács. Leftists at Oxford would mention his name with awe as a great innovator of Marxist literary theory. Having supported Imre Nagy in the uprising, he was one of those arrested and hijacked to Romania. On account of his international reputation, he had escaped the gallows and prison as well. Closeted with me in a dreary colourless room in central Budapest, he was completely non-committal. I put an end to an unsatisfactory interview by asking why he had a photograph of an elderly Hasid on his desk. His grandfather!

Published in 1969, a book called 1956: Counter-Revolution in Hungary – Words and Weapons is the standard work in defence of the Soviet-imposed regime of János Kádár. The author of this Cold War classic, János Berecz, had studied in Moscow, and become a member of the Hungarian party’s Central Committee and eventually the ideological secretary. It is not a coincidence that in the Soviet idiom he reverses revolution into counter-revolution and depicts the demand for freedom and independence as reactionary conspiracy. His purpose was to establish that Communists have the moral right to shoot their opponents, whereas all who are not Communists have no such right. The Soviets in Hungary were therefore virtuous, the British and French and Israelis at Suez vicious. At the time, even Stalinists with closed minds like Palmiro Togliatti and Georges Marchais expressed doubts. Jean-Paul Sartre, a foremost Soviet apologist, thought that in Hungary the Soviets had merely been “ kindling hatred in people’s hearts”. The attack on Hungary was as difficult for Communists to accept as the Hitler–Stalin Pact had been in 1939. At Oxford, the outstanding example was Christopher Hill, the Master of Balliol College. After spending the year 1935 in Moscow, he had served in the Foreign Office, the British Foreign Office, that is, rather than the Comintern as many suspected. Published in 1947, his book of infantile hagiography about Lenin was an act of allegiance. After some hesitation, he appeared to slide out of the Party formally but could not bring himself to condemn outright the use of force in the Party’s interest. At Cambridge, E. P. Thompson, the historian of the working class, renounced the Party but not the Marxist doctrine that the proletariat are different from everyone else and would inherit the earth. Self-described as a historian but more realistically a Soviet publicist, E. J. Hobsbawm had a letter published in the Daily Worker on 9 November 1956. ”While approving with a heavy heart of what is now happening in Hungary, we should also say frankly that we think the USSR should withdraw its troops from the country as soon as this is possible.” In a broadcast as recently as 2012 this commissar manqué was still advocating mass-murder in the interests of Communism.

The willing surrender to Communism of so many men and women, educated and uneducated alike, all over the world is an integral but mystifying aspect of the twentieth century. All sorts of hopes and fears no doubt were in play. But in 1956 the reality of Soviet Communism destroyed the ideal of equality as a superior social good. Instead the Hungarian uprising was irreversible evidence that nationality, culture, human relationships and even happiness itself depend on the supremacy of liberty as a social good.

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