1956 is the pivotal event in modern Hungarian history, and it is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. The world recognises that as it relates to the world’s own history.
Everyone can see that 1956 was the moment when the Soviet Union lost whatever small shred of decency and idealism it had retained after the Nazi–Soviet Pact, Katyń, and the crushing of the East German workers’ rebellion. The tanks that crashed back into Budapest on 4 November 1956 were those of a great power shoring up its empire. They had long ceased to represent anything like a world- spirit. Afterwards young Western leftists followed various progressive idols from Ho Chi Minh to the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, but the Kremlin apparatchiks were not among them. Soviet power embarked on a decline that hit its nadir with the velvet revolutions of 1989 and 1991 only a generation later.
The specific significance of 1956 to Hungary is that it ended the long years of national conflict, shame, strategic ambiguity and dictatorship that began with the Béla Kun regime in 1919 and continued (with only a brief deceptive respite after 1945) until the Revolution. Of course, terrible things lay ahead for Hungary under Kádár: brutal repression, judicial murder, the long imprisonment of the heroes of 1956, general economic hardship. But the Revolution had wiped the slate clean of past sins and revealed a different Hungary – braver, clear-sighted, manifestly democratic in spirit, united in patriotism. The world recognised that too, and if some were guiltily inclined not to notice it, the new Hungarian diasporas across the globe provided an influential reminder.
Even the country’s traitors knew that an entire nation – “workers, peasants and intellectuals” as the old jargon had it – had risen in pursuit of its freedom and national independence and thus against them. One senior apparatchik told János Kádár, hesitating on the brink of betrayal, that the Communists might win five per cent in a free election. At that time it was probably an over-estimate. It meant that even if Hungary was crushed, it would have to be governed by a blend of sedation and seduction rather than simple repression after “normalcy” had been restored. Kádár realised that. But seduction weakens the seducer too, and a Communism that shrinks from repression is ultimately doomed. Kádárism led by degrees to the “border picnic” of 1989 and the escape of vacationing “Easterners” to the West. And the Wall came tumbling down.
Hungary has been officially celebrating the heroes of 1956 for the past year with countless civil initiatives as well as the commemorative events sponsored by the Government Commission on the Memorial Year of the 1956 Revolution under Mária Schmidt, and abroad through its embassies. HungarianReviewhas taken part in this collective expression of national memory. This issue – drawing on the recently-published Down Fell the Statue of Goliath – is especially rich in poems, short stories and historical essays on the Revolution and its consequences. We commend the book warmly to our readers. Even someone tempted to be a future Goliath – perhaps especially someone so tempted – will gain greatly from reading it.
History never stops, however, even if it sometimes moves by fits and starts. Much of this issue discusses the European political and strategic landscape after the twin shocks of Brexit and the election of President Trump. We seem to have moved into a historical stage beyond both the Cold War and the post- Cold War world. That is a landscape still being shaped by events and so open to some creative gardening. János Martonyi, whose experiences include negotiating Hungary’s entry into the European Union, provides Brussels and London with some guidelines on how to preserve good relations in a post-Brexit world (that might also prove to be a prolonged mid-Brexit world). But he places an equal stress, if not a stronger one, on the impact of the Brexit decision on the development of the remaining 27-member EU and on the growing importance of Central Europe in this new entity.
Mr Martonyi is sensibly cautious in discussing the various possibilities for institutional change, but he seems to belong to the emerging school that wants more Europe but less Brussels: “Compromises will be, again, inevitable but, during [a] pause for reflection, some basic principles could be agreed upon, such as more flexibility, more selectivity (as to the direction to be taken regarding various common policies), genuine subsidiarity, respect for the treaties, restoring a fair balance between the institutions themselves, respect for national identities, full respect for equal treatment, less institutional assertiveness and less political bias, just to mention a few of those suggested principles.”
Amen to all that, and President Macron, please take note.
But as Mr Martonyi also observes, Brexit will also push the centre of the EU’s gravity eastwards, increasing the importance of Central Europe to Germany, at a time when this region’s prominence in strategic calculations is already rising. The Visegrád Four is increasingly flexing its collective muscles and hiring travel agents – it met recently with Egyptian President Al-Sissi. Hungary was the first European nation to sign on to China’s new Silk Road of commerce as David Morris points out in his diplomatic memoir. At the time of going to press, President Trump was delivering a passionately Atlanticist speech in Warsaw in which he smiled fondly, if uncertainly, on Polish ideas of reviving the Inter-Marium (or “Three Seas”) concept as a strategic bulwark against a revanchist Russia (and perhaps as a stronger lobby in Brussels too).
Also in this issue, Anton Hykisch suggests that there is a growing Central European consciousness among the peoples of the region even ahead of their governments. Central Europeans still know what many Western Europeans have forgotten: that Central Europe has repeatedly defended Western Europe against invasions from the East throughout history, that Western Europe often seems to be suffering from a complacent historical amnesia, and that for these and other reasons Central Europe is more alive to the threats facing the entire continent than people living East of the Elbe. Those threats are magnified, moreover, when the amnesia of Western Europe is cultural as well as historical. “There is no such thing as Germans; there are only non-migrants”, Nicholas T. Parsons quotes a leader of the German Green Party as saying in his exploration of Samuel Huntington’s concept of the clash of civilisations. But Europe was once Christendom, a post- Christian society is still a kind of Christian society, and secular Europeans are still the bearers of ideas such as human rights that grow in a soil of Christian culture. If Western Europeans have forgotten these realities, then they will be ill- equipped to cope with the tasks of either integrating Muslim migrants into their society or resisting their transformation of it. And if the European Union is the vehicle of such amnesia, the task of preserving a civilised European identity will fall increasingly on Central Europeans.
They can bear this burden. Norman Stone describes in his essay how the Compromise of 1867 sparked a half century of Hungarian economic development, aroused a sense of national celebration among Hungarians, and fostered a glittering capital in Budapest by liberating the country from the fussy centralisation of German Vienna. Like Mr Martonyi, he hints that Brussels should consider this successful decentralisation a model for the EU. On the prosperity it created, moreover, was founded an efflorescence of Hungarian culture – of painting, music, architecture – that Ilona Sármány- Parsons chronicles and illuminates in her sumptuously illustrated account of the “Golden Age” exhibition she herself designed to mark the 120th anniversary of the Budapest Art Hall (Műcsarnok). Those who did not attend the exhibition in person do not know, as Talleyrand said, how sweet life can be. But they can read the account of it from Ms Sármány-Parsons and bask in its glowing reflection.
To turn back, however reluctantly, from beauty to truth, let me point to the contrast (or perhaps providential collaboration) between two articles in this issue that between them reveal the incompatibility of totalitarianism and reality. David A. J. Reynolds brilliantly deconstructs the attempts by János Kádár and the post-1956 regime to demonstrate that the Revolution was in fact a counter-revolution carried out by Horthyite reactionaries and landlords. Since most of the country had supported the Revolution, this was a problem. It was solved by an official determination that the massacre at the Budapest Communist headquarters on 30 October had revealed the real counter-revolutionary nature of the Revolution that until then had been concealed. Innocent revolutionary sympathies were allowable until that date. But since Kádár himself had signed the government statement dissolving the Communist Party and withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact forty-eight hours after the massacre, that was an even bigger problem. It was solved, for a while, by making Imre Nagy the villain of the piece. But since the Kádárite version was a Lie dependent on innumerable other lies, it was always vulnerable to someone blurting out a fact that did not fit the official story (or “narrative” in today’s post-modernist lingo).
It was therefore vulnerable to Václav Havel’s concept of “Living in Truth”. As Michael A. Casey elaborates in his study of Havel’s essay “The Power of the Powerless”, totalitarianism depends on everyone, including people of modest social standing, being willing to collude with official lies. His example is a greengrocer who places a sign in his window declaring “Workers of the World, Unite”. It costs little and signifies his ideological conformity. But if he fails to do so, or withdraws it after posting it for a while, he has withdrawn his support for the system. And if others follow, the system is in crisis.
At some point in the mid-eighties, Hungarians gradually withdrew their support from Kádár and his system, and it began, soundlessly, to crumble. A few years after his retirement, when he was ill and powerless, Hungary’s top court declared that Imre Nagy had been innocent of the crimes for which he had been executed. He had in reality been murdered.
Kádár died that same day. God is not mocked.