“Exceptional gratitude and honour, however, is due to a Danish martyr of the Hungarian Revolution, UN diplomat Povl Bang-Jensen, who gave his life for “the Hungarian cause”. He truly was a man who felt obliged to reveal the truth to the world, attempting to arouse the conscience of statesmen and decision-makers at the highest international forums. For several years this Danish diplomat showed implacable resolve in dealing with the delicate international issues surrounding the Hungarian Revolution and of the brutal Soviet military intervention which crushed it.”
Late October to early November is a sacred season for Hungarians everywhere in the world. It is then that we remember 1956, the twelve plus ten days of the Revolution and War of Independence that Hungarians waged against the Soviet Army from 23 October to 10 November.
The 1956 Revolution began as a national cause for Hungarians. It was partly inspired by the Polish uprising in Poznań, but it then went on to awaken Central Europe and the entire continent spiritually; and finally, as the first televised world event, it aroused people beyond the old continent’s borders and sent a message around the world. This message was reinforced by the flood of refugees who gave their personal accounts of the universal theme: that justice and freedom may not be wholly and definitively trampled on. As heirs to a national tradition of freedom struggles, we Hungarians sent this message to the whole world in those days, not for the first time in our thousand-year history – and not for the last time.
Sixty-two years ago, in the autumn of 1956, our clarion cry to the world was that there must be an end to the Stalinist–Rákosist terror; an end to the atrocities of the Communist secret police; an end to the network of informants monitoring everything and everyone; an end to show trials, secret executions and deportations. The Communists’ entire institutionalised systematic machinery of physical and mental terror to break the Hungarian people in their essential humanity and dignity had to be dismantled and abjured. That message declared that there must be an end to the horrors of Communist dictatorship: the inhuman, life-denying system which remorselessly liquidated those it saw as its enemies – who were in fact the overwhelming majority of the nation.
The events of October and November 1956 demonstrated that political power without a moral core cannot be viable for long because people’s sense of justice and desire for freedom render it ultimately vulnerable. This is a permanent truth even if, with the might of Soviet armies, one of history’s most beautiful and unblemished fights for freedom was crushed: fusillades extinguishing precious lives; death sentences handed down in show trials; the dead bound with barbed wire and buried face down in unmarked graves; hundreds of thousands fleeing the country; the suffering of mourning relatives silenced by intimidation. That was the stunning list of woes under the vengeful Communist regime in the 1956–1962 period. In the end, all this was not in vain. Even the most hardened Communists, trained in the Soviet Union, were taught a lesson in the autumn of 1956 that they could never forget: only for a while can lies and terror quell the identity and pride of a great people.
In one of the great poems inspired by the Revolution, “Angel from Heaven”, the émigré writer Sándor Márai touches the heart of the matter:
More and more ask this, there seems no end,
Haltingly, for they cannot comprehend;
Those who Freedom inherit
Ask this: does Freedom have such merit?
The same lessons were also handed to the cultured Western world. The same world which, at the Yalta Conference – that ended the Second World War and divided out the resulting spoils – had discreetly looked away and allowed the Soviet empire to defy all norms of morality and humanity in occupying – then physically and spiritually oppressing – the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
To us Hungarians in 1956, and indeed during the whole period lasting from 1948 to 1990, freedom was not something to be taken for granted. It needed to be fought for. Perhaps it was 1956 – after our challenge ended in a tragedy that was nonetheless of an uplifting and heroic power – that the world understood the true meaning and greatness of freedom. Eloquent writings by the leading minds of the West – Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, Salvador de Madariaga, and many others testified to this.
Freedom, sovereignty and the independence of our nation are still priorities for us. Nor do we take them for granted. If we see them in jeopardy, we are again determined to fight for them.
The last rays of hope in the autumn of 1956 were the whispered rumours – repeated by many in Budapest – that UN peacekeepers were already in the country, or that the Americans and the British had plans to send relief forces. All these remained merely dreams. Hungary did not receive help. Blacker still than that, on 1 November 1956, on All Souls’ Day, while the whole country was mourning its unburied dead and departed family members in dignity but in a hope born of freedom won, the treacherous trio of Kádár, Apró and Münnich were secretly negotiating in Moscow to crush the revolutionary government and launch reprisals. The Hungarian Revolution was defeated, and once again the great political powers of the West discreetly looked away.
However, we cannot forget the fact that there were many people in the more fortunate half of Europe who shared some of the physical and psychological anguish of the Hungarians, and who declared solidarity with our martyrs’ destiny. Hungary owes a debt of gratitude to all those Danish citizens who played a role in the reception of Hungarian refugees at the time of the 1956 Revolution and Freedom Fight. In this way almost 1,000 of our compatriots found a new home in Denmark.
Every one of the Hungarian refugees adopted by Denmark was given full opportunity to become a valued and useful member of Danish society. Many of them achieved remarkable results in their own fields and built successful new lives in a warm-hearted nation. Among the Hungarian émigrés of 1956, we should pay our respects to prominent representatives of the judicial, music and literary translation professions.
Exceptional gratitude and honour, however, is due to a Danish martyr of the Hungarian Revolution, UN diplomat Povl Bang-Jensen, who gave his life for “the Hungarian cause”. He truly was a man who felt obliged to reveal the truth to the world, attempting to arouse the conscience of statesmen and decision-makers at the highest international forums. For several years this Danish diplomat showed implacable resolve in dealing with the delicate international issues surrounding the Hungarian Revolution and of the brutal Soviet military intervention which crushed it. As a member of the United Nations special committee, he collected witness statements from Hungarian freedom fighters, which served as the basis of the UN report on the 1956 Revolution.
Povl Bang-Jensen’s commitment both to truth and to the Hungarian cause was also demonstrated by the fact that during the process he refused to hand over the testimonies and names of his Hungarian witnesses, on the grounds that their family members back in Hungary would be at risk of abduction by the Communists.
Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN’s Secretary-General at the time, launched disciplinary proceedings against the uncompromisingly committed Danish diplomat, and then dismissed him from his post. From contemporary documents, the examination of which is still restricted, we can state that in all likelihood Povl Bang-Jensen was silenced as a result of Soviet pressure.
The story is a sad but inspiring one. The United Nations was due to discuss “the question of Hungary” in New York on 25 November 1959. Chillingly, on precisely that day, Povl Bang-Jensen was found dead in New York’s Alley Pond Park. His death was recorded officially as suicide – despite expert forensic evidence to the contrary.
Povl Bang-Jensen represented a commitment and sense of mission which were selfless and therefore of the noblest kind. Ultimately this cost him his life, but it will forever link him with the destiny of the Hungarian people, and place him among the purest souls of humanity.
This is true even if the paralysis and indifference of international powers that sealed the fate of the Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence is still an inconvenient theme in our world – as is the research of the circumstances of Povl Bang-Jensen’s death.
For the benefit of present and future generations, in 2016, on the 60th anniversary of the Revolution, a Hungarian initiative resulted in the erection of a statue in Copenhagen’s Solbjerg Park Cemetery, honouring the memory, humanity and universal significance of Povl Bang-Jensen and his sacrifice. A street was named after him in Budapest on the same day, adjacent to the street named after Pál Maléter, the Hungarian Minister of Defence who was executed in 1958, along with Prime Minister Imre Nagy.
On the 62nd anniversary of 1956 – on the day when all the other martyrs and heroes of the Revolution are commemorated in Hungary, such as the youngest executed teenager Péter Mansfeld, revolutionary commanders like “Uncle” Szabó and István Angyal, or the young medical graduate who headed a Budapest hospital department for the wounded, Dr Ilonka Tóth – we also remember Bang-Jensen in Budapest, at his symbolic grave post in the legendary Burial Plot 301 where hundreds of the executed are buried – just as we do here at his statue in Copenhagen, the diplomat’s final resting place.
At the reburial of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs in the summer of 1989 and in the first free elections in the spring of 1990, we drew on our inheritance from 1956 and on the deeds of the brave generations that went before us. With a true sense of national unity we eradicated four decades of lies, and Hungary was once again able to step onto the path of democracy. On every national memorial day every year since then, we bear witness to the fact that we shall not forget!
It was no accident but a deliberate act of gratitude that Povl Bang-Jensen was posthumously awarded one of the highest Hungarian distinctions by our first freely elected President in 1992.
Today we are here to remember the victims, our compatriots forced into exile, the broken lives of their families, those disappeared, those executed. But also we should think of all those for whom a “desire for adventure”, as Hungarian black humour had it, induced them to stay at home and try to preserve themselves in sanity during the spirit-crushing era of the fraudulent socialist system. Many of them are living among us today.
For more than 30 years, despite their best efforts, the Communists could not obliterate the miracle of 23 October from the soul of the people. The tradition of ’56 was spread by word of mouth like a folk myth, clearly and in Hungarian. On this day every year, the greatest celebration of national unity, we remind ourselves that we live in a free and independent Hungary today, where finally we are able to make our own decisions, not suffering others to make them for us. We have the freedom and sovereignty for which the heroes of ’56 sacrificed their lives and for which all the survivors yearned during the decades of totalitarianism. We are determined to safeguard them.
We will never allow them to be taken away from us again.
(Speech delivered to commemorate the anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution at the reception organised by the Embassy of Hungary in the Celebration Hall of the Royal Copenhagen Shooting Society.)