In late 1956 and early 1957, in the wake of the suppressed Revolution a series of retaliatory mass shootings took place throughout Hungary, organised by the Soviet backed new Kádár government.
“Starting today, we shoot!” declared György Marosán bluntly on the morning of 8 December to Ottó Steigerwald, leader of the Workers’ Council. Although Party leader Marosán, a former second-in-command to Kádár, had a tendency toward demagoguery and exaggeration, in this case he was relaying the decision of the Party’s Temporary Executive Committee. Marosán, who had also taken charge of destroying the Social Democratic Party in 1948–49, was sending an unmistakable signal: the time for negotiations is over, words will be replaced by harsh deeds.
The country was still in turmoil: as a reaction to the Soviet invasion strikes and demonstrations were still breaking out around the country. A women’s demonstration in Budapest on 4 December was followed by a similar event two days later in Székesfehérvár. When Marosán said “starting today”, however, he was wrong, as shootings had taken place before his announcement: the previous day, militia had opened fire on demonstrators in Tatabánya. Even before János Kádár took power, during the Revolution, the ÁVH (State Security) troops, acting on orders of the military committee led by Antal Apró, were shooting ruthlessly at demonstrators. After 4 November, the Temporary Executive Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party gave the all-clear to start shooting. The only living member of this committee is Béla Biszku, who later served as Interior Minister, and who was charged with incitement to violence by the prosecution decades later in 2012.
Just hours after Marosán’s infamous declaration, one of the bloodiest mass shootings was carried out by the militia in the northeastern mining town of Salgótarján, in which at least 50 people were killed. The weather was mild for the time of year, the sun sometimes peeking out from behind the grim 1950s socialist-realist style block housing as a crowd of demonstrators slowly gathered in the former Market Square, facing the local Party headquarters, County Council and police buildings. The demonstrators, who included workers from the glass and steel factories, miners and other sympathisers, were protesting against the arrests early that morning, by Soviet troops, of miners Lajos Gál and Lajos Viczián of the Miners Trust Workers’ Council. The square, as well as the headquarters buildings of the police, Party and County Council, were being guarded by militia. The police headquarters was guarded by a Soviet tank.
Attila Deme and his wife still live in the same place they did in 1956: they had moved into the newly built housing on Market Square in the early 1950s. Already that morning, the atmosphere was so tense that Mrs Deme’s boss had allowed her to leave work (at the Belsped Transport Company) to pick up her son and daughter from the kindergarten, located behind the Party headquarters, and take them home. Mrs Deme and the two children stopped on the square to have a look and chat with acquaintances. She heard one of the demonstrators ask a militiaman:
“Surely you’re not going to shoot at us?” “Of course not”, replied the militiaman.
Meanwhile, Captain István Darázs ordered that the surrounding streets be sealed off to prevent escape.
Mihály Horányi was standing in front of the County Council building. As he wrote in his memoirs in 1990, “the windows of the upper floors were open, but not entirely. Behind some of the windows, militiamen were standing or moving around, submachine-guns hanging from their arms. They were about 100–150 metres away. I saw them moving quickly to set up a light machine-gun behind one of the windows … and then I realised what was going to happen. I turned and started running to warn everybody away, but I was too late. I heard a dull thud behind my back. And with a horribly loud noise, the shooting began. I threw myself onto the sidewalk…”
It was about 11.15 a.m.
“We had just been making our rounds in the hospital”, recalls Dr János Fancsik, then a recently qualified doctor, later to become the city’s head physician, who today lives just across from the County Council, not far from the Deme family. “We paused in the middle of an examination for a few seconds, because we had heard a continuous rattle of firearms. The patients discussed it with us, and we concluded that the militia must be either hunting or doing training exercises in the nearby woods. And then the shooting stopped.”
“Someone shoved me, and I fell to the ground together with the children”, recounts Mrs Deme. “Maybe this was lucky, given the panic that broke out during the shooting. Unexpectedly, the shooting stopped. They’re reloading, I thought. I took the children by the hand and we ran into the closest apartment building, which was next to ours. We were lucky.”
According to Mihály Horányi, many people did not make it into the buildings, because they were shot before they got to safety. The militiamen put new magazines in their submachine-guns, and the shooting began anew. The hospital rounds were still going on; the doctors and patients again assumed it was hunting or military training. But the hammering, explosions and blasts continued.
The second round of shooting “reached the last groups of people trying to flee, as well as the severely injured who were lying unable to move, or were dead already”, recalls Mihály Horányi. “Many of the injured were in shock, or on the verge of madness. It was a horrible sight to see all the women who were killed,some of them pregnant, with their shopping bags spilled around them. Two Roma children, about ten years old (they were siblings), who earned some money as street musicians, were killed in each others’ arms.”
After about 8–10 minutes, the weapons fell silent over the bloody square full of casualties. Mrs Deme and her children ran over to their own building, where they were met with a chaotic scene. The injured were being carried in, initially into the basement, where everyone had fled. An older woman was standing with a baby buggy at the top of the stairs; she grew faint and let go of the buggy, which then tumbled down the stairs; Mrs Deme grabbed it just in time. After a short while, everyone ventured out of the basement back into their apartments. Mrs Deme took her children into the bathroom and had them sit in the iron bathtub,so they would be safe the next time hell broke loose. The stairwell of the building was full of blood; the injured were taken to a second-floor apartment where a doctor lived. The residents donated their sheets, because there were no bandages available.
“Horns honked, people yelled, and then the hospital gates opened. Several trucks came rolling in, full of injured people”, recalls Dr Fancsik. First, they looked after those who could still be saved. Those whose conditions appeared hopeless were left for later, according to the rules of medical treatment in wartime. The dead were carried out into the back courtyard, and laid out next to one another.
“One of them had a loaf of bread in his hands”, remembers Mrs János Fancsik, who left her small child at home to bring dinner to her husband in the hospital.
“It is impossible that he was holding a loaf of bread”, countered her husband.
“Rigor mortis doesn’t take over right away; the muscles first relax, so he would have let go of the bread, at the latest when they tossed him onto the truck.”
“It’s strange, though”, he reflected, “I remember that dead man holding the bread. Maybe my memory deceives me. Or maybe someone put the bread beside him later.”
The doctor, now retired, estimates that 30 deceased were laid out in the hospital courtyard. This is corroborated by the hospital’s official report: 135 injured were admitted, but among them 27 were already dead. Nine died during their operations and 10 more afterwards. Most of the shots hit the fleeing victims in the back; only 11 of the injured were shot face to face. These statistics do not include the injured not taken to the hospital, or those who were buried in surrounding villages. To this day, an accurate count of the victims has not been made. 31 deceased individuals have been identified on the basis of archival data. Several sources cite 131 dead, and some say there were even more.
During the revolution, Attila Deme was a captain of the National Guard. On the afternoon of 8 December, he helped in rescue efforts for the shooting victims, then went home. He himself was almost killed in the shootings; by luck, he was not in the front row. He noticed the bullet holes in his wife’s coat before she did – it was entirely a matter of luck that she survived the militia shootings. Mrs Deme recalls that after 8 December, they could not sleep for two nights. For weeks afterward, their children would jump into the bathtub, which they considered a safe place, at every loud noise, such as thunder.
This mass murder was only one of a series of bloody reprisals. The first such event after János Kádár took power occurred on 6 December, before the events at Salgótarján. On that day, red-flag militia on parade at Budapest’s Nyugati railway station, under the command of Béla Biszku and Sándor Gáspár, unleashed a fusillade on counter-demonstrators. Five people were killed and 20 injured. On 10 December, a shooting spree in Miskolc claimed 8 lives and 40 injuries. In Eger, on 11 December, the militia targeted a group of demonstrators who were burning a red flag in front of the Soviet military command: one 15-year old boy was killed. The next day, a group of demonstrators was lured into the city centre: armed militiamen closed off the surrounding streets to prevent escape, then opened fire. About 20 people were killed and 30 suffered gunshot wounds. In the town of Tinnye, the militia had rounded up a group of men who wanted to quit the local agricultural cooperative. Their wives gathered to demand their release, whereupon the militiamen shot their spokeswoman in the forehead; she died immediately. Militia were sent to fire upon unarmed citizens in the towns of Pécs, Gyoma, Kevermes, Gyula, Zalaegerszeg, Hódmezővásárhely and Csepel. On 13 December, two leaders of the National Guard at the steel factory of Salgótarján were mercilessly tortured, then murdered and thrown into the Ipoly River.
In the midst of these events, the militia came to get Attila Deme at dawn at his home. They beat him up, and soon he had to appear in court.
“It was a monstrous trial. I had never even seen most of my ‘co-defendants’. At my first trial, the judge was someone I had been on friendly terms with in civilian life; at my appeals trial, I got the vindictive Judge Vida, the same man who would later convict Imre Nagy. Vida even interrupted the final speeches made by the defence. I was in prison together with the famous actors Iván Darvas and László Mensáros. I was sentenced to nine years, but was released – together with Darvas – on 4 April 1959. Maybe the reason I was spared the death sentence was that we as the National Guard voluntarily handed over our weapons after 4 November.”
A few weeks after the Salgótarján shootings, the militia turned up at the hospital. Dr Fancsik knew one of them well, so he asked: “Why did you fire at the crowd?” The militiaman responded that the demonstrators had fired first – that is, the counter-revolutionary provocateurs started the shooting from the housetops – so naturally the militia returned fire, in self-defence. Hearing this, the young doctor grewindignant: “Do you take me for an idiot?” (One demonstrator, István Ferencz, had indeed exploded a sound grenade on the square. But it is unknown whether this occurred before the shooting began, or during the pause in the shooting.) In any case, barely an hour after the massacre, flyers appeared throughout the city, claiming that the counter-revolutionaries had attacked the militia.
As long as the Communist regime lasted, the massacre of Salgótarján was never mentioned. Mrs Deme’s colleague, who suffered nine gunshot wounds, kept silent for decades. After a long hospital stay, she returned to work as if nothing had happened, and no one asked her any questions. Dr János Fancsik recalls occasions when his patients were unwilling to tell him the story behind their enduring injuries. Sometimes, to Dr Fancsik’s whispered question, “Were you injured in 1956?” they would nod mutely.
The members of the militia were rewarded: on 20 August 1957, they received the “Order of Merit for Worker–Peasant Power”, which also entitled their children to automatic admission, regardless of their grades, to any university in the country.
Research by Frigyes Kahler and Sándor M. Kiss shows definitively that the shooting at Salgótarján was meticulously planned. It was a deliberate massacre, as indicated by the fact that the streets surrounding the demonstrationsite were closed off before the shooting began. A contemporary investigation by the Ministry of the Interior – which was accurate, and therefore was later shelved – revealed that no one from the crowd had fired a shot, in contrast to the claims of the abovementioned flyers.
According to Frigyes Kahler, all the shootings that occurred after 4 November (after Soviet tanks invaded Hungary to put down the revolution) were planned in advance. The Temporary Executive Committee of the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party had by then made the decision to use armed force to put down the resistance and eliminate the Workers’ Councils. None of the shootings were provoked by the local groups: rather, they were organised at the behest of the Temporary Executive Committee and the army’s Military Council, led by Gyula Uszta. In Uszta’s words, the crackdown would be fast and merciless. They made a careful assessment of whom they could count on among the militiamen, who would be willing to fire upon the people.
Minutes of the Military Council. (4 November 1956 – excerpts.) Comrade Lieutenant Colonel Károly Csémi: “4 or 5 thousand women, bearing flowers and wreaths, were walking toward Heroes’ Square, where the Soviet militia at first did not allow them to proceed […]”.
To Lieutenant Colonel Csémi’s report, Comrade [László] Földes adds […] that the woman demonstrators wanted to continue on to the Parliament from Heroes’ Square. […] The Hungarian army stood and watched these events quietly. Consequently, what we are up against is the passivity of the Hungarian army.
Comrade Major General [Mihály] Horváth: “The other problem here is the question of how the militia commanders are going to react – will they be willing to fire upon the crowd, especially if they see weapons.” […]
According to Comrade Lieutenant Colonel [Károly] Csémi, “it’s time we make ourselves heard a little. For example, announce on the radio that members of the militia regiments must report for duty immediately.”
Comrade Major General [Gyula] Uszta: “I agree with those who say that we must mercilessly liquidate those who shoot at our troops. All group gatherings, even of women, must be broken up.
Comrade Major General [Pál] Ilku: “I suggest that we issue a verbal command that all militia companies must be on alert starting at 6 a.m. tomorrow.”
Comrade Colonel [Ferenc] Ugrai: “The prosecutors are operating in an opportunistic manner – they let the enemy in one door and out the other. Why don’t we carry out Comrade Lenin’s teaching: the White Terror must be countered by a threefold Red Terror. We must issue the firmest commands possible.”
Summary by Comrade Major General Uszta: “Our tasks are the following: Issue the call for militia alert. Prepare the militia regiments and speak with the company and platoon commanders. We have to step up decisively against the enemy. We must defeat them quickly and without mercy.”
Even after the change of regime in 1990, the murderers and their leaders continued to live their lives undisturbed, and this is largely the case to this day. During the 1990s, the dominant left-wing media lampooned the attempts to seek justice, claiming a “witch hunt”. This came as no surprise: during the Kádár era, mass media organs were headed by seasoned Interior Ministry officials, quite a few of whom hung onto these influential positions even in the post-Communist era.
The memorable Zétényi–Takács law attempted to provide the legal basis for “the prosecution of serious crimes committed during the previous regime”, from 21 December 1944 until 2 May 1990, “which were not prosecuted for political reasons”, as Zsolt Zétényi stated in an interview. Under this law, the statute of limitations would not apply during the years of the Communist regime, so those responsible could be brought to justice. But this law, along with a Parliamentary decision on the statute of limitations and another law, Law 1993/90 citing the Geneva Conventions of 1949, were declared void by the Constitutional Court.
In the end, the cases relating to the shooting massacres were brought to trial by referring to the Geneva Conventions. A sweeping electoral victory by the Hungarian Socialist Party in 1994 did not bode well for those who were awaiting investigations into grievances suffered under the previous regime. From one day to the next, the new government of Prime Minister Gyula Horn simply eliminated the committee that had been created to investigate the historical facts on the 1956 shootings. (Nevertheless, the committee members continued their work unofficially.)
Soon the first cases came to trial. In 1995, the Supreme Court classified the shootings before 4 November as manslaughter, which meant that their statute of limitations had expired. With respect to the shootings after 4 November, however, the court acknowledged that, at the time, Hungary was a theatre of international armed conflict, which meant that the shootings were war crimes, to which the statute of limitations did not apply. A 1996 decision of the Constitutional Court reaffirmed this decision. In 1999, the Supreme Court modified its earlier stance, declaring that all of the mass shooting deaths must be considered crimes against humanity under the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and thus no statute of limitations applies.
In the court case related to the shootings in Salgótarján, three former members of the militia were convicted: Lajos Orosz (5 years imprisonment), Nándor Lévárdi and Ferenc Szoboszlai (2 years each); all three of whom partially served out their terms. But the main instigators, former Communist Party officials Béla Biszku, László Földes and Lajos Czinege, were only called as witnesses. Judge János Strausz rightly wondered why those who had ordered the massacre were not being prosecuted as defendants. In his sentencing speech, he pointed out that these witnesses “provided empty, meaningless testimony”, and “it is clear that if they had provided a genuine testimony, they would have been accusing themselves of crimes”.
A long time would pass before the issue of these former top leaders’ responsibility again arose. A suit brought by international legal expert Ádám Gellért against Béla Biszku in 2010 was rejected by the State Prosecutor’s office, as was another suit brought by the political party Jobbik. As Gellért stated earlier, what has happened over the past two years is “inexplicable”. The Prosecutor’s office did take action in the end and began to investigate the Biszku affair. One reason may be that last year, the Parliament passed Law CCX (2011) on crimes against humanity. According to its author, parliamentary representative Gergely Gulyás, the law – among other things – brings Hungarian law into harmony with the basic statute of the Nuremberg Military Tribunal and its enumeration of crimes. The law denies any statute of limitations for serious crimes committed during the Communist dictatorship, in the name of, in the interest of, or with the approval of the Party State, between 20 August 1949 and 2 May 1990.
In September, the Prosecutor’s office indicted Biszku as an inciter of the Salgótarján shootings. Biszku had been a member of the Temporary Executive Committee, which made the top-level decisions to carry out the shootings. “Moral reparation – that is what we would like to receive”, says Attila Deme, the former National Guard captain and survivor of the massacre.
Indeed, moral justice – not revenge – is the goal. This is exactly what I discussed with Dr Fancsik, as he escorted me downstairs to show me the neighbouring house where a young man named István Ravasz, a Budapest college student, was shot dead by the militia while shovelling coal in his parents’ yard.
Translation by Katica Avvakumovits