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Hungary: rebirth of civil conscience

from the 1956 revolution to the collapse of the Iron Curtain

On 2 May 1989, recorded by television cameras from all over the world, Hungary started to dismantle the “iron curtain” that ran the full 345 kilometres of its border with Austria. On 27 June the Foreign Ministers of the two countries crossed the frontier together close to the little town of Sopron, in Hungary. In August a symbolic “pan-European picnic” – organized at the same border crossing by opponents of the regime – offered a unique chance to pass over to the west and while the Hungarian guards simply stood by, a huge crowd surged through the gates. This breach opened the way for thousands of others from all over the Soviet bloc, but especially for East Germans, who were finally able to escape half a century of forced isolation.


Under Soviet control since 1947
At the end of the Second World War Hungary had found itself controlled by Soviet troops. Although a centre-right democratic party had won the 1945 elections with 57% of the vote, pressure from the Russians led to the formation of a coalition government: Despite only having obtained 17% of the vote, the Communist Party elbowed itself into a position of power, especially by demanding the Ministry of the Interior and thus control of the police, who were soon to become increasingly aggressive. Little by little, the Communists managed to silence the other political forces: some 160,000 inhabitants of German origin were forced to leave their homes, numerous public officials were dismissed and many others were deprived of the right to vote, while most of the economy was nationalized. The 1947 elections – widely suspected of being rigged – saw the victory of the Communist Party.

In the summer of 1948 all Church-run schools, which included two thirds of primary and one third of secondary schools, were nationalized. On 23 December the primate of Hungary, cardinal Jozszef Mindszenty, was arrested and a few months later he received a life sentence. After 1949 the Communist Party gained total control of the country. Due to forced industrialization, the collectivization of agriculture, the repression of all private enterprise and Hungary’s war debts to the USSR, the country slid inexorably into poverty, and serious social discontent ensued.

On 23 October 1956, several thousand students and workers descended on the centre of Budapest for a peaceful demonstration of solidarity with the Polish workers and students of Poznan, victims of the repression that had followed the June strikes. Soon thousands upon thousands of city dwellers joined the crowd of demonstrators and the protest quickly turned into a revolt against the Communist dictatorship and the Soviet presence in Hungary. A speech broadcast over the radio by Prime Minister and Party Secretary Erno Gero, strongly condemning the demonstrators, exacerbated the situation: crowds gathered below the radio building, attacking soldiers and the police; armed clashes soon followed. The next day, Soviet troops entered the city at the government’s request. Janos Kadar replaced Gero as party leader, while the revolution spread to other towns and cities: revolutionary committees and workers’ councils were set up, numerous parties were re-established and independent trade unions were outlawed.

Imre Nagy’s government
On 25 October Imre Nagy became the new premier and immediately recognized that the uprising had all the markings of a national revolution: in a sixteen-point programme – which included, among other things, the withdrawal of Soviet troops and a return to democracy – he agreed to most of the demonstrators’ demands. On 30 October the withdrawal of troops from Budapest was decided, and the Hungarian Workers’ Party was declared dissolved, to be replaced by the Hungarian Workers’ Socialist Party led by the reformists, including Kadar, Nagy and Donath. The same day cardinal Mindszenty was released and returned to Budapest where he spoke over the radio in support of the new government. On 1 November Hungary withdrew from the Warsaw Pact and declared itself neutral.

Prime Minister Kadar: repression renewed
On 3 November, during negotiations on the withdrawal of Soviet troops, the KGB arrested the new Minister of Defence Pal Maleter, declaring him a traitor. By the following day the Red Army had reached the outskirts of Budapest and launched its attack. Unlike 23 October, the columns of tanks were backed by air raids, artillery bombardments and the actions of tanks (over 2000) and infantry, combined to penetrate the most recalcitrant areas of the city. Nagy broadcast a message on State radio, repeated in English, Russian and French, denouncing the Red Army aggression. He sought refuge in the Yugoslav embassy, after receiving assurances of political asylum, while cardinal Mindszenty was taken in by the United States embassy, where he was to stay for 15 long years. Nagy was handed over to the Russians on 22 November and transferred to Snagov, in Rumania. On 7 November a pro-Russian government led by Kadar was restored. Almost two years later, on 16 June 1958 Nagi, Maleter and the reporter Gimes were tried and shot.
The Hungarian revolution was quashed with an iron fist: 500 executions were carried out, tens of thousands were interned in prison camps or in jail and 200,000 people fled the country. A climate of suspicion was established and the population relapsed into a state of passive resistance. As time passed, civil society accepted a tacit compromise with the authorities, not only out of fear, but due to deliberate party policy: mass repressions gradually ceased and, at the cost of incurring massive foreign debts, the State managed to guarantee a reasonable standard of living and concede a little breathing space for private enterprise. Censorship was gradually relaxed – as long as sensitive issues were avoided – and a 1963 amnesty led to the release from prison of the few remaining insurgents.


The samizdat and criticism of intellectual circles
Due to a relatively high standard of living and to the fear that any opposition activity would only aggravate the situation, dissent was apparently non-existent until the mid Seventies, and then only in intellectual circles in Budapest linked to the school of the philosopher Gyorgy Lukacs. During those years the underground press published certain fundamental works of philosophical criticism of Marxism, thus giving rise to a Hungarian samizdat.
One particularly significant work, of over a thousand pages, was Profil, by the literary and film critic Janos Kenedi, published in March 1971; it contained literary and social science essays that had previously been refused by the official press under the pretext that they failed to comply with publishing standards. The first political work of the samizdat was the 1977 anthology Marx in the fourth decade, which marked the definitive rejection of Marxism on the part of its former advocates.
The second half of the Seventies saw an increase in the political activities of Hungarian dissidents, who on 9 January 1977 signed a letter of solidarity with the imprisoned Czech dissidents of Charter ’77. In the autumn of the same year Mikols Szabosi began organizing seminars and conferences on various hitherto taboo topics, such as the history of the Soviet Communist Party, or the situation of the Hungarian intellectuals in Transylvania, known as “the Free University of Monday”. Alongside the Lukacs group, another particularly important opposition group gathered around the sociologist Istvan Kemeny, jailed for having taken part in the 1956 uprising. Only ten years after having been released from prison was Kemeny able to study the lower strata of Hungary’s population: gypsies and the blue-collar workers of the huge State-run factories. His followers did their best to provide material support to the families they had met during their research: they organized collections of clothing and money and ensured legal support for those that had been unfairly treated at work and, at the same time, they denounced the fact that socialism had not removed poverty. For this reason, in 1977 Kemeny was forced into exile. Later, in 1979, his work gave rise to the Poor Relief Fund, the first Hungarian social organization openly opposed to the regime.

Active “dissent” and the regime’s harsh reaction
When the members of Charter ’77 were sentenced to imprisonment in October 1977, signatures were collected in Hungary for two letters of solidarity with the Czechoslovak dissidents. Altogether 254 people signed the letters. The regime’s backlash was immediate: half the signatories lost their jobs while the other half were imprisoned in a move to further isolate the dissident groups. In spite of this repressive action, however, the intellectuals intensified their efforts and their ranks gradually swelled: deprived of work and marginalized from mainstream society, they in fact started to devote themselves full time to writing and distributing underground publications. A key moment for the growth of the opposition movement was the publication in 1980 of the Book in memory of Bibo, the historian and political commentator who died in 1979. Bibo was the architect of the so-called “third way”, a minister in the Nagy government during the 1956 revolution and acknowledged in underground cultural circles as a model of morality and culture. The authors of the book included leading Hungarian intellectuals: men and women of letters, poets, scientist, as well as members of the democratic opposition. The publication of the book provoked the inevitable reaction of the regime, which in December formed a special anti-dissident group within the Ministry of the Interior. Between 1980 and 1981, also in the wake of events in Poland and thanks to contacts between the Hungarian dissidents and members of Solidarnosc, the opposition became more active, especially as regards the underground press; in this sense the birth of the magazine “Beszelo” (Vision) was particularly significant; it made a decisive contribution to the formation of social and cultural groups throughout the country.

Nagy’s funeral and the 1989 referendum
In 1983 a new electoral law enabled a number of opposition figures to stand for parliament. In the years that followed and as a result of changes taking place in the Soviet Union, the democratic opposition was able to influence both national politics and the Party increasingly directly, to the extent that in 1987 certain people that had always been considered Janos Kadar’s opponents were among its leading members. In 1988 independent groups and civil and social organizations mushroomed, while numerous underground circles came out into the open. Public demonstrations – which the regime had always cracked down upon until then – became increasingly frequent. In January 1989 the leadership of the Hungarian Workers’ Socialist Party – aware that the demand for democracy could no longer be constrained – asked to open negotiations with members of the new democratic political organizations. On 22 March the eight leading opposition organizations (the Hungarian Democratic Forum, the Association of Free Democrats, the Association of Young Democrats, the Small Farmers’ Independent Party, the Social Democratic Party, the Hungarian Popular Party, the E. Bajcs-Zsilinszky Association for Friendship and the Democratic League of Independent Mayors) agreed on an Opposition Round Table to prepare a common strategy. On 13 June 1989 the ruling party agreed to the conditions demanded by the opposition and sat down at the negotiating table. In the meantime, on 16 June 1989 a symbolic funeral, attended by huge crowds, was held for Imre Nagy and the other victims of the 1956 revolution. Negotiations between the opposition and the government were concluded on 18 September 1989, leaving numerous questions still open. This persuaded the Association of Young Democrats not to sign the agreement and to ask for a referendum on four key issues: the suppression of the party police, the liquidation of the party’s assets, the dissolution of the party organizations inside the factories and parliamentary and presidential elections. The referendum was held on 26 November 1989 with a resounding victory for the opposition. On 25 March 1990 parliamentary elections were held and in May the first coalition government was formed, thus opening the way for a democratic Hungary.

International meeting on István Bibó
organized by CSSEO with Fondazione Feltrinelli - Trento, 2001

28 July 2009

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