“Nobody foresaw it.  Nobody was ready for it – neither in Budapest, Moscow, Washington or anywhere else.” – Ralph Walter, Radio Free Europe executive, RFE, Oct 22, 2006

Magic, and tragic years, tend to fill the calendar of commemoration for central European patriots. There are religious intercessions; guiding symbols; omens.  Then there are the calamities, the crushing battles that empty entire classes and countries.

For Hungary, a country ever dreamy and mournful about such events, there are two notable disasters of rollicking value. There is Mohács 1526, where a good deal of the country’s aristocratic elite fell before the relentless Ottoman advance.  The event effectively gave the Hapsburgs the ascendency to the west, assuming the role of defender against the Turkish advance into Europe.

Then there is 1956, where the invaders assumed the form of Soviet tanks and a hundred thousand troops, precipitating the 200,000 refugees and the execution of then premier Imre Nagy two years later.  The turning point came on November 1, 1956.  Nagy decided that Hungary would exit the Warsaw Pact, declaring itself neutral.

The crushing force of the subsequent Soviet invasion traumatised the communist movement in Western Europe, stripping the ranks of various party branches while hardening others who felt that ideology needed tanks to back its strictures against the waverers. Behind the Iron Curtain, it was a warning to dissidents to play it by ear – and a resolutely acute one at that.

It also brought revolution into homes.  “Hungary 1956,” the late historian Eric Hobsbawm reminds us, “was the first insurrection brought directly into Western homes by journalists, broadcasters and cameramen, who flooded across the briefly breached Iron Curtain from Austria.”[1]

As with any such historical events, more tends to be made of less.  The initial protests were hardly premised on a back breaking revolution.  Inspired by anti-Soviet protests in Poland, thousands of students marched through Budapest sporting the famous “Sixteen Points” on October 23.

Central to these demands was a freeing up of Hungary from its labouring satellite status, entailing the withdrawal of Soviet troops, freer foreign policy, and free elections.  Then came the greater numbers, posing a direct challenge to the authority of the first secretary Ernő Gerő, the enthusiastic removal of Stalin’s statue, and fire from nerve wracked secret police.

As Charles Gati’s Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt suggests, “relatively few Hungarians actually fought against Soviet rule, and their ultimate aim was to reform the system, not to abolish it.”

Nor was there anything systematic or steely about the organisation of the protest.  Hungary’s doomed Imre Nagy was not as skilful as he might have been, despite showing courage before the proceedings arrayed against him.  If history takes place on a moving train, this particular one proved wobbly and uncertain.

Caught between the absolute aims of the fighters, and reassuring Moscow that their disruption might be kept minimal, Nagy failed to do both, a symptom of what Hobsbawm termed “heroic victimisation”.  Much of this had to do with the fact that the Hungarian Communist Party, by that point, was in tatters.

Misinformation and mishandling, in short, was everywhere.  Assertions that the Soviet leadership were compulsively “trigger happy” are dismissed by Gati.  There were concessions sought; there was a hope for a solution more reminiscent of Yugoslavia or Poland.  But it becomes increasingly hard to avoid the sense that historical actors, once unleashed, have no sense of what can happen next. Folly tends to be a default outcome.

The other story was the interplay of the other side of the now thick curtain, which had only been momentarily pierced by the de-Stalinising rhetoric of Nikita Khrushchev.  Many of the Hungarian students laboured under some presumption that Western intervention in some guise, marshalled with US support, would take place.  Such outlets as Radio Free Europe fed the manna of presumed freedom to the “student movement”, as it was termed.

This was aided by the counter-revolutionary rhetoric of rollback, encouraged by initial US Cold War administrations keen to arrest, and repel Soviet influence. Like some radical mystique, Soviet rule was meant to melt into to the background before the idea of a popular uprising.

But the eyes of then US President Dwight D. Eisenhower were glued to another spectacle: that of the Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt after the nationalisation of Suez by the Nasser regime.  The pretext for gradualism was set, with neither superpower too eager to place the other in direct line of potential nuclear conflict.

Such a train of events also supply current regimes with counterfeit political currency.  Acts become unvarnished in their heroism.  The government of Viktor Orbán has tended to be greedy in that regard, using historical shibboleths as readily as slogans.

The chance of commemorating 1956 after six decades was always going to be impossible.  “People who love their freedom,” he said on Sunday, “must save Brussels from Sovietization, from people who want to tell us who we should live with in our countries.”[2] Russian tanks had been replaced by Muslim immigrants and Brussels.

The opposition party Egyutt (Together) begged to differ, with several members attempting to interrupt this display of self-love.  Hundreds of whistles and red cards were distributed to assist heckling and disruption.

According to the party’s vice president, Péter Juhász, “Viktor Orbán’s policies are exactly the kind Hungarians rebelled against in 1956.”[3] While 1956 saw a revolt against the Soviet bloc’s Stalinist chill, with its glacial response, Juhász saw Orbán as getting all too warm with Moscow – literally, with the decision to permit Russian construction of nuclear reactors in Paks.  “Back then, Hungarians stood up to Soviet domination, while today Orbán has committed Hungary to Russia for decades.”

Orbán’s dog whistle world is set in hard blocs of culture and civilization, usually what he considers the better ones against the worst.  The refugee debate in Hungary took that turn when Orbán decided that foreboding fences rather than processing centres provided better solutions.  Besides, he insisted, Hungary was taking the lead again – this time against resurgent Ottomans and Islam. That’s historical Hungary for you: a self-touted figure part vanguard, and always, part heroic victim.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email:




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  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    Hungary revolt of 1956 has been a major milestone in East European history. The socialist- communist rule has been somewhat different from USSR but it has Leninist thought .

  2. Bill Malcolm says:

    I shall be very happy, sir, when your comments show some sign of being more than diary notes to yourself.

    At the time of the Hungary uprising, I was a ten year old living in the UK. My takeaway at that time was that you could stop a tank engine with a potato rammed securely up its exhaust pipe – a not surprising thought when you realise that at the time, spud guns were all the rage among little boys my age. It made sense – potato flesh is interesting stuff and contains pressure well enough to work in an airgun.

    Our family moved to Canada shortly thereafter and as I grew up I met at university, students of parents who had escaped the miasma of 1956 Hungary. They held a grudge against the West for not stepping in against the Russians, a personal rather than rational viewpoint.

    Later in 1968, we gained students from Czechoslovakia who had escaped the Soviet crushing of that “revolution”. They were merely happy to have escaped. Similarly, in the early 1990s, Chinese students who had managed to escape after Tiananmen Square were all around. I myself made a road trip in 1980 from Hamburg to West Berlin and back through the DDR, and the level of scrutiny was ridiculous and oppressive. Well, we had a car so thought it would be a simple drive. Not so.

    In the early 1990s I was also given a Chinese student in my department at work, a fully authorized government-approved chap on work-learning experience. Three months later he was crying his eyes out relating how things were really like back home in his small city, where of course his wife and child were held back to prevent his absconding the minute he realized the truth. He couldn’t believe things as simple as an ambulance turning up less than five minutes after a pedestrian was knocked down in front of him. First! The car actually stopped! Second! Others phoned in the emergency, and the pedestrian was cared for rapidly. He had seen big black cars running over pedestrians at home, and nobody took the slightest bit of notice – just the way it was. Nobody wanted to be involved in case some party hack got annoyed at being caught at hit and run. Nor did bystanders give a darn about the injured citizen and offer assistance. Wonderful. Great.

    Thus, as a private citizen, unswayed by propagandizing media, I formed the distinct opinion that “communist” rule was a complete and nasty waste of my time, and a constant peril for free thought and personal security of those people unfortunate enough to live under such circumstances. The recent rule of Putin in Russia seems to be a return to such authoritarian rule, regardless of what acolytes in the West seem to think and praise the man for. Whether the journalists and politicians he has disappeared were Western stooges trying to prevent his wonderfully enlightened hegemony, as some nitwit Westerners say as they bow in praise to Vlad the Magnificent, is not the point. If you cannot tolerate dissidence you’re building a house of no merit out of wet cardboard cartons.

    Many visits to the US during my adulthood also convinced me that it too was not a place I cared to live. Coming back to Canada was always a big relief for my psyche, plus you couldn’t find a decent cup of coffee before 1995 there if you tried! Rampant capitalism, and the “Blow you Jack, I’m all right attitude” that allowed human derelicts to pester you for a handout, to loiter around in abject despair in the cities looking for alcohol or drugs to dull the physical and mental pain. America is a place where society doesn’t look after its own and where everything is commoditized. Nope, not a nice place. And where nobody cared about anyone else either, unless a lawsuit brought financial gain.

    So when I read articles on this very good website and others that attempt to make me lean to the American way, or the Russian way, or the Chinese way, allow me to say they are all equally rubbish, merely in different ways. None of them have a clue as to the everyday aspirations of their people, couldn’t care less if the truth be known, and yet have hardened political/worldview positions due in main part to the idiots that rule the places, drunk on power, and with little real regard for their populaces beyong using them as a cheering squad and bodies to thrust forward in a war, fuelled by blind patriotism inculcated from birth.

    Not one of these countries inspires me, yet they hog the limelight in media and bombard people in other countries with a steady stream of “I’m right, you’re wrong and you should be on our side” articles. The Americans claim to be free yet care not for their own, the Russians seem to want to make all the people around them Russian, and therefore dour of thought and supicious of everyone else, and the Chinese feed us the line that they’ve been civilized for so many thousands of years that they’re wiser than the rest of us mental cripples labouring away under silly intellectual ideas too modern to be deeply thoughtful. Hogwash, the lot of it from all of them.

    I have no time for any of them. They are all purveyors of the truth as they see it, somehow thinking that everyone else should be like them. Well count me out, thanks all the same.

    So, sir, I come to this site often, read articles, and there, everytime I see, if I may say so, your rather useless words, signifying absolutely nothing at all. A library card index perhaps? Do you have any opinions or is there any actual rationale for your constant precis entries?

    Dr Kampmark is one of the very few who writes articles from a intellectual scholarly viewpoint devoid of some mantra or another, merely logic. I praise him and am also in awe of his prodigious output on many different subjects.

    Perhaps you think so too, but who would ever know?