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Milestones: Hungary Commemorates 1956

  • October 23rd, 2006
  • Posted by 7thmin

reduced.jpgOctober 23rd 1956 was the day student-led protestors tore down the statue of Stalin in the heart of Budapest, demanding the re-installation of the reform-communist Prime Minister, Imre Nagy.

The revolt led to bloody repression by Soviet armed forces, yet Hungary was to play a leading role, some three decades later, in bringing down communism in Eastern Europe.

In 1956 Nagy, who’d been deposed by Moscow a year before, was returned to office the day after that early protest and took a lead in the movement demanding national independence.

He became the most prominent victim of the repression of the revolt, after Soviet tanks rolled into the city; executed with two of his closest associates in June 1958.

The three days of street fighting in which over 2000 people died, tanks against petrol bombs and submachine guns, left enduring ill-will and vivid memories among Hungarian people.

Visiting Budapest, the taxi driver can take you to the former communist party headquarters building where they lynched members of the secret police under lamp posts.

Former street fighters will bitterly reminisce.

In a kind of paradox, the Moscow-line communists installed after 1956 step by step gave way to reformers in the ranks, trading complacency among the public for goulash communism – liberalised policies on private business and travel.

Hungary would then play a key role in the collapse of the Eastern bloc in Europe in 1989.

Its “reform communist” government removed Cold War frontier obstacles form the border with Austria, releasing the flood of East Germans who had crossed its territory, heading for the West – and setting off the chain reaction of events that brought down the Berlin Wall.

In late August that year, the Prime Minister, Miklos Nemeth, and Foreign Minister, Gyula Horn, had visited Bonn to make an agreement on releasing the border-crossers with the West German government.

No matter that the agreement was accompanied by a hefty transfer of financial credits to sustain a rapidly failing Hungarian economy; the West German Chancellor of the day, Helmut Kohl, credited the Hungarians with Germany’s peaceful reunification; he repeatedly and publicly thanked them.

If the trauma of 1956 became a sacrifice that brought down communism in the end, the recollection of it still rankles.

Nagy and his comrades were honoured at a public reburial ceremony before hundreds of thousands in June 1989; a gesture that would help reconciliation but not banish the dark spirit of enduring resentment and regret.

A leader of the new democracy movement of the day, Viktor Orban, gave voice to it, addressing the crowds:

“It is a direct consequence of the bloody repression of the revolution that we have had to assume the burden of insolvency … Truly the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party robbed today’s youth of its future in 1956”.

Lee Duffield, memoire of doing journalism in Hungary, 1989-90.

References: Tony Judt (2005), Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Heinemann, London.

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