Thursday, October 25, 2012

'56 Hungarian Revolution

... the flag with a hole in it
October 23rd is the anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian revolution, so today I'm going to indulge my history-major-side. Junior year I did an Oral History project interviewing a man who fought in the 1956 uprising as a 15 years old. Part of why I find the Hungarian revolution so fascinating is I spent a summer with brilliant Hungarians, I adore Budapest, and my grandma's side of the family is Hungarian. But it's also fascinating because they were my age and even younger, because those two and a half weeks were epic, and because it's the type of story you hope will end well --even when you know the ending.
I hope it's more like a story and less like a term-paper,
because these people were amazing

In October 1956 Polish workers went on strike, an incredibly risky thing to do under a strict communist government. This inspired students at the Technological University of Budapest, they organized a simple protest walking along the Danube down to a statue of Bam - a Polish native and Hungarian hero who had fought in the 1848 revolution. The students created a list of 16 demands and as their protest grew and attracted more and more students and then workers and people from all over the city they went to the radio station to broadcast them.

Their demands were first off the removal of all Soviet troops from Hungary. Soviet forces had liberated Budapest and Hungary from Nazi forces at the end of World War Two. While it is a huge relief when someone gets rid of Nazis, it becomes worrisome when they immediately set up their own secret police in the same office building and people continue to disappear to the dungeons and death, with no sign that the troops have any plans on leaving it is not as acceptable.

The student's 16 demands listed free and legitimate elections open to all parties.
As well as economic reform, review of past corrupt trials, and the release of innocents imprisoned. Not only did they demand freedom of speech, expression, opinion, radio, and press, they specifically list the right to print a university newspaper. They did not call for an end to communism, but they demanded the much more moderate Imre Nagy be reinstated and that the former leader of the Hungarian Communist Party, Rakosi -- who prided himself on being "Stalin's best pupil", be returned to Hungary for a public trial.

The crowd outside the Radio tower continued to grow until the AVH secret police opened fire on them from the rooftops. A number of the conscripted soldiers refused to shot though, their loyalty was first and foremost to their neighbors and nation, not the Soviet Army who's uniform they worn. Once the unarmed protesters where wounded and killed, the crowd did not remain unarmed for long. Defecting soldiers brought weapons and access to entire armories with them. University student and workers went from protesters to freedom fighters.
Yes that very young boy is holding a
Molotov cocktail he made. 

As far as young students go though, these were actually rather well prepared fighters. The government had taken to training youth in urban warfare like turning house-hold-items into Molotov cocktails and how best to use them against tanks. In theory this training had been to prepare for the inevitable invasion by western powers, however it turns out it worked just as well against Soviet tanks.

The Hungarian flag was traditionally red, white, and green, with the Kossuth coat of arms in the center. When Communism took over, the coat of arms was replaced with the hammer and sickle. The revolutionaries began cutting the soviet symbol out of all their flags, leaving the red, white, and green flag with a hole in the center the symbol of the '56 revolution.

After a few days of intense fighting the majority of the Soviets had actually withdrawn. Imre Nagy and a new government were sworn in and the fighters had their freedom. It worked. For one entire week at least it had worked. The idealist students triumphed over the mighty red army. The fighting had virtually stopped, wrongs were being righted, prisoners set free, and Hungary broke from the Warsaw Pact that tied them to the USSR.

All this toppling of communism, dictatorship, and statues was not without its dark-side though. The rage for every friend, neighbor, and family member who had disappeared was thrown back with a harsh vengeance at those connected with the secret police. There was ample reason for wrath the city lived under the constant threat the secret police's big black car could take anyone to the terror house with its medieval style dungeons layered three-floors-deep beneath a plain looking office building where you faced torture, mock trials, and even execution. Ghastly photos bear witness to the crowd's brutality as they took revenge on those who terrorized them for years. Dozens and dozens were shot point blank or hanged by the heels from trees and lampposts, beaten and lynched for their terrible crimes.

I would like to think that the good guys are always good people, but the truth resists simplicity. Yet, while the revolutionaries often took terrible vengeance for terrible crimes, the uprising was also full of incredible generosity and unbeatable moral character. Many told of shops with broken windows but a note with an address for the shop owner to pick up his watches any time. Or an abandoned restaurant where emptied wine bottles were left with stacks of money for the exact price. The city was in chaos but there was nearly no looting. People gave their money and risked their lives to help each other.
Stalin had only been dead three years when the engineering students pulled down his colossal statue.
Unfortunately their revolution was subject ol'fashioned really-horribly-bad timing. Slightly better timing and most likely the Hungarians would have gain international support and they would have been successful for much more than a week. But the attention of the United States and the international community was pulled away by something shiny in the middle east. Who can resist a conflict involving Israel? Earlier in the year the Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean with the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, was nationalized by Egypt. About week after the Hungarians began to revolt, Israel invaded Egypt on October 29. The crisis erupted with a joint British and French ultimatum and then pressure from the Soviet Union, United States and UN forcing the Israel, Britain, and France to withdraw. Which was a good thing. It would be bad to let a war in the middle east escalate, cause that never turns out well for anyone. So it was a good time, but it was just really bad timing for the Hungarians. Center stage shifted to the Middle East where all the world powers were focused and meanwhile off-stage-left untrained freedom fighters attempted to defend their city against the massive amount of the Soviet army which was quietly deployed to Budapest.

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Thousands of Soviet tanks plowed through the Hungarian capital on November 4th. They crushed the rebellion and took out a good bit of the city in the process. The nearly-re-instated-Prime-Minister Nagy took sanctuary in the Yugoslav embassy, until late in November when he was offered safe conduct but arrested anyway. More than 25,000 revolutionaries were arrested, half were imprisoned or deported to the Soviet Union and hundreds were executed.

In the immediate aftermath approximately 200,000 fled Hungary as refugees and emigrants. Many snuck across the border to Austria. The lady with the milkshake place in Ellicott City made it out when she was only a teenager, because a priest got her through his church that straddled the border. The man I interviewed for my class escaped with his dad and brother to Austria, where the Red Cross arranged for them to move to Ireland. They left behind not only their homeland, homes, and friends, but family: mothers and sisters and brothers and even their infant children. For most who left it was decades before they were even able to visit their loved ones again.

Although it doesn't end the way you want it to, the '56 revolution is a great story, because it's the plucky underdog heroes against the evil empire. While human history it is always far more complicated than that, the freedom fighter are still inspiring and fascinating to me. The Time Magazine article about them as the Man of the Year said their uprising caused a great loss of prestige for Communism and "Destroyed also was the 1984 fantasy that a whole generation could be taught to believe that wrong was right, or could be emptied of all integrity and curiosity." Under strict control by the secret police these students had continued to be willing to sneak to forbidden language classes and didn't stop when they were threaten with arrest for going to American films. They knew the risks and were aware they were trailed by the secret police if they went to mass at the same parish too many weeks in a row, but they keep right up anyway.

Oooh Aaah it's a timeline-y-thing:
Hungarian freedom fighter
Time's 1956 man of the year: Hungarian Freedom Fighter 
Oct 19-21 – Polish workers and students demonstrate and protest in Polzan, Poland.
Oct 23 – Hungarian students begin protests in support of Polish and their "16 Points"                 
Oct 24 – The protests spread and armored soviet units enter Budapest.
Oct 25 – Revolutionaries demand Imre Nagy return to being Prime Minister.
Oct 26 – Uprising expands out from the city
Oct 27 – A new Hungarian government announced over the radio
Oct 28 – Hungary's new government is sworn in. Fighting has ended.
Oct 29 – Suez Canal crisis diverts attention when Israel invades Egypt.
Oct 31 – Soviet troops complete their withdraw.
Nov 1 – Nagy declares neutrality and Hungary’s withdraw from Warsaw Pact.
Nov 2 – Soviets secretly plan retaliation
Nov 3 – Revolutionary General Maleter is arrested by soviets during negotiations.
Nov 4 – 1,000 to 2,000 Soviet tanks roll into Budapest.
Nov 11 – Soviets declare victory over freedom fighters.
1989 – Berlin Wall and communism fell, so there's a happy ending.

This the part that my Public History courses call "Civic Engagement" where I attempt to say why this history matters or what you should do with this now that you've encountered it. It's the last panel at a museum exhibit or the last scene in a documentary. Since I'm no authority and I'm not even overly-confident anyone stuck with me through this very long post, I will just leave you with this in my last paragraph: you should vote. The election is week and a half and perhaps you'd argue voting in American is pointless, or all lesser-or-two-evils, or canceled out by the political-leaning of your state or the electoral college in general. But I'm just arguing as a history major, and looking back at election results historians draw conclusions and if you don't vote you don't get factored in and you make historians less good. And even more than that, historically people have risked everything for the chance to vote in a free and open election with no fear for personal safety and no risk of the dictator winning once again with more than 90% of the vote. We enjoy those liberties though, so enjoy being American and go vote! (And if you're Hungarian you should vote too, but I'm guessing not on November 6th)

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