A LAND ONCE FIT FOR HEROES
In October 1956, the people of Hungary rose up against Soviet oppression, and were crushed; they remained trapped for a generation. We look back on their struggle, in words and pictures
Sunday 20 October 1996
Once there was a great, grey city whose streets were heaped with collapsed masonry, strewn with fallen cables and the carcases of tanks, defiled with crumpled bundles which had been human beings. The only colour was the green-white-red of the Hungarian banner and the red cheeks of schoolchildren carrying rifles and laughing in triumph. The Revolution had begun on 24 October, when demonstrations supporting the anti-Stalinist upheavals going on in Poland led to battles with the secret police and then a general uprising in which insurgents and part of the Hungarian army fought Soviet tanks in the street. Within a few days, the Red Army withdrew, leaving the "liberal" Communist Imre Nagy precariously heading a new government promising democratic reforms. But on 2 November the Soviet forces drove back into Hungary and after days of savage fighting reoccupied Budapest on 5 November.
The Hungarian Revolution was the end of something: almost the last time that the people of a European city came down into the street, took up arms and went to the barricades to die for liberty. That was a path which had been set by the French after 1789, which ran on through the European risings of 1848 and the 1871 Paris Commune and reached its climax in 1944 when Warsaw rose and fought at the cost of 250,000 dead. After Hungary, the urban uprising seemed to pass into history until the bloodbath in Bucharest which overthrew the dictator Ceausescu at the end of 1989 - provoked by whom? won by whom? - gave the heroic tradition its final echo.
This anniversary - celebrated each decade, but now for the first time in public - is throwing a little more light on some of the secrets of the uprising. The Soviet archives are opening, and a congress of survivors and historians earlier this month in Budapest used them well.
One surprise was the Suez connection. In the West, it has been assumed that the Anglo-French assault on Egypt provided the Soviet leaders with the perfect cover for their final onslaught against Hungary in November. But it turns out that almost the opposite was true. Soviet records show that Suez actually deterred Nikita Khrushchev until the last moment; he feared any action which would make the Soviet Union resemble the "imperialist aggressors". He wanted to give Imre Nagy the benefit of the doubt. Poland had been on the brink of insurrection, but he had taken the risk of pulling back the tanks and letting Gomulka, the new leader, stay in power. Perhaps Nagy, too, might turn out to be a loyal Communist.
It is still not clear why he changed his mind. But the archives reveal that the Chinese played an evil part. Mao Tsedong, through a delegation led by the current Chinese leader Deng Xiao Ping, told Khrushchev on 30 October that the Hungarian Revolution was anti-Communist, not just anti-Soviet as in Poland, and must be crushed. Next morning Khrushchev suddenly told his Presidium that it would "cheer up the imperialists" attacking Egypt if Soviet troops now abandoned Hungary. The order was given, and the tanks returned to Budapest.
What followed changed world politics. In the West there was a mass exodus from the Communist parties, which never overcame the loathing provoked by their applause for the Soviet crime. The United States gave up the pretence that it would support freedom fighters against Communism, and reluctantly accepted that only change in Moscow would end the division of Europe. The Cold War froze hard.
The Hungarians suffered the fate of conquered rebels. Anything between 2,500 and 10,000 died in the Revolution - nobody really knows. Many of the young fled into exile. Others were executed, jailed or deprived of careers. But the Hungarians also learnt.
As so often in history, their small nation had been abandoned by its friends. This must never happen again. They were immensely proud of what they had done, but they taught their children not to be heroes.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ERICH LESSING
Budapest, October 1956: citizens survey the wreckage of Ulloi Street the morning after a battle with Soviet troops. Up to 10,000 people died in the 12 days before the Revolution was crushed
Opposite page, main picture: the body of a Soviet army officer and, in the distance, burnt out tanks, the wreckage from a day of heavy street-fighting in Budapest. The Hungarian Revolution of October/ November 1956 was one of the last occasions on which, in the tradition of the French Revolution, European citizens took up arms against their political leaders.
Opposite page, top left: in the aftermath of the fighting, a child collects wood for fuel. Centre: protesters burn Soviet propaganda, including portraits of Stalin, in front of the secret police headquarters in Koztarsasag Square in Budapest. Bottom: town hall officials hurriedly remove portraits of Lenin from the council chamber of the provincial city of Gyor in an attempt to calm the angry crowd gathering outside.
This page: young and old took to the streets, fuelled by stong anti- Soviet feeling. Main picture: citizen revolutionaries walk past burnt- out tanks outside the Soviet barracks in Budapest. Left: undeterred by his wooden leg, a World War II veteran joins the street-fighters with rifles and ammunition.
Far left, top: students decorate a captured Soviet tank with the Hungarian national emblem and flag. Far left, bottom: crowds gather in the streets after the fighting
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