The day a nation turned on its masters

Forty years on: Hungary's attempt to break the Soviet yoke failed, but memories of an `ecstatic' revolution remain untarnished
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Ferenc Holl was sitting on the banks of the Danube with his girlfriend when he first saw the crowd making its way across Margaret Bridge.

He could not believe his eyes - or his ears. It was the first demonstration Budapest had seen since the Communist takeover after the Second World War. The protesters, mostly students, were brandishing Hungarian flags from which the hated red star had been cut out. Placards called for the AVO secret police to be disbanded and for Matyas Rakosi, Stalin's Hungarian henchman, to be hurled into the Danube. Above it all rose the chants: "Russians go home!" and, "Now or never!"

Mr Holl, then a 23-year-old locksmith, joined the throng and marched to the headquarters of Hungarian Radio. They hoped the station would broadcast 16 demands, including multi-party elections and the departure of occupying Soviet forces. Instead they met gunfire. Some of the protesters replied in kind: the Hungarian uprising had begun.

"As soon as I saw what was happening, I knew I had to join in," Mr Holl said. "After all the years of police terror, the simple act of screaming in protest was wonderfully liberating. We were ecstatic, and the shooting only strengthened our resolve."

For the next two weeks, Mr Holl was one of thousands of young Hungarians who astonished the world by daring to defy the might of the Soviets with little more than Molotov cocktails and home-made grenades.

He remembers that early euphoria as the Soviet troops, stung, agreed to withdraw from Budapest after the reform-minded Communist, Imre Nagy, was reinstated as Hungarian Prime Minister. He remembers the toppling of the giant statue of Stalin, the heady declaration that Hungary would withdraw from the Warsaw Pact and the vain hope that the West would come to Hungary's aid.

Finally, he remembers the sickening despair when the Russian tanks finally rolled back into the city.

On Wednesday, hundreds of veterans of the 1956 street battles will pay their respects to the 3,000 or 4,000 who died in the uprising - part of a series of ceremonies marking the 40th anniversary of the outbreak of the revolt on 23 October.

Although this is now the eighth year in which Hungary has been free to commemorate the anniversary, Hungarians are still not sure how to come to terms with it. Under Janos Kadar, the man who replaced - and executed - Imre Nagy, the revolt was labelled a "counter-revolution", master-minded by capitalists and Fascists. Any discussion of the matter was taboo.

In 1989, as Communism collapsed throughout Eastern Europe, the "counter- revolution" of 1956 suddenly became a "revolution" and a "popular struggle for freedom". In June that year, Nagy was given a hero's reburial.

"Just as in 1956 itself, there was a bright moment during the reburial of Nagy when the nation united around the idea of the uprising," Csaba Bekes, of the Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, said. "[But] differences emerged over what it had all been about".

To the dismay of many Hungarians, the seven years since 1989 have been marked by bickering between the surviving freedom fighters, who feel they were the driving force of the uprising, and the intellectuals who master- minded it. The political parties have also fought for control over the legacy of the revolt and of Imre Nagy.

While the long-term aims of the uprising were never clearly defined, its suppression led to "goulash Communism" - Kadar's unique blend of Socialism and a limited free market, under which Hungarians could prosper - and forget about taking to the streets.

But the uprising remained a beacon of hope. "Like most revolutions it was irrational," Mr Bekes said. "Logically, there was no way the fighters would ever drive the Russians from Hungary or that Moscow would accept a democracy. For those taking part, the fact they did not stand a chance was not important. In the end people were simply prepared to sacrifice their lives for freedom."