Reviewed by Henry Falconer
On 23rd October 1956 a student demonstration in Budapest against the Soviet- controlled Communist regime in Hungary sparked a national uprising which threatened to undermine the foundations of Communist control of central and Eastern Europe. The uprising was suppressed, after two weeks of bitter fighting, by Soviet tanks. The only serious attempt to overthrow Communist rule in post-war Europe by force was thus defeated militarily, but Soviet Communism lost a moral authority, which it never re-gained before its collapse in 1989. The Communist Party in Britain, for example, lost almost 70% of its membership in 1956, appalled by the prospect of the massacre of students and workers by the armed forces of the ‘Workers` State’. On 23rd October 2006 another demonstration took place in Budapest, organised by the centre-right opposition to the present left-wing government, which includes many former Communists in its ranks. The demonstrators regard themselves as the true heirs of the heroes of 1956. The police use of tear-gas, rubber bullets and water- cannon reminded many Hungarians of the events of 50 years earlier; I stood next to a 68-year-old retired doctor shouting “AVO, AVO” at the police (the AVO were the Hungarian Communist secret police in 1956). Yet to outsiders (including the presenters of the BBC Radio 4 programmes commemorating 1956) the comparison seems absurd. Why, 50 years after the event and 17 years after the fall of Communism, do such deep divisions exist within Hungarian society?
Superficially, the answer is simple. The 1956 uprising resulted in over 2000 Hungarians being killed and as many as 200,000 going into exile. But by no means all were victims of the Soviets; 1956 was, at least in part, a civil war. The Hungarian secret police (the A.V.O.) massacred over 100 unarmed civilian demonstrators in Mosonmagyarovar in western Hungary. At Tiszakecske (eastern Hungary) a Hungarian airforce plane fired on a group of demonstrators from the air, killing 17 and leaving over 100 injured. The revolutionaries themselves lynched a group of 20 AVO, including young recruits, in Parliament Square in Budapest and hung them from the nearest lampposts. Civil wars leave legacies. When the Communist regime finally collapsed in 1989, the bitter divisions engendered by 1956 were not confronted. With few exceptions, Communists were not purged from their positions in the military, the government or the civil service; indeed, several were major beneficiaries of the subsequent privatisation’s. As a result, the transition to parliamentary democracy was surprisingly harmonious – but many anti-Communists were left to harbour deep resentments. These were deepened when the Prime Minister, himself an ex-Communist, was caught on tape admitting that he had lied about the state of the economy in order to win the general election of February 2006. The opposition then determined to have nothing to do with the official commemorations of 1956, regarding the government as illegitimate. For many veterans of 1956, a liar and former Communist presiding over the occasion was doubly insulting to the memory of those killed in the uprising.
The BBC line on this, notably in the Radio 4 programme “Hungary’s Unfinished Business“, was to show little understanding of the motives of the 2006 opposition demonstrators. After all, as Hungary is now a democracy, a member of both the E.U. and N.A.T.O., how could the present P.M. be compared with the Soviet-inspired Communists of 1956? Even though the current P.M. had blatantly cheated in order to remain in office, he can be voted out when the next election is due in 2110. Such reporting fails to recognise the deep underlying current of Hungarian nationalism, which motivates many of the government’s opponents. Such slogans as “Hungarians – Europe’s Largest Minority“: “Swiss system of government for Transylvania” and “Justice for Hungarians in Slovakia” was prominently displayed in the opposition demonstration. All of these, incomprehensible to almost all non-Hungarians but part of everyday conversation within Hungary itself, refer to the Treaty of Trianon of 1920. No visitor to Hungary who converses with the locals about politics will escape the grievances engendered by Trianon for very long.
Hungary was dismembered by the Treaty of Trianon, losing 80% of its pre- First World War territory to Romania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and leaving large Hungarian minorities in each of these countries. International guarantees to protect the rights of these minorities (which formed the MAJORITY population in some areas) were never implemented. Plebiscites to determine the future of disputed border regions (eg.between Germany and Poland) were held elsewhere – but not, with one minor exception, to determine Hungary`s borders. Many, perhaps a majority, of Hungarians have never accepted the justice or legitimacy of these borders. Some of the disputed territory was returned to Hungary by its German ally during the Second World War only to be lost again in 1945. Allegations of persecution of Hungarians in Romania have surfaced repeatedly since 1945. After the collapse of Communism 1989, Slovaks were allowed to claim back property confiscated by the Communists in Slovakia, but ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia have been denied this right on what can only be seen as RACIAL grounds. Yet the E.U., usually so hot on these issues, has remained uncharacteristically silent and inert. In 1995, after the Yugoslav war, Serbs expelled from Croatia were settled in Hungarian areas of Serbia, exacerbating tensions and ethnic resentment. These issues are at the very centre of political discourse in Hungary, yet were ignored by the BBC and the mainstream media (my apologies if there are exceptions to this which I have not noticed). The present Hungarian government has a relaxed attitude to all of these matters and is reluctant to bring them into the open, placing a greater emphasis on good relations with its neighbours. To be fair, this is a perfectly understandable position to adopt – but perhaps it might show greater sensitivity towards the deeply held grievances of its opponents. The peaceful resolution of the grievances of these Hungarian minority communities is an equally reasonable objective, despite the opposition of the governments of Romania, Slovakia and Serbia to any such discussion. True to form, the BBC, the EU and political establishments in general prefer to look the other way in the hope that the grievances will disappear over time. There are many historical precedents (Ireland, Palestine, Yugoslavia to name but three) to suggest otherwise.
So, there is still “unfinished business” in Hungary. But the issues are not only about the condition of the economy and the dishonesty and alleged corruption of the former Communists in the ruling elite. There is a disputed historical legacy as well – one, which has at least as much to do with that of 1920 as with 1956.