BUDAPEST – In 1956, Eastern Europe was unsettled. Joseph Stalin had died and the Soviet Union was negotiating both a political transition and a social transformation. Polish unrest had forced the country’s communist overlords into liberal concessions that were reluctantly ratified by Moscow. In July, the hardline general secretary of Hungary’s Communist Party, Matyas Rakosi, was ousted.
On October 23, some 20,000 students marched in Budapest, demanding political reform. Along the way, their number swelled tenfold. Protesters waved Hungarian flags from which they had cut out the communist coat of arms. Marchers highlighted their demands by tearing down the 82-foot Stalin monument, a “gift” to the Hungarian people from five years before.
The protests set in motion a full-fledged revolution that overthrew Hungary’s communist regime and triggered a brutal Soviet military intervention. Thirty-three more years would pass before Hungarians finally won their freedom.
This extraordinary history is captured by exhibits at the House of Terror in Budapest, which commemorates Hungary’s suffering under tyranny both right and left. The building housed the fascist Arrow Cross Party and then the communist regime’s secret police. Cells from those oppressive times are preserved in the basement.
Like many of its neighbors, Hungary’s agony was rooted in the end of World War I. The Austro-Hungarian Empire fell along with the German and Russian monarchies. An independent state of Hungary emerged from the ruins, but lost much of its territory, primarily to Romania, under the 1920 Treaty of Trianon. Brief social democratic rule was followed by a disastrous Soviet-style “republic” and then semi-fascist rule under Miklos Horthy.
Seeking to reclaim lost territory, Horthy joined the Axis and Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union. Yet by 1943, he was seeking a way out. Horthy was ousted the following year by his erstwhile allies; the country would suffer next under the Arrow Cross Party, modeled after the Nazis, until the Soviets conquered Hungary. Although the fascists were in power little more than five months, thousands were murdered and tens of thousands were deported during that time.
After the war, many Hungarians effortlessly moved from fascism to communism, a process represented in the House of Terror’s “Change Room,” in which the party uniforms are displayed back to back. The Hungarian people voted against the communists, but the Red Army ensured the party’s ultimate triumph. Rakosi took power in 1949. Tens of thousands were arrested and hundreds of thousands sent to the Soviet gulag before destalinization after the Soviet dictator’s death ended Rakosi’s reign.
His successor, Erno Gero, rejected the demands of liberal demonstrators and called for Soviet intervention. Communist rule was overthrown as the army split. On October 30, Soviet military units, sporadically involved in combat, withdrew from Budapest. Revolutionaries exacted their revenge on their former tormentors as liberal communist Imre Nagy declared his nation’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and international neutrality. The House of Terror displays some of the remnants of freedom, including a flag from which the communist symbols were torn. The door seemed open for hopeful Hungarians to peacefully build a social democratic state.
However, on October 31, the Soviet Politburo decided to intervene, and on November 4, reinforced Soviet units reentered Budapest, where they faced resistance from elements of the Hungarian army—rank-and-file soldiers overwhelmingly backed the revolution—and civilian fighters. One of the invading T-54 tanks is on display in the House of Terror. By October 11, the ruined city was under Soviet control. An estimated 2,500 Hungarians died fighting; another 20,000 were injured. More than 1,500 civilians were killed.
A wave of repression followed. The Communist Party and army were purged. Some 22,000 Hungarians were imprisoned. More than 200,000 fled across the temporarily open border, many of whom ended up in America. Among the museum’s more poignant exhibits are postcards written by those who escaped to family members who remained. The Soviets chose Janos Kadar to reestablish communist control. His regime executed 229 revolutionary leaders, including Nagy, whom Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev reportedly said was killed “as a lesson to all other leaders in socialist countries.” The revolutionaries were buried in unmarked graves in the city cemetery.
Over the years, Kadar built a system of “Goulash Communism,” which offered better economic conditions alongside somewhat lighter political repression. However, by the 1980s, the restive population wanted more, which Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise in the Soviet Union made possible. In 1988, Kadar was forced from power. The following year, the Hungarian politburo split over whether to commemorate the 1956 revolutionaries. On June 16, the 31st anniversary of his execution, Nagy and four of his colleagues were at last reburied with full honors.
That moment signaled the impending end of Hungarian communism. The opposition organized the ceremony, which was attended by more than 100,000 people—including four top government officials. It was the first time that Nagy’s family had been able to mourn in public at his grave.
People were not in a forgiving mood. The New York Times quoted Viktor Orbán, today prime minister but then spokesman for the Federation of Young Democrats, criticizing communists who were seeking to embrace the revolution’s leader. “We cannot understand that those who were eager to slander the revolution and its prime minister have suddenly changed into great supporters and followers of Imre Nagy,” Orbán said. “Nor can we understand that the party leaders, who made us study from books that falsified the revolution, now rush to touch the coffins as if they were charms of good luck.”
Although the ceremony had no direct political impact, it foretold another revolution, this one peaceful. The regime had already turned off the electrified border fence with Austria. On June 29, the foreign minister joined his Austrian counterpart on their border to formally open the infamous Iron Curtain. That set off a stampede of refugees from East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and other Eastern European states whose people now had an exit to the West.
Hungarians soon tossed aside the Communist Party as if an old relic. On October 23, the Republic of Hungary was proclaimed, and the day is now a national holiday.
Foreign policy hawks in the U.S. often intone that freedom isn’t free. That phrase can evoke eye rolls thanks to America’s recent failures abroad, but in Hungary, at least, the slogan has real meaning.
Movingly, the exhibits identify, with names and pictures, those who fought to free the Hungarian people. And it is not just the famous—such as Imre Nagy, reform communist turned revolutionary—who are commemorated. Among the 1956 revolutionaries featured are: Istvan Angyal, construction manager; Janos Barany, ironworker; Arpad Brusznyai, historian and teacher; Jozsef Dudas, mechanical engineer; Laszlo Kovacs Ivan, football (soccer) player; Peter Mansfeld, student (executed 11 days after turning 18); Janos Szabo, laborer and driver; Jozsef Szilagyi, lawyer. Women also took up arms and fought for Hungary’s freedom. Ilona Toth, a medical student, served with an ambulance during the uprising and was later executed for her political organizing.
Those who survived also suffered. Many spent years in prison. For most, the possibility of good education or employment vanished. One account spoke of how “the heroes and their family members were subject to stigmatization, observation, and harassment.” The desperate hope for change seemed to have died along with their colleagues.
Others fell fighting the Arrow Cross dictatorship and the start of communist rule. Some foreigners, too, were killed for their bravery. Raoul Wallenberg was the famed Swedish diplomat in Budapest who in 1944 and 1945 saved thousands of Jews otherwise bound for the gulag. He survived the Nazis but was arrested by the conquering Soviets and disappeared, either imprisoned or murdered. There were many more casualties, of course, but through the museum their lives and contributions are remembered.
Like the rest of its neighbors, Hungary emerged from its painful past to become a parliamentary democracy. Prime Minister Orbán has moved away from his liberal roots, though he is no fascist, as some have suggested. And even his critics, concentrated in Budapest and other urban areas, acknowledge his popular appeal throughout the rest of the country.
His policies at home are controversial and his battles with the European Union continue, but neither portends a return to a genuinely authoritarian past. There is no public nostalgia for either the fascists or communists.
Hungary no longer plays a decisive role in European events. But its tortured history reminds us of the fragility of liberty. Sixty-two Octobers ago, the Hungarian people were fighting and dying, sacrificing everything in the battle against tyranny. They lost, but only for a time, and ultimately ended up leading Europe’s liberation from communism. For that the continent—and America too—owes them a debt of gratitude.