23 October 2006

"Never glad confident morning again"

It seems that I have used that quotation before, though not in the title, when writing about Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech to the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU. Still, it can be repeated, for it was that speech that started the chain of events, which culminated in the Hungarian Revolution that began 50 years ago today.

The celebrations in the country have been marked by ferocious disputes and worse; angry accusations of bad faith then and now. Some survivors, like General Béla Király is filled with some gloom; others like the former student leader, quoted by the BBC, appear to think that the fight against globalization is the same as the fight against Bolshevism. At best, that shows certain lacunae of knowledge.

David Rennie spoils his good deed of bringing General Király to the attention of the readers of the Spectator by his almost inevitable arrogant silliness. The suppression of the Hungarian Revolution could have triggered off World War III. Oh really? Between whom and whom? Exactly who was going to move in there to help the Hungarians? Apart from anything else, there was the little matter of the Suez crisis going on and it absorbed most of the energy and attention of the Western powers.

David Pryce-Jones, who has written a book about the Hungarian Revolution says this on his blog today:
Help Hungary. Help!” was the final appeal on the radio, put out by Gyula Hay, the playwright and in his day a veteran Communist too. In sad fact, the United States did nothing, making it plain that the Soviets could do their worst. On hearing that a revolution had broken out, President Eisenhower limited himself to saying, “The heart of America goes out to the people of Hungary.” Heart is all very well, but what about muscle? Robert Murphy, then undersecretary of state and an experienced trouble-shooter, summed up Washington’s failure: “Perhaps history will demonstrate that the free world could have intervened to give Hungarians the liberty they sought, but none of us in the State Department had the skill or the imagination to devise a way.
Could the West have helped? Who can judge that fairly now? But we do know (well, most of us do but David Rennie has special information): it was not going to. As Professor Jeremy Black writes in his latest book, “The Dotted Red Line”:
Indeed, appeasement was as much inevidence over Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, as over Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938.
With the difference that Hungary in 1956 showed herself willing to fight unlike either of the victims of Nazi aggression in 1938.

In the Wall Street Journal Europe today the novelist Péter Nádas writes about his memories of that fateful day. He was fourteen, in his last year at elementary school or, even first year of gymnasium and he could, when released from his classroom, join the crowds that thronged in the streets of the capital and around the Parliament building. My options were more limited as I was considerably younger.

1956 was a great year in my life even before the events of October as that was when I went to school. It was all rather exciting, all that readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic. On the other hand, there were incomprehensible dark eddies and waves swirling around all of us, children. I did not know, of course, that my father was active in the various Petöfi Circles where furious discussions about the state of affairs in Hungary were going on. I did not know till many years later that he had got hold of a copy of Khrushchev’s speech and read it out at one of the meetings. But then, neither could it have occurred to me that with a family that had links with the Soviet Union, and my brother and I half-Russian, we could well be at risk if nationalist feelings got out of control.

All of us at school, however, had noticed a previous event: the flying of black flags on October 6. Before the Soviet liberation of Hungary and the subsequent establishment of the Communist system, this had been the day of mourning for the 13 generals of the 1848-49 War of Liberation who were executed by the Austrians. The black flags had always flown. In 1956, as the system began to disintegrate, that day was chosen for the reburial of Lászó Rajk, the main defendants in the 1949 show trial, which had destroyed the last possible rivals to Matthias Rákosi. It was a grey day of the kind one sometimes gets in Danube basin as it was preternaturally clear. The moisture droplets in the atmosphere clarified the greyness in the air. And the black flags flew everywhere.

My parents went to the reburial together with all their colleagues from the university. The talk at home became more strained and more difficult. Speaking from my own childish memories I’d say the events of October 23 were no surprise to anyone.

On that Tuesday I was at school in the morning (the post-War baby boom had not been catered for adequately by schools and classes had to double up – one week we went in the morning, another week after lunch). I came home to find my parents out and, astonishingly enough, my grandmother in charge of the flat. She was there to look after me and my baby brother as my parents, having joined the demonstration, were not expected back till very late. (By the time they did get home we were in bed, some of the crowd had got hold of guns and had run to take over the radio broadcasting station. There was shooting in the streets and my grandmother was stuck with us for the next five days. Wisely, she never volunteered to child mind again.)

The crowds marched in all the streets. The traffic stopped and there were simply crowds of people marching and shouting slogans. There were many different ones. They were demanding that the Russians go home, that the star be removed from the national flag, that the Kossuth emblem be restored, that Transylvania be given back to Hungary. (Romania is coming into the EU next year. That should be fun.)The star above the Parliament was put out and some of the demonstrators, sped to the various barracks where the soldiers opened the gates, enthusiastically burned flags or cut out the star from the middle, handed over rifles and joined the crowds outside. What had started as a student and workers’ demonstration with one of the best known actors reciting Sándor Petöfi’s famous poem “Arise Magyar” written for the 1848 Revolution, had, also, become a revolution.

For me it became obvious next morning when I was allowed to sleep in as school had clearly been cancelled. "What's happening?" – I asked when I found my mother in my room and the sun streaming in (which it never did at 7 o'clock). – "Is there a war on?" "No, a revolution." What a very odd idea, I thought. Revolutions happened in history. The rest of the day was spent in the hall/dining room that had no windows. My father tried to reach the radio, by first walking, then crawling across the sitting room to his study. The first attempt failed because an artillery gun was fired into the courtyard of the block of flats and the windows all shattered. The second attempt failed because another bout of firing caused the breaking of the chandeliers above him as he was crawling across the floor. The following morning we went down to the bomb shelter together with our neighbours from all the flats and stayed there until the 28th with my mother occasionally nipping upstairs to get some food or some clean clothes. Needless to say, the children thought it was great fun.

Then we went back and stayed in the flat with only my parents going out occasionally, including my father taking my grandmother eventually home. In the meantime we listened to the radio. The news consisted largely of speeches by Imre Nagy and, increasingly, by János Kádár, of no real interest to a young child. Much more enthralling were the messages from various people to their families and friends, trying to find out where everyone was. And the constant playing of the Kossuth Radio tune, the Kossuth Song.

My father told stories afterwards of the people he met and spoke to in those days before the tanks came back. There was a young lad, he remembered, who was hanging around the street with a rifle in his hands. My father stopped to chat and ask what he thought would happen. “Nothing to worry about,” – said the boy. – “We just have to hold out for a few days and then the UN will come in.” Every now and then I think of that boy and what might have happened to him. Did he survive? Did he go to prison? Did he escape to the West? Is he around now, gloomily surveying the present?

Then it was all over. One morning we were woken up long before dawn. My parents, who had clearly not slept at all, were fully dressed. My mother was busy dressing my brother and hurrying me into my clothes. My father was standing there in our room, carefully checking that he had all the right documents in the inside pocket of his suit jacket. We went back to the bomb shelter.

The Soviet tanks with many reinforcements were rolling back into the city.