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Remembering the 1956 revolution

October 23rd, 2011

Left and right both accuse each other of appropriating and falsifying the message of the 1956 revolution. Right-wing pundits call for historical justice, while left-wing commentators think the government is abusing the anniversary to vilify the opposition.

Posterity, including the younger generation, has forgiven János Kádár  who betrayed the revolution, unleashed bloody retribution and had Imre Nagy executed,” writes sociologist Mária Vásárhelyi in Élet és Irodalom. Just like their parents, two-thirds of Hungarians in their twenties believe Kádár made up later for the crimes he committed in 1956. Many think, moreover, that Kádár is not guilty of anything… Kádár’s acquittal amounts to the betrayal of the memory of the revolution.”

Vásárhelyi summarizes the key findings of earlier research which focused on young Hungarians’ knowledge of and attitudes to the 1956 revolution. The findings suggest that Hungarians in their twenties do not consider Imre Nagy, the prime minister of the revolutionary days, an important historical figure. Only 3 percent listed him among great Hungarians, the same level of recognition gained by Kádár and by the pre-war regent Miklós Horthy.

One possible explanation for such emotional disinterest in the revolution, Vásárhelyi suggests, is that the narratives of young Hungarians reflect their parents’ views. For them, Kádár is primarily associated with increasing welfare, rather than with the bloody reprisals in the aftermath of the revolution.

Another factor in the lack of identification with 1956 is that the available historical narratives are tinted by present day politics, adds Vásárhelyi. She plays an active political role herself as a founding member of the “Democratic Charter”, set up in 2008 at the  initiative of the then Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány.  Gyurcsány has just broken away from the Socialist Party on the eve of this year’s anniversary.

“The left still finds 1956 hard to assimilate. While the right has found it very hard to realise that it is impossible to construct a narrative which does not mention Nagy and the reform communists.”

Vásárhelyi believes that Fidesz is trying to connect the memories of the 1956 revolution with the events of October 2006, when protests against former PM Ferenc Gyurcsány broke out. “The right-wing elites have decided that they will have their own October 23rd revolution, which will overwrite the memories of 1956.”

“Even as we celebrate this 55th anniversary, we are still debating whether the events of October 23, 1956 were of historical importance, or only the start of a bloody political incident; the opening of a glorious popular revolt, or the beginning of armed anarchy,” György Pilhál comments in Magyar Nemzet. “A day that remained taboo for decades has now become a national holiday, but it still touches a sore spot and stirs debates. Are we still too close to 1956 to make a judgement?

“It would be important to understand what our relationship to 1956 is,” Pilhál remarks. Twenty years after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the withdrawal of Soviet troops, we are still puzzled “whether it was a mere coincidence or a well-planned scenario that exactly on the 50th anniversary of the 1956 events, the police under PM Ferenc Gyurcsány attacked a peaceful crowd, which was paying tribute to the memory of the revolution in the heart of Budapest.” Though Pilhál does not offer a clear answer to this question, he concludes that Nagy was a hero, while Gyurcsány committed a crime.

One of the biggest failures of the (1989-90) regime change was that we have missed the opportunity to administer historical justice,” writes István Stefka in Magyar Hírlap.

He suggests that the lack of historical justice and reparation “has created a moral vacuum. … Judges and prosecutors at the show trials (following 1956) could sentence hundreds to death under the orders of the politicians, and the secret police could kill without the least consequence. That precedent was an encouragement to the political and police leadership on October 23, 2006 to beat up unarmed civilians and to shoot into the crowd,” the right-wing commentator believes.

Stefka sees it a positive sign that Fidesz is planning to incorporate in Hungarian criminal law an international agreement according to which crimes against humanity are not subject to a statute of limitations, which might open the way for perpetrators of the post-1956 reprisals to be put on trial (see BudaPost October 21). In addition, Fidesz MP Mária Wittner, herself a 1956 veteran, has proposed that the pensions of former communist leaders be slashed. Such provisions will help to restore the historical importance and the public recognition of the 1956 revolution, Stefka contends.

The memories of the 1956 revolution are rather gloomy. … Mária Wittner, whose original death sentence after the 1956 revolution was commuted to life imprisonment, wants to take revenge by offering half of the pension of old communists to the victims of the retribution,” Péter N. Nagy writes in Népszabadság.

Nagy feels relieved by Fidesz’ decision to cancel its own commemoration, as PM Viktor Orbán and other leading Fidesz politicians have to attend the EU summit in Brussels. Thus Fidesz could not implement its plan to remember the victims of the 2006 police attacks, as part of the 1956 commemoration.

“We have abandoned the memory of 1956. At that time everybody fell in love with everyone else. Now the commemoration is used as an opportunity to point fingers at the enemy,” Nagy concludes.

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