Revolutions Behind the Iron Curtain II

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Revolutions Behind the Iron Curtain II

Many officially planned events seemed somehow to go wrong
too. At the old city Arsenal, young Polish artists put on a show dedicated, of
course, to “peace.” But what attracted visitors and garnered attention was not
the theme but the extraordinary variation in what was on display. There were
many paintings executed in heavy paint and harsh colors. Brushwork was visible.
Allegories were obscure. The images were different, unexpected—and abstract and
avant-garde. It was the end of an era. After the Arsenal show socialist realism
would vanish from the visual arts in Poland forever.

Spontaneity in art led to spontaneity in behavior. At times,
crowds grew ugly. When the sound system broke down at one event, the rioting
and anger were so great that the sound technicians had to escape to their van
and drive quickly away. People complained loudly about the shortage of food,
the poor quality of some of the duller events, and the propaganda emitted by
the ubiquitous loudspeakers. “In Warsaw, one dances in the name of something, or
against something,” one party writer had solemnly declared in his summary of
the festival, a sentiment almost everybody else found annoying. There were many
tedious performances, from stiff folk dancing to unsmiling waltzes, from which
the crowds turned away in droves.

And yet—sometimes the crowds grew spontaneously joyous as
well. At one point, the Bim-Bom cabaret group was supposed to have an official
meeting with a Swiss delegation. But instead of a stiff exchange of greetings,
moderated by a translator and presided over by a Union of Polish Youth
official, someone began to play jazz. The young people started to dance. And
this time, the cabaret artists and their new Swiss friends were dancing neither
for something nor against something. They were dancing just for fun. At that
moment—as they did the jitterbug to the jazz music, as they ignored the
distressed officials, as they sang along to the songs and paid no attention to
their surroundings—the totalitarian dream suddenly seemed far away.

In the summer of 1955, Union of Polish Youth members were
slipping away from their dull rallies to dance with Mexican communists and
French fellow travelers. By autumn, their Hungarian counterparts had begun to
breathe life into their turgid League of Working Youth meetings too. These
efforts had begun on a very small scale, when a group of young staff members at
the Hungarian National Museum decided to organize a literary and political
discussion group. They asked one of their friends, a poet named István Lakatos,
to lead them. Lakatos opened the debates with a lecture on the Hungarian
Enlightenment. He read from the works of Hungary’s most prominent Enlightenment
poet, György Bessenyei. In conclusion, he called upon the group to endorse
Enlightenment values, albeit 200 years late, and they decided there and then to
form a society, the “Bessenyei Circle.”

It was a tiny, elite, and somewhat esoteric effort. But it
was nevertheless a matter of concern for the League of Working Youth, for whom
any spontaneously organized group was a threat. A few years earlier, they would
have banned a group dedicated to Enlightenment values. But Stalin was dead, and
angry debate about Nagy’s “New Course” was still raging. They decided to replace
the group’s leaders and to channel their efforts toward more politically
correct, contemporary topics. Fatally, they also decided to name the group
after Sándor Petőfi, the young poet of the 1848 revolution, whom they thought
more appropriate to a progressive society than the “bourgeois” Bessenyei. Thus
was born the Petőfi Circle, a debating club whose ostensibly academic
discussions quickly became open debates about censorship, socialist realism,
and central planning. Initial discussion topics included the peasants’ revolt
of 1514 (a pretext for a debate on agricultural policy) and an analysis of
Hungarian historiography (a pretext for a debate about the falsification of
history in communist textbooks). The choice of name quickly proved “double-edged,”
as one Hungarian writer put it: Petőfi had been a revolutionary fighting for
Hungarian independence and the group bearing his name soon felt empowered to
become revolutionary too.

Changes had been taking place in other regime institutions
at the same time. At Szabad Nép, the communist party’s hitherto reliable
newspaper, reporters had become restless. In October 1954, a group of them,
sent to cover life in the country’s factories, returned wanting to write about
faked production statistics, falling living standards, and workers who had been
blackmailed into buying “peace bonds.” In a published article, they declared
that “though the life of the workers has changed and improved a great deal in
the last ten years, many of them still have serious problems. Many are still
living in overcrowded and shabby apartments. Many have to think twice about
buying their children a new pair of shoes or going to an occasional movie!” The
following day, the reporters got the dreaded phone call from the Politburo
member responsible for Szabad Nép: “What do you mean by this article? Do you
think we will tolerate this agitation?” Instead of backing down, the editors
held a three-day staff conference, at which one reporter after another stood up
and called for honest reporting, supported Nagy’s reforms, and attacked senior
party officials as well as their own editors. Several of these overly honest
reporters lost their jobs, including Miklós Gimes, the son of Lily Hajdú-Gimes,
the Freudian psychiatrist who had practiced in secret. But a precedent had been

Meanwhile, the Hungarian Writers’ Association—the group
responsible for imposing political correctness on Hungarian prose and
poetry—also began to reexamine its previous views, to discuss taboos, and to
welcome back its banned members. By the autumn of 1955 this formerly hard-line
group even felt brave enough to issue a statement protesting against the
dismissal of pro-Nagy editors from their posts, demanding “autonomy” for their
association and objecting to the “anti-democratic methods which cripple our
cultural life.”

Most of these new or newly re-formed groups, clubs, and
debating societies quickly came to be dominated by disillusioned young
communists and former communists, mostly in their twenties and thirties. This
was a generation that wasn’t supposed to be revolutionary—or rather
counterrevolutionary—at all. Old enough to have been traumatized by war, young
enough to have studied in communist institutions, many were products of the
“social advance” promised by the communist system and many had already enjoyed
rapid promotion and early success. Tamás Aczél, active in the Writers’
Association debates, had been named chief editor of the party’s publishing
house at the age of twenty-nine, and by the age of thirty-one had received both
the Stalin Prize and the prestigious Kossuth Prize for his work. Tibor Meráy,
another Writers’ Association activist, had also received a Kossuth Prize, at
the age of twenty-nine. István Eörsi, also an active member of the Petőfi
Circle, had been a published poet from a very young age too.

At the same time, many in this generation had been
personally affected by the destruction of civil society, the terror, and the
purges that had ended just a few years before. All of them knew what it meant
to be forced to play the “reluctant collaborator.” Tibor Déry, one of the
leaders of the new Writers’ Association, had watched as his once celebrated
works of fiction had been attacked and barred from publication as
insufficiently ideologically correct. Gábor Tánczos, the leader of the Petőfi
Circle, had been an idealistic graduate of Györffy College, one of the
Hungarian People’s Colleges, until its abrupt and brutal closing in 1949.
Another People’s College graduate, Iván Vitányi—the music critic who had
“brainwashed” himself after being expelled from the party in 1948—spoke about
folk art and music at some of the early public meetings of the Petőfi Circle.
One account describes the early meetings of the circle as “reunions” of
activists from Nékosz, the People’s College movement, and Mefesz, the
short-lived university students’ union that had been forcibly submerged into
the League of Working Youth in 1950. At some of their early meetings they even
sang songs together, just as in the old days.

In particular, these young (or youngish) intellectuals were
all deeply disturbed by what they now knew had been the unjust arrest,
imprisonment, and torture of their colleagues. In 1954, Nagy had begun to
rehabilitate political prisoners, and they were slowly trickling back to
Budapest from prison, from Recsk, and from exile. Béla Kovács, the
Smallholders’ Party leader, came back from the Soviet Union along with several
colleagues in 1955. József Mindszenty was released from prison and placed under
house arrest in a castle outside Budapest. Even Noel Field was rehabilitated
that year. Aczél and Meráy have described the deep emotions many Hungarian
writers felt when they encountered old friends who had been in prison,
suffering, while they were penning socialist realist fiction and winning
prizes: “They were ashamed of what they had written and of what they had not
written. Now they looked with disgust upon the volumes that they had once upon
a time caressed with their eyes—the volumes that had won them the recognition
of Kossuth Prizes; and they had no other desire than to unwrite them.”

At the same time, many were also seeking to justify
themselves, to make up for the damage they had caused, and to put their
left-wing projects back on track. But this was 1956, not 1989, and not
everybody was yet convinced communism was doomed to fail. As Eörsi put it,
“They wanted to rehabilitate, together with their own guilty person, the
credibility and the good scientific reputation of Marxism too.” Many turned
back to the original texts of Marxism for inspiration and instruction, in
Poland as well as in Hungary. Karol Modzelewski, a student radical at the
time—he was part of a group of activists who took over the Union of Polish
Youth at the University of Warsaw in 1956—explains this dynamic very well: “We
had learned that if a political system is bad, what should one do? Start a
revolution. And we were taught, through all of those years, how to make a
revolution … The workers should do it, with the help of the
intellectuals who bring the revolutionary consciousness to the working

Modzelewski and his colleagues soon began agitating in
Polish factories, hoping to create a more equitable economic system, just as
Marx had advised: “It was like a myth turning into real life.” Hungarian
intellectuals had the same idea, and for the same reason. As Eörsi wrote later,
“That is the common trap of all quasi-revolutionary systems: the people begin
to take seriously the real message of the officially declared ideology and the
nationalized heroes of the system.”

Paradoxically, ties between workers and intellectuals were
reinforced by their experience of mistreatment under communism. These two
social groups had been the most heavily targeted and manipulated by communist
propaganda in the previous decade, and as a result, they had the most profound
sense of disjunction and disaffection. If anything, Hungarian workers were even
angrier than Hungarian students and Hungarian intellectuals. While writers and
journalists felt guilty, the workers felt betrayed. They had been promised the
highest possible status in the “workers’ state,” and instead they had poor
working conditions and low pay. In the immediate postwar period, they had
directed their anger at state factory bosses. But now they were inclined to
blame the state itself. Miners in the 1950s “denounced the system and grumbled
that despite the difficulty of their work the pay was low,” while industry
workers in general believed they were exploited by “a bloodsucking government.”
Though Szabad Nép had been scared away from reporting too closely on factory
life a year earlier, the previously moribund Writers’ Association magazine,
Irodalmi Újság (Literary Gazette), now picked up this theme quite frequently,
printing interviews and letters from workers, such as this one from a

How many times have I been obliged to accept the opinion
of others, one which I perhaps don’t share. As that opinion changes, it’s
demanded that mine change equally. And that makes me feel sick, sicker than if
I’d been beaten. I’m a man, I too. I also have a head which I use to think. And
I’m not a child. I’m an adult, who gives his soul, his heart, his youth and his
energy for the construction of socialism … I do it willingly but I
want to be considered like an adult who lives and knows how to think. I want to
be able to speak my thoughts without having anything to fear—and I want to be
heard as well …

The Petőfi Circle meetings proved an excellent forum for
interactions between the rejuvenated young intellectuals and their radicalized
working-class counterparts. In the winter of 1955 the major Budapest factories
began sending regular delegations to the meetings, and the demand for tickets
soon exceeded supply, forcing the circle to meet at larger premises. The
meetings were open and informal, even raucous at times, and they touched on
issues of industrial and economic reform that were of interest to many. Still,
they might well have become nothing but a forum for criticism and complaints,
had greater events not intervened.

Unexpectedly, Khrushchev, now the general secretary of the
Soviet communist party, was the man who pushed the students, the workers, and
the Petőfi Circle participants much further and faster than they had ever expected
to go. On February 24, 1956, with no forewarning, Khrushchev stood up in front
of the Twentieth Party Congress and denounced “the cult of personality” that
had surrounded the late Stalin:

It is impermissible and foreign to the spirit of
Marxism-Leninism to elevate one person, to transform him into a superman
possessing supernatural characteristics, akin to those of a god. Such a man
supposedly knows everything, sees everything, thinks for everyone, can do
anything, is infallible in his behavior. Such a belief about a man, and
specifically about Stalin, was cultivated among us for many years.

This was Khrushchev’s famous “secret” speech—though thanks
largely to the Soviet Union’s Eastern European friends, it did not remain
secret for long. Polish officials leaked it to Israeli intelligence, which
leaked it to the CIA, which handed it to The New York Times, which published it
in June. But even before that, Eastern European communists were poring over it
for clues to Khrushchev’s thinking. The Soviet leader had lauded Lenin,
attacked Stalin, and deplored the arrests and murder of Soviet party members
and military commanders during the purge years of the 1930s, but his mea culpa
was not complete. He had not mentioned other arrests and other crimes such as
the Ukrainian famine, for which he himself was partly responsible. He had not
called for economic reforms or institutional reforms. He had certainly not
apologized for anything the Soviet Union had done in Eastern Europe, and he
offered no clear proposals for change.

Nevertheless, it was in Eastern Europe where the most
dramatic reactions ensued. The speech literally killed Bierut. The Polish
leader went to Moscow for the Twentieth Party Congress and—like Gottwald at
Stalin’s funeral—died there of a stroke or a heart attack, presumably brought
on by the shock. Lower down the hierarchy, many previously loyal party members
were stunned. “People had trouble believing it,” remembered a Pole who was a
junior army officer at the time. “The revelations about Generalissimo Stalin,
leader of half the world … it was incredible.”

Others were energized, even radicalized by the speech. At
the end of May, a few months after the Twentieth Party Congress, the Petőfi
Circle organized an open public discussion titled “The Twentieth Soviet Party
Congress and the Problems of Hungarian Political Economy.” Very quickly, that
discussion turned into an “all-out denunciation of Rákosi’s megalomania; his
policies of senseless industrial construction, forced industrialization, the proposed
new Five-Year Plan and the lack of realism of his agricultural policy.” In
early June, György Lukás, Hungary’s most famous Marxist philosopher, praised
“independent thinking” and called for a “dialogue” between theologians and

Two weeks later, a half-forgotten figure from the recent
past stood up and gave the most devastating denunciation of all. On the evening
of June 27, Júlia Rajk, aged forty-four and only six months out of prison, took
the podium in a large, neoclassical meeting room in the very heart of Budapest.
“I stand before you,” she told hundreds of members of the Petőfi Circle,
“deeply moved after five years of prison and humiliation”:

Let me tell you this: as far as prisons are concerned,
Horthy’s jails were far better, even for communists, than Rákosi’s prisons. Not
only was my husband killed, but my little baby was torn from
me … These criminals have not only murdered László Rajk. They have
trampled underfoot all sentiment and honesty in this country. Murderers should
not be criticized, they should be punished.

The audience applauded, whistled, stamped its feet. A few
nights later, another Petőfi Circle audience—by now expanded to 6,000 people,
many standing outside on the street—gathered to discuss freedom of the press.
They ended their meeting chanting, “Imre, Imre, Imre, Imre.” They were calling
for the ousting of Rákosi—and the return of Imre Nagy.

They got half their wish. In the middle of July, Anastas
Mikoyan, one of Khrushchev’s closest confidants, paid an emergency visit to
Budapest. Once again, the Politburo had received from Yuri Andropov, then the
Soviet ambassador to Hungary (and general secretary of the communist party
thirty years later) disturbing reports of enemy activity in Hungary, of
spontaneous discussions, of revolutionary youth. Mikoyan was sent to fix the
problem. In the car on the way from the airport, he told Rákosi that “in the
given situation” he must resign on grounds of ill-health. Rákosi did as he was
told and flew to Moscow for “medical treatment,” never to return: he spent the
final fifteen years of his life in the Soviet Union, most of it in distant
Kirghizstan. But Mikoyan did not replace him with Nagy. Instead, the Politburo
chose Rákosi’s faithful sidekick, the conservative, unimaginative, and, in the
final analysis, incompetent Gerő.

More than fifty years have now passed since October 1956.
Since then, the events of that month have been described many times, by many
great writers, and there is no space here to summarize all of their work in

Suffice it to say that between July and October, Gerő tried
desperately to mollify his countrymen. He rehabilitated fifty Social Democratic
leaders who had been imprisoned. He effected a reconciliation with Tito. He
reduced the size of the Hungarian army.

After much agonizing, he also allowed Júlia Rajk to hold a
funeral for her husband. On October 6—the anniversary of the execution of
thirteen generals who had led the Hungarian Revolution of 1848—Júlia and her
son, László, stood solemnly, dressed in black, beside her husband’s coffin,
waiting for Rajk to be reburied in Kerepesi cemetery alongside Hungary’s
national heroes. Tens of thousands of mourners were in attendance at what was
by all accounts a bizarre event. “It was a cold, windy, rainy autumn day,” one
remembered. “The flames of the large silver candelabra darted about in a wild
danse macabre. Mountains of wreaths lay at the foot of the biers.” Funeral
orators praised Rajk—himself a murderous secret police boss, responsible for
thousands of deaths and arrests as well as the destruction of Kalot, the other
youth groups, and the rest of civil society—and denounced Rajk’s killers in the
harshest possible terms: “He was killed by sadistic criminals who had crawled
into the sun from the stinking swamp of a ‘cult of personality.’ ” Jenő
Széll, the party official who had been so doubtful about the communist party’s
optimistic approach to elections, remembered the funeral as “ghastly”:

It started pouring with rain—not a cloudburst but enough
to get us all thoroughly soaked. And beforehand, what a huge streaming crowd of
people with grim faces! … People came, acquaintances looked at each
other and greeted one another, but they didn’t as usual form little groups to
gossip … Everyone here was looking to see who would be in the
leadership from now on.

That evening, a few scattered demonstrations broke out. Some
500 students gathered around a statue of Hungary’s first constitutional prime
minister, who had been executed by the Austrians in 1849. Though these meetings
broke up peacefully, the city remained wary: “The solemn formalities of the
funeral had reminded people, instead of making them forget, that fundamentally
nothing had changed.”

The importance of the Rajk funeral was not immediately understood
in Budapest, and it was certainly not understood in Moscow. On the contrary, in
the first weeks of October the Kremlin’s attention was firmly fixed not on
Hungary but on Poland, which was also descending into political turmoil. In
June, 100,000 workers had gone on strike in the city of Poznań. Like the East
Germans before them, they had begun by demanding better pay and less rigorous
work norms, but had rapidly started calling for “an end to dictatorship” and
“Russians out.” They were dispersed, brutally, by the Polish army: some 400
tanks and 10,000 soldiers fired on the strikers, killing several dozen people,
among them a thirteen-year-old boy. Hundreds more were wounded. But Poles
didn’t blame their compatriots for the violence. The Poznań deployment had been
supervised by Marshal Rokossovskii after all, a Soviet citizen of Polish
origin, and the orders to fire were issued by his deputy, also a Soviet
citizen. The chief of the general staff was at that time a Soviet citizen too,
as were seventy-six other senior “Polish” army officers. Inside the Polish
communist party, a vocal group now began to call for the removal of the Soviet
officers for good. In October, the Polish United Workers’ Party took the
unilateral decision not merely to grant full rehabilitation to the de facto
leader of that group, Gomułka, but to make him first party secretary.

Alarmed, Khrushchev arrived in Warsaw on October 19. The
visit was unplanned: he intended to prevent Gomułka from taking power. To
underline his point, he also ordered Soviet troops based elsewhere in Poland to
start marching toward Warsaw immediately. According to several accounts,
Gomułka responded with his own threats. He became “rude,” he blamed Soviet
officers in the Polish army for creating public anger, and he declared that if
put in charge he could easily control the country without Soviet interference.
More importantly, he also ordered Interior Ministry troops and other armed
groups who were loyal to him, and not to the Soviet-dominated army, to take up
strategic positions around Warsaw where they prepared to defend him and his new
government. A violent clash pitting Polish troops loyal to Gomułka against
Polish troops loyal to Soviet commanders—the latter backed up by the Red
Army—suddenly seemed possible.

Khrushchev blinked first. “Finding a reason for an armed
conflict [with Poland] right now would be very easy,” he told colleagues on
October 24, “but finding a way to put an end to such a conflict later on would
be very hard.” He decided reconciliation was the best policy—and eventually
agreed to recall Rokossovskii, his deputy, and several other Soviet officers.
In return, Gomułka promised loyalty to Moscow in matters of foreign policy and
swore not to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact.

Khrushchev might well have pushed for more. But he was once
again distracted from Poland by events in Budapest, where reports of Gomułka’s
return to power gave Hungarians hope of reinstating Nagy as well. Rajk’s
strange funeral had removed any remaining barriers of fear: it was as if
Stalinism had been symbolically buried along with his corpse. All during
October, local Petőfi Circles had been forming across the country. Colleges and
high schools formed their own democratic governing bodies and debating clubs
too. The media reported all of this activity with gusto. One radio station
interviewed some high-school “parliamentarians,” who said they “would like to
travel and study contemporary Western literature.” They also thought university
admissions should be decided by exams, not by party connections. Events in
Poland were also reported with enthusiasm. When hundreds of thousands turned
out in Warsaw to cheer Gomułka, one Hungarian journalist declared that “the
trend of democratization has the full support of the large masses and, what is
more important, the working-class.”

Inspired by this news, 5,000 students crammed into a hall at
Budapest Technological University on October 22 to vote themselves out of the
League of Working Youth and to form their own organization. From 3 p.m. until
midnight they wrote a manifesto, a radical document that eventually became
known as the Sixteen Points. Among other things, it called for the withdrawal
of Soviet troops from Hungary, free elections, freedom of association, economic
reform—and the restoration of March 15, the 1848 anniversary, as a national
holiday. The students also agreed to meet the following day beneath the statue
of General József Bem, a Polish commander who had fought with the Hungarians in
1848, and to demonstrate there in favor of their demands and in support of
Polish workers.

Twenty-four hours later, there were at least 25,000 people
in Bem Square and thousands more in the streets flowing out of it. They had
marched to the Polish general’s statue from all over the city, in some cases
sent on their way by recitations of a Petőfi verse said to have inspired the
revolution of 1848:

Hungarians, your country calls you.

this hour, what’er befalls you.

we free men be, or slaves?

the lot your spirit craves.

As in Poznań the previous June, many were shouting “Russians
go home!” As in Berlin three years earlier, the crowd sacked a Russian
bookstore along the way and set its contents alight. One group broke off and
headed for the radio station. There they laid siege to the building and
demanded, “We want the radio to belong to the people!” When the station kept
playing bland music, they began ramming the building with a radio truck. By
nightfall, the crowd had moved on to Hero Square, where a giant bronze statue
of Stalin had been erected four years earlier. After a few futile attempts to
pull the statue down with ropes, a platoon of workers arrived with heavy
machinery—the cranes were borrowed from the city’s public transportation department—and
metal-burning equipment. They hacked away, the crowd chanted, and the statue
began to shake. Finally, at precisely 9:37 p.m., Stalin fell.

The Soviet leadership reacted with dismay, inconsistency,
and confusion to the events in Budapest, as did the Hungarian regime. Gerő
panicked, called Ambassador Andropov, and begged for Soviet tanks. Khrushchev
sent tanks and then withdrew them. Nagy at first tried to pacify the crowds,
initially telling them to go home and let the party elders deal with it. But
when Khrushchev changed his mind and sent Red Army troops pouring back over the
border, Nagy switched sides, announced Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw
Pact, and called on the United Nations to defend Hungarian neutrality.

The Western powers were equally at sea. The Hungarian
service of Radio Free Europe, based in Munich and staffed by angry émigrés,
egged on the revolutionaries. But despite his earlier calls for the “rollback”
of communism and the “liberation” of Eastern Europe, the hawkish American
secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, could do no better than send the Soviet
leaders a message: “We do not see these states [Hungary and Poland] as
potential military allies.” At the time, the CIA had but a single agent inside
Hungary, and he lost contact with the agency after the second Soviet invasion.

In twelve brief days of euphoria and chaos, nearly every
symbol of the communist regime was attacked. Statues were torn down and red
stars removed from buildings. The citizens of Sztálinváros, having been coerced
into naming their city after Stalin, spontaneously decided to change it back
again. Along with about 8,000 other political prisoners, Mindszenty was
released from the medieval castle where he had been kept in solitary isolation.
Young Hungarians took over the national radio and renamed it Radio Free
Kossuth, a name that echoed Radio Kossuth, the station on which the Hungarian
communists had broadcast liberation propaganda during the war. “For many years
our radio has been an instrument of lies … It lied by night and by
day, it lied on all wavelengths,” they declared. “We who are before the
microphone now are new men.”

Across the country, radical workers borrowed an idea from
Yugoslavia and began forming “worker councils,” which began to take over
factories and expel the management. Instead of fighting the revolutionaries,
Hungarian soldiers deserted the army in droves and began distributing weapons
to their fellow citizens. One of the first senior officers to defect, Colonel
Pál Maléter, was quickly named Nagy’s new defense minister. The Budapest chief
of police, Sándor Kopácsi, also switched sides and joined the revolutionaries.
Across the country, mobs lynched secret policemen and broke into secret police
archives. Curious crowds broke into Rákosi’s villa too, and grew furious when
they saw the luxurious furniture and carpets.

The aftermath was equally chaotic and appallingly bloody.
General Ivan Serov—the man who had “pacified” Warsaw and Berlin, and who had
since been promoted to the leadership of the KGB—personally supervised the
arrests of Maléter and Nagy. The latter had sought asylum in the Yugoslav
embassy, was promised safe passage to Belgrade, and then betrayed. Both men
were eventually executed, not on the orders of Khrushchev but on the command of
János Kádár, the Hungarian leader who then ruled the country for the subsequent
three decades. Miklós Gimes kept up the resistance throughout November, as did
many of the factory workers, before he too was arrested and eventually
executed. Between December 1956 and the summer of 1961, 341 people were hanged,
26,000 people were put on trial, and 22,000 received sentences of five years or
more. Tens of thousands more lost their jobs or their homes. Even so, strikes
and protests continued across Hungary throughout December and January,
especially in the factories. Mindszenty sought refuge in the American embassy,
where he remained for fifteen years. Some 200,000 Hungarians fled over the
border and became refugees. György Faludy, the poet who had been imprisoned in
Recsk, was one of them: “I had a wife and young son. I was afraid that if I
stayed I would break, join the Communist party in order to survive and protect
my family.”

Across the rest of Eastern Europe and around the world, the
Hungarian Revolution helped alter the international perception of the Soviet
Union for good, especially in the Western communist parties. After 1956, the
French communist party fractured, the Italian communist party broke away from
Moscow, and the British communist party lost two-thirds of its members. Even
Jean-Paul Sartre attacked the USSR in November 1956, though he retained a
weakness for Marxism long afterward.

The excellent reporting from Hungary in 1956 helped create
this reaction: some of the best journalists of their generation were in
Budapest during the revolution, and arguably some of the best war photographers
of all time. But the agonizing images were made more powerful by the fact that
they had been so unexpected. Until it actually happened, few analysts—even
fiercely anti-Soviet analysts—had believed that revolution was possible within
the Soviet bloc. Both communists and anticommunists, with a very few
exceptions, had assumed that Soviet methods of indoctrination were invincible;
that most people believed in the propaganda without question; that the
totalitarian educational system really would eliminate dissent; that civic
institutions, once destroyed, could not be rebuilt; that history, once
rewritten, would be forgotten. In January 1956, a U.S. National Intelligence
Estimate had predicted that, over time, dissidence in Eastern Europe would be
worn down “by the gradual increase in the number of Communist-indoctrinated
youth.” In a later epilogue to The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt
wrote that the Hungarian Revolution “was totally unexpected and took everybody
by surprise.” Like the CIA, the KGB, Khrushchev, and Dulles, Arendt had come to
believe that totalitarian regimes, once they worked their way into the soul of
a nation, were very nearly invincible.

They were all wrong. Human beings do not acquire
“totalitarian personalities” with such ease. Even when they seem bewitched by
the cult of the leader or of the party, appearances can be deceiving. And even
when it seems as if they are in full agreement with the most absurd
propaganda—even if they are marching in parades, chanting slogans, singing that
the party is always right—the spell can suddenly, unexpectedly, dramatically be

Berlin June 1953


Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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