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One Nation's Nightmare: Hungary 1956

First published in 1981

UprisingOn October 25, 1981, the anniversary, the Hungarian Freedom Fighters Association of Great Britain awarded to David Irving their medal:

The best work on the 1956 Uprising in the English language.

-- Ferenc Kunszabó, editor, Hunnia magazine (Budapest).

The Sunday Independent (Dublin): "The book is classic popular history, based on the sort of research that is truly awesome. In one magnificent sweep Irving has totally redeemed himself. He should now be allowed to take his rightful place against the very best of our popular historians. 'Uprising' is in every sense of the word uplifting."


IN The History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky wrote a chapter on the art of insurrection. In it he defined: "Historians and politicians usually give the name of spontaneous insurrection to a movement of the masses united by a common hostility against the old regime, but not having a clear aim, deliberated methods of struggle, or a leadership consciously showing the way to victory."

What happened in Hungary in October 1956 was not a revolution but an insurrection. It was an uprising. When it began it was spontaneous and leaderless, and it was truly a movement of the masses bound by one common hatred of the old regime. Yet it was an anti-Communist uprising like no other. Many of the rebels held Party membership cards. Most were workers or peasants. The uncanny feature was that it resembled the classic Marxist revolution, it was fed by conditions which Karl Marx had always predicted would result in revolution, and it was led by the workers, the very stratum which he had expected would take the revolutionary lead. The parallels with what happened in Poland in the late summer of 1980 are striking; the exception is that this summer the workers were subdued by blandishments and promises of reform, while in past decades the Marxist governments have invariably turned their machine guns on the workers from whom they villainously claim to draw their mandate.

The Hungarian uprising of 1956 was crushed by a man who became instantly one of the most reviled men in his country. That same man is today one of Hungary's most genuinely popular citizens, János Kádár. His life has sprung many contradictions, which cannot only be explained by his subservience to Moscow's fickle whim. Initially, he identified himself with the uprising, served in its government, and referred to its origins even one month later, in a broadcast on November 26th, as a "mass movement"; but by February 2nd he had shifted to harder ground, and declaimed to Party activists at Salgótarján, "A counter-revolution began in Hungary on October 23rd, 1956, in exactly the same way as it did on August 2nd, 1919." He put the country through a period of savage repression, which culminated in the execution of the (other) "accomplices of Imre Nagy" in 1959. By that time, in fact, such a barbarity was quite superfluous, because the storm's force was long spent: his subjects had finally accepted that there was to be no escape from the Soviet empire, that the Western powers had written them off and that they must make the best life they could for themselves under Marxist bureaucratic rule.

Kádár played his part in this, declaring as his aim in the early 1960s, "We must win over every section of our people for the reconstruction of our country." The Party's monopoly on high office was abolished. Once, he told workers at the Ikarus omnibus plant in Budapest, "The West attacks us because of our one-party system. They are right. We Communists must work as though there was a twenty-party system, with a secret general election every day. That's the only way to win popular support." He made a clean sweep of a quarter of the Party funkcionáriusok -- the "funkies" -- for incompetence, and in 1962 he dismissed twenty-five former Party hardliners from the membership and began the rehabilitation of 190 victims of the Rákosi years. That year the Party published a declaration squaring up to the blame for the uprising. (Dr. Peter Rényi, editor of the Party newspaper, Népszabadság, and a close friend of Kádár, warned me: "But you will never, ever get to see the document on which it was based".) The Central Committee ordered, "The criterium of a person's social origin was a necessary tool in this last epoch. But today expert knowledge and competence are the only basis for assessing any person's qualifications for offices and functions." More important, Kádár's party adopted a policy of ideological laissez-faire: "Anybody who is not against us, must be for us," he said. In 1963 the last street-level participants in the uprising were amnestied. In 1970, the ministry of the interior gave notice that the police were no longer to act as "ideological watchdogs", and nowadays most Hungarians are freely able to obtain passports and visas to travel to the West. In short, but for János Kádár as leader Communist Hungary's lot could have been worse.

THE mob besieged the Communist party headquarters on Budapest's Republic-square; as the remaining defenders emerged, they were mercilessly shot down and subjected to ritual degradation -- a spoon, a cigarette stub, a coin; Communist party paybooks were tossed onto the corpses. (Original photos from the Irving collection )

True, but for Communism the country's lot would have been much better. But the Marxist leaders are the first to deny this; there are none so blind as those who won't see. A few months ago I recorded a long interview with the widow of Dr. Francis Münnich, Kádár's chief executive in crushing the uprising, and subsequently, Hungary's prime minister for many years. After two hours the widow pointed baffled at my midget recorder and asked if I should not long ago have changed the tapes or batteries. (She was only familiar with the Soviet bloc products.) She, and all the people like her, have been so thoroughly duped by the Marxist swindle that they are incapable of grasping that other systems -- and in particular the capitalist system, with its handy profit-motive -- work far better. Even after sixty years of full-scale experiment with entire nations, Marxism has never once succeeded, yet the swindle is still perpetrated in country after country . More and more gullible and unwary folk fall prey to its allures, like the citizens who innocently believe the crafty inventor who claims to have perfected a motor engine that runs on water. All human experience is against it. Scientists unanimously predict that it will not work. In country after country, the Marxist water engine fails to fire, but the inventor and his mechanics are growing richer and so the fraud continues. Each time the miserable passengers protest, their tormentors adopt knowing grins, and dismiss a prominent funky or even two: in effect, they have just changed the offside front wheel, to camouflage the fact that their whole scientific premise is unsound. Meanwhile they continue to sing its praises, because they know the fate of those who "deviate".

There is no justice in socialist legality. As Budapest's own police chief during the uprising, Alexander Kopácsi, told me: "Which man is prosecutor, and which man stands in the dock, is purely a matter of casting." Or, as his fellow Hungarians used to have it: "We are a three-class society: those who have been there, those who are there, and those who are heading there." By "there", they meant prison. This sense of public grievance, of impotence at the hands of the funkies, powered the initial phases of the uprising.

It was obvious to me that the industrial workers, with their sense of deprivation and their unrequited yearning for better living standards and free trade union activity, had powered the uprising, just as in Poland in 1980 they have caused their overlords the biggest headaches. To delve into their minds at this distance in time would not have been easy were it not for the access I was granted to two revealing and broad-based series of scientifically conducted interrogations of street-level refugees. The Oral History project of Columbia University, New York, to which Professor István Deák granted me full access., consists of thousands of pages of such interviews; I am grateful both to him and to Professor Richard M. Stephenson, of Rutgers University, for access to the similar series of interviews expertly conducted by sociologists and psychiatrists on behalf of the CIA. These reports, compiled only weeks after the failed uprising, leave no doubt as to why these men and women, mostly in their twenties and thirties, conspired, organised, fought and indulged in other revolutionary activities, and finally fled their native country: the workers felt cheated, betrayed, deprived and persecuted by the funkies imposed on them by Moscow, by the speed-ups, wage frauds, unsafe and insanitary working conditions, and arbitrary penalties, by the burrowing of spies and informers and exhausting work methods. The University and Polytechnic students whose youthful eloquence and zest started the mass movement into the streets,, did so out of a sense of justice, but also because of disgust at the degradation inflicted on their country behind a façade of cultural pretensions, and at the indigestible alien patterns of life being imported from across the Soviet frontier. The writers and other intellectuals joined the clamour later, belatedly making audible the long-suppressed rage of the workers and students.

These thousands of pages, when analysed, confirm what a US State Department intelligence report stated at the time:

It is important to note that economic factors were not among the primary roots of the revolt. Economic plight created despair, resentment, apathy and hatred; but it did not create that unity and that revolutionary spirit which came to be the key to the crystallization, outbreak, and initial victory of the revolt. As in past instances of popular uprising through nine centuries of the national existence of the Hungarians, the ingredients of decisive importance were political and emotional in nature. It is also to be observed that no revolution had ever taken place in Hungary except at times when the weakening of the power center became evident and simultaneously some prospect or illusion of outside assistance emerged. In 1955-56, both the outer (Soviet) and the inner (Hungarian Communist) power center showed unmistakable signs of major weakening. Moreover, events within the orbit and pronouncements by Western statesmen -- always adjusted by Hungarians to conform to their innermost desires -- created illusions of prospects of practical outside assistance.

Having studied the origins of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, 1 turned to a field of no less importance: the reactions of the Western powers and United Nations. How was it that Dwight D. Eisenhower, despite his frequent campaign promises in 1952 to liberate the Soviet satellite nations, offered nothing beyond pious expressions of his nation's sympathy when the uprising began? What was the role played by Radio Free Europe and similar CIA-financed transmitters? Why did the US delegate at the United Nations deliberately delay UN action?

Documents newly released under the Freedom of Information Act from the secret files of the State Department, the National Archives and the Eisenhower Presidential Library have helped me to fill in some of the answers. Most illuminating were the banal telephone conversations between the White House and State Department during the crisis. It appears that, just as in May 1940 the miracle of Dunkirk occurred because it never dawned on Adolf Hitler until too late, that the British army was decamping, so in November 1956 the complete breakdown of communications from Budapest left Washington in the happy belief that the uprising had triumphed, that the Russians were pulling out.

Frank G. Wisner, the leading CIA official responsible for Central European operations, hurried from Washington to Vienna on November 7th, stayed there five days and optimistically reported to Vice-president Richard M. Nixon: "From many quarters today comes the dismal pronouncement that we failed to save Hungary, that Hungary lost the revolution. Tragic though it was in its immediate effects, the brutal use of Soviet force to crush the brave rebellion of the Hungarian people against their oppressors has stripped the Communist system of its last pretense of respectability and has taught the free world lessons which it will never forget." This was pure whistling in the dark, and Wisner knew it. For a long time he worried about how the West had muffed this opportunity, then he took his own life in depression. There never had been a "pretense of respectability" about the Soviet Union: the whole Communist advance is based on conspiracy and intrigue, and Party members relish and revel in it. If the Western powers hoped too for an effect on the Third World, they were disappointed. The virile and resolute face which Nikita S. Khrushchev had shown to the West resulted in an enormous increase in Soviet prestige in Asia and the Middle East. He told a Yugoslav diplomat on November 12th, "The Soviet Union is not thinking of going to war, but our latest threats of war were correct and necessary." In others words, the Kremlin bluffed the West and won. Conversely: on no occasion since the end of the Second World War have words or diplomatic actions alone persuaded the Kremlin to abandon a military intervention on which it has decided.

Some of my conclusions will disappoint my readers. Despite eloquent arguments advanced in particular by Professor Nicholas (Miklós) Milnár in Geneva, and by one of Nagy's "accomplices" in Budapest, Nicholas Vásárhelyi -- to whose personal courage I otherwise bow in admiration -- I cannot find that the Communist intellectuals played a glorious role either before or during the uprising; of the effectiveness of their self-advertisement after it there can be no doubt. Nor am I tempted to shed tears over the fate of Imre Nagy who found himself cast willy-nilly in the role of rebel premier. Unlike the Western journalists who heaped praise on him in 1956, 1 have read back through the CIA files of his utterances in the years after 1945 and find little that distinguishes him from the other faceless Communists who were carried into power from Moscow exile, and sustained there by the guns of Soviet tanks. For students of revolution and insurrection, it will be of interest to see here confirmed that it was the sudden and unexpected possession by the demonstrators of arms and ammunition -- captured from arsenals or handed over by disloyal troops -- that destabilised an otherwise not unmanageable situation on the night of October 23rd, 1956. Finally, having talked with many of the leading Communists who took part, I am left with the vague and undemonstrable impression that they take a masochistic pleasure in having been incarcerated for large parts of their lives either by their enemies or by their fellows; further, that the Communists who joined the rebellion seem to have attracted more vicious punishments than the non-Communists.

The men of the "Imre Nagy conspiracy" have talked freely with me without exception. I must mention in particular Nicholas Vásárhelyi, Francis Donáth, Mrs. Julia Rajk, Peter Erd|s, Peter Rényi, Nagy's daughter Mrs. Francis Jánosi, and Zoltán Vas, who all still live in Budapest, and the unforgettable late Dr. Stephen Bibó; Béla Király and Joseph Kövágó in the United States, the late Julius Háy in Switzerland, and Alexander Kopácsi in Toronto. Regrettably, several of the leading participants still in power declined to assist, including Mr. Kádár in Budapest and General Yuri V. Andropov in Moscow, although I was able to talk to General Pavel Batov about the Soviet military interventions. Of Kádár's entourage, only George Marosán had the courage to talk at length with me; others, including both gentlemen named Stephen Kovács, indicated a willingness to assist but were prevented by their authorities. However I was privileged to interview at length Dr. Andrew Hegedüs, the prime minister at the time of the uprising. Many other Hungarians assisted me, of whom I mention Dr. Ervin Hollós, Dr. Andrew Révész, Professor Peter Hanák, Professor Thomas Nagy, Vilmos Zentai and Zoltán Zelk in Budapest, and Béa Szász, Béla Kurucz, Frederick Rubin, János Bárdi and Robert Gati. In Munich Dr. Stephan Erdélyi allowed me to see his collection of newsreel film. Dr. Elek Karsai of the Budapest National Archives and Dr. Peter Gosztony of the Swiss East European Institute in Berne gave me valuable archival advice. At the level of diplomatic affairs, I was fortunate to obtain the diaries of Gaza Katona, political attaché in the US legation, and of Fabrizio Franco, Italian minister in Budapest, to both of whom I express my gratitude. Bill Lomax provided me with many of the fruits of his own researches, and a number of Western journalists including Noel Barber, Jeffrey Blyth, Alberto Cavallari, Astrid Ljungström, Dr. Hans Germani, Lajos Lederer, Paul Mathias, Ilario Fiore, Bruno Tedeschi and Fritz Molden gave material assistance. On a practical level it would have been impossible to encompass the work and produce this history without the efforts of my interpreters Erika László, Susan Gorka and Carla Venchiarutti, and of Dr. Nicholas Reynolds who conducted some of the preparatory interviews.

The staffs of the US National Archives, the State Department, the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Libraries afforded tireless assistance; the staff of the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library of Princeton University enabled me to use the Dulles papers, including important oral interview material, and I was able to see certain personal papers at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire as well. The archivists of newspaper libraries and photographic agencies too numerous to mention have also helped to make this book possible, as have a number of other people whose names it would be impolitic to mention.

Over the six years, I have assembled a considerable documentation on this uprising, much of it unique. As with my earlier books, this has -- with certain necessary deletions -- now been microfilmed by E.P. Microform Ltd., East Ardsley, Wakefield WF3 2JN, Yorkshire, England, and is available without restriction from them.

Twenty years after the armies of Western newspapermen who roamed through revolution-torn Hungary, I found myself in Vienna about to drive down the same road to Budapest, equipped with a starter-kit of addresses: the ringleaders who had survived or evaded deportation, and escaped the hangman and the firing squad. That the present government, although aware of my intentions, allowed me in was an indication of progress in Hungary. I was also to meet their own historians, who have not so far, despite much pre-natal muscle-flexing, managed to give birth to their own narrative of the uprising; and initially no attempt was made to prevent me from visiting whomever I chose. (Once or twice, hints would be dropped that in a man's "own interest" I ought not to visit him.)

The first name on my list was in fact right here in Vienna. It was a name which its owner at once invited me to forget. I shall call him Jules. He was ostensibly a Belgian newspaper correspondent; more probably that was a cover for something else. He invited me to lunch at the Regina Palace Hotel at one p.m. The clock showed ten past as I sat down beside him at a white, linen-covered table under an awning; a short, dark-haired, Gallic fifty, Jules had already ordered. I noticed a bulky envelope next to his plate: from its faded brown colour I guessed it to be over twenty years old. While I dictated my own order, Jules cleared aside his cutlery and shook out five flat notebooks, like biscuits from a packet.

He beamed like a successful conjurer, pleased by my curiosity. The first biscuit was an identity card of Matthias Rákosi -- there were the Hungarian dictator's bald cranium and evil features leering out of the photograph at me. The second 'item was Rákosi's railway pass, Number 000257, issued on June lst, 1949. 1 began wondering how Jules had got them. The next two items were the Party IDs of a not unattractive woman; she had the high cheekbones of a Mongol and some kind of ornament skewering her hair. The Russian script in one showed her to be Theodora Kornilova, born in 1903 at Olekminsk; she had signed the other as Theodora Rákosi, and painstakingly emulated her new husband's script. Hers was the kind of solemn beauty that admirers of the Orient would say makes time stand still; while Matthias was fat and unattractive; indeed, ugly enough to stop a clock. I meant to ask Jules how he had acquired these treasures, but the sight of a fifth biscuit squelched the question before I could level it at him.

It was a small pocket book bound in red leather cloth: a neatly printed personal index, gold-embossed "No. 1"; it listed all the dictator's cronies and their telephone numbers, including their secret K-line numbers. I had heard about the K-line, called the kisbúgó or "little-buzzer" because of its distinctive soft ringing tone; that was the Party's own telephone network. The first page listed all the super-elite, the names of Apró, Acs, Bata, and of the hated Party chief Ernest Ger|, who I knew was at that time still alive somewhere in Budapest, but unseen since his humiliation in 1956 and now half blind; listed too were Hegedüs, Hidas, Kovács, Matolcsi, Mikes, Piros, Szalai, Vég, and of course Rákosi himself.

I riffled through the pages. Here was Elizabeth Andics, and her husband Andrew Berei, notorious hardliners who had separated for ten years, then been reunited, although she insisted on addressing him even at home as "Comrade Berei". When the rebels came to get them, they fled into an inner room, and emerged brandishing passports showing them to be Soviet citizens. They were escorted to the Soviet embassy. The Rákosi telephone index also listed the Soviet ambassador Yuri V. Andropov -- who is now a full general and chief of the KGB, the Soviet security service -- and half a dozen others with Russian rather than Hungarian names.

Some of the less fortunate had had their names inked out by Rákosi; others had merely been deprived of their K-line phones. The index also revealed the numbers of the secret luxury villas on Lake Balaton, of the Party headquarters and of the newspapers.

Jules chuckled, and pointed to one entry under "S". The giant Stalin statue in Budapest had had two business phones and one top-secret K-line number, "358", as well. The waiter sidled over. I settled the bill, and drove on towards Budapest. I idly wondered who would answer if I could dial 358 today.

David Irving, 1981

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