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Last Updated: Monday, 23 October 2006, 09:20 GMT 10:20 UK
Hungary's 1956 brain drain
By Ben Richardson
Business reporter, BBC News

As it became clear that the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was doomed to fail, a difficult choice presented itself to people across the country - should they stay and face Russian rule, or leave their homeland and risk never returning?

Hungarian family leaving the country after the 1956 uprising
Fleeing Hungary meant leaving your life and possessions behind

For 200,000 men, women and children the decision would change their lives; they packed up what they could carry and headed for the borders.

The speed and size of the escape took the world by surprise.

Hungarians, including the nation's favourite son, footballing legend Ferenc Puskas, were scattered to 37 countries, with many ending up in the US and UK.

Fifty years later, experts are still trying to assess the impact the exodus of Hungarians had on their own country and the nations they ended up in.

"It had a tremendous impact," said Charles Gati, who fled Budapest after the uprising and today a professor at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "The brain drain was terrific."

'Language and culture'

In the short space of a few autumn weeks, Hungary lost some of its brightest young prospects.

The average age of those who escaped was 25, and many of them were only 19 to 21 years old.

Most were men - US research found that only about a fifth were women - the majority were the product of a very strong education system, and had either got High School diplomas, or were already studying at university.

Map showing where Hungarians went after the uprising

Sympathetically received by the nations they fled to, Hungarians were given language lessons as the majority of the refugees did not speak English, though many spoke some German. They were also given the chance to finish their studies.

According to Dr Tibor Frank, professor of history at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, the high education levels of many of the Hungarians was one of the main reasons they settled so quickly into their adopted new countries.

Instead of grouping together as Hungarians, they integrated through their social and professional contacts.

Men and women took on a wide range of roles such as doctors, scientists, accountants and musicians.

"The higher they went, the more they integrated because they had a greater understanding of the language and culture," Mr Frank explained.

Integrate or die

The exodus was not exclusively from the intelligentsia, and a number of other factors helped ease their integration.

Hungarian man sawing wood
Not everyone who left Hungary in 1956 was an academic

For many people there was already a network of family and friends in foreign countries because Hungarians had been leaving their homeland to find work since the mid-1880s.

In years such as 1904 and 1913 more than 200,000 Hungarians emigrated.

Hungary's history may also have played its role in helping people integrate.

Sitting near the middle of Europe, above the Balkans and on the route west for many a marauding army, Hungary has been conquered through much of its modern history.

"It was vital to be flexible, to adapt to survive, and pick up a new knowledge and assimilate," said Mr Frank.

"You either integrated or you died."

Social camouflage

The problem this has created for historians is that it becomes very difficult to gauge the effect a group of people have had when they weave themselves so expertly into the fabric of their surroundings.

Ferenc Puskas
Born Budapest, 27 April 1927
Known as the Galloping Major
Led Hungary's Golden Team, beat England 6-3 at Wembley
Abroad when uprising began
Won three European Cups with Real Madrid
Went back to Hungary in 1993
In a Budapest hospital, suffering from Alzheimer's

It is easy enough to find the outstanding figures, people such as Andrew Grove, one of the founders of Intel, or Vilmos Zsigmond, who won an Oscar for his cinematography on the Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

It is much harder to sum up the impact this group of people have had on the world post-1956.

From a political point of view, many of them fitted in well with the anti-Communism that was prevalent in the US and UK during the Cold War.

Culturally, their writing enhanced the languages they had to learn, while their music and painting added depth, colour and a foreign twist.

And they helped provide the muscle and grunt that drove economic growth in Europe and the US.

Perhaps the key to understanding the impact and influence of the uprising is not to look at the achievements of individuals, but at the group of 1956ers as a whole.

"The significance of the revolution is that it appeals to the imagination," said Stephen Vizinczey, an international author who was a student fighter during 1956.

"It shows that while we can't control life, we can determine what meaning we give to our lives."

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