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Last Updated: Monday, 23 October 2006, 02:43 GMT 03:43 UK
Hungary divided on uprising anniversary
By Nick Thorpe
BBC News, Budapest

The crowd in front of the parliament building on 23 October 1956
Thousands were on the streets as the uprising began

One of the key events of the Soviet era took place 50 years ago this week, when Hungarians rose up against Soviet rule. The revolution was put down by Soviet tanks with the loss of more than 2,500 lives, and more than 200,000 Hungarians fled their country.

"Fifty years ago, I was one of the many people standing in this square," Jozsef Molnar said, "in a rain of stars."

Elected a student leader at the Budapest ELTE University the night before, he had marched from the Petofi statue on the Pest bank of the River Danube to the Bem statue on the Buda bank with the crowds that day.

And he was just one of the tens of thousands who looked up from the speeches, at a building overlooking the square, which served as a barracks.

The conscript soldiers had been banned from taking part in the rally, so they watched it from the windows.

And as speaker after speaker denounced the Stalinist crimes of the past years, the soldiers starting tearing the 5-pointed stars off their caps and uniforms, and throwing them into the street below.

"Then we saw one soldier take a Hungarian flag, and cut the communist emblem from the centre. And another soldier next to him set fire to it," Mr Molnar continued.

"At that moment, I knew it was more than a demonstration. It was a revolution!"

'For our liberty'

Heroes of 1956 are disappearing fast.

Gergely Pongratz, the leader of the rebels in one of their 1956 strongholds, the Corvin Cinema, died earlier this year.

It was what we fought for... for our liberty, democracy, human rights, freedom
Gen Bela Kiraly

His coffin was placed on a pedestal in front of the cinema, while friends told anecdotes about his exploits.

But there are other survivors. In the distant Budapest suburb of Matyasfold, the one-time leader of the Hungarian National Guard, General Bela Kiraly, is a sprightly 94.

"We did not want to fight the Soviet Union, not even against communism," he said. "It was what we fought for," he emphasises. "For our liberty, democracy, human rights, freedom..."

Deep divisions

This anniversary finds Hungarians even more divided than before over the legacy of 1956.

For several years, the left and right have refused to celebrate the anniversary together. The division over the revolution largely mirrors the political division in Hungarian society today.

The Hungarian parliament, seen through the national flag
Hungary's politicians are deeply divided despite the celebrations

The pesti sracok - the lads of Pest, the foot-soldiers of the revolution - tend to be on the right of the political spectrum and bitterly oppose Hungary's current socialist-liberal government, and its Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany.

Maria Wittner, a parliamentary deputy for the opposition conservative Fidesz party, is one.

Mr Molnar, a founding member of the Association for a New Hungary, one of the groups behind a protest movement outside parliament which has continued for more than a month, is another.

The intellectuals of the revolution, like former President Arpad Goencz, whose daughter Kinga is now foreign minister, and Laszlo Donath, a socialist MP whose father Ferenc was in Imre Nagy's inner circle, are part of the current ruling elite.

So deep are the divisions that as more than 20 heads of state and prime ministers pay their respects to the memory of the revolution in Budapest, the opposition benches of parliament will be empty.

Fidesz refuses to attend any event at which Prime Minister Gyurcsany is present.

They say he brought shame on the country in his speech, made public last month, in which he admitted consistently lying to the public to win an election. And they insist he has to go.

Rare unity

Such divisions are driving Gen Kiraly to seriously consider returning to exile.

"The biggest failure of the present democracy is that instead of bringing the Hungarian nation together... today it is more divided than ever," he laments.

One thing almost all agree was that 1956 represented a rare moment of national unity - often compared to the 1848 war of independence against the Habsburgs.

Mr Kiraly, who fled first to Austria then to the United States after the revolution, dismisses any comparison of the revolution to the unrest of the past few weeks in Hungary.

Mr Molnar, the former head of the Revolutionary Students Committee, whose punishment included a year in solitary confinement, disagrees.

"I became a freedom fighter then, and that's what I still am today," he says. "We were fighting Bolshevism then. Now we're fighting globalisation."

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