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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 January 2006, 12:43 GMT
Laying claim to Hungary's 1956 revolution
By Victor Sebestyen
BBC News, Hungary

Hungary is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the uprising against the Russians. Victor Sebestyen, whose family left Hungary when he was a young child, has written a book about the 1956 uprising. He says that despite the passing years, there is still an uneasy relationship with Russia.

Aerial view of Soviet tanks
Soviet tanks were ordered into Budapest to crush the 1956 uprising

Even now, with Budapest a bustling, modern European capital teeming with tourists, you can see, if you look very closely, that a few of the city's public buildings and biggest apartment blocks are pockmarked by bullet holes.

They are a reminder of a 50-year-old national trauma: The 1956 Hungarian revolution which was brutally crushed by the then Soviet Union.

Hungarians do not like to remember the 45 communist years that ended just half a generation ago.

No exception is made for the defining moment of those grim decades, the two dramatic weeks when, with reckless courage and desperation, Hungarians tried to topple their Soviet masters but failed, at the cost of more than 3,000 dead in the streets of Budapest.

To most Hungarians now, who see themselves as go-ahead members of the European Union, the term Cold War must have something to do with the simmering dispute Russia is presently pursuing with her near neighbours over the future and the price of natural gas supplies from Siberia.

Forgive and forget?

President Putin is due to go to Hungary next month, in only the second visit by a Russian leader since the collapse of the Soviet empire 16 years ago.

The 50th anniversary falls in an election year and the meaning of '56 has already become an issue in April's poll
The trip will be that of a salesman making deals rather than an overlord reviewing his estates.

It can safely be guaranteed that amid all the talk of revived friendship, the events of 1956 will not be mentioned by either guest or host.

If Hungarians, particularly the young, would prefer to forget about their short-lived, and ill-fated revolution, they will not be entirely allowed to.

The 50th anniversary falls in an election year and the meaning of '56 has already become an issue in April's poll.

With very little of substance to disagree about, the two main parties squabble bitterly about symbols.

The centre-left prime minister, a keen member of the Communist Youth movement in his teenage years, became one of the richest men in Hungary after socialism collapsed.

Everlasting resonance

The centre-right opposition leader was a well known dissident in the 1980s.

It seems an odd way to treat history. But in this part of the world, Mitteleuropa, symbols are of everlasting resonance
He made his name with a fiery speech at the ceremonial reburial of Imre Nagy, the political leader of the uprising who was hanged by the communists.

If any voters are listening, both claim to be heirs of the revolutionary, anti-collectivist, pro-Western spirit of 1956.

A memorial statue representing the revolution will soon be unveiled in central Budapest and a couple of official commemorative events have been organised for the autumn.

But a few more will be hastily planned after it is known what complexion the new government is going to have.

It seems an odd way to treat history. But in this part of the world, Mitteleuropa, symbols are of everlasting resonance.

The others who will not let the revolution go unremembered this year are the 56-ers - those who took part.

Fierce battle

Many were hardly more than children at the time, 13- and 14-year-olds who battled against Soviet tanks armed with just a few rifles and Molotov cocktails.

Hungarian Revolution
Hungarians took to the streets to demand an end to Soviet rule
For a few euphoric days it even looked, miraculously, as though they might win against the might of the world's then second superpower, but then reality bit back.

The Russians returned with overwhelming force, crushed the rebels and did not leave for a further 33 years.

Thousands left Hungary as refugees after the revolution and many hundreds returned after the collapse of communism to spend the last years of their lives in the country of their birth.

Ninety-two-year old General Bela Kiraly, who led the revolutionary forces, acts as an unofficial spokesman for them.

Two metres tall, ramrod straight, Gen Kiraly retains the military bearing and the impeccable manners of a different age.

He escaped to the West after the tragedy of 1956 and was sentenced to death for treason in his absence by a communist court.

Legacy continues

He lived in America for three decades where he taught history at a college in New York, but he took the first opportunity open to him to go back.

Gen Kiraly was on the official government committee planning the 50th anniversary events.

The last time we spoke, though he was far too charming and shrewd to admit it, he seemed perplexed at some of the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring by rival politicians, not born at the time, who were trying to claim the legacy of '56.

Gen Kiraly fought on the Eastern Front in World War II, where life was intense and filled with drama and fear.

Yet for him, as for so many 56ers, the revolution was the central act of their lives.

They want to ensure it is remembered even if their compatriots, aside from a few active politicos, are happy to forget.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 28 January, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Hungary
24 Jan 06 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Hungary
12 Oct 05 |  Country profiles


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