During his thirty-two years of absolute rule in Hungary, János Kádár introduced reforms in the Soviet bloc so comprehensive that next to them Gorbachev’s reforms seem pale. In March of this year his position seemed nearly unassailable, and I was assured by knowledgeable people that he still had the confidence of Moscow, and the loyalty of much of the Party rank and file. This proved not to be true. At the Party conference in May, Kádár and all his principal collaborators were forced to resign by his rivals in the Politburo and by representatives of the local Party organizations. The man whom people used to call “Good King János” is now commonly referred to as the “Old Fool.”
Whether the members of the new Politburo will be able to launch a new period of reform is questionable, for they are a very mixed lot. They include two well-known liberals: Imre Pozsgay, who has long been advocating political pluralism, and Rezsö Nyers, one of the founding fathers of the “New Economic Mechanism”—the limited amount of market activity that has been encouraged since the late 1960s. But Nyers has been shunted aside repeatedly in the past for his advocacy of “market socialism,” in which state banks would finance competitive, privately owned businesses. The ruling group also includes the tough-minded ideologist János Berecz, the author of one of the books reviewed here, and István Horváth, the head of the police.
The new leader is Károly Grósz, a rather mysterious figure, who for the time being combines the positions of Party general secretary and prime minister. We know little more about him than that he is fifty-seven, was born into a working-class Swabian family, and grew up in an industrial region in north-eastern Hungary. He never attended high school or a university. His father was a longstanding member of the Communist movement; Grósz himself joined the Young Communist League in 1945 when he was about fourteen. His career has always been within the Party, even when he briefly worked as a political officer in the army.
In 1956, he actively opposed the uprising. In the 1970s, he acquired a disturbing reputation for anti-intellectualism and orthodoxy, and one heard unconfirmed rumors that he was an anti-Semite. Four years ago, he attracted attention when he argued, in a defiant-sounding statement, that his generation of Party activists had to accept responsibility for the previous forty years, including the government of the early 1950s, a period whose record of repression the Party has officially repudiated.
When Kádár made him prime minister last year, it was interpreted as a shrewd ploy to make Grósz take the blame for whatever unpopular decisions would have to be made to deal with the declining economy. But Kádár’s tactic failed, for very soon Grósz emerged as a strong leader who had the confidence of Moscow, and the man thought to be narrow and orthodox several years ago was now said by Hungarians to be dynamic, intelligent, aggressive, and flexible.
Grósz faces a situation that would have been inconceivable a few months ago. No one imagined that the Soviets would indicate a desire, as they recently have, to withdraw some of their troops from Hungary. No one would have imagined that a Soviet leader would announce, as Gorbachev has, that Hungary was closest to the Soviet model of perestroika. Lately, Grósz has spoken up for carrying out economic reforms at a faster pace. At the Party conference in May, where criticism of Communist failings was more open than ever before, a delegate complained that the workers were insufficiently rewarded for honest work. Grósz snapped at him, “It is not enough to work honestly. One must also work efficiently.”
It seems that Grósz is willing to take risks, but it is far from clear that he can cut down subsidies to the inefficient state enterprises, which today consume one fourth of the state’s budget, or whether he is prepared to accept temporary mass unemployment in order to create a competitive pricing system. Moreover, at the meeting of the Party Central Committee in mid-July, Grósz made it clear that he would not reduce military expenditures, would not reverse cuts in the education budget, and would not stop the horribly expensive and ecologically dangerous Danube hydroelectric project, which is condemned by most experts, and against which public protest is mounting steadily.
Before he resigned, people used to say that Kádár could not really afford to resign, since his victim, Imre Nagy, the reforming Communist prime minister who was executed in 1958, would then be posthumously rehabilitated. Will this rehabilitation finally take place? Will parliament, which is now showing some signs of vitality, be able to make real decisions? Will censorship be relaxed further, and with what consequences? Grósz is inheriting a country in which the Party leaders are limping behind the intellectuals, the students, the workers, and now even many of the Party members, all of whom have been openly demanding that drastic changes be made. Heretical statements and movements have become commonplace—in any case, no one knows any longer what exactly constitutes heresy. In permitting such independent criticism, Hungary is sometimes ahead of the Soviet Union, sometimes behind it, but it is certainly more tolerant than Czechoslovakia and the other small neighboring countries.
March 15, the anniversary of the 1848 revolution in Hungary, is not an official holiday, but on that day in 1988 more than ten thousand people, most of them young, came out on the streets of Budapest to demand “true democracy,” “genuine reform,” and “freedom of the press.” In front of the parliament building, where the largest mass meeting had taken place in the early days of the 1956 uprising, democratic dissidents addressed the crowd. The scene looked much the same as it had thirty-two years ago, except this time there was no violence and, after a while, everyone went home. True, eight dissidents, probably those considered most dangerous by the authorities, spent the day in jail, but shortly thereafter one of them, Miklós Haraszti, the author of one of the books reviewed here, was allowed across the border for a visit to Vienna.
Communist Hungary’s most important official holiday is April 4, the day in 1945 when the last German and Hungarian fascist troops left Hungary, and the Red Army completed its liberation of the country. “But can one speak of liberation,” a writer asked in the April 1, 1988, issue of the leading Hungarian cultural journal, Élet és Irodalom (Life and Literature), “when only a few years after that liberation, fabricated trials were staged, internment camps were set up, a personality cult claimed its victims, and the Party leadership became its own worst enemy?”
Such a question, attacking as it does the Stalinist system, is practically obligatory in today’s Hungary. But then the writer, Gusztáv Megyesi, turned on the present regime:
Can one speak of liberation in a country where socially useful labor serves no purpose; where the monster of economic crisis looms incessantly; where housing is not provided to all citizens, nor employment worthy of their training; where it does not really pay to bear and raise children, or to learn or to think; and where one hears and reads only of difficulties and problems?
Not only are young people and the press taking more and more liberties but some workers are as well. Dunántúli Napló, the Party daily in Pécs, a city in southern Hungary, published, on September 12 of last year, a written exchange between the Party ideologist János Berecz and a group identified as “Workers of the Mecsek Mines.” While Berecz’s replies contained little that was new, except for the fact that he had bothered to reply at all in public, the questions posed by the mine workers were remarkable for their audacity even in today’s Hungary. “With workers bearing the brunt of the economic crisis,” the miners asked, “why aren’t those incompetent leaders who squandered away $15 billion [the amount of Hungary’s Western debt] brought to account? Why is it that the socialist countries have been getting poorer while nonaligned Austria and Finland have been getting richer?” And then the miner’s group asked a question I have never seen posed in a Communist paper: “If the Party and the government are so certain they enjoy the confidence of the people, why don’t we have free elections under international supervision?”
Early this year, the Budapest daily Magyar Nemzet published the full text of a manifesto by a group of Hungarian writers who call themselves “populist,” which could also be translated as “nationalist”:
The Hungarian nation has drifted into one of the most serious crises in its history. Its national strength is broken, its self-confidence and bearing are shaken, the bonds of its unity have been tragically loosened, its self-knowledge is startingly inadequate. It looks ahead to a possible economic collapse.
And so on in the apocalyptic style favored by populist intellectuals in Budapest; but it is a tone that has not been heard in public since before World War II.
Little is left of Communist beliefs in Hungary. At most 20 percent of the students at Budapest University belong to the Young Communist League, in which membership used to be virtually compulsory. Students have begun organizing their own independent democratic association instead, and despite official warnings that this is illegal, recruitment continues. An independent trade union of “scientific workers” has also been created; it has been condemned without noticeable effect by the official trade union.
The widespread enthusiasm for a free market economy is unmistakable. It is reflected, among other things, in the pages of the popular Hungarian economic journal HVG, which rarely misses an opportunity to expose the failures of the command economy and centralized planning, not merely in socialist but also in democratic countries. Marxist economics is often treated as a bad joke. A recent Budapest newspaper cartoon shows a crowded street, with signs on the walls, storefronts, taxis, buses, and billboards advertising private business, from Rosie’s Fashions to Uncle Béla’s Organic Apples. Half-hidden among the masses of people is Karl Marx, vainly hustling a comic book entitled Das Kapital. A popular joke in Budapest goes: “What is socialism? The longest and most arduous road from capitalism to capitalism.”
Part of the economy has already been returned to private control through the licensing of private shopkeepers, artisans, and cooperatives, and through allowing state enterprises such as plastics factories to issue bonds and inviting widespread speculation in these bonds. The rich own Mercedes cars and villas with swimming pools; they spend their vacations in fashionable foreign resorts. The less fortunate, including many pensioners, single parents, younger scholars, agricultural laborers, unskilled workers, the not yet very numerous unemployed, and most Gypsies (who amount to about 3 percent of the total population), live in varying degrees of poverty. Some old-age pensions amount to a mere $50 monthly; a young secretary earns perhaps $80.
Today not even socialized medicine is genuinely free, and to sublet one room in the capital can easily cost $150 a month. And yet the grossly underpaid Hungarians demonstrate an uncanny ability to live much better than one could ever expect. They often have two or three jobs at the same time—and suffer the predictable consequences, an amazingly high rate of heart attacks, nervous breakdowns, suicides, and disturbingly low birth rate. Budapest stores are almost always full of goods and always full of shoppers; there is more than enough food. Soviet tourists feel as if they were in Paris. Budapest transportation would be envied by New Yorkers. Practically everyone has adequate clothes, and homelessness affects proportionately fewer people than in the United States. The economic health of the nation is precarious but probably less so than the public tends to think.
In fact, the greatest change is not economic but psychological. The Party leaders stopped boasting of their achievements well before Gorbachev came on the scene; instead, they compete with the public in bemoaning the intolerable conditions. The same Party that not so long ago insisted that all was well now proclaims with the same dogmatic unanimity that, in truth, nothing is.
Hungary’s relations with Czechoslovakia are uneasy; with Romania they are terrible. Because of the cruel oppression of the two million ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania, a state of semi-official hostility exists between the two regimes. This is nothing new: during World War II, when Hungary and Romania were military, political, and ideological allies, dominated by Nazi Germany, the two countries were nonetheless on the brink of war. Official Hungarian reports estimate the number of refugees from Romania at twenty thousand, and the Hungarian government publicly condemned President Nicolae Ceauescu’s March 1988 program to destroy, by the year 2000, one half of Romania’s villages and to eliminate most of the smaller villages now.
The crazy-seeming destruction—“systematization,” as it is called—began some time ago with the bulldozing of one third of Bucharest, and has now been extended to the countryside. What will happen to the population in the condemned villages, or to the centuries-old Romanian, Hungarian, and Saxon-German churches, cemeteries, and other monuments, is anybody’s guess. The Hungarian government has assured the public that no refugees in Hungary, not even ethnic Romanians, will be deported back to Romania. There is even an unofficial “Free Romania Committee” in Budapest. The talk of Hungarian intellectuals centers on Transylvania when it is not preoccupied with inflation (estimated at an annual 20 percent), the new income tax, and the possibilities of discrediting the Party leaders by revealing their mistakes and stupidity. These are not secret, underground matters; they are discussed in the press, on the radio, and, to a lesser extent, on television.
Behind such questions is the deeper one of whether Hungary is entering a ruinous crisis brought about by the Party’s failure to achieve its targets and by mass psychological depression, or whether this is a period of transition and national renewal. I would myself tend to favor the second possibility. One thing is certain: we are at the end of the period that began with World War II, and we are seeing the last days of a generation that lived through war, destruction, genocide, hysterical propaganda, brazen lies, police terror, self-deception, and mutual denunciations, but also showed genuine political passion and boundless enthusiasm and had idealistic hopes. Those who are stepping down today still bear the marks of Hungary’s Habsburg, feudal, and bourgeois past. Even Kádár, the illegitimate son of an illiterate Croatian housemaid, tried to assume a manner reminiscent of his noble and bourgeois persecutors and victims. Lately, he has begun to sound like a Protestant preacher. In Kádár’s bygone world, both the torturers and the tortured knew their roles could be easily reversed. Kádár, one of the oldest surviving Communists in Hungary, spent time not only in the prisons of the counterrevolutionary regime of Admiral Horthy, but also in the more horrible ones of Stalinism. Many of the Communists who persecuted him had once been his companions in struggle, and some of his victims, Imre Nagy in particular, were also former comrades.
The new generation, as represented by Károly Grósz, and by the young people in the streets, have experienced little or nothing of this. Kádár’s successors have never been persecuted, and today’s young people are not afraid of the police, which does not mean they are all tolerant liberals. When I asked a violently anti-Semitic taxi driver what he would do if I turned out to be an official and reported him, he said, “Go ahead! This is a free country.” On television one sees interviews with youth groups such as rockers, skinheads, and even neo-Nazis. They are said to be marginal but are treated by the interviewers as if they were familiar figures on the Hungarian scene.
One of the books under review, Charles Gati’s Hungary and the Soviet Bloc, is very helpful in explaining how all this has come about. Gati, a Union College political scientist of Hungarian origin, accounts for both the recent history and the present conditions of the country, placing Hungary in the wider context of the Communist orbit. The other books under review deal more narrowly with the Stalinist period, the revolution of 1956, or the peculiar mentalities of Hungary’s conformist and not-so-conformist intellectuals.
Hungary’s post–World War II fate was decided when its army took part in the German invasion of the Soviet Union, which brought the Red Army inexorably to Budapest in the winter of 1944–1945. Soviet predominance over Hungary was symbolically ratified at the meeting in October 1944 between Churchill and Stalin in Moscow, where the two leaders at first agreed that Britain and the USSR would have equal influence over Hungary, and then, after much haggling, changed the proportion to 80 percent for the Soviets and only 20 percent for the Western powers.
However, as Gati argues persuasively, for the Russians to have much influence was not yet the same as installing a Bolshevik regime, and the Hungarian Communists who returned from Moscow expected to wait ten or fifteen years before they took power. In 1945, Hungary had a democratic coalition government. Though the country had been devastated in the war, a hopeful mood prevailed. The democratic Smallholders’ party won an absolute majority in the free November 1945 parliamentary elections, and Communist party officials who joined the coalition government said they were in favor of parliamentarianism and capitalist reconstruction.
True, the occupying army turned over control of the police to the Communists; but this was seen by many at the time as the price of Soviet liberation. The police at first hunted down both fascists and—unknown to the public—left-wing Communists who wanted to take power without waiting for instructions from Moscow. The years between 1945 and 1947 were a brief interlude of democratic dreams, a period that is just now becoming popular with the Hungarian press and Hungarian historians. It has taken four decades to rehabilitate, even in part, what was destroyed in 1947 when Stalin ordered the Bolshevization of the remaining non-Bolshevik countries in Eastern Europe.
Gati, who had access to a number of hitherto unknown documents, and who interviewed many former Communist leaders, argues that the decisive event was the Szklarska Poreba conference of European Communist leaders in September 1947, where the Communist Information Bureau or Cominform was founded. By then, Stalin was greatly upset over the independent behavior of the Yugoslav Communists under Tito, the unexpected electoral setbacks suffered by the Communists in France, Italy, Finland, Austria, and Hungary, and, of course, the beginning of the cold war. As a result, at Szklarska Poreba, a summer resort in Polish Silesia, Communist leaders who were “insufficiently militant” were denounced, and the Hungarian Communists enthusiastically concluded that the days of coalition were over. The immediate outcome of the conference, Gati writes, was a series of widespread strikes in France and Italy, and a new general offensive against “U.S. imperialism.” In the Soviet-occupied countries, decisive steps were taken toward establishing “people’s democracies.”
But by the time of the Szklarska Poreba meeting, however, the non-Communist leaders in Hungary were already powerless. As early as December 1946, Mátyás Rákosi, the chief Moscow Communist, began employing his notorious “salami tactics,” slicing off his opponents one by one from the ruling coalition. By September 1947, the prime minister of Hungary, a member of the Smallholders’ party, had been driven into exile, the secretary general of his party was in Soviet military custody, and the new Hungarian prime minister was a fellow traveler.
Gati argues that the Communist takeover was made much easier by the continuous infighting and general ineptitude of the non-Communist Hungarian politicians, and this might be partly true; but in fact the democratic parties had been infiltrated by Communists from the very beginning. The morale of the democrats had been undermined by their being entirely at the mercy of the Red Army and the political police, and Hungary was defenseless. The Western powers took no interest in its fate. The Hungarians had nowhere to turn, certainly not to the Allied Control Commission, whose British and American members were under orders to do nothing.
Contrary to the claims later made by Hungarian émigrés, a large part of the Hungarian population was not categorically opposed to a revolutionary transformation of society. Gati writes that “a slight majority of the electorate was favorably inclined toward either the Communist-industrial or the populist-agrarian model of radical development.” The Hungarian Stalinists, like all East European Communists, had considerable leeway in interpreting Moscow’s instructions regarding immediate Bolshevization; not all East European Communists acted identically. Certainly the Hungarian Stalinists proved to be among the most servile, most brutal, and the most self-destructive.
What came next is perhaps the best-known episode of modern East European history, the era of Stalinism, lasting roughly from 1948 to 1953, with its Five Year Plan, heavy industrialization, enormous transfers of population from the countryside to the cities, forced collectivization of farms, compulsory deliveries of agricultural produce, the electrification of the villages, the creation of entire new cities, the spread of education, the elimination of the old social elite, and police terror rivaling that of the Nazis. Today’s Hungary both benefits and suffers from the consequences of this astonishing transformation.
It did not benefit at all from the purges that began in 1949, a story told with remarkable objectivity in Show Trials by George Hodos, himself a former purge victim. Unlike previous accounts, this important work describes the purges in their broader East European setting, and connects one country to another, retracing the story from Stalin’s break with Tito in 1948 to Soviet preparations for war with Yugoslavia and, perhaps, the West as well. The American Quaker and Communist fellow traveler Noel Field figured in almost every trial, accusing dozens of Communist leaders of being US agents. He was to spend many years in a Hungarian prison.1 Long after he was released I met Field in the editorial office of a Budapest publishing house; his colleagues told me that he had kept the faith, and that he was the only person in the firm before whom they were afraid to speak openly.
Hodos, who now lives in the United States, came from a family of rich Jewish merchants; he joined the Party while studying in Switzerland during World War II. Although a completely dedicated Communist, he was arrested on July 6, 1949, and accused of being an American spy. By then the purges had been going on for several months, and Rákosi’s chief victim, the Communist minister of the interior László Rajk, had been tortured to prepare him for a show trial. Contrary to commonly held beliefs, the methods used to get the victims to cooperate were far from sophisticated. Rather, there was horrendous torture, lasting for many weeks, followed by sudden conviviality and lenient treatment. The interrogators appealed to the prisoner’s conscience as a Communist; they promised he could return to his family and retire honorably at a Soviet resort. By that time the victim was completely broken; he named his best friends, and was ready to start the many rehearsals necessary for a successful trial. None of the promises was ever kept. Rajk as well as hundreds of other Communists ended up on the gallows, while Hodos was considered unimportant enough to be given a mere eight years.
Both Hodos and Gati deal extensively with a central but seldom emphasized aspect of the Hungarian (and Czechoslovak) purge trials: most of the police interrogators, nearly all of the Hungarian Stalinist leaders, and most of the Communist victims were Jews. László Rajk was the exception, a major victim of the purges who was a non-Jewish Stalinist leader. The victims weren’t selected because they were Jews: it was simply that most of the Hungarian Communists were Jews. The reasons are not difficult to understand. Jews made up a large part of the Hungarian intellectual elite from which the Party drew its members. Hungarian anti-Semitism became more intense during the interwar years; and despite mass deportations to Auschwitz in 1944 and the gassing of several hundred thousand Hungarian Jews, more Jews survived in Hungary than anywhere else in Europe.
The Jewishness of Hungarian Stalinism may help to explain why for most non-Jewish Hungarians the major events of those years were not the purge trials, which barely concerned them, but the introduction of comprehensive welfare measures and the upward social movement for some, and the persecution, as well as poverty and collectivization, that was the lot of others. As a result, the Stalinist era is not universally unpopular among Hungarians. Today, there are relatively few Jews left in Hungary—many of them having fled in 1956 or emigrated afterward. Yet as many as 100,000 Hungarians may be of Jewish origin, of whom only a minority identify themselves as Jews. Anti-Semitic feelings continue, some of them going back to the Stalinist years when Jewish Party leaders and police commanders ordered police brutes, themselves often former Nazis, viciously to beat Jewish prisoners. Not long ago, a Hungarian newspaper told the story of Endre Havas, a Jewish Communist poet and former Resistance fighter in France, who went insane in a Hungarian Communist prison. Convinced that he was in the hands of the Gestapo, Havas died under torture while invoking the name of Stalin.
During the 1930s, Stalin’s Great Terror eliminated his real and potential rivals in the Party leadership. “Ten to fifteen years later, after the war,” Hodos writes, “a very different group was liquidated, the young guard of the communist leadership in Eastern Europe. These were not opponents of Stalin, but his faithful disciples.” Rajk and his fellow victims were Stalinists, not “national Communists.” They were not rivals for power, and they were not potential opponents. Many victims kept their faith while in prison, and many returned to the Party unconditionally after being “rehabilitated.” Hodos, writing ironically on the rehabilitation and public “reburial” of Rajk in October 1956, an event that fore-shadowed the outbreak of popular opposition later that month, notes: “Only a few among those who had attended his delayed funeral recalled Rajk as a Stalinist, but one exceptional witness to the proceedings whispered to a nearby friend, ‘If he had lived to see this, he would have ordered the police to fire at the crowd.’ “2
János Kádár was one of those believers. He had been a loyal and brave “home Communist,” i.e., he had not gone to Moscow during the war and, after the war, he assumed an important, but not too important, position in the Party. He succeeded his friend László Rajk as minister of interior, and even though L. Gyurkó’s account of his life (at the beginning of the collection of speeches under review) says nothing about this, he helped persuade Rajk to make his confession. His own turn came in May 1951. Gyurkó claims that Kádár was not physically tortured; Hodos says that he was, most brutally. Kádár was sentenced to life in prison but was released in the fall of 1954 and returned to Party work as if nothing had happened. That he had changed his views, however, he proved in the 1960s, when he insisted on setting up a system of “socialist legality,” in which official terror was largely eliminated.
What explains the East European show trials? There was Stalin’s growing madness; then, too, the Western powers made clumsy attempts to infiltrate agents who were, of course, immediately uncovered. There was an accumulation of slanderous accusations under torture, which led to the arrest of more and more people, so as to make their first arrests seem reasonable, until the police began to arrest their own members. There was the fear-driven viciousness of the East European Stalinist leaders, and, finally, there was the collective hysteria of the Party members, who denounced their closest friends. Hodos provides an additional explanation:
The show trials in Eastern Europe would have occurred even without the break between Stalin and Tito, probably even with the identical victims, as the device by which the brother parties of the postwar Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe were subordinated to the Soviet party. Show trials were an integral part of Stalinism, and their introduction into the satellite states was a logical step, albeit with variants on the tested Soviet model. These differences were not merely geographic or periodic. In the factional, ideological, and power struggles of the 1930s, the victims were selected first and the necessary scenario written afterwards. In the Eastern Europe of the 1940s, the scenario was created before the victims were selected
The show trials were only a small part of the repression in Stalinist Hungary; thousands of non-Communists were also executed and tens of thousands were secretly imprisoned, thrown into concentration camps, or deported. During the winter of 1952–1953, many of the political police themselves were arrested. Their chief, General Gábor Péter, was sentenced to life imprisonment as a Zionist agent. He was pardoned in 1959 by his former victim János Kádár and now lives comfortably in Hungary as a retired official. Other former political police commanders have found jobs in business. One of the most sadistic officers later made a name for himself as a manager of a very liberal publishing firm in Budapest.
Stalin died in March 1953, and everything began to change for the better. In June, the Soviets replaced Mátyás Rákosi with Imre Nagy, another “Muscovite,” but a reasonable and humane man. As prime minister, Nagy allowed the peasants to leave the collective farms, some of which were converted to small holdings. He eased the policy by which peasants were forced to make deliveries and attempted, though not always successfully, to improve living standards. He also released all Communist political prisoners and a large number of non-Communist ones. Angered by what they considered to be excessive reforms, the Soviet leaders put Rákosi back in power in April 1955, but the time of total Party rule was over, and Rákosi was no more able to deal with the economic difficulties than Nagy had been. By 1956, the country was in ferment. The drive for a fundamental reform of Communism was led by intellectuals, mostly quite young and mostly former Stalinists themselves. In October 1956, hundreds of thousands of Hungarians took part in a violent revolution that brought Nagy back to power and, within a few days, resulted in the establishment of a democratic, multi-party system. The local Soviet armed forces had been defeated.
The books by Berecz and Gadney are far from the most important studies of the “Thirteen Days that Shook the Kremlin.”3 Berecz wrote his book in Hungarian in 1981; its very title, Counter-Revolution, makes it outdated even in Hungary, as does his argument that the events of 1956 were the result of an imperialist conspiracy. Probably even Berecz would write a very different book today, when the 1956 uprising is officially called “The Tragic October Events,” and the press more and more often refers to the “Revolution.” Gadney’s Cry Hungary! is equally partisan, but from the opposite point of view. It contains a shattering collection of photographs and includes a detailed and useful outline chronology of the revolution. For a convincing if brief analysis, we must again turn to Gati, who shows, contrary to many claims, that Imre Nagy remained a loyal Party man nearly to the end. He refused to believe that the Soviets would use military force to interfere with his efforts to reform Hungary and preserve Communism.
Kádár was more of a realist. He understood that the Russians would crush the revolt, and therefore he joined them, to save what could be saved of Hungarian autonomy and of the domestic Communist movement. Imre Nagy, deeply offended by what he saw as Soviet betrayal, refused to recant even while in prison. He and his chief collaborators were hanged in Budapest, in June 1958. Hundreds of others were also executed, and thousands were imprisoned.
In the early 1960s, Kádár suddenly reversed himself and carried out a program of reform. He had come to realize (as he explained to Gyurkó and in his many, rather dull, speeches) that Communism without legality was worthless. The result of his efforts is a comparatively gentle Hungary where, to give only two examples, there are no known political prisoners, except for conscientious objectors, and almost everyone is allowed to travel abroad.
Kádár’s reforms were supported by the same intellectuals who had been the driving force behind the 1956 revolution, and whom Kádár had sent to jail. These are the intellectuals that Miklós Haraszti accuses of treason in his passionate book, The Velvet Prison. An ardent opponent of compromise, and a member of the young generation that did not know Stalinism, Haraszti argues that the writers, artists, and philosophers of the Hungarian establishment relish their continuing captivity in a pseudo-liberal system. Freed of “rusty iron chains,” the intellectuals, he charges, have readily slipped on “designer shackles.” Having sacrificed any effective autonomy, any true independence, they put themselves at the service of the state, which rewards them with unprecedented privileges, including artistic freedom, which they seldom put to interesting use. Haraszti wrote his book several years ago and, as he himself admits in an oddly apologetic afterword written in 1987 when the book was published in the United States, much of it is no longer valid. Indeed, when one contemplates today’s political press and belles-lettres, one finds more militancy than shackles.
In retrospect, Kádár’s resignation this spring could hardly have been avoided, for this son of the working class, whose main goal in public life was to assure a decent living standard for the workers, had shown himself unable to deal with new technologies and new economic developments. He had fought for a society of full employment, belching smokestacks, and contented, hard-working little people. He understands little of economic theory, of the uses of computers, of the postindustrial age. The economic reforms of 1968, particularly the loosening of controls on agriculture and medium-sized businesses, led to relative affluence. But Kádár was also at least partly responsible for the reaction of conservative Party officials who, between 1973 and 1978, prevented the economic reforms from having a deep effect. In the eyes of Hungary’s best economists, that conservative reaction is the major cause of today’s difficulties.
During the 1980s, Kádár further delayed progress by insisting that the workers be guaranteed continuously improving real wages. His experts argued in vain that this was a sure road to economic disaster, that both wages and prices should have a clear relation to demand. Now the crisis he produced faces Károly Grósz. The new leader is said to have no genuine ideology, no illusions, and no high ideals. In the 1970s, he was in the forefront of those who upheld the interests of the vast Party and state apparatus. Most recently, he proved his ideological flexibility by dealing harshly with a peaceful demonstration for democracy and, at the same time, encouraging a patriotic demonstration for the rights of the Hungarian minority in Communist Romania. On June 16, the Budapest police beat up and briefly arrested some leaders and members of a crowd, estimated at five hundred, who demanded more freedom and the rehabilitation of Imre Nagy as well as other victims of the post-1956 repression. On June 27, the police did not interfere with a crowd estimated at about 50,000, whose leader, the populist writer István Csurka, said publicly: “Formally, Romania is our ally—in practice, it is our enemy.” The demonstrators carried banners with such slogans as “SOS Transylvania,” “Europe without dictators,” and “Adolf Ceauescu.”
Grósz’s statements as well as his actions are, for the time being, widely contradictory. In an interview published in the international edition of Newsweek on July 18, and in the Hungarian newspapers on July 12, Grósz justified the police brutality toward the democratic intellectuals and former members of the 1956 General Workers’ Council, by claiming that the June 16 demonstration was “fascist, irredentist, and chauvinist.” He also approved of the trial of Imre Nagy in 1958 and claimed, disregarding recent Hungarian historical literature on the subject, that in 1956, the Soviet Union had saved Hungary in the nick of time from Western military intervention. But Grósz has also come out in favor of efficiency and the free market. He has made it clear that he wants to improve political relations with the Western countries in order to help Hungary to acquire advanced technology and to increase its volume of foreign trade. In July Hungary became the first Communist country to reach a comprehensive trade agreement with the European Community, and Grósz, who previously had friendly meetings with Helmut Kohl and Margaret Thatcher, arrived in the United States for the first official visit by the leader of a Soviet bloc country in ten years. It is said that Grósz considers Mrs. Thatcher his model, and that he aims at a society based on authority and an economy governed by the profit motive. He is not likely to have an easy time in a country that has learned to distrust any authority deriving from the Party installed by Soviet forces some forty years ago.
—July 21, 1988
August 18, 1988
Field’s story was well told by Flora Lewis in The Red Pawn: The Story of Noel Field (Doubleday, 1965). ↩
After the revolution of 1956, an exiled Social Democrat—so the anecdote goes—returned to Hungary and met with Mrs. Rajk, herself an old Bolshevik, who had been arrested along with her husband, whom she called Laci, and spent many years in jail. Rajk’s widow talked about the past and about the fate of socialist comrades in the antifascist struggle. One comrade, it turned out, had been killed by the Hungarian fascists, another died in Auschwitz, and a third had fled into exile in 1956. “And what about Comrade K.?” the Social Democrat inquired. “Oh, poor Comrade K.,” Mrs. Rajk answered, “he was hanged by my poor Laci.” ↩
This is the title of a book by Tibor Méray, himself a revolutionary Communist in 1956 (Praeger, 1959). Other useful works on the Hungarian October are Tamás Aczél and Tibor Méray, The Revolt of the Mind (Praeger, 1959): Ferenc Feher and Agnes Heller, Hungary, 1956 Revisited (George Allen and Unwin, 1983); Melvin J. Lasky, ed., The Hungarian Revolution (Praeger, 1957); and Ferenc A. Váli, Rift and Revolt in Hungary (Harvard University Press, 1961). ↩