Hungary’s Revolution: Forty Years On

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956: Reform, Revolt and Repression, 1953-1963 H. Legers.

edited by György Litván. English version edited and translated by János M. Bak and Lyman
Longman, 272 pp., $19.31 (paper)

Hungary's Negotiated Revolution: Economic Reform, Social Change, and Political Succession, 1957-1990

by Rudolf L. Tokés
Cambridge University Press, 544 pp., $24.95 (paper)

János Kádár
János Kádár; drawing by David Levine

What happened in Hungary in 1956? Here is a fairly typical brief Western summary, from the Columbia Encyclopedia:

On Oct. 23, 1956, a popular anti-Communist revolution, centered in Budapest, broke out in Hungary. A new coalition government under Imre Nagy declared Hungary neutral, withdrew it from the Warsaw Treaty, and appealed to the UN for aid. However, János Kádár, one of Nagy’s ministers, formed a counter-government and asked the USSR for military support. In severe and brutal fighting Soviet forces suppressed the revolution. Nagy and some of his ministers were abducted and were later executed. Some 190,000 refugees fled the country. Kádár became premier and sought to win popular support for Communist rule….

In Hungary itself, the history of the 1956 revolution was obliterated or traduced for more than thirty years. János Kádár progressed from Soviet quisling to domestic father-figure and the West’s favorite “liberal” Communist. Yet throughout those years, Kádár himself seems to have been haunted and driven by the memory of the comrades he had betrayed and, finally, condemned to death. Imre Nagy was his Banquo—and he was always Macbeth.

A part of the true history was written abroad. Another part was gradually rediscovered by independent historians and oppositional writers inside Hungary in the 1980s, interviewing survivors, publishing suppressed writings, and drawing their own conclusions. Then, in June 1989, the ceremonial reburial of Imre Nagy and his closest associates, together with a sixth coffin for the Unknown Insurgent, was the great symbolic turning point in Hungary’s transition from communism to democracy. Banquo’s ghost was enthroned.

In a free Hungary, the true history of 1956 could surely at last be revealed. An entire institute was established for this single purpose: the Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Archives were opened. Survivors could now talk freely. Young historians set to work. The 1956 Institute, under its director György Litván, produced a new short history of the revolution, first as a Hungarian school textbook, then in German, and most recently in an excellent English edition, which is a must for all students of the subject.

With the end of communism elsewhere, more evidence also emerged from the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, even from China. Not all the evidence, of course, but more. Meanwhile, American, British, French, and other Western official documents became available under the “thirty year rule.” Some, perhaps the most interesting, remained classified, but scholars pressed for further access and, in the United States, used the Freedom of Information Act to demand it.


Now, forty years later, scholars and survivors assemble in the handsome rooms of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, its high windows looking across the Danube from naughty Pest to haughty Buda. Inside, it looks like just another academic conference. We might be in London, at a meeting about the Suez crisis that so unhappily coincided with the Hungarian revolution. This forty-year moment…

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