October-November 1956 witnessed the most momentous events in Hungarian history since 1848, according to Istvan Deak, but they escape an agreed definition despite remaining a defining memory. The debate in Hungary over the events of 1956 even extends to what to call them, with "revolution and struggle for freedom" being the current compromise. Deak, the Seth Low Professor of History at Columbia University and a former Wilson Center Fellow, began his Noon Discussion on 12 March by reviewing the way the 1956 revolution has been treated in Hungary from the Communist to the post-Communist period. To bring his audience up to date on the political debate and the current best understanding of what happened, he concluded with his impressions from the fortieth anniversary conference held in Budapest in September 1996. The meeting was cosponsored by the Center's Cold War International History Project, the Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and the National Security Archive.
Deak noted that the best recorded events of 1956 are the struggle and statements of the Stalinist regime of Matyas Rakosi versus that of the revolutionary Communist leader, Imre Nagy. Nagy's Stalinist executioners survived to die peacefully, and a number of them became revisionists who relaxed Communist constraints in the 1960s and 1970s. But no one in Hungary, Deak added, remembers their role before or during 1956 favorably. What all participants did, whether important or not, as younger men and women on one of the several sides during the 1956 events, remains a part of their political profile.
Far less attention has been given, Deak emphasized several times, to the people who did virtually all of the actual street fighting and turned a transition of power among Communist elites into a valiant effort to cut Hungary loose from the Soviet bloc and one-party rule. They numbered less than one thousand in Budapest and were workers and others outside the middle class. Time magazine recognized them, Deak recalled, by making the "Hungarian Freedom Fighter" its Man of the Year for 1956. But since then they have been largely forgotten, leaving it unclear whether they should be characterized as freedom fighters, right-wing anti-Semites, or young opponents of the Communist regime following in the footsteps of those who tried to resist the Communist regime from 1945 onward. Since 1989 this favorable view of those who took to the streets has found a voice in those demanding that 1956 be called a "struggle for freedom" as well as a revolution.
Deak reviewed the long decades after 1956 when, despite a variety of other relaxations in Communist orthodoxy, the regime of Janos Kadar, who had voted in favor of Nagy's execution in 1958, insisted on maintaining the fiction of 1956 as a "counter-revolution" sparked by Rakosi's "mistakes" and quickly taken over by "Western exploiters" who used Radio Free Europe (RFE) and "feudal or fascist remnants" to install the short-lived Nagy government. Then the Soviet Union intervened to save "Hungarian socialism and world peace." Deak praised the late Hungarian historian, Gyorgy Ranki, for starting to revise this version by the late 1970s, although he was successful at first only in shortening references to it. As 1989 approached, a real frontal assault was under way. A commission headed by former Wilson Center Fellow Ivan Berend, then president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, determined that 1956 "was a genuine popular revolution." One of the first acts of the new 1990 government was to make October 23 Hungary's major national holiday, replacing November 7, the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
Since then, what Deak called a Hungarian Historikerstreit has grown up among those who see 1956 as alternatively a socialist, popular, or nationalist revolution. The socialists, including the present government of Gyula Horn, hark back to Nagy who was such a true believer that he lectured the judge at his trial on Marxism. Those remembering a popular revolution honor the late Istvan Bibo, perhaps the most independent and respected intellectual of postwar Hungary. The late Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, imprisoned following a famous show trial in 1949 and liberated during the 1956 revolution, is of course the hero of the Christian right. Descendants of the Nagy and Bibo generations, Deak concluded, make uncomfortable bedfellows in the ruling coalition of Socialists and Free Democrats. At the same time, it would be a mistake to call the interpretation of 1956 a burning issue for the Hungarian public at large, whose political consciousness is largely focused on current economic and social problems.
Deak added that representatives of all these conflicting views of 1956 attended the September conference and agreed on one major point--their disappointment with the controversial RFE broadcasts to Hungary. Many listeners in 1956 were left with the impression that Western assistance was on the way, but only if the Nagy government of revolutionary Communists was swept away in favor of figures such as Cardinal Mindszenty. Of great interest to all conference participants was new evidence from Soviet archives indicating a serious division of opinion within the Politburo and Nikita Khrushchev's own hesitation to persist with intervention. The Soviets seriously considered a full military withdrawal from Hungary until pressured by China and others in the bloc to listen to their own hardliners.
Dr. Deak spoke at an EES Noon Discussion March 12, 1997.