An Irishman's Diary
TODAY in Budapest, flowers will be laid on the grave of Imre Nagy, prime minister, leader of the Hungarian revolution of 1956, and its most notable victim. The revolution against Soviet rule began on October 23rd and lasted 13 days until it was crushed on November 4th, when 2,000 Soviet tanks invaded Hungary.
Remembrance Day is a national day and public holiday in memory of the 2,500 who died and the 200,000 who fled into exile. The day is celebrated with public speeches, exhibitions and events in every city, town and village in Hungary.
János Kádár was the man who betrayed the Hungarian revolution of 1956. He went on to rule Hungary for no less than 32 years from 1956 to 1988. He was a pragmatic opportunist, sharp and elusive; a protean figure constantly adapting to the needs of the moment. By staying silent as much as possible, he gave few hostages to fortune.
Kádár had been born out of wedlock in 1912 in Fiume, then Hungary’s only outlet to the sea (now Rijeka on the Croatian coast). He had known real poverty in his youth and had left school at an early age to train as an apprentice mechanic. He became a Communist and was jailed for his activities. He was secretary of the Communist party in Hungary during the second World War when membership was miserably small.
After the War, the Communist party seized power in Hungary. Kádár was Minister of the Interior from 1948 to 1950. In 1951 he was imprisoned and tortured by Hungary’s sadistic leader, Mátyás Rákosi, as the Communist apparatchiks turned on their own.
Kádár was sentenced to life imprisonment. He served three years in solitary confinement before he was released by the popular and progressive prime minister Imre Nagy. He did not return the favour when the roles were reversed.
The reform communist Nagy, who favoured “communism with a human face”, was fired from all offices in 1955. When the revolution began, Nagy, who had the support of the masses, was re-installed by the Soviets as prime minister in the hope that he would save the day for them. But Nagy supported the revolution. Kádár took over as first secretary of the Communist party when the leading hardliners left for Moscow. He agreed to serve in Nagy’s government. On November 1st he made a speech supporting “our people’s glorious uprising”. However, the same day he disappeared from Budapest.
The Soviets needed a replacement for Nagy and picked him. Kádár probably had no choice but to go along with the Soviet proposal or face more time in jail or worse. But go along he did, thus betraying the revolution. Essentially he sold out the revolution in 1956 and was appointed to lead the country by Moscow. In his first years he was under close Soviet supervision. He declared martial law and carried out severe reprisals. Some 22,000 people were jailed and at least 330 were executed.
Nagy was put on secret trial in Budapest and executed on June 16th, 1958. As a symbol of the revolution, Nagy was too much of a threat to Kádár. The latter’s betrayal of the revolution would always be contrasted with Nagy’s leadership of it. Nagy could have become a figure around whom opposition forces would gather; a living indictment of the Kádár regime. In a brutal realpolitik, Nagy had to be executed.
A dead martyr was preferable to a living hero and rival for power.
Under Kádár there were seven years of repression before a not quite general amnesty was declared in 1963 and many prisoners were released. Most of the population quickly realised that there was no alternative but to put up with the new regime and they gave it a grudging toleration. Under Kádár’s variety of what came to be called “goulash communism” conditions improved to the point of modest prosperity.
Once he was firmly established in power and there was no threat to his rule from the Soviets or the Hungarian people, Kádár relaxed the tension and eased the pressure on citizens to conform. His most famous political dictum: “He who is not against us is for us” gives an insight into how he ruled Hungary. From the late 1960s onwards Kádár ran a so-called “soft dictatorship”. Hungary was described as “the most cheerful barracks in the Soviet camp”.
Claudio Magris in his book Danube (originally published in 1986 while Kádár was still in power) argued that he “set out along the only road that was realistically possible” and despite a negative evaluation for his actions in 1956 he was entitled to a positive judgment for his later years. Such a revisionist interpretation of his record is not welcomed by all. Kádár had a lot of blood on his hands, not least that of Imre Nagy.
After leaving office in 1988, Kádár died the following year as the Hungarian revolution of 1989 was taking place. The red marble headstone on his grave in the Kerepesi cemetery in Budapest, which has been vandalised in the past, has the rather ambiguous inscription in Hungarian: “I was there where I had to be. I did what I had to do”.
After his execution, Nagy was secretly buried in an isolated, out of the way, unmarked grave in the farthest left-hand corner of the huge New Municipal Cemetery on the outskirts of Budapest. In May 1989, the barbed wire fence between Hungary and Austria was removed – the first breach in the Iron Curtain. On June 16th, 1989 (the 31st anniversary of his execution), Nagy and other victims of oppression were given a state funeral in Heroes Square in Budapest. They were reburied where they had lain, now a major 1956 memorial shrine. The re-burial of Nagy was the most symbolic moment in the transition from communism to democracy in the Hungarian Revolution of 1989. To honour the revolution of 1956, the new democratic state was officially proclaimed on October 23rd, 1989.