Monday, October 23, 2006

50th anniversary of a people's uprising

When students gathered on a crisp, bright autumn morning in Budapest exactly half a century ago today, for a march in support of a 16-point manifesto, no one could have predicted that by late evening an armed insurrection would break out and that revolution would sweep the whole of Hungary, challenging the might of Kremlin rule. The students’ 16 points included an end to Soviet military occupation, the democratisation of political life and a public inquiry into the crimes of Hungary’s Stalinist leaders. Literally handed to Moscow by Roosevelt and Churchill at the Yalta conference in February 1945, Hungary became Moscow’s puppet Stalinist state. Factories were stripped and sent back to the USSR. Customs were Russified. By the early 1950s, there was famine, widespread poverty, falling wages and a reign of terror that touched one in ten of the population of 10 million.

In 1956, Hungarians became emboldened, however. In February, Khrushchev had denounced Stalin in a bombshell speech to his party congress. A mass movement in neighbouring Poland in June had successfully defied Moscow. In early October, 200,000 people attending the reburial of a show trial victim in Budapest had turned the occasion into a protest rally. As military cadets and workers joined the October 23 demonstration, feelings rose. A giant statue of Stalin was brought down with the help of heavy lifting equipment. Later that evening, students peacefully gathered outside the radio station and asked for their 16 points to be read out. The response was a hail of gunfire from the hated secret police, the AVH. Soon police and soldiers were handing out weapons to anyone who wanted them and the Hungarian Revolution had started. The next day, Red Army tanks appeared in Budapest in an attempt to restore order. Workers from the factories around Budapest led the resistance that over the next six days fought the Soviet forces to a standstill. It seemed as if a famous victory had been won as the tanks began to withdraw.

Within days, the Hungarian party-state collapsed overnight throughout the country. Where there was resistance, people took up arms against the AVH secret police, often executing them on the spot. The political and administrative vacuum was filled by the people themselves. Hungarians had never experienced any kind of freedom, apart from a brief period after World War One. After that they had suffered at the hands of Europe’s first fascist regime, which lasted until 1945. Now Hungarians took matters into their own hands. As a 1957 report of the UN General Assembly noted: "No aspect of the Hungarian uprising expressed its democratic tendencies or its reaction to previous conditions more clearly than the creation of Revolutionary Councils in villages, towns and on the county level, and of Workers’ Councils in factories. Within a few days, these bodies came into existence all over Hungary and assumed important responsibilities. Their chief purpose was to ensure for the Hungarian people real, and not merely nominal, control of local government and of factories, mines, and other industrial enterprises. There was even a suggestion that a National Revolutionary Committee might replace the National Assembly, while another proposal was that a Supreme National Council could exercise the prerogative of Head of the State." By October 27, Revolutionary Committees also existed in the government ministries and promptly denounced what had taken place under the old regime.

The pure, revolutionary character of the revolution – which had won support from Poland and inside the USSR itself – was too much for Moscow. A massive army invaded Hungary on November 3 and eventually crushed the revolution, despite the resistance of factory workers that lasted until December. Tens of thousands were killed or deported while 200,000 fled the country. Imre Nagy, who had been propelled into the leadership of the revolution, was eventually lured out of the Yugoslav embassy and executed in 1958. The rest of the world did nothing. The UN was silent as was the White House. President Eisenhower had let the Soviet Union know that Hungary remained within their "sphere of influence". But the struggle and sacrifices of the Hungarian workers and students were not in vain. The crimes of Stalinism were exposed before world opinion, creating a crisis for Moscow from which it never recovered. Meanwhile, the socialist democracy created by Hungary’s revolutionary and workers’ councils is just as inspiring today as it was 50 years ago.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

No comments: