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The 1956 Hungarian Revolution - Cutting Loose Ends

by DoDo Tue Dec 5th, 2006 at 05:35:07 AM EST

When I wrote my diary series, to not make them even longer, I dropped some stories that would have been sidetracks, and tried to keep all those strange Hungarian names to a minimum. But when I reposted the series at Progressive Historians, I scribed them down in a long comment. For those who read through my series (or who are just interested in historical anecdotes), I repost that here as diary, in edited form.

Covered: explanation for two semantic issues, the fate of two individuals named in the diaries, and the introduction of three more individuals with a face and name and a story.

This diary is a supplement to this series:

  1. Prelude (communism in Hungary and the forces behind the revolution)
  2. Outbreak (the turbulent events of 23 October)
  3. Turmoil (the hectic events in the next twelve days)
  4. Fighting (the final losing battle against the Soviet tanks and its background)
  5. Personal Memories (eyewitness accounts from my relatives)
  6. Aftermath (what happened to the country and the people, and what role did its memory play later)

Revolution in the villages: National Councils

Of the grass-roots revolutionary organisations, my focus was clearly on the Workers' Councils, and mentioned others only passingly. But I indicated in the first and third diary a deep-running difference between urban people and peasants. Most of the peasantry was not much touched by Socialist ideas, and even if they favoured redistribution, it was more in religious and nationalist terms. For them, the 1848 revolution (for national liberation against the Habsburg Empire) was much more of a model to copy.

So when central power collapsed and grass-roots organisation seized power, in the villages, these were mostly called National Councils. And the main work of these was to break up collectives and distribute land again (though in some places collectives were successful and people kept them). Note that most of the land redistribution was executed after the military crushing of armed rebellion, during that time of the least known phase of the events of 1956 I wrote about in the last diary.

The village National Councils did cooperate with the city Revolutionary Councils and Workers' Councils, however. During the big self-starving strikes, they participated by stopping the supply of food except for emergency transports.

As Hungary was still very agrarian at the time, probably more people were organised in village National Councils than in city Workers' Councils. Still, the latter were more important: they were bigger organisations, it was them where all coordination ran together, they had much more power over the economy. And they did most of the battle with Kádár's central power, as the regime for long just couldn't project power to the villages for lack of manpower. As soon as resistance in the cities was broken, the regime took control over the villages easily.

The unbendable reformist: Géza Losonczy

In the series, I only referred to him anonymously. This omission may be the most unfair.

Before the revolution, Géza Losonczy was a leading reformist communist. On the photo, he is on the right, the other guy is Gábor Tánczos, leader of the reformist debate club Petőfi Circle (see first diary).

He was one of the two companions of Imre Nagy who were taken into the Party's top leadership on the night of the outbreak of the revolution. Over the next week, it was him who argued steadfastly for interpreting the events as revolution and for its support all the way, while even Nagy himself wasn't yet convinced. In the later government re-shuffles, he became a key member. He was with Nagy from Yugoslav embassy through Romanian captivity to Hungarian prison.

It was him too who put up the most steadfast resistance in prison, when interrogators tried to break them with various (non-physical) means. In late 1957, he went into a hunger strike. He was then force-fed. On 21 December 1956, he died, but due to scant witness reports and the unreliability of prison records, we can't be sure what was the real cause of death. (I referenced this.) Had he lived, six months later, he would have been the secondary defendant in the trial of the Nagy government, and certainly executed.

The pro-revolution Party boss: Rudolf Földvári

I wrote about the Party boss in revolution hotbed city Miskolc in the second, third and last diaries, but didn't tell of what became of him, except in a comment to the last diary I expand a bit here.

After the Workers' Councils were finished off, Földvári first went to Budapest, and became a simple locksmith in a tractor factory. But a few months later, he was arrested and sentenced for life imprisonment. He was freed in the 1963 amnesty, after which he went back to work in that factory as locksmith. He worked there until retirement. After the Transition, he headed a less noticed 1956 veterans' organisation.

And now for the surprise (to me when I found out): that tractor factory he worked in was the same I mentioned in the Personal Memories diary, the one near the house of my grandparents! I may even have met Földvári in my early childhood...

Another armed group boss: János Szabó

"Szabó bácsi" (=uncle Szabó) led one of the three largest armed groups: the Széna tér (=Hay square) group, named for a square near the South Railway Terminal (to which I only made a side reference in the Fighting diary).

Szabó was an old worker (was locksmith, railwayman, driver in his life) of Transsylvanian origin who even fought in WWI, and following that, in the Red Army of the Hungarian Soviet (see first diary). Then he returned home and lived there when it became part of Romania. During WWII, he moved to Hungary, and after the war, became a Communist Party member. But then the local Stalinists weren't his thing. He was first in prison for attempted border crossing, later in detention when someone denounced him as a spy.

No wonder he joined the revolution. During the first Soviet tank invasion, his group at Széna tér was notable for re-assembling every time they were forced to run away. During the truce, they conducted arrests of former secret service members. During the second Red Army invasion, they put up a very stiff resistance, and then fought a retreating battle into the mountains. But most famously, the group pushed railcars from the South Terminal (along tram tracks) to the square for use as barricades:

The Soviet occupation authorities earmarked Szabó bácsi a primary target for arrest, and he was caught quickly. He was executed already on 19 January 1957.

The youngest executed: Péter Mansfeld

Not yet 16, Péter Mansfeld was Szabó bácsi's messenger boy. Two years later, aged 18 years 11 days, he was the youngest to be executed, and quite a cult grew around him. It is said the regime waited for him to become a legal adult before execution.

However, as I learnt from a historian's article [in Hungarian] during the research for my diary series, this is a romantic legend.

In truth, at this time the regime legalised execution of minors -- and Mansfeld wasn't executed for his 1956 feats. After the revolution, Mansfeld committed a series of smaller common crimes, then formed a five-man gang (all but one underage) for bank robbery. Mansfeld also wanted political activity and to free an imprisoned, but his fellows not, they merely believed the regime will crumble soon and then they'll be free and heroes even if police gets them. Police got them after the very first action.

But Mansfeld turned a real hero once in prison. The concept of the prosecutor was that they were a cell of "class-traitors" intent on re-starting the 'counter-revolution'. Mansfeld defied all threats and manipulation until the very end, with defiant ripostes to interrogators and judges. Once he even escaped by untying his binds and jumping down a 4-metre wall, but was caught in a hospital (he broke his arm). Throughout the interrogations and trial, he tried to deflect blame from his accomplices (something those didn't reciprocate). It was probably his defiance that incensed the second-instance jury to choose capital punishment, executed on 21 March 1959.

The biggest loser of the Transition: Imre Pozsgay

The title of this semi-autobiography is the untranslatable word-joke: "The price/damage of the regime change". I mentioned Pozsgay as the member of the Party's nationalist wing who helped the creation of the first free party (right-wing MDF), and later kicked off the official re-interpretation of 1956 in January 1989.

In that year, while negotiations about the future democratic system were on-going, his star was rising, in fact he was the most popular politician (not that difficult when most opposition figures weren't yet widely known). Should Hungary end up with an elected President, and that before parliamentary elections, he seemed a certain winner.

But this wasn't looked upon kindly by many others, foremost the liberal opposition. For them, it was a triple menace: he was nationalist, he would have meant a way for the old regime to have some continuity, and was thought likely to amass powers at the expense of the (parliament-elected) government.

So the liberals had a great idea: the so-called "Four-Yes Referendum". A referendum with four questions: on dissolving the Workers' Guard (kind of a paramilitary), on having the Party prepare an account of its wealth, on banishing parties from workplaces -- and on choosing the President after the parliamentary elections. And a simple campaign for "four Yes-es!".

The ploy worked: though with the smallest margin, even the resolution on the President passed. Pozsgay was left out in the cold, and with the aura of the man of the future lost, suddenly found himself sidelined even in his party. A few months after the March/April 1990 elections, the then main government party (the one Pozsgay helped found, MDF) and the then main opposition party (the liberals) agreed on Árpád Göncz. By then, the position of President was made the choice of Parliament, by qualified majority vote.

Reformist vs. reformed communists

Maybe you noticed my consistent usage of these different forms in the diary. It was entirely my choice, in Hungarian, the equivalent of 'reform-communist' is usually applied to both the pre-1956 and pre-1990 intra-Party forces for change. But while there were similarities, I think the pre-1956 ones were much more sincere, initiative-taking and ideological/idealist in their reform line.

Now that I mentioned the leader of the Petőfi Circle, Gábor Tánczos, on his fate.

He didn't became a member of Nagy's cabinet, but was active in organisation. He also accompanied Nagy from Yugoslav embassy to prison, where he got 15 years, then got free with amnesty.

After working as teacher, true to his beliefs, he tried advocacy for the needy: poor people, Gypsies, and ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring countries. He signed Charta '77. But on 6 December 1979, depression got the better of him, and he committed suicide. I wonder what the liberal opposition would have become had he survived another ten years (I guess it would have had a much stronger social-liberal line).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Dec 5th, 2006 at 10:30:18 AM EST
Thank you, DoDo.  Much to learn and assimilate.

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.
by metavision on Wed Dec 6th, 2006 at 08:02:12 AM EST
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