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The 1956 Hungarian Revolution - Outbreak

by DoDo Tue Oct 24th, 2006 at 05:33:42 AM EST

50 years ago yesterday [Monday, 23 October], The 1956 Hungarian Revolution started.

The symbol of the day was to be something you may know from its American copy in Baghdad -- the toppling of Stalin's giant statue:

Below the fold, I shall recount the events of the day, when all the forces described in the previous episode began their fateful interplay.

Also in the comments: the riots on commemoration day that took the headlines from the official celebrations.

This diary is the second in a five-part series, whose parts cover:

  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)

Losing control

The 1956 revolution didn't start in Budapest.

In the northeastern industrial city of Miskolc, the organising workers and students (see previous episode) joined, and brought their demands to the Party HQ in the late morning. At the same time, the students of major eastern city Debrecen (where the first deadly shots at protesters would be fired in the afternoon) also began their protest.

Trying to stem the tide, at 12:53, the leadership prohibited all protests. However, as in the meantime, the Petőfi Kör (a forum of the Party's reform wing, see last episode) swung behind the pro-Polish protest (again see last diary) called for by the newly formed independent student organisation (also in last diary), an unprecedented wave of protest notes hit the leadership, including from large parts of the Party itself. The protest ban had to be lifted.

And thus the events in Budapest could begin. The memory of the day focuses on four main events: the originally planned protest rally, Imre Nagy's speech from the balcony of Parliament, the toppling of the Stalin statue, and the battle for the state radio.

The headless mass forms

The protesters began their walk from the universities (below near the Economics University then named for Marx).

As they walked along the main roads, the masses swelled and swelled.

One stream made a stop at the statue of Sándor Petőfi, hero and martyr of the popular 1848-49 revolution, where a popular actor recited the fiery poem Petőfi wrote for that revolution. (Later this actor's popularity spared him of serious punishment, and he would get the chance for another such symbolic crime: in the film version of a historical novel, he would recite a passage from the book on national independence, even though it was deliberately left out of the script.)

Then around 15h, the now hundred-thousand-strong mass arrived at the statue of Józef Zachariasz Bem, a Polish revolutionary general who helped the Hungarian effort in 1848-49.

The protest organisers held their speeches: the students read their 16 points (see last diary), the writers had a Polish writer read his notice, the Petőfi Circle talked.

However, at this point, the rally became what Hungarian writer Péter Nádas describes as headless mass: there was no leader, there was no plan, but everyone realised that there is potential. The scale of the masses on the streets and what they could effect took everyone at unawares, including the Soviet army, despite having been on alert since the 19th.

There was an outbreak of freedom of opinion. Agitators of all kinds of ideologies roamed the crowd, reportedly including royalists, as well as anti-semitic far-righters, but found no response. Then as some had an idea of what to do next, suddenly hundreds started to move in this or that direction. The largest part of the mass started to walk towards the Parliament building.

The surprised hero's speech

By 18h, the crowd at Parliament numbered at least 200,000. (The total of the various groups walking across town is estimated at up to half a million, a third of the then population.) Dispersal by violence was out of question, and tricks like shutting down streetlights didn't work. The crowd then demanded that the illumination of the new red star atop the building (a replica of one on the Kremlin) be shut down, which was abided by. The crowd then decided to demand Imre Nagy, the popular leading reformist communist (see last diary). At 21h, earning great celebration, Nagy finally appeared on the balcony.

This moment is commonly remembered as a moment of glory, but what followed in real life was dissatisfaction on both sides.

Nagy would begin his speech with "Comrades!", to which thousands replied that "We are not comrades!". Then he attempted "My young friends," which was taken to be too paternalistic. He finally succeeded with "My fellow citizens!". But his speech, promising reforms and calling on people to go home, was uninspiring and/or badly amplified. And Nagy himself was taken aback, and wasn't sure whom he faced. (More in the next diary.)

The fall of the dead tyrant

Hungary's Stalinist dictator (who was finally removed by the Soviets the summer of that year) wanted to please Stalin in everything. One of his feats was to tear down a church and build a giant 6-ton statue of Stalin in its place. Although the personal cult was renounced by then, no one would order the statue's removal. So that became demand number 13 of the students.

From the Bem statue and from Parliament, groups of protesters headed straight to the monstrosity. But they faced a herculean feat. Like their American plagiarists in Baghdad, they used ever stronger makeshift tools, in the end even lorries and flame cutters. (You'll read an eyewitness account from a relative of mine in the Personal Memories extra diary.) They finally succeeded half past nine. The statue was then splashed with red paint, pulled along a main road in a triumph parade, then abandoned on a main square where it was cut up for souvenir, its remains lying there for days.

Revolutionaries atop the remaining boots of Stalin:

The battle for the radio

That events will take a bloody turn was to be guessed already in the afternoon: some groups of protesters (mostly young workers who knew where to find what) took aim at weapons factories, as well as police and military weapons storages. Soon armed young lads and girls would appear on the streets. And in the night, they got their first battle.

At 20h, while the mass rally before Parliament went on, then party leader Ernő Gerő, a Stalinist hardliner trying to hold on by paying lip service to Krushchevist reformism, held a speech on the state radio. He infuriated people by denouncing them as fascist counter-revolutionaries, while the radio carried no reports of the actual events. So one group went to the radio building, demanding that they at least broadcast the student's 16 points.

Although the building was guarded by soldiers and members of the dreaded ÁVH secret service, the commanders again feared the masses, and tried to thwart it with tricks. So they gave the crowd a car with a microphone, telling them their speeches will be aired. When the crowd realised they've been had, they used the car to break into the building.

Then, as often during major historical events, an escalation of misunderstandings began.

The radio leadership invited a delegation. Then the rumour spread that the delegation was arrested, and the crowd became outraged.

So the soldiers started to push the crowd from the place with bayonets mounted. But newly arriving reinforcements didn't knew, and their armoured carriers broke through their comrades' cordon.

As the crowd rushed forward across the holes, the soldiers fired in the air. But the ÁVH henchmen inside the building thought they are shot at, and began shooting low, hitting soldier and protester alike. This was around 21h.

Then soldiers began to change sides, while the workers with the pillaged guns arrived. The ÁVH guys were trapped in the building. Around 11h, gun battle broke out. It was very heavy, and lasted hours.

By the time the revolutionaries won in the morning, after more than a hundred dead, the building was ruined, and the radio personnel fled with some surviving equipment.

At the end of the day, it was not yet clear that the revolution won. The expected leader wasn't yet with them, the symbolic statue-toppling hit a dead dictator who already fell from favour, and even heavy battle failed to get them media access. And, upon an order by the Soviet defense minister, tanks were heading towards the capital.

How the day's gains could lead to a total upheaval, I shall describe in a week from now.

by blackhawk on Tue Oct 24th, 2006 at 04:56:29 AM EST
As I told in the comments of the first diary, unfortunately 23 October is not a day of peaceful national celebration, but one of division and hate (the origins of which I shall explain in episode five). Especially so this year.

As you may recall, last month the leak of a closed-doors speech by PM Gyurcsány in which he said he lied led to protests and riots by the right-to-far-right, worsened on one side by the involvement of experienced football hooligans, on the other side by police brutality (also applying 'experience' from football riots). I also reported that protests continued after local elections (both by the far-right and the right) and further mess. As the far-righters believe to be in the footsteps of the '56ers, and there was a permanent far-right protest before Parliament (also the place of state ceremonies) with a permit until the 25th, new troubles for the 23th were pre-programmed.

To recount the events of the day (the first part already covered in my first 1956 diary with pictures):

  • On the eve of the celebrations, after police provoked the breakdown of talks with demands unacceptable to (part of) the far-right permanent protesters before Parliament, that protest was dispersed.
  • Then in the late morning, a right-to-far-right rally formed anew, and marched to a legal cerebration site, but later part of it (a few thousands) decided to retake the square before Parliament.
  • Police held up these and started to push them along one main road using the whole range of its non-lethal arsenal: tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, beating with batons, and beating with the flat side of bayonets in charges by mounted police. In the course of this, some protesters even stole and activated a preserved WWII tank.
  • Meanwhile, the main opposition party, right-populist Fidesz held a 100,000-strong mass rally (which also had a guest from the EPP). As their crowd started to go home, police pushed the rioters upon them, and didn't select between people to beat.

During the course of this action, according to witnesses they also shot and beat a Fidesz leader, who even fell unconscious and has short-term amnesia. Then again, Fidesz and this politician himself countinued to play a rhetorical double game: on one hand protesting that police treats them as one with the rioters, on the other hand, not distancing themselves from the far-righters. (And yet again, government politicians continue their despicable don't-criticise-the-police routine.)

A hardcore of maybe five thousand held out in the tear gas haze, whom police then parted in two and drove in opposite directions. But they were apparently acclimatising to tear gas, thus kind of a stalemate formed. (From here on I was channel-flipping between live coverages.) After reinforcements arrived, sometime after 22h, one half was dispersed by pushing the crowd in different directions.

But the other half, at one end of a bridge of the Danube, found a construction site, demolished the scaffolding, built a major barricade, and soaked it in gasoline. Fearing fire, police made one of their only two right decisions of the day: with real and feigned preparations, they played for time. Indeed from 22:30 to 01:30, the crowd reduced from around 2,000 to maybe 400 or less. Then they attacked from both ends of the bridge, quickly passed the feared barricade with a snowplow and two water cannon vehicles, estinguished the fire of Molotov coctails that fell well short of their target, and then cops on foot ran to catch whom they could.

While only a few police were hurt this time (but including one who was stabbed), about a hundred civilians were treated. The most serious was a man rubber-bulleted in the eye and another whose skin parted on his temple from the bayonet of a mounted policeman. There were less than a dozen serious injuries, the majority got bruises and bloodshots from rubber bullets and batons.

Police was truly brutal and indiscriminate: I saw a lone protester beaten by five riot policemen after he was captured, and one state television reporter was beaten twice (the second time when he was sitting out his pain from the first on a staircase) despite carrying the fluorescent jacket agreed on with police. (The reporters really got it this time: the rioters also attacked the teams of multiple channels.) Police also again behaved like madmen towards the uninvolved: they yelled at café guests to go inside and hunted out moviegoers from a cinema some rioters fled to. This was the more insane considering the second of only two right decisions they made: they used the water cannons not to "wash away" people, but to shower them with blue-tinted water, thus paint-marking those who were really involved.

As a final note: the showcased police ineptness and brutality is actually their 'experience'. This is how they conduct themselves on football riots: leaving troublemakers in big groups rather than going among them, often stupidly reacting too late, when reacting then with indiscriminate brutality, and that despite applying some advanced methods (like lifting out ringleaders and placing covert agents). A protest I attended also faced this routine: the big February 2003 anti-Iraq-war protest, which was disrupted by a large far-right contingent that first insulted exile-Iraqi and Jewish speakers, then started fights with leftist protesters, to which police responded not by separating sides but surrounding and pushing away the whole melee...

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

by DoDo on Tue Oct 24th, 2006 at 05:30:47 AM EST
It sounds as if the government (if it wants to calm things down) needs to get a grip on police tactics.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue Oct 24th, 2006 at 08:04:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yeah. But instead, they proclaim that politicians have no right to make operative decisions, then praise police for acting according to law, and point fingers at Fidesz. I wonder, does the scenario even appear to them in which police brutality triggers an avalache effect and the 'revolutionaries' grow in number?...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Oct 24th, 2006 at 10:00:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Politicians have no right? Isn't there an Interior Minister?

Mind you, there's one in France, you know, Sarkozy de Nagy Bocsa. I think he's getting police tactics tuned up wrong (and we may have more trouble soon in the banlieues). Could it be his Hungarian origins? ;)

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue Oct 24th, 2006 at 11:38:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]

I don't know if there are legal differences, but it is true here that the interior minister can only make policy ("water cannons shall be used if people violate paragraph X of law Y"), or give a task to police ("defend the peace of this celebration"), but can't give tactical orders. This is supposed to be a check & balance, so that politicians can't use their powers to apply police violence against opponents.

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

by DoDo on Tue Oct 24th, 2006 at 03:34:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
More precise casualty figures: 167 wounded in total, of which 33 were treated in a hospital (found no numbers of how many were kept there after first treatment). Of the 167, 17 were policemen, and 5 were foreigners.

Also, 131 were arrested, of whom 57 are still detained. Further arrests will be made based on police videotapes. The guy who stole the preserved tank was also caught.

Bits from yesterday I forgot:

  1. The fare-right freakshow at the protests gained a new element, a motorcycle gang calling themselves the Gójs (gój being the Hungarian transliteration for the Yiddish word for non-Jew).
  2. The new thing the Fidesz rally brought: the proposal of referendums on main elements of Gyurcsány's austerity program. Of the seven questions presented so far, I would instantly vote for four... But it's early to say whether Fidesz finally had a good idea (a populism that can be sold to leftists too), or will this be sunk in low participation like the last time they tried the referendum weapon.
  3. In Hungary's second largest city Debrecen, the parties celebrated jointly and in peace. Note the major is a Fidesz guy who is the only one who may one day topple the current leadership, and who recently appeared to start an own, less confrontative style.

Presently, the theatre in Parliament on-going since the local elections continues: when PM Gyurcsány talks, Fidesz MPs leave the room except for the faction head, and both sideas accuse the other (and both sides are half right).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Oct 24th, 2006 at 09:56:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Forgot the aftermath: damages are estimated at nearly €1 million, beyond half a dozen cars, a tram and two buses were damaged. But the clean-up of the roads (less so the sidewalks) was largely finished by the morning rush-hour. The place of the final battle - the barricade last night, the sidewalk and the bridge this morning:

BTW, one of the wounded foreigners was a French guy from Marseille, who was totally drunk, took part in building the barricade, then was beaten up by police. (Alex, where are you?)

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

by DoDo on Tue Oct 24th, 2006 at 10:18:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think Alex is here:

DoDo, the server your images are coming from seems to be stuck or slow. I'm having trouble getting the pics, including loading the front page.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue Oct 24th, 2006 at 12:04:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I've just been struggling to get my blog up, now that it's up and running, I can spend one hour a day on it and no more, so I'm back for contributions to ET.

I was also wondering how to link to ET from my blog, I have yet to create a suitable category for it and other forums/blogs that people should visit (I don't want to give too many links, and I also don't want to give too few, so I'm debating with myself how best to do it ... whatever the outcome ET will be in those links, which will be vastly useful when my blog will be read by 2 billion people each day).

by Alex in Toulouse on Tue Oct 24th, 2006 at 01:48:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But I'm going to have to forfeit the "Superconcise look at France this week" series, because regularity on two different sites is too much for me to do, and besides my blog is already a sort of superconcise look at France, in a way. But that doesn't mean I won't be writing diaries here, just not writing diaries with strict regularity.
by Alex in Toulouse on Tue Oct 24th, 2006 at 01:50:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I ask the Russian-speakers to check this site, where a Vitaliy Portnikov is said to have commented the events. I read a short translated quote, which says, I1m paraphrasing: 'A grand coalition would be the only way out for Hungary, but political culture isn't yet ready for realism; and that the far-right's actions took the spotlight not only from the official ceremony, but Fidesz's mass rally, thus no one cared about either them or their demands for the government's resignation.' I thought the second half was rather apt, I wonder what the rest of the article contains.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Oct 24th, 2006 at 09:58:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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