Memories of '56 remain sharp in Hungary today
Budapest — ON Nov. 4, 1956, Soviet troops backed by tanks stormed into the Hungarian capital, crushing the most daring and direct challenge ever to communist rule. Although suicide squads lobbed Molotov cocktails, paving stones, even sticks at the invaders, sheer numbers and firepower allowed the Soviets to put in power a government headed by Janos Kadar.
Three decades later, Budapest appears peaceful and prosperous. Well-dressed shoppers and Western tourists fill the streets where Hungarian patriots as young as 13 were cut down by automatic fire.
Mr. Kadar, once called the ``butcher of Budapest,'' remains in power, widely recognized as the popular leader of the most liberal regime in Eastern Europe.
But despite some more openness, Hungary continues to have trouble confronting its own recent past. Five personal histories of contemporary Hungary explain why:
Imre Mecs. On Nov. 4, 1956, a tank shot woke Mr. Mecs. His family's ceiling began to crumble. After helping his parents and two sisters to the cellar, he headed out onto the streets. For the next two weeks, he coordinated student resistance, distributing pamphlets and passing messages. In early 1957, he was arrested. Along with four fellow students leaders, he was sentenced to death. His friends were hanged. Altogether, between 130 and 500 rebels, including Prime Minister Imre Nagy, were hanged between 1956 and 1958. Because he had not used a weapon, Mecs was spared and released from prison in an amnesty in 1962.
Now, at 53, he is a goateed, stocky, successful electronics engineer. With his wife and son, he lives in a luxurious apartment in the Buda hills.
``We fought to get the Russians out, to restore our country's independence,'' he says. ``In comparison to other East European countries, we may live a little better. But people are resigned, apathetic.''
He remains bitter. On All Saints' Day (Nov. 1), he brought flowers and a candle to a remote corner of the huge Rakoskeresztur cemetery. In Section 301, in unmarked graves overgrown by wild poppies and weeds, Mecs believes, his executed comrades were buried. He had hoped that the government would use the 30th anniversary to have the bodies reburied in family plots.
Instead, as soon as he arrived and this reporter greeted him, three men in leather jackets rushed up from their car parked in the nearby woods. One flashed a police badge. They took the identity cards of Mecs and his wife, along with the passport and press card of the two American reporters who were present. They said a new decree issued last week forbade flowers to be placed in this part of the cemetery on All Saints' Day.
They confiscated film and a page of notes from the reporters. After checking the identity documents, they returned them and told everyone to leave.
``Some liberalism,'' muttered Mecs, as he drove away. ``You can't even place flowers over your friends' graves.''
Janos Molnar. In 1956, Mr. Molnar and his family lived next to a secret-police station. On Nov. 3, rebels banged on his door and demanded that he give information about where the policemen were hiding. Molnar, a local party member, refused. ``They were lynching people,'' he says of the rebels. ``I was frightened for my life.''
When Soviet tanks arrived the next morning, he rejoiced. Returning to his work as a history teacher in a Communist Party academy, he rose through the ranks to become vice-minister for education in 1980. A large, balding man of 58, he is now director of the Communist Party Institute of Contemporary History. He occupies a large office in a building near parliament, scene of the heaviest fighting.
``The party committed many mistakes'' before 1956, he says. ``Forced industrialization, the collectivization of agriculture, and all the trials and imprisonment.''
But despite these reasons for discontent, he says, the uprising careened out of control.
``It became chaos. The mobs killed more than 2,700 people. There no longer was any central authority. There also was this big propaganda from the Western radios telling people to fight in the streets.'' He concludes, ``We needed Soviet help.''
Sandor Racs. On Nov. 3, he was leading the strike in the Beloiannis tool factory. Because the revolutionary government had agreed to the worker demands, he planned to call the strike off on Nov. 4. When the Soviet tanks came, he ordered the workers to barricade themselves inside the factory.
A few days later, Racs was elected chief of the Greater Budapest Workers' Council. For a month, he led negotiations with the authorities. No progress was made. On Dec. 11, he was arrested. He would remain in prison until 1963.
Now 53, he is back working as a toolmaker. Slim and energetic, he notes the successes and failures of the revolt.
``Hungary's present situation has its roots in the events of '56,''' he says. ``To make everyone happy afterwards, the communists realized that they must provide higher living standards. They also realized it was necessary to give people some room to express themselves. Today, we once again have the type of worker councils for which I fought.
``But we don't have freedom. I wanted independence for my people. The generation of '56 has forgotten that goal. I'm appalled by the apathy of my fellow workers.''
Egon. Egon asks that his story be recounted anonymously. It is easy to understand why. In 1956, he was a rebel leader. Today he holds a high official post.
``I'm survivor,'' he says. ``I lost my job in February 1957, and couldn't find work again until 1962. Now I'm accepted once again....
``The revolution was tragic, but necessary. Before 1956, the Communist Party was controlled by rigid hard-liners. The events swept them away, and put reformers in power.
``We need stability. For the first half of this century, Hungary suffered through disaster after disaster, World War I, the 1919 revolution, a fascist regime, and then Stalinism. Kadar has given us our first long period of peace. That's important.
``Hungarians these days have turned away from politics. The average Hungarian is not restricted in his personal freedoms: He listens to western radio, he travels wherever he wants, and if he's religious, he has no problems. Today's tensions are economic: the loss of real wages, high prices.''
He added that ``1956 taught us to be realists. The Soviet Union has interests in this region of the world. It will not permit more political reform or an upheaval here. Whether you think those interests are legitimate or not, you have to live with them.''
Gabor Ferencz. To the 26-year-old Mr. Ferencz, 1956 represents a distant, irrelevant historical event. When he was growing up, his parents and his schoolteachers avoided the subject.
His high school senior-year history text devoted only two pages to the events, with no specific mention of Soviet intervention or the death toll.
``For a long time, I didn't hear anything about it,'' Ferencz says. Since he is the press officer for the central Communist Party's youth union, his viewpoints reflect the official point of view. But many noncommunist youth interviewed seem to agree with him.
``To Hungarian youth, 1956 isn't a living problem,'' he says. ``The most important problems for us are economic. We talk about setting up our own small businesses.''