BUDAPEST — Two Octobers ago, as Budapest police were arranging for the annual commemoration of the 1956 'revolution,' one young officer launched into a bitter diatribe about these so-called "freedom fighters." They were, he said, a bunch of "murderers, fascists, and prostitutes."
Within earshot was training supervisor Maria Szekely, better known to her '56 comrades-in-arms as "Tall Mari." A Red Cross volunteer at the time of the uprising, Ms. Szekely darted through grisly street battles to tend to the wounded. Later, she organized demonstrations against the Soviet Army invasion, for which she was arrested, jailed for 14 months, and badly beaten.
So when Szekely heard her younger colleague's comments, she snapped. "If you want to learn the truth about what happened in 1956," said Szekely, "don't believe what the regime told you. Talk to the people who were there."
Today, however, as this small Central European nation celebrates the uprising's 40th anniversary, most veterans wash their hands of the "lost generations" - the millions of Hungarians born after 1956 and taught to believe popular revolt against the Communists was, in fact, a "counterrevolution" perpetrated by the dregs of society.
Hungary's post-revolution dictator, Janos Kadar, bought the public's silence through liberal reforms and by incurring a massive foreign debt to boost living standards, which earned this country the label "happiest barracks in the Soviet camp."
So while the Hungarian uprising, known nationally as the '56 revolution, was viewed internationally as the first fissure in the Communist system, Hungarian schoolbooks glossed over the event. Parents usually complied too, recalling the crackdown in the aftermath of the revolution and fearing repercussions for their families at school or work.
Even now, with more and more details released about what really happened, many are highly skeptical. In a newspaper poll published Monday, only one-third viewed the revolution as a "positive" event in Hungarian history.
"I fight for the memory of 1956 the way I fought for democracy 40 years ago," says Imre Mecs, chairman of the parliament's defense committee. In 1956 he was a university student and leading organizer of the demonstrations that sparked the uprising. He was spared execution and served six years in prison.
Compounding the public's "selective amnesia," as Mr. Mecs describes it, is that most Hungarians today are preoccupied with their day-to-day economic survival. Another veteran says the revolution's ideals - a multiparty, parliamentary system, free elections, and the removal of Soviet troops - were only superficially met by communist regime's disintegration in 1989.
Laszlo Regeczy-Nagy, a founding member of the country's first democratically elected party, the conservative Hungarian Democratic Forum, contends the current ruling coalition is composed of former Communist Party apparatchiks more interested in locating a new master - the European Union - than in fostering a "revival of national consciousness."
"We're about to lose the revolution for a second time," says Mr. Regeczy-Nagy. "People think it's more important to have more butter for bread tomorrow than to cherish our freedom."