Hungary's lesson for democracy advocates

Fifty years ago Monday, the 1956 Hungarian uprising put a crack in the Iron Curtain. But freedom came decades later.

October 1956 was much too eventful a time for Gen. Bela Kiraly to spend in a hospital bed – even if he was recovering from a harrowing five-year jail sentence for alleged treason.

In the streets of Budapest, secret police were mowing down ordinary Hungarians who on Oct. 23 attempted to have their demands for Soviet withdrawal read out on the state-controlled radio. But the protesters – armed only with Molotov cocktails and rifles – prevailed, driving out the Red Army tanks after only five days. Overwhelmed with joy at the apparent victory, a still-weak General Kiraly sneaked past his doctors on Oct. 29 to become commander of the Hungarian National Guard.

Though Kiraly and his new recruits were suppressed by Soviet troops less than a week later, their brave actions – known today as the Hungarian Uprising – are still seen as the first crack in the Iron Curtain, and are credited with starting the process that led to freedom for Hungary in 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

"The Soviets committed the most despicable cheating," says Kiraly, who at 94 is the last surviving member of the uprising leaders. "It taught the world that their system was the enemy of human freedom. 1956 was the beginning of the end of Bolshevism."

As Hungary Monday marks the uprising's 50th anniversary, the commemorations are in danger of becoming overshadowed by politicians using the legacy of communism to divide the young democracy. After a month of demonstrations following the prime minister's admission that he lied to get reelected, the main opposition party is boycotting official events in favor of its own ceremony.

With such a long time needed to bring Hungarian democracy to this uneasy stage, many say the lesson of patience is an important one that should be applied to other nations in transition, such as Iraq.

"The lesson of Hungary is clear: Liberty can be delayed but it cannot be denied," President Bush said during a June visit to Budapest. "Defeating these enemies [in Iraq] will require ... the kind of patience Hungary displayed after 1956."

But others contend that that lesson of patience must also be applied to nations such as the US looking to foster democracy around the world.

"The war in Iraq shows us, in retrospect, that the US was right not to intervene in the Hungarian upheaval of 1956," wrote Olivier Roy, a longtime consultant to the French Foreign Ministry, in a Washington Post blog after Bush's visit. "It would have unleashed a bloody and protracted war in Europe, even if it ended in victory. Thirty-five years after the failed revolt in Hungary, the whole Soviet block collapsed from inside without any bloodshed. The lesson to be learned is that democratization cannot be forced on a country, it must be the result of a domestic political process, even a lengthy one."

Kiraly knows well the lengths to which his people went to achieve self-determination.

"The losses Hungary suffered show the tremendous force for freedom that exists in the world today," says the general, who suffered considerably himself.

His initial happiness at the apparent victory of the students quickly soured when – contrary to Hungarian expectations of American aid – the Soviets returned unopposed on Nov. 4 and crushed the uprising with overwhelming force.

Thousands died in the fighting and hundreds of thousands fled. Kiraly escaped hanging by joining the exodus and spent 33 years in exile fighting for the ideals of the uprising. When the Soviet Union was pressing the UN to drop Hungary from the agenda in the 1960s, Kiraly ignored death threats to campaign against such an action.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, researchers have gained access to Moscow's archives, and learned that Soviet Leader Nikita Krushchev briefly considered letting Hungary off the leash. This has increased historians' claims that the US could have done more, but even with such hindsight, Kiraly believes the uprising was doomed as soon as the first shots rang out.

"After the atrocities, people wanted more than communist reform; they wanted democracy," he says. "Once we announced a multiparty system, invasion was certain. Nothing could have been done to help Hungary."

Though the US still takes flak for inflaming Hungarian protests through the CIA-funded Radio Free Europe (RFE) but remaining passive once fighting began, many agree that the US had few viable options short of provoking war with the Soviet Union.

The Suez crisis, which blew up at the same time, effectively removed the diplomatic options. The UN was far too busy dealing with the fallout from Britain, France, and Israel's attempts to regain control of Egypt's waterway to worry about Hungary.

"The only way to have liberated Hungary in 1956 would have been military action," says Prof. Michael Fox, director of the Cold War Studies Center at the London School of Economics. "The US didn't want to start World War III."

Even Kiraly, who desperately wanted his country to be free, knew that military intervention would lead to disaster.

"On November 1, 1956, a New York Times reporter told me if I were to dictate a declaration asking for help, he would print it," says Kiraly. "I told him I believed military intervention would end in nuclear war and Hungary would be the first to be evaporated."

But the conclusion for Hungary and for Kiraly turned out better. When the general returned to his country in 1989, he was treated to a hero's welcome by VIPs. But it was an unknown face that floored him.

"At the end of the line, an elegant man introduced himself as my son," Kiraly says. "He was six when I left. I was out of my mind with happiness."

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