New Directions in the Scholarship on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution: Memory and the Transnational Impact 60 Years After

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In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev delivered a speech before the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in which he denounced Stalin’s “cult of personality” and condemned some of the crimes of the Stalinist era – notably, the mass terror of the 1930s – thereby destroying the myth of Stalin’s infallibility.  News of Khrushchev’s “secret speech” spread throughout Eastern Europe and contributed to the Polish reform movement, including protests in Poznań (June 1956) and the “Polish October,” which led to a brief period of liberalization.  The events in Poland inspired student demonstrations in Budapest, which swelled to a mass protest on October 23, 1956. After a delegation of protesters attempted to enter the Radio Budapest building to broadcast their demands, the secret police (Államvédelmi Hatóságor) opened fire on the crowd. Protesters responded in kind – the ensuing revolution spread throughout the country and forced the collapse of the government. However, Soviet forces entered Hungary in early November, brutally suppressing the Hungarian resistance.

On October 21st, 2016, an international group of social scientists and humanities scholars met to discuss the impact of 1956. “New Directions in the Scholarship on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution: Memory and the Transnational Impact 60 Years After” was organized by Richard Esbenshade and Zsuzsa Gille (UIUC) and co-sponsored by REEEC, the Department of Political Science, the Center for Global Studies, and the European Union Center. By exploring the causes and consequences of the Hungarian Revolution in ethical, political, and transnational contexts, presenters revealed its far-reaching influence and persistent relevance, demonstrating the importance of continued research on the events of 1956.

Peter Kenez (History, University of California at Santa Cruz) discussed the relationships between the leading members of the Hungarian communist party – known as the Hungarian Working People’s Party (Magyar Dolgozók Pártja) from June 1948 to October 1956 – in the months before the revolution. He highlighted a divide within the party between the “communist hierarchy” (Stalinist party leaders) and “those who opted for the reform direction,” the main difference being that “no one in the communist hierarchy ever said, ‘I made a mistake.’” Kenez focused particularly on the moral trajectory of the Stalinist leadership: “None of these characters who behaved so badly actually joined the communist movement for careerist reasons… How did they become so rotten?” One explanation he offered was that four of the most prominent party leaders (including Mátyás Rákosi) spent several years in Moscow during the Stalinist purges, a “bad education” that “taught them all the wrong lessons.”

Also focusing on ethics, Emanuel Rota (Italian and French, UIUC) argued that the events of 1956 led to a “crisis of morality” within the international communist movement. If Khrushchev was right that Stalin was someone who made mistakes – and, by extension, that the higher-ups didn’t “know better” – then party members were morally responsible for their actions: “that was something we did.” Khrushchev’s condemnation of Stalinism also undermined the pretext for an all-pervasive intelligence service: “As long as Stalin remains attached to this idea that ‘the war is coming,’ espionage becomes a way of being. Once you take away the enemy and espionage remains, cynicism becomes a possibility.” According to Rota, the Soviet repression of the Hungarian uprising marked “the end of a crucial founding myth of the communist experience: the myth of revolution.”

Because the Soviet Union was the paradigm for communist parties internationally, the repression of the Hungarian Revolution “sparked an anguished debate in the international left,” according to David Ost (Political Science, Hobart and William Smith Colleges). However, Ost noted that it “mattered less and mattered differently than similar movements in 1968 [i.e. the ‘Prague Spring’ in Czechoslovakia] and 1980 [i.e. the Solidarity movement in Poland].” Alluding to the fascist Arrow Cross Party (1935-45) and Hungary’s alliance with Germany during World War II, he argued that the 1956 uprising was tainted by the “temporal proximity” of fascism. In Ost’s opinion, Hungary also failed to “matter more” to the West because of the Soviet acquiescence to the (apparently similar) events in Poland.

International attention was also deflected away from the Hungarian Revolution by the contemporaneous Suez War (or “Tripartite Aggression”) in Egypt. Ken Cuno (History, UIUC) discussed the origins of the conflict in “a century of [French and British] colonial domination, at the center of which was the Suez Canal.” In response to a withdrawal of American funds for the construction of the Aswan high dam – itself an act of retribution for the 1955 announcement that Egypt would begin importing weapons from Czechoslovakia, a “neutralism” that the Americans “regarded as a paler form of Communism” – Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, which had been controlled by French and British investors since 1875. After this decision, which was “highly popular within Egypt and in accordance with international law,” the French and British “immediately began preparing for war, in order to seize back ‘their’ canal.” The conflict that ensued prevented the American government from interceding in Hungary, according to then-Vice President Richard Nixon: “We couldn’t on one hand, complain about the Soviets intervening in Hungary and, on the other hand, approve of the British and the French picking that particular time to intervene against Nasser.”

The transnational context of the revolution was also discussed by Árpád von Klimó (History, Catholic University of America) and Stefano Bottoni (History, Hungarian Academy of Sciences). Von Klimó spoke about the conflicting narratives surrounding two World War II-era atrocities: the mass killings of several thousand (mostly Serbian and Jewish) civilians by Hungarian troops in January 1942, known as the “Novi Sad raid” or “Újvidék massacre,” and the mass killings of thousands of (mostly Hungarian) civilians by Tito’s army in 1944. Noting that these atrocities were highly politicized, especially “when the communist regimes in Hungary and Yugoslavia based the legitimation of their authority on anti-Fascist narratives and interpretations of the war,” he contended that the 1956 “anti-Stalinist revolution… made it even more difficult to propagate the original Stalinist narrative about the war.” Bottoni argued that party leaders in neighboring Romania were able to exploit the events of 1956 for their own political agenda. He contended that the Hungarian Revolution served as a pretext for “limiting the cultural rights of [Romania’s] most sizeable ethnic minority, the Hungarians.” Mass trials in Romania in the late 1950s targeted ethnic minorities for “social crimes” (e.g. hooliganism) as well as political offenses, and “the ‘classic’ Stalinist-type structure was gradually replaced by a similarly rigid dictatorship, but one with a ‘more national’ complexion,” which continued until the fall of Ceauşescu’s government in 1989.

Taking a different approach, Maya Nadkarni (Anthropology, Swarthmore College) highlighted the revolution’s “shifting role in Hungary’s politics of memory” by examining the official commemorations of its 40th, 50th, and 60th anniversaries in Budapest. She remarked that although the memory of ’56 divided Hungarians along political lines, it “represented a shared trauma” for everyone. In 1996, the then-dominant Hungarian Socialist Party (Magyar Szocialista Párt) pushed through a bill declaring Imre Nagy – the reform-minded communist who became the leader of the 1956 revolutionary movement – a martyr. By 2006, however, the memory of 1956 had been largely coopted by a right-wing narrative, becoming a symbol of “struggle against oppressors” rather than “a contested legacy against various political opponents.” Additionally, the broadcast of another “secret speech” (in which then-PM Ferenc Gyurcsány admitted that his party had lied to the electorate) sparked protests, which morphed into riots. According to Nadkarni, the protesters and their right-wing media observers “deliberately drew links” between their actions and those of 1956, in an attempt to adopt the ethical “unimpeachability” of 1956. Despite this unrest, the MSP were obligated to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the revolution: they tried to evoke a generalized nostalgia for the socialist era which would “enable people across the political spectrum to find common ground,” using the memory of ’56 as an abstract “shared heritage” in order to “avoid uncomfortable parallels between itself and the past regime.” In 2016, Nadkarni observed a relative lack of emphasis on 1956, possibly because of the absence of the MSP as a political enemy, Viktor Orbán’s conservative Fidesz party having dominated Hungarian politics since a landslide victory in 2010 (which Orbán called “the revolution in the voting booth”). She noted that the rhetoric has shifted “from anti-communist to anti-EU,” a “fight for freedom” centering on national sovereignty.  Illustrating her argument with different “technologies of memory” – including monuments, TV ads, and museum exhibitions – Nadkarni demonstrated how the memory of the revolution has been variously interpreted and employed by political actors in postsocialist Hungary.

In support of the continuing research on the Hungarian Revolution, Kit Condill (REEES, UIUC) provided an overview of pertinent resources at the University of Illinois Library and elsewhere. He noted that, although the modern period isn’t the main focus of the U of I Library’s Hungarian collection (which is much stronger for the pre-1918 period), the Library is particularly strong on Russian (i.e. Soviet) sources on the revolution.  Kit also recommended the Hungarian National Library, which provides digitized versions of several Hungarian newspapers of the period, as well as the National Bibliography of Hungary: “Hungary is one of the contenders for the prize of… ‘best national bibliography’. They are excellent in recording every single thing that’s ever been published.”

Matthew McWilliams is a REEES M.A. student and a FLAS Fellow for the 2016-2017 academic year for the study of Russian.

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