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.

Language, Linguistics, and Ideology in Eastern Europe and Beyond

On April 20, Hans Henrich Hock, Professor Emeritus in Linguistics at the University of Illinois Urbana- Champaign, delivered the REEEC Noontime Scholars Lecture entitled “Language, Linguistics, and Ideology in Eastern Europe and Beyond.” One of the major themes underpinning Professor Hock’s lecture was the relationship between ideology and language – primarily, how ideology can, and often does, influence alterations in language and the way people use it. Both in history and at present, the relationship between ideology and language has exacerbated antagonisms between nations and ethnic identities.

Prof. Emeritus Hans Henrich Hock

Prof. Emeritus Hans Henrich Hock

Hock illustrated this situation in the case of  Hungary, Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia. Currently, Hungarian nationalism rejects the Hungarian language’s Finno-Ugric affiliation. Instead, it emphasizes unproven and thus questionable linguistic ties to the Hunnic and, at times, Sumerian languages. In the case of Macedonia, Hock pointed out that Greek nationalists are making a contentious argument linguistically when they maintain that Macedonian is a modern Slavic language and therefore has no historical basis.  Indeed, it was not until 1944 that Macedonian was officially recognized as a literary language. Greek nationalists believe that Ancient Macedonian was a Greek dialect with the main differences being in aspiration, for example, ph-b, th-d, kh-g.  In contrast to the Greek nationalists’ weak case for Ancient Macedonian as a Greek dialect, Hock finds the linguistic differences between Serbian and Croatian languages correspond to the differences one finds between British and American English. There are obvious lexical distinctions, but not so much as to warrant separate languages.

Hock also talked about the sites of Arkaim, located in the Russian steppe north of Kazakhstan, as well as the site of Andronovo in western Siberia.  Both are ancient archeological sites, the latter of which is known for the first discovery of horse and chariot burials. Importantly, the area is considered a cradle of Indo-European and Indo-Iranian language groups, as it is widely held that these peoples must have originated in the same area where there were domesticated horses. According to Hock, these areas are significant to new agers, neo-pagans, occultists and national extremists. National extremists often use Arkaim to construct myths to benefit their cause. Hock warned that culture must not be associated with language, and that greater cooperation among historians, archeologists and linguists should occur in order to combat the rise of inaccuracy.

Kate Butterworth is a Master’s student in the REEEC program. Her research interests include ethnicity and identity in the North and South Caucasus as well as the efficacy of socio-economic policy in Georgia. She received her BA from SUNY Brockport in 2011.

Backlash in East-Central Europe? What Happened to the Promise of 1989?

On February 27, 2015, John Feffer, the director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, gave a talk that was part of the European Union Center’s Jean Monnet lecture series and co-sponsored by REEEC entitled “Backlash in East-Central Europe: What Happened to the Promise of 1989?” As the title of his lecture suggests, he attempted to explain the disillusionment with the post-socialist system that is taking place in several countries of East-Central Europe, such as Hungary, Bulgaria, and the successor states to the former Yugoslavia. Many of these countries are now members of the European Union and NATO. In terms of economic growth and democratization, the post-1989 transformations  have been remarkable. Yet many in the region – politicians and everyday citizens alike – perceive the promises of 1989 as unrealized, and there is widespread dissatisfaction with the current system. In the face of broadly emerging Euroscepticism, some leaders – most prominently Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary  – have blatantly acted to undo aspects of the post-1989 transition to economic and political liberalism.

John Feffer describing the difficulties of the post-socialist transition in East-Central Europe

John Feffer describing the difficulties of the post-socialist transition in East-Central Europe

Mr. Feffer attempted to put these developments in context. He had traveled to the region in 1990, and interviewed over 250 local leaders and activists on the changes that were happening, specifically concerning the Roma, women and the workplace, and Yugoslavia. In order to gauge public perceptions of change, he traveled back to the region in 2012-13 as an Open Society Fellow to re-interview those with whom he had originally spoken, as well as many new people from civil and political society.

Mr. Feffer began his lecture with two stories illustrating contradictory experiences during the transition from communism. One was of Bogdan from Poland, who experienced a typical progression of shock, adjustment, and prosperity – or the “Golden Age” of the post-transition period. Mr. Feffer countered Bogdan’s story with that of Miroslav from Bulgaria, who had been a minority rights activist but left the country after facing extreme political isolation and disillusionment with the transition. Together, their stories create a picture of two co-existing worlds in today’s East-Central Europe – one of prosperity and a successful transition to economic/political liberalism, the other of widespread disillusionment and dissatisfaction complemented by strong anti-liberal trends.

Several factors indicate this latter world, which Feffer referred to as the “non-Golden Age.” One factor consists of public opinion polls, in which people say that their experience is worse today than it was under communism. There are also problems associated with mass emigration from these countries, often of the young and educated (i.e., those most capable of enacting further change). Coinciding with these trends is the rise of intolerant nationalistic parties, who take advantage of disillusionment in the region. Mr. Feffer lastly described the new push towards “illiberal democracy,” in which some countries have seen polar transitions from liberal ideas and parties towards models based on Russia or China.

If the above serve as indicators for what has happened, the following attributes of the transition help contextualize the situation that exists now. Mr. Feffer described disappointment (i.e., failed expectations), economic hardship (i.e., shock and unemployment), justice deferred (i.e., neglect of rule of law and immunity to those who benefited from insider privatization), and political backlash (i.e., a leftist critique of economics mixed with far right politics). Mr. Feffer argued that the left has been largely discredited in the region today because of its communist connections and conduct after 1989, while those from the far right have become the main actors on a stage of bad economics and politics. One such example is the rise of anti-Islamism in the region. Those who are not necessarily racist still often support overtly racist parties because of other unrelated hardships.

Even though most of the countries in the region are now full members of the EU, Euroscepticism is on the rise. Superficial images of progress (e.g., infrastructure development and EU membership itself) belie local disenchantment with the European Union and the perception that the expected benefits of EU membership have not manifested. Another important point Mr. Feffer made is that many of these countries are relatively conservative, and therefore, their stance on issues such as women’s and gay rights lead Western Europe to regard them as fostering “social illiberalism.”

Mr. Feffer did not try to argue that the liberal project has completely failed in East-Central Europe because the people there now have a degree of agency which they previously lacked. Rather, he suggested that there were flaws in the liberal project to begin with – even with Poland, considered the EU’s success story. In Poland, Mr. Feffer learned from his interviews that even those who favored the Balcerowicz Plan of rapid liberalization still admitted that the plan should have paid more attention to those left behind. Those who were left behind the most in the region were the Roma. Mr. Feffer described their situation as simply being a process of “uninterrupted shock,” consisting of widespread discrimination and extremely high unemployment.

However, Mr. Feffer concluded by arguing that these trends – disillusionment, economic problems, and a return to conservatism – are ultimately not peculiar to East-Central Europe. Instead, he saw them occurring throughout Europe, especially concerning debt issues and austerity. Furthermore, Euroscepticism and disaffection with politics are also happening in Western Europe, not just in the former socialist states. He described those sentiments in terms of a “pendulum swing.” Whereas there was wide support for liberalism in the 1990s, the pendulum now swings the opposite way and will likely shift again in the future. This was his larger argument, but the trends have been particularly acute in the places where a significant many perceive the promises of 1989 and the post-socialist transition to be currently unrealized.

To see a video recording of Mr. Feffer’s discussion, please follow the link to the EUC article on their website:

Alana Holland is a second-year MA student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. Her research interests include the Holocaust, modern Russian and East European history, memory studies, and the post-socialist and post-Soviet transitions. She is currently writing her thesis on themes related to the Soviet liberation of the Majdanek concentration and death camp, and will pursue her PhD in History in fall 2015.

Ryan Eavenson’s Summer 2014 Experiences in Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic

My summer in Eastern Europe was a challenging, exciting, and rewarding experience.  I had the opportunity through a FLAS to study Czech language at the intermediate level in Prague.  As a student with a serious interest in Czech history in addition to Czech language, I couldn’t have been happier!  But my journey did not begin in Prague.  I decided to travel to some additional countries in Eastern Europe before the start of my intensive Czech language course.  I wanted to take the opportunity to further advance my knowledge of this part of the world by exploring the culture and seeing in person the places I had read and heard so much about.

Eavenson - Hungarian Parliament Building

Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest (Image Source)

A plate of chicken paprikash (Image Source)

A plate of chicken paprikash (Image Source)

First, I flew to Budapest, Hungary, arriving in the mid-morning after a long flight from the United States.  I was very tired, but excited to have finally arrived in Europe!  I spent my first day getting acquainted with the city by walking around.  I really enjoyed the experience of simply observing my surroundings and studying the amazing architecture of Budapest.  Some of my most enjoyable experiences were venturing across the famous Chain Bridge, and stopping to admire its unique design and lion statues that greet you upon entry.  This bridge provides a wonderful view of the Hungarian Parliament Building, which sits on the bank of the Danube.  I walked down Andrassy Street, the historic main street of the city, and before leaving, I also made sure to eat a traditional Hungarian meal of chicken paprikash at a small local restaurant.

After a few days in Budapest, I traveled by train to Bratislava, Slovakia, where I arrived in the late afternoon.  Eager to explore, I immediately walked down to the old historic district as the sun was beginning to set.  With my knowledge of Czech, I found that I was able to read many of the Slovak signs throughout the city.  This gave me a greater understanding of the close similarity between these two languages.  In Bratislava, I visited the well-known castle  which rests on a large hill over looking the city.  Nearby, I stopped to see St. Michael’s gate, which is a very old and important landmark.  My last night in Bratislava was exceptionally memorable.  I had the chance to observe a traditional  Slovak folk dance at the main town square.  This was an event that truly presented to me the essence of Slovakia’s rich culture and tradition.


Main square in Bratislava

Main square in Bratislava (Image Source)

The final part of my journey took me to Prague.  Traveling by train allowed me to see the extraordinary countryside of Moravia, a part of the Czech Republic defined by clear lakes and dense forests.  After a long trip from Bratislava, I finally arrived at my dorm.  I immediately knew the moment I checked in that this was going to be an enriching summer because the receptionist only spoke to me in Czech.  In Prague, I embarked on a demanding Czech language course while simultaneously experiencing Czech culture by visiting both museums and many historic locations.  I found the Czech food to be excellent, and there were so many different meals to try.  My favorite foods included beef goulash, potato dumplings, and the wide variety of freshly baked bread.  Having a particular interest in post World War II Eastern Europe, I visited the Museum of Communism, where I was exposed in detail to the nature of life in the Czech lands during this period.  My dorm was within walking distance of the Prague castle, a truly amazing structure.  Through a walking tour, I gained a greater appreciation for the importance of this castle and its place in Czech history.  The cathedral in the castle complex is exceptional both for its size and design.  In addition, I spent a great deal of time on the Charles Bridge, a place  with tremendous historical significance and one of the most notable symbols of Prague.  I was amazed by the exceptional detail of the numerous statues that line the bridge.  Close to the Charles Bridge, I visited the Franz Kafka Museum.  There, I had the unique chance to see some of the actual writings of this famous author while also learning new information about his life.  Overall, it was wonderful to be able to constantly use and improve my Czech everyday during my time in the Czech Republic, and I am certain that I have developed a deeper understanding of Czech culture.  I had a wonderful experience in Eastern Europe this summer, and I hope to return in the near future and continue to learn more about this unique part of the world.

The Franz Kafka Museum in Prague (Image Source)

The Franz Kafka Museum in Prague (Image Source)

Ryan Eavenson is a MA student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.  He is particularly interested in communist development in Eastern Europe.  His additional interests include Imperial and Soviet Russian history, Czech history, and Russian and Czech language.  He received a AB in History/Russian and East European Studies from Lafayette College in 2010.  After graduation, he hopes to find employment focusing on international affairs and then continue his education.