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Hungary's Failed Revolution Made It All Clear

As the only Hungarian journalists working for Western news organizations in Budapest in the 1950s, husband and wife Endre and Ilona Marton put their lives on the line every day. The Soviet Union had tagged Hungary as part of its sphere of influence in post-war Europe, and homespun dictator Matyas Rakosi ran the country with brutality and a Stalinist suspicion of anyone who didn't conform. The Martons' luck ran out in early 1955, when they were charged with spying for the United States and sent to Budapest's notorious secret police prison for 18 degrading, confusing and frightening months. Their two young daughters were left with strangers. The family's future seemed bleak.

By the summer of 1956, things started looking up. Both Martons were released, their sentences cut short drastically. Whereas inside the prison each day was a curious blend of agony and sameness, outside the times were changing. Hungary was in the throes of a political awakening, a period of increasingly open debate that flowed from recent liberalizing trends in the Soviet Union. Soviet leader Josef Stalin had died three years earlier in 1953, but it wasn't until February of 1956 that his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, famously denounced the excesses of Stalinism in his secret speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party. It didn't stay secret for long. News of the political thaw spread throughout the satellite countries.

Workers in Poznan, Poland took to the streets first, in June 1956. Although their strike was put down violently with many dozens of people killed, it sparked a modest reform of Polish communism. Limited religious freedoms were introduced and Khrushchev allowed moderate Communist Wladyslaw Gomulka to take power. Disgruntled Hungarian Communists took note and on Oct. 23, 1956 spontaneous anti-Soviet protests erupted in Budapest. Students and workers, at the forefront of the movement, mobilized housewives, pensioners and even children -- people from all walks of life -- in what became the first mass uprising against the Soviet yoke in post-war Eastern Europe. Whereas the Poznan affair and an earlier strike by workers in East Berlin in June 1953 were limited in scope and quickly put down, the Hungarian revolution had a distinctly nationwide character and a profound international resonance.

Endre and Ilona Marton were released from prison just in time to witness and report on the rapidly unfolding events. Often their wire service dispatches were the only eye-witness records of the revolution transmitted to the West. They were "insanely brave," recalled their daughter Kati Marton, a New York author and journalist who as a small child in 1956 remembers the heady early phase of the revolution as thrilling. She tagged along with her father as he covered the anti-Soviet demonstrations and understood clearly that it was a momentous time.

For a few precious days after Oct. 23 it seemed the freedom fighters had won. The Soviets allowed popular, liberal-minded former-Prime Minister Imre Nagy to come back from political obscurity to lead the hopeful nation. Nagy promised political freedoms, economic improvements and withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. But the list of reforms proved more than Moscow could swallow and the thrill of revolution soon gave way to horror. On Nov. 4, Soviet tanks crushed the uprising. Thousands of ordinary Hungarians were killed and some 200,000 ultimately fled the country. Although the Soviets were brutal -- they were not above shooting women standing in bread lines or nurses treating the wounded on the street -- the Hungarians fought back with nothing more than homemade weapons, including, incongruously, liquid soap. (It was discovered that the otherwise ferocious tanks would lose traction on slippery hillsides.)

By mid-November 1956, the horrific street fighting had ended and Hungary was cowed once again. There would not be another significant challenge to the Soviet Union's control over Eastern Europe for more than a decade (the doomed Prague Spring of 1968) and Hungary settled into a Communist stupor that would last more than 30 years. The Goulash Communism that flourished there might have been a relatively liberal version of Soviet-style socialism, but it was nearly as unpopular as that in the rest of the countries behind the Iron Curtain.

Many Hungarians felt the United States had betrayed them. Years of misleading -- many would say provocative -- broadcasts by Radio Free Europe had led them to believe that the United States would come to their aid in some fashion if they were ever to rise up against the Soviets. But it was not to be. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower faced re-election in early November 1956 and the United Nations, Britain, and France were all but consumed by the concurrent Suez crisis. It slowly and bitterly became clear to the revolutionaries that neither U.S. nor UN help was on the way. From the Eastern European perspective, Yalta might have marked the "total betrayal" of Eastern Europe by the Allies, said Preston Keat, director of research at Eurasia Group, but 1956 poured salt into still-open wounds.

In "Postwar," Tony Judt's tome on the history of Europe since 1945, he argued that the failed Hungarian revolution of 1956 had "a shattering impact on the shape of world affairs." From today's vantage point, Judt's view seems about right. It wasn't until the Soviets vanquished their Hungarian comrades in 1956 that the West fully understood that Moscow's authority over its satellites rested "on nothing more than the barrel of a tank," to use Judt's phrase. Furthermore, Moscow had drawn a sharp line in the sand, beyond which the United States and its allies were forced to realize they would not step. Korea, yes. Hungary, no. Vietnam, yes. Czechoslovakia, no. The proxy war was born.

Monday marks the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution, and -- in a poignant sign of the profoundly changed times -- Kati Marton will be awarded the Order of Merit, the Hungarian government's highest civilian honor. Eastern European diplomats now walk the halls of Brussels and Washington as naturally as they do those of Warsaw, Budapest, or Prague -- or, for that matter, Ljubljana, Bratislava, or Riga. What hasn't changed after 50 years is the respect due to those ordinary folk who so bravely stood before tanks and demanded their freedom.


(The Moscow Times 23.x.06)

 
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