The world gasped 65 years ago this week as Hungarian protesters were mowed down by the secret police, starting a revolution that took Soviet tanks to crush 19 days later. The images of street battles that came out of Hungary during the fighting left unsaid the deeper story of why and how it came to be. Even now, many people don’t know how the fuse was lit long before, why the bloodshed began and what it showed about the underlying political weakness of Communist regimes.
All that and more can be found in the pages of The Nineteen Days (Heinemann, 1957), ‘a broadcaster’s account of the Hungarian revolution’. That broadcaster was my father, George Urban (he worked at the BBC at the time). The book draws on eyewitness accounts, excerpts from Communist press and radio, and from the insurgent radio broadcasts which were sent out from Hungary while the freedom fighters were in action — and his own analysis.
In the preface, he notes: “The whole fabric of national existence carried the hallmark of a regime that was at once suppressive and alien to Hungary. Thus the eruption which occurred on 23 October, 1956 was an enslaved and occupied country’s response to Soviet communism momentarily weakened by the changing of the guard in Moscow.
“In this sense, the world still owes Orwell a revolution to bear witness that the human spirit is strong enough to prevail over an indigenous tyranny as well. The proper places therefore to put Orwell to the test are Soviet Russia and China, where communism is a homegrown dictatorship and can discount resistance from nationalist sentiment.”
Urban notes “That a superficially liberalised version of a doctrine that continued to be false and oppressive should pass for freedom, Socialism, and democracy, this was the nightmare from which the heroism of the men, women and children of Hungary have freed us. For it is the satisfied servant who spells disaster for mankind, not the revolting slave…”
Unrest had been fermenting for some time and after just days of furious networking between university student bodies around the country, a list of demands was drawn up for liberalisation, freedom of expression and other adornments of democracy. “The destruction of a particularly hated instrument of totalitarian rule, that of the cadre cards, was part of the students’ program. These cards formed the basis of the party’s nationwide spy network … reports, which could do or undo a person, deprive him of his home or land him in prison.”
The student representatives were barred from delivering their demands. An eye witness describes how the worst bloodshed began when some 2,000 people gathered in peaceful protest:
“When we arrived in front of the Parliament Building, I bumped into an uncle of mine, a doctor who had been carried along by the crowd from the direction of Nador Street. He, too, came largely out of curiosity. What, in fact, was happening was that the students and workers were protesting because the previous day, the Communist radio had called them fascists and counter-revolutionary thugs. The various columns (mostly of students) arrived in perfect order, completely unarmed and in good faith. Suddenly, heavy machine gun fire was opened from the windows and the roofs of the Ministry of Agriculture and the neighbouring blocks. There were no speeches and no warning was given. The time was about 11. First, the security police aimed at our knees. Their intention must’ve been to force us to the ground. The singing stopped. There was no panic. Only a deep, deadly silence. There was no covering the square, nor was there room to move. Then the massacre began. The AVO’s (secret police) positions must have been prepared well in advance because, as I looked up, I saw barrels of machine guns jutting out from well-arranged positions. They had expected us.
“It was a dreadful experience. I could see the bullets catch people in the shoulder and in the jaw. Sometimes, the linked arms of young couples were shot away. Then, there were people lying in their blood, praying and crying. There was complete disorganisation, but no terror amongst us. Only deep shock and utter bewilderment.”
The fighting escalated and within days the freedom fighters gained the upper hand. “It is difficult to overestimate the part which the Russians’ foods shortage played both in undermining their own loyalties and raising the hopes of the population,” writes Urban. “guns and even tanks were offered to the freedom fighters and the population in exchange for a few loaves of bread.”
Bravura and innovation also helped the insurgents, as one 20 year old recalled. “We saw four tanks come down the road on the morning of the 25th. We let the first three pass, the fourth, which was a self-propelled gun, was attacked with petrol bombs and hand grenades.” Army reservists among them took control of the gun and followed the Russian tanks. “As the first two tanks disappeared around the corner, we took aim and destroyed the third from the rear, just as it was about to turn the corner.”
By October 30, freedom seemed a heady reality; “the four Soviet garrison divisions were either defeated or so weakened in their morale that their fighting efficiency was inadequate for further action.” Then at dawn on November 4, new divisions of Soviet tanks and troops arrived to crush the revolution, ‘at the request’ of Moscow’s newly installed puppet Government of Janos Kadar.
“In that brief shining moment of freedom — a few days between the success of the freedom fighters and the crushing of the revolution by Soviet forces — the people of Budapest were free to move around the city, witnessing the aftermath of the fighting, dazed by the thought of a future without the permanent terror of the secret police. Seared into my memory is the sight of a member of that hated and feared cohort hanging by his feet (the traitor’s death) from a tree in a battle-scarred city square, dried blood covering much of his face, a bundle of his blood money stuffed into his mouth.”
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