Ambassador of Hungary Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky recalls the dramatic events of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and salutes its heroes
One of the most noble days of twentieth century history took place in Hungary in 1956. The proud nation lifted up its head and said no to the oppression and dictatorship of the world’s then biggest empire. Sixty-two years ago, Hungarians expressed their love of freedom, although they had no real chance of achieving it amidst the large-scale political games of the time.
While the world was humming Doris Day’s No. 1 single with a slightly defeatist theme: ‘Whatever will be, will be’ (Que será, será), on 23 October young people took to the streets in Hungary in an act of heroism and self-sacrifice, and took their fate into their own hands. Freedom begins where fear ceases, and these people were braver than the bravest. Groaning under the weight of Stalinist terror, requisitions, forced industrialisation and deprivation for a decade, the protesters in the capital and in the countryside revolted against growing poverty and for the protection of their homeland. Hungary has always been a land of freedom fighters and this uprising was a revolution against the Stalinist dictatorship, as well as the first nail in the coffin of Soviet communist oppression.
By night-time, these demonstrations in Budapest became an armed uprising, due to the hostile reaction of the communist Hungarian People’s Party and the lethal gun fire aimed at the unarmed crowd. While no one knows who fired the first shot, the killings deranged the protesters who immediately led off to strip the country of the symbols of the hated system. They ripped the communist emblem off the Hungarian flags and tore down the statues of Stalin. Fearing escalation, the desperate Hungarian Party leaders requested help from the Red Army stationed in Hungary, who faced the ‘Lads of Pest’ who were only armed with their courage and a few homemade Molotov-cocktails. They became legends after forcing the tanks into withdrawal and the Soviet leadership then agreed to a ceasefire. A new government led by Imre Nagy started talks on democratic transformation and leaving the Warsaw Treaty.
For a brief moment they hoped our brave nation would free itself from foreign occupation, but once it became clear that even sympathetic nations would be reluctant to risk a global confrontation, the Soviet leadership decided to invade. On 4 November the 200,000 strong Soviet army marched in and crushed the Hungarian Revolution killing 2,500 to 3,000 people and wounding another 13,000. We sought to push the Iron Curtain beyond our eastern borders, but due to this bloody intervention, we were cut off again.
Fleeing the repercussions 200,000 people left the country, 15,000 of them arriving in the UK. Among the emigrants settling in London were the writer and poet György Faludy, football player Ferenc Puskás, Nobel prize-winning György Oláh and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. The emigrants were warmly welcomed, and celebrated as heroes. In return they quickly and smoothly integrated into British society – as well as into all the other countries around the globe where they found a second home – contributing to its success.
It took another 33 years to dismantle the communist regime in Hungary and to reach the full sovereignty that the nation demanded in 1956. On 23 October 1989, in another landmark year, Hungary became an independent republic again. After an almost 50-year-long socialist system the country converted into multi-party democracy and a market-economy that was rapidly catching up with the free and strong nations of Nato and the EU. Hungary redefined its national and moral values, found its own voice and narrative, and as one of the most dynamically developing countries in Europe, alongside the V4 Group countries, it has become the engine of the continent. The success of our nation is showcased by our world-famous artists, scientists and sports people. Hungary’s economy is prospering, investment is pouring in and the unemployment rate continues to be just 3.6 per cent. Hungary is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, with its unique capital, where the modern blends with the traditional, the eclectic with the regular.
Though Westerners may have admired the Hungarian Revolution, few understood. They did not understand why, so heavily outnumbered, we fought against a force that, according to human logic, we had virtually no chance of defeating. They did not understand that we fought because we insisted to hold on to our own culture and way of life and refused to be dissolved in a melting pot. We have guarded Europe’s borders for 1,000 years and have fought for our national independence relentlessly. Freedom is our most important national treasure. Freedom means that we ourselves decide on the things that are important to us. We shall not allow the interests of other states and nations to influence us. Only we know how we want to live.
Freedom must be defended today, tomorrow and every day. Back in the day this was with the force of arms, and fortunately nowadays this happens through intelligent argument and channels of public life, politics and culture. While Hungary always had to pay a heavy price for its freedom, the nation would always be ready to defend it again. We honour the nameless and faceless heroes, because they did not give their lives in vain, they fought for a Europe where we can live without political oppression.
I hope you will be able to celebrate our National Day with us this year and remember the heroes of 1956.