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Commemoration of the 1956 Revolution in 2020

Report on the Commemoration of October 1956
By Connie Connally  

On Sunday, October 25, HAAW commemorated the 1956 revolution with a Zoom lecture and discussion. Our guest speaker, Dr. George Deák, is Julia Deák’s father. Dr. Deák was born in Hungary in 1948 and emigrated to the U.S. during the revolution. He has worked as a software engineer. He obtained a PhD in history from Columbia University, and has taught history at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He lives in Boston but is currently visiting Julia’s family, and joined the meeting from her home in North Seattle.

The lecture was titled “The Hungarian Revolution of 1956—Was It Doomed to Fail?” This was a very interesting, informative talk, and unusual because of its focus on the goals, actions and reactions of the Soviet leadership. Here is how Dr. Deák himself summarized the lecture: 

The first part of the lecture summarizes the background and major events of the revolution. It is based largely on the work of Charles Gati, Failed Illusions, Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt, Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2006. 

The foreign policy context in which the revolution broke out and records of Soviet deliberations in the Politburo both support the thesis that the revolution could have succeeded if it had not been for the violence that took place in Republic Square (Köztársaság Tér).  These events  occurred during the siege of the Budapest Party Headquarters on October 30th, when the insurgents massacred more than 20 surrendering hard-line communists and mutilated the body of a hanged member of the ÁVH (the secret police).  

After Stalin’s death in March, 1953, the principal leaders of the Soviet Union were Khrushchev, Malenkov, and Beria.  They were caught in a power struggle amongst themselves, but they were in agreement that Stalin’s policies of terror, forced industrialization, military buildup, and confrontation with the West had to be moderated. Stalin’s policies, especially after the stresses of World War II, had put unsustainable strains on Russian society and the party. 

Khrushchev, who by 1956 had largely won leadership of the Party,  denounced Stalin’s policies at a secret party congress in June 1956. He also promoted the idea of “peaceful coexistence” with the West. In 1955 he had already reached a mutual agreement with the Western Powers for a withdrawal of troops from Austria in return for Austrian neutrality in the Cold War alliances. Just before massive demonstrations demanding reforms and an end to the Soviet occupation took place in Hungary on October 23, Khrushchev was willing to allow experimentation with a national form of communism under Gomulka in Poland. 

Fighting involving some Soviet troops broke out in Hungary on October 25. Imre Nagy, named to the leadership with Soviet approval, was able to negotiate the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Budapest. Those withdrawals were taking place, and withdrawals from the country were also being considered. Khrushchev had decided to allow the Hungarians to try implementing their own version of socialism.  Under the leadership of Nagy, a reform communist, they had come to a compromise by October 28th, with much of the emerging leadership of the rebels who controlled the streets. 

However, two events upset this decision, leading Khrushchev to reverse course after a sleepless night between October 30th and 31st. One was the shock of the bloody scene in Republic Square on October 30th.  This was witnessed by the wife of the Andropov, the Soviet Ambassador to Hungary, who among others, communicated her distress to the Politburo. The second was the unfolding of the Suez Crisis, which had begun with the attack of the British, French and Israelis on Egypt after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Khrushchev feared for his position should he lose not only Soviet influence in Egypt, which the Soviets had recently armed with old Soviet weapons, but also in the near Empire, as events in Hungary seemed to indicate he would, as revolutions tend to get out of control. In this case, reforms in the Soviet Empire were delayed, though not halted by the failure of the revolution in Hungary.

In the second part of his talk, Dr. Deák described how his own family experienced the events of 1956. His parents were Holocaust survivors living in Pécs. His father, Joseph, a window decorator, who had refused to join the Party after the war, had wanted to emigrate to the U.S. 

The remnants of his family had emigrated before the war. Dr. Deak’s mother, Ilona, did not want to leave her native land behind.  She was attached to its culture despite her wartime experience of deportation, the loss of her six-year-old first son in Auschwitz, and the loss of her entire family. When the revolution broke out in Pécs, Joseph came home from work and reported hearing anti-Semitic slogans voiced during a mass meeting at the university. The fear that anti-Semitism would re-emerge finally convinced Ilona that the family must emigrate. They succeeded on their second attempt to cross the border to Yugoslavia at the end of January, 1957. 

Dr. Deák recently looked into whether there had been a reemergence of anti-Semitism during the revolution. He learned that Jews could be found on both sides of the barricades. It is well known that at the time many of the leaders of the Rákosi regime were “Jewish,” or rather, of Jewish origin. However, many of the leaders of the reform communist movement were also “Jewish.” These included Miklós Gimes, who was executed along with Imre Nagy in 1958, and István Angyal, one of the leaders of the Tűzoltó Street rebels, also executed in 1958. 

While there were a few anti-Semitic incidents during the revolution (for example, a pogrom in Hajdunánás, described in the novel by Krusovszky Dénes, Akik már nem leszünk sosem, 2018, and elsewhere), the leadership of the revolution condemned and suppressed all such acts. The revolution was characterized by the unity of most Hungarians, regardless of denominational origins, for the opportunity to build a democratic, independent nation.

Approximately twenty people joined this Zoom gathering, some from far away—the Midwest, the East Coast, and even Australia. Some shared their personal memories of the revolution including Sándor Boldizsar, who participated in the fighting along with his co-workers from Csepel Island. Helen Szablya recalled giving birth to a child during the revolution. Many of our HAAW members left Hungary in the months that followed this national upheaval. Their lives, like those of thousands of other Hungarians, were changed forever.

It was a privilege to hear Dr. Deák’s comments. We are grateful to Julia Deák for organizing this event, bringing people together, and setting it up on Zoom.  As we greeted each other at the beginning of the session, then said goodbye at the end, I realized how much we’ve missed being together. Many thanks for this special afternoon of remembrances and friendship. 

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