Thursday, February 4, 2010
Hungary in 1956
2006 was the fiftieth anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. According to T. Mills Kelly's 2007 Podcasted lecture, this invasion was one of Hungary’s two most important historical moments of the twentieth century; the other being the 1919 Treaty of Trianon, which robbed Hungary of a large percentage of its land and people. Hungarian unrest resulted from an internal power struggle within the communist leadership made possible by Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s Secret Speech. One leader supported a hard-line position in support of Soviet positions; the other offered the prospect of a very small amount of Hungarian independence within the overall umbrella of socialism and the Warsaw Pact. Eventually, the opposition took to the streets, destroying a statue of Stalin in a display of shocking disrespect to Hungary’s erstwhile liberators.
Khrushchev decided that toleration wasn’t an option. Tito supported his stance. Soon, Russia sent an enormous invasion force of 300,000 troops into the country, and the violence of the encounter with street protesters overshadowed the later violence of Prague by a factor of ten or more. 25,000 Hungarians died. Austrians tore down border fences to allow untold Hungarians to flee the country. Notwithstanding the pleas of Hungarians, the West did nothing to help. Small wonder. Austria, which stood between Italy and Hungary, had been declared a neutral state several years earlier as a condition for Soviet withdrawal. The West rightly feared Russian nuclear retaliation for any intervention in the Russian sphere of influence. And soon, the West was distracted by the hugely unpopular Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt.
The moderate leader led the resistance to Moscow, fleeing to Yugoslavia before being deported and eventually executed in Russia. Russia installed a new, sycophant leader who purged the leadership of anyone with any hint of sympathy for the rebellion. But eventually, between 1956 and 1988, the new leader began to move the country toward a very subtle form of quasi-independence from Soviet rule.
Eventually, the Hungarian communist party accepted an informal state of compromise with the Hungarian people. The public sphere was the province of the Communist Party; but Hungarians could exercise a real measure of liberty within their own homes, in the private sphere. By 1989, the Hungarians already had some limited forms of private enterprise. In 1988, an opposition party and soon a multiparty system emerged. In 1989, the executed communist resister was reburied with honors in Heroes Square. One million Hungarians filed past the coffin. Communist leaders were brushed aside by a Young Democrat in his 20s who said Hungarians needed the chance to bury “one of their own.” In 1990, the country held elections.