Writer and poet George Szirtes left Budapest as a child-refugee in 1956. Now, surveying the country 60 years later, he finds a Hungary not so different from the one he left.
Just about now, every year, Hungarians commemorate the outbreak of the Uprising of 1956. This year is special. It is the sixtieth anniversary. The fiftieth was special too for different reasons.
The Uprising, while spontaneous, was the result of a pattern of events following the death of Stalin in 1953, which led to his eventual successor, Nikita Khrushchev’s momentous denunciation of him at a closed session of the 20th Party Congress in Moscow on 25 February 1956. Moscow decided pretty well everything in the Sovietised world and this decision threw that world into revolutionary confusion.
Stalin’s death was followed by a brief period of liberalisation. The dictator of Hungary, Mátyás Rákosi was sacked, and replaced by the more liberal Minister of Agriculture, Imre Nagy, who was then sacked in turn to be replaced by Rákosi again. But Khrushchev’s speech did for Rákosi completely – he spirited himself away to Moscow to be replaced by his deputy, Ernö Gerö.
Yet Nagy had let the genie out of the bottle and it would not be stuffed back in. The Uprising began as a student march during which the communist symbol was cut from the centre of the national flag. Then someone fired a gun at the radio building and the army was called to suppress the crowd gathered there – but instead of dispersing people it dispersed its own weapons. Thirteen extraordinary days followed, during which the Russian army withdrew and the revolutionary party, with a reluctant Imre Nagy at the head, took office. But then a second wave of Russian troops – not all of them Russian, none of them from the previous regiments – was brought in and on 4 November succeeded in taking control. Nagy was arrested and executed in 1958.
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In 1989, when Nagy and the other martyrs of the revolution were reburied with full honours, the main streets were lined with impromptu stalls selling sealed packets of earth from what was claimed to be his secret grave. Bootleg versions of his biography in stapled editions were next to them. It was like a pilgrims’ route to a sacred shrine. Another Hungary was being born.
Yet even then it was apparent that it wasn’t just one Hungary. I myself was at the meeting in honour of the 1956 martyrs in June and had been on the first major demonstration in March, which followed the route taken by the march of 1956. I went halfway with it before leaving just as they were crossing the river. I’m still not quite sure why I left at that point; I was happy and proud to be there but was uncertain of my place in it.
Following 1989 Hungary went through a series of political changes. Parties were formed, elected, failed, and vanished. Hungary’s relative wealth had been the result of foreign loans but now the industrial network of the Communist world was falling apart. Those who got rich got rich fast and not in the cleanest way. The rest got poorer. The differentials grew more stark with the corruption. Disillusion and dissatisfaction came quickly and tensions increased.
There is little genteel about Hungarian society and even less so about Hungarian politics. The past was an enormous problem. Who was to blame? Whose past was it? Whose Uprising? The exiles that returned were bitter, often reactionary. The only symbol uniting the country seemed to be the national flag; the only uniting feeling, patriotism. Piece by piece the internationalist liberal order fell apart. The idea of a ‘normal’ western social democracy grew ever more distant. The country was coming under the spell of sentimental, watery-eyed, chest-beating patriots who had no time for cosmopolitan ‘traitors‘.
This came to a head in 2006 on the fiftieth anniversary of the revolution, when the newly re-elected Socialist government, like the Soviet Union’s Communist Party, held a closed session. The prime minister of the time, Ferenc Gyurcsány, told his fellow MPs that the country was in serious economic trouble, that his government had had to lie ‘morning, noon and night‘ to preserve confidence, and he was none too complimentary about the Hungarian electorate. Like Khrushchev’s speech it was leaked. Demonstrations and riots broke out. The television centre was ransacked. The police were brutal. It was effectively the end of the badly frayed post-1989 consensus. Instead of resigning, the government hobbled on to its full four-year term under ever heavier attack.
That attack was led by Viktor Orbán, leader of Fidesz, who had had a term as coalition prime minister from 1998-2002. Fidesz was a more liberal party then but he had been steering it in an increasingly right-wing direction. Orbán moved fast to assume ownership of the ‘56 revolution. The demonstrations of 2006, he claimed, were the equivalent of the demonstrations of 1956. Both were justified revolts against the old order. 1956 was no longer a revolt by social democrats against Stalinists, but a revolt by true Hungarians against foreign-based traitors. He boycotted all contact with the government and when he came to power in 2010 on the back of a landslide that shattered all opposition he had a majority large enough to change the constitution, which he has modified several times since, strengthening his hand with each modification, ensuring that no opposition could prevent him doing whatever he liked. Little by little he took over the civil service, the banks, the judiciary and the media, using financial rather than legal means. There are no dawn raids and arrests, just bankrupcies, redundancies, homelessness, and now – increasingly – group hatred.
The ferociousness of Orbán’s recent anti-immigrant campaign has stretched the bounds of permissible rhetoric beyond previous levels. It is now that of the rightest of right wing circles. The poisonous referendum in Britain was a genteel affair compared to the Hungarian one on migration. There are in fact practically no migrants in Hungary and the top-line figure of some 1200 refugees demanded by the EU was hardly going to seize power. It is a number of no significance in itself: the point of the referendum was not to keep out a crowd too small to fill the visitors’ enclosure at Carrow Road: it was to strengthen his nationalist grip on the Hungarian core voter.
So in 2016, on the sixtieth anniversary of the Uprising, we are almost back where we were in 1956 before the revolution, with an autocratic leader, a close-to one-party state brought about by repeating Rákosi’s notorious ‘salami-tactics’, whereby the opposition is sliced into tiny, insignificant, pieces. We have an exhausted educational system toeing strict government lines; we have a new line in state paranoia – not only about invading foreign hordes but also about ‘suspicious foreign agents’ such as the billionaire George Soros, whose money funded the same pre-1989 opposition of which Orbán was a part, as well as a number of important liberal institutions. But, of course, Soros is Jewish. And indeed the new Hungarian anti-Islamism following the Syrian crisis is a variant on the old anti-Roma and anti-Semitism, both still doing very well in the country. Paranoia about Muslims and unreliable cosmopolitans echoes the political paranoia of the Rákosi period about Titoesque traitors and class enemies.
The very recent shutting down of the main opposition paper, Népszabadság, is a bigger, bolder step down the road to Orbán’s vision of an illiberal democracy of which Russia, China and Turkey offer desirable models. And, just as under Rákosi’s communism, the Party dispensed largesse among its leaders with special shopping, special vouchers, special cars and special clean hospitals, so Orbán’s kleptocracy has cornered the best and most lucrative deals for its own supporters.
October 2016 may be seen not only as a retreat to pre-Uprising 1956 Hungary but an important landmark on a road leading even further back, to the thirties – for which the cultural ground has been well prepared, with countless rehabilitations of pre-war fascists. And Hungary will not be alone in that. There are plenty of others willing to take that route.
More of George Szirtes’s writings can be found on http://georgeszirtes.blogspot.co.uk