Each year on 23 October, the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, groups of Hungarians meet to commemorate the historic episode, wherever they are, whether in Hungary itself or amongst the global diaspora. For my compatriots, 1956 symbolises everything of national significance – the yearning for independence, the fight against tyranny, the tragedy of a small nation which has endured centuries of oppression by one conquering power or another.
The Hungarian Embassy in London, naturally, also hosted an event to remember the Uprising and honour its thousands of victims. The Hungarian Ambassador,Péter Szabadhegy, a former banker, management consultant and private equity businessman, spoke with real feeling about the events of 1956, which impelled his own parents to escape to America. They met and married in New York, hence the American-born ambassador’s Yankee accent (although he has been living and making his career primarily in Budapest since 1991).
He pointed out that as well as the Revolution, the date also marked the 25th anniversary of the declaration of the Third Hungarian Republic, in 1989, as the communist era at last came to a close and a new, independent democracy was born. ‘In 1956 and in 1989, we Hungarians expressed our national desire for freedom. There is no power that could ever discourage us,’ he stated.
The evening’s guest speaker was no less than the original political ‘Big Beast’, the Tory MP and former Cabinet minister Kenneth Clarke. In his customary affable manner he recalled that he had been absorbed by politics even as a youngster, and said that the events of 1956 – when he was aged 16 – helped form his political views. In his native Nottinghamshire he met some of the Hungarian refugees who arrived in this country, ‘which helped me to understand the nature of the divide between democracy and totalitarianism’.
He said that Britain had encouraged the Uprising ‘and was then paralyzed as it watched it being crushed’. (Personally I have always believed that the Western powers, particularly America, could have done something to help Hungary escape the Soviet Union’s grip, and possibly would have done, had they not been distracted by the Suez Crisis, which was playing out at the same time.)
Then Clarke recollected that on his visits to Eastern Europe during his time as Health Secretary under Margaret Thatcher in the late 1980s, he could tell that Hungary was the ‘slightly radical’ one amongst the Soviet satellite states, ‘never quite back under control after 1956’, and of potential danger to the Soviet Empire. (And so it proved, as the country which kick-started the fall of communism throughout the satellites when it opened the border to Austria and let thousands of East Germans flood through to the West.)
The Hungarian Revolution was the first major world event that Brits could watch happening in their own homes, as it coincided with the period when they were acquiring their first TV sets. And the ’56 refugees – many of whom settled in the UK – have always had a special place in the hearts of the older generations here.
In my career as a journalist I have occasionally written about my family’s escape from Hungary in the aftermath of the bloody crushing of the Revolution, about our émigré life in New York and then later in London, and my feelings concerning my Hungarian roots. I explored the subject in my book The Paper Bridge, for which I travelled back to Hungary to rediscover the people and the life we had left behind. It was first published in 1981, on the Revolution’s 25th anniversary.
Much later, and by then a feature writer on the Daily Mail, I wrote a heartfelt personal piece for that newspaper marking the 40th anniversary, in 1996. At the end of my article I reflected on whether, after living most of my life in the West, I still considered myself essentially Hungarian. Was I still anchored to my past?
‘I can’t honestly say I dwell very often on my Hungarian-ness,’ I wrote. ‘Britain is my home and I belong here. Not least because I have two English children. But that’s not to suggest that what happened in Hungary 40 years ago plays no part in my thinking. On the contrary, the legacy of 1956 is enduring. For it has endowed me with two powerful sentiments: a passion for freedom and fierce pride in a nation which – for one shining moment in history – showed the world the meaning of human spirit.’
Today, nearly another two decades on, those words are as true as ever.
Monica Porter’s The Paper Bridge (revised edition 2009) is published by Quartet Books. Details of this and other books can be found at her website: www.monicaporter.co.uk