Once a symbol of hope, Hungary now a study in democratic frailty


Protesters with referee whistles disturbed the Hungarian government’s commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the anti-Soviet revolution of 1956 on Sunday, as supporters of Prime Minister Viktor Orban tried to stifle them, sometimes violently, reports suggest:

Orban said the whistling protesters embodied the return of the Soviet-style communism that had been “taken away by the devil” thanks in part to the events in 1956. “The course of history took a turn in Hungary,” a visibly tense Orban said, as the whistling grew more intense. “Instead of the predicted global communist revolution, there was a revolution against the communist world.”

He likened E.U. bureaucrats in Brussels to the Soviet Union, a recurring theme in his speeches. “The freedom-loving peoples of Europe have the task of preventing the Sovietization of Brussels,” Orban said.

The Fidesz government is trying to “monopolize the revolution” and create a “new story,” argued Maria Vásárhelyi, a sociologist and expert on Hungarian historical memory, whose father was a member of the revolutionary government. The Orbán administration’s narrative erases the “role of left-wing politicians and actors and denies the left-wing character of revolution,” Vásárhelyi said.

Orban’s remarks were interrupted by several hundred members of the opposition party Egyutt (Together), which had distributed hundreds of whistles and symbolic red cards for supporters to sound and wave at the gathering, Deutsche Welle reports.

“Viktor Orban’s policies are exactly the kind Hungarians rebelled against in 1956,” said Peter Juhasz, a Together vice president. “Back then, Hungarians stood up to Soviet domination, while today Orban has committed Hungary to Russia for decades,” said Juhasz, referring to Orban’s deal with Russia to build new nuclear reactors in the Hungarian city of Paks.

Hungary is both a symbol of the power of hope and a lesson in how readily freedom may be dissipated and endangered, argues the University of Toronto’s Aurel Braun, author of Dilemmas of Transition: The Hungarian Experience. The morass of fear, scapegoating and personal ambition must be countered with civic involvement and a fostering of rights if Hungary is to be pulled back from the dark road it seems to be taking six decades after its enormous sacrifice for democracy and independence he writes.

“There are many interpretations of 1956 … but this government’s is a fraud,” said László Rajk Jr., a former dissident whose father — a Communist minister of the interior — was the most prominent victim of the bloody 1950s show trials which set the stage for the revolution. The government campaign makes out that only a select group “are the heroes — no one else,” he said.

The 1956 uprising was brutally crushed by the Soviet Union, which claimed it was the work of “counter-revolutionary insurgents” and “reactionary conspirators” aiming to “re-establish the authority of the capitalists and landowners,” under the influence of Western “organizing and financing,” according to documents cited by Melvin J. Lasky in The Hungarian Revolution: A White Book, published for the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

“Causes that seem lost are often won in other ways,” Lasky later observed for The New Leader.

This year’s celebrations — which have turned the focus on the role of the uprising’s armed resistance rather than its reform-minded communist intellectual leaders — have angered critics who accuse Mr Orban of “hijacking” history for political gain and grated with western observers alarmed by the country’s authoritarian turn under his leadership, The FT adds:

Critics such as Charles Gati, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in the US and one of 200,000 refugees who left Hungary in 1956, say Mr Orban has promoted a “one-sided, distorted” account of 1956, presenting it as the precursor to his own government.

Polish president Andrzej Duda joined the ceremony in the Hungarian capital, in a sign of Budapest’s blossoming political partnership with Warsaw’s Eurosceptic nationalist government. But US officials stayed away from commemorations.

“This is a very conscious, very clear decision not to participate in [commemorations in Washington] and it sends a stark message of displeasure and serious concern with the state of democracy in Hungary,” said Andras Simonyi, a former Hungarian ambassador to Nato.

An RFE/RL contrast of Budapest in 1956 and now (above), was “brilliant,” National Endowment for Democracy board member Anne Applebaum tweeted.

The Petofi Circle has long been credited with laying the intellectual foundations for the uprising of October‐November 1956.

“The USG, like RFE, carefully followed (and sought to encourage) the ferment that spread throughout the Communist world in the wake of Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the 20th CPSU Congress,” noted analyst A. Ross Johnson. “It tracked the critical Hungarian discussions in the Petofi Circle, in part through the reports of journalist Simon Bourgin, who observed the discussions and privately debriefed RFE about them.”

After the war, Bourgin was the Vienna correspondent of the US Time magazine for ten years, but only weeks before the Hungarian Revolution broke out, he left the job to head the Newsweek office in Los Angeles, and missed the most exciting events in Hungary, according to one account.

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