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Hungary 1956: It Didn’t Have to End in Tragedy

Translated Monday 13 November 2006, by Patrick Bolland

For the historian Roger Martelli (1), Khrushchev’s hesitations with the process of destalinisation that he initiated, explains in large part the Hungarian tragedy. An interview with l’Humanité.

HUMA: You recently consulted new material in the Soviet archives on the Hungarian insurrection and you publish them in your latest book: “1956. Communiste, le glas d’une espérance” (1956. Communist, The Death Knell of a Hope) (l). What did you find in the archives?

ROGER MARTELLI. The increasing volume of evidence and of information in the archives allows us to look at the events from another angle. One sees more clearly today that there was no inevitability in autumn 1956 for the Hungarian crisis to turn into a tragedy. A few days before, a tragedy had been avoided in Poland, and conditions existed in Budapest for the same outcome. So it wasn’t inevitable, but a series of hesitations, of errors, of delays which ended up creating a situation that turned a tense political situation into a bloody confrontation.

HUMA: Right from the beginning, there have been two totally different interpretations: those who see those tragic days as a popular revolution and those who saw in the movement a counter-revolution. Can we talk of the movement as containing class coherence or political coherence?

MARTELLI: The movement born in Budapest on October 23, 1956 was a real popular movement, even if it was, as is often the case, led by “social elites”. Some, like François Fejto, saw in it “an anti-totalitarian revolution”. The conservative Hungarian communists of the time - and unfortunately the French Communist Party of 1956 - on the contrary, clung to the image of a “counter-revolution”. But the real movement was much more complex, less univocal than the terms which have been used to define it. But the reality seems to me much closer to the first perspective than to the second.

In fact, the movement was born out of a challenge to the Stalinian order incarnated by Matias Rakosi. It was not at the beginning strictly anti-communist: it was first controlled by the reformers of the Hungarian Communist Party. One symbolic organization of the movement was the Petöfi Club, created by young communists two years earlier. But it is also true that the movement became radicalized after the first Soviet intervention and the communists that initially had been part of it became more marginalized. Tt would be wrong, however, to say that the movement, supported by many workers councils, changed direction from one moment to the next to become “counter-revolutionary”. The fact that “counter-revolutionaries” participate in a movement does not mean that they control it.

HUMA: From Tito to Mao, the leaders of the socialist countries considered that “socialism” was in danger and they approved, in general, the military intervention. The European communist parties also, with some nuances. How do you explain this political error?

MARTELLI: From 23 October, in the evening, with the first shots then the arrival of the Russian tanks, a disastrous process was set in motion. Nagy and the Hungarian reformers could still have settled the situation, as the Polish communists had a few days earlier. The difference was that, in Poland, the leader of the Communist Party, Ochab, had the clarity of vision and the courage to understand that the situation required extraordinary measures. It was Ochab who went to find the old victim of the “purges”, Gomulka, despite what the Soviets wanted, and to make him the head of state.

In Hungary, it was the opposite that happened: the new number one of the party, Gerö, became completely intransigent, to an absurd degree, and defied the movement instead of committing himself to a policy of appeasement. As for the Soviets, instead of seeking a political solution, as they had tried to in 1953, by putting Nagy in power, they chose the path of military intervention. From then on, a peaceful solution, which the Soviet president Mikoyan – almost alone – wanted, lost all its effectiveness. The Soviet intervention destroyed any hope from the start of the ultimate reform attempts by Nagy: this was the source of a drama that sounded the death-knell of hope.

HUMA: What role did Khrushchev personnally play in this? Did he perceive the situation accurately?

MARTELLI : He showed, I believe, his limited capacity to act. During the whole year of 1956, the Soviet first-secretary hesitated between audacity and prudence. In February, he made his bombshell of the “secret report”, then he stepped back under pressure from the conservatives. In Poland, he considered solving the problem by the use of force, and then changed his mind, choosing in extremis to leave Gomulka free to make the decisions.

In Hungary, the Soviet leaders lacked a clear vision of what was happening. Khrushchev first decided to back Imre Nagy, the head of government selected on the night of the first Soviet invasion. Between 28 and 30 October, he seemed ready to grant greater autonomy to Hungary relative to Soviet trusteeship. Then, on 31 October, he abruptly withdrew this option and decided on a second intervention, the most tragic one. Khrushchev, more a pragmatist than a strategist, had panicked. He was afraid to become the person who would be accused of creating a breach in the Soviet “empire”. He then chose repression, which tarnished irreversibly the image of communism and generated substantial doubts about communism’s capacity to renew itself.

HUMA: Nagy and Kadar are two emblematic figures of the movement. One paid with his life, the other ceded to the Soviets in the name of a pragmatism that would "save the essentials". Is this a true picture?

MARTELLI: Nagy and Kadar really embody the Hungarian drama. The former had never been imprisoned before 1956 and ended up hanged by his comrades in 1958; the latter was a victim before assuming the label of “traitor” in 1956. Nagy had tried initially to reform the system between 1953 and 1955. He failed and when he returned to power, in the early hours of 24 October, this was under the worst possible conditions. This man, who also vacillated between courage and indecision, finally chose to follow the movement right to the end, up to risking becoming a prisoner of the most radical elements. Remaining a communist, he paid for this decision with his life.

As for Kadar, he had known the gaols of Rakosi from 1951 to 1954. He rallied to Nagy’s cause in autumn 1956 and supported his reform programme until 1 November. But then he lost his nerve with the radicalization of the movement , provoked by the first Soviet invasion. He accepted, not without some hesitation, to protect Hungary from the Soviet impact at the beginning of November. He then became, in the 1960s and 1970s a symbol of a much greater opening-up and tolerance of the initial model. A real socialism, devoid of barbarism and narrow thinking … Nagy, Kadar – these were two men who incarnated the complexity of a system, its possibilities of reform and the impossibility of achieving this in 1956.

[Translator’s note]

A historian, Roger Martelli, is editor of the monthly review “Regards”, published in Paris. His recent publications include “Le Communisme” in the collection Milan editions, 2005, 64 pages, 5.50 euros. He is also the author of “Faut-il défendre la nation”, Milan Éditions, 2005 and of “Communisme français, histoire sincère du PCF 1920-1984”, Éditions Sociales 2002, Paris.

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