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Past in the Making

Michal Kopeček

The Revisions of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

András Mink

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1The tradition of the 1956 Hungarian revolution played a major role in undermining the legitimacy of the one-party state in 1988–89. However, the post-mortem victory of Imre Nagy over János Kádár, the glorious revival of the tradition of the revolution, coincided with the dissolution of the very same tradition. Recently, as the 50th anniversary of the revolution approached, the memory and celebration of 1956 became the most controversial historical and ideological issue in the Hungarian public do-main. Interestingly enough, the official “counter-revolutionary” narrative of the Kádár era greatly influenced the post-transitional memory of 1956, in various perverted ways.

2On the 50th anniversary of the revolution, foreign and domestic observers witnessed an attempt to recreate the historical events of 50 years before. On this noble occasion the whole gamut of the cultural and ideological flora and fauna of the interwar far-right mythology was displayed in front of the Hungarian Parliament, on Kossuth Square in Budapest. The demonstrators not only intended to replace the government and its head, but demanded the revision of the constitutional system and the reestablishment of the Hungarian political community on the basis of the Holy Crown. In this paper I will not discuss either the political developments that led to the public protests, or the tactical considerations that might have led the opposition parties to consider these protests useful. My interest is more limited: What made it possible for the memory of the 1956 Hungarian revolution to be linked to the traditional symbols of the extreme right-wing movements and ideologies of the prewar period? In order to understand this grotesque and peculiar phenomenon, we must cast a glance over the early “counter-revolutionary” period of 1956–1957, and its lengthy aftermath. In the first part of this chapter I will briefly describe the main elements of the “counter-revolutionary” narrative and its democratic counterpart during the communist dictatorship. In the eyes of the police-historians of the Kádár regime, 1956 in its character belonged to the past, to the prewar political regime and its campaign against progressive forces: first and foremost the communists. In the dissident tradition of the Kádár era, 1956, with its strong leftist (democraticsocialist) inclination, was the prelude to a desired post-communist democratic development.

3The second part of this chapter will analyze one aspect of the question of how and why the democratic tradition of the 1956 revolution fell apart. This did not happen only because the inherent tradition of the revolution was very hard to identify and proved to be discontinuous with posttransitional social and political developments. Other factors also made the tradition controversial. It seems that the contrasting interpretations of the revolution are closely linked to the various and irreconcilable images not only of the communist regime itself, but of the prewar political system and its tradition. The main question has become again whether 1956 was a return to the natural—meaning anti-communist and nationalistic—stream of Hungarian history, or whether it belongs to post-1945 historical development.


  • 1 “Resolution of the Provisional Central Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, Decemb (...)
  • 2 Mihály Francia Kiss was a member of the white terror death brigades after the crushing of the Hung (...)

4Kádárist propaganda regarded and depicted 1956 as a revolt organized and directed off-scene by Hungarian reactionaries (former landowners, the clergy, former members of the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross movement, and Horthy’s followers), whose aim was the restoration of the previous, partfeudal and part-capitalist order and/or the Arrow Cross regime.1 Their false allegations about an ongoing organized underground conspiracy after the war, and their emphasis on the continuity of 1919, 1944, and 1956, the three successive but eventually unsuccessful blows against Communism, served to promote this conception. In their interpretation Fascism was identical with anti-Communism, consequently the revolt against the socialist state could not be anything but a fascist one. Many of the repressive post-1956 trials had the sole function of demonstrating this continuity. The trials of former gendarmerie and police officers for crimes they committed or allegedly committed before 1945, and the trial and execution of Mihaly Francia Kiss, the mass killer of the 1920 “white terror” massacres, 37 years later in 1957, are obvious examples.2

5The scale of the repression, the number of arrests and executions had the function not only of terrorizing the population but also of proving that the counter-revolution was a strong and dangerous one. The people’s courts were not only judging individual perpetrators but also delivering a verdict on the criminal nature of the prewar period. According to this, the counter-revolution started with the repression of the first Hungarian communist state in 1919, with the emergence of the white terror, and it continued with the Horthy regime, which inevitably culminated in the Holocaust and a fascist Arrow Cross coup d’etat and dictatorship in 1944. The final stage was 1956, with its christian-national, anti-communist ideology and revisionist chauvinism. Indeed, Francia and those others who were convicted and executed for prewar misdeeds, were presented as the forerunners of German Nazism.

6That image of the “counter-revolution” served not only to justify the Soviet intervention and the restoration of the dictatorial regime, but also to distance people from what happened. It was both a threat and redeeming offer. Those who accepted the Kádár government were saved from being associated with the fascists of 1944, even if they had “naïvely” supported the Nagy government. They maintained the fiction that the forces behind the counter-revolution were not the same as the forces the people believed in and saw in action during the 1956 revolution. Nothing was really what it seemed to be.

7The police-historians of the Kádár era wrote:

  • 3 Sándor Geréb, and Pál Hajdú, Az ellenforradalom utóvédharca [The rear-guard action of the counterr (...)

The composition of the armed groups in these days changed in the following way: Those forces that were loyal to the cause of socialism and were indeed motivated by the wish to correct mistakes, and believed that they could influence the armed groups in a beneficial way, quit the groups. Young students also left the insurgents en masse … At the same time newly released ordinary and political criminals, the lumpen and the servants of the old regime drifted into the armed groups … The lead was taken everywhere by extreme right-wingers, and in many cases, by officers of the former Horthy regime.3

8Similarly, the Workers’ Councils could not represent the working class. Another official historian put it as follows:

  • 4 János Molnár, “Fegyveres ellenforradalmi csoportok” (Armed counter-revolutionary groups) Századunk(...)

The leadership of the newly reorganised workers’ councils fell into the hands of openly counter-revolutionary elements, cashiered military officers, judges, gendarmes, priests, or in the best cases, confused laborers who had fallen under the spell of counter-revolutionary and revisionist ideas … The lumpen elements could not for long resist the attraction of pretending to be freedom-fighters and national guards. They became comfortable with themselves only after they returned to their own methods, which, from a political point of view meant arrest, murder, lynching and brutality.4

9Behind the curtain, the story went, a fundamental evil was emerging, about which the Hungarian people did not know: the restoration of the prewar political and social order. The Nagy government was an agent of the counter-revolution that treacherously helped to cover the real nature of events. The reestablished non-communist parties—their announced political programs envisioning national independence, the restoration of private property on a (very) limited scale, and the restoration of a multi-party system (bourgeois democracy) were only the initial steps on a path back to the dark past. These politicians either cautiously hid their real intentions behind the veil of these popular demands, or they themselves were the veil.

10It was on these issues that Hungarian dissident authors both at home or in exile and Western observers unanimously repudiated the allegations of the Kádár regime, pointing out that the spontaneous popular uprising of 1956 had been sparked off by the deceit and brutality of Mátyás Rákosi’s Stalinist regime. The insurgents fought against dictatorship and for national independence, and not for any restoration of the old social order. The uprising was spontaneous and had an essentially democratic character; atrocities were marginal accompaniments. Most of the observers belonging to the democratic side stressed and tried to prove that the mainstream of the revolutionary movement: including the Imre Nagy circle; the reform communist intellectuals; the Writer’s Association, which included authors who had previously been enthusiastic supporters of communist ideas; the students; the worker’s and revolutionary councils; and even the re-established non-communist parties, remained within the vaguely defined but still clearly recognizable political and ideological framework of a kind of democratic socialism.

  • 5 See the interviews of the Columbia Research Project Hungary (CURPH) at the Archives of the Columbi (...)
  • 6 David Irving, Uprising! (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1981); and András Mink, “David Irving and t (...)

11Indeed, the demands of these groups that were made public in those hectic days tended in that direction. This certainly does not mean that the historian can retrospectively limit the potential outcomes of a consolidated and victorious regime change to this framework, supposing that the revolution had succeeded. But we have strong evidence, most importantly the sociological interviews conducted with Hungarian refugees in Western Europe and in the United States in 1957 and 1958,5 that even the average Hungarian held this sort of egalitarian vision of the future of Hungary. However, the political content of 1956 is not the topic of this paper. It seems sufficient to conclude here that in 1956 and afterwards, those who tried to keep alive the democratic memory of 1956 at home and abroad would certainly not have wished to be compromised by charges of alleged leanings towards liberal democracy and free market capitalism, or even worse, towards the prewar Hungarian autocratic regime or Fascism (This conclusion, by the way, disappointed some of the American analysts of the refugee interviews). I think it is more important to stress that for those who aimed to defend the dignity of 1956 against the accusations of Kádárist propaganda up to 1989, the democratic socialist image, apart from their personal political sympathies, seemed to offer a better way of exposing the hypocritical nature of Soviet-style dictatorship. The Soviet regime and its Hungarian puppets crushed and liquidated exactly those individuals who took the idea of a democratic, egalitarian society seriously. The democratic nature of the revolution could be demonstrated most efficiently by strictly separating it from the reminiscences of oldfashioned anti-communist narratives that were characteristic of prewar times. Let me note here that Kádárist propaganda was also aware of this and targeted the Western democratic public from exactly the opposite direction; it was David Irving who enjoyed the support of the Hungarian authorities in writing an evil book which depicted the revolution as a pogrom against communists of Jewish origin in Hungary.6

12However, one of the consequences of this was that the 1956 revolution took on a certain democratic socialist profile which had become not only outdated in political terms by the time the communist regime collapsed, but also a little suspicious in the eyes of many Hungarians. Moreover, mainstream anti-Kádárist narratives of 1956 before 1989 tended to focus on Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs, the anti-Stalinist and reformcommunist resistance within the party prior to the outbreak of the uprising, i.e., the grand process of the disillusionment of former communist intellectuals. The so called “Pest lads,” the then young and enthusiastic free-dom fighters who had nothing to do with “Communism” before the revolution and who were hit hardest by the post-revolutionary terror, felt that they were ignored. This was made even worse by the attempts of the successor party to adjust itself to the new situation and hide its own responsibility for the previous crimes.

1956 AFTER 1989

  • 7 László Soós, ed., A Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt Központi Bizottságának 1989. Evi jegyzőkönyvei, (...)

13“The problem of 1956 should be—and could be—solved immediately, in brackets, if we accepted György Lukács’ formula … in accordance with which Hungary’s 1956 should be called neither a counter-revolution nor a revolution, but an uprising … this formula would be equally acceptable to those who witnessed the counter-revolutionary aspect of the uprising and those who experienced its revolutionary aspect,” said Ferenc Tőkei, philosopher and sinologist and a member of the Central Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party at the 12–13 February 1989 session, which set itself the task of debating Imre Pozsgay’s public statement of January 18, when he defined 1956 as an uprising.7 Tőkei and the more clear-sighted members of the Central Committee were interested in finding a way to incorporate 1956 (crushed by the HSWP) into the HSWP heritage and to make Imre Nagy (hanged by the HSWP in 1958), into a founder of the same party in 1989 (de facto he was among the founders). The Central Committee’s statement on Imre Nagy’s reburial on 16 June 1989 contained the following passage:

  • 8 “Javaslat a Központi Bizottságnak a Nagy Imre temetésével kapcsolatos KBközleményre” [Proposal on (...)

Nowadays, when representatives of certain parties and movements speak in public and in the media, they make an attempt to appropriate Imre Nagy’s heritage without mentioning his communist commitment … The HSWP’s Central Committee finds it important to point out that the reform policies of 1953–54, including Imre Nagy’s activities, form the historical origins of the HSWP’s political course.8

14In July, 1989 the Central Committee discussed the idea of declaring October 23 a day of national reconciliation, in order to forestall greater complications. The draft statement by the Central Committee went as follows:

The renewing HSWP regards 23 October 1956 as the symbol of the movement aimed at democratic socialism, national independence and sweeping and radical reforms. We cherish the political heritage of those who participated in the fateful events of those days under the banner of these ideals. We wish to bring justice to those who fought, and laid down their lives, to humanize and democratize social relations and to defend our national interests. We also wish to pay homage to the memory of those who, guided by good intentions and personal beliefs, fell victim to the shootings and the atrocities while fighting on the other side of the barricade.

  • 9 “Javaslat az MSZMP Központi Bizottságának állásfoglalására a nemzeti megbékélés napjáról” [Proposa (...)

15László Kovács, later Minister of Foreign Affairs, and recently appointed Hungarian representative in the European Commission, who was also a member of the CC, added a short comment to this passage in the debate: “This statement only makes sense if we were on both sides of the barricade.”9

16With these declarations the HWSP was making a clear attempt to embrace and even expropriate the democratic socialist interpretation of 1956. They did it in a moment when one-party rule had not yet been formally shaken and the Party itself was not completely prepared to accept liberal constitutionalism and the free market economy. The decisive sessions of the round table negotiations that eventually led to the regime change started only after the reburial of Imre Nagy, and the successor Hungarian Socialist Party was founded only in October, 1989. The attempt to expropriate the democratic tradition of 1956 took place at a moment when it apparently served the survival of the former elite and the avoidance of fundamental political changes. This move not only cast a shadow on the democratic image of 1956 but also added fuel to the radical anticommunist narratives of the revolution. The former defenders of the memory of 1956 found themselves once more in a defensive position vis-à-vis the new radicals. A new political struggle for the heritage of 1956 began.


  • 10 Gergely Pongrátz, Corvin köz —1956 [Corvin alley—1956]. (Chicago: G. Pongrátz, 1982), p. 13. Pongr (...)

17It is not easy to decide when the right-wing revision of 1956 actually started. Most probably, the traditional, nationalist-ethnicist, extreme rightwing form of anti-Communism had never completely disappeared from the post-war Eastern European and Hungarian scene and certainly gave some signs of its existence during the revolution as well. The proper identification of these attitudes is problematic for at least two reasons: first, the communist narrative regarded and depicted the non-commmunist political domain as a continuation of Fascism. Second, we know much better now than we did some decades ago that the communist interpretation of Fascism was surely mistaken in another respect as well, prewar extreme right-wing movements and ideas were much more revolutionary, and had much stronger anti-capitalist (i.e., anti-parliamentarian, anti-liberal) tendencies than was recognised earlier. In Hungary the Hungarist and Arrow Cross movements were strongest within the trade union of miners and iron workers, and among the poorer peasantry. A large number of disaffected intellectuals crossed over from the extreme left to the extreme right and back again repeatedly throughout the 1930s with amazing nonchalance. One may add that this kind of vague uncertainty would be even more characteristic in 1956 when anti-capitalism and anti-Communism could easily be combined in a sort of anti-elitism. As we read the testimonies of Hungarian refugees it is salient that while they expressed a surprising consensus of sympathy towards egalitarian, socialistic ideas, they regarded the Hungarian communists not as people with political convictions but rather as a gang of mafiosi, conspiring to preserve their own privileges and material welfare. In his memoirs, published in the US in the early 1980, Gergely Pongrátz, legendary commander of the Corvin köz rebel group in Budapest, clearly stated that they were fighting for democratic socialism, a kind of fair and free society. It is quite revealing that Pongrátz, who became the cult figure of right-wing anti-communist resistance after 1989, carefully ommitted this paragraph from post-1989 editions of his book.10

  • 11 István Rév, “Ellenforradalom” [“Counterrevolution”], Beszélő 3 (November 1999) pp. 47–59.

18Radical anti-Communism received a new impetus after the fall of the communist regimes throughout the post-Soviet bloc. There were attempts everywhere to rehabilitate former fascist, extreme-right leaders, warcriminals, military commanders, anti-Semitic publicists, etc., as heroes of the struggle against the threat of “Red Bolshevism.” It is easy to see that in part it was the former communist narrative that made this possible. Those who wanted to see justice for the “martyrs” of communist repression, had to do nothing else than take the communist arguments seriously: the martyrs were not fascists: this was only an allegation made by the communist courts in order to discredit their heroic struggle against the communist threat.11 In these narratives Fascism as an independent phenomenon suddenly disappeared. What perhaps makes the Hungarian case unique in this respect is that Hungary, unlike Poland or Czechoslovakia, did not belong to the anti-fascist camp prior to the Soviet occupation and the anti-fascist tradition was imported into Hungary by the Red Army and the Hungarian communists. In Hungary, instead of commemorating the end of World War II every year, we have a recurring ideological debate about the meaning and relevance of 1945. The front lines of this debate are the same as the front lines in the debates on 1956.

  • 12 For the most eloquent summary of this revised 1956 see: Róbert Szalay, A forradalom igaz története(...)

19The reevaluation of 1956 by the right obviously started with the reinterpretation of the Hungarian role in World War II (“Hungary took part in the great struggle against Bolshevism”), the denial of the responsibility of the prewar political elite and the Hungarian state in the Hungarian Holocaust, and of course the reassessment of the prewar Horthy regime. From the perspective of this new anti-communist revisionism, after the regime change in 1989 Hungary should have turned back to its genuine historical roots and to the national character of the pre-1945 period. The revision is a justifiable reversal of the distortions and the false charges about the past inspired by communist ideology. Consequently, the heroes of 1956 were not the disappointed reform-communist intellectuals but the young free-dom fighters, and the revolution was an attempt to return to Hungary’s pre-1945 roots.12 This is precisely the view of the “real character” of 1956 that communist propaganda was trying to impose throughout the Kádár era. As I indicated above, the question has once again come to this: Was 1956 a return to prewar times, or a prelude to the democratic dénouement of post-communist Hungary?


1 “Resolution of the Provisional Central Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, December 5, 1956,” in Csaba Békés, Byrne Malcolm and János M. Rainer, eds., The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents. A National Security Archive Cold War Reader (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2002), pp. 460–463.

2 Mihály Francia Kiss was a member of the white terror death brigades after the crushing of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919–1920. He and his cronies committed brutal murders against alleged “Bolsheviks.” In 1923, he was tried and sentenced but soon released. He was tried again in absentia in 1947 and sentenced to capital punishment by the People’s Tribunal that was established after World War II for prosecuting war criminals. In March 1957, he was arrested and sentenced to death again. He was hanged in 1957. On his case see: István Rév, “A Rule of Law,” in Rév, Retroactive Justice, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), pp. 202–239.

3 Sándor Geréb, and Pál Hajdú, Az ellenforradalom utóvédharca [The rear-guard action of the counterrevolution] (Budapest: Kossuth Kiadó, 1986), p. 13.

4 János Molnár, “Fegyveres ellenforradalmi csoportok” (Armed counter-revolutionary groups) Századunk (1966): 1151.

5 See the interviews of the Columbia Research Project Hungary (CURPH) at the Archives of the Columbia University, New York. A copy of the interviews and their background materials was recently made public by OSA Archives, Budapest:, or

6 David Irving, Uprising! (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1981); and András Mink, “David Irving and the 1956 Revolution,” New Hungarian Quarterly, (Fall 2000).

7 László Soós, ed., A Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt Központi Bizottságának 1989. Evi jegyzőkönyvei, I–II. [The minutes of the central committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, 1989. Vol. 1–2.] (Budapest: Hungarian National Archive, 1993), Vol. 1, 1079–1080.

8 “Javaslat a Központi Bizottságnak a Nagy Imre temetésével kapcsolatos KBközleményre” [Proposal on the Central Committee’s statement regarding Imre Nagy’s reburial], in The Minutes…, Vol. 1, pp. 1079–1080.

9 “Javaslat az MSZMP Központi Bizottságának állásfoglalására a nemzeti megbékélés napjáról” [Proposal to the MSZMP’s central committee on the declaration of the day of national reconciliation], in A Magyar Szocialista…, Vol. 2, p. 1359. At that time the conditions of the later, “all-embracing” solution, i.e. the proclamation of the Republic on 23 October, were still not available since the round-table negotiations between the Party and the opposition on the constitutional changes had not been concluded yet.

10 Gergely Pongrátz, Corvin köz —1956 [Corvin alley—1956]. (Chicago: G. Pongrátz, 1982), p. 13. Pongrátz was the commander of the largest insurgent group in Budapest, with its headquarters at Corvin köz, in the 9th district. After the Soviet intervention on 4 November he fled to the US, and returned to Hungary in 1991.

11 István Rév, “Ellenforradalom” [“Counterrevolution”], Beszélő 3 (November 1999) pp. 47–59.

12 For the most eloquent summary of this revised 1956 see: Róbert Szalay, A forradalom igaz története [The real story of the revolution] (Budapest: 56-os Magyarok Világtanácsa, 1999). Szalay stated that 1956 continued the “anti-Bolshevik fight” started by Ferenc Szálasi and the Arrow-Cross movement in October 1944, and that the representatives of the Nagy government in 1956—in particular Pál Maléter, Minister of Defense, who was later hanged after a show trial together with Imre Nagy in 1958—were in reality traitors of the 1956 revolution who tried to help the Russian invasion. Szalay’s book was promoted in the semi-official political daily (Új Magyarország) of the right-wing conservative Orbán government in 1999 as a proposed textbook for secondary schools.


András Mink, historian and journalist, is Senior Research Archivist at the Open Society Archives, Budapest, and editor-in-chief of the liberal monthly Beszélő. His areas of interest are the history of Hungary after 1945 and historiography. He has authored a number of articles and edited several volumes on Hungarian history, most recently The Defendant: the State. The Story of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. (Budapest: Hungarian Helsinki Committee, 2005)

© Central European University Press, 2008

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