"But if Enough of us get killed,
A FEW WEEKS AGO I found myself helping to wrestle the biggest pumpkins into place for proper carving as jack-o-lanterns. Just as I was, warning my daughter for the fourth time not to slice toward her hand, it suddenly came to me that exactly 10 years before, almost to the hour, instead of preparing for Halloween I had been lying under a bright light in the operating room of a Budapest hospital while a Hungarian doctor sliced into one of my fingers to put its pieces of bone back in place.
This anecdote, of course, should be the prelude to some melodramatic tale of personal courage in the cause of liberty. But the American role - especially mine - in the Hungarian rebellion, and in its aftermath, was not particularly heroic or helpful or, intelligent. My being in that hospital, for instance, was acutely embarrassing, for I was neither a Hungarian nor a Freedom Fighter, but a journalist who had caught a stray and not very damaging bullet more out of sheer carelessness than anything else.
Opposite me, in an anteroom a Hungarian boy with his back laid open across the shoulder blades lay patiently waiting to be wheeled away. The rest of the hospital was choked with seriously hurt and wounded. The struggle for Budapest and all of Hungary had been going on almost a week - since Oct. 23. Lying there, I felt agonizingly guilty - for cluttering up the hospital, for getting wounded in the first place, for being an observer instead of actively helping and, yes, for being an American who would shortly be safely back in Paris (where I was based) while the Hungarians around me stayed on.
Overwhelmingly, I felt how America must look to them all just at that moment. John Foster Dulles had talked headily and officially about "rolling back" the Iron Curtain. We had preached rebellion against tyranny as an almost sacred political ideal. Radio Free Europe, which we sponsored, had for years wittingly or unwittingly encouraged the satellite peoples to believe we would help if ever they revolted. Once they did begin, Henry Cabot Lodge swore, in the U.N., that we would not fail them. But no help had come. And, as everyone knows, it never did come.
Nowadays events blur into one another so thick and fast that a decade is like a generation - or more.
Today the struggle in Budapest of 10 years ago sometimes seems as remote from our present concerns, both public and private, as the second battle of Bull Run. But few Americans, whether they watched helplessly from inside Hungary or from 4,000 miles away, can think back on the events of 1956 without a lingering sense of regret - that yesterday's exiled heroes so often become today's political headaches, that pure admiration for pure courage is so soon forgotten. It is a melancholy prospect to recall that when the moment in history came round to challenge the very heart of our conviction (and our persistent rhetoric) about the fight for liberty, we found ourselves too sophisticated or too fearful or too concerned with the worldly balance of power to act.
The road back to Budapest, whether it is taken fleetingly in the mind on the anniversary of the fight, or briefly in fact as I took it for the first time in 10 years, when I was in Europe last month, lies through the province of painful memory. We drove up from Vienna to Hegyeshalom, where I had crossed before. I had no visa, so crossing this time took 40 minutes - for an interview with a security policeman in civilian clothes, plus $12.50 to to pay for the visa and get one day's minimum supply of forints.
As I waited, I began noticing things from the past. The squat low brick frontier station had not been repaired since the rainy night, a decade ago, when photographer John Sadovy and I, had arrived on foot. That room there, still labeled with the number 3, had been full of young Hungarians with submachine guns who were so frightened when their teenage leader threw open the door to show them to us that I thought for a second they might shoot us or one another out of sheer jumpiness.
The big room at the end of the hall had been the commandant's office. When I first entered it, the desk was occupied by a 19-year-old boy who had spent some years in Akron, Ohio, before coming back home to Hungary and getting caught up in the rebellion. Two hours before, he had had the Hungarian major nominally in charge shot. The major, he explained, had joined the rebels two days before, but then, perhaps fearing that the Russians were about to seal off the border, he had begun ordering Austrian trucks carrying food and medicine to Hungary to be stopped short of the border. Remembering, I soon found myself standing in the company of ghosts.
The people are easy enough to evoke. But it is difficult now to recreate the state of confusion and ignorance which existed on the night of Oct. 28,1956, about what was happening and what had happened in Hungary since the beginning of the rebellion. We hoped for everything but were sure of nothing. We knew the border had been closed to journalists (it was opened the next day).
We had heard that Imre Nagy, a "liberal" Communist - once Premier, then disgraced, then rehabilitated - had taken over the Government. But what would he, or could he, do ? There was talk that the Russians had forced one of their worst henchmen in Budapest, the party's first secretary, Erno Gero, to resign, and a rumor that they might agree to withdraw from Budapest. Would they really do such a thing? And, if so, why was there such a persistent belief that Soviet tanks and troops were still pouring into the country?
As we waited in the dark and rain at Hegyeshalom, hoping for a ride to Budapest, the young border commander who willingly stamped our passports could tell us only that some Austrian food trucks were getting through to the capital, that the revolutionary committee in Györ, the western center of the revolution, were divided and jittery because they too feared Soviet troops would come to seal off the border. He offered us Kosuth cigarettes,. They were loathsome but we accepted and lit up. It somehow seemed the least gesture we could make.
"Our problem," he said, "is that no matter what government they form, there is no strong leader the people can really trust. Except Kossuth," he added, looking at his cigarette, "and he's been dead for 60 years. So, unless the Soviets leave, everyone will fight, no matter what."
At dawn, trucks and cars came. An Austrian in a Volkswagen with a proper visa gave us a lift. The road to Budapest was wet. Black tree trunks stood out against the somber autumn leaves. Hunched in the car, we gnawed on black bread and Gruyere cheese, part of the supply of Austrian food being sent into Hungary, which the border guards had given us.
Despite a lashing rain, in every village ragged groups of children, workers and Hungarian soldiers hailed our Austrian license plates, giving thanks for the help which Austria, itself under Russian occupation until the summer before, had bravely given. In one town there was a banner: "Wir Danken dem Ostreichischen Volk." (The only handpainted sign we met on the road this fall read "Beket Vietnam," which means "Peace in Vietnam.") Hungarian' banners - newly painted red, green and white - fluttered from many houses, the red dye spreading over the white cloth like blood on bandages. Here and there, a black flag of mourning drooped.
We raced through Györ. No one knew much about the road beyond. But then we overtook a convoy of cars flying white flags, with their hoods draped in national flags, mostly Austrian. Gratefully, we joined them. On the road; we passed tanks and slowed warily, but they turned out to be Hungarian Army T-34s whose crews had joined the revolution; they waved at us cheerfully.
Close to Budapest, we met a roadblock and Soviet tanks. They looked terrifying and enormous. But when our papers were checked we were again waved on. As the convoy finally rolled into Budapest people on the streets swarmed around the Austrian cars, some hugging the drivers, some shouting a plea which we heard as long as we stayed in Budapest: "Have you got guns?"
It was still wet, and the sky was beginning to darken. But the mood of the people was hopeful. We had arrived, in fact, just before the day or two when it looked as if, out of all reason, the gamble of the students who had begun the revolution was about to pay off. Free political parties and revolutionary committees had sprung up (or been revived) everywhere. Some 20 newspapers had come into being to supplement the Communist organ, Szabad Nep. Nagy, who had, as the rumors had said, been reinstated as Premier on Oct. 24, seemed to be fighting for all the rebel demands - amnesty for everyone who had taken part in the rebellion, freedom of assembly, freedom to form political parties, Russian withdrawal from the city.
Yet, walking across the Margaret Bridge from Buda to Pest, Sadovy and I encountered strings of Russian Stalin tanks, their hatches buttoned down, sitting evenly spaced on either side of the bridge - silent, deadly and dripping in the rain. Now and then, a turret would slowly swivel to the left or right. as a tank commander chose to keep a pedestrian in prolonged view. Antitank guns commanded each end of the bridge. On the Pest side, along the Danube embankment and around the Parliament buildings, the streets were full of tanks and guns and troops. Passers-by moved warily among them.
It is hard to convey the intense and continued sense of the total vulnerability of flesh and bone which the silent presence of those hostile tanks gave us. For the average Hungarian householder - as opposed to active Freedom Fighters - the experience must have been a little like a week playing rabbit in a boa constrictor's cage.
Kossuth Square was deserted when we came to it, save for a dark squadron of Russian tanks fanning out in staggered order from the main, steps of the Parliament building. Bits of broken weaponry and stones still lay in the square, but hundreds of empty cartridges had been neatly swept into small piles.
It was before the parliament building that two of the decisive and tragic moments of the rebellion had taken place. First, on the evening of Oct. 23, a great crowd of excited and hopeful students had massed there to listen to a speech by Gero. They had already held a Hungarian-Polish solidarity meeting across the river that day, and were waiting for official reaction to a petition they had prepared aimed at getting for Hungary much the same sort of reform which the Russians had granted the Gomulka regime in Poland. They wanted Nagy as Premier. They asked for revision of Hungary's trade agreement with the Soviet Union, especially in regard to Hungarian uranium, and demanded an end to the power of the A.V.H. (generally called "Avo"), the secret police, whose repressions and brutality had turned the lives of thousands of Hungarians into a nightmare. The students were cheerful, expecting reforms to be granted, for little in what they demanded was inconsistent with the antiStalin steps which Nikita Khrushchev had been encouraging among his satellites. Yugoslavia had been forgiven, Poland liberalized, and Austria freed of occupation in little more than a year.
Gero, however, coldly dismissed the students as "enemies of the people" and made clear that die-hard Stalinists in Hungary would never willingly give an inch. The crowd began to turn ugly. Even the hasty arrival of Imre Nagy failed to calm them. He said he would plead their cause with the members of the Politburo, but he seemed fearful and indecisive.
IT was only after this meeting that part of the student crowd went to the Budapest radio station to demand that their petition at least be read over the air. Instead,the A.V.H. fired on them - first with blanks and tear gas, finally with real bullets. When, later that night, a Hungarian Army unit joined the students in blasting the A.V.H. from the radio building, and raids on state arsenals began providing weapons for anyone in the street who chose to accept them, the rebellion, which could easily have been avoided, began bloodily and in bitter earnest. By Oct. 24, Soviet tanks and troops were already moving into Budapest to put it down. The arriving Russians roamed the city all that day, attacking isolated groups of Freedom Fighters, being sniped at, and near the Kilian barracks, encountering resistance which destroyed more than 20 Russian tanks.
But also on Oct. 24, Nagy did resume the premiership (replacing a party hack named Andras Hegedus). And on the following day, Nagy announced that Gero was out as party secretary, replaced by Janos Kadar, a former Interior Minister who seemed to count as a liberal because he had once been disgraced, tortured and imprisoned by Gero's faction.
That day, Oct. 25, began as one of relative calm - one of those breathing periods when, if the Soviet Union had made concessions to the desperate Nagy Government, or if the hard-line Hungarian Stalinists had behaved with even a little moderation the bloodshed might have ended. Before the day was over, however, the second decisive and tragic moment of the rebellion occurred.
A peaceable crowd, heading for the Parliament building, ran into a parked Russian tank and somehow opened a conversation with its crew, who agreed to escort them - perhaps to insure that they stayed peaceable. On the way, they met another tank; by the time the tanks and demonstrators reached Kossuth Square, Hungarians were riding on them both. But as they entered the square, both the crowd and the two Soviet tanks were fired on by A.V.H. men stationed on the rooftops. The tanks fired back wildly. In a few minutes there were dead and dying and gravely wounded men, women and children all over the square.
Even with the help of the silent tanks and the piles of empty shells. it was hard for us, four days later, to imagine these things happening. We walked away from the river toward the red-starred headquarters of the Soviet Army. Houses nearby were pitted with bullet holes. As we drew nearer, the streets were increasingly filled with Russian soldiers, including tiny Mongol tank drivers in black hats who looked like men from Mars. Trucks and an occasional tank rolled by. Then Sadovy covertly took a picture holding his Leica at his waist.
A soldier shouted at us. In an instant, everybody seemed to be shouting. We were ringed by angry faces. Submachine guns were poked into our stomachs. The group surrounding us, mostly little men who looked like Mongolians, began herding us across the street when some noncoms arrived. They began yanking things out of the satchel I was carrying, and took John's camera. One grabbed the slender roll of toilet paper we had brought. Another unfolded the big tourist map of Europe we had bought in Paris and glared at us, tapping it accusingly. Poring over it together, they located Berlin and threateningly exclaimed: “Ah, Berlin.! “ as if it were some sort of secret rocket base outside Tomsk which we were planning to blow up.
Still at gunpoint, we stumbled toward the headquarters where we were taken to a small office occupied by two colonels and a general. The soldiers started to crowd in after us but were angrily ordered out.
A tall Russian officer with a face like Alexander Nevsky questioned us: What are you doing in Hungary?” “Reportage,” we replied. “You were taking pictures of tanks,” he accused. “No,” I said, “my friend was taking pictures the streets. We didn't know that was forbidden.”
He opened my passport and flipped the pages until he was at the page which, in those days, had a long list of communist countries where the passport was specifically invalid. Happily, when I had renewed it in Cairo early that summer the long list had been stamped “CANCELED.” A small stamp, however, had been added just at the bottom of the page, reading: “This passport not valid for travel in Hungary.” He had his thumb over that stamp.
But reading off the earlier list, he came upon the name “Hungary” and exclaimed: “You're here illegally!” He pointed to the “CANCELED” stamp and went on: “This stamp means that your right to visit these countries is canceled.”
“No,” I said as firmly as I could. “That means that the ban on visiting them is canceled.”
“No,” he said again, turning to consult with the other officers, who evidently overruled him. Happily his thumb stayed over the bottom of the page, covering the new ban on Hungary. He never raised it and when he finally returned the passport I shoved it into my coat pocket as fast as I could.
All the film was pulled open, exposed and then punctiliously returned to us. The tourist map and John's Leicas followed. An officer said in haughty but slightly broken English: “Tell them these are not good enough for us to keep.”
Only the toilet paper now troubled them. The searching officer refused to give it back. He unrolled several yards, turned it over, held it against the light and made writing gestures, mumbling to himself. Sadovy, who has a little Russian, heard him say suspiciously: “You can write on this and see it from the other side.” The tall colonel gruffly grabbled the roll from him and handed it to us. We were then ordered from the building and directed to move on : “Schnell!”
Late that night, Soviet forces officially began to leave the city. In the pale sun which slowly burned off the mist next morning, Budapest was all but free. We walked its streets with the people. This was the beginning of three intoxicating days when it seemed to the world, and to the Freedom Fighters, that they had won not only their internal revolution for the reform of their own Communist Government, but also their fight with the Soviet Union which grew out of it. During this period Cardinal Mindszenty was freed, along with more than 5,000 political prisoners of the secret police. It was agreed that all kinds of parties must be represented in the new Government. The Soviet Union announced officially that it would withdraw all troops from the city and negotiate withdrawal from all Hungary, as well as re-examining the Warsaw Pact, which held its satellites in orbit.
Tramping the streets in the direction of the Kilian barracks, we could have been inspecting a city ravaged by a major war. Sidewalks were clogged with rubble. Black, gaping holes, sometimes as wide as the whole front of a building, had been punched in apartments by Soviet tank fire. Along Ullai Ut and Jozsef Boulevard, Russian soldiers and Hungarians lay in broken postures, dead alongside their burned-out tanks, armored cars and self-propelled guns. Rebel work teams and crowds of curious citizens crawled in and out of the wreckage, poking, inspecting, sometimes repairing and salvaging what they could.
Men in white coats sprinkled snowy quicklime on the Hungarian and Russian dead. It dusted down on hands and faces until, from a distance, they looked like fallen marble statues. Small boys collected bullets.
Women, mostly in black, with bandannas tied around their heads, were sweeping the doorways of blasted shops and houses. One man, carrying a paint pot, trudged from tank to tank, from gun to gun, methodically decorating each with the shield of Kossuth - to replace the red stars.
On one side street, a woman stood over the body of her bandaged husband, weeping. A dead partisan lay in the sun; someone had found the time to place a wreath of autumn leaves on his chest. At one corner, young rebels had placed a captured antitank gun to command the street, and a gunner had hung on its barrel a sign from the nearby Corvin Theater: “Special attraction. Held over three days.”
Most people simply wandered wonderingly, hardly able to believe that they had won, warmed in the pale sunlight by a feeling of lightness and joy which touched us all. If “revolutionary euphoria” is the standard term to describe this, the formula falls far short of the reality. While it lasts, tears come easily and it is possible to believe in such customarily doubtful things as brotherhood and the perfectibility of man. Most storefronts were smashed, but stores had not been looted. Returning shopkeepers sometimes even found notes explaining that this or that piece of merchandise had been taken to a neighbors‘s cellar for safekeeping.
The young Freedom Fighters were pitifully eager to show “ the Americans” what had happened. Again and again, they asked if help was coming from America. Perhaps to emphasize the need for it, they took us to the top of a building at the eastern edge of town. In the fields behind a church in the Ference section, we could see dozens and dozens of parked Soviet tanks. Our guide proudly explained how similar tanks had been destroyed by drawing their attention - and fire - toward the upper windows of apartment buildings so that youngsters could dash up to them at street level close enough to throw Molotov cocktails.
As they led us through the streets they cheerfully shouted “ Russki” when pointing out tanks and bodies, or “Stalin” as they showed us piles of Marxist books and pamphlets being tossed onto sidewalks to burn. Strangely, their voices when referring to the Russians were merely excited. But when they gritted out the word “Avo,” telling us what the secret police had done, they conveyed deep fear and deeper hate.
When we came to it, the gateway of the Kilian Barracks on Ullai Ut was plugged up with the battered body of a tank, either abandoned during an attack on the building or, more likely, placed in the entryway to simply to keep the Soviets from getting in. In the courtyard, a crowd of young Freedom Fighters was shouting, and gesticulating around a tall, dark officer with a haunted face and a weird tankman's padded leather helmet.
“That one is Pal Maleter,” our guide explained proudly, “They are begging him to go to the Parliament and fight with the Government for us.” When Maleter spoke there was sudden, absolute quiet. His words sounded brittle and harsh. When he had finished, the crowd, obviously disappointed, began shouting again and all at once picked him up on its shoulders for a triumphant parade. “What did he say?” I asked. “That he is not a politician,” was the reply,”and would only get into trouble.”
Looking back on that moment, it is hard to know if Maleter was sincere. Was he an incipient Caesar or a stiff-necked Coriolanus? Whatever his motives, it turned out that he was right that he was no politician. On. Oct. 24, as a Communist lieutenant colonel in the Red Hungarian Army, he had been sent with some armored cars to put down a group of rebels established in the Corvin Theater and the nearby Kilian barracks. Like many another Hungarian officer he joined the rebels, taking command of the Kilian group. When the Russians arrived , he made his men hold their fire until the tanks were just beside the buildings and then destroyed them all with grenades and Molotov cocktails. Overnight, he thus became the most prominent military figure of the rebellion.
He did not follow his own advice, though. Two days after we saw him, he had joined Nagy, and was a general, Commander in Chief of the Hungarian Army and Minister of Defense, charged with negotiating Russian troop withdrawal. Four days later, the Russians had kidnapped him. He was never again seen alive. Like Nagy himself, the only other popular leader the rebellion produced, he was executed the following year after a secret trial. By that time it was already becoming fashionable to remark how liberal the Hungarian Government had become, how swiftly Budapest was being rebuilt, how free everyone was.
The grimmest work which our young guides knew of that day was the searching out of A.V.H. to release the prisoners and, more often than not, take revenge on the secret police themselves. In all, about 70 of these men were killed in a few days, just as they had tortured or killed hundreds, perhaps thousands of their fellow Hungarians before and during the rebellion. It was far from pleasant. It should have been stopped. But it was certainly understandable. The most publicized instance of such attacks on the A.V.H. took place just after we left Maleter. We were taken to a park where some A.V.H. were besieged in their headquarters, a Communist party office near the Erkel Theater. As we rather foolishly began to cross the park, sporadic gunfire suddenly gave way to heavy shooting. A Hungarian tank which had been parked near a few spindly trees ahead of us suddenly started up, drawing fire from the A.V.H. men in the besieged building.
A second after the outburst began I was hit in the left hand. Everybody flung himself down on the grass. The air seemed to be whirring. One of our young guides was lying next to me. He smiled reassuringly, then seeing the blood, jumped up in the middle of the shooting to go for help. I pulled him down. After a bit, we were able to run for shelter behind the theater. Somehow he found a car to help me get to a doctor. As I climbed , he put his hand comfortingly on my shoulder. He was hardly any older - and certainly no bigger - than my 15-year-old son is today.
Next day, at dawn, the last of the Soviet forces rolled along the Danube past my hotel window on their way out of the city - six trucks, with tanks fore and aft, steadily shuttled soldiers and equipment away. Standing in their turrets, the tank officers resolutely ignored the curious stares of citizens who climbed the railing along the river to watch their exodus.
Red stars and Stalinist symbols were being sawed, hacked or hauled down all of the city. I left for Vienna that day, just after witnessing what I thought was the last symbolic gesture of a victorious revolution. High on Gellert Hill, across the Danube, tiny figures swarmed around the big bronze figure of a Soviet soldier, put up in 1946 to stand guard at the feet of a soaring, 150-foot-high statue of the Goddess of Freedom. Heavy lines, in the distance looking only the thickness of black threads were tied to it. Hauling like slaves, the Hungarians rocked and rocked the figure of the soldier back and forth - until it fell. A faint, far off cheer came to us from across the broad river.
Before I left Budapest, I asked a tough-looking young man carrying a submachine gun what sense there could be in taking on the whole Russian Army. He was remarkably clear on that subject. "If we don't fight now, nothing will change," he said. "But if enough of us get killed, something may happen." As it turned out he was right, though not exactly in the way that he expected.
What followed is a sadder and even better-known story: the return of the Russian Army in force on Nov. 4. This time, there was nothing sporadic or equivocal about its behavior. No pauses occurred in the fighting, no quarter was given and nothing short of total surrender was possible. Hungary, which had been a supposed satellite ally and then, briefly, independent became plainly and simply an occupied country. The dreadful calendar of events marked the days all through November; Nagy's declaration of neutrality and his appeal to the U.N. Fearful street fighting. Fires, deportations, imprisonments, strikes and the first waves of refugees, very few of whom had been Freedom Fighters. Imre Nagy, even though now deposed in favor of Janos Kadar, remained a threat, for he was a figure within the Socialist world and initially it could only have been within the lingering framework of that world that the first steps toward reformed government could have been consolidated. The Communist world is hardly more troubled by ritual charges made against it in the West than we are at being called “a paper tiger” in Peking. But criticism from inside shakes the rank and file and a party leader who says that the party leadership has betrayed the revolution is a deadly menace. On Nov. 23 Nagy, who had taken refuge in the Yugoslav Embassy, was kidnapped after being given a safe-conduct by the new communist Hungarian government. Only then did the last flicker of hope among Budapest workers die out. Their strike ended, as their fight had done, and they went back to work.
Nowadays, especially for an American, it is hard to argue in the face of growing Hungarian economic well-being - even if the growth is snail-slow - or to derogate any increased measure of liberty - even if the increase is measured against the standards of the police state which Hungary was in 1956. Visiting Budapest ten years later, there is little sense of going with a chip on one's shoulder. In Europe, the cold war - at least in the terms in which the United States used to, and to some extent still does conceive it - is now a dead bore. This is partly because of China, partly because of the legacy of Nikita Khrushchev's anti-Stalinist policies, partly because of the uncheckable desire of satellite countries to trade freely and try to get rich.
But the Hungarian rebellion, too, played a decisive role in bringing about recent efforts to barter, rather than batter, the Iron Curtain down. To the United States it made clear that any convulsive effort by a captive people to free themselves by violence would fail unless we intervened. Budapest underlines for us, too, that much of our talk about freeing the satellites was outworn rhetoric. By 1956 we had become too committed to the intricacies of balance-of-terror nuclear policies to try a raw intervention on behalf of anyone directly in the Soviet zone of influence. Not to mention the fact that by then such American strike forces that might have been immediately useful - the 82 nd and 101 st Airborne divisions - were back home, one of them soon to busy trying to integrate a high school in Little rock, Arkansas.
The greatest and most enduring effect of the Hungarian rebellion, however, was in the Communist world. It was too big to brush under the rug, too blatant to be passed off (as party propagandists have been trying to do for a decade) as a “Fascist counterrevolution.” The facts were all too plain. Eight years of Communist control had reduced a country to penury and total desperation. When its people broke out, they were put down with what could be fairly described as Czarist ferocity.
Almost overnight, the conception of the Soviet Union as the great leader on the road to socialist revolution in the condition of man was either permanently marred or destroyed outright. In the United States, this psychological change was not particularly significant because, for more than a decade, we had rather simplistically tended to regard anyone believing in anything except the American Way as either a fool or a monster. But all over Europe, and elsewhere, leaders and thinkers who saw (and see) little hope for the improvement of their people by capitalist middle classes have looked to Russia - and had done their best to swallow such things as the “historic necessity” of the 1936 Moscow purges, and even the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact. Budapest proved too much for them.
It is hard for us to grasp the genuine shock and deep grief for a lost ideal with which thousands of Parisians read the 1956 headline in the Communist paper l'Humanité , "A Budapest Les Russes Ont Tiré Sur Le Peuple." ["The Russians Have Fired On The People!”] At that time Jean Paul Sartre, though he was taken aback by the fact that Hungarian steel workers had joined the rebellion urged the need not to give it publicity because that would harm world Revolution. The Communist world has never recovered from that shock - and it never will unless the Soviet Union proves as it now shows some slight signs of doing, that it can change its ways and its power structure. This much the world owes to the Hungarians.
But what of the Hungarians themselves? It's fashionable today in Hungary as well as in the United States, to argue that, as far as Hungarians are concerned, the dislocation brought about by the rebellion merely delayed reforms and rewards which would have come sooner by themselves. Since it is probable that if the uprising could have been peaceably stopped in mid-course, reforms would have been made with less bloodshed, this argument bears the shadow image of one kind of truth. Such talk, however, is both seductive and destructive of the will. To realize how, an American has merely to reflect on the perfectly reasonable thesis that if the 13 colonies had only waited a decade or two, they might have been economically strong enough simply to brush off British rule with no bloodshed at all. But would we have stood for anything in history? Would we, in fact, have been the same country and people we have become?
In Budapest today the Kadar Government has done its best to erase not only many of the grievances which gave birth to the rebellion but the fact of its existence at all. On Gellert Hill the bronze soldier is back up at the foot of the statue of Freedom. In the little park beside the Erkel Theater, however, I found a statue erected to the secret police “martyrs” who “died for the freedom of the working Hungarian people.” There is still an electrified fence around much of the country (officially explained as necessary to keep out the host of spies who would otherwise invade Hungary from the West), but the mines along the Austrian border were removed some years ago, after they had killed a number of wandering Austrian children and so threatened to give Kadar a bad name. The 60,000 Russian troops who still occupy the country are hardly ever seen, and the police are kept under control. If they occasionally round up suspects to keep their hand in or to make a point - as they did a few weeks before the anniversary of the rebellion when they picked up a number of voluble students for questioning - who can blame them? If, when 100,000 Hungarians get worked up at a soccer game and start singing the national anthem, as they did last year, some police pains are taken to herd the departing fans into separate groups and keep the streets clear of crowds the following night, this is only common sense.
People in Budapest will tell you that since nothing can be done about these things, there is little sense in dwelling on them. Today the accent in Hungary is on the positive. The fact is that the people are free to criticize the Government, within reason. In plays, articles and conversation. The few taxi drivers delight in referring to Russian-built cars as “junk.” Radio propaganda broadcasts from the West are played freely - so freely that sometimes in poorer sections where radios are scarce, a set is placed in a window so that the whole street can listen.
The big thing, of course, which we have heard so much about is the prosperity - Budapest rebuilt, consumer goods and well-being for everyone. Yet it is precisely in this much-emphasized area that a visitor from the West, who does not confine himself to the major hotels, concerts and night clubs is most disappointed. There are one or two 3-story showpieces, many new housing units and an occasional whole new block. A new street bridge spans the Danube. But the complete face-lifting of Budapest so often boasted about seems not to have touched 90 per cent of the city. Street after street around the Kilian barracks is patched and pitted and dirty. The barracks itself, though it has been repaired and shows no bullet scars, is run down, and would be regarded as incipient slum housing just about anywhere in Western Europe
What was more depressing, at least in my brief stay, I did not find the cheerful Hungarians I had been reading about - and seeing in picture magazines - lolling in the cafes, sashaying around in thin swinging London clothes, progressively fashioning a new kind of “paprika Socialism.” Shops were not attractive. Except in the Duna Hotel dining room, people seemed subdued - much less cheerful, in fact, than I had found them in Prague, for instance. The atmosphere, in short, was like that of an industrial suburb of Spain 10 years ago. Progress has been made, of course, especially among urban workers. The average income is between 1,000 and 1,200 forints a month. But with prices recently hoisted to 55 forints for a kilogram of beef and 44 forints for pork, it is hard to imagine that people are eating very much of either. Agricultural workers have not done as well. A retired farmer gets 280 forints a month to live on - or roughly the price of a stout pair of shoes.
Both in visiting Hungary and in talking to Hungarian families in the United States or Western Europe who have gone back on visits, it is easy to establish that much of the physical progress made in Hungary is part of a concerted attempt by the Government to lay hands on foreign currency. “The great source, clearly, is tourism, from both East and West. Hence the attempt at a combined picturesque and swinging image. There are other means, too. Hungarians receiving packages from the outside world normally pay a prohibitive price duty - up to 70 percent of value. There are some interesting exceptions - notably drugs and medicine. Hungary manufactures these, but likes to export all it can. A sick Hungarian, therefore, is encouraged to send to friends and relatives outside for such things, always including a prescription from his doctor, who is likely to know in just what country this or that drug can most easily and cheaply be found. Exiled Hungarians can also help the folks at home by sending dollars to a Government agency known as IKKA, which takes the money and gives the people local credit for consumer goods at 30 forints to $1 - much better than the official rate.
Hungarians who have migrated to the United States sometimes begin to take on the peculiarly American notion that anyone who does not have a pop-up toaster is living not merely in physical but spiritual privation. And Hungarians visiting the United States from Budapest, of course, are likely to be as defensive about the electrical appliances - and as truthful - as a rich girl who married a poor boy and does not want to be pitied by her parents.
Both groups, however, confirm that the apparent lack of interest on the part of Hungarians in Hungary in talking about or thinking about their rebellion is genuine. They are not interested in having far-off relations from a distant country stir them to discontent with what they have. That is a road they have already trod, only to see their hopes crushed. They believe that what they have is what they must live with. They expect no help from the Russian Government, and they no longer look to America for leadership. In this sense they are profoundly neutralist, and sadly realistic. Hungary is still a one-party country, and they know that what the Government permits today it can repress tomorrow.
Change, if it comes at all, will come as a result of the gradual pressures of economic realism. Hungarians are no longer encouraged by large pronouncements about freedom but by small, practical improvements in their lot. Lately, for example, the Government has stopped favoring workers' children at the expense of everyone else in offering educational opportunities. Now it just takes the very best students, regardless of origin, and provides them with advanced training. Liberalism? Far from it. Free competition. Hungary needs the best-trained people it can get to try to catch up with its fast-trading neighbors. Nowadays, it is incentives like this which offer the best hope of reform.