The Day the Iron Curtain Failed to Fall

The year was 1956, sixty years ago this week. The stage, Budapest: once a cosmopolitan European capital then deeply entrenched in the Eastern bloc ceded to the Soviet Union as the spoils of its very bloody role in World War II. At the time, Europe had already been divided for over a decade, ever since the boundary between the good guys and the bad had been carved deeper into the psychological landscape of a troubled generation than any fissure, gulf or canyon can ever cut through a given territory. These were the days, after all, of the Cold War.

The Iron Curtain Is Drawn

From the eastern shores of Schleswig-Holstein on the Baltic Sea to the warm Adriatic waters south of Trieste, right across from Venice, an ideological barrier began to surface the moment the Allied forces opted not turn the offensive that had taken them to the River Elbe, in the heart of Germany, against the Red Army. At stake at the time was the future of Poland, a nation historically abused by Germany and Russia alike, which the allies were determined to yank from the Soviet area of influence—so much had been agreed by Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in the famously unfruitful Yalta Conference of 1945. But on the same occasion it had been tacitly accepted that the Soviet Union would be granted a buffer area west of its pre-war boundaries which would, in effect, be ruled directly or indirectly but the Soviet Union. Doomed were the Baltic states, Romania, and Bulgaria—but the following rung of central and eastern European nations, Hungary among them, wouldn’t fare much better.

This group of countries included Yugoslavia, which under communist dictator Marshal Tito managed to miraculously distance itself from Moscow from 1948 onwards. Czechoslovakia, another member of the dubious select few, wasn’t so fortunate: that same year the leading Communist Party staged a coup, eliminating all opposition from the political stage and effectively handing the country over to Stalin. It would take twenty years for the Czechoslovakians to muster enough strengths to oppose the de facto occupation, and even then, in 1968, they would be famously crushed by the Soviets and forsaken by the West. Before that, though, in 1949, the Soviet-occupied zone of eastern Germany was officially carved out of the country and recognized as a separate state, the ironically named German Democratic Republic. The Cold War was quickly, if discreetly, taking shape.

Khrushchev’s Thaw

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Nikita Khrushchev (left) with Joseph Stalin. Source: wikipedia.

In 1953 things took an unexpected turn, as news broke that Stalin, whose health had been frail for years, had died. The Soviet Union, one of the two world superpowers at the time, suddenly found itself facing a power struggle to fill the void left by a man whose shoes were almost as big as the list of crimes he had committed. In Europe, this seemed like the dawn of an era of reforms which would, if not bring down the network of communist states controlled by the Soviet Union, at least modernize the structures of power in many of these countries, which might then be able to develop a homegrown version of socialism. This hope was in part fuelled by the process of de-Stalinization promoted soon thereafter by Nikita Khrushchev, who in the years immediately after Stalin’s death emerged as the strongman in Moscow. Indeed, it was in the context of the so-called Khrushchev Thaw that a series of revolts flared up in central Europe in 1956, just months after the bond between the Eastern bloc and the Soviet Union had been officially extended to include military collaboration through the Warsaw Pact of 1955.

The first of these rebellions took place in June in the industrial city of Poznan, Poland, where workers took to the streets en masse to make essential demands on the government—including the provision of more bread. The Soviet Polish government quashed the demonstrations brutally and immediately. Within two days it was all over, but a list of hundreds of injured and dozens of dead, as well as hundreds of prisoners made its mark on the Polish people. Partly as a consequence of the June revolts, the Stalinist hardliners at the helm of Polish affairs would be replaced in October for the more nationalistic Wladyslaw Gomulka, who favored moderate reforms in line with the concerns brought up in Poznan earlier that year.

Hungarian Revolution

By then, however, Khrushchev’s largest problem lay not in Poland but in Hungary, where fresh protests were being organized by students rather than workers. The main difference between the demonstrations in Poland and Hungary, however, was not who convened them but rather what they sought to achieve: while in Poland workers hoped to improve their working conditions, wages and standards of living, in Hungary students took to the airwaves of Radio Free Europe calling for something altogether radical and different: freedom, democracy, change.

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Aftermath of the revolution. Source: americanhungarianfederation.org

The first march took place in the capital on October 23, 1956, and was attended by thousands of people. Tension was predictably high and scuffles broke out between the students and Hungary’s secret police, with at least one student being killed. Indignation mounted and the students found support in workers and intellectuals alike. All of a sudden, the authorities had a widespread popular uprising in their hands. Hungary’s Stalinist government was already in transition, after Chairman of the Council Matyas Rakosi had been removed from office earlier in the summer of ’56. Now, in the evening of October 23, the Hungarian people made a spontaneous gesture that encapsulated all the anger and frustration behind the protests: they headed to the monument of Stalin in downtown Budapest and they wrecked it to the ground.

The events of the following days mapped the very greatest expectations of the most ambitious dissenters as if this were a fairytale: with unrest spreading beyond Budapest, the provisional leader of government Erno Gero requested help from the Soviet Union. Despite the arrival of Soviet tanks the following day, however, the pressure applied by protesters gathered around the emblematic parliament building ultimately forced Gero’s resignation and the appointment of Imre Nagy as his successor. If anything, Nagy might have moved too quickly, making clear his intentions to align the country with the values of the West and to quit the Warsaw Pact. He also requested Khrushchev to withdraw all military units from Budapest; for a moment, as the dozens of Soviet tanks and hundreds of troops began to move out of Budapest on October 28, it seemed hard to deny that the impossible was really happening.

The euphoria, however, would barely last the remainder of that victorious month of October, and it was always shadowed by the fear—the certainty, really—that retaliation was inevitable. Already by November 1 reports proliferated that the Soviet government was preparing an onslaught, with a large contingent of tanks and soldiers heading for the Hungarian border—the invasion was underway. Many Hungarians, the very people who had started the rebellion, fled for their lives, in the knowledge that a return to Soviet domination would almost certainly cost them their lives. By November 3 the showdown was imminent. So was a bloodbath, for without foreign assistance (i.e., American intervention) the Hungarians didn’t stand a chance. The US government, however, was not prepared to risk an outright confrontation with the Soviet Union over Hungary: like Czechoslovakia in 1938, Hungary was about to be sacrificed in an ill-judged effort to maintain world peace.

Those who remained in Budapest fought tooth and nail, side by side with the army, against the Soviets. The cause was a desperate one—by November 4 Nagy had already been deposed and a new worker-peasant government been formed with Janos Kadar at the head—but by virtue of courage the battle raged for another week in some quarters. It was all to no avail, the end result being the same throughout Hungary: the Red Army was implacable in its repression of the revolt, with the number of dead exceeding 3,000 and the total casualties in the region of 15,000. The newly established government of Janos Kadar would be no less rigorous in imposing the rule of terror one more time, as thousands were arrested and hundreds executed during a vicious aftermath.

Football: A Case Study

An unforeseen and rather mundane upshot of the failed revolution was the demise of Hungarian football on the global stage. At the time the best team in the world, and quite possibly one of the very best in the history of the sport, the national side would be broken up after the October revolt as it caught Budapest-based club Honved, Hungary’s best team, in Bilbao on European duty. Though nominally the army’s team, Honved players were divided in their allegiance for the revolution. So much so that while the famous goalkeeper Gyula Grosic, the inventor of the sweeper-keeper role, returned to their country together with three of his team mates, others chose to stay away. Those included Sandor Kocsis, who would go on to build an enormous career at FC Barcelona, and Ferenc Puskas, who would earn fame and glory as one of the greatest scorers of all time at Real Madrid.

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Honved Budapest, prior to the diaspora. First eleven with Kocsis (front, far left), Puskas (front, second left) and Gyula Grosics (front, far right). Source: magyarfutball.hu

There is more than symbolic value to this anecdote, for sport wasn’t just a matter of entertainment in the Soviet system: much like the English cultivated sports in the nineteenth century as a means to develop personal and leadership skills, the communists considered it a conduit to expound the merits of group effort, collaboration and team spirit—all basic tenets of socialist philosophy. The triumph of the Hungarian national side—a team that invented its own style and dominated the international stage for years—was also the triumph of socialism, and therefore its demise was also evidence of its mistakes. While the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia often found success in international competitions, it would take Hungarian football more than a decade to produce another world-caliber talent in the form of Florian Albert. As a team, however, Hungary (and Poland, for that matter) would never find the form, wouldn’t sufficiently buy into the principles of balance and solidarity, perhaps, to feature prominently in any international tournament ever again.

History Lives On

Ultimately, the Iron Curtain didn’t fall because of the Hungarian Revolution. Indeed, if anything it signaled the end of the honeymoon period between the West and Nikita Khrushchev, whose Thaw quickly turned ice cold. Hungarians would have to wait until the fall of the Berlin Wall, over thirty years later, to enjoy the freedom and the change they had so candidly demanded in the autumn of 1956. As we commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of this tragic tale of thwarted expectations, however, it is worth remembering that, no matter how much we think the world has changed, violence and repression still prevail in many of Europe’s most immediate neighbors—just think of Erdogan’s witch-hunt after the failed coup attempt in Turkey and you’ll know exactly what I mean.

 

 

 

Published by the WEEKender supplement of SInt Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday October 29, 2016.

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