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8 March 2022

From the NS archive: Questions about Hungary

8 December 1956: Every sensible person wants to avoid war, but too much emphasis on the will to avoid it precipitates war rather than prevents it.

By Paul Ignotus

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was the first major nationalist challenge against the Soviet Union’s control of Hungary since the end of the Nazi occupation. On 23 October, as an anti-communist demonstration intensified, the Hungarian Writers Union broadcast a message requesting aid from the West, but the call went unanswered. The USSR repressed the revolution, killing 2,500 people and compelling 200,000 Hungarians to seek political refuge abroad. Paul Ignotus was one of those who fled to London. Ignotus, along with other writers who escaped across western Europe, continued to publish from outside Hungary, dedicating themselves to the ideal of a democratic Hungary. In this article for the New Statesman published only a few weeks after the uprising, Ignotus writes carefully bout the conflict and reflects on the actions of the West.

Among those who have escaped from Hungary in the last week is Paul Ignotus, a Hungarian writer who made many friends in Britain during a wartime exile. A life-long socialist, he was arrested in 1949 and remained in prison until his release earlier this year. During the Hungarian Revolution, he was a member of the executive of the Hungarian Writers Union and he broadcast a moving speech from Budapest radio. We are glad to welcome his safe arrival in this country and to publish his answers to our questions.

Was the Hungarian Revolution supported by the whole population?

The rising was started, as far as I could see, by two centres of intellectuals: (1) the Hungarian Writers Association, in which Communist authors such as the novelist Dery had for a long-time fought Stalinism very bravely, and (2) the association of Communist undergraduates, the Petofi Club. It was they who, inspired by the Polish example, went into the streets and proclaimed that the Hungarian people must act decisively to bring about Socialist democracy and liquidate the remnants of the Rakosi dictatorship. These were joined by people of all sorts and especially the industrial workers. The latter were in fact most intransigent in their fight against Muscovite rulers, and since then they have continued to fight, either with arms or with strikes and sabotage, although other sections of the population seemed ready to accept a fait accompli. In the democratic national revolution which started with the rising the whole population took part.

Do you consider that the Hungarian population was not only anti-Russian but also against Communism?

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The 12 years elapsed since the first Russian occupation, and especially the years of unbridled terrorism and personal revenge from 1949 to 1953, imbued the whole country with nausea towards everything Russian. Since Russian became a compulsory second language in schools the very sound of a Russian word was enough to drive people into a frenzy. There was a similar reaction to everything which seemed like a slogan, and to the compulsory seminaries which had been designed to indoctrinate the people. For this reason, the writers and young intellectuals, who had fought Stalin’s dictatorship in the name of “pure” Marxist-Leninist doctrines, were compelled in these circumstances to refer to their own principles in an apologetic way because they felt remorse at the way in which these principles had been distorted and perverted. All the same, every responsible person or group who played any part in the rising agreed that the Communist Party should not only be tolerated but encouraged in the new democracy, and that once Hungary was freed from satellite status the country should maintain the most friendly links possible with the Soviet Union. Even Cardinal Mindszenty, who cannot be accused of too much sympathy towards anything that smells Marxist, emphasised that Hungary must live in peace “with the powerful Russian empire as well as with the great United States of America”.

Do you then completely discount the stories of a “counter-revolution”?

I must make clear what I mean by “counter-revolution”. If one means by it that the people wanted to set up a parliamentary democracy such as exists in Finland, with which the Soviet Union seems to maintain very friendly relations, then it is no secret that this is what the Hungarians wanted. If one means a restoration of landed property and a return of huge industrial concerns to private owners, then the fear was less because, although there might have been persons hoping for it, I am sure that the great majority of the Hungarian people would have rejected such an attempt. If one means an attempt by some former military officers and other embittered and dispossessed elements to indulge in terrorist acts and eventually to establish their own dictatorship, then again they would have met the resistance of the overwhelming majority of all classes.

It is true that sporadically there were such excesses. One of the most grotesque of them was characteristic, perhaps, of a country in which the national rising was started by poets and novelists. An ultra-nationalist poet of the Horthy regime, Gyula Somogyvary, in the city of Gyor, took a detachment of soldiers armed with tommy-guns into the radio station in an attempt to compel it to broadcast his poetry. But this, as well as other similar attempts, was foiled by the supporters of Imre Nagy and the coalition government, which was on the way to establishing order when the Russians marched into Budapest once again. As for the Russian fear of Hungary becoming a jumping-off ground for anti-Soviet military action, this would certainly have been prevented by an understanding (a) with the Hungarian government, which wanted to avoid war at all costs, (b) with the governments of Yugoslavia and Poland, which were keen to avoid both the restoration of Stalinism and the establishment of “white” rule, and (c) with the big powers which dominate the UN, for these, I think would also have been satisfied with a really neutralised Hungary.

Was the reaction of the West to the events in Hungary well considered? Were the radio appeals ill-advised?

The Hungarians are, and have to be, grateful to the West for the expressions of sympathy and appreciation which they have received. But there are two things which they have missed. (1) A statement on behalf of the leading Western powers to the effect that they would consider any attack on the independence of Hungary as an act of aggression, and that they would help Hungary by all means in their power if such aggression occurred. (2) It should have been made clearer that the West would condemn the restoration of former fascist or semi-fascist methods no less than a restoration of Stalinism, and that Hungary was by no means expected to sacrifice the very existence of her people for the sake of an anti-Bolshevik crusade. Many of the radio appeals to Hungary were equivocal, even demagogic. It was certainly a grave irresponsibility on their part to attack Imre Nagy for his communist convictions at a moment when he had to face the enormous task of uniting all classes in order to establish a democratic rule without provoking Russia.

What policy do you now recommend for the West to help Hungary?

Apart from relief, in which tremendous generosity has already been shown, I think that a policy is needed that will be firmer and more conciliatory at the same time. I think the admission of UN observers into Hungary should be insisted on, and it should be explained to the Russians that this would serve not only as a check on what they themselves or the Kadar government have done in the nature of deportations and reprisals, but also as a precaution against renewal of white terrorist activities and nationalist incitement. War, of course, I think every sensible person wants to avoid, but too much emphasis on the will to avoid war precipitates war rather than prevents it. Promising help “with everything short of war” strikes many people as promising no help at all except friendly messages, or at best food and medicine. On the other hand, I think the West should make a far-reaching offer to the Soviet Union if it will agree to honour the will of the Hungarian people. I have no doubt that in the Soviet Union there are persons in high posts who would really like to establish peaceful relations with the West and also to liberalise their own country. They fear, however, that once they loosen their hold on countries outside their frontiers the whole of-the anti-communist world will think the hour has struck to tear the Soviet Union to pieces. They want guarantees against that. I also think that there should be an offer to neutralise Germany. The Russians should be made to feel that it pays to be human and generous; that it does not pay to be brutal.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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