___The Roundtable Talks of 1989 [The Roundtable Talks of 1989]___Back
János Rainer M.
Regime Change and the Tradition of 1956



The past, the historical prototype and the traditions have a seminal part to play in legitimizing any kind of political system. In Hungary, the most sensitive problem to face the regime in the early Kádár period was to come to terms with its own past, its immediate antecedents in the Rákosi period and the 1956 Revolution. However, János Kádár’s acquisition of power, while in Moscow, arose out of the defeat of the anti-Stalinist, national revolution and fight for liberation. He therefore preferred to accept continuity with the Rákosi period, while trying to erase the stigma that this entailed.

The traditional Kádárite interpretation of 1956 as a counterrevolution continued to dominate in public utterances until 1989 (apart from oblique references in the arts). Although there had been another type of tradition in society, that of a revolution, it had been smothered by the reprisals. From the turn of the 1960s onwards, the two types of tradition existed concurrently, meeting in complete silence, except on ritual occasions. There seemed to be no real need for a past while the actual system of conditions for the Kádár system to develop remained: the psychological aftermath of a social capitulation in 1957–8, a milder, but persistent Cold War, and partial legitimacy won by inflating the standard of living. When things began to change in the mid-1970s, Kádár tried first to treat the malaise of his regime by drawing on the concept of a ‘national tragedy’. There the ‘power-backed’ tradition remained, up until Kádár’s removal in May 1988.

The revolutionary tradition was sustained with great intellectual force by the democratic ’56 emigré community in the West. In Hungary, the silence was broken at the end of the 1970s by the democratic opposition, which tried to put society’s specific image of 1956 into words. Criticism of the regime and a resolve to deprive it of legitimacy were clearly discernible, but efforts to build up the ‘example of ’56’ into a political prototype and a political tradition were less so. When István Csurka spoke at Monor in 1985 of the ‘new Hungarian self-construction’, he still wanted to build on the mutual reticence dubbed as consent (constrained consent), conscious acceptance of the Kádárite depoliticization of the subject, and deliberate eschewal of public life. Arguing against him, Miklós Szabó and János Kis emphasized the aspect of capitulation, the concession character of the ‘results’ after 1956: ‘The path of self-construction is not a defeat, but an awakening of awareness of rights.’ Two distinct ’56 political traditions were formulated again at the opposition ’56 conference in December 1986. One was the Imre Nagy-type reforming attitude, still not exceeded, capable of going along with the revolution even to the point of breaking irrevocably with the basic dogmas of the existing regime (Miklós Vásárhelyi). The other was the tradition of worker self-management, built also on the experiences of the Polish revolution in the early 1980s (János Kis). However, the direct political programmes put forward in 1987 and 1988 were not built on these potential traditions. They rested on critical analyses of the regime from the angles of economics, sociology and political science, as a sign that the ’56 tradition did not (indeed self-evidently) offer a guideline for action at that time.

At the same time, 1956 was a dominant factor on the symbolic plane of the change of system, when re-examination, re-evaluation and ‘recovery’ of the past became a central topic. Fifty-six became an emblem of radical change, although all the participants in the change of system tried to avoid the occurrence of anything similar to 1956. The most dramatic and theatrical act during the change of system, and the one that attracted the biggest crowds, was the burial of Imre Nagy and the ’56 martyrs, on June 16, 1956. Why did these things turn out as they did? It was not necessarily because all the participants of the process of transformation wanted it that way.

The opposition parties and organizations were working to destroy the legitimacy of the Kádár system. Once it was so enfeebled that the economic crisis, indebtedness, irrevocably falling living standards and looming unemployment were discussed openly by middle and higher-ranking functionaries, the critics identified the genesis of the regime as its morally indefensible, inexplicable point. The true badge of the regime and symbol of its history became the dead Imre Nagy, lying in an unmarked grave in Plot 301, in the furthest corner of Rákoskeresztúr Cemetery, with several hundred others who had been executed. Awareness of this broke to the surface in 1983, on the 25th anniversary of Nagy’s death. ‘Nameless mounds, rotting wooden crosses, a jar of flowers, a carnation in a tin can, a wild rosebush. That is all. The rest is utter silence. Imre Nagy, lawful prime minister of the country, and thousands of companions are denied even what a murderous robber receives: a tomb, a stone, a nameplate in the prisoners’ graveyard. Who accepts responsibility for this?’ enquired Miklós Vásárhelyi on the front page of the Paris Irodalmi Újság. ‘One day he must be buried / and we must never forget / to name the killers by name!’ wrote Gáspár Nagy in a poem, working in the initials of Imre Nagy as the last two letters of each line. This escaped the notice of the editorial censors and the poem appeared in the periodical Új Forrás in Tatabánya, causing such alarm that the issue was pulped and the author silenced. On the 30th anniversary of the revolution in 1986, the eerie sight of the thick undergrowth of Plot 301 and the sunken dips as the only marks of where the graves had been dug featured on the BBC news and the front of The New York Times.

In the spring of 1988, a group of former ’56 political prisoners and relations of those executed founded the Committee for Historical Justice (TIB). It addressed an appeal to the Hungarian public, on the 30th anniversary of the Imre Nagy trial, pressing for reburial and rehabilitation of those executed and acknowledgement and reassessment of the whole history of the recent past. On June 16, 1988, the Hungarian emigré community unveiled a symbolic grave of Imre Nagy and his associates, in the Pere-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. There was a simultaneous demonstration in the streets of central Budapest, where the protesters called out the name of Imre Nagy. ‘The leaders of the HSWP themselves are talking about a separation of party and state, about some kind of socialist pluralism. Whatever these words may mean, everyone has to know there cannot be a real political opening and conciliation while the road to compromise is blocked by the unburied dead,’ János Kis remarked in his speech.

The Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (HSWP) Political Committee agreed on June 14, 1988 that the police should break up the commemoration of Imre Nagy held at the Batthyány memorial lamp in Central Budapest. György Fejti, a Central Committee secretary, told the meeting, ‘There are tasks for us to do, above all in party history, in historical studies, to offer a subtler analysis of events and persons, without affecting the underlying judgement of the ’56 events. There are also some human points of view to consider, which we have to settle in due course. Now, however, we are not in such a position and perhaps it would not be correct to press forward. We have to return to this in calmer times and think over and settle the issue in a comprehensive way.’ The party leadership decided that calmer times had come towards the end of the year, after further interventions by the police and the speech by Károly Grósz at the Budapest Sports Hall, raising the spectre of White Terror. On November 29, 1988, the Political Committee passed a resolution on ‘the settlement of questions of respect concerning persons convicted of and executed for political crimes connected with the counterrevolutionary events.’ In the debate, Fejti’s kind of ‘comprehensive thinking over and settlement’ gave way to a more modern approach from Károly Grósz: ‘We have to be able to endure and we have to be able to handle’ the problem.

‘Handling the problem’ (the key concept in the short-lived Grósz period) was to have meant that a penal-service commander appointed by the Ministry of Justice would simply discuss details of the exhumation and act of respect (family funeral) with the immediate relations. Even the members of the Political Committee did not think this was feasible. When the matter came before the Central Committee on December 15, György Fejti pointed out that ‘very precisely definable circles and groups have an interest in placing a different construction on this event, using it and exploiting it politically.’ However, he added resolutely, in a novel fashion, that ‘we consider this proposal acceptable nonetheless and we will have to return later to how the situation created by this move can be handled politically in the appropriate form.’

The passage of time by no means favoured the treatment conceived in advance. The influence of the opposition political movements and above all the publicity for them increased. Meanwhile growing numbers of HSWP members realized that the party was incapable of handling the crisis in the old way. In a plural structure, it would break up eventually under the weight of its past or evaporate into the vacuum, through the gap in its legitimacy. This gap was supposed to be plugged by the committee considering the historical path followed by the HSWP. Imre Pozsgay, the Political Committee member overseeing the committee, elevated the question of the revolution and Imre Nagy into a public issue on January 28, 1989, with a statement classifying 1956 as a ‘popular uprising’. There followed an explosive reaction that far exceeded the intentions of Pozsgay and his group to build up a new legitimacy (or party legitimacy). Pozsgay made his motives plain at the Political Committee meeting on February 7, 1989, where he said the expression popular uprising was especially apt: ‘It does not have an anti-Soviet purport, but it is anti-Stalinist and satisfies at the present those who treasure within themselves another, more extreme version—the idea of a revolution, a national revolution and war of independence, an independence struggle… This is the conjunction that in my opinion will extricate the party from a concept born of a current political necessity, without undermining its whole identity and self-respect, without having to undertake some kind of special examination and reckoning before the whole party… Hence it is not a question of breaking with the category of counterrevolution, but of its name sometimes being stated clearly as a revolution as well.’ Ideas on handling the problem in the longer term were presented at the same meeting by Károly Grósz: ‘With this structure, with the political burden behind us, and with the mood into which we have been driven and into which we have driven ourselves, will we or will we not be able to command a majority in elections held in a year’s time…? A change of social system in Hungary will be accompanied by a civil war… As I see it, there will be no intervention here from the East or from the West. There will be a closed thermos flask here, in which we will have to suffer for our own response, and then not a stone will be left standing here. I am convinced of this, because there is a force that will be able and willing to take arms to prevent a change of system… For this reason, I see it as the only way for the political transition to take place on a basis of agreement between the various forces… It depends on our sense of reality whether we find partners with whom, in a coalition structure, we can create a majority, where the foundations of society remain.’

With a slight exaggeration, the story of the Hungarian change of system can be equated with the story of the demise of this ‘problem-handling’ scenario. Within it, the past, 1956 and the Imre Nagy reburial form a case study of the same thing. The HSWP at the turn of 1988 and 1989 tried to handle the matter as a ‘quasi-moral’, ‘humanitarian’ question. On February 14, 1989, the TIB reached preliminary agreement with State Secretary Gyula Borics and Security Service Commander Ferenc Tari at the Justice Ministry that a ‘normal civil funeral’ would be organized on June 16, 1989. This was to have been held at the New Public Cemetery in Budapest, and on April 21, certain technical details were agreed on the same basis. Meanwhile the idea had been raised, in the TIB and opposition political organizations, of holding some kind of demonstration in the city centre, due to the likely historical significance of the occasion and the consequent mass attendance, for which the distance and limited capacity of the cemetery were unsuitable. When the plan for the funeral became public, representatives of scores of Western democratic emigré organizations indicated a desire to attend. The state committee keeping the organization of the event and the associated debates under operative control gave indications of this and requested a political decision.

Then something unexpected occurred: the monolith fell out with itself. At the Political Committee meeting on April 19, 1989 and the April 28 meeting of the crisis caucus known as the International, Legal and Public Administration Policy Committee of the Central Committee, the government members present (Miklós Németh, Gyula Horn and [?] Horváth), supported by the invited Kálmán Kulcsár and by Mátyás Szűrös, speaker of Parliament, opposed a ban on the demonstration. Instead they argued for legal rehabilitation of Imre Nagy and all those convicted for acts in 1956, and for government attendance at the funeral. The hard-liners were startled and anxious at this prospect. ‘There was no call for this act of respect to be broadened and coupled with political, legal rehabilitation,’ György Fejti grumbled. According to Sándor Borbély, commander of the Workers’ Militia, ‘Kossuth tér [the square outside Parliament] cannot be a possibility, and neither can Hősök tere, because they cannot be handled.’

The question of the funeral was also discussed at the May 2 meeting of the Opposition Round Table, where Imre Mécs reported on the debate within the TIB. At that juncture, the majority of the TIB leaders and the relatives of those executed still favoured the cemetery as the venue and a ceremony confined to the payment of last respects. Mécs, however, argued that ‘people… would like to take part in something there, they want to conclude a period and look forward to the new period opening.’ The Opposition Round Table did not overlook the aspect of an act of respect either. As Bálint Magyar put it, ‘This mass demonstration has to be held before the funeral, without the coffins, but effectively just before the funeral. For it is not just a matter for the widows, this funeral. It’s a national issue, there’s a nation rehabilitating itself here.’ The attitude of mind characteristic of the negotiated political transition appeared as a sign of the new times. According to Péter Tölgyessy, ‘It is very important for there to be a big mass movement. Think of the fact that we’ll be negotiating with the HSWP at that time… They will keep bringing it up at the negotiations that they have 800,000 members and have only so many thousand.

The debate in the TIB and the opposition parties lasted only a few days. On May 18, Imre Mécs announced to the Opposition Round Table that the plan had changed. The lying in state was to take place in Hősök tere. There would be an opportunity there for mass, demonstrative attendance, while the character of paying respects would be retained (avoiding a noisy procession with slogans and banners). The difference of views between ‘civil society’ and the political sphere appeared only at the embryonic stage. Ultimately, this salient event in the change of system managed at once to remain a civil ceremony of respect and become a political demonstration of exceptional force.

At the beginning of May, pressure from public opinion led the authorities to agree that the funeral would be a big public occasion. It was noted at the Political Committee meeting on May 2 that it seemed to be ‘worth issuing a government statement shortly before June 16 laying the emphasis on reconciliation in this question.’ On May 22, Prime Minister Miklós Németh agreed with the representatives of the TIB on the ceremony in Hősök tere, ‘with great uneasiness and pressing the responsibility onto us,’ as Imre Mécs reported two days later to the Opposition Round Table. As a sign of the revolutionary times, the press was told first of the government assent and then the opposition parties were briefed. The TIB had agreed with the Interior Ministry and public administrative authorities on the technical details as well before the prime minister announced them subsequently to the Political Committee. Those present at the meeting did not even find fault when it was included in the announcement that there would be all-day television coverage. They were busy pondering instead on how they could obtain the texts of the speeches that would be heard and seen live and how the HSWP side of Hungary could represent itself at the funeral of Imre Nagy without actually attending.

The HSWP Central Committee debated its statement on Imre Nagy on May 29, 1989, three weeks before the funeral. Some members recognized this as the last opportunity for the party to rehabilitate the executed prime minister without reservations and exercise self-criticism. However, the majority had strong reservations about this. Of the reformers, Mária Ormos, Iván T. Berend, Béla Katona and Gyula Horn favoured immediate political rehabilitation of Nagy and pressed for an urgent legal review of the 1958 trial. On the other side were Károly Grósz, János Berecz and the ‘stick-in-the-muds’, who urged ‘caution’ in the name of the party membership (in other words, the orthodox communist functionaries and activists). The outcome was a non-committal statement that sought to create a ‘national day of reconciliation’ out of the reburial, sensing the mortal danger that the occasion posed to the party.

While the HSWP tried to depoliticize the symbolic field of the transition, the Opposition Round Table seemed to be trying to politicize the event in the final days before the funeral. There was a big debate about when the forthcoming National Round-Table discussions with the state party should begin. Should it be before June 16 or afterwards? Was the atmosphere of anxiety about the 16th not working to the advantage of the opposition by turning public opinion against the party? Would the HSWP not regain too much composure after the funeral had passed off peaceably? Just a couple of days before the funeral, the opposition coordination body divided strongly over whether state leaders, in that capacity, should be allowed to lay wreaths on the bier. Ultimately, it was recognized in the case of both issues that such details were of small importance compared with the occasion as a whole. A crowd of 200,000 gathered in Budapest’s Hősök tere on June 16, 1989, to pay their last respects to Imre Nagy and his associates before their reburial. The speakers (Miklós Vásárhelyi, Béla Király, Tibor Zimányi, Imre Mécs, Sándor Rácz and Viktor Orbán) praised the dead (the names of all those executed were read out) and spoke of the revolution, but not of continuing or reviving it, but of a peaceful transition designed to attain the objectives of 1956. The atmosphere was ceremonial, solemn and a little tense, but there were no incidents. Three days before there had taken place the first meeting of the National Round Table, which was seen by the public as a victory for the opposition. The funeral was attended by the speaker of Parliament, the prime minister and several government ministers, but nowhere present imagined that this was designed to make the proceedings semi-official.

People were far more inclined to consider they were witnessing a psychological and historical turning point. ‘The most important factor behind the collapse [of the old order]… was a moral one,’ Péter Kende wrote a couple of months later. ‘This funeral ceremony was like the elevation of the sacrament, from which the Evil One scuttles whimpering away.’ From a distance of ten years, there is still no more pertinent way of expressing the 1989 reburial of the 1956 tradition and its dramatic effect, but today longer-term effects can be discerned as well. Even a few years before 1989, the majority of Hungarian society did not utterly oppose the system that had defeated the revolution. Then in 1989, it summoned back memories of events from which it wished to dissociate itself in retrospect, as an actual or potential opponent: the darkest years under the Rákosi system, the few years of Kádárite repression after 1956, and the outcome of October 1956 itself. The funeral of Imre Nagy was a sacred act, which corresponded to that selective recollection and selective, retrospective opposition. However, it probably expressed at least as forcibly the fact that all the main participants in Hungarian society, as it prepared for the transition, wanted to bury the past. Into Imre Nagy’s grave went the repudiated, disowned early phase of the Kádár period, to be followed a few weeks later by the golden years of Kádár and by the final phase. The living dead need not be faced any more. The delegitimizing function had been performed. The ‘unidirectional’ memory of this moment of grace gave way to a ‘divergent’ memory, in a process that continues with the cleaving of many other events of 1956.

So the heritage of the revolution played a dual role in the system-changing process. It appeared as a positive programme as the antithesis of the Soviet/communist system. It not only robbed the ancien régime of legitimacy, it simultaneously endowed with legitimacy all forces aspiring to more than a reform of so-called socialism. At the same time, 1956 also appeared as a negative programme—and in this respect there was agreement among all political forces except a tiny radical group, including the heirs of the state party. This was the importance of a ‘peaceful transition’, as opposed to the violent revolution of 1956 and its even more violent suppression. The one thing on which the forces changing the system agreed with their opponents was this: anything but a revolution, let it not be like 1956! This largely determined all of what happened to 1956 in 1990 and after.

By the time of the 1990 election campaign, 1956 was no longer playing a central role. Of the main political parties, the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) had cited Imre Nagy among its ideological ancestors in its founding declaration in 1988, but it did not really make use of 1956 for day-to-day political purposes. Its leaders were aware that their radical system-changing programme could not be equated with a clear transference of ’56 into the present, with the political multiplicity of ’56, or least of all, with its ‘third-road’, socialistic objectives. Imre Mécs, one of the former revolutionaries who joined the party, expressed by saying they should not be just ’56-ers, but ’89-ers as well, and he placed the accent clearly on the latter.

The Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) in 1989, still strongly ‘third-road’ and socialistic, could easily have identified with the revolution. The founding populist writers embraced the legacy of the revolution, but this aspect paled once József Antall came into the foreground (although Antall himself had taken part in ’56, if not in a prominent position.) The radicalism of the revolution did not attract the early MDF, which saw itself as standing between the government and the opposition and preferred to avoid confrontation. As for the right-wing radicals in the MDF, Imre Nagy and the former party opposition remained too communist for them.

The Hungarian Socialist (Workers’) Party (MSZMP, then MSZP) made a final attempt in 1989 to forge a ‘positive’, legitimizing link with 1956. October 23, 1989 was made the ‘Day of the Declaration of the Republic’, the tactic being that if they could not prevent the day being celebrated, let it at least gain some significance that was more to their taste.

After the elections, the first act of the country’s first freely elected Parliament was a commemoration of the 1956 revolution. The new coalition government, headed by the MDF, left the name of Imre Nagy out of the text until the very last minute, as a sign of dissociation from the communist protagonist of the revolution and its left-wing content and interpretation. Even in the summer of 1990, it emerged during the debate on the question of the national coat of arms and the choice of national day that the government parties were shifting the emphasis from 1956 and other modern-day democratic traditions onto the continuity of the thousand-year statehood of Hungary. Rather than the Kossuth coat of arms used in 1945–9 (and reinstated during the 1956 revolution), the pre-1945, crowned coat of arms of the Hungarian Kingdom was chosen as the country’s official emblem. Instead of March 15 or October 23, reminiscent of the revolutions of 1848 and 1956 respectively, August 20, feast of St Stephen the King, founder of the Hungarian state, was chosen as the state festival. The change of 1944–5, the revolution of 1956 and the whole period up to 1989 were omitted from this continuum. Antall declared in festive addresses on October 23, 1990 and in 1992, the 35th anniversary of the revolution, that 1956 was part of a ‘great common national mythology, in which ‘there are heroes and victims, where there are ordeals’. In this connection, he said, ‘We must always speak of that which is elevating’ in them. However, Antall continued, it does not belong among the periods or events from which ‘deeply analysed, rational consequences containing merciless lessons’ can be drawn.

By the time the various political forces were developing their ‘concepts’ of 1956 in 1989–90, the shared moral experience of the funeral of Imre Nagy was no longer effective. Nineteen fifty-six was no longer an integrating experience, as it had been during the break-up of the Kádár system. On the contrary, it was a divisive factor in society, or an argument that cropped up during socio-political conflicts. A prime example of the latter was the issue that came to be known as the dispensation of justice. When the question of personal and legal responsibility for conduct of the trials of the Stalinist period and for the massacres of unarmed demonstrators in 1956 arose in 1989–90, the paradigm of a ‘peaceful transition’ still prevailed. The peaceful and lawful nature of the Hungarian transition undoubtedly allowed the outgoing political elite a ‘free retreat’ and left unpunished those who had persecuted and tortured people under communist rule. This moral deficit bore heavily on the new democracy. Campaigns calling for investigation and even retribution for the ‘crimes’ of the communist period were launched by various political forces, including the MDF and other government parties. These so-called justice campaigns were opposed, of course, by the communist successor party, and also by the liberals, on grounds of the principles of the constitutional state and security of the law. (The latter did so although most of them agreed with the moral arguments for dispensing justice.) The main public advocates of the dispensation of justice, however, were former participants in the revolution, but this debate was not primarily about ’56. The basic motive forces behind the issue had to do with day-to-day politics and its suitability as a diversion from the government’s inaction in the face of a deep recession. The ‘campaigner’ radicals of the MDF found in the issue an occasion to initiate mass protests and sustain permanent tensions. It also suited the Antall leadership, with its intellectual habit of harking back to history, as a piece of ‘negative mythology’, as well as deputizing for action on the difficult problems of the day. This was all the more so because everyone remembered what an enormous public response there had been to the facts and data about the reprisals revealed in 1989.

However, these were ineffective or had other effects a couple of years later. As the euphoria over the change of system subsided, the public, socialized under the Kádár system, began to expect the practical problems to be solved. This mood was reflected in the press and among the opposition. Liberal political thinkers pointed in agreement to the legal concerns about the dispensation of justice, to the question of the time that had elapsed, and to the difficulties of establishing personal guilt. Meanwhile, they never disputed for a moment the moral justification for dispensing justice. The 1956 tradition became fatally divided down the lines of day-to-day politics and so did the people who had once taken part in the revolution. Those demanding the dispensation of justice took over the veteran organizations and simply branded as ‘communists’ those who opposed it. The latter were identified not only with the opposition, but with the pre-1956 supporters of Imre Nagy and the party opposition, who of course, had long ceased to be communists. Even the liberals, the most committed of warriors against the communist system, were labelled in the same way.

The conflict about the dispensation of justice led to a singular new historical dispute over 1956. There began a subsequent construction of a ‘true’ history of 1956, tailored to present-day requirements. This reconstituted history later came to cover the whole period of Hungarian history since 1945. The expositions took place not in the press or the specialist forums of historical studies (which had largely dissociated themselves from these polemics), but in certain programmes on public television. The new, true history no longer contained references to revolution, mainly because of its communist, Marxist connotations, but also out of a general conservative aversion to revolution. Instead, 1956 was seen summarily as a national war of liberation, a national struggle against the ‘Russians’, which either had not social programme or sought to restore some previous system. This interpretation devalued the role of the party opposition and Imre Nagy. At the same time, there arose a quite new mythology, of a mass, national battle of resistance to the Rákosi regime.

The result is a diffuse, disparate recollection of the 1956 revolution. Interestingly, the dominant ingredient, to this day, is the aspect of 1956 that most people presumably thought of most during the Kádár period. At that time, the vast majority of people had some kind of memory of 1956, which they knew was not the official one and was close to the opposite of it. But they also knew they could not admit this openly. Healthy self-interest, a verifiable instinct for survival and shame felt at deceit gave rise to the concept of ‘troubled times’. The personal stories that were fit to be told reflected a tangled, feverish, confused and opaque situation, when life was jerked out of its normal rut for a while. Avowedly or implicitly, normality was represented in these personal memories by ‘existing socialism’. Although the basic facts about 1956 were accessible to, despite the deliberate lies of official historical recollection, they proved easy enough to reconcile with the ‘troubled-times’ type of memory. Imre Nagy, for instance, may not have hatched a plot to overthrow the socialist system, but he was presented as an irresponsible, day-dreaming politician devoid of a concept, at best well-intentioned, but quite incompetent, not at all the ‘man for the job’. This is precisely where the ‘troubled-times’ type of memory met up with the official recollection. If Nagy (with all the revolutionaries) was not the ‘man for the job’, who was? The response to the question was consistent: it was János Kádár, who had started forth on November 4, 1956 and arrived at a ‘golden age’ in the 1960s and 1970s.

Although the freedom of expression after 1989 gave a public hearing to every kind of personal, political and historical interpretation, much of Hungarian society still seems to view 1956 as ‘troubled times’. One, albeit important reason for this is that the one-time participants have thrown themselves into the aforementioned debate, which many people find a disconcerting spectacle, to say the least. A second reason is that the collective memory compares the ‘troubled-times’ concept of ’56 with the calm of the Kádár period. The Kádár period, on the other hand, has been attacked indiscriminately and had its drawbacks emphasized in every official political speech celebrating 1956 to be delivered since 1990. This quite unnecessarily breeds antagonism in all those who lived through the Kádár period more or less in peace and quiet and did not especially miss their freedom. The third and final reason is society’s sense that the catharsis provided by the Nagy funeral has passed and remains only a memory. Little of the message of ’56 remains relevant to the issues of today. The new democracy rests on the strongest basis of legitimacy: the sovereignty of the people and free elections. Yet its representatives still feel and behave as if they needed to take historical arguments into a battle to gain acceptance. This gives a dishonest and anachronistic impression and most members of society are aware of this. Nineteen fifty-six and its immediate history have become incorporated into the historical-cum-political memory in the same way as in the Kádár period. Even if the divide is not so great as it was then, it exists. Indeed, the divide will remain for as long as the national-conservative actors on the stage of Hungarian political democracy think they still need to buttress their legitimacy with historical political arguments, as long as they find a history-steeped mode of address a worthier aspect of the national tradition than a common recollection of all kinds of inhumanity and tyranny, and as long as their left-wing and liberal opponents react to all this, not by openly criticizing such behaviour, but in silence, or by taking up the challenge.


CEUPRESS, Budapest, 2002, 211-222. p.


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