12 MAR 98
Thirteen Days in Autumn
The end of October and beginning of November in 1956 was a period of climatic events throughout the world. On the 31st of October, France, Britain, and Israel moved against Egypt over the Suez, in a confrontation which threatened to engulf the Middle East. The United States was gearing up towards a presidential election on the 6th of November. Sharing the international scene at this time was the small country of Hungary. On the 23rd of October, a student led demonstration of Hungarian support for Polands national regime burgeoned into a revolt against Hungarys Soviet oppressors. For thirteen days in October and November, Hungary cast off its Russian shroud, only to be forcibly crushed on November 4th. The people of the West were bombarded with images and scenes of the Hungarian revolution: photographs of jubilant Hungarians flying flags of Kossuth with gaping holes where the Soviet emblem once was, Hungarians of all ages wielding Molotov cocktails and antiquated rifles against Soviet tanks, the streets of Budapest littered with bodies. In the years following the Hungarian tragedy, historians, authors, and journalists saddled the Western powers, and especially the United States with a burden of guilt and shame for what has been deemed the betrayal of the "anti-Communist revolution in Hungary." George Urban, author of The Nineteen Days: A Broadcasters account of the Hungarian Revolution, writes: Abhorrence and pious obituaries cannot exonerate the Western leaders, and, above all, the American President, from the guilt from which they rightly suffer: that of not having tried." (159) This legacy too was conveyed by the images of the media, via dramatic pleas for help of the Hungarian radio, stinging political cartoons, and photographs of thousands of Hungarian refugees. While Urban writes truthfully that the West did not try, the West is not wholly deserving of the blame for the end in Budapest. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956, a national uprising against its Soviet occupiers, was falsely portrayed as an anti-Communist revolution primarily by Western radio stations such as the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Voice of America, and Radio Free Europe. This is evidenced by an examination of the roots of the Hungarian uprising, its development within the Hungarian masses and government, and the actions of the mentioned radio stations throughout the crisis.
On the 23rd of October, several weeks of student unrest in the capital city of Budapest culminated into open demonstration. To demonstrate their support for Wladyslaw Gomulkas new national Polish regime, the students led a march to the statue of the Polish general Josef Bem, a hero from the Hungarian revolt of 1848. Joined by workers returning to their homes, the students march for Poland grew into a city wide demonstration against the stringent Soviet controlled government led by Erno Gero. Words quickly grew into actions. The citys sixty foot statue of Stalin was razed and broken up in the streets. Citizens gathered at the Parliament Building to hear the progressive Imre Nagy speak. They also gathered at the Radio Budapest building, where late in the night the Allam-Vedelmi Osztaly (AVO) the Hungarian secret police fired the first shots of the crisis into the crowd.
Accompanying the demonstration, the students plastered the city with fliers reading their sixteen demands of the Gero government. They read:
(Gadney, 20-21 )
The students demands reveal several fundament aspects of the Hungarian Revolution. First are the points pertaining to change within the political system of Hungary. The desired changes were liberal, but it no way anti-Communist. The second, third, fourth and fifth demands sought the purification of the Communist party via popular elections, and the replacement of the Soviet-controlled leaders with Hungarian chosen leaders. The selection of Imre Nagy as the new premier illustrates the loyalty to Communism of the students. A man of moderation who favored reform and less hostile government, Nagy was nonetheless a staunch Communist. The remainder of the political demands outlined some of the desired reforms, such as freedom of thought and expression.
This comprises only six of the sixteen demands. The remainder of the demands focused on the topics of the economy and nationalism. Between 1945 and 1956, the Hungarian economy was disastrous. Inflation reached extremely high levels; scarcity of food was frequent. The Hungarians perceived much of their economic suffering as a result of their subordinate relationship with the Soviet Union. In the post war years, the USSR had procured form Hungary nearly twice the war reparations originally levied, as well as key holdings in important Hungarian industries, especially uranium. (Urban, 244) Demands seven through ten sought to rectify the Hungarian economy by putting Hungary on equal terms with the Soviet Union and by gaining control of Hungarian resources.
The remainder of the demands posted on the 23 of October dealt with issues of Hungarian nationalism. A fiercely nationalistic people who claim a thousand year heritage, the Hungarians sought to rid their country of the pervasive presence of the Soviet Union. The most significant demands ordered the removal of all Soviet troops from Hungarian soil; others were as trivial as the demand for national holidays or more Hungarian Army uniforms. At any rate, the Hungarian demands illustrate that the roots of the uprising were more complex than purely political issues, and that the political issues of the revolution sought to maintain a Communist system.
The Communist sentiments of the Hungarians is further illustrated in a quote by Istvan Angyal. Angyal was a leader of the rebels on Tuzolto Street near the Killian Barracks. Prior to his execution in 1958, he wrote:
We felt that the party should put itself at the helm of the Revolution so that all could see that the people were fighting for socialism. Socialism wanted to be fought for Had it occurred thus, we could have fought with united effort for the basic achievements of socialism, the nationalization of banks, businesses, and factories, and the land reform. (Litvan 70)
Angyal was very clear in his support for the goals of the Communist party, insisting that the party should have played a even greater role in the Revolution. It is important in the analysis of this quote to consider to what extent Angyals views represent the views of most Hungarians. As a leader and apparent intellectual, it is likely that Angyal was to some extent a greater ideologue than the typical Hungarian rebel. This does not invalidate his quote as representational though. It is the leaders and intellectuals who hold the ear of government.
Gyorgy Litvan, the author who used this source, writes that the majority of Hungarians did not support Angyals view. His evidence is the failure of the appointment of Imre Nagy to prime minister, and thus placement of a reform Communist at the forefront, to stop the fighting. (70) Litvans interpretation of this evidence is incorrect. It shows lack of consideration of all the issues at the root of the Revolution, that is, political, economic, and national. While the appointment of Imre Nagy to the ministry was a positive step, it was not the fulfillment of all the fighters demands. Thus the fighting continued.
In the early morning hours of the 24th, Soviet tanks in infantry moved into Budapest to quell the Hungarians. For the next five days, poorly armed revolutionaries battled Soviet tanks with Molotov cocktails, hand grenades and rifles and won. During this fighting between the 23rd and the 28th the Revolution transformed. What had primarily begun as an uprising against the Hungarian government and its totalitarian grasp on the state, a sort of Communist v. Communist war, developed into a struggle for Hungarys independence from the Soviet state. The previous nationalist demands had blossomed into the central issue of the Revolution. After the 28th, the Hungarians sought no only their fulfillment of their previous demands, but the removal of all Soviet troops from Hungary, Hungarys withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, and a declaration of neutrality. (Litvan 72)
Even with the "nationalization" of their Revolution, the Hungarians goals did not undergo an enormous shift. The same political, economic, and nationalist goals remained present in the discourse of the rebels. This maintenance is illustrated in a Resolution of the Workers Council of Miskolc and Borsod County dated the 25 of October. The removal of leaders from the Rakosi era, socialism according to "the interest of the Hungarian working class and the Hungarian nation," the revision of economic plans, the declaration of Hungarian national holidays; all are present. (Daniels 170) This helps to show that the Revolution remained consistent to its roots as it expanded to include the expulsion of the Soviets, and the declaration of Hungarian neutrality.
To this point, the focus of this paper has been on the examination of the sound Communist foundation that lay at the roots of the revolution, and were maintained throughout. Now the part of Western radio stations in the false portrayal of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 as an fight for Western anti-Communist ideology will be examined.
The world of mass media began to take off in 1950s. Yet in 1956, television was still in its infant stages in the United States, and thus even less developed in the Soviet satellites. Radio was the only way medium of mass communication. It played an especially prominent role during the Hungarian revolution. Both before and during the Revolution, the radio was the primary source of information for Hungarians. In an American survey of Hungarian refugees in Austria, 75% claimed that foreign radio was their primary source for news on Hungarian events, and 80% said it was their source for news outside of Hungary. (Urban 247)
Hungarians of course were not tuning in to broadcasts in the Western powers themselves, but rather special Hungarian broadcasts out of West Germany and Austria. The most significant of these radio stations were the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), the Voice of America, and Radio Free Europe. The most objective of these was the BBC, an independent broadcasting firm. Radio Free Europe, broadcasting from Munich, and the Voice of America were somewhat less objective, as their names indicate. A fairly accurate description of the two would be a cross between a news service and a propaganda source. It the case of Radio Free Europe, it was a private organization will vast financial and technological resources, but under no direct United States control; both transmitted nearly round the clock. (Urban 271)
These Western operated radio stations were horribly misinformed and out of touch with the situation in Hungary. This is evidenced by the writings of radio station employees and actual radio broadcasts. George R. Urban, a broadcaster with Radio Free Europe throughout much of the Cold War, wrote The Nineteen Days, and book chronicling the Hungarian crisis from a broadcasters perspective. Throughout his work, Urban continually refers to the Hungarian Revolution as "anti-Communist"the anti-Communist uprising, the anti-Communist freedom fighters. (78) In view of the Communist roots of the uprising, Urban shows a lack of understanding of the situation in Hungary.
The same ignorance of the Hungarian situation is also evident in broadcasts during the revolution. On the 28th of October 1956, the BBC announced, "What they know just as keenly is that the Hungarian people have proclaimed that tyranny is not irresistible, that the Communist lie has not been allowed to prevail over the human spirit .Hungary has shown beyond any shadow of doubt that Communism is a broken creed." (Urban, 138) It quite true that the Hungarians proclaimed tyranny as resistible, it was the "Communist lie" and the "broken creed" of Communism for which they fought. An especially flagrant example of the ignorance of the Western radio stations was their criticism of Imre Nagy. Shortly after Nagy was made prime minister on the 24th, the BBC both suggested that the uprising in Hungary would overthrow Communism as well as criticized Nagy for being under the influence of the Soviet Army and "Muscovite Communist on the Politbureau." (Urban, 76) While Nagy may not have met every expectation of the Hungarians, he was still their choice to lead the new government.
The misrepresentation of the Hungarian Revolution by Western radio stations is due to the influence of their political agenda, rather than ignorance or oversight. Returning to Urbans The Nineteen Days, it is quite clear from his descriptions of the goals and aims of Western media, that radio knowingly and willingly sought to uplift the Hungarian crisis to the desired level of anti-Communist revolution. As put by the Assistant Head of the BBC Central European Service, "It was our job to follow the uprising, not to lead it, but at the same time it was not for us to set limits to the aims of the Hungarian uprising, and certainly not to underbid them from London." The cautious tone of this double-talk is somewhat revealing of the nature of the BBC. However, Urban continues to admit an even more specific agenda for Radio Free Europe. He writes, " there was the task of showing that Hungarys war for liberty was our war in the sense that it had dealt a blow to the Communist Parties in the free world from which they might never recover." (Urban, 136,138.)
Daniels, Robert V., ed. A Documentary History of Communism and the World. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1994.
Gadney, Reg. Cry Hungary: Uprising 1956. New York: Atheneum, 1986.
"Headline." AP Press. The Daily Mirror, 5 NOV 1956.
Litvan, Gyorgy. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956. New York, New York: Longman, 1996.
"Political Cartoon." The New York Times, 18 NOV 1956.
Urban, George R. The Nineteen Days: A Broadcasters Account of the Hungarian Revolution. London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1957.