I went to Hungary to participate in a heart-wrenching homage to a historic cause. What I experienced proved to be a shocking transmission of the totalitarian past into the dictatorial present. This article is about more than a country that has the misfortune to be the scene of the events to be presented. This piece is about the symptoms of an ailment, repackaged Communism that is “democratic” only as long as it can camouflage a dictatorial core with democratic theatrics.
Fifty years ago an anti-Communist uprising shook the world. Soon thereafter the impotent international community overcame its shame by forgetting about the criminals and their victims it had pitied before discovering that giving sympathy is easier than it is to help. On October 23, 1956, a small country, Hungary, challenged the post-war status quo in East Europe. The attempt to cast off a yoke, even if crushed by Soviet armor, left a fungus behind that caused the dissolution of the Red Empire’s core. In ’56 Hungary showed the resentment of captive peoples and suggested to the eager appeasers that challenging Moscow spontaneously is forlorn. In 1968 the CP-led Prague Spring demonstrated that Party-led reforms also fail. 1989 proved that the “system” could only be reformed by first demolishing it.
I returned to Budapest to participate in the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Revolution. The purpose was to pay homage to a seminal event of our time and the defining episode of his personal life. To thank for having survived a role in the line of fire by not being around to be hanged, an essay “about it all” had been planned. Accordingly, this contribution was prepared by posting two preparatory pieces. Stunning events have superceded the plan and proved that history is about more than the past’s extension into the future. History is the unfolding of the unpredictable and its evolvement implies the lack discernible antecedents – until after the event.
Two separate commemorative events were scheduled for the 23rd of October. One was the official homage put on by the governing Socialists that few besides the representatives of foreign governments had attended. Those identifying with the revolution knew that from the prime Minister down, the VIPs will be the descendants of the Communists who fought then what opportunism now forces them to cheer. Naturally the Left also stayed away because it had no inclination to bow to something that had imperiled it. It did not suffice to overcome these reservations that the PM’s party claims that ’56 was a “Socialist revolution” because it made out of the subsequently executed Imre Nagy – an avowed Communist – a Prime Minister. The masquerade had another irritating aspect for those who rule Hungary. Medals were to be handed out at the state-venue. However, many of the decorated refused to shake hands with the PM – who is additionally tainted by a fresh scandal in which he admitted that he has been lying “morning, noon and night” to get elected.
What became the “main event” was scheduled weeks ago by the Young Democrats (YD), the opposition. This is the gathering I attended. About a hundred thousand, elderly people, families, the young, many in their Sunday best came to pass a balmy afternoon at a key intersection of Budapest. Much of the rather flat program was not audible as – not by accident – choppers kept hovering over us. Mr. Orbàn’s speech – he had served as PM and leads the YDs – came last. My interest was great as he is often described as a charismatic right-wing extremist. Here was my chance to experience the devil in person. Orbàn’s address was luke warm. (He might be holding back to overcome the image of the orator who is too clever.) So, no hurricane fanned the waves and there was a mention of the need to be non-violent. Once Mr. Orbàn was done we were asked to sing the national anthem. Then the big screens went dark. We started for home – and unintentionally to an “interesting” experience.
At this stage I was about a hundred yards from the front of the crowd. Having turned, I saw that beyond the people now ahead of me, 3-500 yrds of the street ahead is empty. Beyond that there were police to whom I did not pay much attention. As we moved a few yards, the impossible happened. Without any warning mounted police charged with swords drawn. Being unable to believe what was happening we were paralyzed. Once they were upon us their water cannon sprayed an itching green liquid and we took volleys of rubber bullets and tear-gas grenades. The shock of the attack, the missiles – some fired from rapid-fire launchers – created a panic. Even as we ran the shooting continued (wounded backs) and in pursuit grenades were propelled into the houses in which we fled. Visually the bleeding made a great impression and for the hard-boiled there was the nauseating gas reinforced by blows for those who could not duck. (Our group of six got home hours apart and in four units.)
With some luck I managed to land in a side-street in front of a synagogue – Europe’s biggest I heard. While trying to save myself I had to think of a young woman with a baby hung in her front and one in a cart who was near me when all this started. As I tried to escape by moving away from the direction of the attack I ran into people trying to flee to where I ran from. It soon became clear that at least several of the four streets leading to the crossing where we had been addressed were blocked by riot(ing) police. Therefore it is surprising that the confusion and the panic did not escalate into a blood-bath.
A few details might be given emphasis here. For one thing, this was not a demonstration but an act of homage – with a priest included. Yes, there was shouting demanding the resignation of the lying PM but this hardly amounts to sedition. The government alleges that further ahead of us hooligans were active. Had the police wanted to maintain security it could have blocked the boulevard to channel the crowd through the side-streets located along our intended path. Had dispersing the crowd been the goal, one only had to let it go home which it set out to do. The actual concept of the operation is revealed by a new report I have. Around 8 p.m. – therefore hours after the troubles began – police burst into a upscale restaurant. The guests were asked for their papers. Then they – including foreigners and the cook – were beaten. One man will need weeks to heal his fractured scull and his smashed hand. Once done the riot police tear gassed the establishment and closed the doors.
Now, to the means used by the riot police. The gas seems to have been more intensive than anything I have ever experienced. The bullets penetrated clothing and created rather large wounds. Furthermore, regarding the use of these means, some oddities emerge. The grenades were not fired ahead or above the crowd but aimed right into it. Also, the rubber bullets were not directed at the legs but at the heads of the assembled. The press reports that one man had five wounds on his back. The injuries in their extent and number correspond to the use of the weapons. The abuses were hardly the result of individual excess. The thesis of a planned action is substantiated: while the display of identification is a prescribed part of the uniform, our masked tormentors wore none. Later the authorities explained that only uniforms must have an ID but not training outfits. Erasing “fingerprints” is obviously of concern. Some who were detained and clobbered were released a day later only once they signed a waiver that they have no claim against their captors.
There is more. The “day after” Budapest’s Chief of Police gives an interview. He is asked about the use of a special baton called “the viper”. Vipers are illegal. We do not use them. “Show me just one”! Next morning pictures appear –with viper-swinging riot police. (The Chief is still in office.) This performance is not less than that of the PM on the same day. In parliament he announced that there is in Hungary’s public life no place for violence. The “demonstrators” wanted to take the anniversary away “from the people” and tried to take the country “hostage.” The mike of a respondent was cut off before he could finish.
Three cases of atrocities deserve special mention. An MP used a moment of calm between the police and the crowd. Waving his ID identifying him as a parliamentarian he went to the policemen. They looked at the ID and beat him up. A fractured bone, a bandaged head – he has a memory loss – and an arm in a cast were the price he paid. The second case is that of a priest. He tried to calm the parties. The police got an order to club him. One cop exclaimed “but he is a priest!” The more so, let him have it, was the answer. In at least one case a whole volley was fired on and into a Red Cross rescue van and its crew that was loading the injured. TV showed several scenes documenting atrocities. In a typical one a man holding a flag stands alone in a street. He is tackled by four men. Heaved over on the side walk a mass of police pounces to beat and kick him. Understandably TV crews got special attention manifested in the form of rubber bullets. A Polish crew located the beaten Jesuit and tried to interview him. Riot police ordered them to leave as they had no permit. The Poles meant that in an EU-country one does need a permit. Most revealingly the police retorted: “there is no EU here.” The statement of fact raises a good question: where is the EU, where is the otherwise so easily outrages international press?
My experiences that proved that what was supposed to be “history” is alive enough to be repeated, suggest disheartening insights. The attack on the gathering had no other discernible purpose than to humiliate the participants and the parties who held the ceremony. Taking revenge for being ignored at the official celebration and the refusal of the PM’s hand by participants adds revenge as a motive. Soon the bankrupted country will experience economic tightening and the standard of living, including that of those who voted for the Socialists’ promises, will fall. Demonstrating now the rulers’ resolute strength against a disarmed society might dampen the courage to protest later on.
I went to Budapest to celebrate an occurrence of a half a century ago that, regardless of its defeat, had led to the re-establishment of democracy. What I witnessed suggests that the substance of democracy has still not arrived. Meanwhile, to create a basis of legitimacy, Hungary’s “Socialist” rulers claim ’56 for themselves as a socialist revolution. However, the Stalinist features that emerged once the mask slipped down, revealed a different image. The glimpse suggests that these people would have acted, had ’56 come back by a time-machine, exactly as their political ancestors did in when the country dared to rise against Communism’s shackles. Conclusion: not they have changed, the circumstances that have been altered and with them the tactics of domination.
Alas, and tellingly of a basic problem, the documented unwarranted and excessive violence applied has not caused the national outrage called for. In fact the Socialists’ support rose from 18 to 24%. Nevertheless, it is safe to predict that the economic crisis will soon hit the apathetic who care mainly about getting beer and sausages. The resulting discontent will cause a devastating defeat of the “Socialists” on the national level. It might be worse than the rout in the local elections on October 1st. Having witnessed the extent of turpitude to which the Socialist - Left-Liberal government is willing to go, a question looms large. Will the votes cast and the official majority proclaimed be allowed to correlate? After all, even with regard to the last national election, some doubts exist about the closeness of the interrelationship between ballots cast and the results.