CRCE Briefing Paper
The Hungarian Uprising: Fifty Years On
Based on a talk by Sebestyén v. Gorka, December 2006
Price for print edition: £7.50
About the Author
Sebestyén v. Gorka is director of the Institute for Transitional Democracy and International Security, a multidisciplinary public policy institute based in Budapest, Hungary, founded in 2003. The Institute’s purpose is to carry out research and public education on the challenges facing transitional democracies. Mr. Gorka is a former policy expert of the Defence Ministry of the first democratic government of Hungary. Since then he has been an International Research Fellow at NATO Defence College in Rome, fellow at Harvard University John. F. Kennedy School of Government and policy analyst with RAND Corporation in Washington, DC. He is also a non-resident fellow of the Terrorism Research Center in Virginia and member of the US Council of Emerging National Security Affairs.
The Constitution of the CRCE requires that its Trustees and Advisers dissociate themselves from the analysis contained in its publications, but it is hoped that readers will find this study of value and interest.
First published December 2006
© Sebestyén v. Gorka & Centre for Research into Post-Communist Economies.
All Rights Reserved
Iain Elliot : Our speaker is Sebestyén Gorka, director of the Institute for Transitional Democracy and International Security. Of particular interest is that his father has written about the Hungarian Uprising.
Sebestyén Gorka : That is correct. My father’s book, Budapest Betrayed 1 , was published here twenty years ago in English and has recently been published in Hungarian.
I intend to speak briefly about my father’s story and why he wrote this book for us, as an exile in the U.K. I am sure most people here are well acquainted with the events of 1956, but I would like to recap the essence of what happened 50 years ago in Budapest, then discuss the relevance of these events today, and the current political - and moral - crisis in the country.
If you will indulge me – while I am not a literary person or an arts or cultured type – I would like to read part of a poem written by a friend of my father. It is called “They Took Away Every Light”.
Of Life without, only this gleam was left, A tiny patch of stars, a glimpse of sun. In daily gloom, within dim walls bereft, We watched the vent for this as day was done. This too they stole, this streak of sunlight thin, They’ve walled up every window tight with tin.
In memory’s eye, I mark the azure sea At Naples, and beside the shining shore Vesuvius waits and smokes. Can you, like me, See happy, sun-browned swimmers by the score? We live in night like men who blind have been: They’ve walled up every window tight with tin.
From the bright fragrance of the Alpine peaks The west wind blows freshness of bouquets; Of virtue to the soul that distance speaks, And smiling summits swell the hymn of praise But phthisis grips my cell-mate, dark as sin, They’ve walled up every window tight with tin.
For us no more the steamer’s whistle blows; All maiden laughter from our sense is wiped; No pleasure in our ears sonorous flows; No summer play’s an organ, myriad-piped. Our cells are deaf, all sound is dead herein: They’ve walled up every window tight with tin.
We probe in darkness towards the velvet skies As if within a coffin we were nailed, We only touch our rags and agonize, Or feel our hands by vermin-hosts assailed. We once caressed the sunlight, like soft skin. They’ve walled up every window tight with tin.
The radios shout hoarsely of new deals, Of freedom and of justice due to man. But here my dungeoned body only feels The million lashes of foul Mosku plan. From Vác to far Peking his slaves make din: ‘Beware! Beware! Or through the entire world They’ll wall up every window tight with tin!’
That poem is appended to my father’s original book. It was written by Tibor Tollas in Vác political prison in the 1950s.
Life seems to have interesting coincidences or – if you do not believe in coincidences – happenstance, fortunate events and meetings of individuals. When my father’s book was launched in the House of Commons, I was 16 years old. One of the people who made that possible was Lisl Biggs-Davison’s father, Sir John Biggs-Davison MP. Lisl and I did not know each other then and we only met many years later. It is wonderful to be here. Thank you very much, Lisl, for this opportunity.
Whilst I am not a literary type, I am neither an historian. I teach on political affairs, and on the relationship of my country with Europe. One of the frightening things I realise, or am reminded of, every time I start my course is that to teach the 20-somethings of today, you have to start at zero. The concept that there were two Germanies is actually a surprise to many of my students. As a result you have to fix certain things that others take for granted. We seem to have very short memories, but to me fifty years is a blink of an eye, in terms of human history.
1956 is important for at least two reasons, one domestic and one international. For domestic reasons 1956 is important to Hungarians because, without a doubt as the events of today prove, who you are in Hungary, where you find identity, is connected very strongly for many people to the answer to a simple question: where was your father or grandfather in October 1956? Which side of the ominous barricade was he on? Was he fighting for Hungarian independence against tyranny, for democracy? Or was he on the other side, like our “Socialist” Prime Minister between 1994 and 1998, Gyula Horn, who actually volunteered to be part of the militia suppressing the revolution. 1956 is very much alive today.
Internationally, 1956 is of significance for many reasons. Without 1956, there could have been no 1989. There is no annis mirabilis . In fact today we probably would still be sitting in a divided Europe. I definitely would not be sitting here, and my father would have died in prison. Additionally, 1956 is important because whilst some people talked about what was happening behind the Iron Curtain, very few people wanted to believe it. With the suppression of 1956, it was very difficult to deny the reality of communism, what it meant, and how the Workers’ Paradise was really a mirage.
My father was born in 1930 and, as a 15 year old, witnessed the siege of Budapest; the longest siege of World War II. He was a witness, as a young man starting university, to the communist takeover in 1948 and 1949. As a response to that takeover, which clearly went against the requirements of the Yalta Treaty that promised free and democratic elections, he decided with some colleagues at the Budapest Technical University to create a secret group of Catholic students which would try and do something against the new Communist regime. A former officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, based in Vienna, spotted this group. This individual, who was connected to SIS – the British Secret Intelligence Service – realised that a secret group of anti-communist students would be very useful to Western intelligence. As a result they were recruited. As a graduate of architecture, my father was placed in the Central Heavy Industry Office of Budapest, where he was able to acquire information that he thought was of importance to the West, but probably was rather inconsequential. But less than two years after the group was recruited and started activities it was blown. Their courier was kidnapped in Vienna and killed, the whole group was arrested and all its members went through the ordeal of a show trial. My father officially received a ten-year sentence, but when he later saw his file, the ten-year sentence had stamped over it “not to be released even after sentence is completed”. He served six years of that sentence; two years in an isolation cell; two years working down a prison coalmine; two years in the Central Political Prison. Thankfully, in 1956, a group of revolutionaries captured a T-34 tank and decided, as one of their first acts, to go the Central Political Prison and free the prisoners, and thus my father was released during the heady days of the Revolution.
My father’s book tells how, over those six years, in talking to other young men in similar situations, a picture slowly formed in his mind. In the U.K., looking into cases he heard of in Hungary and comparing them to events he researched in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere, it became patently obvious that agents provocateurs had actually been behind these groups. Their members had been deliberately recruited so that anti-regime individuals could be identified. As a result they were all blown within one and a half to three years of the groups being formed. His most interesting documentation was that in the 1930s a young man called Kim Philby was in Vienna, at the same time as an individual called Peter Gabor, whose lover was Litzi Friedman. Litzi Friedman, whilst being Gabor’s lover, would become Philby’s wife. Both Friedman and Gabor were not only die-hard Communists, but also Peter Gaborwould become head of the Secret Police – the dreaded AVO.
My father was an engineer, a technical man, so why did he decide to write this personal and historic work? For one very important reason, and he explains his motivation at the beginning of the book. The quote is from a speech made in the House of Commons in 1979: “Authorities are taking a relaxed view about Blunt’s importance to Moscow. They say the information he is believed to have passed on was not likely to have placed British agents’ lives at risk.” Taken at face value, this is actually true if, as my father says, you mean British citizens’ lives were not endangered. Of course they were not. They were the lives of hundreds of Lithuanians, Czechs, Albanians, Poles and Hungarians that were sacrificed. My father lists 42 Hungarians whom he knows were betrayed by the Cambridge Apostles in Hungary alone. That is why he sat down and wrote his book, only published in Hungarian after the change of regime.
It is very hard to identify what the spark was, or how far back you have to go to find the catalyst for those ten days of freedom. Events in Poland were very important; in the summer of 1956 there were strikes and resistance movements there. Perhaps even more importantly, in June of 1956, at a Communist-sanctioned literary event for young students in Hungary, the widow of a very famous Communist who had been executed in the purges in 1949, stood up. Julia Rajk pointed her finger at the Communist officials at the head of the table and said, “You are all complicit in the murder of my husband, in my imprisonment and in taking my child away from me”. That kind of bravery, that ability to challenge the system, became the reason why this literary circle – the Petofi Circle – became the first place where counter-Communist arguments could regularly be heard in Budapest in an open forum. On October 6 th , her husband was reburied and his case expunged. A week later, in Southern Hungary at the University of Széged, the students decided to abolish the Communist-approved Students’ Union, and create their own. They listed 16 points, which would later be copied onto a shorter list of 12 points for the Budapest Technical University, where my father had studied. The most important points out of the 12, which gainsay any interpretation of 1956 as a socialist revolution to improve Communism, were the following:
- Soviet troops must leave Hungary
- There must be free and democratic multi-party elections
- There must be a free press
None of these are Marxist/Leninist principles. As a result it is clear that 1956 was not about giving a human face to Communism, but about independence and democracy. The most famous events include the silent march on the 23 rd October by the students to Parliament, where they demanded the reinstatement of the moderate Communist leader Imre Nagy. When he eventually came onto the balcony he made a very bad move, addressing the gathered thousands as “My dear comrades”, and was jeered. A group of students decided they had had enough, and went to the eight-metre high Stalin statue and cut it down. The statue was not only an affront to Hungary’s national identity, but had actually been made from the bronze statues of eight historical figures, melted down by the Communists after 1948. A smaller delegation went to the Hungarian national radio station and demanded their 16 points be broadcast throughout the country. A few of them were allowed in, then the doors were closed, the blinds were pulled down and nothing more was heard. As a result, those outside demanded their release. It turned out that secret police were already in the building and shots were fired into the crowd. Several students were killed. The Hungarian army was called in to reinforce the secret police but, interestingly, several units of the army gave their weapons over to the students, and that is how the fighting began. Two days later, on 25 th October, a huge crowd gathered outside Parliament again, accompanied by at least two or three Soviet tanks that were there in an alleged gesture of friendship. Without warning, from the roof of the building opposite Parliament, the secret police opened fire, killing many unarmed civilians. Fighting then ensued. At one point the Soviets said they were going to withdraw their troops, and it looked as if they had, but then Suez exploded. On 31 st October Israel invaded Egypt and the world’s attention was drawn elsewhere. The Kremlin decided on the same day that overwhelming force must be used, and 3,500 tanks were moved from the Ukraine and Romania to suppress the revolution. The most reliable data show that 3,000 civilians were killed, 27,000 wounded and, perhaps the greatest blow to Hungary today, 250,000 out of a population of nine million left the country.
The revolution was crushed on 4 th November, though in certain parts of the country resistance was maintained until 11 th . János Kádár rolled back into Budapest on 7 th in a Soviet tank, and became the new dictator of Hungary. He proceeded to execute many of the revolution’s leaders, including a famous boy, Peter Mansfield, a known revolutionary who was arrested in 1956 at the age of 16, and imprisoned until he could be legally executed at 18. A film has just been made about him. Kádár stayed in power from 1957 to 1989 and under him we can be grateful for the creation of so-called “Goulash Communism”. This is, I think, best described by an apocryphal saying attributed to him: it is much better over time to bend somebody’s spine than to break it; that was Kádár’s Communism. It was not the out-and-out repression of the East German-Soviet type, but a far subtler one that made it much harder to live a life based on your own moral judgements and standards.
What is the relevance today of 1956, beyond the split identity of many Hungarians based upon these events? Last Monday, on 23 rd October, we should have celebrated the 50 th anniversary of the most important 20 th century event in Hungarian history. We should have been allowed to celebrate it in Parliament Square, where 56 dignitaries, from the King of Spain to the President of the European Union were present. But, if you were not a member of the Government or the secret services or police, you were not allowed in Parliament Square. For eight blocks in every direction the area was closed down and cordoned off. Riot police armed with tear gas and rubber bullets made sure that not one Hungarian civilian could leave a single flower on the Memorial to 1956 in front of the Parliament building, where those hundreds of people were gunned down. Why? Because Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany knew that he would have to go out and make a speech that day, and if Hungarians were on the street they would heckle; they would shout and they would demand his resignation, as they had been doing since 18 th September after his ominous speech was leaked to the press. This was the speech when he admitted to having lied for two years, about the state of the economy, to win the last election. But more important than the lies - we have heard the cynical response that every politician lies - in this speech no less than half a dozen times he referred to his own country, of which he is the prime minister, as this f****** country.
Left or right, it does not matter; you do not do that. I was running for local office at the time and I was talking to everyone in my village. After the speech was released, I was talking to the head of the vocational school in my village, a school that trains tractor drivers and farm workers. This man, who is not a conservative, said to me, “Mr. Gorka, do you realise the situation my teachers and I are now in? If one student in my class swears, and I try to reprimand him, he is going to say ‘the Prime Minister does it’.” Thus we have a complete moral bankruptcy from the top down. It is no accident that the current prime minister, one of the richest men in Hungary, was a former Vice-President of the Communist Youth League in 1990, or that he married the grand-daughter of Antal Apro, the man to whom Kádár gave the job of violently suppressing the revolution of 1956.
Over the past few days we have seen the use of tools that only Third World countries use today; police brutality on a massive scale. We wrote a letter to the US Ambassador, and appended photographic evidence. These are the results of police violence on the streets - the use of illegal steel batons, rubber bullets aimed at protestors’ heads, together with tear gas cartridges thrown into the crowds. Two priests were actually fired upon by rubber bullets and tear gas. I met a French journalist, who has covered every war zone in the last 50 years from Afghanistan to Somalia, who was arrested and brutalized by police and said he has never ever been treated like this in a European country.
The E.U. does nothing, because the E.U. is complicit. How embarrassing for the European Union to have let a country like Hungary into ‘the club’, where the government uses such tools. I am sure we will not be hearing many complaints from Brussels in the near future and, as a result, our problem is a domestic one. My role, that of my wife Katie and of my institute, is to get the story out and show how we have a system in Hungary that may be a democracy on the surface regarding its institutions and laws, but – with respect to its culture – is far from being democratic. It is to balance some things that the West has been reporting; all too often the version of events the Government would like you to believe. The front page of Hungary’s only surviving conservative newspaper discusses how a socialist (former-communist) Member of Parliament, wrote an article in the UK’s Guardian last week. This young man says it is naïveté and a nostalgic vision of the past to see 1956 as a revolution. It is about the lynching of Communists, and the use of anti-Semitic slogans to create panic in a country. This is the complete distortion of the past that we have to fight everyday.
Let me finish by quoting the Prime Minister himself. Controversially, he was invited by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hungary to speak last week. In it he said some interesting things. The first was his interpretation of the recent events in the country. He said “basically, there are two sides to choose from; there is us, the Europeans, the people who are rational, the democrats; or there are those who look inwards, who are less democratic, the radical nationalists. It is a fight between nationalism and modernity”. Guess which side he is on? His next comment was, I think, the most striking, but may not surprise the former Communists: “One should not try and practice democracy on the streets. The street is only good for saying no, and what we do not want. Neither demonstrations on the streets, nor any form of political action such as referenda, can stop me from doing what I want.”
I guess old habits die very hard.
Iain Elliot : Thank you very much indeed Sebestyén. I thought that was a very interesting account, made more so by the combination of keen analysis of the situation and the family connection which, as you say, must be true of most Hungarians.
Extracts from the Questions and Answer Session
Audience Member : You say things have come full circle. Why do you think this is?
Sebestyén Gorka : I do not know what has come full circle, but I think, finally, Hungarians were prepared to show that they have had enough. A French leftwing sociologist of Hungarian extraction made a good point, when he said on television, that Mr. Gyurcsany has a very poor sense of history. It is never the majority who initiates an advance in a democracy: whether it is the end of slavery, or land right reforms. It is always a very dedicated minority that makes the changes. However, Gyurcsany sees that as illegitimate. He has been voted into power and, despite having lied to get there, as a result he can dictate what happens. It is an understanding of democracy whereby being voted in allows one to do what one wants for four years. I will give you another classic example. On 31 st October the Opposition that is heading the National Security Committee in Parliament, called for an investigation. They called in the minister in charge of police and the directors of the secret services, and asked what happened on the 23 rd and why such weapons were used against peaceful bystanders? The Minister claimed that he had evidence linking this opposition party to radical extremists, but he refused to show it in front of cameras. All journalists were excluded and the session continued behind closed doors. Afterwards, the minister decided that the Minutes were to be classified for 80 years. It has sunk to such a level. You cannot even get away with classifying documents for 80 years in America. What has happened? I was convinced, perhaps because of my father’s militant past and my own character, that the Hungarians had lost their way. I wondered how people in Hungary could be scared of the tax-man, but then learned that people do not speak out because, if they have a private company, next week the tax man will knock on the door and will go through that person’s files for the next three weeks until he finds something. Finally, people have decided to risk it. In 1956, did anyone really think that a group of students could push 250,000 Soviet troops out of the country and that they could defeat the World’s second greatest power? Of course not. Rationally, you would never go out onto the streets to do that. But there is a feeling again that people must do something in the name of national independence.
An Audience Member asked if there was a link between events in Greece in 1956, the Suez Crisis, and the suppression of the Uprising. He also asked if Radio Free Europe should accept any responsibility for encouraging - ultimately false – hope in the prospect of support from the West.
Sebestyén Gorka : I do not know of any evidence of a link between the Greek events in 1956 and Suez. One thing that really has been proven of late, if you look at the evidence from the Kremlin files, opened by Yeltsin for a few years before Putin took over, is the sad fact that from the 29 th to the 31 st , the Presidium was thinking about not intervening. Khrushchev was actually not sure that they should use force. So there was an interval when they vacillated. But, as you said, Khrushchev considered that it was his position that was in danger, and on the 31 st decided it was to be full force and oppression. He believed that if they lost Hungary, they would lose all the satellite states. That is something the record books have now made patently clear.
When it comes to Radio Free Europe, this is an argument that still continues. In Washington DC this October, there was a meeting where they examined all the records again and asked “what was the responsibility of RFE for the 1956 events?” The belief that the Americans were coming was incredibly strong, particularly among students. I can heartily recommend a film in Hungarian that has just been released by the big Hollywood producer Andrew Vajna , called “The Love of Freedom”. It is set in 1956, and is historically accurate, and emphasises the expectation that all they needed to do was hold on for a few more days, until the paratroopers arrived.
I write a bi-monthly column in Hungary and the last article I wrote after the demonstrations concluded that I am not objective; my father was tortured and imprisoned by the communists, but I am also not unaware of the realities. I know you cannot prosecute these people now. You do not have a million US troops on Romanian or Hungarian soil who can demand trials. The fact is that Hungary and its neighbours will remain as politically divided as they are today unless one thing happens: an honest discussion of the past. The secret police were not masters of their own fate. The politicians – the Politburo and the Central Committee - directed them. We are not discussing how it came about that the same members of the Central Committee are now the Democratic Socialists. Even if we cannot try them, imprison them, punish them – look at what happened in South Africa – why is South Africa functioning? It is because there is a place where the torturer sat opposite the victim and said, “Yes, I did torture you”. They talked about it. In Hungary there is such an industry of history falsification it is mind-numbing. I had the honour of serving on the Parliamentary Committee that investigated our last Prime Minister who, as it turned out, was previously a serving member of the secret police. The day after the committee’s mandate ended, by which time we were supposed to have investigated everything, the former party paper - the most popular newspaper in Hungary – published something I have not seen in the last 12 years; a three page historical article in a broadsheet. The editor recommended this article to the young people and the gist was that János Kádár was the first reformer, and began the 1970s reforms: an absurd and surreal representation of history. But that is what happens if there is no discussion, and if you do not name those involved. For example, the Prime Minister’s wife is the granddaughter of the Politburo member who signed the execution order after 1956. The Prime Minister married very well, into the former party network, and it is no accident he is now a millionaire. But these things are not discussed. Out of the seven big newspapers, only one is anti-government and out of the five TV channels, including commercial channels, one is anti-government, so what can you expect?
Iain Elliot: I have a personal interest in the discussion of the radio influence, in that I was deputy director of Radio Liberty when the Soviet Union was falling apart. I can assure everyone present that this particular issue is still on the wall of almost every room in the radio stations, to remind everyone of the past, of what happened in 1956. It should not be allowed to happen again. It is accepted that some of the broadcasting was not desirable, although the one defence is that the Western Press was very much in favour of helping the Hungarians. Of course, for years before, Eisenhower had been talking of rolling back communism. But this is not something that the radios are proud of. For the most part Eastern Europe has welcomed the contribution of the radios in the last few years. What really caught my eye, and I did want to raise it with you, was an article in The Scotsman . The author was talking about Hungary in 1956, and suggested that the Soviet army could not have been expected to act in any other way, nor could the leaders. They had to do what they did. The real villains of the peace were RFE and Radio Liberty who, acting for the CIA, performed this terrible role. So this row is still going on. It is an issue that still goes on. I suspect in Hungary there is a slightly more balanced attitude to it.
Sebestyén Gorka: I do a lot of town hall speaking, especially to Conservative audiences – this is not my bread and butter, I am a national security expert but events have driven me into this field. Currently, counter-terrorism can be interpreted in many ways in Central Europe – this issue that you raise is relevant whatever the location. To the second, after about 17 minutes, people in the audience state that we are, once more, on the wrong side of an international conflict and the Americans will betray Central Europe again, as in 1956. It is one of the most difficult things to deal with as most of the people are Conservatives, and are very polite to the American visitors, but when you talk of America or the West as a concept, people are anti. The issue is very much alive. To the average person, with little understanding of international affairs, the concept that national interest overrides morality is difficult to grasp. They also find it hard to grasp that sometimes politicians do things not because they are right, but because they are want to be re-elected next year. The concept that, if one US paratrooper landed on the streets of Budapest, what would happen the next day? Nuclear warheads landing not in Hungary, but in Washington. Often missed, however, is that steps between doing nothing and going to war could have been taken, for example going through the UN and recognising neutrality. Eisenhower said no. On the 30 th October, Dulles sent a message to the US ambassador in Moscow, who passed it to the Kremlin – exactly the same message that came from Westminster by the then Foreign Secretary – saying that neither the US or the UK wished to exploit the situation in Central Europe to the detriment of Soviet interests. The US went on to say that America did not consider any country in Central Europe as a potential ally. More than that could have been done.
Audience Member: I was interested in your comment about South Africa. Was there any resonance in Hungary as a way of dealing with the past of the South African experience, or was it too remote to seem relevant? Is there any kind of movement comparable to the Memorial Group in Russia that works tirelessly to get people to face up to history – we will not go into how successfully?
Sebestyén Gorka: I fear you are right, but I tend to think it will be considered too remote as a concept. So far, we have had a couple of pathetic trials of those corporals and sergeants who killed lots of people in 1956, resulting in suspended sentences. No political leaders have been convicted, or even brought before a truth commission. What we do have, which is an amazing institution, is the House of Terror museum, in the former secret police headquarters, the centre of the Fascist Party in 1944-1945. This building, under the last Conservative Government, was turned into a world-class museum, chronicling the crimes of the communists and fascists. The thing that created the biggest pandemonium among the socialists was that, as you go from top to bottom, you reach the torture chambers in the basement where there is a wall of shame. There are photographs of all the former officers with birth dates and, for those that are still alive, a blank for the date of death. That became the first attempt to talk about history in an objective fashion but, of course, it soon became a political hot potato. The opposition, our current commissioner to the EU, a delightful former member of the Politburo, said, “when we win the election we will rename it the House of Peace and Reconciliation” – classic communist claptrap. The Opposition warned that if they tried this, there would be a ring of people around it. One middle-school teacher took his class there, and was fired as a result. It has become a political issue. The problem we have is finding our Desmond Tutu – someone who is not incredibly politically divisive, and who could be a symbol of some future entity. I would have to think very hard about whom that could be.
Audience Member: I used to run the Intermediate Technology Group, and am now Vice President of the Soil Association – not a very violent organisation. Are there people in Hungary who would support you? I do not mean what you have said, as what you have described is the truth, and people cannot help but support it, rather would people support the digging up of the past on behalf of the people of Hungary?
Sebestyén Gorka: I really pray that there are people out there. After the speech exploded on 18 th September, a small group of former dissidents who had never been soiled by party politics decided to stage an ongoing demonstration in Parliament Square, until the Prime Minister resigned. These are the people who were evicted before the anniversary celebrations. As I watched them and helped them with their international press connections, it became painfully obvious that they were well-meaning amateurs. Precisely because they had never been in government they had no experience running anything. Beyond that, you have the opposition party that will only pick up the ball once the economic crisis has begun – when the pensioners will be unable to pay their gas bills come January and when the Government is in such a disastrous situation that it resigns themselves. This is the reality of party politics, and I do not like it because they have no other plans.
Fear is a huge problem. I am lucky because the reigning elite is afraid of me. They believe I have overly good connections with the West – they have even followed me to Washington to try and keep tabs on me. I do not depend on the opposition; I have my own institute and am not beholden to party politics. Very few Hungarians are in that position. When I was on the committee investigating the prime minister, I would receive warning telephone calls. The grandmother of my babysitter, a woman I had never even heard of, rang me and warned me that I was risking my life by making such statements in the newspapers. I have a good colleague in the Foreign Ministry – a man my age – who refuses to talk politics with me on the phone. He thinks one of us is tapped. This is very hard to communicate to Brussels or London or Washington. We are graduates of transition; we joined NATO in 1999 and the E.U. in 2004. It is only once you live there that people begin to get a feel for the reality beneath the surface. Fear is very much alive and well. We have 400 people who have come to a completely informal centre we have created to record brutality on the 23 rd October, including foreign tourists. Four people out of 400 are prepared to take it to the prosecutor’s office as so many fear losing their jobs. It is a small country of ten million people, but I hope and pray that, of the ten million, we can find a few who are prepared to stand up.
The contributions of other audience members are summarised briefly.
It was asked if the Opposition questioned the Prime Minister during the famous election in which he admitted to lying “morning, noon and night”.
Sebestyén Gorka: In general yes. In the run up to the campaign, Gyurscany used the phrase “the economy is just steaming along”. At the same time he was making speeches in private acknowledging how far from the truth this was. The opposition did say, “No it is not! The economy is not as good as you think it is.” It was not a very convincing protest, comprising of lots of data and chronicling the companies that have moved headquarters out of the country.
In reply to a question about what the solution is to the problems currently facing Hungary:
Sebestyén Gorka: The Prime Minister must resign, which is number one. He is the obstacle at the moment. Beyond that, we have a very unfortunate constitution that was copied from the Swedes and the Germans in 1990, precisely because the former conservatives were fearful of a communist resurgence. So they wrote a constitution whereby presidential power is minimal, as they feared a socialist was going to become president. They created many laws tied to a two-thirds majority, so you cannot change much unless you have two-thirds of the parliament. Furthermore, in Parliament you cannot get rid of a prime minister unless 50 plus one vote him down and, at the same time, they agree who the next prime minister will be. This, of course, never happens; it is a constructive vote of no confidence. This is why Hungary is the only country in Europe where every government serves its full four-year mandate; you cannot get the government out. I think the long-term answer is an honest, re-telling of history.
When we were investigating the former Prime Minister, he made a statement that was picked up by a famous socialist political scientist with whom I was debating on television. He said, and it is from a former serving member of the secret police: “Everybody was just a cog in the machine; you just put your head down and tried to survive.” If that is true, my father did not exist. The 800 people who where executed after 1956 did not exist. The people who were not allowed to go to university because their fathers were rich peasants did not exist. If we cannot redress this depiction of the past, this tension is going to remain. Somehow we have to start creating a dialogue. Who is going to start the debate without stating, “you are a communist and you are a fascist”? That is the level of political debate. The difference is that I have never been a fascist, but the people I am debating with have been card-carrying members of the Communist Party. Maybe we need outside help to hold this debate in an objective fashion. The best I can come up with right now is some kind of truth commission. I remember, after I became a public figure around these issues, former secret policemen began to track me down and unburden themselves; they had to tell someone. One fascinating story worthy of a Len Deighton novel, followed a former member of the security service coming to me. He said “I have to tell you that, not only did Carlos the Jackal have a villa in Hungary, but that I was ordered to train Arab terrorists. They were brought in by the boat load, taken to a secret location and, wearing the red star they would be trained.” Is there a problem that a NATO member country knowingly abetted Marxist terrorists?
George Ross wished to add a final statement:
“The past is never dead, it is not even past. We cannot ignore it and get on with the future” (William Faulkner).
In 1956, all over Romania, in all university cities and towns, there were demonstrations organised by students in support of the Hungarian insurgents. I was fortunate to be seriously ill at that time, or I would not be here to tell the tale. The president of the Youth Communist Union was a certain young Ion Iliescu, and hundreds of the students vanished without trace. Like people in Hungary, Iliescu reinvented himself as a freedom fighter, and was a staunch liberal and “democratic” president of the country until the last election.
Iain Elliot: I would like to thank Sebestyén very much for a most informative and interesting opinion and discussion.
A Brief History of the European Liaison Group (ELG)
A Letter from George Ross to Lisl Biggs-Davison
When I arrived in the United Kingdom in 1965 and joined the brand newly-constituted “British-Romanian Association”, the ELG was already in existence. The first Romanian representative was the late Leonard Kirschen. He was followed by Iolanda Stranescu and I succeeded her in the early 1980s.
I cannot speak for other exile organisations, but the British-Romanian Association was properly constituted, with statutes, a democratically elected committee and with an Honorary Committee. Your father [Sir John Biggs-Davison MP] and a few other prominent politicians, such as Sir (later Lord) Bernard Braine sat on the latter. I imagine that all exile organisations were similarly structured
In contrast, ELG had a much looser and informal structure, containing – on the whole – representatives of the East- and Central-European nations, subjugated by communism. The most important were the Polish and the Hungarians, followed by the Romanians. Only two East European nations had governments in exile recognised by the British government, as well as proper embassies in London, which were, in fact, the seats of the respective governments in exile: Poland (in South Eaton Place) and Lithuania (in Bayswater). We held our regular, or ad-hoc, meetings in either place – more often than not South Eton Place. The ELG president was Rasto Marcetic, a Serbian. Although very active during the 1960s and 1970s, and still vigorous during the 1980s, his advancing years dictated that, increasingly, he played a decorative role of figurehead and he was always present at notable occasions.
The most important members during the 1980s were the Polish and Hungarian representatives; the first, Edward Szczepanik, was the Foreign Affairs Minister in the Polish Government in Exile. The Hungarian representative was Paul Gorka. Both were some years older than me and both returned to their countries soon after 1989. I did everything I could to help, too. Vladimir Bukovsky was a semi-official Russian presence. We were representatives of countries occupied – or at least controlled — by the Soviet Union, so it seemed a bit strange to have amongst us, a representative of the occupying power. But we took the view that the Soviet power structure was also persecuting and oppressing its own peoples, and had, with us, two “true” representatives of these nations. Bukovsky was one, although living in Cambridge, he did not attend many meetings. The other was Tania Poliakoff, a British-born young lady, with impeccable English and cut-glass accent, of Kazakh extraction. There was also a rather delightful Albanian elderly lady, Mme Zavalani , the only Albanian I ever met in London. Occasionally we had a Belarusian, and – of course – a Lithuanian. Czechoslovakia was represented by Father Jan Lang SJ, a remarkable, wise and charismatic priest and by the formidable, totally devoted, Miss McKay, the former secretary of President Benes, more Czechoslovak than any native! They were based in a small house with a chapel, off Ladbroke Square, belonging to a Czech organisation, which was a club for the small Czechoslovak community. We met there a few times. Occasionally, we also had a Bulgarian. At any festivity, meeting at Parliament, or demonstration, Annabel Markov – Gheorghi’s widow – was present, but she did not have the time (her husband’s assassination left her with a daughter to bring up) or interest to be active in politics. However, she was a powerful emblematic figure.
Also present at our meetings almost ex-officio, was Mr. Stepan, a Polish gentleman, the Head of BBC’s religious broadcasting services, and a few members of Opus Dei, all young, very energetic, amazingly bright and totally dedicated. And, without having a formal ‘Honorary Committee’, we always had the very valuable and much appreciated support of important people like your father, Bernard Braine, Julian Amery, Jessica Douglas-Home, Roger Scruton and others. The Labour MPs who helped a bit were Douglas Jay (by then very old) and – for a short while – Patrick Gordon Walker. Amongst the Liberals, David (later Lord) Alton helped, especially in connection with religious freedom and persecution of priests.
Looking at what I have written, I realise that I gave the impression of a ramshackle outfit. But it was, in fact, a very cohesive set-up, which worked remarkably well. In part, this was due to the fact that a chemistry between us was established, we trusted each other, and bonds of personal friendship developed between all of us.
Our purpose was to co-ordinate the activities of individual exile organisations and to initiate new activities. We had a few meetings at the House of Commons, usually with members of both houses. We also had celebrations. A big one – I remember it so well – was organised at the seat of the Lithuanian government to mark the peerage received by Bernard Braine. It was very well attended and Sir (now Lord) Bernard was touched and enjoyed it. You may know this, but for me it was a novelty: apparently, only peers of the realm - rather than hoi polloi — are allowed to drive sheep over the bridge. So we presented Bernard with a toy lamb on wheels, to mark the occasion and his newly granted right, which he could pull over Westminster Bridge. It was much appreciated.
ELG activities intensified during the 1980s, when it became obvious that the collapse of the communist system was imminent. We started to organise the transport of audiocassettes behind the Iron Curtain and of broadcasts. Since we thought that there was a possibility that the BBC was infiltrated, we relied on Radio Free Europe, which we regarded as more reliable. It was the time when satellite dishes became more widespread - at least in some East European countries and we started to think of special television broadcasts.
Of course, there were visits to Eastern Europe, and talks were given there: the now famous philosophical seminars organised by Roger Scruton and Jessica Douglas-Home, the late Katie Wilkes, Alan Montefiore and others were hugely valuable .
Our activities came suddenly and unexpectedly to an end when the Berlin Wall collapsed. We never had a meeting to conclude our affairs or even to say goodbye to each other. The Polish government in exile returned to Poland, but I believe that they were sidelined there with no proper recognition. The Gorkas returned to Hungary in 1990. For me, this was a great personal loss, as Paul, his wife Susan and I had become close friends. I did not think that they received a proper recognition either in Hungary – with, apart from a brief period, a communist government since 1989. Paul, an architect by profession, like his wife Susan, became district head of the Hungarian equivalent of the National Trust, in the historical town of Sopron.
1 Paul v. Gorka, Budapest Betrayed (A Prisoner’s Story of the Betrayal of the Hungarian Resistance Movement to the Russians) with Foreword by József Kővágó , Oak-Tree Books Limited, Middlesex, 1986.
ISBN: 0 9480 5904 4 (English edition) and 0 9480 5909 5 (Hungarian edition)
The book launch was at the House of Commons. Sir John Biggs Davison, MP was host and the Rt. Hon. Julian Amery, MP was guest speaker.
From the Flyleaf:
“A Hungarian Resistance fighter vividly portrays his betrayal, torture and imprisonment prior to the 1956 Uprising, which allowed him to escape to the West. This significant eye witness account from the Hungarian side reveals for the first time how the Resistance network in Hungary, like Albania, was first organised and then betrayed to the Soviet forces by Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt, causing 45 victims to be executed and giving the Soviet Union a pretext to stay on in Eastern Europe after the Second World War and to crush the 1956 Uprising on the grounds of “foreign interference”. Those betrayed were given the first indication that traitors were at work in the British Secret Service.”
“Paul v. Gorka was born in 1930 and witnessed the Red Army’s siege of Budapest during the Second World War. After 1948, as a student of architecture, he organised the Catholic Resistance Movement, eventually in conjunction with the British Intelligence Services. He was arrested, tortured, given a life sentence, and imprisoned from 1950 to 1956. He was freed during the Hungarian and after opposing the Soviet invasion he escaped to the West. He received the Order of Knighthood of Vitez for his bravery during the Resistance.
“He now works as an architect in London, holds a B.A.(Hons) Degree in Modern European Studies and is Deputy Leader of the Hungarian Freedom Fighters Movement and the Hungarian representative on the London-based anti-Soviet European Liaison Group. He is also a member of the Free Hungarian Congress and of the Former Political Prisoners’ Association.”