Peter Fryer

Hungarian Tragedy

1. Arrival – Hungary

A naked girl rose Venus-like from the milky-blue waters of Lake Balaton. Her hair brushed bunches of luscious grapes on the lake-shore at Badacsony. There were more grapes behind her head, at Eger and Tokay, framing the Miskolc blast furnace. Gaudy lengths of cloth, representing the Szeged textile works, ran to the very foot of the four-towered, thousand-year-old cathedral of Nécs. In between were dancing peasants in national costume, peasants in everyday clothes driving tractors, sportsmen proving Hungarian prowess, railway trains speeding to and from Budapest. To one side of the pictorial map stood two idealised, red-scarved Pioneers – solemn, angelic children blowing long trumpets. And around and above stretched an immense scroll welcoming the foreign visitor to the Hungarian People’s Republic and bearing that Republic’s coat of arms, its most prominent feature a hammer and an ear of wheat crossed and, above, a five-pointed red star. It was this red star that the young soldier was working on.

He whistled happily between his teeth as he bent forward in his ill-fitting uniform, closely modelled on the uniform of the Soviet Army. He was absorbed in his task of picking with a nail-file at the red star. It was not an easy task, for the mosaic was stuck firmly on the wall. It had been put there to stay. But eventually the red star came away. Pocketing his nail-file the young soldier ground the bit of stone to powder with his heel and sauntered away.

Another red star was easier to remove. A group of soldiers hauled down the red, white and green Hungarian flag, and carefully cut a circle round the coat of arms in the middle of it, took it out, then hoisted the flag once more.

This was at the Hegyeshalom frontier station on the morning of Saturday, October 27. The Hungarian revolution was less than four days old. Since its outbreak in Budapest on the night of October 23, it had surged irresistibly through the provinces; and now I was seeing the tide of revolt lap the very frontier. Across the road, chafing and fuming behind the red, white and green stripes of the barrier, stood a small army of journalists – mostly Austrian, British and German – being soothed by Austrian frontier police. They had cars but no visas, and at that stage the Austrian authorities were not letting visa-less journalists through. I had a visa but no car. All of us wanted to get to Budapest. Across the barrier we commiserated with each other, and I scribbled a telegram to be sent in Vienna to the Daily Worker announcing that I had crossed into Hungarian territory and was trying to get ahead.

I was still in a state of bewilderment and, I must confess, a little afraid. My naive expectation that as soon as I got to Vienna – or, at the worst, Hegyeshalom – I would be whisked to Budapest like the honoured guest I had been in July had not been fulfilled. My announcement that I was the London correspondent of the Communist Party paper Szabad Nép (which means ‘free people’) and the special correspondent here in Hungary of the Daily Worker had been treated by the customs officials and soldiers with complete indifference. They told each other that I was a Communist journalist, but they gave me blankets and let me sleep on the sofa in the reception room, and next morning they gave me coffee and simply smiled when I said I had no Hungarian money to pay for it. When, however, I asked if it were possible to telephone Budapest, or at least Györ, to ask for a car to be sent for me, they told me curtly that there was a revolution on, and that both telephones and cars were required for other purposes. It was not till the morning came to the desolate flat fields and I took stock of my position that I noticed that the soldiers were not wearing their cap badges. I was in the hands of troops who – whether one called them revolutionaries or counter-revolutionaries – had revolted against the Hungarian Government. I could not go back, or, if I did, I would not be allowed to re-enter Hungary on my one-visit-only visa, and my assignment would be over before it had begun. I could not go forward, for I had no transport. I could not stay where I was, for coffee was all they could give me and I was already desperately hungry. The only thing to do was to hang around in the hope that some other journalist, with room in his car, would cross the frontier during the day.

I remembered ruefully the optimism of the young man at the Hungarian Legation in Eaton Place, who assured me as he gave me my visa – ‘issued on the personal instructions of Comrade Imre Nagy’, he said – that Budapest knew I was coming; it was all arranged; all I had to do if there was no plane from Vienna was go to the Hungarian legation there ‘and they will give you every assistance’. That was why I took only £10 with me. I had friends in Budapest and money in the bank there, and even if the Vienna-Budapest planes were grounded, what would be easier than for the Legation in Vienna to send me to the frontier in a car, and for Budapest to send a car to pick me up? Only the previous day the Daily Worker had assured its readers that ‘the Government is master of the situation’, that ‘the situation is steadily improving’.

I had spent the best part of five hours at the Legation in Vienna’s Bank Gasse. They were polite and sympathetic. But they could not telephone Budapest – communication had ceased at midnight. They could not lend me a car. And – very regretfully – they could not lend me any money. ‘If you want to go to Budapest we cannot stop you,’ they said. ‘But we cannot help you.’

Among the journalists applying for a visa at Bank Gasse had been Jeffrey Blyth of the Daily Mail, looking resplendent in brand-new clothes. He had flown out suddenly from Cairo and had to re-equip himself for Vienna’s autumn chill. But the re-equipment for the Budapest assignment was more than sartorial. He told me how British journalists, his own colleague Noel Barber included, were hiring cars at fabulous prices in Vienna for the hazardous 160-mile run to Budapest; some even bought cars outright. I imagined the startled look on the face of David Ainley, the Daily Worker’s secretary, if I wired for the money to buy a car. So I gratefully accepted Blyth’s offer to give me a lift to Hegyeshalom, where he was meeting Barber and collecting his dispatch. Barber had driven alone through the previous night to Budapest and got through, and might be willing to take me back with him. But Barber, when I met him, was setting out for a tour of Western Hungary. His tremdendous personal courage later earned him a bad skull wound from Soviet bullets, and he lay dangerously ill in hospital for many days.

So Blyth and I had set out from Vienna through the drizzle and had reached Nickelsdorf, the Austrian frontier post, about 9 p.m. It was full of journalists and Red Cross men. Inside the guardroom an excited girl was shouting down a telephone something about ‘two hundred wounded: they desperately need plasma and anything else you can send’.

’From Budapest?’ asked a harassed Austrian officer, seizing my proffered passport and reached for his rubber stamp. ‘No’, I said, ‘to Budapest.’ He looked at me in consternation. ‘You cannot get to Budapest,’ said a young man. ‘I shall have a good try,’ I replied. ‘You will be killed,’ he said. ‘You are committing suicide.’

It took several minutes to convince them that I meant what I said. They peered at my Hungarian visa, stamped my passport regretfully, and sent two soldiers with rifles to sit in the car with us, an escort along the no-man’s-land road that led through a dark, wet wilderness to Hegyeshalom. As I got out of the car the Austrian soldiers shook my hand. I am sure they thought I was mad.

Here I was back again in the first foreign country I had ever visited, a country whose people I loved and on whose soil I felt safe and among friends. A country where all my private symbols for the past fourteen years, most of all the red star of the Soviet Union, were the official insignia. A country where ‘we’ were in power. A country where a new life was being built, where the workers were in command, where, as Rákosi had put it five years before, ‘the inheritance of the accursed past has disappeared’ and ‘our working people look calmly forward to tomorrow and build their free, Socialist country successfully according to a plan, in the secure knowledge of a better future’.

A bitter awakening was in store for me.

Last updated on: 15.1.2012