Peter Fryer

Hungarian Tragedy

2. Magyaróvár

Half-way through the morning the barrier was lifted and a car came through and drew up in front of the customs house. Inside were German Red Cross men and a German journalist. The car was full of food and medical supplies; something had happened at the town of Magyaróvár, ten minutes drive along the main road to Györ. They did not know what, but it was reported that many were wounded. They intended to leave the supplies at Magyaróvár and then try to get through to Budapest to see what was needed there. I begged for a place in the car and they agreed to squeeze up and take me. Soon we were speeding through the Kis Alföld, Hungary’s Little Plain, a countryside of harvested fields as monotonously flat as my native Holderness, and that was the only comforting feature of this plunge into the unknown. In Hegyeshalom village, a few minutes away, adults stared at our car and children waved. But there were not many people about. In Magyaróvár the streets were packed, and the car was at once surrounded by people who tried to talk to us in German, English and French.

There was an air of tremendous tension in the town as if some terrible natural calamity had taken place. It was a feeling such as hangs over a British mining town when a pit disaster draws crowds to the pit-head. Some women were crying. No one smiled. From the disjointed phrases, we learned that a demonstration had been fired on the previous day by men of the secret police. There were eighty dead and between one hundred and two hundred wounded. We must see the bodies of those who had been murdered. But first would we go to the revolutionary committee, which was in session at the Town Hall?

The Hungarian tricolour and the black flag of mourning flew side by side from almost every house. In everyone’s button-hole there was a scrap of red, white and green ribbon and, pinned with it, a scrap of black ribbon.

The revolutionary committee received us with great courtesy. It had been set up after the events of the previous day, and was in continuous session, mainly organising food supplies and arranging contact with the similar committee at Györ, the county town. The twenty members of the revolutionary committee were all local men; none could be called an émigré. Some were Communists, but rank-and-file Communists, not officials. What had happened to the officials? ‘The party secretary was a bully, but he was not a criminal. We told him to go home and stay there for a bit.’

Most of the committee members were former members of the Social-Democratic Party, who for one reason or another had dropped out of political activity since the Communist Party and the Social-Democratic Party were merged in the Hungarian Working People’s Party in June 1948. Magyaróvár, its population of 22,000 almost entirely working-class, had elected a town council with a Socialist majority in 1945. But after the merger of the two parties the people’s own creative initiative, their desire to build Socialism, was stifled. They were neither consulted nor drawn into the administration of their own affairs. The Party bosses ran the town by issuing orders. There was no feeling that the town and its factories belonged to the people, or that the Party was an organisation of the people, despite all the propaganda about Socialism. ‘Entrance allowed only on official business’, said a notice at the Party headquarters. Where could the people turn in their poverty? The trade unions were a farce – dominated by Party puppets, and existing not to protect and improve the wages and conditions of their members but to ‘mobilise’ them in the struggle for higher production. They were no longer an instrument of the working people but an instrument of the State. Magyaróvár was a poor town, its poverty made no more bearable by the veneer of Socialism: the red star, the slogans, the portraits of Lenin, Stalin and Rákosi (until recently), the expression elvtárs (‘comrade’), and the compulsory May Day demonstrations. The people had been promised a better life, and were prepared to co-operate to the full to achieve it. But life grew worse instead of better. The townsfolk knew from personal experience that the propaganda in Szabad Nép and on the wireless was so much hypocrisy.

This was the story the revolutionary committee told me, and the old Socialists among them, men who remembered what it had been like before the war, were the most vehement and passionate in their denunciation of the ‘Socialism’ that had been foisted upon their fellow-citizens in the past eight years. ‘It has been eight years of hell’, they said.

They began to speak of the preceding day’s events. On Wednesday and Thursday the word had spread round the factories and streets of the fighting in Budapest. By Friday the whole town was in ferment, and at about 10 o’clock in the morning the people poured out of their houses in a spontaneous demostration. They were unarmed, and at that stage they did not want arms. Their only weapons were red, white and green flags, and occasional rough posters bearing the two fundamental demands of the national uprising: ‘End the Russian occupation’ and ‘Abolish the AVH’ There were 5,000 people in the demonstration, including old men and old women, young girls from the aluminium factory, women with their babies in their arms and schoolboys. Singing the Hungarian National Anthem, they marched through their town in the first spontaneous demonstration since 1945. They were entirely peaceful – except that wherever they saw a red star they tore it down. This was not an expression of their desire for the restoration of capitalism. It expressed their desire for an end of Soviet occupation, for the removal of the Soviet symbols that had been thrust down their throats in place of bread, for the silencing of the empty slogans that had been dinned into their ears in place of truth.

The crowd, a good-humoured one, drew near the AVH headquarters where a huge red star stood out against the sky. ‘Take down the red star’, they roared.

The reply was a hoarse word of command, the rattle of machine-gun fire, the mowing down of those in the front ranks; then the screams of the wounded.

No warning was given, no Riot Act was read, for Hungary does not have a Riot Act. There was not even an initial burst of firing into the air, or over the people’s heads. At the command of AVH Lieutenant Jósef Stefko, two machine guns hidden behind the windows of the headquarters pumped bullets into the thickest part of the crowd. AVH men also threw hand-grenades. The firing went on for four minutes, and some of those wounded were shot again in the back as they tried to crawl away. Men and women, students and workers, children and even an 18-months-old baby were among the victims.

Nothing could now restrain the crowd, and they rushed to the army barracks to pour out the story to the soldiers. Without hesitation the soldiers broke open the armoury and gave the people weapons. There was a fierce battle for the AVH headquarters, in the course of which one of the detachment’s four officers was killed. Another was captured and lynched and the other two were wounded and taken to hospital. One of these had died during the night and the other, Lieutenant Stefko, was still lying there; a crowd had gathered outside the hospital and was demanding that he be handed over to them for summary justice.

When we had listened to this story, the revolutionary committee insisted that the German and English journalists go out on the balcony and address the crowds, and then visit the cemetery to see for themselves the victims of the atrocity. Interpreters were provided, and we faced a crowd of several hundreds: soldiers, workers, students and women. The German said simply that medical help was on the way from West Germany. I did not know what to say; my heart was too full to do more than tell the people that the British people had not yet any reliable news of what was happening in Hungary, that I would make it my business to tell them as speedily as possible, and that I was sure that as soon as the news spread medical aid would be on its way from Britain, too. I have tried to keep the promise to tell the truth I made that day as the black flag hanging from the Town Hall balcony flapped in my face and the faces of the people striken by a grief beyond words merged into a blur in my eyes. I should be interested to know what J.R.Campbell, editor of the Daily Worker, or Mick Bennett, assistant editor, or George Matthews, assistant secretary of the Communist Party, who suppressed the dispatch I wrote about Magyaróvár, would have said to the people of that town if they had been in my place. Would they have insulted their grief with warnings about ‘counter-revolution’, or delivered a little homily about ‘White Terror’? Would they have addressed them in the lofty, omniscient tones of the Daily Worker editorial of the day before, the day this abominable mass murder took place:

What has happened in Hungary during these past days has not been a popular uprising against a dictatorial Government. It has been an organised and planned effort to overthrow by undemocratic and violent means a Government which was in process of carrying through important constructive measures.

And when they were taken to see the dead, as I then was, how would they have described them? As fascists? Reactionaries? Counterrevolutionaries? I should like to know.

They took us in slow, silent procession along an avenue of plane trees to the little chapel and mortuary in the town cemetery. Hundreds went with us; we passed many more coming away, having identified kinsfolk or sweethearts or friends, or having stood in homage to dead workmates or fellow-students. Some faces were set and stern, others were contorted with weeping, and I wept myself when we reached the chapel and the mortuary. The mourners made way for us and gently pushed us to the very front, so that we should see and know and tell what we had seen. The bodies lay in rows; the dried blood was still on the clothing. Some had little bunches of flowers on their breasts. There were girls who could not have been more than sixteen. There was a boy of six or so. Already in a coffin, lightly shrouded, lay the corpse of the eighteenmonths-old baby. After eleven years of ‘people’s democracy’ it had come to this: that the security police was so remote from the people, so alien to them, so vicious and so brutal that it turned its weapons on a defenceless crowd and murdered the people who were supposed to be masters of their own country.

I did not want to hear any more or see any more. But I was forced to. For several hours I stood at the entrance to the cemetery, hemmed in by a gigantic crowd, a succession of interpreters coming forward to translate through English or French. I must have spoken to well over a hundred people that day alone. All were obviously working-class people. All told more or less the same story. I made a point of questioning every one who claimed to be an eyewitness of the atrocity. I did not want to believe what they told me, but their stories tallied in every important detail. In particular, I sought to make absolutely sure that the demonstrators did not carry arms, and that the arms they ultimately obtained were given them by the soldiers. The answers I received to these points carried complete conviction.

But the crowds spoke also to me of their lives in this small industrial town, of the long years of grinding poverty, without hope of improvement, of their hatred and fear of the AVH. ‘I get 700 forints a month,’ said one. ‘I only get 600.’ said another. [1] They were ill-dressed, the women and girls doing their pathetic best to achieve some faint echo of elegance. They spoke to me about the AVH men. ‘They were beasts, brutes, animals who had sold themselves to the Russians.’ ‘They called themselves Hungarians and they mowed our people down without hesitation!’ ‘We shan’t leave a single one of those swine alive – you’ll see.’ They asked me what the West was doing to help, and some asked outright for arms. I for one do not regard these as counterrevolutionaries. If after eleven years the working people, goaded beyond bearing, look to the West for succour, whose fault is that? If the Americans are guilty of seeking to foster counter-revolution with the Mutual Security Act, surely the Rákosis and the Gerös are a hundred times more guilty for providing the soil in which seeds sown by the Americans could grow.

There was a general movement in the direction of the hospital, where an immense crowd had gathered, clamouring more and more insistently with every minute that passed for Stefko to be brought out to them. The German journalist and I were admitted into the hospital, where we met the director’s wife and a French-speaking woman who had volunteered to help with the nursing. It was here that I got for the first time reasonably accurate figures of the number of wounded. There had been about 80 wounded brought here, of whom eleven had died, and about 80 had been taken to the hospital at Györ. The need for plasma and other medicaments was desperate if lives were to be saved and so was the need, said the director’s wife, to end the tumult outside. A deputation from the revolutionary committee was interviewing her husband to demand that Stefko be handed to the people.

A few minutes later the director was forced to give in, and we saw a stretcher carried by four men appear out of a hut in the hospital grounds. On it lay Stefko, wearing a blue shirt. His legs were covered by a blanket. His head was bandaged. He was carried close enough to me for me to have touched him. He was fully conscious, and he knew quite well what was going to happen to him. His head turned wildly from side to side and there was spittle round his mouth. As the crowd saw the stretcher approaching they sent up a howl of derision and anger and hatred. They climbed the wire fence and spat at him and shouted ‘murderer’. They pushed with all their might at the double gates, burst them open and surged in. The stretcher was flung to the ground, and the crowd was upon Stefko, kicking and trampling. Relations of those he had murdered were, they told me, foremost in this lynching. It was soon over. They took the body and hanged it by the ankles for a short time from one of the trees in the Lenin Street. Ten minutes afterwards only a few people were left outside the hospital.

I wrote later in my first, unpublished, dispatch:

After eleven years the incessant mistakes of the Communist leaders, the brutality of the State Security Police, the widespread bureaucracy and mismanagement, the bungling, the arbitrary methods and the lies have led to total collapse. This was no counter-revolution, organised by fascists and reactionaries. It was the upsurge of a whole people, in which rank-and-file Communists took part, against a police dictatorship dressed up as a Socialist society – a police dictatorship backed up by Soviet armed might.

I am the first Communist journalist from abroad to visit Hungary since the revolution started. And I have no hesitation in placing the blame for these terrible events squarely on the shoulders of those who led the Hungarian Communist Party for eleven years – up to and including Ernö Gerö They turned what could have been the outstanding example of people’s democracy in Europe into a grisly caricature of Socialism. They reared and trained a secret police which tortured all – Communists as well as nonCommunists – who dared to open their mouths against injustices. It was a secret police which in these last few dreadful days turned its guns on the people whose defenders it was supposed to be.

I wrote this under the immediate impact of a most disturbing and shattering experience, but I do not withdraw one word of it. Much of the rest of the dispatch was never received in London because the call was cut off after twenty minutes, and the first ten had been taken up by three different people giving me contradictory instructions as to the ‘line’ I should take. Mick Bennett insisted on reading me a long extract from a resolution of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party. I had had enough of resolutions. I had seen where eleven years of terror and stupidity had led Hungary, and I wanted to tell the readers of the Daily Worker the plain unvarnished truth, however painful it might be. But the readers of the Daily Worker were not to be told the truth. The day after I had sent this dispatch they were reading only about ‘gangs of reactionaries’ who were ‘beating Communists to death in the streets’ of Budapest. The paper admitted in passing that ‘some reports claimed that only identified representatives of the former security police were being killed’. Next day Hungary disappeared altogether from the Daily Worker’s front page.

For many years I had opposed, in what I wrote and said, and in my heart, the crimes of British imperialism in the Colonies. At Magyaróvár on October 27 I vowed that in future I would oppose with equal passion and energy crimes committed by those who called themselves Communists, crimes which besmirched a noble and humanitarian cause.


1. At the official rate of exchange, 600 forints is worth about £18, at the tourist rate of exchange £9. The purchasing power is probably about £12–£14, but it should be remembered that rents are generally speaking lower in Hungary than in Britain, while clothing, quality for quality, is much dearer. The average wage in Hungary before the revolution was between 900 and 1,000 forints a month – say £25.

Last updated on: 16.1.2012