Peter Fryer

Hungarian Tragedy

7. Budapest

Unable to get transport at Báblona, we returned to Györ with two members of the workers’ committee, passing on the way two check-points manned by Freedom Fighters. I spent one more night at Györ, and the evening was made memorable by the hospitality and comradeship of the actors. They were planning a tour of the hospitals to play before the not-too-badly wounded, and they were bubbling over with longterm plans for the vigorous theatre they were going to develop in a really Socialist Hungary.

Next morning I met three Austrian journalists with a free place in their car, and at last I began the final lap of the trip to Budapest. It took us something over three hours to cover the 80 miles, since we had to stop several times at check-points. Funerals were distressingly frequent in the villages. We saw nothing of Soviet troops, but the Hungarian sentries who stopped us told us the glad news that the fighting between Russians and Hungarians in the capital was over, and the Soviet evacuation had begun. This was Wednesday, October 31. ‘My friends, the revolution has been victorious, Imre Nagy told a mass demonstration in front of the Parliament House that afternoon. ‘We have chased out the Rákosi-Gerö gang. We will tolerate no interference in our internal affairs’. That day Anna Kéthly, after six years in prisons and concentration camps, became chairman of the newly reborn SocialDemocratic Party. That day János Kádár announced the birth of a new Communist Party, the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, whose ranks would be closed to those responsible for the crimes of the past. That day score upon score of secret police swung head downwards from the Budapest trees and lamp-posts, and the crowds spat upon them and some, crazed and brutalised by years of suffering and hatred, stubbed out cigarette butts in the dead flesh.

That day British bombs were dropped on Egyptian territory and sank an Egyptian frigate in the Suez Canal, and President Eisenhower called the attack an ‘error’. It anticipated the Soviet aggression in Hungary by four days.

At this point of time effective power in Hungary was divided between the Nagy Government, which had the support of the people because it reflected their will – and the armed people themselves, as represented and led by their national committees. It was a dual power. Delegates from the national committees in western, eastern, south-eastern and southern Hungary were meeting at Györ and putting forward the people’s demands: the immediate withdrawal of the Soviet reinforcements that were reported to be arriving in the east; the withdrawal of all Soviet troops by the end of the year; and free elections. Some reports said a provisional government had been formed at Györ, but this seems to have been a garbled version of the demand that representatives from the national committees be included in the Nagy Government. At all events there could be no doubt who held the power in Budapest. The people who had held the arms held the power.

And who held the arms? Fascists? No, the people who had done the fighting, the Freedom Fighters, the workers of Csepel and Újpest, the students, teen-age boys and girls, bandoliers over their shoulders, hand-grenades stuck in their belts and tommy-guns – ‘guitars’, they called them – in their hands, the soldiers who had exchanged the red star of servitude for the red, white and green ribbon of liberty. They had won a glorious battle, and for a time (how dreadfully short a time!) they rejoiced, even as they mourned their dead and lit candles on the thousands of freshly-dug graves. Even the children, hundreds of them, had taken part in the fighting and I spoke to little girls who had poured petrol in the path of Soviet tanks and lit it. I heard of 14-year-olds who had jumped to their deaths on to the tanks with blazing petrol bottles in their hands. Little boys of twelve, armed to the teeth, boasted to me of the part they had played in the struggle. A city in arms, a people in arms, who had stood up and snapped the chains of bondage with one gigantic effort, who had added to the roll-call of cities militant – Paris, Petrograd, Canton, Madrid, Warsaw – another immortal name. Budapest! Her buildings might be battered and scarred, her trolley-bus and telephone wires down, her pavements littered with glass and stained with blood. But her citizens’ spirit was unquenchable.

There was still some mopping-up of AVH to be done. At 45 May the First Road, over in the City Park, they discovered the headquarters of the AVH radio jamming branch, and found there a great number of tommy-guns, rifles, pistols, ammunition, hand-grenades and a variety of clothing. One spectacular operation with picks and shovels and pneumatic drills disclosed a vast system of cellars running under the street from the Party headquarters. These cellars, two floors deep, must have taken months, perhaps years to construct. There were six-foot-thick concrete walls, hermetically-sealed doors, vast stores of food and clothing, vast stocks of arms, and a varied apparatus of torture. The whole city knew of the tappings from somewhere deep inside this subterranean fastness, tappings that might have been made by AVH men, or by prisoners, or by both, but which made it impossible to use high explosives freely to blast open the secrets of this maze of tunnels. As far as I know, those trapped down there were still trapped when the Soviet attack began on November 4 ...

From prisons elsewhere in the city, those who had been in darkness came out into the light and told their stories. From underground cells, sometimes ankle-deep in water, they stumbled into the arms of their deliverers, and it was the latter-day fulfilment of Pushkin’s prophecy:

The heavy-hanging chains will fall,
The walls will crumble at the word;
And Freedom greet you with the light,
And brothers give you back the sword.

They were ghosts, many of these prisoners: men and women whom their friends had long ago given up for dead. Men and women like Dr. Edith Bone, former Daily Worker correspondent in Budapest, whom I last met there in September 1949, when she was preparing to return to Britain. I remember going shopping with her and helping her to choose a chess set. A few days later she disappeared, just before she was due to board the aeroplane. She was accused of espionage, kept in solitary confinement for fourteen months, handcuffed so tightly that her wrists carry a permanent mark, taken before a secret court ‘ sentenced to fifteen years’ imprisonment without being told how long the sentence was, put back in solitary confinement for six months for defying the court and kept in jail for another five and a half years till the revolution set her free.

Dr. Bone prides herself on her phyiscal and spiritual toughness. Others were less tough. On the Friday night I saw 450 prisoners, still in their striped jackets and trousers, like pyjamas, set free from the Gyustofogház jail in Budapest. Some of them were raving mad, and had to be restrained and taken into a gentler custody. Four of the prisoners were engineers who had been accused of sabotage when they built the Stalin Bridge across the Danube. In one of the cells, on the black, grimy wall, one of these prisoners had scratched a poem with a Latin title: Pro Libertate. By the Friday night the revolution had released 5,500 political prisoners.

There were in all three and a half days of freedom, and at times it seemed as if the people of Budapest felt in their bones that the interregnum was destined to be a short one, so ardently did they practise democracy. Life was hardly gay. Only food shops were open. There was no public transport till the Saturday, when a few buses began running, crowded to danger point, and with people clinging on outside. Lorry loads of youth and soldiers and cars with Red Cross flags swept by, but there was little other traffic on the streets. Cinemas, theatres and restaurants were closed. But no one needed the stimulus of entertainment. Political parties sprang up in a ferment of discussion and organisation. I have mentioned the reappearance of the SocialDemocratic Party, the rebirth of the Communist Party and the invigoration of the National Peasant Party as the Petöfi Party. The Smallholders’ Party reappeared. A Hungarian Christian Party was formed. So was a new Federation of Trade Unions. Rough placards were hung outside their headquarters. The ice of eleven years had cracked, and democracy had flooded incontinent into the people’s lives.

The most visible aspect of this ferment, and the most exciting, especially to a journalist, was the sudden, explosive advent of no fewer than twenty-five daily papers in place of the five sad, dreary, stereotyped sheets of recent years. Very often the Budapest worker used to find exactly the same announcement, word for word, and sometimes with just the same photographs, in Szabad Nép, Népszava, Magyar Nemzet, Szabad Ifjúság and the evening paper Esti Budapest. Now he had two dozen papers to choose from (what a field-day the newsvendors had!) with independent editors, clashes of opinion, fullblooded polemics, hard-hitting commentaries, and, above all, news. Szabad Nép, the Communist daily, came out for a day and then gave place to Népszabadság when the new Communist Party was launched. Népszava, the trade union daily, became the organ of the Social-Democratic Party again. The trade unions brought out Népakarat. The Smallholders’ Party resurrected their Kis Ujság after six years. The National Revolutionary Committee brought out Magyar Függetlenség. The Revolutionary Hungarian Army and Youth Organisation produced Igazság. The Revolutionary Council of Young Workers launched Magyar Ifjúság. The Petöfi Party launched Üj Magyarország. There were Magyar Világ, Valóság, and many more.

I went to see the editor of one of these papers in his office at what had formerly been the Szabad Nép and Esti Budapest building, and which now housed in its warren of offices, more rationally, several newspapers and committees. He turned out to be an old friend of mine, a Communist, whose journalistic skill was being taxed to its uttermost limits by the sudden but welcome blossoming of new writers, principally from among the youth. ‘Wait half a minute, will you?’ he asked, motioning me to a chair. It was an hour before he had finished, first correcting a mass of copy, then interviewing a stream of shy but enthusiastic youngsters. ‘They bring us poems, news items, articles, short stories about the revolution by the score,’ he said. ‘Some of them are good, some not so good. But we try to help them. New talent. We never suspected it, never.’ He asked me suddenly if I would be prepared to help with an English-language newspaper giving the revolutionaries’ point of view to the world. This was the first time I had been faced with a direct decision about helping the Hungarian people, but I did not hesitate. It never came to anything, however, for 24 hours later Soviet guns were pounding Budapest.

I was staying at the Duna Hotel, on the Danube bank a few minutes’ walk from the Parliament House. The hotel was practically taken over by journalists, who scrambled desperately each day for the few telephone lines available. To be reasonably sure of getting a call within twelve hours one had to go to the exchange on the fourth floor, where two harassed switchboard operators struggled with an evergrowing pile of slips demanding calls to all over Europe. One day a call to London I had booked for 3.30 in the afternoon came through about two the next morning, far too late for the edition. I managed to get through to Moscow and have a chat with Sam Russell, Daily Worker correspondent there, who was sent to Budapest after my return and resignation. Tass, he said, was sending very little from Budapest. On the whole I was not surprised.

The Duna was full of rumours about Soviet reinforcements and troop movements and the seizure of Hungarian aerodromes. About 600 tanks and 30,000 fresh troops were said to be advancing. The Russians were said to be building a broad-gauge railway into Hungary from the USSR. But most of us discounted these rumours. We just did not believe the Russians would attack. Neither did the Nagy Government, which on the Saturday, during a break in the negotiations with the Soviet officers about the withdrawal of Soviet troops, gave a Press conference in the Gobelin room at the Parliament House.

Two members of the new, enlarged cabinet answered questions for over an hour, progress being made painfully slow by the need to translate replies into English, French and German, one after the other. The replies were given by the Minister of State, Dr. Zoltán Tildy, who had been President of the Republic from 1946 to 1948, when he resigned after his son-in-law was accused of spying and arrested, and Géza Losonczy, a rehabilitated Communist. Nagy had promised to appear, but, understandably, found himself too busy.

Both Tildy and Losonczy were quite hopeful about the results of the talks with the Soviet officers. ‘There are encouraging signs that they will lead to a further easing of tension,’ said Losonczy. ‘The talks will be continued at ten tonight,’ said Tildy. ‘Meanwhile the Soviet side has made a promise that no more Soviet military trains will arrive at the Hungarian frontier.’ Had the Hungarian Government any information that the Polish Government supported its demand for the withdrawl of Soviet troops? ‘Yes,’ replied Losonczy, ‘we know that the point of view of the Polish Government is that all that is happening in Hungary is the internal affair of Hungary.’

In view of the suggestions that the Nagy Government was blind to the dangers of counter-revolution, it is worth recalling that Losonczy went out of his way at this Press conference to emphasise those dangers. ‘Counter-revolutionary forces are active,’ he said. ‘The Government declares that it does not desire to let any of the gains of the past period be lost: the agrarian reform, the nationalisation of factories, the social achievements. It desires also to maintain the consquences of the present revolution: national independence, equality between nations, the building of Socialism on a democratic and not a dictatorial basis. The Government is unanimous that it will not permit the restoration of capitalism.’ Losonczy said his Government wanted to continue its relations with the Soviet Union ‘on the basis of equality’. Then he added laconically: ‘Even in the countries of Socialism there are misunderstandings about the character of the Hungarian Government and the present situation in Hungary.’

Tildy was asked point-blank how strong, in his opinion, was the, danger of Soviet attack. He replied:

I believe it is humanly impossible that such a tragedy could take place. It would be tragic from the point of view of the Hungarian people, from the point of view of the Soviet people, from the point of view of the whole world. That is why I believe it will never take place.

Three hours later the Hungarian Government delegates to the negotiations were arrested by the Soviet authorities. Before dawn next morning we were awakened by the thunder of Soviet guns shelling the city from the Gellért Hill and from the other hills of Buda. The ‘humanly impossible’ had happened. The tragedy had moved inexorably to its climax. The statue of Stalin might have been toppled from its plinth with blow-lamps and hawsers and broken into ten thousand bronze fragments for souvenirs. But Stalinism, vengeful, cruel, remorseless, had returned to Budapest.

Last updated on: 15.1.2012