Peter Fryer

Hungarian Tragedy

9. The second Soviet intervention

Vienna, November 11

I have just come out of Budapest, where for six days I have watched Hungary’s new-born freedom tragically destroyed by Soviet troops.

There was general agreement among us at the Duna that the wisest thing was to take shelter in the British Legation, five minutes’ walk away. There was a Soviet ultimatum threatening to bomb Budapest, and the Legation cellar offered protection against anything but a direct hit. Basil Davidson lay in bed reading Tacitus and refusing to get up; but eventually he accepted the majority decision. Crossing Vörösmarty tér while tank-fire rattled and jets screamed overhead I recalled with a pang of nostalgic regret the last time – only in August, but it seemed an epoch ago – I had drunk coffee at the famous pavement café, now closed and deserted.

Vast areas of the city – the working-class areas above all – are virtually in ruins. For four days and nights Budapest was under continuous bombardment. I saw a once lovely city battered, bludgeoned, smashed and bled into submission. To an one who loves equally the Socialist Soviet Union and the Hungarian people it was heart-breaking.

Each day the tanks patrolled the city, shelling the buildings at point-blank range. Each night they withdrew, but the heavy artillery kept up its thunder. Inside the Legation tempers frayed. The Minister, Mr. Fry, delivered a tirade against the Daily Worker and its luckless correspondent. Ivor Jones of the BBC and Davidson soothed us both – by Tuesday we could leave the Legation during the day and reconnoitre. Five minutes’ walk eastwards the havoc began.

The people of Budapest are hungry today. Many are almost starving. By eight each morning hundreds of thousands are standing in long silent queues all over the city waiting for bread. Shops and restaurants are still closed, and the workers refuse to end their general strike, despite frantic appeals by the new ‘Workers’ and Peasants’ Government.

Back at the Duna I found my room strewn with broken glass. A corpse lay on the opposite pavement. Breakfast was one slice of bread and one cup of tea. Other meals were scanty, too. The citizens of Budapest must have had less. No one believed the tale that Kádár’s Government, miles away at Szolnok for the first few days, had invited this holocaust.

Corpses still lie in the streets – streets that are ploughed up by tanks and strewn with the detritus of a bloody-war: rubble, glass and bricks, spent cartidges and shell-cases. Despite their formidable losses in the first phase of the Hungarian revolution, Budapest’s citizens put up a desperate, gallant, but doomed resistance to the Soviet onslaught. Budapest’s workers, soldiers, students, and even schoolboys, swore to resist to the very end. And every foreign Journalist in Budapest was amazed that the resistance lasted so long.

Each day we told each other: ‘Tomorrow will have finished it’. But the battle of tanks versus men was not so easily won.

In public buildings and private homes, in hotels and ruined shops, the people fought the invaders street by street, step by step, inch by inch. The blazing energy of those eleven days of liberty burned itself out in one last glorious flame. Hungry, sleepless, hopeless, the Freedom Fighters battled with pitifully feeble equipment against a crushingly superior weight of Soviet arms. From windows and from the open streets, they fought with rifles, home-made grenades and Molotov cocktails against T54 tanks. The people ripped up the streets to build barricades, and at night they fought by the light of fires that swept unchecked through block after block.

In the hospitals crammed with wounded, operations were performed without anaesthetics while shells screamed and machine guns sputtered. I was heart-sick to see the army of a Socialist State make war on a proud and indomitable people.

On the Sunday and the Monday, while the din of the artillery bombardment and the ceaseless tank-fire mingled with the groans of the wounded, the battle spared neither civilians nor those bringing aid to the wounded. Bread queues were fired on by Soviet tanks, and as late as Thursday I myself saw a man of about seventy lying dead outside a bread shop, the loaf he had just bought still in his hand. Someone had half-covered the body with the red, white and green flag. Soviet troops looted the Astoria Hotel as far as the first storey, even taking the clothes from the porters’ rest room; they ransacked the Egyptian Embassy; they shot dead a Yugoslav diplomat looking out of the window of his Embassy. On the other hand, five Hungarian bullets broke five windows at the British Legation. These are things that happen in the heat of battle and it should be said that the Soviet troops are now making efforts to fraternise with the people. Some of the rank-and-file Soviet troops have been telling people in the last two days that they had no idea they had come to Hungary. They thought at first they were in Berlin, fighting German fascists.

Nothing will make me forget Stalingrad, and the debt the whole world owes to the Soviet Army, whose officers and men were given a filthy job to do in Budapest, a job that many of them obviously hated. By and large, they did it without excesses. I for one believe that the firing on bread queues might well be explained by the fact that many Freedom Fighters fought in civilian clothes, and that in the heat of battle a queue might look menacing from a moving tank. I recorded all the authenticated instances of Soviet excesses, since it was well to know how small they were compared with the fantastic and completely false story, later denied by the three main news agencies, of the shooting-up of a children’s clinic.

In building after building there are gaping shell holes like eye sockets. In most of the main shopping streets every single window was blown out. Some of the loveliest buildings in the city have had their facades cruelly spoiled.

In 1945 they came as liberators. They wanted Budapest declared an open city, and they sent officers in a car, prominently white-flagged, to propose this to the Nazis. The Nazis waited till the car came within range, then shot its occupants. The Russians took Gellért Hill inch by inch. And now they come back, thrust against their will into the role of vandals and oppressors and destroyers of liberty.

As late as Thursday I visited the headquarters of a guerilla detachment in the VIIth district. While Soviet tanks were only round the corner, 20-year-olds in fur hats stood outside an hotel, strumming the butts of their tommy-guns as if they were real guitars. As tanks approached they would slip inside and inside was a well-stocked armoury, in the hands of workers and students ready to slip out of the back door and carry on the fight as soon as the hotel was attacked.

The audacity of these boys summed up the whole spirit of the resistance. Anthony Terry of the Sunday Times, his wife and I had crossed the ‘lines’ (in fact, of course, there were no real lines – just pockets of resistance) without realising it, into an area, five minutes away from the National Theatre, where brisk fighting was still going on. I felt not in the least brave, but Terry insisted on forging ahead, heedless of prowling tanks and stray bullets. He ventured into the Lenin körút a centre of heavy battles, amid the bricks and the stinking corpses, with me creeping after him, trying to look small and not worth shooting. A Freedom Fighter in a steel helmet, hidden in a doorway near one of the ninety-five damaged cinemas, told us to get to hell out of it. ‘Fine,’ said Terry, ‘I just wanted to make sure they had bazookas. That bloke had.’ In my fear I had not even noticed. A few minutes later we came across this hotel, and were invited inside to meet the commander, an army officer of twenty-six. He recognised that resistance was hopeless. But resist they would until the very end: as individuals, if necessary. He claimed to be in control of the whole Dohány utca – literally, Tobacco Street – area. We rather doubted this, but he sent a worker in a khaki padded jacket to see us off his ‘territory’.

By Saturday, November 10, it was clear that the fighting was as good as over, though the resistance continued in the form of an obstinate general strike. The people of Budapest were out again on their streets, weeping at the devastation they saw, staring sullenly at the Soviet patrols as they rumbled by with that curious insect-gait of tanks. The journalists decided it was time to go, for no telephone lines out of the capital were yet open, and a week-old story was clamouring to be told. How we agitated and waited for our exit permits is no part of the Hungarian tragedy; it is a comedy that is better told elsewhere, as is my fight with a certain Red-hating American journalist to keep the seat I had been allotted in one of the American cars. About 2 p.m. on November 11 we set out, and passed through nine check-points till, at last, we crossed the frontier. Then Vienna, where I telephoned to the Daily Worker the dispatch italicised above. My wife came through half an hour later. ‘Are you all right?’ she asked. ‘I’m all right,’ I said, ‘but what about my story?’ ‘The editor won’t even let the staff see it,’ she said. It was there and then that I knew I must resign.

Last updated on: 15.1.2012