Peter Nadas: The Hungarian Revolution ... impotent, poignant, personal

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Nádas, a novelist, is the author, inter alia, of "A Book of Memories" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997).]

So, on that Tuesday afternoon, a single flow of humanity was moving down the avenues; they were coming on Váci Avenue, on Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Avenue, but on Marx Square many stopped in hesitation: Which way now? The piled-up streetcars stood motionless where they had gotten stuck in their tracks, with the lights burning in the empty compartments. There were about 80,000 people stranded around the edges of the square, on the banks of this vast intersection. They were singing, shouting demands, having visions, speechifying. A crowd, half a million strong, was already in front of the Parliament building. They demanded that the Russians go home, and clamored for Imre Nagy to make a speech.

Slowly it was getting dark. They kept coming from Buda on Margit Bridge, along Balassi Bálint Street, coming on Falk Miksa Street and pouring out to the square. They stopped coming on Alkotmány Street; here the crowd solidified into a motionless mass, but they were still coming from the other side of the square, from Nádor Street and all along the embankment. By this time, traffic in the city had come to a virtual standstill. They demanded in unison that the star be turned off on top of the Parliament cupola. The entire square adopted the demand: "Turn off the star!"

Returning from school, I too spent the afternoon on the street; I was now part of the crowd standing on the square. The Soviet star had been installed on the top of the cupola only a few weeks before; they had done a really good job. The square was echoing the thundering rhythm of this cheerful demand but, it seemed, there was no one around to hear it: The Parliament building with its turrets and traceries loomed darkly, somberly and silently in the background. Perhaps there was some light up in the cupola hall. Perhaps they did hear it up there and thought it better to yield to the people's will.

Yet they turned off the public lighting of the square instead. A roar of indignation rose from the crowd, and it was to be feared that people would fall upon the building to tear it apart with their bare hands. Fires were started immediately; they set newspapers and pamphlets ablaze and held them up high. Wildfire-like, the quickly dying lights spread in waves above the heads. The silence had a solemnity about it; the sheer beauty of the waves of fire enchanted everyone for a moment. It was probably at this point that I lost my sketching board and my T-square. Then, high above, the ruby light of the star went off; it was the downsized replica of the Kremlin's famous star in Moscow. The square was completely dark now. In the soft and warm evening, autumn had a certain pungent, foggy edge to it; one could sense the Danube's metallic smell. The silence of a crowd always has a massive weight. It took some time before the square would dare believe that its demand had been heard, and then amongst triumphant, thunderous cheers the public lighting was turned on again....

The History of Revolutions

The Hungarian Revolution takes a place of honor in the history of European revolutions, in the series of increasingly refined riots, insurrections and mass movements which marked the attempt of the Continent's oppressed peoples to break out of the isolation created by the Yalta agreement and to return to constitutionality and self-determination. Its significance cannot be denied, yet in the past 50 years it has remained unclear where exactly this significance lies.

It put an end to the escalating phase of the Cold War, reduced the risk of an atomic war and compelled the opposing powers to consider the idea of peaceful coexistence as an acceptable minimum. This pressure, however, was not brought by the victory of the republic or democracy, but by their defeat. The Hungarian Revolution remains a memento, a negative experience which continues to be part of the European subconscious.

And this should lead to an even more painful reckoning. The Hungarian Revolution was the last European revolution. A bloody end of the romantic and idealist history of the long age of revolutions, an end painful and embarrassing for everyone. The age is over, and this is why the Hungarian Revolution is dead no matter how many monuments the Hungarians raise to celebrate its memory. And it remains dead. It had survived the years of retributions but not the false illusion of peaceful coexistence. In this sense, it's not just a substantial caesura but also a substantial loss for the political thinking of Europe. In the absence of the tradition of revolutionary changes, we are left with the European tradition of conformity and opportunism, with court poetry and mannerism.

With some exaggeration, one could say that in October 1956 the peoples of Europe and North America, together with their legitimate governments, decided to put an end, once and for all, to the age of revolutionary change. And they were right to do so. To avoid another world war, the existing orders had to integrate, in some way or another, the social and political dissatisfaction of the age; this became the supreme commandment of the day. Expressing deep regrets, with bleeding heart and being fully conscious of their responsibility, they opted not to support the headless and 150-years-late Hungarian Revolution either by diplomatic means, or by sending volunteers or weapons.

I say this without any pathetic overtones or sadness: My life has passed in the context of this double bloodletting. Since those days, I have hated despotism. But I also find it difficult to turn my head silently at the sight of the weaknesses, cheap little farces, self-endangering prejudices and overall vulnerability of the republic and democracy.

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