Peter Fryer

Hungarian Tragedy

4. How the revolution began

I was not, of course, an eyewitness of the start of the revolution in Budapest on October 23. I have pieced together the account which follows from those who were, both Hungarians and a British Communist, Charles Coutts, English editor of World Youth, who had lived in Budapest for three years.

It began with a students’ demonstration, partly to show the students’ sympathy for the people of Poland, who that weekend, through Gomulka and the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party, had resolutely rebuffed an attempt by an unprecedented delegation of Soviet leaders to get tough with them. This sturdy assertion of independence captured the imagination of the Hungarians, and the student orators who addressed the demonstration from the statue of Josef Bem, a Polish general who helped lead the Hungarians in 1849, recalled the words of Petöfi:

Our battalions have combined two nations,
And what nations! Polish and Magyar!
Is there any destiny that is stronger
Than these two when they are united?

The students had started marching and meeting in different places during the afternoon. Their demonstration was at first prohibited by the Ministry of the Interior, but the ban was lifted after the Central Committee of the Party intervened. Nagy himself addressed a great gathering of the students outside the Parliament building, but his words were guarded, and obviously had to be.

At 7.30 that night I was on the telephone to Szabad Nép, giving them a review of British Press comments on the events in Poland and – ironically enough – a short piece about the arrest of twelve British seamen in the aircraft carrier Ocean, following unlawful meetings. I also dictated an article asked for by the magazine Szovjet Kultúra about the Bolshoi Ballet in London. When I had finished, the interpreter, Dobzsa – he used to take my articles down in shorthand, translating them into Hungarian as he did so at about 120 words a minute – said: ‘Don’t ring off. Comrade Bebrits wants to speak to you.’ Anna Bebrits, the quiet, efficient deputy foreign editor, sounded unusually excited.

’There are big student demonstrations,’ she said. ‘Does the Daily Worker want anything from us?’

’I expect we shall be getting a piece from Coutts,’ I said. ‘But I’ll find out and let you know. Is there any trouble?’

’No,’ she said. ‘A few nationalist slogans, but everything is good-humoured.’

That was the last conversation I ever had with Szabad Nép. Two and a half hours later telephone communication between Budapest and the outside world had been cut off. What had happened in the intervening time?

Two things had happened.

First Gerö had gone on the wireless to make an address which, I was told, ‘poured oil on the flames’. He had called the demonstrators ;’now joined by workers from the factories, to which the students had sent delegations) counter-revolutionaries – ‘hostile elements’ endeavouring to disturb ‘the present political order in Hungary’. In other words he had made it clear to the most obtuse among his hearers that nothing was going to change. Not even the resignation of Martin Horváth, editor-in-chief of Szabad Nép, and of Berei, the chief planning officer, from the Party’s Central Committee, could undo the disastrous effect of this speech.

Secondly, the crowds which had gathered outside the radio station to ask that the students’ demands be broadcast were fired on by AVH men, 300 of whom were in the building. This was, without question, the spark that turned peaceful demonstrations (’the quiet and orderly behaviour of the marchers was impressive’, Coutts had telephoned the Daily Worker) into a revolution.

What had the students been demanding before the shooting at the radio station? First and foremost the replacement of Hegedüs as Prime Minister by Imre Nagy. The election of a new Party leadership by a national congress. Friendship with the Soviet Union, but on the basis of equality. Withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. Free elections. Freedom of the Press. Academic freedom. The use of Hungary’s uranium stocks by Hungary herself.

After the AVH men shot into the crowds the pent-up feeling burst forth. News of the shooting swept through the city like wildfire and soon the people were armed and engaged in running street battles against the AVH. Their demands now crystallised into two points: the abolition of the AVH and the withdrawal of Soviet troops.

Where did the arms come from that found their way so speedily into the hands of the workers and students of Budapest? According to Kádár (Daily Worker, November 20) there were ‘hidden arms’ on the Szabadsághegy (Liberty Hill), and the young people had been told at midday, before the demonstration, to go to a ‘certain place’ where they would find them. This version of the arming of the people side-steps the whole question of the attitude of the Hungarian People’s Army. The troops in Budapest, as later in the provinces, were of two minds: there were those who were neutral and there were those who were prepared to join the people and fight alongside them. The neutral ones (probably the minority) were prepared to hand over their arms to the workers and students so that they could do battle against the AVH with them. The others brought their arms with them when they joined the revolution. Furthermore, many sporting rifles were taken by the workers from the factory armouries of the Hungarian Voluntary Defence Organisation. The ‘mystery’ of how the people were armed is no mystery at all. No one has yet been able to produce a single weapon manufactured in the West.

The Hungarian Stalinists, having made two calamitous mistakes, now made a third – or rather, it would be charitable to say, had it thrust on them by the Soviet Union. This was the decision to invoke a nonexistent clause of the Warsaw Treaty and call in Soviet troops. This first Soviet intervention gave the people’s movement exactly the impetus needed to make it united, violent and nation-wide. It seems probable, on the evidence, that Soviet troops were already in action three or four hours before the appeal, made in the name of Imre Nagy as his first act on becoming Prime Minister. That is debatable, but what is not debatable is that the appeal was in reality made by Gerö and Hegedüs; the evidence of this was later found and made public. Nagy became Prime Minister precisely twenty-four hours too late, and those who threw mud at him for making concessions to the Right in the ten days he held office should consider the appalling mess that was put into his hands by the Stalinists when, in desperation, they officially quit the stage.

With Nagy in office it would still have been possible to avert the ultimate tragedy if the people’s two demands had been met immediately – if the Soviet troops had withdrawn without delay, and if the security police had been disbanded. But Nagy was not a free agent during the first few days of his premiership. It was known in Budapest that his first broadcasts were made – metaphorically, if not literally – with a tommy-gun in his back. There were forces which still hoped to give the people a thrashing and so bring the Rákosi-Gerö group back to power, and these forces engineered the provocation in front of the Parliament building on Thursday, October 25.

According to Charles Coutts, whom I met a week later, and who still had the details of the whole turmoil very fresh in his mind, a big and completely unarmed demonstration had started from Rákoczy út, carrying the national flag and black flags in honour of the dead. On their way to Parliament Square they met a Soviet tank. The tank stopped, a soldier put his head out, and the people in the front of the crowd began to explain they were unarmed and were engaged in a peaceful demonstration. The soldier told them to jump on the tank; a number of them did so, and the tank set off in the demonstration – ‘and I have a photograph of this’, said Coutts.

Entering Parliament Square they met another Soviet tank which had been sent to fire on them, and this tank, too, turned and joined the demonstration. In the square were three more Soviet tanks and two armoured cars. The crowd went right up to them and began to talk to the soldiers. The Soviet commandant was saying: ‘I have a wife and children waiting for me in the Soviet Union. I don’t want to stay in Hungary at all’, when suddenly from the roof-tops there were three salvoes of gun-fire. Some of the people ran to the sides of the square for shelter. Others were told by the Russians to shelter behind the tanks. Some thirty people were left lying on the square either dead or wounded, including a Soviet officer. Tanks and cars opened fire on the roof-tops.

‘It is not clear to me who it was that began the shooting, ‗ Coutts added. ‘It is more than likely they were security police.’ More than likely. And the provocation served its purpose: to prevent fraternisation, and to start the story that Soviet troops had opened fire on unarmed demonstrators. If the Soviet withdrawal had begun on October 24 instead of one week later, better still if the Soviet Army had never entered the fight, and if the AVH had been disarmed and disbanded on October 24, much bitterness and suffering could have been prevented.

My second dispatch from Budapest, telephoned on November 2, dealt with the causes of the revolution and with how it broke out in Budapest. The dispatch consisted entirely of an interview with Charlie Coutts. Except for a short ‘intro’ of my own, everything in it was taken down as Coutts told it, while we sat together at breakfast that Friday morning in the Duna Hotel. I limited this dispatch to what Coutts told me for two very good reasons. First, calls were severely restricted, and my piece had to be kept reasonably short – not more than a typist could take down in twenty minutes. Secondly, and more important, it provided an independent assessment of the causes of the revolt by a man whose judgement the paper was bound to respect, even if it no longer respected mine. After all, he had been in Budapest three years – long enough to find out a fair amount.

When the dispatch was received there was a half-hearted attempt to dismiss Coutts as ‘politically naive.’ George Matthews, assistant general secretary of the Communist Party, who was standing in at the Daily Worker in place of the editor, J.R. Campbell, at that time in Moscow, blue-pencilled the dispatch to ribbons. I gather there was a certain amount of feeling about this among the staff. After all, Fryer might have got drunk, or had a nervous breakdown, or temporarily lost his political bearings and balance. But here was old Charlie Coutts, whom everyone knew as a reliable, level-headed man, backing him up.

As a result of this pressure, it seems, some of the cuts were restored in time for the first edition. Others were restored in between the first and second editions, but many important things – essential, I would have thought, if the readers were to understand the Hungarian turmoil properly -were still omitted altogether. The Daily Worker has made the amazing claim that this dispatch was given merely ‘normal editing and “subbing”.’ In view of the fact that a total of 455 of Coutts’s words were omitted altogether (I am not counting my introduction) and several others were subtly changed (’uprising’ for ‘revolution’, ‘Mr. Coutts asserted’ and ‘Mr. Coutts believed’ for ‘Mr. Coutts said’) the editing of such an important interview seems to me to be completely abnormal. The whole effect of the deletions was to water down the piece and to conceal really vital facts from the reader.

For instance, Coutts quoted a Hungarian Communist Party member who said to him during the fighting: ‘The feeling here is like that May Day in 1947, when we danced in the streets.’ This was omitted. So was a passage about the ‘revolt of the intellectuals’. So was a statement that ‘the Communist Party had ceased to be a Communist Party – it had become an organ of the State and nothing else’, backed up by what honest Communists had told him: ‘Ours is not a Communist Party. You can’t change anything.’

Particularly significant was the cutting out of Coutts’ statement that the security police was deliberately created by a dominant clique inside the Party, the people who had returned from the USSR: Rákosi, Farkas, and Gerö, and that this dominant clique, ‘incapable of independent thought, relied on the thinking of the Soviet Communist Party, right or wrong. They felt that if the Soviet Party made a turn, then they had to make a turn.’

The Daily Worker also deleted Coutts’ considered opinion that there was no reason for calling in Soviet troops on October 24, other than the concern of Gerö and the other leaders to save their skins and their positions. ‘They were not called in to restore order nor to defend Socialism,’ he told me. His description of how forty AVH men trapped in the Budapest Party headquarters were captured and hanged and of how thirteen and fourteen-year-olds were fighting with machine-guns and tommy-guns was also left out. Coutts told me how Freedom Fighters said to him: ‘It is better to die than to live as they have made us live.’ The Daily Worker thought that this, too, had better be withheld from its customers. Finally Coutts’ forecast of the emergence, for the first time in eight years, of ‘a real Communist Party in Hungary, not a Party run by professional politicians and bureaucrats but led by those Communists who have remained true to principle and have suffered for it’ – this, too, fell victim to ‘normal editing’.

Readers can judge for themselves how far this was in fact ‘normal editing and “subbing”’, and how far it was the result of a deliberate decision by Party leaders afraid to let the whole distressing, shocking and for them – dangerous truth be known.

Last updated on: 15.1.2012