Peter Fryer

Hungarian Tragedy

5. Györ

My German Red Cross companions decided that the need for medical aid at Magyaróvár was so urgent that they would return the same evening to the Austrian border to spread the news. By sheer luck I found a Hungarian willing to drive me to Györ, 20 miles farther on, which would break the back of the journey to Budapest. His car was an ancient and ramshackle Ford, tied together with bits of wire. But at least it was a car, and before we left Magyaróvár we made ready for the journey with a tot each of some ferocious spirit, home-brewed in his illegal still. After the day at Magyaróvár I badly needed a drink; wisely, the Nagy Government had banned the sale of anything intoxicating, even beer. The road to Györ was very dark and very bumpy, but there was neither sight nor sound of fighting. Every single Hungarian Army unit in the Györ-Sopron county had gone over to the revolution and the Soviet Army was sitting tight and doing nothing. I was later to learn how the neutralisation of the Soviet troops had been accomplished.

I reached Györ about 9.30 p.m., booked in at the Vörös Csillag (Red Star) hotel, and shouldered my way through the crowds of people still standing about and holding discussions in the square outside the Town Hall, the seat of the Györ national committee. The word ‘national’ was not intended to imply that this body arrogated to itself any authority outside its own region; such committees called themselves indifferently ‘national’ or ‘revolutionary’. In their spontaneous origin, in their composition, in their sense of responsibility, in their efficient organisation of food supplies and of civil order, in the restraint they exercised over the wilder elements among the youth, in the wisdom with which so many of them handled the problem of Soviet troops, and, not least, in their striking resemblance at so many points to the soviets or councils of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ deputies which sprang up in Russia in the 1905 revolution and again in February 1917, these committees, a network of which now extended over the whole of Hungary, were remarkably uniform. They were at once organs of insurrection – the coming together of delegates elected by factories and universities, mine and Army units – and organs of popular self-government, which the armed people trusted. As such they enjoyed tremendous authority, and it is no exaggeration to say that until the Soviet attack of November 4 the real power in the country lay in their hands.

Of course, as in every real revolution ‘from below’, there was ‘too much’ talking, arguing, bickering, coming and going, froth, excitement, agitation, ferment. That is one side of the picture. The other side is the emergence to leading positions of ordinary men, women and youths whom the AVH dominion had kept submerged. The revolution thrust them forward, aroused their civic pride and latent genius for organisation, set them to work to build democracy out of the ruins of bureaucracy. ‘You can see people developing from day to day,’ I was told.

Both sides of the picture could be studied in the Györ Town Hall. There were deputations arriving here, delegations departing there. There was noise and bustle and, outside on the balcony during most of next day, constant speech-making. At first glance one might have seen only flags, armbands, rifles slung over shoulders, a jostling throng of people in room after room; or heard only uproar and argument and jangling telephone bells. But each room had its point of rest: one or two calm, patient figures engaged in turning near-chaos into something like order, sorting things out, soothing the hasty tempers of men who badly needed sleep, organising, advising, building an apparatus to prevent, above all, hunger and demoralisation. These were the leaders – some of them Communists who had at last found the revolution of their dreams, some of them Socialists, many of them indifferent to political distinctions, since all Hungary was now united around two simple demands that even the children of six were shouting. Here was a revolution, to be studied not in the pages of Marx, Engels and Lenin, valuable though these pages may be, but happening here in real life before the eyes of the world. A flesh and blood revolution with all its shortcomings and contradictions and problems – the problems of life itself. As they took me to see the president and vice-president of this committee not yet forty-eight hours old I caught sight of a portrait of Lenin on the wall, and I could almost fancy his shrewd eyes twinkling approvingly.

The president, György Szabó, a metal-worker, was a tall figure in a shiny blue suit, the inevitable red, white and green ribbon in the buttonhole. But the real personality of the committee was its vice-president, Attila Szigeti, an M.P. for the National Peasant Party (a party that had long been a dormant ally of the Communists: a few days later it renamed itself the Petöfi Party.) Szigeti looked for all the world like an English academic, with his stoop, his untidy hair, his Sherlock Holmes pipe, his bulging briefcase tucked under his arm and his swift, quizzical, appraising glance. His and Szabó’s main efforts that Saturday and Sunday were devoted to calming the hotheads among the youth. From all over the county delegates had been coming to demand trucks for a grandiose ‘march on Budapest’, where fighting between Hungarians and Russians was reported to be still going on. This would clearly have been folly. The national committee, in touch with the Nagy Government by railway telephone, had information that a Soviet withdrawal from the capital was only a matter of two or three days. For young people with rifles and tommy-guns to converge on Budapest would prejudice Nagy’s delicate negotiations. I watched Szabó and Szigeti arguing with each fresh delegation, convincing them that their exuberance could only prejudice the success of the revolution, and that such trucks as were available must be used to carry food to the people of Budapest.

No one who was there would pretend that this line of the national committee was universally popular in Györ. The Catholics were conducting a lively agitation outside the Town Hall on the Sunday afternoon. They mustered around 3,000 people (the population of Györ is 66,000) to hear a priest say, ‘I speak to you not as a priest, but as a Hungarian’, and demand the removal of the ‘compromisers’ on the national committee. It was in Györ that I met my first real counter-revolutionary, a young man behind the reception desk at the Vörös Csillag hotel who crossed off the name Vörös Csillag from my bill and wrote ‘Royal’ in big, bold letters; who kept declaiming in ringing tones: ‘This is the proudest moment of our history’; and who said of Szigeti and Szabó: ‘They are trying to pacify us instead of mobilise us’. But the majority of Györ citizens seemed to be solidly behind the committee they had elected from their factories. Huge numbers, for instance, had responded to its call for help in the loading of food for Budapest, and I was most impressed by the efficiency of this organisation when I visited the central depot where provisions were assembled and loaded.

By 11 p.m. on the Saturday night over a dozen journalists of different nationalities had arrived in Györ, and Szigeti agreed to give a press conference. He made no bones about his committee’s broad support for the Nagy government, ‘but there are things which the Nagy government has not yet said’. The basis of the committee was a people’s front. They wanted complete independence and the withdrawal of Soviet troops. It was true that Nagy was a Communist, ‘but he is a clean man and an honest man’. The next step was to persuade people to start work again.

‘Gee, that’s all Commy double-talk,’ muttered an irate American correspondent behind me. ‘This guy’s just a stooge.’ Obviously the US Press wanted something in the nature of a permanent revolution.

Szigeti told us how the AVH had been overcome in Györ. The ordinary police and the soldiers went over to the side of the workers, and a concerted assault was made on the prison, from which the political prisoners – some of them had been tortured off and on for years in an attempt to extract from them confessions of spying – were liberated. So were a few petty thieves. Three insurgents and three AVH men were killed, one AVH man committed suicide and three others were taken prisoner. ‘They will be put on trial for their crimes,’ said Szigeti.

It was in Györ, too, that I met a group of Communists for the first time and was able to have a long talk with them. They were members of a theatrical and puppet theatre company and, hearing that I was in town, they sought me out, took me to their club and gave me a meal. They were first class comrades, open and forthright about what had happened in the past few days and the past eleven years. One of them, who had left the Party in 1948, when things began to go wrong, was revelling in the new freedom of discussion. It was from them I heard how the Soviet troops at Györ had been neutralised. On the Wednesday Soviet tanks and armoured cars had patrolled the town. Youths had catcalled and thrown apples, and one soldier had levelled his gun as if to fire, but his colleague had knocked his arm down. Then the Russians disappeared to their camp a few kilometres away. By Friday there was news of foraging parties at nearby farms, and the national committee decided to send a delegation to the Soviet commander with the following proposal: that if the Russians would promise to stay away from the town and not fire on people the national committee would supply them with food. That promise, said my Communist friend who had been on the delegation, had been kept.

The Communist Party district organisation had fallen to pieces, but that Sunday, as I changed pound notes for forints at the Ibusz office opposite the hotell, the clerk obligingly translated for me a proclamation by the entirely new district committee – ‘all Nagy men’ – printed prominently in the local paper that morning. (The slogan by the title-piece was no longer ‘Proletarians of all countries unite!’ but ‘For an independent, democratic Hungary!’) The local Party statement declared complete support for the two main demands: abolition of the AVH and the withdrawal of Soviet troops.

The clerk looked up in surprise as I signed my name on the form he passed me. ‘I have seen that name many times before,’ he said, ‘in Szabad Nép.’ He paused for a moment. ‘What do you as an English Communist think of our revolution?’ I told him my first impressions. ‘And will you write the truth?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I will.’

Last updated on: 15.1.2012