Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Hungary. Hugo Dewar and Daniel Norman 1957

IV: The Youth

Who has the youth – has the future. – Karl Liebknecht

One of the most encouraging features of the Hungarian revolution was the part played in it by the youth. After nearly ten years of Stalinist indoctrination; with every means of propaganda and education in their hands, with every effort to suppress any views other than their own, every effort to seal the country off from the West – the Stalinists failed to win the youth.

In 1950 Rákosi declared:

The re-education of the old generation is extremely complicated and demands great efforts. It will take a long time and we shall have to give proof of great patience. In comparison with this mission, the education of the youth is a relatively easy task. The young generation puts less weight on old customs and traditions.

Gyula Háy, famed novelist and playwright, former Stalinist of long-standing (now, in prison with many of his fellow writers – all honour to them) whom we have quoted earlier, described the influence exerted on him by the Hungarian youth:

We writers have always thought of ourselves as the avant-guard in the struggle for freedom... I was supposed to be a guide for our youth, but in reality the youth became a guide for me. For years I had been lecturing to them. I gave interminable ideological answers to every question. I could feel that my young listeners found it all very shallow and boring. At first I thought: how strange and incomprehensible it is that we, the older generation, should work so selflessly to build the future of a happier Hungary for our young people, and that these young people should not care at all! Why were they so blind, so unfeeling, so cold? Gradually I began to wonder. Were they all, every last boy and girl in Hungary, hopeless reactionaries? Or could it be that we, the old men, were wrong, and that they were right?

So Gyula Háy began to try to look around him with the eyes of youth, and to answer the questions put to him, instead of fobbing the youngsters off with meaningless jargon masquerading as Marxism. And he kept asking himself questions, too:

Have we been building in this country a socialist society, marred only by some ugly distortions, or was this not a horrible regime for which I have no name and which was all distortions and no socialism? Even now, I long for the party which once had our love and loyalty. But its leadership has destroyed it. It is difficult to love a thing which does not exist. I would still support a new and pure Marxist movement. But I would not want to become a party member ever again... Was I courageous in speaking the truth, even under Rákosi? The pressure of the young on us all was so great that I can only say, in the words of one of our poets, ‘I was too much of a coward to remain dishonest!’

The confusion in the mind of Hay is here well evident. It is indeed difficult, if not impossible, for the older generation of Stalinists to rid its mind completely of all illusions. But Hay does make clear the enormous moral influence exerted by the youth of Hungary, whose minds were not cluttered up with all the moth-eaten, mouldering lumber of Stalinist ideology, and whose consciences were not burdened with guilt, and who could therefore look at the regime and condemn it pitilessly, without the qualms and regrets that the long-standing Stalinist feels. Condemning his party, he knows that he is also condemning himself and it is not easy to do that. But how much more agonising the mental conflict of those who joined the Communist movement in their youth, served it and sacrificed for it when it was no more than a persecuted sect; when not the party but its opponents seemed to represent all that was degenerate and corrupt; endured for its sake hardships, imprisonment and even torture – how much more painful for these to take the step that must seem to them like the denial of their youth. The youth of the Communist countries have not these mental reservations and torments. It is they who are now pressing forward; it is they who must inevitably, in the natural course of things, take the place of the present leaders, who cannot meet the requirements of the new situation. Khrushchev and company in the Soviet Union have demonstrated in Hungary that they are incapable of making the complete, fundamental break with the past that the youth is demanding, and will continue to demand with ever-increasing clarity and force.

Hungary has revealed how grossly overestimated, to put it mildly, is the power of the Stalinists to indoctrinate the youth. It is only in those countries where Stalinism does not monopolise education and all means of propaganda that the myth of the Soviet Union as the ‘workers’ fatherland’ still continues to attract some following among the youth. In the USSR and the satellites reality contradicts propaganda at every point. They have been proved wrong, those Jeremiahs who told us for years with an air of authority that Stalinism had taken such a firm hold on the minds of the Soviet and satellite youth that it was not to be shaken. We have seen, on the contrary, that it is precisely the youth that doubts most strongly and that is ready to throw itself with the greatest ardour into the struggle for freedom.

Pál Ignotus, the Hungarian writer who was a leading left-wing opponent of the Horthy regime in the 1930s, who had to leave the country in 1939, who returned in 1949, was arrested, tortured, sentenced to fifteen years’ hard labour as a ‘British spy’, and then released in March 1956, following the Russian period of ‘liberalisation’; and who again had to flee the country after the Russian invasion of 4 November, has very well expressed both the doubts about the Hungarian youth and the subsequent high admiration for it of the older generation. In a message printed in the pamphlet, Hungary, October 1956 (Committee on Science and Freedom, April 1957), he wrote:

There was, in particular, one factor in our national life that represented a dangerous unknown quantity, even for those of us who claimed to be its objective students. That was the youth, educated, indoctrinated and regimented under Communism, and taught to believe in Russian superiority, on the Stalinist pattern. We feared that these young people would never rise against our foreign oppressors. We feared even more that if they ever did rebel, they might follow the paths of their elders in clamouring for the return of a near-Hitlerite or at least a near-Horthy system.

These fears proved to be unfounded. Our youth fought the foreign invaders and their Quislings with admirable courage and determination. Russification and indoctrination only induced them to react all the more violently against everything connected with Stalin’s rule. Nevertheless, far from showing any sympathy for those Fascist or retrograde tendencies which had been inspired by the wish to counteract Bolshevism, they emerged from the years of Bolshevik rule completely free from conventional ‘anti-Bolshevik’ prejudice...

In a broadcast on 4 November, János Kádár admitted that the regime had failed to win the loyalty of the youth. He said then that ‘the reactionary elements have misled honest workers, and in particular the major part of the youth’. In particular, the major part of the youth! Kádár himself confirms the evidence of all eye-witnesses about the part played in the revolution by the youth. And he thereby also makes a damning confession of the bankruptcy of the Stalinist regime, which for close on ten years made every conceivable effort to mould the minds of the youth. In vain!

Fortunately for humanity, youth tends to be idealistic, to dream of noble deeds, to seek heroes to follow and emulate. It may for a time be deceived by false gods, but it learns to sift the spurious from the false, the hypocrite from the sincere man, more quickly than its elders. And having once recognised deception it does not forgive those who deceived it; it has no mercy for fallen idols.

One of the most hopeful and heartening aspects of the Hungarian revolution was the youthfulness of so many of the freedom fighters. In a report from the scene by Victor Zorza of the Manchester Guardian, is the following passage:

The girl, the only one in a crowd of rebels, took up the tale. ‘Today is my seventeenth birthday’, she said, a little bashfully, with just a hint of pride in her voice. Seventeen, and she was one of the rebels who were defying the massive might of the Soviet Army... She was seventeen, but the Budapest youth who had attacked Russian tanks with bare hands were younger. Many were dead.

Many were dead. Words fail in the face of such courage and self-sacrifice; they were so young.

It was the youth of Hungary that first rose to the height of the occasion and pointed the way forward. It was the students who took the first organised step (recall the students of Russia under the Tsar, and do not forget the students of the Soviet Union today), breaking with the Communist youth organisation and setting up their own Association of Hungarian University and College Students in Szeged University. Their call to action was answered by the students of the Building Industry Technological University in Budapest. These demands included the withdrawal of all Soviet troops in accordance with the provisions of the Peace Treaty; the election of new leaders by secret ballot at all levels of the Communist Party; the reconstitution of the government under Imre Nagy; a general election with the participation of several parties; the right to strike; the revision of norms in industry and a radical adjustment of wages to meet the demands of workers and intellectuals; a minimum living wage for workers in industry, freedom of speech, opinion and expression; the removal of the Stalin statue.

Gomułka’s victory against the Stalinists in Poland on 19 July further inspired the students, and they seized upon the occasion to organise a demonstration of sympathy and to press forward their demands. This demonstration was announced for 23 October, near the statue of General Bem, a Polish exile who had fought on the Hungarian side in the revolutionary war for independence in 1848-49 against the Austrian and Russian troops. On the morning of 23 October 1956, however, a government pronouncement was made over the radio banning the demonstration. This merely served to advertise it more widely and make the idea so popular that by midday the order had to be rescinded.

The ‘procession’, as the government preferred to call it, would be allowed.

A young participant in the revolution, George Fischer, described the demonstration (in a pamphlet, Hungary, October 1956):

It was an unforgettable experience when we advanced towards the Bem statue, with the disciplined ranks of the students at the head. We sang old songs of the 1848 revolution, and at about three o’clock we reached the scene of the demonstration. A crowd of about 150 000 assembled and demonstrated with great enthusiasms, but with discipline, their sympathy with the happenings in Poland, and with the demands of the university students.

Later in the afternoon, the ranks of the demonstrators were joined by large numbers of workers coming from the factories.

The general mood was one of hopeful suspense. All awaited the radio speech of the party’s first secretary Gerõ, just back from a visit to Yugoslavia. The general belief was that, after the example of Poland and the unmistakable expression of the popular feeling, at least some measure of reform would be announced. All the more bitter was the reaction to Gerõ’s speech, in which he made he made it plain that the government had no intention of yielding to popular pressure, and in which he went out of his way to launch an attack on the demonstrators, particularly the students. This brutal dashing of their hopes created not mere disappointment, but a mood of intense hatred. The people of Budapest were now determined to show the government the strength of their will.

The demonstrators now made for the radio station and requested that the students’ demands be broadcast to the nation. It was then that the loathed ÁVH fired upon the crowd, which retaliated with a hail of stones and bricks from a nearby building site. Within minutes the news of the battle spread throughout Budapest. Troops called to the scene refused to take action against the people, handed over their arms. The workers of Csepel Island, of Újpest and other industrial and working-class districts of Budapest, learning of the situation by telephone, seized trucks and drove into Budapest, obtaining arms on the way from soldiers or police, or from military barracks and arms factories.

Thus it was the students who first rallied the people. These students who, as the Stalinists have continually informed the world, came for the most part from the ranks of the workers and peasants. And during the days of fighting that followed not only the students, but even youngsters of school age joined the freedom fighters.

The youth of Hungary gave their answer to the regime and nothing that the Russians or their apologists can say will avail in any way to obscure that historic truth. They gave their answer in the voice of revolution: You have lied to us, cheated us, ruined and dishonoured us – away with you!