by Eszter Hargittai on October 23, 2006

Our revolution was not a movie Fifty years ago today events occured in Budapest that quickly led to the death of many and the emigration of about 200,000 Hungarians to various corners of the world. (Considering a country of 10 million, that’s a significant number.)

Having grown up in a system that didn’t recognize this day as worthy of mention (given that its whole point was to topple the Soviet-influenced regime) I have never had much of a connection to it. And having left Hungary soon after the political changes of the early 90s after which the date became officially important and a holiday, I have never developed much of a bond with it. In fact, I’m more likely to recognize November 7th as a special date (the one Hungarians and others in the region used to celebrate) than October 23rd. All that is a testament to how strongly social context can influence one’s perception of important historical events and dates.

The image above is from the Times Square area in New York City. I was walking down Broadway on Saturday and noticed the red-white-and-green lines. I figured it was a mistaken use of the Italian flag. When portrayed horizontally, the Italian flag has to be green-white-and-red in order not to be confused with the Hungarian flag. But people unfamiliar with the Hungarian flag (which would be most of the world) don’t know this and so I sometimes see the Italian flag portrayed that way. However, as I neared 50th St. I realized that this was meant to be a Hungarian flag. The Hungarian Cultural Center put up two huge billboards on the corner of Broadway and 50th to commemorate the occasion and to invite folks to “REimagine freedom“.

And yes, there has been unrest in Budapest during the past few weeks including some events today. Some people are trying to draw parallels to the events of 1956, but that seems ludicrous. Just because some people – mostly on the far right so you are not going to see sympathies from me – who are especially good at inciting a few hundred folks do not like the current regime doesn’t mean the president prime minister [d’oh, of course] needs to be ousted. (I commented on all this a few weeks ago.)



Dan 10.23.06 at 5:20 pm

Thought I’d jump in here on today’s riots, since I’m currently in Budapest.

I spent a good chunk of today walking around Budapest, watching people get tear-gassed and the like. Most of the protests are just a combination of ambitious politicians, fascists and angry young men, and I personally don’t have much sympathy.

On the parallels to 1956: My impression (albeit as a non-Hungarian-speaking outsider) is that the comparisons to 1956 are mostly rhetorical. On the other hand there is a feeling on the right that the government are tainted through links to the communist past (I don’t know how real those links are), and that this makes it inappropriate for them to be celebrating an anti-communist uprising. Hence the veterans who refused to shake the Prime Minister’s hand.

And a minor correction: it’s the prime minister who’s the target of most of the protests, not the president.


Dan 10.23.06 at 5:30 pm

Also, those of you who prefer your Central European politics in Flash format should try this. The characters are the two rivals of Hungarian politics, Ferenc Gyurcsány (the prime minister), and Viktor Orbán (one of the founders of the Fidesz party, which is behind many of the current protests). Ferenc Gyurcsany is the one in the glasses.

And no, I don’t understand the end of it either.


Tobias 10.23.06 at 5:52 pm

Eszter, in case you haven’t seen it, I thought you’d appreciate this story from the New York Times a couple of weeks back. It reports on the man pictured on the billboard and when, while walking past Times Square with his wife, he realized that he was the man in the picture.


Bryan 10.23.06 at 6:16 pm

I don’t understand the slogan “Our revolution was not a movie.” What revolution was a movie? Did some people somehow mistake the 1956 Hungarian revolution for a movie? Is there some sort of political point I’m totally missing?


Eszter 10.23.06 at 7:04 pm

Tobias, that’s great, I hadn’t seen it. Here’s a blog-friendly link to the piece.


Dr. Minorka 10.23.06 at 7:34 pm

“Most of the protests are just a combination of ambitious politicians, fascists and angry young men, ”
Fascists? Lunatic nationalists mostly, and many, many angry citizens.
Victor Orban is definitely not behind the unrest, but he is cleverly making use of it.
The cause of the unrest is Mr. Gyurcsany. His politics and his personality. He deliberately drove the country into financial crisis just to win the election. And he is using this crisis to restructure Hungarian social services, the health system, etc., according to the neo-liberal agenda. In addition he is an incredibly imcompetent manager of the state affairs.
“On the other hand there is a feeling on the right that the government are tainted through links to the communist past (I don’t know how real those links are),”
This is more complicated, of course. Mr. Gyurcsany became a rich capitalist making use of his previous political connections.
And he is not alone in this respect.
A fantastic photo (the third one):
and an eyewitnness:


Dr. Minorka 10.23.06 at 8:45 pm


Randy Paul 10.23.06 at 8:55 pm


Don’t know if you saw it, but Kati Marton had a moving and affecting op-ed on the subject in today’s New York Times.


BGat 10.23.06 at 9:06 pm

What we fail to notice about 1956 is it’s proximity in time to 1945 when Hungary was part of the Nazi world. Technicallly, the Russian occupation had not ended. So any relation to what’s happening today is hardly parallel. We tend to get involved in contemporary politics as was the case, 1956 with the cold war on. Just a scant decade before those freedom loving Hungarians were Nazis and we were delighted to see the Russians invade them.


Eszter 10.23.06 at 10:19 pm

Dr. Minorka, you’ve commented here before and have always done so anonymously. You should know that this significantly limits the value of your contributions. Why the anonymity? It’s so much easier to be critical of others’ viewpoints this way.

There are lots of leaders out there who are probably not as competent as they should/could be. That doesn’t explain the resulting events.


abb1 10.24.06 at 3:32 am

The billboard in the picture has nothing whatsoever to do with the current political events, correct? Because the post makes it sound like it does.


Eszter 10.24.06 at 9:11 am

No connection there. My only mention of the current events was precisely to point out that I see no connection even though some people are trying to make an argument for one (but those people likely don’t overlap with the folks who organized the billboard campaign).


Dr. Minorka 10.24.06 at 9:41 am

Dear Eszter!
I’m using a nickname – for non-Hungarians Dr. Minorka is character in a very funny children book. (But I’m using a valid e-mail address!)
The reason is simple:
I work for the Socialist Party (for one of the few honest, and intelligent politicans). Plus I work on various governmental projects as a consultant. I do not want to loose my livelihood, and I do not want to cause troubles for my political friends. Politically i’m a left-wing socialdemocrat (“Scandinavian modell”).

In a separate privat e-mail I will contact you, with full information.

Best wishes!


radek 10.24.06 at 2:30 pm

re: November 7th

“Celebrated” or “Were supposed to celebrate”?


Jacob Christensen 10.24.06 at 3:05 pm

A note about the political implications of the Hungarian uprising outside of Hungary:

In Denmark, the spring of 1956 saw a major labour market conflict which the then leader of the Danish Communist Party, Aksel Larsen, used very skillfully to enhance his position and the position of his party. The DCP had won some political support during the later part of the German occupation but lost most of it again in the early cold war-era so gaining credibility as defenders of workers’ rights would be one way back to political relevance.

Here, you should know that Danish – as indeed all Scandinavian – Social Democrats and trade unions were fiercely anti-communist (they ran propaganda and intelligence offices directed against Communists in the trade unions) and the prospect of a strong Communist presence in the trade unions was seen as a real threat by leading trade unionists and Social Democrats.

But just as they were on a political roll, Larsen and the Communists were hit by a disaster: The Hungarian uprising (Nikita Khrushchev’s anti-Stalinist speech predated the labour market conflict and had already spread doubts among a number of leading Danish Communists).

Even when you leave aside the anti-Communist element, many Danes would find it easy to identify with the Hungarians: Small country (think: Denmark) being suppressed by big-power neighbour (think: Germany). Since 1940 Danes had been agonising endlessly over the handling of the German occupation – and they still are.

The Hungarian uprising was also the first mass-televised international event and aid for Hungarian refugees was organised through public radio and tv.

But back to the Communists: Their hopes of gaining a mass following were effectively destroyed after Hungary. In 1958, Aksel Larsen left the DCP to found an independent Socialist Party which has been an integral part of Danish politics since the 1960 election (since 1960, Denmark has always had a non-Communist left wing which was very strong in an European comparision: Leftist Social Democrats found a Socialist party more acceptable than a Communist).

In a European context one might say that the question of Europcommunism was “solved” in Denmark following the Hungarian uprising. (The Swedish Left Party is still agonising about its Communist past and only shed the label “Communist” in 1990, so there was nothing automatic about the process – but then the Swedish political history during the 1940s and 1950s also differs from the Danish). Except for a minor revival during the 1970s, the DCP faded into oblivion following the founding of the Socialist Party.

Of cause the Hungarian uprising didn’t cause the realignment on the Danish left but it – or rather: the way it was interpreted and used in the political debate – is an integral part of Danish political history in the 1950s which has also had lasting effects.

Sorry about the lecture but the point is: Given the right circumstances, political events in one country can have effects in another. But it’s a strange irony that Danes would probably have a more intimate relationship with the Hungarian uprising than the Hungarians do.


Eszter 10.24.06 at 3:24 pm

Radek, when you’re eight years old you celebrate whatever people tell you to celebrate.


radek 10.24.06 at 3:29 pm

Actually I’d disagree (depends who the ‘people’ you refer to are) but fair enough.


Eszter 10.24.06 at 4:02 pm

Sure, it’s not black-and-white, but there were often great songs that would go along with various celebrations and you can make these things fun enough that it really doesn’t make that much of a difference to an 8-year-old.


jbruck 10.24.06 at 5:35 pm

There are allways things which are not intuitive from outside. Most of my friends in hungary (who were children during the 80’s), even those who support the conserative side(which usually means disliking everything about the communists), are cheared up, at least to some extend, by hearing/singing those then-popular commnist songs like the International and the like. We were young, therefore happy, and those songs do suit young people – so, memory is sweet, as it often happens. Ask a psychologist for a more latin-worded explanation. I must conclude that even having similar sweet memories from the much worse hitler-germany does not make someone a nazi…


Eszter 10.24.06 at 6:21 pm

Jacob, thanks, that was interesting, I wasn’t aware of these links. Just to clarify, a LOT of Hungarians do have significant ties to this date and these events. It’s just my particular generation that probably has a less-than-obvious connection. But I probably shouldn’t even speak for my entire generation. The fact that I haven’t lived in Hungary since 1992 means that I haven’t been around for the reemergence of this event as a legimate important one in the country’s history.


radek 10.24.06 at 8:42 pm

Jbruck, I’m not disagreeing. I just rewatched “Four Tankmen and a Dog” (don’t know if they had that in Hungary, they did in many EE and even socialist middle east countries) which is a show that I’ve looked back upon with quite a large dose of nostalgia. As a result I’ve been humming old school Commie songs all day. Nonetheless I remember half of my elementary school playing hookie on May 1st in order to avoid the parades, widespread popularity of a very very well done propaganda show about WW2 not withstanding.


radek 10.24.06 at 8:51 pm

Ok, I think this is the part which puzzled me:
“Having grown up in a system that didn’t recognize this day as worthy of mention (given that its whole point was to topple the Soviet-influenced regime) I have never had much of a connection to it.”

The way I remember it many dates were important PRECISELY because the system didn’t recognize them and that’s where the connection came from. The big riots and demonstrations in Poland of the early 80’s always happened on days that didn’t exist. Reading Kundera, Havel and others I get the impression that a similar thing was true closer to the Vltava. Don’t know as much about similar literature of the Danube though.


abb1 10.25.06 at 2:26 am

Ha – four tankists and dog, Polish TV series. I remember this one, it was very popular when I was a kid. Good actors.


radek 10.25.06 at 2:56 pm

This discussion is probably done with, but there was another slightly weird thing up in Jbruck’s comment above. Was the Internationale a “popular communist song” in the 1980’s Hungary? Among children or even adults? The Internationale was already politically suspect from the Soviet point of view by the 1930’s, partly due to the Spanish Civil War (recall the fate of “Beasts of England” in the Animal Farm). The International was usually sung at COUNTER-government demonstrations of the 50’s and 60’s and could easily land you in jail.

And by the 80’s if not already by the 70’s most of these regimes realized that trying to control the masses with super-kitschy songs about Mao swimming across the Yangtze or the like (I just remember that one in particular) wasn’t working. Rather they figured the masses would be more docile if they listened to vapid, meaningless pop music that emulated vapid, meaningless pop music of the West. There was NO “popular communist songs” of the 1980’s or even 1970’s. There might have been some hold overs from the 50’s and 60’s, sung as mockery and satire.


abb1 10.25.06 at 4:20 pm

Poland must be different; I believe the Soviet communists did sing the Internationale every time they had their party congress, all the way thru the 80s. And there were plenty of popular so-called ‘patriotic’ songs there, usually exploiting the WWII memories one way or another.

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