WEDNESDAY, MARCH 2, 2022
Occasions when history rhymes: Just this once, we'll let you ask us about our connection to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.
Our memory has been drifting back due to current events in Ukraine. We're talking about a situation in which history may not be repeating itself, but in which it may seem to rhyme.
The events in question took place in October and November of 1956. We were in fourth grade at the time, but we think we hazily recall the excitement in this country associated with the events.
Essentially, Hungary had bene a Soviet client state since the end of World War II. Starting in October of 1956, a gang of university students joined with other malcontents in trying to drive the Russkies out.
The leading authority on the revolution offers this thumbnail account:
The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a countrywide revolution against the Stalinist government of the Hungarian People's Republic (1949–1989) and the Hungarian domestic policies imposed by the USSR. Initially anarchic, the Hungarian Uprising was the first major nationalist challenge to Soviet Union's control of Hungary since the Soviet Army ended the Nazi occupation of Hungary at the end of the Second World War in Europe, in May 1945.
The Hungarian Revolution began on 23 October 1956 in Budapest when university students appealed to the civil populace to join them at the Hungarian Parliament Building to protest the USSR's geopolitical domination of Hungary with the Stalinist government of Mátyás Rákosi. A delegation of students entered the building of Hungarian Radio to broadcast their sixteen demands for political and economic reforms to the civil society of Hungary, but were detained by security guards. When the student protestors outside the radio building demanded the release of their delegation of students, policemen from the ÁVH (Államvédelmi Hatóság) state protection authority shot and killed several protestors.
Consequently, Hungarians organized into revolutionary militias to battle the ÁVH...
We seem to recall the excitement of the next few weeks, as it seemed that the uprising might actually drive the Russkies out.
Today, Hungary is taking a beating in liberal circles for what are perceived to be the autocratic tendencies and behaviors of its prime minister, Viktor Orban. Back then, the Hungarian revolutionaries were seen as heroes for their resistance to Soviet power.
In essence, they were the Ukrainians of the day. That's where some of the rhyming comes in:
The roughly 3,000-strong resistance fought Soviet tanks using Molotov cocktails and machine-pistols. Though the preponderance of the Soviets was immense, they suffered heavy losses, and by 30 October 1956, most Soviet troops had withdrawn from Budapest to garrison the countryside.
For a time, the Soviet leadership was unsure how to respond to developments in Hungary but eventually decided to intervene to prevent a destabilization of the Soviet bloc.
On 4 November, reinforcements of more than 150,000 troops and 2,500 tanks entered the country from the Soviet Union. Nearly 20,000 Hungarians were killed resisting the intervention, while an additional 21,600 were imprisoned afterward for political reasons...Because borders were briefly opened, nearly a quarter of a million people fled the country by the time the revolution was suppressed.
For a few brief shining moments, it seemed that Molotov cocktails and machine pistols could push the Soviets out. Within a few weeks, though, massive Soviet reinforcements brought the revolution to an end.
Will history rhyme in Ukraine? We can't tell you that. But this is the cultural and historical framework within which Putin is working as he prepares to put the Ukrainian resistance down.
In part, we've been thinking back to the Hungarian Revolution because of the Hungarian kid who showed up in our fourth-grade class right there in Winchester, Mass. As we understood it at the time, he and his family were part of the quarter million people who left the country in connection with these events.
He had a very Hungarian first name, so much so that when we googled that first name yesterday, along with the name of the town, we did seem to get some hits. (We didn't recall his last name.) Assuming we found the right person—very few Americans would have had that first name—he graduated from Winchester High in the class of 1965, then went on to Tufts, where he played soccer and ran track.
We don't recall exactly how well he liked his new American home. As best we recall, he got along fine, but we wish our mother had taught us to make a more forward-leaning effort to welcome this stranger from half a world away.
A few years later, our family was off to California. We've been thinking about that pleasant, gentle refugee kid as we've watched events unfold in Ukraine this week.
Back then, the Soviets weren't willing to let Hungary go. Today, Putin wants to get Ukraine back, and the odds still say that he'll get his way, with the possibility that outcomes could eventually be even worse.
A few last bits of historical rhyming are highlighted below. We pity the poor immigrant parents and children, but we also pity the poor conscripts of the world, who may not be told the whole truth:
On 3 November, a Hungarian delegation led by Defense Minister Pál Maléter was invited to attend negotiations on Soviet withdrawal at the Soviet Military Command at Tököl, near Budapest. At around midnight that evening, General Ivan Serov, Chief of the Soviet Security Police (KGB) ordered the arrest of the Hungarian delegation, and the next day, the Soviet army again attacked Budapest.
The second Soviet intervention, codenamed "Operation Whirlwind", was launched by Marshal Ivan Konev. The five Soviet divisions stationed in Hungary before 23 October were reinforced; Soviet forces soon reached a total strength of 17 divisions. The 8th Mechanized Army under command of Lieutenant General Hamazasp Babadzhanian and the 38th Army under Lieutenant General Hadzhi-Umar Mamsurov from the nearby Carpathian Military District were deployed to Hungary for the operation. Some rank-and-file Soviet soldiers reportedly believed they were being sent to East Berlin to fight German fascists. By 21:30 on 3 November, the Soviet Army had completely encircled Budapest.
At 03:00 on 4 November, Soviet tanks penetrated Budapest along the Pest side of the Danube in two thrusts: one up the Soroksári road from the south and the other down the Váci road from the north. Thus, before a single shot was fired, the Soviets had effectively split the city into two, controlled all bridgeheads and were shielded to the rear by the wide Danube River. Armoured units crossed into Buda and, at 04:25, fired the first shots at the army barracks on Budaörsi Road. Soon, Soviet artillery and tank fire were heard in all of the districts of Budapest...
"Some rank-and-file Soviet soldiers reportedly believed they were being sent to East Berlin to fight German fascists."
We note the word "reportedly" there. But this sort of thing never ends.