Hungarian Communism and the Revision of History

George Orwell stated in his novel 1984 “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” While it may seem that the immediate past is impossible to revise, most of history is open to interpretation. Most Americans know that Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese on December 7, 1941, but how this attack played out and what prompted it, is constantly reconsidered by historians. Now imagine an event has knowingly been written about to fit a particular historical perspective. Furthermore, multiple alterations and manipulated documents have been used to create a fictional history. This is the problem with Cold War history.  There are known historical episodes, such as the Hungarian Revolutions of 1919 and 1956 that received particular interpretations by the Soviets in the late 1950’s. An additional problem is the purging of historical facts and eventual restoration.  Nevertheless, these historical revisions recount political opinion at a given time and can assist in dating artwork and artifacts. If a work of art, for example, shows an image of a person who was politically rehabilitated the work must come from a subsequent time period.

The deliberate recreation of history, however, is what drew my attention to two portfolios in The Wende Museum’s collection. The two portfolios deal with the 1956 Hungarian revolution and the history of communism in Hungary respectively. Both demonstrate how this constant revision of history erodes the actual events they depict to create mere fiction in the mind of the viewer.  While the portfolio about the 1956 Revolution portrays events that now are known to have never occurred, the portfolio also includes exaggerated depictions of real events.  The portfolio of communism in Hungary demonstrates how this changing history becomes problematic when political realities change over time.

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 changed the way the West viewed Eastern Europe and shaped the way Hungarian history would be viewed.  The Hungarian Revolution began on October 23, 1956 with a demonstration in Budapest that led to the takeover of the Communist-run radio station and the destruction of a monumental statue of Stalin.  During the following12 days, the Hungarian Communist Government would change leaders–Imre Nagy would take power from Ernő Gerő who was a close ally of Mátyás Rákosi- and attempt to become a neutral country in the growing Cold War.  On November 4, Hungarian neutrality would end when Soviet tanks entered Budapest and began to put down the revolution[1]. Even with these verifiable facts, questions of Western involvement and the goals of the revolution still arise.  It is thought that the West might have unintentionally encouraged the Hungarian Revolutionaries through Radio Free Europe, which had been calling for the people to rise up and over throw their communist oppressors, but in no way supplied material support besides food. The West had hoped to provide diplomatic assistance through the United Nations but this occurred too late in the revolution[2]. The goals of the revolution varied depending upon which group is being discussed.  For longstanding members of the Communist Party who supported the revolution, the goal was to create a Hungarian form of Communism, for some it was removal of all Soviet influence and for others the removal of Communism.  It is because of these differences the Communist headquarters in Budapest would be burned and functionaries killed even while the revolution was being supported by some communists.  These differences show that the 1956 Revolution was not united in purpose, however the 1956 portfolio ignored these issues and presented the revolution as a unified western anti-communist plot.

Figure 1

In the woodcut titled “Western Assistance” (see Figure 1) a group of men are unpacking boxes that have the German word for canned on the side, but guns are actually being pulled from the crate. Events such as this never happened during  the revolution.  The Hungarian revolutionaries received a majortity of their weapons from the Hungarian Army, which overwhelmingly sided with the revolution. By showing weapons being received from the West, the revisions absolve the army of supporting the revolution and also show the revolution as a Western conspiracy. By doing this the artist is able to delegitimize those Hungarians who fought in the revolution not as true freedom fighters but as members of the western conspiracy.  This print is juxtaposed with other prints in the portfolio of events that did take place.  “Avos” (see Figure 2) depicts a man being shot in the street because he was thought to be a member of the secret police.   Murders such as this transpired during the revolution. By including an incident that a majority of people knew about gives the revisions an air of reality. Also this image is able to present a unified narrative of the revolution.  Instead of unconnected events these incidents prove a Western or Fascist conspiracy.  Even the burning of Russian books by Lenin, Marx, Stalin and others from a Russian owned book store on the first day, were not proof of anti-Russian feeling, but rather conclusive proof of a Fascist conspiracy[3].

Figure 2

Through the rewriting of history Hungarian and Soviet Communists hoped to convince the Hungarian public and communists abroad that 1956 was not a popular revolution but a Fascist counter-revolution.  In order for 1956 to be a fascist counter-revolution communists needed to show that such an event had occurred before.  Revisions had to move beyond the events of 1956 and look back to the beginnings of communism in Hungary. In creating a unified narrative of communist triumph followed by counter re-evaluation, special attention had to be placed on the first Hungarian Communist government of 1919, the Hungarian Soviet Republic, and the “White Terror” that followed its collapse.  By linking the 1949 communist government to the 1919 government, the post 1956 government would then be able to link the 1956 revolution to the “White Terror” of 1919 and its results.

Figure 3

One of the problems prior to 1956 in discussing the Hungarian Soviet Republic was its political status.  In the 1930’s, members of the Hungarian Communist Party, including Béla Kun who was considered the leader of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, were purged from the communist party by Stalin.  Consequently, the Hungarian Soviet Republic was rarely talked about prior to Béla Kun’s political rehabilitation in 1956. Péter Apor points out that “between 1957 and 1962 twenty-four monographs and collective volumes were issued on various aspects of the dictatorship of the proletariat in 1919, in the two years longer period between 1949 and 1956 only eight volumes appeared within the field.[4]” With this renewed interest special importance was placed on 1919 government and its popularity.  In “Great Assembly before the parliament on 23 March 1919 on the occasion of the proclamation of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Béla Kun speaker,” (See Figure 3) a crowd of spectators gathers to see the beginning of the new communist era. This image does not reveal aspects of the Hungarian Soviet Republic.  One aspect that is covered up is the reason for the communist’s early success. The communists promised to restore Hungarian lands that had been taken during the peace negotiations at the end of World War I.  Thus, support for the communist government arose because of nationalism.  By showing the government to be popular, the print narrative helped explain away its collapse after 133 days.  The 1919 government fell due to a “Red Terror” that was carried out following an attempted coup.  The “Red Terror” attempted to secure the control of the communist government and also remove the leaders of the growing opposition.  Another factor in the fall was the Romanian invasion and occupation of Budapest. This collapse caused a power vacuum that allowed partisan groups to carry out a “White Terror.” During the “White Terror” communists and those considered enemies of the people were killed, including large numbers of Jews.  During this period, Miklós Horthy became regent and Hungary returned to a parliamentary form of government, putting an end to the “White Terror”.  The downfall of the 1919 government because of a “Fascist counter-revolution” became an important connection for the new post-1956 Communist government to make. In order to make this connection, Hungarian communists had to show that the ruling government from 1919 to 1945 was a Fascist dictatorship.

Figure 4

The suggestion that Hungary was dominated by Fascism exaggerated the role of the Hungarian Arrow Cross party, the equivalent to the Nazi party. In “Unity against Fascist Attack” (see Figure 4) Arrow Cross members are shown attacking and being beaten back by members of the Social Democrats, an ally of the Communist Party.  The Arrow Cross did take power in Hungary but only in the last six months of Hungarian involvement in World War II.  This occurred because Horthy signed a ceasefire with the Soviet Union, which prompted Hitler to replace Horthy.  Prior to that the Arrow Cross Party was at odds with the Hungarian Government and the leaders at one point were placed in prison. The re-creation of the Horthy government as a Fascist dictatorship would be used to scare the Hungarian public about the possible consequences had the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 succeeded.

– Daniel Puffpaff, Research Intern

[1] For further reading I would suggest Sebestyen, Victor. Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. New York: Random House, 2006 and also Applebaum, Anne. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956. New York: Doubleday, 2012.

[2] The collection Foreign Relation of the United States 1955-1957 Volume XXV, Eastern Europe contains several documents that deal with the US response to the Hungarian Revolution.

[3] The book The Truth about Hungary: facts and eyewitness accounts by A Belokon and V Totstikov shows an image of the book burning and has the caption “In Germany, too, fascism began with burning books.”

[4] The writing is found at  on page 11 of the PDF.

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