FORTEPAN / NAGY GYULA / WIKIMEDIA Soviet tanks in Budapest, October 1956.

Hungary, Sixty Years After the Revolution

How 1956 Echoes Today

This autumn marks the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. In October and November 1956, the country at the heart of the European continent underwent three weeks of political turmoil that shook the region and exposed the ideological fissures behind the Iron Curtain. Tens of thousands of Hungarians took to the streets to protest their oppressive government and the heavy-handed meddling of the Soviet Union in Hungary’s affairs. 

The protesters managed to persuade the leader of Hungary, Imre Nagy, that their cause warranted his government’s consideration. A committed communist, Nagy declared that the Soviet troops occupying the country would withdraw from it, pledged to dissolve the state security forces, and endorsed the uprising as “a great national and democratic movement, embracing and unifying all our people.” But in the first week of November, the protesters suffered a bruising defeat. Soviet forces crushed the uprising, invading key areas of the country, including the capital, Budapest, which less than a century before had been the second city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, one of Europe’s great powers. As the Czech-born writer Milan Kundera recalled in a 1984 essay in The New York Review of Books, the director of the Hungarian News Agency, shortly before he was killed in the revolution, reminded the world of Hungary’s European identity, saying, “We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe.” The statement encapsulated the conviction of many Hungarians that their country belonged to Europe. 

The ideological descendants of the 1956 revolutionaries have watched with dismay as their country has slid back into a familiar illiberal groove.

Today, if a high-level Hungarian official were to express pro-European sentiments, he would ring disingenuous. Over the last decade, the ideological descendants of the 1956 revolutionaries have watched with dismay as their country has slid back into a familiar illiberal groove. Today’s liberal Hungarians find themselves fighting for many of the same changes—the creation of an independent judiciary, the establishment of a free press, and the guarantee of

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