Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Maria Wittner Fears Nothing

She fought the Soviets in 1956, and went to prison for her trouble.

I spent part of this afternoon sitting with Maria Wittner, a hero of Hungary’s failed 1956 Revolution against Communism. I interviewed her for my book project on how to resist the coming soft totalitarianism. Like every other person I’ve interviewed who lived through “hard totalitarianism” (that is to say, Communism), Mrs. Wittner believes that we are well on our way to a new and very different version of the same.

“Back then, you knew where your place was, and where the enemy’s place was,” she said, of the Communist years. “Those two were opposing each other. The present situation is a bit like when a young child has Play-doh. Originally there are distinct colors, but if the child keeps mixing them together, it all becomes one big brown lump.”

This is a familiar refrain from my interviews with former dissidents: that it’s much more difficult today to discern the enemy lines. This was not a problem for 19-year-old Maria Wittner when the anti-Soviet rebellion broke out in Budapest in 1956 (read her history here). She took up arms against the Communists.

She carried shrapnel lodged in her back for nearly 25 years. She spent 11 years in prison for her role in the Revolution.

She recalled jail thus:

Every single day we could hear the people being brought for execution. There was an execution either every day or every other day, by hanging. The people who were being brought to the execution, each one said their name aloud, and left some sort of message in their final words. Some sang the national anthem, others praised their country, there were people saying ‘avenge me’. There were days when several people were hanged, even seven a day. My friend Catherine was also sentenced to death. We spent our last night together in the cell. We said our goodbyes in the morning. The guards took her. The last sight I saw of her was that she straightened herself up, and went with her back ramrod straight. The door closed, and then I was left alone. I started to bang on the door, shouting, “Bring her back!” even though I knew perfectly well that it wouldn’t matter. Then I fainted. When I came to my senses, I swore to myself that I will never be silent about what I have seen, if I have the opportunity to bear witness.

Maria went on.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about fear, as such. What is fear? Someone who is afraid is going to be made to do the most evil things. If someone is not afraid to say no, if your soul is free, there is nothing they can do to you”

She looks at me hard, with piercing blue-gray eyes.

“In the end, those who are afraid always end up worse than the courageous.”

When you see politically correct bullshit, Maria Wittner, who went to death row in a communist prison because she wasn’t going to tolerate their lies, believes you should stand up and speak out. She put her finger in my face today to say so. She’s right. What a tough, tough lady.

This city has more than a few women like this. God, I love it.



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