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Remembering Hungary 1956

What the 65th anniversary of the failed anti-Communist revolution means for us today
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To mark the anniversary of the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, I’m publishing in this space an essay from Stephen Sholl, an American academic living in Budapest, and a friend I made this summer:

Today will mark the 65-year anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. For many Americans, this anniversary will go unnoticed, yet the lessons that this episode holds are important ones for Americans to understand.

The Hungarian Revolution was the most serious challenge to Soviet Rule in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. In late October 1956, demonstrations, often beginning at universities, erupted throughout Hungary. Within a week, these demonstrations had evolved into an outright popular revolt, with the revolutionaries demanding major reforms and calling for the Soviet Army to leave Hungary.

Initially it appeared to be successful, with previous Prime Minister and reformer Imre Nagy being reinstated and the Russians withdrawing from Budapest. Once Nagy, however, declared his intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, the Soviets quickly returned and crushed the Revolution in Budapest and in Hungary’s other major cities after intense street fighting. By November 10, the Soviets had decisively squashed the Revolution. More than 2,000 Hungarians died in the fighting, and hundreds of thousands fled to the West in the aftermath.

The lesson for Americans, lies not with the defeat of the Hungarian freedom fighters — though their bravery and courage in the face of insurmountable odds is a trait worth emulating — but rather the path that led Hungary to 1956.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Hungary, while war-ravaged, was not decisively on the path to dictatorship. The Soviets appeared to follow through on their promise to establish democracies in their occupied areas, and introduced parliamentary democracy into Hungary. While the Soviet Army intimidated opposing parties and falsified ballots, other parties were allowed to compete, and their votes were recognized. In Hungary’s first election in 1945, the Communists were defeated by an overwhelming number of votes, only earning around 17 percent.

The Independent Smallholders Party, which represented the center-right, secured an outright majority, and was even allowed to form a government. The Communist Party asked only to be allowed into the governing coalition, and was granted the Ministry of the Interior. Unfortunately for the young Hungarian Republic, the ruling party accepted the coalition. Granting the Communists control over the Interior ministry meant they controlled the country’s police.

Using the martial power of police authority, Communists began a systematic takeover of Hungarian institutions — this, despite the fact that a formally “non-Communist” government was in power. The police intimidated political opponents and local leaders into joining the Communist Party; those who refused were labeled ‘fascists’ and forced out of the public sphere. In institutions such as courtrooms, schools, universities, churches, and unions, those expelled would be replaced by loyal Communists, slowly turning these bodies into extensions of the Communist Party. This institutional dominance, by a people and ideology that were not held by the vast majority of Hungarians, eroded any notion of real democracy in Hungary (at the time, the CIA estimated only 10 percent of Hungarians were Communist).

By 1949, the institutional control of Hungary by the Communists was complete, and the Hungarian Republic was formally replaced by the Hungarian People’s Republic. Led by the self-proclaimed “Best Pupil of Stalin” Mátyás Rákosi, the new regime began to remake Hungary in the image of Marx and Lenin. By merely gaining control of the important organs of state and society, the Communists were able to attack and infiltrate every part of society.

Education became a centerpiece of the regime’s grand design to remake Hungary. Since most schools in Hungary were church-run, one of the Communist regime’s first acts was to nationalize the school system. With this acquired monopoly over Hungary’s educational institutions, the state enforced a propagandistic curriculum aimed at building an ideal “Communist Man” out of every one of its students. Universities, likewise, were turned into ideological weapons of the regime. Unlike primary and secondary schools, however, the regime did not desire everyone to attend. They introduced quota and acceptance standards based on social class, and denied entry to the ‘privileged’ children of middle and upper-class families in favor of working and lower-class ones.

Taking education away from the churches did not go far enough when it came to the institution of religion. As an atheistic regime, the Hungarian People’s Republic had no tolerance for the strongly entrenched Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran churches of Hungary, and began a widespread campaign to destroy them.

They established a specific government ministry for the churches and used it to censor, infiltrate, and monitor each religion. Most notably, the highest-ranking Catholic in Hungary, Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, was arrested, tortured, and brought to trial for “treason” against the state. While he was spared the death penalty, lesser-known churchmen were not so lucky, and many members of the clergy were murdered throughout the late 1940s and 1950s. All these efforts were an attempt to completely erase religion from the public sphere as well as the minds of Hungarians.

Finally, the social and economic structure of Hungary was attacked, dissolved, and recreated during this period. Historically, Hungary was a heavily agricultural society based strongly in traditional social structures left over from feudalism. It had an extensive and powerful aristocracy, but also a sizable “middle class” of landowners. These social institutions, which governed the lives and society of Hungarians ,were anathema to the Communists, who immediately set out to rectify both. Under the guise of rebuilding Hungary after the destruction of the Second World War, the Communists began restructuring the Hungarian economy. Through land nationalization and redistribution, the authorities destroyed many of the traditional great estates of the Hungarian gentry and redistributed them. Massive industrialization occurred as well, with peasants and farm dwellers forced into the cities, completely remaking the demographic landscape of Hungary in only a few short years.

Thus, the period preceding the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 represents a rapid and radical transformation of Hungary from a nominal parliamentary republic into a Communist dictatorship. This was accomplished not through an outright coup, but a rapid infection and cooption of the governmental institutions by an ideological force. By 1956, the Hungarians were under a regime that hated them, their nation, their religion, and their traditions. They were ruled by an ideology supported by none of them, yet they were forced to bend the knee to its tenets and beliefs.

It was this devolution into a repressive and alien regime that drove the Hungarians into the streets, demanding change, and a return to national sovereignty over their social, economic, and political institutions. They were tired and disgusted by the people who unjustly ruled them and clearly held them and their society in much derision.

While the Hungarians were lamentably crushed in the first weeks of November, they were crushed not because of the weakness of their struggle for freedom, but by the weakness of the ideology that ruled them. The Soviets and their Hungarian puppet-government knew that Communism could not exist if people were allowed to choose their own destiny. The 1956 Revolution had to die lest the entire system fail.

As we remember the heroism of the Hungarian revolutionaries and honor their great sacrifice for their nation and liberty, we should first be thankful to live in a country wherein we still hold on to the freedoms passed down from our forefathers. As Americans, we must recognize that ceding control of our institutions to a monolithic ideology is a grave threat to our republic and our freedoms. We must jealously protect and revive our social and governmental institutions, for if we do not fight for our institutions, we might find ourselves fighting in the streets.

Stephen Sholl is a Visiting Fellow with the Mathias Corvinus Collegium. Previously, he was a Junior Fellow with Hungary’s Committee of National Remembrance, an independent research institution which studies the legacy of Communism in Hungary.

Note from Rod: This paragraph of Stephen’s essay jumped out at me:

Using the martial power of police authority, Communists began a systematic takeover of Hungarian institutions — this, despite the fact that a formally “non-Communist” government was in power. The police intimidated political opponents and local leaders into joining the Communist Party; those who refused were labeled ‘fascists’ and forced out of the public sphere. In institutions such as courtrooms, schools, universities, churches, and unions, those expelled would be replaced by loyal Communists, slowly turning these bodies into extensions of the Communist Party. This institutional dominance, by a people and ideology that were not held by the vast majority of Hungarians, eroded any notion of real democracy in Hungary (at the time, the CIA estimated only 10 percent of Hungarians were Communist).

Do you see why people who came to America to escape Soviet communism are freaked out by what they see happening in American universities and institutions, with the advance of wokeism? In much of academia today, as we see, if you dissent from the ideology of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, you can be driven to the margins, or not hired (because you have to sign de facto loyalty oaths to this ideology as a condition of teaching). This is happening right now, within our liberal democracy. In Hungary, this march through the institutions was a precursor to the advent of Communist tyranny. The soft totalitarianism didn’t stay soft for long. There is a lesson in that, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to magnify the voices of the people who lived through this once, and don’t want to see it happen to America.

When I was in Hungary in 2019 researching Live Not By Lies, I had the very great privilege of interviewing one of the great heroes of 1956, Maria Wittner. Here she is in 1956:

From a Wittner passage in Live Not By Lies:

Defending the right to speak and write freely, even when it costs you something, is the duty of every free person. So says Mária Wittner, a hero of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet occupation. A communist court sentenced Wittner, then only twenty, to death, though this was later commuted to life imprisonment.

“Once I said to one of the guards in prison, ‘You are lying.’ For that alone, I was taken to trial again,” remembers the feisty Wittner. “The state prosecutor said to me, ‘Wittner, why did you accuse the guard of being a liar? Why didn’t you just say, ‘You’re not telling the truth’? I said, ‘It matters that we speak plainly.’”

For her insolence, Wittner was sent back to prison with extra punishments. She had to sleep on a wooden bed with no mattress and was given reduced rations. By the time her sentence was commuted and she was released, Wittner weighed scarcely one hundred pounds. Nevertheless, she insists that a broken body is a price worth paying for a strong and undefiled spirit.

“We live in a world of lies, whether we want it or not. That’s just the case. But you shouldn’t accommodate to it,” she tells me as I sit at her table in suburban Budapest. “You will be surrounded by lies—you don’t have a choice. Don’t assimilate to it. It’s an individual decision for each person. If you want to live in fear, or if you want to live in the freedom of the soul. If your soul is free, then your thoughts are free, and then your words are going to be free.”

Under hard totalitarianism, dissenters like Wittner paid a hard price for their freedom, but the terms of the bargain were clear. Under soft totalitarianism, it is more difficult to see the costs of compromising your conscience, but as Mária Wittner insists, you can’t escape the decisions. You have to live in a world of lies, but it’s your choice as to whether that world lives in you.


Mária Wittner, now in her eighties, is regarded by her countrymen as a national hero for fighting the Soviets when they invaded Hungary in 1956. She was only a teenager then. The communist regime arrested her shortly after she turned twenty, and a year later, sentenced her to death. Her sentence was later reduced because of her youth. But she endured terrible grief and pain in her eight months on death row.

“There was an execution either every day or every other day, by hanging,” she tells me. “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. Wittner’s friend Catherine was also sentenced to death. They spent Catherine’s last night together in the cell, and said their final goodbyes after sunrise.

Wittner explains:

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.

This, she believes, is why her life was spared: so that she could to tell the world what the communists did to people like her.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about fear, as such,” she says. “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.”

The old woman looks at me across her kitchen table with piercing eyes. “In the end, those who are afraid always end up worse than the courageous.”

Here is the great lady today (well, two years ago, in her house, after I interviewed her):

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was not just a geopolitical event. It was a human tragedy. Maria Wittner is the face of that tragedy, but also the face of the inevitable triumph over the Big Lie that was and remains Communism.

Here, in Budapest today, is an image today of the political leader who is the West’s most effective and tireless fighter against soft totalitarianism:

Prime Minister Viktor Orban

There will be more to follow, in France, Italy, Spain, and elsewhere. The people of the West are waking up. We may not prevail in the short term, but we are going to fight. As we fight politically, let us not neglect to build, and build up, the communities and the virtues and, above all, the faith, to endure what may be a long defeat. This war is going to go on for a long time, and it is not primarily political. At the Tyniec Abbey near Krakow a couple of years ago, Father Wlodzimierz Zatorski, a well-known and respected Benedictine monk, confirmed for me the things I had been hearing from serious and faithful young Catholics in Warsaw and Krakow: that the Catholic faith was in collapse among the younger generations, and with it, the hopes of successful political Catholicism. (And if political Catholicism can’t prevail today in Poland, there is no country on earth where it can!) As I have written here before, Father Zatorski said the only way forward, in his view, was the Benedict Option: small, tight, resilient Catholic communities capable of resisting persecution, and ultimately re-evangelizing the country. Father Zatorski told me that he intended to launch a Benedict Option foundation, and build a community like this. The dear old priest did launch the foundation, but last year, died of Covid. The further we get into the West’s civilizational crisis, the more I am certain that our future, if we are to have one, lies in the experiences of the peoples of Central Europe. We need Viktor Orbans, and we need Father Wlodzimierz Zatorskis. The Orbans can protect the ability of the Zatorskis to do the work of spiritual and cultural rebuilding, and the Zatorskis, like his fellow Benedictines of the early medieval period, can lay the spiritual and cultural foundation for the rebirth of a political and social order based on the Good.

But let’s not forget the words of Viktor Orban, which I read in an interview that I can’t find now, but which I’ve never forgotten. He was talking about the limits of politics. He said that as a politician, he can give people things — meaning he can control, to some extent, the material order — but he cannot give people meaning. This is what religion does. In my view, people looking to politics as a source of ultimate meaning are either going to be disappointed, or turn into tyrants.