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30 Years of Freedom: The Re-burial of Imre Nagy, The Point of no Return for Communism in Hungary

Imre Nagy, the martyred Prime Minister of Hungary’s 1956 Uprising and four other revolutionary leaders – Miklós Gimes, Pál Maléter, József Szilágyi and Géza Losonczy – were re-buried on June 16, 1989, 31 years after they had been executed. The ceremony became a solemn demonstration of the Hungarian nation against the ruling Communist Party and it marked a crucial milestone on the way to the final collapse of the regime.

The 1956 revolution in Hungary was crushed by Soviet troops, and the events were quickly labelled “counter-revolutionary” by the new communist regime led by János Kádár. Prominent leaders of the uprising Nagy, Gimes (the editor of Magyar Szabadság, or Hungarian Freedom), Maléter (Minister of Defense), Szilágyi (the head of Nagy’s secretariat) and Losonczy (Minister of State) were sentenced to death in a show trial and executed on June 16, 1958.

Initially, they were buried in a prison courtyard, then in 1961 the bodies were wrapped in tarpaper and barbed wire, and placed in secret face-down in unmarked graves in parcel 301 of the Municipal Cemetery in Budapest. Secrecy around the burial had been so tight that it took a seven-year investigation to relocate the bodies in 1988.

It was taboo to talk about the four, or the 1956 revolution in anything other than the officially sanctioned terms of a “counter-revolution”, and it wasn’t until the regime began to destabilize in the early 1980s that the issue resurfaced. After the debt-financed prosperity of the 1970s, economic problems turned into social ones, and Hungarian society began demanding an ever more public moral and political judgment of the system.

Therefore, forming an opinion about 1956 and the legitimacy of the Kádár regime that ruled after the Soviets smashed the uprising merged. The underground opposition, which took root at the end of the ‘70s, also played a key role in restoring the legacy of 1956 by equating the figure of the dead Nagy with the true origin of Kádár’s reign. Facing the past became of critical importance in the democratic transition process. Thus the re-burial of Nagy gained symbolic significance in tearing down the Communist regime.

Matters Speed Up

Things were moving unexpectedly fast leading up to the re-burial. It had been seen as close to a miracle by many that, just one year earlier, a mass gathering was permitted to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the execution. That ceremony wouldn’t have been possible without the prior removal János Kádár from power in May 1988, which prepared the ground for more moderate figures to take over the party. Yet, the fact that that the commemoration was brutally dispersed by the police clearly showed how half-hearted the authorities’ attitude still was toward freedom of speech.

But the wheels of change had been set in motion. The Committee for Doing Historical Justice was set up and reached agreement with the party leadership about the re-burial. As part of the compromise, full rehabilitation was still deemed to be out of the question, though.

Meanwhile, opposition forces were gaining ever more publicity, and within the party ranks it dawned on many that things could no longer be handled in the old-fashioned way. At the same time, guidelines from Moscow hinted that, instead of trying to stop the unstoppable, party officials should strive to taking the lead in the democratization process with the purpose of solidifying their influence in a post-communist era.

Against this backdrop, it makes sense that Imre Pozsgay, a member of the party bureau, dared to label the events of 1956 as a “revolt” on January 28, 1989. Although the statement officially caused huge uproar, some historians now point out that it might simply have been part of that above-mentioned Moscow-driven plan.

Along the same lines, once the date of the re-burial was fixed, the party leadership started to communicate it as a “day of national reconciliation” with the intention of dulling the political edge of the occasion. This fueled fears among the opposition that the Communist Party could somehow hijack the event for its own purposes.

The ruling elite logically wanted to mix as little politics into the upcoming ceremony as possible, but that was simply Mission Impossible. The issue was pure politics and, feeling the momentum, the opposition wanted to ride the wave of change by organizing a huge demonstration. The fact that it was not banned outright already shows the fading influence of party hard-liners, not to mention the fact that originally the event was going to be an ordinary funeral in a cemetery.

Public Pressure

However, by April 1989 public pressure to hold a mass commemoration had grown so intense that the authorities had no choice but to let it happen. Similarly, it was becoming clear that rehabilitation including retrial had to be put back on the agenda as well. The Opposition Roundtable, the consultation forum of the democratic forces, was also pushing for it as “it was no longer the issue of the widowers as it was the nation rehabilitating itself.” Although hard-liners still expressed their concerns, the reformist wing won the argument.

But one should not make the mistake of assuming the opposition was one homogenous whole; it had its own ideological fault lines. The dispute sparked by radicals like György Krassó concerned whether the funeral would be primarily about Nagy and his companions, who were all originally Communists, or about all the victims of the revolution.

The matter was resolved by the Committee for Doing Historical Justice that came up with the idea of using an empty sixth coffin as a symbol for all those other revolutionaries who died in the fighting or were executed in its aftermath.

More importantly than such niceties, however, the opposition hoped that massive attendance could demonstrate its political strength. After all, the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party still had some 800,000 members at the time.

Undermining the legitimacy of the Kádár regime was one thing, gathering legitimate support for the organizations fighting for change was another. Showing force seemed crucial when the Opposition Roundtable was about to begin negotiations with the ruling elite.

In the end the ceremony itself drew a crowd of some 250,000. The communist leadership had feared that a massive turnout could trigger turmoil on the streets, so secret agents were mobilized and sent to mingle with demonstrators en masse. The military and the Worker’s Militia were also put on alert. Those precautions proved baseless, though; the event passed in a tense, if solemn manner.

Speakers praised Nagy, his legacy and the revolution, but rather than talking about the necessity to continue or revive it, they all emphasized the importance of a peaceful transition with the purpose of achieving the objectives of 1956. Even the party rank-and-file was relatively pleased with the content of the speeches, except for two things. For one, they found it problematic that there was no word about their own losses in the fights.

The second and more serious complaint concerned the speech of one Viktor Orbán, a founding member of Fidesz (originally an acronym for Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége, or Alliance of Young Democrats) and something of a 27-year-old bearded firebrand liberal, who was the only one to openly demand that all Soviet troops should leave the country for good.

Still Remembered

He also said that, in 1956, the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (as the local Communist Party was known) had taken away the future from the young; therefore, “not only a murdered young person is lying in the sixth coffin, but rather our next 20 or who knows how many years.” The speech was powerful enough tp put Orbán on the country’s political map, and is still remembered as the first openly anti-communist speech, symbolizing the country’s final break with the communist era.

Left-wingers weren’t that enthusiastic about it at the time, though. Many pro-government organizations and media outlets condemned its message, claiming that, although Orbán said he was speaking on behalf of the young, he represented just a minority opinion.

This criticism was shared by Ferenc Gyurcsány, who was then vice president of the Communist youth organization Demisz, but who would go on to become a Socialist Party (MSZP) premier, and today leads DK, the Democratic Coalition. He left the MSZP in disgrace, following a leaked recorded in which he told party members the leadership had lied “morning, noon and night” to win reelection.

Another future MSZP prime minister, Gyula Horn, who, as member of the Communist militia in 1956 had helped crush the revolution, but as foreign minister would earn a reputation as the politician who helped “tear down” the Iron Curtain in August 1989, labeled Orbán’s speech as “anything but solemn or moderate.”

But the clash of civil society and political aspects could not overshadow the event. Even as it evolved into a political demonstration of unprecedented strength, where the executed martyrs became a symbol of the Hungarian nation that had suffered under Communism, it remained a simple memorial service at its heart.

The rehabilitation process of Nagy was completed a few week later in that fast paced summer, on July 6, 1989, when he was acquitted by the Supreme Court. In an odd twist of history, on the same day, the man responsible for ordering his execution, János Kádár died. Politically, he had been “dead” since April 12, 1988, the last time he spoke in a party event.

Although some 100,000 people still attended Kádár’s funeral on July 14 1989, the re-burial and the legal rehabilitation of the man he had replaced as leader of Hungary, Imre Nagy, had led to a dramatic speeding up of Hungarian politics and paved the way to the final key milestones of Hungary’s freedom after 40 years of Communist control.

More on that in later issues. Next week we go back in time slightly, to look at the formation of the Opposition Roundtable and the increasingly vocal resistance to single party rule.