This exhibit by the Open Society Archives (OSA) in Budapest approaches the Fall of Communism from a broad historical perspective that presents the pre-history of the highly-visible and well documented public events of 1989, using amateur photographs, Western and Hungarian propaganda newsreels, Radio Free Europe research publications, state security services surveillance documents, samizdat and opposition activists’ materials, as well as 1989-related ephemera from our collections.
Our exhibit opens just prior to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the thwarted popular attempt to leave the Communist bloc, and the secret trial, execution and burial of the Revolution’s leaders in 1958.
We show how the Revolution was documented and analysed from multiple perspectives, and how its memory was officially denied and suppressed in Hungary, before being mobilized again in the 1980s by the democratic opposition.
The tradition of the 1956 Hungarian revolution played a major role in undermining the legitimacy of the one-party state in 1988–1989.
During the days of fighting, all 29 transmitting stations of Radio Free Europe worked around the clock. For the first time, the Radios had correspondents working behind the Iron Curtain. What occurred may be seen as the earliest example of a modern media news event, when the working of a media organization was able to shape those every events that it was covering.
On 4 November, Soviet tanks re-entered the capital to crush the uprising and install a new Communist Party leadership under János Kádár.
Imre Nagy and colleagues sought asylum in the Yugoslav Embassy in Budapest, before being handed over to the Soviets and interned in Snagov, Romania.
Around 2,000 Hungarian citizens and 650 Soviet soldiers died in the fighting. There followed 236 executions, the imprisonment of 22,000 people and the internment of 13,000, and the exodus of nearly 200,000 Hungarian citizens.
In June 1958, the People's Court of the Hungarian Supreme Court tried Imre Nagy and eight of his colleagues in secret. They were charged with attempting to overthrow the state, and treason.
Imre Nagy, his secretary József Szilágyi, the journalist Miklós Gimes, and Pál Maléter, the military leader of the Revolution, were sentenced to death and executed on 16 June. It was only after their deaths that the trial and sentencing were made public.
The other five defendants received prison sentences ranging from five years' to life imprisonment.
As the Revolution was suppressed, so was its memory. Officially, the events of 1956 were termed by the new regime under János Kádár a “counter-revolution,” the attempt to restore the pre-war order, sponsored by Western imperialists. This served not only to justify the Soviet intervention, but also to distance people from what had happened. Tens of thousands of Hungarian citizens were arrested and interned, and tried. State propaganda proclaimed a new era of peace, contentment and security.
In 1957 and 1959, the Columbia University Research Project on Hungary (CURPH) conducted over 600 interviews with Hungarian refugees, both adults and children, focussing on the social, economic and political trends in post-war Hungary, up to and including the 1956 Revolution. The CURPH collection remains the largest set of records gained by a single systematic research project that gives an insight into the everyday reality and public mentality of a Soviet bloc country in the 1950s, where similar contemporary field-research was not at all feasible.
On 10 January 1957 the UN General Assembly established a Special Committee to investigate and submit a comprehensive report on the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Drawing on witness hearing transcripts, emigré organizations’ opinions, media coverage, and correspondence between the UN and Hungarian government, the Report of the Special Committee on the Problem of Hungary concluded that 1956 was an “instinctive national uprising” suppressed by an act of Soviet external military aggression.
Resolution 1133/XI was passed on 14 September 1957 to enforce the Report’s recommendations, including the continued monitoring of developments in Hungary. Following the secret trial and execution of Imre Nagy and colleagues on June 16, 1958, the Committee issued a statement of protest, and a second, supplementary report on post-revolutionary retaliations, human rights violations, and political trials, approved by Resolution 1312/XIII on 13 December 1958.
In Hungary in the 1980s, the taboo on publicly discussing 1956 was gradually challenged, and eventually lifted, by members of the democratic opposition.
One of the focal points of activity was Plot 301 in Budapest's New Public Cemetery.
From the early 1980s onwards, on the 16 June anniversary of the execution of Imre Nagy and colleagues, family members and opposition activists tended the graves and placed flowers at Plot 301 in the New Public Cemetery, the unconfirmed resting place of the dead.
Plot 301 had come to symbolize the resurrection of 1956 as an historical occurrence, and its re-emergence from the shadow of forced amnesia.
Political, social and cultural mobilizations began to take place around the symbols and taboos of the Revolution, and its suppression.
Broader civic protests had grown in frequency and number over the late 1980s, culminating in mass demonstrations against the proposed Nagymaros dam, and the destruction of Transylvanian villages.
On 28 January 1989 Imre Pozsgay, a member of the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party Politburo, stated on public radio that 1956 had been a popular uprising, and not a counter-revolution.
This was followed on 31 January 1989 by fierce Politburo debate.
On 29 March 1989, exhumations began at Plot 301 in Budapest's New Public Cemetery. They were completed on 6 April 1989.
The remains of five leaders of the 1956 Revolution--Imre Nagy, József Szilágyi, Pál Maléter, Géza Losonczy and Miklós Gimes--were unearthed, having been buried together, face-down and wrapped in wire.
Official permission for the public reburial of Nagy and colleagues was announced on 6 April 1989.
Among opposition groups, there were competing visions and plans for the burial of Imre Nagy and, by extension, Communism itself.
All these plans, debates and disagreements were closely monitored by the state security services.
Imre Nagy and his four colleagues buried in Plot 301 were publicly reburied on 16 June 1989, together with a 6th coffin representing the anonymous victims of the 1956 Revolution, on the steps of the Műcsarnok (Kunsthalle) museum of modern art in Budapest. Tens of thousands of mourners attended.
1989 was the date of the birth of several competing, sometimes exclusive interpretations of the Revolution.
Hungarian-language video of the Hungarian Supreme Court's decision of 6 July 1989, which stated that the sentences passed on 15 June 1958 against Imre Nagy and colleagues were invalid, thus marking the start of their official rehabilitation.
Coincidentally, 6 July 1989 was also the day on which János Kádár died, the post-1956 Communist leader whose 32-year-rule had begun with his betrayal of Nagy and colleagues.
The end result, the fall of Hungarian Communism, was not brought about by a second revolution, but by the regime dissolving itself, leaving behind it many unresolved grievances, political symbols and conflicting narratives of the past that still shape Hungarian public life to this day.
After 1989, new political struggles emerged over the legacy of the 1956 Revolution, whether it was a return to prewar times, as the Communist Party and the post-Communist right have maintained, or a prelude to the democratic dénouement of post-communist Hungary.
On 6 July 1999, the tenth anniversary of János Kádár's death coinciding with the judicial review that declared the sentences against Nagy and other unlawful, the Open Society Archives revisited this historical coincidence in the form of a one-off performance. Here is the video recreation of that performance.
On the 50th anniversary of the trial by People's Jury of Imre Nagy and his fellow defendants, the Open Society Archives and the 1956 Institute in Budapest presented the only surviving authentic and intact documentation of the secret trial, 52 hours of uncut audio recordings made by Interior Ministry technicians in June 1958. The recordings begin with the first day of the trial and document the entire proceedings right up to the submission of the appeal for clemency, the cross-examination of the accused and the witnesses, the case for the prosecution, the defense attorney’s speech and the defendants’ final statements.
In the interests of restoring the dignity of the people who were sentenced to death or to long years in prison, OSA and the 1956 Institute felt that people should finally be allowed to commemorate the trial by listening to the full, uncut recording for the first time. The recordings were played publicly at OSA from June 9 (Monday) through June 15 (Sunday) 2008, during the same hours that the hearings were originally held. By chance, the dates in question fell on the same days of the week in 1958 as they did in 2008.
Curator — Gwen Jones
With — Csaba Szilágyi