City Journal

John Kekes
Reflections on the Revolution in Hungary
After half a century, does it seem worth it?
Winter 2007

My most vivid memory of the Revolution is its smell—of piles of plaster fallen to the ground, soaked by rain, and of the putrefying corpses buried underneath. The wall-less houses, partly destroyed by artillery and tank fire, were like stage settings after the curtain has risen and the play is about to begin—except that the walls had come down, not up as theater curtains do, and the action was over and done with. A piano stood in the corner, its lid open, but the child was no longer there to practice Chopin. The pots were still on the kitchen stove; who knows, perhaps the gas was still on. Wardrobes stood open, and the Sunday best suit, hanging exposed to the elements, badly needed a brushing. People scurried by on their way to stand in line for bread or to find out how their relatives were, cautiously approaching corners to see whether around them was a barricade, a tank, a cordon blocking the way, or someone ready to shoot.

I took this picture with me when I left. From time to time, I opened the album I kept closed in my head, looked at the pictures in it, and remembered the smell—especially the smell. Not as pleasant as Proust’s madeleine, it was just as evocative. It became a symbol for me of what happened, of what I left behind, and of the fragility of the illusions of order and security with which we comfort ourselves as we scurry in search of our daily bread. We can sometimes lull ourselves into forgetting that danger looms around the corner, but I could not really forget either the Revolution or what had led up to it and had followed it. It has been my professional concern to try to understand why it, and events like it, happen.

My concern is not with a historical understanding of the influences that jointly result in the collapse of civilized order. Of course there are such influences, and it is important to understand them. But historical influences are not disembodied and impersonal, like gravity or entropy, which controls events regardless of our desires, hopes, and fears. Historical influences are exerted by human beings. If there are revolutions, it is because people make them; wars would not occur if people did not start them; and if civilized life breaks down, it is because people make it disintegrate. As the gun lobby says: guns don’t kill people; people kill people. My interest is in why people kill, why they make wars and revolutions, and why they undermine civilized life even though their well-being depends on protecting it.

To say that people do all this because they are sinful or destructive or driven by their ids or irrational or stupid or genetically aggressive is to postpone facing the question, not to answer it. For the question remains of why they act on these motives rather than on dozens of other motives they also have, such as altruism, caution, reason, fear, pity, conscience, and so on. This, of course, is a general question, and I am not about to give a philosophical answer but only to set forth my opinion of what motives led to the Revolution and whether the Revolution was worth what it cost. I am afraid I will offend those who have sentimentalized the Revolution, and for this I apologize in advance. But, as I see it, the task of philosophers is to tell the truth to the best of their ability, not to obfuscate in order to avoid unpleasantness.

Unpleasantness, of course, is a wholly inadequate word for the miasma of terror that pervaded life in the Communist years preceding the Revolution. The secret police, called the AVO, inflicted this terror on the citizenry; indeed, the AVO existed for this very purpose. The terror was in the air, but it was unpredictable. We knew that it was there, and we knew also that it was threatening regardless of what we did. Its essence was that it severed the connection between act and consequence, between trespassing some absurd ideological prohibition and retribution. We were at the mercy of threatening consequences, liable to brutal and lasting torture, imprisonment, enslavement in concentration camps, and death, regardless of whether or not we were guilty of some action or trespass. One of the most important aims of the dictatorship was to make people feel this threat. And we felt it. Fear was everywhere: at home, in school, in visiting friends or relatives, and at work. The threat was indiscriminate and unpredictable, and we were all at the mercy of informers who could have been friends, neighbors, colleagues, or lovers. We could not even hate the informers, whoever they might have been, because we knew that they, too, had been threatened and that they, too, acted out of the fear we also felt.

But the terror went even deeper than all this. To use a crude but eloquent old saying, I can put up with someone pissing on my feet, but I find it intolerable to have him tell me that it is raining. We were continually pissed on, and we were not merely told that it was raining but were forced to sing in celebration of the rain. This degradation added to our fear an enormous amount of resentment for being lied to by men who knew that they were lying, who knew that we knew, and who then forced us to repeat the lies, feign enthusiasm, and smile.

Then came the Revolution. It became possible because the terror was relaxed a bit. As Tocqueville shrewdly pointed out, reform is very dangerous for a corrupt regime, because people take it as a sign of weakness, and the hitherto concealed hatred of the rulers comes out in the open. And that is what happened. The writers talked, the literati made speeches, journalists editorialized, and there were endless arguments about nuances in phrasing manifestos, but all that was like the crew of a boat on the stormy sea imagining that they are in control of the elements. The Revolution was spontaneous, unplanned, and immensely popular because people were united by hatred of the dictatorship and the AVO, of their own fear, and of the intolerable, humiliating, absurd lies blared from the ever-present loudspeakers, lies that they were forced to parrot for many years: “Wage war for peace”; “Love our wise father, Stalin”; “Smash the counterrevolutionary spies of the bourgeoisie.” And so on.

What happened then was that people expressed their long-suppressed hatred and resentment. And although their legitimate targets, the AVO officers, did their best to hide, not a few of them were found, lynched, and strung up from lampposts. Another picture I carry in my head is of the naked, castrated dead man, hanging upside-down from a lamppost with a crude board attached to him, saying avo officer. Yet another memory is from the time I stopped to find out what a small crowd was staring at as they looked up at the fourth floor of an apartment building. They were waiting, and they were not waiting in vain, because soon a woman and a child were thrown out of the window. The news spread quickly, as it does in a crowd, that they were the family of another AVO officer. There were other episodes like this.

I understood the terrible passions that motivated the enraged perpetrators and the expectant, self-righteous crowd witnessing with approval tinged with titillation what was occurring. But even then, I understood that I was seeing in public the same sorts of atrocities that were done less publicly in torture chambers. I was horrified then, and I am horrified now by the primitive, barbaric possibilities that open up when civilized restraints disappear, as they do in torture chambers, interrogations, concentration camps, and, I am sorry to say, in revolutions as well. I understand the passions that caused the Revolution of ’56, I share the hatred of what preceded it, but I cannot wholeheartedly celebrate it. I understand that it was a reaction to the incomparably greater and much more frequent evil that the vicious Communist regime had inflicted, but what I saw done by the mob was also evil. It is no use trying to excuse these revolutionary acts as excesses. Yes, they were excesses, but they were still inexcusable. Revolutions predictably lead to excesses, and that is why they are dangerous even though they may be perfectly justified. They release people’s suppressed resentments and anger. The resentments are understandable, the rage is warranted, but the results are atrocities like those that followed the 1789 revolution in France and the 1917 revolution in Russia. The essence of most revolutions, with only a very few exceptions, is to unleash the mob, which then whips up the hatred smoldering within the people who compose it, and they act out their hatred, egging one another on, while feeling secure from retribution because their identity is hidden in the crowd.

It would be grossly unfair, however, to condemn the Hungarian Revolution because of what the mob did. The revolutionaries formed not only the mob but also the heroic armed resistance when the Russian “liberators” once again arrived and joined forces with the no-longer-hiding defenders of Communism. The people’s justified rage and hatred blazed up also in brave and doomed efforts to fight back just for once, to resist the ignorant armies marching by night, in whose wake oozed back the terror and the terrorizers.

The overwhelming force of Russian tanks and troops crushed the Revolution. But they did not crush it without serious resistance by workers, by soldiers who had deserted, and by young men and adolescents—my own aimless, lost, frustrated generation—who could not swallow the Communist propaganda but had nothing else to fall back on. These were the true revolutionaries, the rebels who acquired a doomed cause. They were the doers, not the talkers.

And where were the talkers—the writers, journalists, artists, university teachers, scientists, and academicians— the literary and cultural elite of the country? Some continued to talk; others prudently retreated to their apartments; many were on their way to the West, where they could continue to talk about what should be or should have been done. Still others, foreseeing the end of the Revolution, began to sidle back into the fold of the Party they had opportunistically joined and whose favors they had enjoyed.

The Communists had originally come to power because the Russian forces put them there. The power was in the hands of those who returned from years spent in Russia and of a few who returned from the West. The latter did not last for long. After a few show trials, Muscovites and their henchmen, who took orders from the Kremlin, ruled. But they could not have ruled, could not have manned the AVO, if it had not been for the collaboration of the upper middle class and the cultural elite. These people ran the factories, banks, ministries, and newspapers; served as diplomats; administered the hospitals, schools, universities, and sports; taught the university students; supervised the theaters, films, musical life, and books that were published or translated; maintained the mind-numbing machinery of ceaseless propaganda; and designed the socialist kitsch that still defaces the country. Such people formed the privileged nomenklatura, and their collaboration sustained the dictatorship. Why did they collaborate with a regime about which they could have had no illusions?

Their excuse, which I have heard repeated in many conversations, is that they, too, were afraid. If they had not collaborated, someone else would have; they had to think of their families; and they personally had not beaten, tortured, killed, or enslaved anyone. All this may be true, but none of it is an excuse. For they need not have occupied their positions. They could have chosen, as a few—all too few—did, to be minor clerks, elementary school teachers, factory workers, mailmen, or, horror of horrors, to live in a village, not in a villa in an exclusive neighborhood of Budapest. They could have chosen poverty, internal exile, and silence, as a few nobly did.

But the nomenklatura shamefully, ignobly collaborated because they wanted the benefits with which the regime bribed them. When the speechifying period of the Revolution was coming to an end and the fighting began, then, sensing where their future interest lay, they cravenly sided with the Party and let the workers, the youths, and the deserters risk their lives, which many of them lost. And the collaborators chose correctly, because after the Revolution was crushed, after the rubble was cleared away and the show trials and executions began, they continued to receive benefits in exchange for their services. They could lie to themselves in the dark hours of a sleepless night that they really were opposed to the regime and that, had it not been for the welfare of their families, they would have joined the fighters. Part of the evil of dictatorship is that the fear it deliberately spreads often corrupts those who feel it, as it had corrupted these despicable people.

How might we answer the retrospective question of whether the Revolution was worth it? We might begin by asking: Worth it for whom? Let’s start with my personal point of view, shared by many of my contemporaries who left when I did. For us, the Revolution created the golden opportunity finally to do what we had dreamed of doing during the horrible years of the dictatorship: to leave for the West and create new lives. This was not just a wish for money, comfort, and a life without fear. We had that wish, of course; but we also wished, often inarticulately, for a life in circumstances in which it was possible to be honest, to tell the truth—a life in which it was not an exception but the rule that people had goodwill toward one another and in which decency, rather than corruption, prevailed. We had dreams about the possibilities of life in the West, and the Revolution made it possible for us to try to realize them. Reality did not quite match our dreams, but that is irrelevant to the eagerness with which we grasped the opportunity to escape that the Revolution created for us. We gave up in exchange our country, mother tongue, and society. With the passage of 50 years, I think the exchange was worth it, but my contemporaries might think differently.

Far more important than the personal viewpoint was the point of view of what used to be called the Free World: Western, anti-Communist democracies. Was the Revolution worth it from that point of view? The answer is undoubtedly yes. It was a resounding demonstration to the Third World, to fellow travelers (especially in France, Italy, and England), and to Communists living in the Free World that Communism was imposed by force, that those who lived under it hated it, and that the nations in the Russian sphere of interest yearned to be free of its yoke. The Revolution showed that what was thought to be American propaganda broadcast by Radio Free Europe, the Voice of America, and other media was in fact the truth.

It also meant that Russia had to commit substantial troops to prevent revolutions in other of its client states. This expensive effort strained Russian resources and made the troops unavailable for deployment elsewhere. It also had a corrosive effect on Russia itself, because the troops saw how much better life was in East-Central Europe than in Russia, and they took the news home with them. Since the Free World reaped all these benefits at the small cost of accommodating the 200,000 Hungarian refugees, from its point of view the Revolution was clearly worth it.

Add to this that the Hungarian Revolution was a significant step toward hastening the collapse of Communism, responsible for tens of millions of deaths—one of the most vicious regimes that human history has so far seen. If we bear this outcome in mind, then the few atrocities of the mob, the thousands of people killed, the emigration of 200,000 mostly well-educated people whose departure impoverished the future, and the material, economic, and psychological damage appear in a very different light—as the regrettable but acceptable price paid for hastening the disintegration of what has rightly been called an evil empire. The cost of the Revolution, then, may seem like the pain caused by necessary surgery: an unintended and unavoidable by-product with which, human nature being what it is, we must learn to live.

The Revolution, however, was a Hungarian revolution, and a central question is whether it was worth it from the Hungarian point of view. The people involved in the Revolution, of course, had no idea of whether it would succeed or fail, and even less idea of what its long-term effects might be. They did what they could under those wretched circumstances, but they could not have had the retrospective point of view that would have enabled them to distance themselves from the conditions they faced. This is the ever-present irony of history, not a peculiarity of the Hungarian Revolution: we are always doomed to act in ignorance of the long-term consequences of what we do, yet the evaluation of our actions partly depends on those consequences. It makes a great difference to weighing the cost of the Revolution whether it turned out to be part of a futile protest against the march of history or whether it was a small step toward the betterment of human life. But that knowledge is open only to us now, not to the revolutionaries then.

For the Hungarians, the facts remain what they were, regardless of how they seem retrospectively. The dead are dead, the tortured cannot undo what happened to them, the émigrés’ loss of country, language, and community is irreversible, and those who were imprisoned or enslaved cannot regain the years of which they were robbed. History marches on, and occasionally it may even go in a direction we like, but its path is strewn with victims whose loss is not redeemed by a future they cannot enjoy. Detachment is necessary for historians, but it is wrong to urge it on the victims and on those who grieve for them.

What’s more, the longer-term and less concrete consequences of the Revolution dwarfed the immediate costs. Immediately before the Revolution, the regime was relaxing the terror. It allowed small private enterprises, was less rigorous in censorship, permitted some foreign travel, and generally tended toward superficial reform, so long as it did not endanger Communist hegemony. The Revolution reversed this trend. Terror resumed, thousands were executed and imprisoned, the Kremlin strengthened its control over the country, the Party realized just how very unpopular it was, and to its members’ desire for power was added the fear of what would happen if they lost it.

The rest of the country—the workers, peasants, city dwellers, the middle class, and the young—were resigned to the continuation of the status quo. People grew even more cynical than they were before. They turned inward. Corruption increased, theft became ubiquitous, and it was often said, with wry characteristic humor, that we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.

Before the Revolution, people had some inchoate hope; immediately after it actually happened, they lost even that hope. These were the losses resulting from the Revolution. It is important to add that revolutions rarely succeed in improving life, and the atrocities to which they so frequently lead are rarely redeemed by an increase in human well-being. I can think of only one or two revolutions that made life better: the American Revolution that led to independence and the establishment of what is now the oldest constitutional regime in the world; and perhaps the Glorious Revolution in England, if it is proper to call it a revolution, which assured the Protestant succession. But one must be cautious in making generalizations about revolutions. They occur in very different circumstances, have very different consequences, and must be judged case by case.

What, then, were the gains for Hungarians? Well, there was that exhilarating week of freedom that showed how life might be, but of course it did not last. There was also the satisfaction that during that week, during the fighting that followed, and during the renewed terror after the Revolution was crushed, Hungary enjoyed the sympathy and attention of the Free World. This was a unique experience in Hungarian history, because for centuries its rulers had managed with remarkable consistency to ally the country with the wrong side. And there was also the satisfaction, derived from the characteristically Hungarian form of pride, of: We showed them! As far as I can see, these were all the gains.

If we compare the losses with the gains, the balance overwhelmingly tilts in favor of the losses. The costs of the Revolution were far greater than the benefits. I do not speak in monetary terms but in terms of the psyche of the nation. This is not a mystical entity but rather the bitter, cynical, hopeless psychological state of the people—the state of those who have learned that no violation of basic decency is impossible and who have lost the capacity to become outraged because the outrageous has become a daily occurrence in their lives. If I am not mistaken, this corrupted mentality persists in contemporary Hungary. In my judgment, therefore, from the Hungarian point of view, the Revolution was not worth it, regardless of what the Free World and those, like myself, who left thought about it.

This article grew out of a lecture I gave in Hungary on the 50th anniversary of the Revolution. A discussion followed the lecture, and three very different kinds of responses emerged. Members of the cultural elite, who had collaborated with the Communist regime, repeated the sorry explanation of having had no choice, and thus claimed to be excused. A second kind of response came from stalwart anti-Communists who have sentimentalized the Revolution. They were offended by my mention of the atrocities that the anti-Communist mob committed. They thought that it besmirched the Revolution to talk about such matters when the depredations of the Communist regime were incomparably greater. I reminded them—in vain—that the truth remains true even if it is unpleasant. Hungarian history for the past 150 or so years has lurched from disaster to disaster. Terrible things were done to and by Hungarians. The health of the society requires facing this, instead of searching desperately for redeeming events and then sentimentalizing them, as Hungarians are now doing with the Revolution of ’56. It is a redeeming episode in Hungarian history, but it is not without blemish. The last kind of response came from those who agreed that Hungary badly needs decency and truth. In my judgment, these people represent the best hope for the future of that ravaged country.

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