Storytellers is an ongoing attempt to tease out bits of history or literature that would make damned good films. Because if we throw enough ideas out there, Hollywood might accidentally make something good.
On this day In 1956, a funny little thing happened in the People’s Republic of Hungary. The people tried to take back their republic.
The country was in a catastrophic economic crisis and the hard line communist government gave way to a more lenient one. Not liberal or free by any stretch of the imagination, but just looser enough that people began to speak again. Radio Free Europe crackled through the jamming on hidden radios, never quite promising that help would come though that was the message many heard in the silence between sentences. On the 23rd of October, students assembled to protest, tearing down a colossal statue of Stalin, leaving only the boots standing. Over the course of the day, the crowds swelled, until 200,000 citizens pooled around the center of the city. That’s when the security forces opened fire and the government pleaded for the Soviet Union to help.
The first Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest early in the morning and the government turned power over to Imre Nagy, a former head of state who had been kicked out of the party some years previously for proposing such absurdities as free elections and “socialism with a human face.” It was a clever idea, bringing in this harmless old guy who promised that his old reforms would now be passed. He’d look like a compromise to the people, a concession so that they’d let the moment pass in peace. But the moment was too far gone. The city disintegrated over the next 36 hours as the security forces and Soviets found that Budapest was willing to fight. The people cut the Communist emblem out of the Hungarian flags, flying their colors with a hole in the middle. Street by street, with Molotov cocktails and stolen rifles, the people pushed the tanks out of their city because sometimes flesh is stronger than steel.
A lull fell over the city as the Soviet forces retreated into the country side, a moment of disbelief that the citizens had actually won. Imre Nagy was seated as Prime Minister and then faced that moment where he could have made peace. He could have worked out the compromise approach, this little chubby man with a funny mustache, receding hair and tiny glasses. There would need to be sacrificial lambs, people executed in cells and more shipped off to camps, but peace could still happen with a sacrifice. The few could be given up to avoid the coming bloodbath, and perhaps with a little luck they could keep some of their gains, some of their small new freedoms.
Instead that man who looked like a low level bureaucrat, punching a time clock with all the charisma of an old filing cabinet, a life long member of the communist party, that man decided that he was done with compromise. In a stroke, he declared that Hungary would hold free elections, that it withdrew from the Warsaw Pact, that it was formally neutral like Austria and Switzerland. He sent appeals to the United Nations and to America, pleading that they recognize Hungarian neutrality.
But the only answer in the ensuing silence was the mobilizing armies on the borders and on November 1st, the Red Army entered Hungary in force, supported by troops from the other members of the Warsaw Pact. Nagy broadcast pleas for help over the next three days, as the Hungarian army and people fought the invasion. As the Soviets took Budapest, Nagy and some members of his cabinet took asylum in the embassy of Yugoslavia. Janos Kadar, a member of Nagy’s own cabinet, hand wrote a note personally guaranteeing Nagy’s protection, guaranteeing safe passage to the West. As Nagy emerged from the embassy, he was seized, and disappeared into a secret prison. He was tried in secret, hung in secret, and buried anonymously in an unmarked grave in section 301 of the City cemetery.
If the great shame of the American left was the years of lingering apologizing for the Soviet horror, the great shame of the American right was the failure to hold the courage of its convictions. A hundred thousand Americans died to ensure that if Asian countries most Americans couldn’t find on maps were going to have dictators, then by god they were going to be our dictators, not theirs. And yet not a finger was lifted when the tanks descended on democracy 150 miles east of Vienna. I think something died in the West that day, when the vaunted defenders of democracy blinked, when they conceded that they were willing to fight on this side of the line, but not that side of the line. The consequence would have likely been World War III had America backed Nagy. And in the end, thirty years later, it all worked out okay didn’t it? But that’s hindsight, a justification of why you weren’t willing to fight for principle when it stared you in the eye.
Kadar became Prime Minister in Nagy’s place, ruling for the next 30 years and on the eve of democracy Imre Nagy’s grave was found and he was reburied with honor.
It’s a beautiful story that would make an eloquent movie, with all the ready made trappings of drama. There are the protests, the fighting in the streets, the visual symbols of flags with holes and toppling statues, the bad guys and the good guys, even a Judas to twist the knife home at the end. But what makes it a transcendent story is that at the center of the whirlwind is not Mel Gibson in blue face or Russell Crowe swinging a sword, but a man you’d pass on the street and not even notice. Not the best man, he was part of the ruling elite of a brutal dictatorship, but a man who tried to make things right in the end, knowing full well what his fate would likely be.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.