One of the Cold War’s most poignant ideological debates concerned the role of the state in political speech and education. However, having the freedom to learn about one’s history is not the same as actually learning it.
In 2011, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported some sobering statistics on the state of American history education:
The National Assessment of Educational Progress—commonly called “The Nation’s Report Card”—tells a dismal story: Only 2% of high school seniors in 2010 could answer a simple question about the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. (6)
Hungarians in 1956 were likely more knowledgeable about their history than modern Americans are about their own.
Some of this was likely due to the great strides in education made by the Communist government since the end of WWII, “raising literacy standards in the countryside and massively increasing the number of places at colleges and universities for the children of peasants and workers” (Sebestyen 102). If you didn’t mind constant Communist indoctrination, you got a pretty decent education.
On both sides of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, an impressive element of the rebellion was the extent to which the past played a role in how historical actors saw themselves and framed their fight. In fact, each side’s historical framework might have been clearer than their exact stances on Communism and a future for the ideology in governance (see Part 1).
On the pro-Soviet side, Lajos Gyurkó, a Hungarian “Communist fanatic” army commander, swore to crush the rebellion “to ensure that White Terror which followed the 1919 Soviet republic is not repeated” (Sebestyen 168).
The rebels, on the other hand, framed the 1956 Hungarian Revolution as relative to the 1848 Hungarian Revolution. In 1848, the Hungarians revolted against the Austrian Empire, and when the Hungarian resistance proved too much for Austrian forces, Emperor Franz Joseph I requested assistance from Czar Nicolas I of Russia.
When college and university students first broke away from the Communist student organization, DISZ, they chose to reference the 1848 Revolution in several ways. The iconic “Sixteen Points,” a manifesto of student demands, included several references to the heroes of 1848. In point 13, students demanded “the Stalin statue — the symbol of Stalinist tyranny and political oppression — should be removed as quickly as possible and that a memorial worthy of the freedom fighters and martyrs of 1848-49 should be erected on its site.”
Students further demanded “the existing coat of arms, which is foreign to the Hungarian people” be replaced with the “old Hungarian Kossuth arms” in point 14. (Lajos Kossuth was a Hungarian “freedom fighter” from the 1848 Revolution who briefly acted as Regent-President of Hungary.) In the same point, students called for a new national holiday on March 15, the date that Sándor Petöfi, national poet of Hungary, read his poem “Nemzeti dal” (“National Song”) and spurred the beginning of the 1848 Revolution.
The rebels’ presentation of their demands in the form of “hastily typed up and printed flysheets . . . which overnight they plastered on walls and trees throughout the city” (Sebestyen 103), in itself, also echoed the actions of the rebels who came before. Nineteenth-century Hungarian revolutionaries created the “Twelve Points,” a list of their own demands brought to representatives of the Austrian Empire.
On October 23, 1956, the revolution began with a student march to the statue of Jószef Bem. This was another highly symbolic act; Bem was a Polish general who fought with the Hungarians in 1848 and was executed by Russian forces. By choosing Bem, the students not only further suggested a parallel between themselves and the rebels of 1848, but also acknowledged friendship with Poland (which just weeks before underwent a change in leadership and an accompanying thaw) and enmity for the Russians.
Though the historical impetus of the 1848 Revolution provided motivation to the Hungarian “freedom fighters,” it could not change the ending to this sad story.
In 1848, “the Austrians invited the Russians into Hungary,” and in 1956 “the Russians invited themselves” (Sebestyen 139).
In both cases the Russians “brutally crushed the rebellion” (Sebestyen 82).
Sebestyen, Victor. Twelve Days : The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. New York: Pantheon Books, 2006.
“Sixteen Political, Economic, and Ideological Points, Budapest, October 22, 1956,” Modern History Sourcebook (Fordham University). From Report of the Special Committee on the Problem of Hungary, UN General Assembly, Official Records: Eleventh Session, Supplement No. 18 (A/3592) p. 69.
Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Program. “Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States 2011.” Montgomery, AL: Southern Poverty Law Center, 2011. Report available online.