Interview. As Hungary remembers the uprising of Oct. 23, 1956, we spoke with László Eörsi, a historian of the anti-Soviet revolution. He says the current government is distorting the socialist-led uprising for political ends.

Hungary’s government is ‘killing the rule of law’

László Eörsi is the son of István Eörsi, the writer, poet and translator who was sentenced to eight years for supporting the Hungarian anti-Soviet uprising of 1956 as a journalist. He was later pardoned. Eörsi is now a historian at the Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution in Budapest. He has dedicated numerous works to this topic. He is among the intellectuals active in criticizing the Orbán government. We met with him to review the facts of the 1956 Hungarian revolt at its 60th anniversary and talk with him about its meaning in Hungary today.

It seems that in some way, the memory of the events of 1956 still divides the country politically, as each of the main parties seems to call itself the true heir of the uprising’s protagonists.

The Socialists define themselves more precisely as heirs of Imre Nagy. For the rest, it is typical of them to be silent about what happened in 1956. The Fidesz and Jobbik parties [the far-right xenophobic movement] converge in their way of feeling the heirs of 1956 by completely distorting its meaning, its essence.

In particular, it must be emphasized that both parties consider a model to follow those who fought in the streets of Budapest, but mystify their objectives. (At the outbreak of the revolution, the opposition reformist intelligentsia and sectors of the party gave a decisive contribution, which in essence wanted to put an end to a traditional way of doing politics.) For them, the most important thing about 1956 is the struggle for independence, not so much commitment to democracy, to which they give less prominence.

As I said, these two parties heavily distort the objectives of 1956 and clothe them in fundamentally conservative ideals and principles. As if the revolutionaries, fighters for freedom, had wanted to return to the Horthy system and the influence that the Church had at the time in the country.

No, at least 90 percent of them clearly rejected the Horthy regime and intended to achieve leftist ideals but with the overthrow of Stalinism. They wanted to create together independence, self-management of labor and land reform. Liberal ideals were at most present in the aspiration to free elections, but, in general, they do not characterize the insurgency objectives.

Is it possible that too much rhetoric has debased the memory of ’56?

I would say that the current political establishment has created this situation. The socialists cannot be blamed; as I said before, they prefer not to talk about the past. Instead, the so-called right-wing parties have always exploited 1956 to achieve their political objectives, both at home and abroad. All this has led to the aforementioned heavy falsifications on this issue.

To date, there are those who claim that between October and November 1956, there was a leftist revolution in Hungary. According to others it is not yet entirely clear because reactionary elements played an important role in this insurrection. How do you see this aspect, as a historian?

When we analyze the press, radio programs, posters and flyers of the time, we cannot have any doubts about the ideals of the revolutionaries. All this goes to integrate the political statements contained in the documents drawn up back then. In light of all this, there can be no misunderstanding on the orientation taken by the insurgents in 1956. Clearly the evaluation of those events is made difficult by the fact that most of the principles, cultivated by the left of that era, have changed a lot since the system change that has led to the spread of a completely different ideology.

Lately, has any new relevant information been uncovered by studying the facts of ’56?

I am not aware of any big news on this topic. However, there are small discoveries all the time. I also work on it, and this year my studies have led to the output of three volumes on the history of 1956 in the peripheral areas.

As for Imre Nagy, we can say that he was always a communist, but just at the time of the revolution he got rid of all the old habits.

In recent decades it has been said that the uprising of 1956 has left a universal message to posterity. In your opinion, is that true? Can one still talk about a current message? And if yes, what is it?

Today, the most current message is related to freedom of the press. The recent closure of the opposition newspaper Népszabadság constitutes a severe blow to this value. The abuse of power revealed by the closure of Népszabadság, which took place for political reasons, hardly fits in with the official celebrations to commemorate 1956. Viktor Orbán, who has won absolute power, is the last person who can symbolize 1956 since he does not symbolize freedom but rather an authoritarian and autocratic power.

We must not forget that before and after 1956, the country’s fate was decided in Moscow. The aspiration to freedom and independence by Hungarians back then is therefore understandable. Today, our country is a totally independent country. Nationalism has no reason to exist. It is only a pernicious trend.

The fighters of 1956 wanted freedom and democracy, and today there are those who demonstrate against Orbán and the anti-democratic policy of his government. A major Hungarian writer, Lajos Parti Nagy, who criticizes this government, once said that the country has no democratic identity. What is your opinion on this and on Hungary’s current situation?

It is clear that we have strayed far from the spirit of 1956. In recent years, we are witnessing the killing of the rule of law and democracy. Instead of engaging in terms of solidarity, the government is pursuing a permanent campaign based on hate. And as mentioned above, it has also brutally suppressed freedom of the press.