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"Australian values" learned in Budapest uprising


'Australian values' learned in Budapest uprisingThis year, the people of Hungary will mark the 50th anniversary of their heroic but unsuccessful revolution against their former Soviet occupiers, and the communist system the USSR once imposed on them.

Few countries have had a more traumatic recent history than Hungary. In 1914 they were a proud and independent people, co-rulers with the Austrians of the enormous multi-ethnic Habsburg empire. But the shock of defeat in 1918 brought down the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and allowed the communists led by Bela Kun to seize power.

In the 1930s the authoritarian Admiral Horthy ruled over a demoralised Hungary. The Hungarians joked that they were “the only landlocked country ever to be ruled by an admiral”. Horthy made the fatal mistake of allying himself with Hitler, and joining in the invasion of the Soviet Union. Horthy tried to keep his distance from the worst German excesses, but in 1944 Hitler pushed him aside and installed the “Arrowcross” Nazi, Ferenc Szalasi. Hitler’s grim executioner Adolf Eichmann came to Budapest, and in six months 300,000 Hungarian Jews and Roma were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz. Most of the Hungarian Army was destroyed on the Eastern Front. More than 600,000 Hungarians were killed in the war.

'Australian values' learned in Budapest uprisingThe Red Army arrived in Hungary in 1945, and Marshal Voroshilov was installed as High Commissioner. Although the Hungarian Communist Party had very little support, the Soviets shamelessly rigged elections, persecuted and imprisoned anti-communist politicians, and even imprisoned the head of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Mindszenty. By 1948 the Communists were in full control. The Communist ruler, Matyas Rakosi, was the most ruthless of all Stalin’s eastern European satraps.

Stalin’s death in 1953 set off a chain of events that culminated in the uprising of 1956. Gradual de-Stalinisation was not acceptable to the Soviets. Hungarians hated the imposed communist rule. Demands for reform mounted. On 23 October 1956, Budapest students rebelled and issued a manifesto demanding free elections. The Soviets reacted ruthlessly, sending their army into the city. This triggered a general rising and the overthrow of the regime. A reformed communist, Imre Nagy, became Prime Minister. Nagy announced that Hungary would leave the Warsaw Pact and become a neutral state, that all political prisoners would be released and that free elections would be held.

In Moscow, the Soviets viewed these events with horror. Their empire’s legitimacy was at stake with the challenge to the Communist Party’s monopoly of power in Hungary. On 3 November, the Soviets made a new attack on the rebel stronghold of Budapest, using tanks, air-strikes and artillery. Over 2,500 Hungarians were killed in the fighting. When the rebel government was crushed, 200,000 people fled abroad, of whom 14,000 eventually settled in Australia. Over a thousand people, including Imre Nagy, were executed by the vengeful Hungarian Communists. The crushing of Budapest became the model for communist regimes. As Tiananmen Square showed again, years later, only communists who are willing to use tanks to kill their own people, or similar extreme measures, can keep power for any decent period of time.

'Australian values' learned in Budapest uprisingHere in Australia we saw an echo of these terrible events at the Melbourne Olympic Games, where the Soviet and Hungarian water polo teams met in the infamous “blood in the water” match, which had to be called off when fans rioted in the stands. Together with Khrushchev’s “secret speech” to the 20th Party Congress denouncing Stalin, Soviet brutalisation of Hungary was the final event that led most idealistic communists to leave western communist parties. Disgust with the Soviets over Hungary led many Australian communists to abandon the Party.

While Radio Free Europe urged the Hungarians to rise up, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles decided that it was not possible for the NATO forces based in West Germany to intervene. To do so would have been to provoke a war with the Soviets, something the U.S. was not ready to do in 1956—particularly since the western alliance was deeply split over the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt, which the U.S. strongly opposed. It is difficult for us today to sit in judgment on decisions made by western leaders 50 years ago, but the Hungarians felt deeply betrayed, and it is hard to blame them.

'Australian values' learned in Budapest uprisingThe Hungarian tragedy was part of the wider tragedy of post-war Europe. The western alliance with the Soviets was necessary to defeat Nazi Germany, but it had terrible consequences for the peoples of eastern and central Europe, who had to endure 45 years of incompetent and repressive governments before the Soviet system became so rotten that leaders such Ronald Reagan, Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II were able to apply sufficient economic, political and moral pressure to topple it.

Today Hungary is a country as free as Australia. The Hungarian émigrés who came to Australia, both after the war and in 1956, have made a great contribution to Australian life. Whether it is Frank Lowy, Judy Cassab, who twice won the Archibald Prize, or my dear family friends, the Selby, Erdi and Kertes families, Hungary’s loss has been Australia’s gain.

None of them, by the way, were required to take an English exam or subscribe to “Australian values”—they learned plenty about the values of freedom and democracy in the streets of Budapest.



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Existing comments

Excellent reflective piece Michael. It is good to see pieces like this in Eureka Street, as it shows, once again, the value of a magazine prepared to take the time to reflect, and not just breathlessly report the news.

Peter Connolly | 17 October 2006  

Perhaps it was the Australian values learnt in responding to nearly a quarter of a million newcomers to the Bonegilla Reception and Training Centre over a long time that inspired many in the Albury-Wodonga district to organise ways of welcoming Hungarian refugees.
By mid-1957 they had distributed clothes to 6,500 and found jobs for as many as they could.
A variety of groups were involved - the Catholic, Presbyterian and Seventh Day Adventist churches, the YWCA, Apex and the Good Neighbour Council. A Hungarian Relief Committee was organised by Ald JC King. There was an Albury Civic Hospitality Committee. Hungarians who had come earlier acted as translators.
Not everything was cosy, but some effort was made by a variety of community groups to 'take in strangers' in an Australian way.

Bruce Pennay | 17 October 2006  

Thank you for this article, which brought back memories of my Hungarian father, Lorant Stary and my grandparents, who could not return to their homeland after WWII, and so came to Australia. As young children we had some refugees of the 1956 uprising living in our home, he often sent parcels back to friends and extended family in Budapest. My father was passionately anti-communist and grieved for the place of his birth, whch he loved dearly. He could not and never did return there - the pain must have been enormous.

Maria George | 17 October 2006  

If only more Australians could bear in mind that we are all immigrants, and people such as Frank Lowy are what has made this nation great.

Hillary Atkins | 18 October 2006  

Thank you for your kind words regarding the Hungarian freedom fighters. As a Hungarian-American, I have the utmost respect for Austrialians and your steadfast, staunch committment to democracy and freedom. Thank you.

Sean B. | 24 October 2006  

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