10. The First Demands

The First Demands

"Men make their own history, whatever its outcome may be, in that each person follows his own consciously desired end, and it is precisely the resultant of these many wills operating in different directions and of their manifold effects upon the outer world that constitutes history. Thus it is also a question of what the many individuals desire".
F. Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1888).

Towards the end of September the first of the Poznan trials began in Poland. Public sympathy with the accused was apparent. Every possible opportunity was taken, both by those on trial and the public, to condemn the violence and injustice of the regime. The Government squirmed. Almost all the accused were ordinary workers. The sentences were comparatively mild.

When this news reached the Hungarians they were elated. The tension and the pressure on the Government increased.

The ruling group, feeling themselves more out of touch than usual, tried to win sympathy with a stage-managed funeral for Laszlo Rajk. Many of those who had stage-managed his trial and execution as a "Titoist Fascist" now indignantly deplored the "slander" of Comrade Rajk who had been "innocently condemned and executed." Their belief that they could deceive the people with such a macabre exhibition proved their complete to degeneracy. Over 200,000 people turned out for the funeral. [52] Even then the 'leaders' did not see the light. They did not see that the demand for Rajk's complete rehabilitation was purely symbolic. The people had not forgotten the brutality of Rajk's secret police. "One of the jokes current in Budapest at the time was: 'What is the difference between a Christian and a Marxist? The Christian believes in a hereafter; the Marxist believes in a rehabilitation hereafter'." [53]

Rajk's exhumed corpse was re-buried on Martyrs' Day - October 6. This was the anniversary of the execution by the Austrians, on October 6, 1849, of the first constitutional Prime Minister of Hungary, Count Batthány, and of thirteen others. About three hundred young men discovered some connection between this and the day's event. They began the first unofficial demonstration. They marched to the Batthány monument carrying posters and shouting slogans about independence and freedom. Several onlookers joined them believing that such a demonstration, however incredible, must have official sanction.

During September and early October the workers had become active. They were demanding 'genuine workers' self-government'[54] in the factories. The Trade Union Council, still controlled by the Party, gave these demands the universal 'leadership' twist. It 'moderated' them. The demands were revolutionary in the circumstances: broadening of trade union democracy; establishment of workers' control;[55] a prominent role for the unions in solving problems of production and management; the manager to keep his "full right" to make decisions, but to consult the union committee on questions of wages and welfare. Here was the most important development in the whole of the campaign so far.

This remarkable political consciousness of the workers had its core in the concentrated industrial area of Czepel Island, [56] in the Danube between Buda and Pest. It immediately transformed the whole situation. Until now the campaign had been one of agitational ferment and protest. The workers' demand for 'self-government ' in the factories gave it a revolutionary edge in the strictest sense of the word. The workers were preparing for the psychological moment when their radical action would change the whole political and economic system. No wonder that, later on, the spokesmen of the West were to prove so uninformative!

The Petöfi Circle took up the workers' demands. But they were still unaware of their revolutionary implications. In a series of new demands, the Government was requested to hand over the administration of the factories to the workers. This must surely have appeared naive to anyone aware of the nature of government. It tended to perpetuate the illusion that any government can act in the interests and on behalf of working people.

The Petöfi Circle also called for the expulsion of Rakosi from the Party; for a public trial of General Farkas; for a revision of the second Five Year Plan; for equality in all relations between Hungary and the Soviet Union; for full publication of all trade agreements (the trade pact with Moscow for the exploitation of the rich uranium deposits found a few months earlier at Pécs was stressed); and for the re-admittance of Nagy to the Party. A concession to the pressure came a few days later. Nagy was given a new Party card!

In mid-October, Gerö left to meet Tito in Belgrade. At precisely this time, momentous events were taking place in Poland. The Hungarian intellectuals were further inspired when they learned that the Kremlin and the old Polish leadership had been defeated, that Gomulka had been elected as First Secretary, that Rokossovski had resigned.

The Petöfi Circle called for a mass demonstration on October 23, "to express the deep sympathy and solidarity with our Polish brothers" in their struggle for freedom. They applied to the Ministry of the Interior for permission to hold the demonstration. It was granted! All hell would have broken loose had it been refused.

By October 22, groups in the Hungarian universities and the various discussion circles were meeting. They considered the form of the demonstration. There was broad agreement that there should be a march to the statue of General Josef Bern, on the bank of the Danube. This seemed appropriate. Bem was a Pole who won fame when he fought with the Hungarians against the Hapsburg (Austrian) oppression in the so-called 'umbrella revolution' of 1848-49. But there was some disagreement between two of the largest Budapest universities. The Central University wanted slogans and banners to make the purpose of the demonstration clear beyond doubt. The Polytechnic wanted a more 'aesthetic' demonstration - no shouting, no banners, just a quiet march to the statue and back. A surprising development occurred at Szeged University, in Hungary's second largest city. A separate students' organisation, called MEFESZ, was formed. Many members of DISZ, the official Communist organisation, joined. The Party decided it was no use trying to oppose the regrouping. To retain some influence, DISZ was instructed to welcome the new formation. Then DISZ went further. It decided to participate in the next day's demonstration.

By the end of October 1956, many years of misery, of being bullied and oppressed, manipulated and managed, had brought the Hungarian people to the brink of revolution. Yet the people were not fully aware of it. No plans had been laid, no conscious steps taken towards fundamental change. No leadership, in the generally accepted sense, had emerged. Nevertheless, the classical conditions for revolution were there. The build-up had occurred over a period of years. The culminating events were to be compressed into days - even hours.