11. The October 23 Demonstrations

The October 23 Demonstrations

"Do not be afraid of the initiative and independence of the masses; entrust yourselves to the revolutionary organisations of the masses."
V. I. Lenin, One of the Fundamental Questions of the Revolution (1917).

In the absence of Gerö, now returning from Belgrade, the Party was undecided about what should be done. Some, believing they were expressing Gerö's wishes, wanted the march banned. Others preferred the old tactic of infiltration and take-over. Both views sprang from a degenerate and bureaucratic attitude to events. Laszlo Piros, the Minister of the Interior and a close associate of Gerö, had the final word. On the morning of Tuesday, October 23, permission to hold the march was withdrawn

Delegations from the various groupings and universities began to arrive at Party Headquarters in Academy Square. A few were allowed in. They asked officials to use their influence to get the ban withdrawn. Gyula Hay, and a small delegation from the Petöfi Circle, argued for the lifting of the ban. They explained that many students and writers intended to march, permission or no permission. The bureaucrats prevaricated.

By the afternoon, marchers were forming up in different parts of the City. As is so often the case, rank-and-file action caused a sudden change of mind at the Ministry of the Interior. Deputy Minister Mihaly Fekete suddenly announced on the radio that the ban had been lifted. The 'infiltration' faction had apparently won. Fekete patronisingly added: "The employees and all the Communist Party members of the Ministry of the Interior have rallied to the side of honest Hungarians in the interests of change."

The demonstration was soon under way. Marchers were converging on the Bem statue from numerous points in Budapest. A crowd of several thousands had assembled at the Petöfi statue and now joined the march. The Hungarian national colours of red, white and green were much in evidence. Improvised banners and posters appeared. Some were simply inscribed "Freedom." Others added "Independence - Truth." Others still called for "Polish-Hungarian Friendship." Among the many and diverse slogans, which showed the individuality of the demonstrators, none was directly anti-Russian. Only one came anywhere near to it: "Let each nation keep its army to its own soil!" [57]

The various columns of marchers arrived at the Bem statue one after the other. They there fused into one great crowd. The large majority were young people. On the way their ranks had grown as people in the streets, women, and children, had joined. A small number of workers left their jobs and tagged on, a little self-consciously. Even before all the marchers had arrived, spontaneous speeches were being made. The general theme was solidarity. Solidarity at home. International solidarity. Solidarity with the people of Poland was much stressed.

Considerable pathos was added when a student reminded the crowd of the 1849 revolution by reciting the words of Petöfi:

"Our battalions have combined two nations
And what nations! Polish and Magyar!
Is there any destiny that is stronger
Than those two when they are united?"

When nearly 50,000 people a had assembled, Peter Veres moved up to the foot of the statue to read a resolution from the Writers' Union. Its seven points can be summarised as follows

"We want

1. An independent national policy based on the principles of socialism.

2. Equality in relations with the U.S.S.R. and the People's Democracies.

3. A revision of economic agreements in the spirit of the equality of national rights.

4. The running of the factories by workers and specialists.

5. The right of peasants freely to decide their own fate.

6. The removal of the Rakosi clique, a post in the Government for Imre Nagy, and a resolute stand against all counter-revolutionary attempts and aspirations.

7. Complete political representation of the working class - free and secret ballot in elections to Parliament and to all autonomous organs of administration."[58]

As Peter Veres stepped down, the crowd applauded. They had listened in almost total silence. Indeed, why should they have become particularly excited? In some respects, the resolution was remarkably vague. There was really very little in it that Krushchev himself had not advocated at some time or other. The demands could, it is true, have been developed into a revolutionary programme. No mention was made of how all this might be achieved, even as it stood.

The demonstration was over. The crowds began to move away, but not to disperse. For some unknown reason they marched towards Parliament Square. Another crowd of several thousands joined them on the way. When they reached the Square they just stood there, in silence. People were now converging on Parliament Square in their hundreds. Many of the later arrivals had heard Gerö make his expected speech on the radio. Snatches from the speech were passed on, in low, angry voices. Faces at the windows of the Parliament building stared out at the crowd, which must now have numbered about a hundred thousand. Perhaps those at the windows became afraid. Suddenly all the lights in the building and in the square went out. The crowd remained where it was. Someone struck a match and lit a newspaper. Newspapers flared up all over the square. The people watched the building take on a gaunt, menacing look in the flickering yellow light. Perhaps they were thinking of what Gerö had just said: the students' demonstration had been an attempt to destroy democracy ... to undermine the power of the working class ... to loosen the friendly ties between Hungary and the Soviet Union ... whoever attacks our achievements will be repelled ... the intellectuals had heaped slanders on the Soviet Union; they had asserted that Hungary was trading with the Soviet Union on an unequal footing, that independence must allegedly be defended, not against the imperialists, but against the Soviet Union. All this was an impudent lie - hostile propaganda which did not contain a train of truth. After more such accusations. Gerö had said that the Central Committee would not meet for eight days.

Was this why the people now stood silently in Parliament Square? Or were they just dumbfounded and exasperated by Gerö's intransigent stupidity? Was it really possible that hypocrisy could be taken so far? The sheer mendacity left one speechless. Why deny so vehemently what everybody knew to be fact?

A discussion began in one corner of the Square. After a while, voices from the darkness suggested that a delegation should go to the Radio station, in Sánder Street, with the request that their demands be broadcast. There were cries of agreement from the crowd. Then more discussion. Eventually a deputation moved off in the direction of Sándor Street ... followed by 100,000 people! They now wanted to see some action, if only a broadcast, result from their silent vigil in Parliament Square. As this mass of people moved through the streets, they were joined by several thousand more, many of them industrial workers on their way home.

Further along the road, a group in the crowd decided to visit the City Park where stood a 26 foot, bronze statue of Stalin, the 'Man of Steel'. Two or three thousand people peeled off from the body of marchers and joined them. They were in great spirits, singing and laughing. When they reached the statue, a ladder and a tough rope were passed up onto the massive plinth. The ladder was put against the pedestal. Up climbed two men. A rope was placed around 'Stalin's' neck. It was grabbed by hundreds of eager hands. It tautened. The statue grated and creaked as it bowed, slowly, to the crowd. With a final screech, it fell from its pedestal. There was an ear-splitting clang as it hit the plinth. A great cheer was followed by a roar of hilarious laughter. The whole thing was ludicrous. It was absurd. The plinth now looked even more grotesque. Still firmly planted on the pedestal were 'Stalin's' 6-foot-high jack-boots. The rest of the statue was taken away by lorry and dumped in front of the National Theatre, where a laughing crowd soon smashed it to pieces.

Stalin's boots, however, still stood there. What an omen for those who believed in such things! It is not much use getting rid of one man. Another will always fill his boots. You must get rid of the need for rulers. Perhaps somebody thought about this, for later a Hungarian flag appeared in one of the boots. This red, white, and green tricolour, with the Communist hammer and wheatsheaf emblem raggedly cut from its centre, was the only symbol of revolution the people knew.

The main crowd marching from Parliament Square had in the meantime arrived at the entrance to Sándor Street. It had been joined by many thousands more, mostly workers. Many had rushed there from all over Budapest. They had heard Gerö's speech (which had been broadcast at 6 p.m. and again at 7). The spontaneous decision of the demonstrators to go to the Radio Station particularly appealed to the workers. Traffic in the centre of the city had come to a standstill. The municipal police, though somewhat perplexed, made no attempt to interfere with the 'unofficial' marchers. But the entrance to Sándor Street was barred by a shoulder-to-shoulder line of the dreaded A.V.O. men. They had also occupied the Radio Building. A machine-gun-carrying detachment stood on guard outside. The marchers stopped. There had obviously been members of the A.V.O. among the crowd in Parliament Square. On hearing the intention of the crowd to march to the Radio Station, they had informed their leaders.

The demonstrators craned their necks to see why the march had halted. They saw the glint of arms held by the grim-faced Security Police. Although unarmed, they no longer felt fear. In their solidarity, they recognised their strength. They glimpsed the possibility of freedom. Their destiny was in their hands alone. Yet none advocated violence against their oppressors.

"Let us pass!" - "The Hungarian people must hear our proposals!" - "Send in a delegation!". These demands were shouted from various points in the crowd. Each demand was greeted with great applause. There was some discussion among the front ranks. A delegation was formed. After a further discussion with the A.V.O., this small group of people was let through the cordon and then into the Radio Building.

The crowd waited. The air rumbled with conversations. Occasional laughter was heard, even the snatch of a song. They were still in good mood. An hour passed. No sign of the delegation. The crowd's gaiety gave way to more serious determination. Some people were growing restless. The front ranks were now touching the A.V.O. cordon. Another half-hour. Still no word from their comrades in the building. The mood changed rapidly. Angry shouts flew up from all parts of the crowd. The armed cordon began to bulge a little. The A.V.O. men were clearly worried. After all, according to official rules and regulations, the people shouldn't really be there at all. And there were so many of them! People across the whole width of the road. People as far as the eye could see!

"Where's our delegation ?" - "Let them out!" - "Free our delegates!" - roared the crowd impatiently. A spontaneous surge forward swept the A.V.O. cordon aside. The people halted in front of another line of A.V.O. men guarding the Radio Building. Policemen throughout the world are not noted for either intelligence or understanding. The Hungarian Security Police were no exception. What should they do? The demonstrators were unarmed - but there were thousands of them and they were angry. In any case, demonstrations of this sort were illegal. For their protection, ruling minorities always staff their police forces with men whose minds only work one way. The A.V.O. men knew only one answer. Machine-guns fired.

Agonized shrieks arose as the front ranks of the peaceful demonstrators crumpled to the ground. The crowd became infuriated. The police were quickly overwhelmed, their arms used to fire at the windows of the Radio Building from which lead now streaked into the throngs below.

The Hungarian Revolution had begun.