A deer in the Hungarian headlights

Imre Nagy was a politician in post-World War II, Soviet-controlled Hungary. He was a leader in the Communist party, but his interest was not so much in schmoozing within the inner circle of power. Rather, his hope was to provide an impulse for public discussion about the issues that needed to be dealt with in the development of a uniquely Hungarian socialism. Imre advocated a path to collective economic activity that would build upon societal remnants of Hungarian feudal traditions. The retention of certain traditional values and practices could provide an impetus for gradual progress instead of the forced cruelties of the Russian Soviet program. Nagy’s socialism “with a human face” could possibly eliminate, or at least minimize, the violence that would be doubtlessly be imposed  to enforce the dictates of Soviet administration.

The story of Nagy is a tragic saga of a man who tried to steer a safe course between Soviet cruelties and a dangerous impulse toward democratic socialism among the people of his own country.

Nagy

Imre Nagy’s sensitivity to the demands of his people endeared him to the people. They paid attention to him, respected him, actively supported him in a way that was not typical in a communist country.

But his story is a tragedy, because there was a moment in time when Imre Nagy suddenly saw, clearly, the impossibility of his moderate socialist gradualism. Suddenly, in one moment of high drama, his strategies were exposed as being in opposition to the people’s Revolution, even though he was a good Communist.  The revolutionary impulse in Hungary in 1956 was not, you see, the revolution of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. It was a Revolution to dispose of the revolution of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. It was counter-revolution.

But for the diehard hardline Soviet leadership, counter-revolution was NOT a thing to be tolerated. In fact, it must be stopped, by tanks and guns if necessary.

So Nagy’s unexpected reality-check came at a very dangerous point in time. The realization came at a moment when thousands of his fellow Hungarians were gathered at Kossuth Square in Budapest to hear him speak. He had just been appointed Prime Minister by the leaders of the Communist party. The big wheels of the Party were giving him a chance to do the “right thing”–take this populist bull by the horns and wrestle it down into Communist Party compliance.

On that Tuesday night in 1956, the Soviet head honchos, supported by the local Hungarian Party apparatchiks, were hastily putting together a plan to put down the gathering of the people outside of Parliament. They were planning to send in the heavy guns, the tanks, the Soviet soldiers. This huge populist crowd was gathering steam in Budapest; that very same uprising had been inspired, partly, by Imre Nagy’s leadership style and his tolerant message  of democratic socialism. At that moment, thousands of Hungarians were suddenly expecting to receive Nagy’s signal for a New Course from their new, reform-minded Prime Minister.

Janos M. Rainer describes the scene in his 2009 biography of Imre Nagy. With the thronging crowds gathered in from of him, Nagy stood in an open window ready to deliver a message to the people. It was about 9 p.m. The crowd was so large that some people could not hear him, even with the loudspeakers. Rainer writes:

“As Nagy approached the open window, he saw himself confronted with a completely unfamiliar force. (Nagy later said): ‘Only when I perceived the mood in the square did it become clear to me that what was called for was quite different from what I had prepared.’ “

“Comrades!” he began.

Some answered, “We are not comrades!” and “No more comrades!”

Someone said “All of Budapest is here!” “The nation is here.”

The people had gathered there to receive the leadership of a new, fearless Prime Minister to guide their movement into its destiny. They were seriously ready for a change. They were fed up with those guys from Moscow and their lackeys. As far as they could see, Imre Nagy, who stood ready to address them, could be their man of destiny. He had the courage and the independent spirit to rise to the challenge.

But Imre was unable to accept the mantle. He was too good a Communist Party man. According to Soviet doctrine, the Revolution could not happen here and now because the Revolution had already happened.

In 1917, In Russia. According to Communist doctrine, that Bolshevik event would be the model and the inspiration for all revolutions heretofore.

So the next morning the Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest and put an end to those Hungarian upstarts thinking they could do something without the Communist Party’s approval. Nagy did nothing to stop it because he knew he couldn’t stop it. He was a realist.

But he was an inspired realist.

And certainly it would not be the people of Hungary (or so the Party leaders thought) who would change the course of the working-out of the worldwide Communist revolution.

Hngr56

But ultimately, in the long run, in the big picture, it was the Hungarian people who did  release the spark that would change communist  history.  As subsequent decades rolled by, the Hungarians’ initiation of resistance did get the job done, with a little help from the Poles and the Czechs, and the Germans.

In 1989, it happened. The people of the European Communist lands overthrew the Soviets, and they did it without a violent revolution.

So maybe Imre Nagy was onto to something all along.

He was, when push came to shove, no revolutionary. He passed the baton on that opportunity. But he did have his place in history.

What a moment that must have been in October 1956 when the people demanded a revolutionary leader, but he was like a deer in their headlights. So he just did what he felt he had to do. He stepped into the background. He took the middle path of moderation. Ultimately, though, the people of Eastern Europe did get the freedom that the Hungarians had been demanding on that fateful night in October of 1956. It just took awhile.

Nagy, their brand new Prime Minister, passed up his chance to become a revolutionary leader like Lenin or Mao.

I probably would have done the same thing.

King of Soul 

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