On October 23, exactly 50 years ago, the Hungarian revolution broke out. Let’s commemorate the brave people who then took to the streets. More than a revolution, it was a fight for freedom. The whole nation took part in it. They wanted to be rid of the Communism that Stalin had imposed on them through the Red Army. Among other symbolic gestures, the Communists had pulled down a famous church and erected a monster statue of Stalin in bronze on the site. The first act of the freedom fighters was to take metal cutters and demolish that statue, leaving nothing but Stalin’s empty boots on a plinth. Similarly in Baghdad in 2003?
Hungarian soldiers were obliged to wear a Red Star cap-badge, and one of the sounds of the time was the tinkle these cap-badges made when whole units threw them off. Hungarian soldiers and policemen joined the freedom fighters, established themselves in a cinema and a barracks, and fought off the Soviet army. More than epic, it was Homeric, something to remind mankind of the heights we can rise to in order to be free. Dragged along by events, the newly installed Prime Minister Imre Nagy did his best, but he had behind him a lifelong career as a Communist, and he made the fatal mistake of trusting the Russians. We know now that Khrushchev and the Politburo in the Kremlin always preferred a military solution to a political compromise with Hungary. They tricked the Hungarians into coming to arrange a treaty, arrested the delegation, sent the tanks in, smashed up everything, judicially murdered Nagy and at least 300 others, imprisoned over 20,000 and drove 200,000 into exile in the West.
“Help Hungary. Help!” was the final appeal on the radio, put out by Gyula Hay, the playwright and in his day a veteran Communist too. In sad fact, the United States did nothing, making it plain that the Soviets could do their worst. On hearing that a revolution had broken out, President Eisenhower limited himself to saying, “The heart of America goes out to the people of Hungary.” Heart is all very well, but what about muscle? Robert Murphy, then undersecretary of state and an experienced trouble-shooter, summed up Washington’s failure: “Perhaps history will demonstrate that the free world could have intervened to give Hungarians the liberty they sought, but none of us in the State Department had the skill or the imagination to devise a way.”
The problem may change geographical location, but not its essence. What’s to be done about tyranny? “Help Iraq. Help!” is the message that Iraqi bloggers are putting out more and more urgently. This time the free world indeed intervened to give people their liberty, and again the State Department seems to lack the skill and imagination needed for devising the way to realize it. The Hungarian revolution marked the moment when the inhumanity of Communism was shown up as unbearable, and its doom therefore certain one day. Events in Iraq mark the moment when the inhumanity of Arab and Muslim political order is shown up as unbearable. A day of reform will come, and then the free world can take pride that it did more than show a well-meaning but futile heart.