As regular readers know, in the fall of 1989 I was an exchange student in Budapest, Hungary, and was fortunate enough to see many of the events of that historic period firsthand.
Among them: Hungary's first open and officially-sanctioned commemoration of the 1956 Hungarian uprising on October 23, 1989, the thirty-third anniversary of the toppling of the country's Stalinist government. During the popular uprising, the reformist prime minister, Imre Nagy, had announced his country was pulling out of the Warsaw Pact and called on the United Nations to help ensure its neutrality. A few days later, Soviet forces invaded from the East to crush the revolt. Some 2500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed and 200,000 fled to the West. In 1989, entire Budapest neighborhoods still bore the scars of the fighting.
There were rallies in front of Hungary's massive Parliament building scheduled for noon and 6pm, and I attended both. The #2 tram ran straight up the river from my dorm to the Parliament, but had to stop two blocks short because the crowds had overflowed Kossuth Square and blocked the tracks. The atmosphere was festive. Bands played. Soldiers marched. There were long speeches I couldn't understand -- except for part of one in which the names of various countries were read out loud; the U.S. was cheered, the Soviet Union booed. At another point they chanted "Gorby! Gorby!" in thanks to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who hadn't rolled the tanks this time. Hundreds carried the Hungary's tricolor flag, but with the emblem of the Hungarian communist party cut out of the middle, just as in 1956. Some guy came out at noon next to a photograph of Imre Nagy and gave a speech. Bells rang across the city. People cheered.
We students could barely ask directions in Hungarian, didn't have access to CNN, and, this being the pre-Internet age, we didn't learn what most of the rest of the world knew until later that afternoon: Hungary had proclaimed itself a republic. The guy I'd seen was Matyas Szuros, who a few days before had been named Hungary's first president, and he's the one who made the announcement. "This is a prelude to a new historical age," Szuros had declared. "The Hungarian Republic is going to be an independent, democratic, and legal state in which the values of bourgeois democracy and democratic socialism are expressed equally." He was prophetic on all counts, it turns out, though he missed the bit about the far right.
In the evening, the mood was more somber. People carried candles and torches. Old men -- the generation who'd lived through the Great Depression, World War II, Stalinism, and '56 -- wept openly. The rally was lit with eerie floodlights, which reminded me of the last scenes in Close of Encounters of the Third Kind.
It seemed incredible: in a single week Hungary had announced multi-party elections, disbanded the party militia, rehabilitated Stalinist political criminals, and declared itself a neutral state. Pressures created by Hungary having allowed tens of thousands of East Germans to escape the Eastern Bloc had just forced the hardline leader of East Germany, Erich Honecker, out of power, replaced by a Gorbachev-esque reformist. We'd been fortunate enough to witness history take place. Little did we know that 1989's most epic events were yet to come.
For more on the 1989-2009 series -- including the opening of the Iron Curtain and visits to Ceausescu's Romania and inflation-plagued Yugoslavia -- click here.
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