25 years ago today a quarter of a million people attended a ceremony in Heroes Square preceding the reburial of Imre Nagy and other executed 1956 leaders.
Today marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the ceremonial reburial of Imre Nagy and four other government officials secretly executed after the 1956 uprising was brutally put down by Soviet tanks. An empty sixth coffin symbolically represented the over 2,500 Hungarians killed between October 23 and November 10, 1956, and those subsequently executed or murdered by Soviet troops or Hungarian security forces.
The ceremony, which took place at Budapest’s Heroes’ Square, was attended by an estimated quarter of a million people, including 25-year-old future prime minister Viktor Orban, who, speaking on behalf of Hungary’s youth, called on Soviet troops to leave the country. Calling communism and democracy “incompatible”, he denounced the Soviet invasion of 1956 in uncharacteristically forthright terms. “The bankrupt burden on our shoulders is the direct consequence of the bloody strangulation of our revolution, and the forcing us back into the dead-end Asian street, from which we are trying once again to escape,” Orban told the crowd before denouncing the country’s leaders for claiming to embrace the reforms of the man they condemned to death, and for standing aside the coffin of the man about whom they had lied for the previous 30 years.
Today, 33 years after the Hungarian revolution and 31 years after the execution of the last responsible Hungarian leader, we have a chance to achieve in a peaceful way all that was obtained through bloody fighting for the nation, if only for a few days. If we believe in our own strength, then we are capable of bringing an end to the communist dictatorship. And if we are determined enough we can force the ruling party to subject itself to free elections. And if we do not lose sight of the 1956 principles, we can choose a forum to begin immediate negotiations for the withdrawal of Soviet troops. If we are sufficiently resolute, then, and only then, can we fulfill the will of the revolution. Nobody should believe that the official state party will reform itself on its own.
The ceremonial reburial took place just three months after the formation on 22 March 1989 of the so-called “Opposition Round Table”, which had as its goal Hungary’s peaceful political transition from a one-party state to a multi-party democracy.
Three weeks later then-Hungarian foreign minister Gyula Horn and his Austrian counterpart, Alois Mock, presided over the dismantling of the barbed-wire fence and minefields separating Hungary from its western neighbor in what heralded the fall of the Iron Curtain.
The ceremonial reburial of Imre Nagy was prepared by the Committee for Historical Truth (TIB) and took place over objections voiced by the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers Party (MSZMP). Established in the spring of 1988, the committee soon called for Nagy, five direct associates and 34 other individuals condemned to death to be rehabilitated and reburied. In November the committee had called on the victims’ descendants to demand the victims’ remains be exhumed from parcel 301 of the New Public Cemetery in Rakoskeresztur. It later turned out that the bodies of Nagy, Pal Maleter, Miklos Gimes, Geza Losonczy and Jozsef Szilagyi had been wrapped in tar paper and buried face down.
In January 1989 the government formally decided that it was up to the family members of the deceased to decide whether they would like to organize a public burial. The date of the funeral was formally set by the committee and the Ministry of Justice on 14 February. Only two weeks earlier state minister Imre Pozsgay had referred to the 1956 uprising as “an uprising against oligarchy and authoritarianism insulting to the nation” rather than a “counter-revolution”.
The ceremony was broadcast on television and radio. Former political prisoner and future president Arpad Goncz addressed the crowd, as did Imre Mech on behalf of the revolutionary youth of 1956, and Viktor Orban on behalf of the New Generation political movement. Representing the government was minister Pozsgay, parliamentary president Matyas Szuros, prime minister Miklos Nemeth and deputy prime minister Peter Medgyessy (who would later serve as finance minister under the first Socialist administration of Gyula Horn (1994-1998) and eventually as prime minister (2002-2004)).
Three weeks after the reburial – on the same day Nagy’s persecutor and successor Janos Kadar died – the Hungarian Supreme Court formally annulled the sentences on the grounds that “no crime had been committed”.
A variety of official events is scheduled to take place around the country, culminating in a concert in Heroes Square featuring Hungarian rock group Omega and German rock group Scorpions, on which the government is spending a reported HUF 300 million (USD 1.3 million).
In a recent interview given to German newspaper Bild, when asked whether the speech he delivered 25 years ago today was the most important of his life, Viktor Orban replied he had no idea the ceremony would mean to Nagy’s family and all of Hungary that “finally, in a manner appropriate to Hungary’s culture, we achieved grace from the symbolic form of the 1956 revolution against the Soviet invaders”.
Orban told Bild that he was not afraid when he called on Soviet troops to leave Hungary.
Finally I wanted to say when nobody dared to. Not because I was the bravest, or the smartest, but because I was the youngest. Who is young thinks radically and breaks taboos. I simply wanted to tell the truth.
When asked how they thought the Soviet Union would respond, Orban acknowledged it was not possible to know at the time. “If necessary for our freedom we were prepared to defend until our last breath. There was no way back for us.”
Orban told Bild that the reunification of Germany was the moment he knew that the revolution had succeeded.
With regard to the generous and forgiving manner in which the Hungarians bade farewell to the communists, Orban said this was “a painful point in our history” since nowhere did the fight against communism last as long as in Hungary, as a result of which much power survived the turn of events. “I have to acknowledge that our opponents were talented when it came to retaining power. They were fighters. It took 20 years of my life until we finally defeated them,” said the 50-year-old prime minister, referring to Fidesz’s decisive defeat of the Hungarian Socialist Party in 2010.
Referenced in this article