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25 January 2017

Students of the Budapest Technical University in the 1956 Revolution

"Personally, I took away from those fateful twelve days an improbable experience: strong bonding with strangers I had never met, with whom, I was certain, I shared the same goals, and that we all knew that we belonged together. This uplifting sentiment accompanied me throughout my life, first as a refugee, then as a citizen of my adopted country, and after 1990 as a restored Hungarian citizen."

As a second year student at the Technical University in Budapest in October 1956, I worked for the Revolutionary Student Committee in the student dormitory where I lived. I also became a member of the National Guard. Though I was not a freedom fighter, like so many others, I also had remarkable experiences which rekindle uplifting memories on the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution.

Looking back, I feel strongly about three important aspects of the 1956 Revolution, which are worth sharing with today’s generation: first, university students played a major role in the revolt, especially in the run-up to its eruption; second, university students acquired an extraordinary prestige in the country; and third, there was extraordinary solidarity among the Hungarian people.

First, Hungarian students had had a long tradition since 1848 of addressing national issues. Then, youth leaders forcefully voiced demands for reforms to the Habsburg monarch. Nearly a hundred years later, in 1944, some students, but to my knowledge not many, were involved in acts of resistance against the occupying forces of Nazi Germany and their enthusiastic Hungarian followers, the Arrow Cross Party. After the Second World War, students were at the forefront founding democratic organisations which were soon stifled by the Communists. In the ensuing period of Stalinism, the smallest sign of disloyalty to the dictatorship was crushed with an iron fist.

After Stalin’s death in March 1953, students in Hungary were less intimidated than other segments of society, partly because they had only very limited personal responsibilities. Stirring among students only heightened after the 20th Party Congress held in Moscow in late February 1956, where First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s murders and personality cult. At the university, we were stunned when, only a month into the spring semester, it was announced that in Marxism- Leninism class we would drop the history of the Soviet Communist (Bolshevik) Party, because the material had to be re-evaluated. So, second year students turned to dialectic materialistic philosophy, which was normally a fifth year subject – a leap from Marx back to Hegel. An odd Communist practice played out in public once again: the past needed to be reconstructed.

The impact of the 20th Party Congress needs to be looked at in light of the fact that by the mid-1950s about 70 per cent of university students were from worker and peasant families, being the first generation to get a higher education. Some of them were even Communist Party members, clad in fancy leather coats, moving about with self-confidence, often in a rush to important meetings. These students, more than anyone else, were deeply affected by the denunciation of Stalin, the revered (and feared) “genius of the world’s proletariat” and “father of the Hungarian working class”. Faith and trust in the movement that had made them were shaken. Their parents’ toiling to meet the quota of compulsory delivery of produce from their small lots of land or to make ends meet on the meagre wages paid in factories laid bare the harsh reality of sacrifices demanded by Stalin’s party in the name of socialism. Unsurprisingly, those students were the first to stand up for reform and change in 1956.

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