Antifascism, the 1956 Revolution and the Politics of Communist Autobiographies in Hungary 1944-2000

James Mark. Europe-Asia Studies. Volume 58, Issue 8. December 2006.

Using oral history, this contribution explores the reshaping of individuals’ public and private autobiographies in response to different political environments. In particular, it analyses the testimony of those who were communists in Hungary between 1945 and 1956, examining how their experiences of fascism, party membership, the 1956 Revolution and the collapse of communism led them in each case to refashion their life stories. Moreover, it considers how their biographies played varying functions at different points in their lives: to express identification with communism, to articulate resistance and to communicate ambition before 1956; to protect themselves from the state after 1956; and to rehabilitate themselves morally in a society which stigmatised them after 1989. I didn’t use this word ‘liberation’ (felszabadulás), because in 1956 my life really changed. Everybody’s lives went through a great change, but mine especially. … I wasn’t disgusted with myself that I had called the arrival of the Red Army in 1945 a liberation, but [after 1956] I didn’t use it anymore.

The above respondent came from a middle-class Jewish Budapest family. Members of his family had died in the Holocaust after the German occupation of the country in March 1944. He experienced the arrival of the Red Army as a ‘liberation’ from the threat of deportation, and joined the communist movement immediately after the war. Until 1956 he had seen the world in antifascist terms; fascism was considered to be the greatest evil, and communists the most effective protectors of Hungary from its return. In the uprising of 1956, he had supported the reformed communist forces fighting for a democratic socialism; following the suppression of the revolution by Soviet tanks, he vowed to reject his earlier antifascist history: he revised his notion that the Soviet army had liberated him in 1945 and now cast them as foreign occupiers. When faced with major political or social ruptures, individuals may be forced to rethink the meanings of their lives. Confronted with new political environments and public narratives about the past, they may be compelled to reconsider the stories they tell about themselves (Ashplant et al, pp. 16-25; Portelli, pp. 248-276; Mark; Dower; Thomson). Life stories that once seemed unproblematic might now become politically charged. Narratives that were at one time publicly taboo might be revived, and need to be reshaped, for public consumption. This article will address how one group—Communist party members who joined the movement immediately after World War Two and left after 1956—experienced and reacted to three different political systems, and how their private and public autobiographies were moulded in response.

Immediately after the Second World War the Hungarian Communist Party, like many other communist parties in central-eastern Europe, was transformed from a politically marginal, into a mass, organisation. Between 1944 and 1948, its membership rose from an estimated 3,000 to 887,000 (Hanley, p. 1076). Following the communist takeover and the imposition of the Soviet Stalinist form of communism, the liberal wing of the party became disillusioned and their sentiments eventually found political expression in the reformed National communism of Imre Nagy’s ‘New Course’. Many of those who had backed Nagy found themselves supporting, or involved in, the revolution of October 1956, which they viewed as a fight for democratic socialism against the Soviet-backed Stalinists in the party. Many of those who had identified with the uprising were either expelled or chose not to join the reconstituted party after 1956. Party membership collapsed after the uprising; it then recovered slowly but at no point before 1989 did it reach the levels of the early communist period.

The post-war generation of party members found themselves living through three distinct political environments, in each of which different public narratives about the past were produced. These official histories in turn related to, and made political demands on, these individuals’ own lives. The early communist state before 1956 presented history in terms of the antifascist struggle; the recent past was the story of an ongoing and constant battle between communists and the forces of Fascism. After 1956, the Kádár state retained this antifascist historical narrative but added a new element: the 1956 uprising was understood as the latest clash with reactionary ‘counter-revolutionaries’ who were intent on restoring Fascism to Hungary. However, by the mid-1960s, as the Kádár regime attempted to stabilise and politically demobilise Hungarian society, so politicised versions of the past were increasingly replaced with historical taboos and public silences, particularly over the events of 1956. Since the collapse of communism, newly dominant voices have emerged, particularly from a nationalist conservative viewpoint. These have attempted to destroy the antifascist perspective on the past; Fascism and communism, rather than being regarded as polar opposites, now have their similarities emphasised; both are demonised as periods of totalitarian dictatorship and of foreign occupation.

In each of these political periods, individuals from the post-war generation of party members have had to consider how to present their own pasts. In private, individuals’ relationships with public narratives were determined both by their past experiences and their relationship with the new regime; where individuals supported communist power, they were often prepared to identify with its official histories in their descriptions of their own lives, regardless of their own actual past experiences. Yet when these party members were in opposition, even if their lives conformed to the descriptions of history propagated by the regime, they might choose to reject, or reshape, the telling of their own experiences to family or friends. In public too, they had to consider how far they wished to identify with public scripts; this was not merely determined by the level of support for the regime, but the extent to which the individual wished to be seen as politically acceptable in order to avoid discrimination or ensure social mobility (Mark; Koleva; Niethammer; Valtchinova; Kotkin; Hellbeck; Halfin). This was particularly the case in the communist period, where citizens had to produce curricula vitae which laid bare their class position, and relationship to previous regimes and political events; individuals had to decide how far they wanted to identify with politically appropriate communist histories in these exercises. For pre-1956 party members, Fascism, Red Army ‘liberation’ and the 1956 uprising have dominated their public and private autobiographical inventions and re-inventions; their understanding of each of these has altered significantly in different political contexts, and it is through the changing narration of these events that individuals revealed their complex and changing relationships with power.

The discussion below draws on personal testimony from a broader oral history project, in which interviews were conducted with 78 members of the Budapest intelligentsia and middle classes. Interviews covered a wide variety of topics such as attitudes towards the communist state, resistance, social mobility and family life. They were unstructured in the first half, but contained a series of set topics to be covered in the second. This technique was adopted in order both to give respondents the greatest space to frame their lives in their own subjective terms, but also to ensure that a sufficient body of comparable material would be produced. The following analysis will focus on the testimony of the 13 party members who joined before 1956, and two close supporters of the regime, included in the sample. However, it will also draw on the remainder of the material, in order to assess the image of the Communist party member amongst other social and political groupings. It will suggest that through the careful creation and analysis of oral history material, the multiple ways in which individuals have constructed their pasts can be uncovered. In some cases, interviewees self-consciously described how their understandings of their life histories had changed in response to political ruptures. In others, respondents gave different answers when asked the same question but in different historical contexts. In other instances again, a respondent’s contradictory stories suggested that an event had been recounted in various ways at different points in their life, but had not yet been fully integrated into a coherent narrative; analysing the points of inconsistency gave clear indications of the breaks in past interpretations of their lives.


Antifascism emerged as a concept across Europe in the mid-1930s in response to the emergence of Nazism. Many, who opposed the rise of Hitler, put aside other (seemingly less significant) political differences and defined themselves simply as antifascist. As such, antifascism became an ideology that was capable of uniting a wide swathe of the liberal-left (and some moderate conservatives); it became the ideological glue that held together disparate political movements in antifascist popular front democratic governments both before and after the Second World War (Eley, pp. 261-298; Rabinbach, pp. 3-4; Apor). After 1948 in Hungary, as in the rest of the communist bloc, antifascism was used to justify the establishment of dictatorship. Hungarian communists conferred legitimacy on their regime by referring to (and in most cases, exaggerating) their role in the antifascist struggle—as partisans and in alliance with the Red Army—and bolstered their authority by claiming to be the best protectors of Hungary from the return of Fascism (Rév, p. 249). The assertion that Fascism needed to be kept at bay was wielded repeatedly in defence of the increasingly violent excesses of the regime. Attacks on political opponents, show trials, deportations, and eventually the suppression of the supposed reactionary ‘counter-revolution’ of 1956 were all deemed necessary to protect Hungary from the return of Fascism. By 1989, therefore, antifascism was no longer remembered as a vibrant ideology that had unified the liberal-left against Fascism in defence of democracy, but rather as a worn-out rhetoric that had been used to justify dictatorship. When asked about antifascism in interviews in post-communist Hungary, many had forgotten that it had had far more positive political connotations in the period before, during and immediately after the Second World War; antifascism was associated solely with the propaganda of the communist state. Narrators of antifascist stories were not viewed sympathetically as victims of fascist atrocities, but rather were charged with opportunistically having adopted the empty rhetoric of the communist state for personal political advancement. Ernö, a staunch anti-communist, did not believe the stories some individuals told about their liberation (felszabadulás) from Fascism; he refused to accept that they had genuinely suffered under Fascism or could possibly have welcomed the Red Army as liberators; rather this was the language of the self-interested grasping communist functionary:

James: Did you say ‘liberation’ (‘felszabadulás‘)?

Ernö: No (chuckles), for our acquaintances, whenever ‘liberation’ was mentioned, it was in inverted commas. We were ‘liberated’ from cars, we were ‘liberated’ from property, so this was the ‘liberation’.

James: So did you ever meet anybody who honestly said, ‘liberation’?

Ernö: (long pause) Well, I must say no, I must say no. (pause) Because all those who spoke openly about ‘liberation’, in fact had expressed quite different opinions only a few months before. For instance a friend of mine, we were together at a consulting company and we went sailing together with our families, and he was a member of our closest circle, and we all had the same political views. But suddenly he decided that he had greater ambitions, so then he joined the party and he changed his tone [i.e. starting using the term ‘liberation’]. He kept complaining about his small flat and in no time he found himself in a home in Rószadomb and the same autumn his ‘peace bond’ was drawn and he got some 15,000 forints which at that time, to give you an impression, was some 15 times his monthly salary and it was worth over two Wartburg cars, so it was a lot of money at that time.

Yet some in post-communist Hungary, especially on the left, did not locate the roots of this antifascist ‘way of seeing’ in the experience of dictatorship but rather in their own ‘genuine’ experiences of Fascism and the Second World War. They emphasised that no matter how perverted this ideology had become, it once had an authentic core which predated the growth of the Communist party or the communist takeover, and lay in the real experience of either suffering under, or the struggle against, the forces of Fascism. Mátyás, for example, charted how the suffering of his family as Jews under both the German occupation of Hungary and then the subsequent indigenous fascist Arrow Cross regime had led a very apolitical family to see themselves in political terms, and eventually had led him to a career in the Communist party. Radicalised by Fascism, Mátyás, like many other Jews and those on the liberal-left, including non-communists, searched for a form of politics that would prevent the far right from returning. For some this meant support for the antifascist coalition of political parties (including moderate conservatives such as the Smallholders’ party) which took power in 1945. Mátyás himself was attracted by the antifascist claims of the Communist party; hence he joined its youth movement MADISz as soon as the war was over. He emphasised that his antifascism was not invented after 1948 to ally himself with communist ideology but was initially genuinely grounded in his personal experience of Fascism:

Mátyás: Now it’s a terribly politicised society (rettenetesen átpolitizált társadalom), and in the last 40-50 years the community where I have lived … everything and everyone has been politicised. This is an abnormal society. Now in my childhood it wasn’t like this, the war brought it … in normal circumstances a family doesn’t talk about politics but about sport, food, where the boys are, women, cards … Now we were faced with a directly life threatening situation from 1943/4, and already, in this non-political and also non-politicised family, politics was becoming the main topic of conversation … so how the eastern front was moving … the family, as they were not communists, they were afraid of the Russians, but at the same time they hoped for their victory … I remember 19 March and then the Szálasi putsch [the fascist Arrow Cross takeover] on 15 October really well. I don’t just remember the events, I remember the psychological effects too … we were liberated on 12-13 February … I was already politicised and in the spring of 1945 I joined MADISz [the youth wing of the Communist party] of my own free will—nobody invited me. I wanted to, and that moment that I decided to join was based on a very simple experience. I read in a newspaper in Buda that MADISz were tearing down the signs from Hitler Square and Mussolini Square. And then I thought, that’s the place for me! And slowly life got back to normal, and I would have just become a normal student and I would have had a normal life, and I wouldn’t have got closer to the communist movement. Does a 15-year-old boy search for a political movement, if he lives in normal circumstances, if he doesn’t live through a war and if his father hasn’t died in that war?

It was not only communists who recalled seeing the world in antifascist terms in 1945. Here Márton, who supported the Smallholders’ party in the immediate post-war elections, remembered that a wide range of people who had suffered, or struggled, or had been in opposition under the Horthy system, the German occupation or the fascist Arrow Cross regime, had once seen the Red Army as liberators and had supported the post-war coalition as a defence against the return of Fascism or an ultra-conservative regime:

Márton: It was a liberation not just for Jews, but for the military deserters, who didn’t want to fight alongside Hitler, for the illegal communists, and also for those who had suffered severely under Horthy’s gendarmes … it was a liberation for everyone, who had really suffered under Hitler, or hated it, or did not agree with it. It meant the end of Hitlerism, it was a liberation from Hitler.

In 1945, antifascism was central to the political beliefs of many in Hungary (Apor); a wide swathe of political opinion considered the Horthy era a failure, Hungary’s wartime alliance with Germany as an error, and the German occupation and the Arrow Cross regime as deeply destructive. István Bibó, writing in 1945, hoped that the idea of antifascist liberation by the Red Army would remain in Hungary despite the fact that it occurred amongst the ‘miseries of a lost war’. He argued that the success of democratic Hungary in the long-term depended on the active and continued rejection of Fascism and reactionary social forces:

One thing should be clear: It is crucial for Hungary that the fall of the old system remains or comes to be considered a liberation, and for the oppressive elements of the sick Hungarian social structure which disappeared with the arrival of the Red Army—the hunting aristocrats, the caste-bound officers and bureaucrats, the gendarmes, and the German-oriented ‘educators of nation’—to be prevented from returning. We must therefore make sure that, even if our memory forever connects liberation with the varied physical and human miseries of a lost war, the same liberation shall be made a pure and historical reality for our grandchildren because it ushered in a long series of developments with positive consequences. It is crucial for Hungary that the liberating achievement of the Soviet army not be forgotten but preserve [sic] its significance for Hungary’s democratic development (Bibó, p. 93).

Yet, by the late 1940s, the antifascist way of viewing the world had become problematic. Many no longer saw the Red Army as liberators, but rather as an occupying force that had helped to establish communist dictatorship. Moreover, the use of antifascist rhetoric in communist propaganda to legitimate their new regime tainted antifascist sentiments and weakened their association with the popular enthusiasm for the Red Army liberation that had been felt immediately after the war. Csaba had supported ‘bourgeois parties’ such as the Smallholders’ after 1945. He had seen the Red Army initially as his liberators, celebrated an end to Fascism and the ‘reactionary’ elements of Hungarian society, but wanted a multi-party liberal democracy. With the beginnings of communist dictatorship, and the state’s instrumentalisation of antifascist rhetoric, he found himself rejecting his own, and his friends’ experiences of antifascism and the liberating Red Army:

James: Did you meet anybody who thought that 1945 was a liberation?

Csaba: Loads of people used to say it … they used to call these events a liberation … But in France there is an idea of liberation that remained after the war (háború utáni felszabadulás). Here there isn’t, because they [the communists] changed the street names to Liberation Boulevard and Liberation Square. They don’t say this word ‘liberation’ now, because now it is connected with the Russians.

Many Hungarians thus abandoned antifascism; some continued using its terminology in public in order to ensure their education or employment under the communist system, but from this point onwards most privately considered it to be an inauthentic way of seeing the world. Only those who supported the communist state stuck with their antifascist life stories in public and private, instrumentalising them in different ways to express a variety of responses to the communist rule. One form this took was to recite, parrot fashion, the state narratives of the ‘antifascist struggle’ and ‘liberation’ in order to succeed in the party; however this purpose, antifascist narratives were also wielded as tools to express genuine ideological support for the regime, or even resistance to its excesses.

In the first instance, antifascist stories were retained because respondents had, at least in the first years of the regime, a faith in the ability of the Communist party to transform Hungary into a genuine antifascist democracy that would protect it from the return of reactionary politics. Here Jenő describes how he had joined the party at the point at which he felt post-war democracy was under threat from right-wing conspiracy:

Jenő: I sympathised with the communist movement as an anti-Nazi movement before 1945 because they were the most radical fighters against the war, against Nazi ambitions. But then immediately after 1945 I didn’t identify with the movement, as they employed artificial nationalistic propaganda, and there were still others in the popular independence front I liked. At the same time I could see that their literature and culture was rather unsophisticated from a political point of view. I didn’t like this, so I didn’t join immediately, in contrast to many of my comrades … then later in 1947 when on the one hand the Hungarian right wing began to organise themselves once again in the so called ‘conspiracy’, and on the other hand they had a very powerful voice in the 1947 election … so then in 1947 I decided to join the Communist party.

Ágota, who joined the party in 1951, continued to frame her world in antifascist terms after 1948, abandoning this outlook only in 1956 when she concluded that the communist state had betrayed its initial promise. Up until that point, she was happy to use antifascist vocabulary both at home and at work, as long as she believed that communists were protecting Hungary from Fascism and ensuring a progressive transformation of the country (even if she was disillusioned at certain points). She had internalised antifascism so completely that she did not recognise that many others did not call the Soviet occupation a liberation after 1948; she believed that it was only ‘comrades of Szálasi’ (i.e. fascists) who rejected this term:

James: After 1948 did you use this word liberation?

Ágota: I used it, because everybody used it, and so really it became automatic. When I got my job, there we used it … the word simply meant that the Germans were defeated and all was well …

James: But many thought that this was not a liberation …

Ágota: They only changed their minds later—I could not believe that anyone, except for fascists, wouldn’t feel that it was a liberation … Everybody, even my acquaintances, friends and my relatives who were sympathetic to Germany felt this. Only later in 1956 when things degenerated [did this change]. Then and there everybody was glad about the victory over the Germans, except for those comrades of Szálasi.

For some party members, enthusiastic support for the regime meant not only the continuation of antifascist stories but also their supplementation with new ones supplied by the communist state. Miklós, for example, had joined the party in the early 1950s. He continued to narrate his experiences of suffering under Fascism and his liberation by the Soviets, now weaving these experiences into a much more complex antifascist narrative that must also have been the product of his political experiences as a party member. His story echoed much more closely later communist versions of antifascism which not only celebrated the struggle against the Arrow Cross, Nazi Germany and the Horthy system (a celebration which many non-communists had also joined in 1945), but demonised all the communists’ later enemies as fascists, intent on destroying the communist state, regardless of their actual ideology. Thus groups such as the Smallholders’ party (who were part of the antifascist coalition after the war) or the revolutionaries of 1956 were also now demonised as anti-Semitic fascists. The communist state’s institutionalisation of antifascism had clearly given his experiences a home after 1948, but it had also provided him with new material with which to construct a party loyalist’s antifascist account of his life. These ideas were still repeated in his post-communist testimony:

James: So what were your attitudes towards the communists?

Miklós: Even if I had been in England, I would have been antifascist. And we thought that the Communist party were the best among the antifascists … The Russians were fighting the Germans, they killed the Germans and they liberated us … And of course … the Jews in ’56, the fascists in Hungary accused the Jews of all being communists … Because in the villages there were lots of pogroms and they killed the Jews because they thought they were on the side of the communists … after the war I voted for the Smallholders’, but later they became fascist. It was a problem. The Smallholders’ … we felt that certain politicians in the past [who were fascist] … now they joined the Smallholders’ party. … as I told you, I worked for the Russian army [after the liberation in 1945] … and I had to write [signs] in Russian ‘this street is examined and there are no mines’. In Russian … And I got food there. Lots of food. Because I worked there. There were many intelligent Russian officers as well. So not every Russian had blood on his hands. They were humans. But as I told you, I saw one rape [i.e. by the Soviet troops in 1945], not a rape case, one girl came out, not even crying, [whispers in the girl’s voice]’Yes, yes, pardon me mummy, he made love to me. He was so young and ever so experienced’. She was an intelligent girl.

After 1948, an individual’s relationship to the antifascist contours of communist history was used to judge their access to education, the workplace and the party. To be on the right or wrong side of the antifascist struggle could determine one’s access to university, promotion or financial support, or the level of discrimination one might suffer. Producing politically appropriate curricula vitae was a vital skill for those wishing to escape marginalisation or fulfil their ambition. Party members, alongside all communist citizens, had to learn how to fit their life stories into required communist templates if they wished to be successful (Mark). This may explain some of the later polish of Communist party members’ antifascist life stories: Miklós’ insistence that he worked for the Red Army, and his explaining away of his Smallholders’ party membership, by claiming he left as soon they became ‘fascist’, may have been narrative echoes of the sort of stories he had to emphasise in order to construct a politically advantageous autobiography. Indeed, Miklós became the headmaster of a school at a very young age, a position of sufficient influence to have required him to have learned to present his past in a politically acceptable fashion. Antifascist autobiographies might often have been maintained, or refined, in order to achieve ambitions in the early communist period.

After 1948, the retention of antifascist ideas not only signified an individual’s support for, or ambition under, the communist state; this worldview also framed resistance to the excesses of Stalinism both before and during the 1956 revolution. Many party members, by the early 1950s, had become disillusioned with the practices of the Stalinist state under Rákosi following the show trials, excessive violence against the regime’s enemies, the rigidly imposed Stalinist economic model, and the subordination of Hungarian national interests to those of the Soviet Union. Alajos, who was a committed supporter of what would come to be known as ‘reform socialism’, charted this change in his life:

James: So can you remember how your opinion changed?

Alajos: … between ’48 and let’s say ’50-’51, I still kept a kind of open and very positive attitude towards the regime, but already in ’51 I decided that I would never join the Communist Party because, well, we went to a party meeting where an old social democrat was kicked out, and the circumstances were so humiliating and so disgusting and I thought, okay, that’s it, I mean … but it was still a period … if somebody asked me whether I was a socialist, I would say, I was a socialist, until about (pause) ’52 or ’53.

Despite growing dissatisfaction with, and horror at the practices of the state most, however, did not resist Stalinism until provided with a positive socialist alternative. Indeed, disillusionment with the Stalinist realities led many to withdraw from the political sphere. Many were galvanised into expressing resistance only when new hope for reform emerged after Stalin’s death, and a new leadership in Moscow insisted that Rákosi’s Stalinist clique be replaced by a less hard-line government. In July 1953, a reformist leadership under Imre Nagy began their ‘New Course’, a programme that advocated a more flexible approach to the agricultural and industrial sectors, an end to the arbitrariness of political persecution and an attempt to gain a limited popular legitimacy (Rainer). This revitalised many socialists’ faith in the possibilities of communism: Alajos found his views crystallising into this Nagy-led ‘reform socialist mode’. Thus reinvigorated by the possibility of fighting for a more democratic form of communism, these respondents were now prepared to resist the attempted re-imposition of hard-line Stalinism when Rákosi mounted a political comeback in spring 1955:

Alajos: I almost had a split personality, until about mid-’53, when my views crystallised into a reform socialist mode, a sort of critical reformist attitude within the terms of socialism … And then 1953, after Imre Nagy’s new programme, a lot of us, my generation, were quite enthusiastic about it, and when Rákosi and the Stalinists tried to come back in ’55, then we weren’t intimidated and spoke out in various ways against it and tried to do something.

Reformist respondents described how, from 1953, they were increasingly able to engage in open debates about Stalinism and its alternatives within the party. Alajos represented the clashes that occurred between reformists and Stalinists in his Marxist-Leninist seminars at university and illustrated his preparedness to criticise hardliners who used antifascism in an unquestioning fashion to demonise their enemies in the West:

Alajos: … So I was talking about these classes in Marxism-Leninism: there was this huge auditorium, and the man who spoke couldn’t see the back where we were playing cards. They were such primitive lectures … But one wouldn’t argue with them. Sometimes, it happened once in a Marxist-Leninist exam that the examiners weren’t quite sure whether I was right or not . … And the question was whether—’What do you think—is America becoming more fascist?’ … And I had just read in the party paper that the American high court actually ruled against segregation, and it was the first time they ruled against southern segregated states, and I said, no I don’t believe it’s getting more fascist, I mean, I’ve just read in the papers that there was a decision, in favour of blacks, so whoever says that, is ridiculous. Because you see, one of the Stalinist tenets was that the class war was getting sharper all the time, so if you had reformist thinking, you immediately challenged that view. And you’d say, ‘It can’t be true, because there would have been a war, if the class war had come, there would have been a revolution, there would be war, it can’t be true!’

Antifascism played a role in the articulation of differences between Stalinists and reform communists. Alajos highlighted how, in Marxist-Leninist seminars, Stalinists had appealed to an overly politicised unrealistic, ‘inauthentic’ antifascism. They always needed to invent new fascist enemies, or present the conflict between fascists and their opponents in ever sharper terms, regardless of present realities, in order to justify their own power. This perceived abuse of the memory of the antifascist struggle did not lead reformists to reject it as a world-view; rather they appealed to their own separate memory of it in order to attack Stalinism.

Alajos remembered using antifascist rhetoric against the state in his protests in 1956. He had found himself involved in the demonstration which followed the reburial of Rajk on 6 October 1956. László Rajk, who had been a communist interior minister, was sentenced at a show trial on trumped-up charges of Trotskyism and espionage in the summer of 1949 and later executed; his death became a symbol of the perversions of Stalinism and his reburial thus became a magnet for reform communists. Alajos recalled transforming the meaning of old antifascist slogans, and a well-known antifascist poem, into attacks on Stalinists:

Alajos: On 6 October 1956 you had the Rajk Reburial … when I was coming out after the speeches … I saw a little group with a flag and they were sort of beckoning to me to join in. I joined in, and then I found somebody … a bloke I knew from the Széchényi library who said, ‘Somebody told me there’s going to be a demonstration’. ‘Where are you going to?”Oh, we’re going to Hősök Tere [Heroes’ Square], and then to the Batthyány Örökmécses.’ This is a flame in memory of Lajós Batthyány who was the Prime Minister of Hungary in 1849, and was executed. This is a kind of place where people go, sort of a ‘Martyrs’ Corner’. All right, so I joined the group. It wasn’t particularly political, but we started producing slogans together … between 1945 and 1948, the Communist party slogan was: ‘We’re not going to stop half-way. Let reaction perish!’ So we adapted this slogan, instead of saying ‘reaction’ saying ‘Stalinism’, so ‘We are not going to stop half-way. Let Stalinism perish!’ And then we shouted over and over, 200 people, as we marched with this flag, and people looked at us, and they didn’t understand what was going on … I read out a poem by Atilla József, which was antifascist, rather anti-German, and was a patriotic poem ending with the words, ‘So that we shouldn’t be a German colony’, but I read, ‘So we shouldn’t be a foreign colony’.

Alajos had seen himself as part of the antifascist tradition which had struggled against Nazism, and then ‘reaction’ in the immediate post-war period; he believed that this gave him the right to resist Stalinism. Moreover, those who were still committed to antifascism could hold up its ideals against the perversions of Stalinist practice. Antifascist themes which had once been used to frame the battle against Nazism, such as fighting against occupation, political extremism and violent dictatorship, were now turned against the excesses of the Stalinist state.

Most respondents viewed the 1956 uprising as part of their struggle against the Stalinists in the party, and as an attempt to replace a corrupted state with a democratic socialist system which held to antifascist ideals. Benedek produced revolutionary leaflets in Russian and distributed them to the first wave of Soviet tanks as they arrived in Budapest. Worried that the soldiers might view the insurgents as fascists intent on destroying communism, he sought to reclaim antifascism for the revolutionaries, by explaining to the Russians that they were sincere antifascists, who merely wanted a more humane form of socialism. His characterisation of other political traditions in 1956 was framed by antifascism too: those revolutionaries who wanted to put an end to communism, and restore capitalism, were not merely anti-communists, but demonised as fascists:

Benedek: The ’56 revolution was just about which of the left-wing options we take. There was no-one, except for a few, unrealistic people, who were dreaming of restoring capitalism, but the revolution of all those who took part was always just about which of the various possibilities of socialism we take … We decided that we would try to explain to the Russian soldiers who we were; that we were not fascists trying to re-establish capitalism or Nazism or anything like that. So we wrote a one-page leaflet in Russian and took it to the university printing press, where I had a friend, a printer friend, and he printed it for me, and then with other friends in my circle, we went around the whole of Budapest and climbed up on the tanks and handed the soldiers these leaflets. It said that we wanted democratic socialism, not capitalism, and we want equality between nations, of friendship with the Russian nation on the basis of equality … this was the first day of the revolution … so the leaflet was quite a mild document if you like. We didn’t dream of leaving the Warsaw Pact.

Thus, the growth of the antifascist life story did not simply reflect, as it is frequently imagined in post-communist Hungary, the preparedness of communist functionaries to invent antifascist pasts in order to succeed within the political system. Ambition under communism was only one root of this story. For many, antifascism had genuine pre-communist roots in their experiences of Fascism during World War Two. After 1948, antifascist narratives were used by party members to express a range of relationships with the communist state; these included not only support and ambition, but also resistance. However, faced with the defeat of their attempt to reform socialism in the revolution of October 1956, and their alienation from the party and state which followed it, many respondents no longer wanted a politically engaged life. Neither wanting to express support or resistance towards the new post-1956 state, their antifascist life stories no longer had a reason to exist: new ways of seeing the world, and framing their lives, began to develop.


In the aftermath of the defeat of the 1956 revolution, the reconstituted state under Kádár pronounced the events of October to have been a ‘counter-revolution’ organised by fascists to undermine communist rule. They exaggerated and caricatured the presence of the radical right and conservative Catholic wings of the revolution in order to characterise the entire uprising as an attempt to restore Fascism to Hungary (Berecz); the existence of other political tendencies—reformed socialist and national-democratic—was ignored. Thus those reformed communists who were involved in the revolution now found themselves demonised as counter-revolutionary fascists. This remained the official version of the 1956 Revolution until the late 1980s; the uprising was portrayed as the last in a long series of attempts by fascists to take power in Hungary (Rév; Ripp).

Those respondents who rejoined, or supported, the reconstituted party after 1956 still produced ‘counter-revolutionary’ accounts even in a post-communist context. Judit came from a Jewish family and had joined the party in 1945 aged 13 (lying about her date of birth). She had left in 1954, had wanted to re-join after 1956, but felt unable actively to contribute to the party, because of her domestic responsibilities. Her husband had rejoined after 1956 (and remained in the party until the 1980s). She wrote her own family experiences of the uprising into the Kádárist interpretation of the 1956 events. Her family had suffered anti-Semitic abuse during the revolution; she used this story in order to characterise those involved in the uprising as fascists, and to explain why she welcomed the arrival of Soviet tanks. The framing of her own experiences at the hands of so-called ‘counter-revolutionaries’ was a product of her support for the Kádár state:

James: So before 1956, were you often afraid?

Judit: I don’t remember [being afraid]. But on 23 October ’56, the first day, my mother was working near the Stalin statue and she came home by foot. On the first day she was attacked on the street as a Jew. There came a group and they spat on my mother, saying, ‘you ugly Jew!’ And after that we were glad we were living near the Russian embassy, on Bajza Utca and that Russian tanks were there, because an anti-Semitic movement was taking shape underground … We felt more secure with the Russians. But that is an absolutely Jewish point of view. Absolutely. I don’t know whether the others felt the same but … Hearsay. That the fascists are moving against the Jews again … But a lot of Jews left the country [in the emigration during and after the 1956 uprising], not only because of communism, but also because they were afraid that something could begin again.

James: Most people say the opposite about the Russian tanks.

Judit: Yes, I can imagine. I know. It is my personal view.

James: So can you remember what you thought when the Russian tanks came in?

Judit: It’s a difficult question to answer. My feeling was that we were more secure, but I don’t know how to explain it after so many years.

James: … What did you say about ’56 itself?

Judit: You know, nowadays, people say that they were heroes in ’56, when I know for certain that they were nothing, they had nothing to do with ’56. It was the very same thing that after the war, in Hungary, loads of people claimed to be partisans. But during the war there weren’t really any. And it is the very same thing. Nowadays they are saying they are heroes of ’56, when there were not so many of them.

Judit’s experience of the uprising did not challenge the antifascist framing of her life story. Her family had been saved from the Holocaust by the Red Army in 1945 and Soviet tanks were rescuing her once again from a fascist attack in 1956. Her experience of the suppression of the revolution confirmed her belief in the communists as antifascists and the Russians as her liberators. 1956 was placed right at the centre of her life story in the Kádár period; her support for the new regime was based on her memory of being saved from renewed persecution.

Many however, did not re-join the communist movement after 1956. Membership of the party, which had stood at 859,037 in January 1956 before the revolution (Rákosi, pp. 224-225), fell to 151,000 in its immediate aftermath and had only risen to 416,646 by 1959 (Szenes, pp. 249-250). It was only in the 1980s that party membership began to approach pre-1956 levels (Hanley, p. 1076). Many respondents presented the debates which surrounded their decisions not to rejoin. Mátyás had been a reform communist. He had identified with Imre Nagy, had supported the revolution and was dismayed by its collapse. His decision not to re-enter was a moral one: he now saw the party as fake as it had crushed its own supporters. He caricatured the reconstituted party as a broken organisation with an ideologically inauthentic membership:

James: Did you think of rejoining the party?

Mátyás: After 1956, it wasn’t any kind of temptation at all, because by 4 November 1956 the situation had been resolved morally; we were only really thinking about whether to stay in Hungary or to emigrate. But not to join the party was, for my wife and my friends, a completely clear moral imperative. We had no doubts about it … there were many who joined and many who didn’t. Some joined because they thought it was a counter-revolution, or because they wanted to be with the victorious communists (meggyőződéses kommunisták). And some thought that they had to join the party because there was no other possibility of ensuring their survival … it really pulled apart our community where I lived, us young Budapest left-wing intellectuals. Still, there were those, who up until 1956 had not been party members, and in 1957 joined the party, because at that point the party had collapsed, and they thought that here was the opportunity to join and make their careers. There was a concrete example, a very unpleasant monk, who had never been in the party, and when they reconstituted the party he immediately joined, because no kind of conditions were set.

Respondents who supported the Kádár state, such as Judit, found their pre-1956 antifascist stories confirmed by the experience of the uprising. However, for respondents such as Mátyás above, who broke with the party after the defeat of the revolt, and viewed the Kádár state as a bastardised inauthentic communism, their antifascist life stories were thrown into crisis. They were faced with a state that called their attempt to reform socialism a counter-revolution, the suppression of the revolution the ‘second liberation of Hungary’ and found themselves demonised as fascists. This change in the public narrative struck a blow to Mátyás’ private understanding of antifascism; no longer able to support the state, seeing left-wing colleagues violently treated, and even executed, for fascist ‘counter-revolutionary’ activities, he began to question whether the antifascist framing of his life up until this point had been a sham. Despite having been saved from extermination as a Jew by the Red Army in early 1945, he started to wonder whether he had in fact been liberated by their arrival. The experience of a bastardised official antifascist narrative after 1956 therefore provoked many to question or abandon the antifascist stories through which they had made sense of their lives before 1956:

James: Did you use this word ‘liberation’?

Mátyás: Naturally, absolutely. It was an everyday saying, that 1945 was a liberation. There wasn’t another word other than liberation for it in 1944-1945.

James: How have you used the word ‘liberation’ since the collapse of communism?

Mátyás: … already [in 1956] it became a confusing word as the consequence of the so-called liberation was the destruction of the 1956 revolution … When the propaganda started on the 4 November 1956 that the destruction of the revolution was the ‘second Liberation of Hungary’—and I’m not exaggerating here—from that second onwards I didn’t consider 1945 a liberation anymore. Because in that second, in 1956, we woke up to the fact that the Soviets were attacking the city and we didn’t feel that they were liberating troops anymore. It is complicated. Or it is very simple. Probably both. At Christmas 1944 when the Russians came and saved my and my mother’s lives, was it not a liberation? What the hell was it, if it wasn’t a liberation? That’s all. I don’t have anything more to say about it.

Before 1956, antifascism had been used to express both support for, and resistance to, the state. As Mátyás’ testimony above suggests, ex-party members’ alienation from the state meant that they were not prepared to deploy their antifascist stories in order to identify with the system anymore. However, there were alternative readings of antifascism which might have been deployed in the service of resistance to the Kádár regime. During the revolution itself, reformist party members had seen themselves as the authentic antifascists who had once opposed Hitlerism in order to ensure a democratic political order, and were now fighting against the Stalinist perversion of antifascism in order to establish a reformed, more humane and democratic socialism. This alternative reading of antifascism had inspired resistance before and during the 1956 uprising; in the period immediately after the revolution some respondents still sought to recall an alternative version of socialism that could be fought for. Their memory of 1956 as a heroic struggle suggested the possibility of continued opposition against an inauthentic state:

James: Directly after the revolution, what was your opinion of Kádár?

Jenő: Bad … it was the worst possible, I hated the Kádár system, because they compromised socialist principles, because they forced a new socialist system onto people with tanks. We regarded it as a catastrophe. From that perspective we considered it to be the greatest misfortune, that socialist theories, principles, had been compromised.

However, as the opportunities and desire for resistance declined under the Kádár regime, so did the antifascist versions of history that had once framed and justified it. The retribution which followed the revolution convinced many that resistance was futile, and that the newly reconstituted communist state was incapable of being reformed. Between 1957 and 1963, around 350 revolutionaries were executed and 22,000 sentenced for their involvement in the uprising; overall, it is estimated that over 100,000 were affected to some degree by the post-1956 reprisals (Litván, pp. 143-144). Alongside armed youths who fought in street battles, and members of workers’ councils set up during and after the revolution, the left-wing intelligentsia (who were the majority of those interviewed in this project) suffered disproportionately compared to the population as a whole (Litván, pp. 144-146). For these ex-party members, 1956 increasingly represented the futility of resistance, the tragedy of the reprisals, and the end of their aspirations for reformed socialism. In this quote, Imre rejected the portrayal of the revolution as a heroic fight; rather, by the 1960s, he saw it as an ‘unwanted revolution’, which had radicalised the state into violence against the reformers, and had in fact destroyed the possibility of a reformed ideologically authentic communist state. For him, the memory of 1956 did not act as a call for resistance but rather was an illustration of the pointlessness of opposition. This new memory of 1956—as an unwanted destructive event—was increasingly being used to justify a withdrawal from active political engagement with, and resistance against, the Kádár state. He remembered that this attitude was particularly prevalent within his circle in 1968, when debates about the pointlessness of resistance were revived in the wake of the failures of Czech reformers in the Prague Spring:

James: A simple question. Why did you want to take part in the revolution?

Imre: I didn’t want to take part in the revolution. The revolution came upon us, it was a spontaneous revolution. Even the devil wouldn’t have wanted a revolution; we wanted reform, but without an armed uprising. And on 23 October when the revolution spontaneously broke out, you had to decide, whether to stand with the revolution or not. And it was the opinion of my circle of friends that we had to stand with the revolutionaries, and in the course of the revolution we had to solve the economic problems of the country. So already then there was no going back.

James: How did this feeling develop?

Imre: Firstly, this feeling was a question of moral and political development: our knowledge of what had happened in the west, and of western democracy, got stronger, and at the same time our knowledge of the awful things that had happened in the Soviet Union also developed. And in 1968, there were the Czech reforms which didn’t lead to an armed uprising, but were put down in the same brutal way, as the Hungarians had been in 1956. So at that time we had debates with lots of people about why the Soviet bloc wasn’t able to manage to take another course. It was because reform had been strangled by the armed uprising, it had been strangled by the Köztársaság Square lynchings, and Imre Nagy taking Hungary out of the Warsaw Pact. The suppression of the Czech reforms confirmed my view of 1956.

The revolution and its aftermath had thus destroyed the antifascist framing of their lives. They could neither identify with the Kádár-era version of antifascism which had demonised them as ‘counter-revolutionary’ fascists, nor, after the experience of the post-revolutionary reprisals, did they wish to resist the state. Thus antifascism, which had previously been central to the dialogue between party member and state, no longer had relevance to their lives: they no longer wished to engage politically either as supporters or resistors.

Other respondents also revealed how their withdrawal from political engagement developed through the 1960s. The very politicised accounts of their lives between 1944 and 1958 suddenly disappeared from their life narratives; stories of persecution under Fascism, revolution in 1956 and repression suddenly gave way to descriptions of career and family:

James: What happened later [after the revolution]?

Károly: I was arrested 10-12 days after I was initially set free. Then in 1957 they let me out again … when they took me and then released me, with a friend’s help I managed to get a one-room flat in Újpest which didn’t have a toilet or bathroom, had water only in the courtyard, but nevertheless was an apartment. We began to live there, there our fourth child was born, then slowly things settled down and I became a deputy director in 1965. That was the period of consolidation in Hungary, and in 1971 I became the director … then things were getting back to normal.

Respondents described the two processes that led them to withdraw politically. Firstly, the experience of retribution had convinced many that they could neither support the state nor was there any point resisting it; hence they decided to withdraw from a political life. Secondly, the policies of the Kádár state which followed the period of retribution from 1962 onwards—in the so-called ‘consolidation period’—offered individuals who had fought in 1956 the possibility of re-integration, if they were prepared to refrain from further political opposition. From 1962, the communist state ended the open persecution of so-called ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and in August of that year the party’s central committee resolved to terminate political trials for involvement in the uprising. Many of those sentenced in 1957-1958 were amnestied in 1963. Moreover, those who had initially opposed the Kádár state were now not merely tolerated on the social margins, but actively encouraged to re-integrate into society as long as they remained apolitical. In December 1961, Kádár famously declared that, ‘he who is not against us is with us and welcomed by us’ (Nyyssönen, p. 120). After the ‘great amnesty’ of 1963, the children of ”56-ers’ were increasingly allowed back into education (although their exclusion from tertiary institutions declined much more slowly) (Kőrösi & Molnár, pp. 64-65). Nearly all respondents accepted the offer to re-integrate on the condition that they withdrew from the political sphere. It was not considered a betrayal of their earlier political lives; rather, it paralleled their own attempts to depoliticise themselves after the defeat of the revolution.

These respondents were now living politically withdrawn lives; the protection of their careers and the private sphere from outside interference replaced a political dialogue with the communist state as their central concern. Some decided to ‘tame’ their political pasts; they neither wanted to politicise their children through the memory of antifascism or resistance, nor did they want their former political pasts to impact on their careers. Kádár-era autobiographies were often designed in order to insulate the individual and their family from politics and to ensure a prosperous apolitical life. Indeed, any manipulation of their pasts was acceptable as long as it protected the private sphere. Some, for example, chose to keep quiet about their political posts in private, whilst continuing to use antifascist life stories in public, in order to safeguard their careers or avoid discrimination.

For example Károly had set up a new reformed socialist party in his locality in October 1956 and had contact with Imre Nagy. As a result he had been faced with execution but had been spared. Thereafter, despite this earlier revolutionary life, he was silent about 1956 wherever this was possible: he claimed only to have talked about it once in the entire Kádár period. His children had been aware that their father had been under political surveillance but, not wanting to radicalise them, he refrained from telling them about what had happened to him until the late 1980s:

James: Did you talk later with your family or friends about 1956?

Károly: There was a classmate of mine whom I had graduated with and we were on especially good terms, and in 1963—by that time I was already 37—we went out for a two-day walking holiday, and there I told him everything. He listened with dismay—he was the first [I told] … Otherwise I never really brought it up.

 No, it was an interesting thing, at just about the time when the system changed [in 1989], my children reproached me, that they had never known anything about what had happened to me; it was not a subject we had discussed at home. When I was set free from the prison, for years a car stood outside my home every night … even with this going on we never talked about it, but they were small children. Even much later it wasn’t a subject for discussion—even when things settled down [in the 1970s]—my children always knew there was something, but it was not a subject for discussion. Then in 1987/88, when they were already adults, and had families, then they asked what was what.

When he could not avoid dealing with 1956, Károly devised strategies to minimise the impact that his past would have on his family. He formulated a twin policy of silence at home and openness at work; he would not use the term revolution at home for fear that his children would start using the word and incriminate themselves; at work, by contrast, he was open about his active revolutionary role in curricula vitae which he filled out for employment and promotion. By being honest about his past he hoped to appear to be demonstrating sufficient obedience to avoid further retribution:

James: What was your opinion of this phrase, ‘counter-revolution’?

Károly: I never used it—it was a very delicate issue. When I spoke I always said the ‘October events’ (októberi események), or the ‘events of 1956’. I didn’t use the term revolution, I wouldn’t have dared, because they kicked those sort of people out; but I never referred to it as a counter-revolution … It was a kind of compromise [to use this term, the ‘October events’], but it meant my past never affected my children. I never put them in the position where they could be provoked [i.e. into saying something politically problematic]. Officially I wrote about my role [in 1956] everywhere I had to, so they [the state] knew about me, because I wrote it in my autobiography, what had happened, because I didn’t want the facts coming out from elsewhere.

Similar pressures to protect one’s present from one’s history also shaped the new ways in which the tales of Red Army liberation were told. Before 1956 party members’ use of liberation stories in both private and public was illustrative of a person’s identification with the state. By the mid-1960s, however, some respondents were merely manipulating liberation stories wherever necessary in order to ensure that family and career were protected from outside intrusions. In private, most had abandoned the idea, following their political alienation from the regime. Despite this, they continued to use it in public to maintain their careers:

James: When did the use of the word ‘liberation’ change?

Ágota: For me, after 1956 it slowly began to change, because my husband in 1955 had already been chucked out [of the party] … Myself, I was already calling it an occupation (megszállás).

James: Did you use it after 1956?

Ágota: In teaching, absolutely, if I wanted to keep my job. It was that kind of word like ‘table’ or ‘drink’—it was one word that meant, that here the Russians had defeated the Germans. But for me the word no longer had any political content—this is still true today.

After 1989, this preparedness to manipulate one’s life story in public was seen as a sign of being a collaborator. However, for these individuals, this issue was not discussed in moral terms; it was neither seen as a form of compromise, nor as a betrayal of their older political struggles. Respondents did not view these historical revisions as morally problematic both because they saw themselves as politically disengaged, and because the state itself did not force them over certain moral boundaries. Although they had to deploy liberation stories in public, despite rejecting them in private, this was not seen as a compromise. Rather, because the idea of the antifascist struggle and liberation had become meaningless, it could be publicly stated without implying that one was in league with the state or was accepting its version of the past. It was simply the banal iteration of politically empty terms. In the above quote, Ágota described how she now categorised the term ‘liberation’ (felszabadulás) to be a word of the same kind as ‘drink’ or ‘table’—it had no political content for her anymore. The fact that she could use it so easily and not find this morally problematic indicated, for her, the extent of the political distance she had put between herself and the regime. The ease with which antifascist slogans could now be deployed without ethical qualms was taken by some to indicate resistance to, not compromise with, the regime. It signalled that they now inhabited an entirely different moral world and had completely rejected the antifascist universe in which the communist state operated.

Many also recognised that the state, wanting to re-integrate them, had not pushed them into making some difficult or impossible moral compromises. The Kádár regime had made nuanced judgements about their citizens’ moral boundaries, and did not force them to step over them in their public biographies. Whilst requiring the use of terms such as ‘liberation’, more recent politically charged terms such as ‘counter-revolution’ did not need to be iterated in public. Indeed, from 1963 onwards, the Kádár regime used the term ‘counter-revolution’ less and less in public. Rather than refer to the events of the revolution itself, it demonised the uprising by referring back to its own condemnation of it; this tactic allowed the regime to propagate its official position on 1956 without publicly discussing the events themselves, which they feared might evoke a political reaction (Gyáni). Only in the 1980s was the idea of counter-revolution aggressively re-asserted (Ripp, pp. 240-245). Csaba recalled the everyday depoliticised terminology used to refer to 1956 which was both tolerated by the regime and often preferred in public by Kádár’s supporters too:

James: Did you talk with your friends about 1956?

Csaba: Yes, we all expressed the same opinion. For example, the party had a concept after 1956 of ‘counter-revolution’, which meant that it was all the bourgeoisie, fascists, the West, reaction; then there was ‘revolution’, that meant the socialists. Now, I never uttered the word, ‘counter-revolution’, I didn’t say it once after 1956, but it was possible to use the term the ”56 events’ in everyday speech. And all Hungarians understood what was meant. Nobody really ever said, ‘counter-revolution’, that was just the official term. Neither did they say, ‘revolution’, that was forbidden. They didn’t want to say revolution and they [the regime’s supporters] only said counter-revolution within their families, but not openly. They said ‘the events of ’56’ too. This was the politically cautious waffle (óvatos mellébeszélés) that they used.

Before 1956, antifascist life stories had been central to respondents’ engagement with the state; by the mid-1960s, they had purged their lives of political meaning in order to sustain and justify a withdrawn existence. Not wanting to politically engage with a state that still employed antifascist rhetoric as its official discourse, many purged their private autobiographies of stories of the antifascist struggle and liberation. The reconstruction of their life stories after 1956 was not moulded by new political concerns, but rather the wish to live a privatised, withdrawn, apolitical life. With their gradual re-integration into communist society after 1963 respondents were prepared to manipulate their autobiographies in any way that ensured the protection of the private sphere from political intervention, even if this meant sacrificing the memories of involvement in 1956 or repeating empty antifascist rhetoric in public where it was necessary to protect their careers. Many did not view these autobiographical manipulations as moral compromises or as a betrayal of the political struggles of their earlier lives, however. Indeed it was a symbol of the completeness of their personal depoliticisation and an indication of the extent of distance between themselves and the regime that they were so easily able to sacrifice the authenticity of their old political pasts in the empty spouting of state rhetoric. However, this was not how these manipulations were viewed after 1989; the stereotype of the careerist collaborating functionary who would reconfigure their own past for individual gain was to have a major impact on how ex-party members were viewed, and the ways they had to reshape their autobiographies, in the post-communist period.

After 1989

The collapse of communism in 1989 provoked significant changes in the way in which ex-Communist party members related their life stories. Many presented themselves as finally being able to tell stories about their pasts which had until then been taboo both in the home and in public. Stories about 1956 which had been repressed by the Kádár state could finally be articulated; stories of liberation and suffering under Fascism that had been co-opted by the communist state could now be reclaimed, free from their previous associations with propaganda. Central to their new self-presentation was the idea of ‘truth-telling’ about a once suppressed past.

Whilst it is certainly the case that many repressed stories did emerge, we should not take this claim to truth-telling at face value. On the one hand, the idea of truth-telling is frequently central to personal self-legitimation under any political system; to claim that one is recounting ‘historical realities’ which were previously unacceptable can add authenticity to one’s account of the past, and can often be used as a claim to social status in the present. This can be particularly powerful in post-dictatorial democratic systems, which claim to place a high value on ideals such as free speech. On the other hand, it was clear from respondents’ testimony that the revival of certain political stories did not represent a simple resurgence of past experiences, unmediated by contemporary context. Their re-telling occurred in a very politicised environment, and narratives were shaped by new debates about the nature of communism and the role of party members. Refashioning their life histories to deal with new approaches to the past was as important under post-communism (Fitzpatrick) as it had been before 1956 or under the Kádár state.

In 1989, aspects of their older antifascist life stories returned. They presented themselves as idealists radicalised by their suffering, or the suffering of others, under Fascism, who had been attracted to the communist state out of sincere ideological conviction and the desire to contribute to the construction of a more progressive Hungary, who had been prepared to resist the power of the state when it betrayed its initial promise, and who had suffered disproportionately after 1956 for their attempts to reform the communist state. They contrasted themselves with those who joined the party after 1956, whom they often considered to be non-ideological individualistic careerists. Many believed that their combination of experiences—their suffering under Fascism and communism, their idealism (rather than careerism) and their preparedness to resist a degraded dictatorship—would provide an acceptable account of their lives to a post-communist audience. They wanted to demonstrate that there was an alternative and genuine antifascism, distinct from the Stalinist and Kádárist corruptions of the movement, which they considered to contain moral and political legacies worth preserving in the post-communist period. However, they soon discovered that many did not accept the historical foundations upon which this supposedly moral account was based. Antifascism remained, after 1989, closely associated with the propagandistic rhetoric of the communist regime. Moreover, newly dominant conservative historical scripts were attacking the entire edifice of antifascism, destroying not only the communist state’s version of history but also the alternative antifascism through which respondents understood their lives and sought to be judged.

The conservative historical accounts prevalent after 1989 demolished the historical context in which antifascism made sense. They both dislodged Fascism as the central defining evil of the twentieth century (replacing it with communism) and removed the binary opposition between Fascism and communism that was central to the antifascist framing of the world; rather, Fascism and communism became viewed as very similar ideologies. Under the first conservative post-communist government (1990-1994), the memory of Fascism was sidelined in the celebration of the pre-communist period: the new administration idealised pre-1945 conservative bourgeois Hungary under Horthy for its social stability, its maintenance of national traditions and its anti-communism (Rév, pp. 43-44).  The Red Army and the Soviet Union were demonised for destroying it. This interpretation marginalised the memory of the indigenous fascist state which had come between the Horthy era and the arrival of the Soviet forces. It also ignored the antecedents of Fascism and the Holocaust, which lay earlier in the Horthy period; it preferred to present the aspects of Horthy’s rule which held the Holocaust at bay, rather than those which facilitated it. In downplaying the memory of Fascism and the Holocaust, this new historical narrative stripped the Red Army of any liberationist credentials, and divested the Communist party members’ political radicalisation of any meaning or ideological justification. These early post-communist interpretations of history were often reproduced in conservatives’ testimony: Fascism was of little consequence, and the Red Army were solely destroyers. Hence anyone who used the rhetoric of antifascism and liberation must have been a communist stooge who later invented a politically convenient history for themselves:

James: Did you use this word liberation (felszabadulás)?

Márton: Only when forced to do so. There was a word play, because ‘dúlás‘ means ‘laying to waste’, and here we had the Tartar-dúlás (tatárdúlás), the Turkish-dúlás (törökdúlás) and then the ‘felszaba-dúlás‘. In this sense I used it quite a lot. But really, at home, I never used it.

James: Did you meet anybody, in whose opinion, it was a liberation (felszabadulás)?

Márton: Loads. I met with lots of narrow-minded communists: these were abnormally exaggerated people. I knew these kinds of communists and I heard the speeches they made that would make your hair stand on end. Like when the leader of the local organisation of the Workers’ Party was winding up and he said now we must sing the ‘Imperialism’. He said it instead of the ‘Internationale’. The other, at a peace rally, there was a priest sitting in the front row in his cassock, and the workers’ leader said, we warmly greet our comrades here present and we also greet with great affection our dear representative of ‘clerical reaction’. Naturally it was very funny, they laughed in his face, but I knew these people, who got in with the party organisation.

Other interpretations did more than just sideline Fascism; they also attempted to replace communism for Fascism as the defining terror regime of the twentieth century. The Black Book of communism (Courtois et al) which some critics argue was written not only to establish the extent of communist terror, but also to establish that the victims of communism outnumbered those of Fascism (Kuromiya, p. 195)—was frequently mentioned by conservative respondents as their favourite work on communism. The downplaying of the evils of Fascism, and the new emphasis on the terrors of communism, served not only to remove the context in which party members’ political journeys could be understood, but also functioned to present them primarily as collaborators with a terror state. Asked about Fascism by a British interviewer, conservatives sometimes questioned western obsessions with Fascism, and suggested instead that communism and communists were the greater evil:

Kálmán: It is interesting that people in the west think that they have to judge Fascism, but not communism. What sort of logic is this? communism had many more victims than Fascism … One hears all the time about the Holocaust now. It would have been possible to talk about it for 10 or 20 years after the war, but nobody talked about it. Now everybody talks about it. One has to ask, why? Why? Why is it necessary to drag all this up again? … For 40 years nobody was bothered about it … And Hungarian victims, who were victims of communism, are they worth nothing? They say there were 20 million victims of communism … Fascism did not produce as many victims as communism.

Whereas some conservative accounts demonised communism by presenting it as worse than Fascism, others stigmatised it through the direct equating of the two systems. Whereas antifascism had presented history as a struggle between Fascism and communism, some post-communist accounts presented these ideologies not as binary opposites but rather philosophical twins. Drawing on totalitarian ideas that had developed in the western world since the 1950s (Gleason, pp. 211-216), they rejected the opposing ideological aspirations of these two ideologies—such as their different ideas about race, class and nation—as unimportant in favour of a perspective which stressed their common tendency towards dictatorship and violence. The fascist and communist periods were also presented as an era of continuous occupation, from the arrival of the Germans in March 1944 until the departure of the Soviets in 1989 (Rév, p. 44; Rainer, p. 230). Rather than addressing the different respects in which these two systems affected the country, they were equated as belonging to an uninterrupted period during which the Hungarian nation was destroyed and her interests subordinated to wider empires. With the close association of these two systems established, and their ideological opposition erased, the decision of some to become fascists out of a fear of communism, or of others to convert to communism after their experience of Fascism, became less comprehensible. This direct equating of the two systems was manifested in the stories conservatives told about Arrow Cross members who became communists. Although such people existed after the war, it is more interesting in this context that conservatives found this story so appealing; it illustrated for them that there was a type of person who was attracted to revolutionary violent dictatorial movements, and hence suggested that communism and Fascism were in some ways ideological bedfellows. When János was asked about his experiences of the Arrow Cross in the autumn of 1944, he used the opportunity to draw links between their membership, and behaviour, and that of the communist state security forces. In his account, communism was demonised by linking its party members with Fascism and the Holocaust:

János: It was the darkest time [under the Arrow Cross], with unfortunate consequences. I was in Budapest and I only know this from hearing about it. Magyaróvár was under Arrow Cross rule, and they were terrorising and rounding up the Jews, and those who sympathised with the Jews, and those who weren’t sympathetic to the German occupation. These arrests, this harassment, went on day after day. Really it was rather like those times at the beginning of the 1950s, when the ÁVH did this kind of thing. The communists did it later, but at this point it was the Arrow Cross fascists. I can say that really lots of Arrow Cross members became communists, then later did exactly the same thing.

Faced with these stereotypes, ex-party members had to consider how to reconstruct a life story that would be believable, compelling, and morally acceptable to a post-communist audience. They therefore accentuated the authenticity of their antifascism as distinct from the negative associations of the corrupted version of the late communist state. They erased memories of how they had used antifascist stories in the achievement of ambitions, as this would make them appear to be ideologically inauthentic functionaries; rather, they concentrated on aspects of the antifascist story which demonstrated that their support for communism was born out of genuine suffering, and which emphasised that an antifascist tradition was as much about anti-regime resistance as it was about identification with the communist state.

Respondents tried to make their attraction to communism comprehensible by re-establishing authentic personally grounded accounts of Fascism and liberation that were distinctive from the antifascist rhetoric of the communist state. One respondent was horrified that it was as socially unacceptable to call the arrival of the Red Army a liberation in post-communist society, as it had been politically unwise to deny the liberation during the communist period. He believed that this was in part because many Hungarians had not themselves suffered under Fascism, and that general ignorance of the experiences of Jews and left-wingers permitted the conclusion that liberation was only a myth promulgated by the communist state. He distanced his account of antifascism and liberation from that favoured during the communist period by acknowledging the validity of the alternative view of the Red Army as an occupying force. Through a story comparing his own genuine experience of liberation by the Soviets in 1944 with the suffering endured by peasants whose grain was requisitioned by Red Army soldiers, he sought to be seen as a balanced, unpoliticised and objective historical voice. In being prepared to acknowledge other people’s experience of occupation, he hoped his audience might in turn recognise the authenticity of his personal experience of liberation and permit public discussion of 1944-1945 as such:

James: Is it difficult to speak about a liberation (felszabadulás) today?

Jenő: Today is much more difficult, because society violently denies that it was a liberation and attacks the idea. I naturally approve of the fact that it is no longer obligatory to call 1945 a liberation, as it was under the communist regime. But saying liberation shouldn’t be forbidden, or made almost impossible to say. Here it is a real problem, because the Jews and the left wingers felt it was a felszabadulás as the arrival of the Russians and their driving out of the Germans made life much easier, because the danger to one’s life or the danger of losing one’s freedom ended. [But] a large part of the population didn’t experience it like that.

 At the beginning of 1945 I went to Szeged with my brothers and sisters, because there was nothing to eat in Budapest and my parents had not come home, and we had relatives in Szeged, and we lived there for a few weeks at the beginning of 1945. We went there immediately after the liberation. There was food there, we went to school … my younger brother … wasn’t in Szeged anymore—he was in Hódmezővásárhely and I went to visit him there. The Soviets had blown up the bridge and you had to travel by ferry and the ferrymen said, ‘davaj‘[Russian for ‘Give it Here’], and then a great number of the peasant women recited a verse, ‘davaj davaj, nem volt tavaly, jobb volt tavaly, nem volt davaj‘[‘Give it here, Give it here!’, we didn’t have this last year, it was better last year, we didn’t have ‘Give it here!’]. And at that time it strongly hit me, that then I understood, that for them it had been better the last year, when for me it had been a nightmare. The last year—1944—had been a terrible year [for me], but for them 1945 was the terrible year. Then I understood and I realised that although it was a liberation for the intelligentsia, it wasn’t really like this for the peasants.

To make these personal accounts believable, some respondents recognised the need for a new type of antifascist language that did not remind other Hungarians of communist propaganda, but rather evoked sympathy for the personal suffering of the left and Jews. In reviving the story of his ‘liberation’, which he had suppressed during the Kádár era for fear of confirming a degraded antifascist script, one respondent characterised Soviet troops no longer as ‘liberators’ but rather ‘life-savers’:

James: Do you remember when you heard that the Russian army was getting close to Budapest?

Mátyás: We were overjoyed. It’s absolutely clear. There wasn’t any type of ideology or political requirement [to say it]. The liberators came (jöttek a felszabadítók), but today this has become a worn-out phrase, so now one can say, ‘the lifesavers came’ (jöttek az életmentők). If somebody is drowning in water, if somebody throws them a life-ring, then you don’t think about the ideological basis on which they threw it to you; it’s that simple. The Arrow Cross wanted to wipe us out, they wanted to slaughter us, the Russians came, they saved our lives.

In addition, in order to make their story compelling, they had to challenge the post-communist downgrading of Fascism and wholesale demonisation of the Red Army. Zsolt placed Fascism at the centre of his wartime stories in order to counter the ‘younger generation’s’ ignorance of it, and, through stories of his own personal experience, tried to refute the prevalent idea that the Red Army was nothing more than a violent occupier that had committed atrocities (Mark). Only through re-establishing the importance of Fascism and their experience of the Red Army as liberators could respondents make their attraction to the Communist party comprehensible:

Zsolt: Your generation can’t even imagine how these times were in fascist countries … They [war leaders] were fascists—simply fascists. There was here and there an exception like Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky and a large boulevard in Budapest is named after him … An Arrow Cross member was standing in an entrance in our street, out in front of the gate. I went out and he stopped me. I said, ‘yes?’ And he said, machine gun at the ready, at me, ‘papers!’ or ‘identification’ or something. And I said, ‘yes’. And then in the fraction of a second I thought how clever I am that I have this pistol here, in the jacket, instead of the usual place. And the second dreadful thought was that these Frommels, unlike some modern pistols where the first bullet is already in the tube, didn’t have a security lock. For the first bullet you have to pull back the catch which fires it, and this thing gives a very characteristic click, so I thought, ‘I am finished’. He will pull the trigger at once when he hears it. So I tried successfully to do the following thing. I did this—’papers?”yes’ (coughs loudly) I coughed to suppress the click, and fired at once … that’s the story.

James: So do you remember when you first heard the Russians were coming close to Budapest?

Zsolt: … the canon fire was very audible all over Budapest for days and days … when the first Russian appeared at the gate of Szív utca we were very happy. And the innumerable stories about the Russian soldiers, who raped everybody … not a word is true. They behaved like soldiers behave after they take a town which was defended street by street, metre by metre, and they too had suffered heavy losses, so they were not in the best of moods. But, and, it was a matter of course in everybody eyes that sporadic cases of misbehaviour happened. Rapes too. But these cases were very few considering for instance what the other armies did in the Soviet Union or elsewhere. And they weren’t vandals. All they wanted was your wrist watch. Well, we all had wrist watches and nobody took it [from us]. But they had a taste for it, for asking for your wrist watch. But they didn’t behave brutally. Anyway, the Russians were all right …

By finding new ways of describing the horrors of Fascism (distinct from those previously used by the communist state), and by rehabilitating the role of the Red Army in 1945 in a measured way, respondents hoped to garner sympathy for, and an understanding of, their radicalisation to left-wing politics. They wanted to make it clear that their experience of Fascism led to communism, and that their antifascist stories were not later inventions of the communist period. This required not only the recreation of the context of their political radicalisation, but also the repression of the memory of the politically correct versions of their antifascist histories that some created after 1948 in order to gain advantages under the communist system. This might expose them to the charge of being ideologically inauthentic careerists. It is striking that ex-Communist party members almost never referred to the process of polishing their antifascist biographies in order to achieve professional or political ambitions; yet these stories were often mentioned by non-communists as necessary inventions in order to get on in the system (Mark).

Stories of resistance and, in particular, involvement in the 1956 uprising, were crucial in the construction of an authentic antifascism for the post-communist period. It was important for respondents to establish the idea that antifascist language might be used to express opposition to communist practice. They argued that antifascist ideas did not necessarily signify uncritical support or a preparedness to iterate unquestioningly the state’s politicised version of the past. In addition, some respondents used resistance stories to highlight the validity of the tradition of reformed socialism distinct from the ‘degraded’ forms of Stalinism and Kádárism experienced by the Hungarian population. However, after 1989, many ex-party members were shocked to discover that the stories of revolutionary involvement they had repressed during the Kádár period, and felt able to articulate after 1989, were now violently attacked from a new direction: the post-communist right.

James: Are there debates about 1956 today?

Jenő: Of course, there are debates again. But now we are not primarily debating whether it was a counter-revolution, but now they [i.e. right-wingers] want to falsify other things. Before 1989, the Kádár system presented it as a counter-revolution—now the right describes the revolution in just about the same way, but for them this is not a negative but rather a positive sign. They say it was an anti-Bolshevik, anti-socialist revolution and everyone wanted to go back to before 1945 to the Horthy era … They say that we call ourselves reform communists, and they say that we weren’t really on the side of the revolution, we really remained true communists and we only wanted to change things just a bit in the interests of the communist system. According to them, we didn’t have a role in the revolution; only we believed that we had a leading role.

Reform communists were faced with the charge that they were, in essence, collaborators with the system and their acts of resistance were thus unimportant tinkerings at the margins. The post-communist right, who viewed communism per se (rather than just the Stalinist variant) as illegitimate, argued that only those who had attempted to end the communist regime for good were real revolutionaries. Thus the reform communists’ roles in the revolution were played down, and other political traditions’ involvement, particularly those on the right, were emphasised (Nyyssönen, p. 248; Litván, p. 263). In post-communist conservative accounts, reform communists cannot be vaunted without first being stripped of their political identity. Thus when conservatives celebrated the role of Imre Nagy after 1989, his communist past and political beliefs during the revolution were usually sidelined in favour of remembering his execution in 1958; he was transformed from the representative of reformed socialist resistance against Stalinism to a politically decontextualised symbol of the violence of communist dictatorship (Rév, pp. 84-88).

In the political transition in 1989, the memory of the revolution played a pivotal role; the renaming of 1956 from a ‘counter-revolution’ to a ‘popular uprising’ came to symbolise the decline in legitimacy of the Kádár regime and the beginning of a new political order. In the years which immediately followed, political debates over 1956 died down, and it became a relatively politically neutral topic (Rainer, p. 257). In the mid-1990s, however, the memory of the revolution began to be instrumentalised by both left and right: particular interpretations of the uprising were foregrounded by different groups in order to validate their political programmes in the present. In 1994, the first leftist post-communist government commemorated the role of reformed socialist Imre Nagy. This was on the one hand an attempt to embrace 1956 for the post-communist left, but was also interpreted as making amends for Prime Minister Gyula Horn’s role in opposing the revolution in 1956 itself. The post-communist right—in particular the party of Fidesz under Viktor Orbán—framed 1956 as a fight both for freedom and for a ‘bourgeois Hungary’; a struggle that only came to a close with the stewardship of the Fidesz government in the late 1990s (Rainer, pp. 218-219). They stressed the role of bourgeois interests in the revolution, such as religious conservatives (Litván, p. 261). Conservatives have also demonised alternative interpretations; in 1996, Fidesz’s party literature marginalised the reform socialists’ role when discussing the revolution; they were placed alongside Stalinists as merely two different types of ‘jailers’ (börtönőrök) (Litván, p. 263; A Polgári Magyarországért 1996). Whilst respondents felt themselves attacked over their role in the uprising, they also realised that the post-communist obsession with resistance and 1956 gave them space in the public sphere to explain the relationship between antifascism and opposition.

These debates have not only given the respondents the opportunity to air their stories, but also have shaped their form. In the Kádár period, Károly had remained silent about his involvement in 1956. However, his revived revolutionary stories have now been moulded by the political divides and the tone of contemporary debates. Respondents often used their stories to present themselves, and their political tradition, as the true representatives of the revolution, and to marginalise the role of other groups. Reacting against conservative characterisations of ex-party members as collaborators incapable of proper resistance, Károly framed the key participants in 1956 as antifascist reform socialists, and argued that the right had played a negative role in the revolution. Firstly, he accused conservatives such as Cardinal Mindszenty of sabotaging the uprising by expressing a desire to return to the traditions of pre-1945 Hungary in his speech of 3 November 1956, and thus almost being responsible for provoking the retribution of the state and Soviet tanks. By implication, the revolution was much safer in reformed socialist hands, whose aims—the creation of a more democratic socialism—were more limited, but might almost have been achieved without right-wing provocation. Secondly, he associated the right’s role in the uprising with extremism, and violence against Hungarian citizens; in a striking final twist to his story, he used his arrest by the new Soviet-backed regime on 4 November 1956 to demonise not communism but the far right whom he had expected were much more likely to arrest him:

Károly: On 23 October, when the revolution broke out in Budapest, then with my friend and one other person we went to party headquarters … There was a very broad political palette on display—from Imre Nagy to the extreme right—but right to the end I was on the left of the revolution. I still believed in socialism, but it didn’t have to be done in the way it was being done, it could have been reformed. Ours was the biggest, more threatening form of resistance, and, interestingly, those who attacked [the system] from within were always the most dangerous. We got information about how to set up a new left-wing party, and in only an hour and a half we started our discussions. We were in a rather optimistic mood … in the afternoon we received a working-class delegation from Miskolc and we went and saw Imre Nagy with them. That meeting was alarming, because the old man was clearly uninformed and incapable of doing anything … It was 1 November when we went back to our town and set up a new party organisation.

 … We were shocked by Mindszenty’s speech. Even today I have a very poor opinion of him. Certainly his trial was illegal, but I considered him to be a habitual, consistent reactionary—much more than just a conservative—who hurt us [i.e. the revolutionaries] a lot in 1956. Of course even without him the revolution would have come to an end, but he really harmed the revolutionary movement …

 We were sharply anti-Soviet, and when suddenly the Soviets came back … on 4 November, at dawn, I was woken at my flat and there appeared some civilian police with sub-machine guns. At that time, I didn’t know that the Russians had come back; they came in and they took me away. I believed that extreme right-wing elements had come [to my flat], because the revolution had become divided, because there were those, who were strongly anti-communist. Because I stood on a socialist platform, they didn’t like it. Only when I was inside the police station did it turn out that this was not the case; rather the old regime had come back and they wanted to execute me. The leader of our county informed my wife that they would execute me, and then, after I had sat there for a bit, they transferred me to prison and there began my time inside.

In the 1990s, ex-party members sought to make their life stories socially acceptable to a new post-communist audience. Shocked to find that the antifascist and revolutionary stories they had silenced during the Kádár era were now being attacked by the post-communist right, they searched for new ways to legitimise their pasts. Rejecting the stereotype of self-interested collaborator, they drew on earlier narratives from their pre-1956 political lives in order to refashion themselves as idealistic leftists whose antifascist beliefs had led them not just to support the communist state, but also to resist it. They used their personal stories to fend off the marginalisation of Fascism and their roles in the 1956 revolution which were central to sustaining this narrative. The revival of their stories thus meant not only the resurgence of memories lost during Kádárism, but also a significant remodelling of older life stories for a post-communist audience.


Post-war Communist party members lived through three distinct political environments, in each of which the content and form of their autobiographies changed and served different functions. In the early communist period, individuals’ political attitudes and practices determined the types of autobiographies they created. Respondents constructed antifascist life histories for a range of purposes: to show support and articulate their identification with public histories and the state that produced them; to express resistance where they felt the promise of antifascism to have been betrayed; but also to communicate their ambitions through the production of politically advantageous life narratives that would benefit them in education, career or party structures. After the defeat of the 1956 uprising and the reprisals that followed, many individuals decided to withdraw from a political life; they would neither support nor resist the Kádár state. Consequently their life stories altered and the antifascist narratives that had been central to their political identities were abandoned. When provided with the opportunity to reintegrate into communist society after 1962 individuals were concerned to protect their private and family worlds from their political pasts. When constructing their life stories, respondents were no longer concerned with issues of political or moral integrity and were prepared to manipulate the retelling of their experiences to safeguard their private, apolitical lives. After the collapse of communism, they were forced to think again. Confronted with conservative nationalist voices, which demonised them as careerist collaborators, ex-party members revived their antifascist stories. They did this now not to demonstrate their support for the communist state but rather to construct a principled story that they hoped would make their lives morally acceptable for a post-communist audience. The creation of autobiography has thus played three different roles in their lives: to engage politically, to defend the private sphere against the state, and to reassert moral status in the face of an ideologically hostile society.