By MAHIR ALI
EARLY last month, there was a glimmer of hope in Hungary. Implored to vote in a referendum intended to effectively sanctify the nationís brutal hostility to refugees from the Middle East, a majority of the eligible electorate opted to disengage from the process, rendering it invalid.
A turnout of at least 50 per cent was mandatory for the referendum to be considered valid. It didnít happen, despite an unprecedented effort by the ruling Fidesz party to convince Hungarians that it was somehow crucial to block the entry of less than 1,300 people ó the level mandated by the European Union (EU) to split the responsibility fairly among member states ó lest they should take Hungarian jobs and, furthermore, sully the pristine fabric of Hungarian Christianity.
Itís not hard to imagine comparable arguments being deployed back in the 1940s, when Hungary, under the regency of Miklos Horthy, not only joined the Axis powers led by Nazi Germany but eagerly colluded in the Holocaust by dispatching huge numbers of Jews to a near-certain death at Auschwitz and elsewhere.
The Horthy regimeís declaration of war coincided with Germanyís Operation Barba*rossa, the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, and close to half of Hungaryís army was sacrificed on the Eastern Front. It was not until 1944 that the Nazis felt obliged to directly occupy Hungary, once the tide had begun to turn and the authorities in Budapest deemed it opportune to make overtures to the Allied powers.
Most voters stayed away from the referendum on refugees.
Immediately following its exit from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the aftermath of the First World War, Hungary had lost large chunks of its territory to neighbours such as Czechoslovakia and Romania. Before Horthy took power in 1919, it had already experimented with social democracy and experienced a brief bout of communism. It regained much of the terrain under the aegis of the Nazis, but lost most of it again after the Second World War.
The repression did not end there, though, and the egregious excesses of the communist regime under Matyas Rakosi led to the landmark events of 60 years ago. A student revolt caught the popular imagination, exacerbating ructions within the ruling communist party and bringing back to power the reformist Imre Nagy, who had been expelled from the party, alongside the likes of Janos Kadar, who had faced torture and imprisonment under Rakosi, and the noted philosopher and theoretician Georg Lukacs.
The October revolution of 1956 was not, by and large, intended as a revolt against socialist ideals, and it may well have accounted for coining the idea of ďsocialism with a human faceĒ, which is to say minus the depredations and deprivations associated with Stalinism. Josef Stalin had been dead for three years by then, and Nikita Khrushchev had already stirred the pot earlier that year by denouncing his ruthless predecessor in no uncertain terms.
Moscow hesitated in the face of the Hungarian rebellion. Troops stationed in Hungary, which had joined the Warsaw Pact the previous year, initially withdrew from the nation in the face of obvious popular hostility. There was a brief glimmer of hope that the Soviets would grudgingly accept the course on which Hungary had embarked. It was not to be, though.
On Nov 4, 1956, Soviet troops returned in force to crush Hungarian aspirations, after Nagy had declared his nationís intention to pull out of the Warsaw Pact, and had appealed to the United Nations for assistance. Tens of thousands were killed, including Nagy ó whose hugely attended reburial in 1989 effectively announced the beginning of a new phase in Hungarian history. Kadar was ensconced in power, and he remained in charge for more than 30 years.
At the same time, thousands went into exile while the borders were briefly open, and were generally welcomed by a West that had broadly failed to respond to what was going on in Hungary, not least because it was simultaneously embroiled in the Suez Crisis, the consequence of an Anglo-French-Israeli conspiracy to militarily overturn Gamal Abdel Nasserís nationalisation of the Suez Canal.
A number of those who went into exile as children or young adults have lately been particularly virulent in their critiques of Budapest, which has gone out of its way to malign and maltreat refugees from Syria, Iraq and other Muslim countries. Hardly any of them were keen to ensconce themselves in Hungary, yet the authorities deemed it suitable to make their transit as inconvenient and humiliating as possible.
Back in 1956, the Soviet Union was deplorably determined not to allow Hungary to become a role model for its communist neighbours; it was 12 years before Czechoslovakia suffered the same fate, and 30 years before the Soviets found themselves being led by a reformer.
Today, Hungary under Viktor Orban ó with the leading opposition party, Jobbik, even more closely aligned with the fascist past ó is a role model for the most retrograde forces in European politics. Letís hope it does not take Europeís diminishing progressives to face up to the challenge.
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