Heroes' Square, Budapest, 16 June, 1989 - A Memorial Day Changed Forever by Political Opportunism
The day meant to honour the memory of executed 1956 PM Imre Nagy and other victims of the 1956 Revolution is remembered for a young, unknown dissident's fiery address.
Photo: A crowd estimated variously at 200,000 - 250,000 gathered from early on the morning on 16 June, 1989 on Hősök tere. They were there to pay homage to Imre Nagy, Prime Minister in the short-lived revolutionary Hungarian government in October-November 1956, his close comrades and others executed for revolutionary activities during the subsequent Soviet-backed rule of János Kádár.
It was a day when Hungary made world headlines for the right reasons. Almost 33 years after the crushed 1956 uprising against dictatorial communist rule, and 31 years after being tricked and executed for their cause, Nagy and four leaders of 1956, along with hundreds of other, lesser known victims, were being rehabilitated and re-buried with full honours as great patriots rather than suffer the ignominy of unmarked graves.
It was an event that even a year previously would have been unimaginable: and at least for its symbolism (rather than practical, legal reform, where Poland had already led the way with successful, sort-of democratic elections), for many it marked the beginning of the end of one-party, communist rule in Soviet-dominated eastern Europe.
Photo: New York Hungarians pay their respects with a wreath. They came from North, South and Central America, from Australia and New Zealand, from South Africa, the UK, Ireland and probably every country in western Europe. Hundreds, if not thousands of Hungarians who fled the country in the aftermath of 1956 returned to pay their respects that June day.
As the mercury inched up under the blazing sun, speaker followed speaker to the podium, next to coffins holding the remains of Nagy and his comrades, while hundreds of sombre-faced mourners paid their respects with wreaths.
Most of the speakers were elderly, many had fled the country in the autumn of 1956 rather than face certain death if they had so much as touched a weapon during the fighting; some had never previously returned to their homeland.
It would make for dramatic reading to write that late in the morning I watched as a bearded young man took to the stage, from where he promptly demanded the removal of Russian troops from Hungarian soil, and end to one-party, communist rule and the establishment of democracy.
The thousands on the square were transfixed.
All this was true, except I didn't see it. By then I was on the far side of the square, wilting somewhat after humping 10 kg of camera gear in and out of the throngs for close to three hours in the heat.
I certainly registered the enthusiastic ooohs and aaaahs of the crowd nearer the stage, but, frankly, I just wanted out by then, and accompanied by photographer friend Péter Fábry (who I think also missed this drama), we went to his flat near Klauzál tér to recuperate.
Mari, his wife was at the door when we arrived.
“Did you hear Viktor Orbán?” she asked, eyes wide. “Russians out!”
Millions of Hungarians were asking each other the same question.
A legend – and a political career - had begun.
Photo: Delegations from Sopron and Pécs in front of the Museum of Fine Arts. 16.06.89
There was just one problem. As László Rajk, by then a veteran dissident and one of the main organisers of the event – he had designed the decorations of the entire square - told me years later, Orbán had stepped out of line.
“This was a day to honour Imre Nagy, the executed prime minister, and other victims of the Soviet repression after 1956. We had all agreed not to bring modern politics into it. Orbán went back on this promise,” Rajk said.
Not only would any such politicking divert the event from honouring the victims of 56, it also risked stirring reactionary forces in Moscow, potentially derailing the train of liberalisation being led by Gorbachov.
Nor was Orbán saying anything new: the Hungarian government had already agreed with Moscow that Soviet forces would leave the country. Under such circumstances, fiery speeches against “Russians” would give Moscow hardliners the perfect excuse to bring about the precise opposite of what everyone on the square wanted that day.
The student from Székesfehérvár had gambled, and not just with his own future.
Seemingly – and surely in his own opinion - he won. For millions of Magyars, the abiding memory of 16 June, 1989 is of Viktor Orbán's address and the exhilaration it provoked across the nation.
Many today even believe his words brought about the collapse of the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party and the withdrawal of Soviet forces from the country.
Such is the embracing power of myth.
But for Rajk, and many in his circle, it is all based on a broken promise. As he concluded to me in 2010: “Orbán ... misused the reburial to launch himself onto the political stage.”
Note: A recording of the speech is on YouTube (In Hungarian, of course.)
Some translations of this in English contain an error: Orban specifically uses the term "Russian" and not "Soviet" when referring to the occupying power.
In the past decade he has been careful to no longer do so.