Retired U faculty reflect on Hungary’s 1956 revolution

Former professors will discuss the revolt against communism later today.

Cati Vanden Breul

Fifty years ago, former University planning director Laszlo Fülop was one of hundreds of thousands of Hungarians to march through the streets of Budapest in protest of the country’s Soviet Union-backed communist government.

The 13-day revolution, which began as a student demonstration in late October 1956, was the first popular uprising in Eastern Europe that attempted to overthrow a communist regime and replace it with a democracy.

Fülop, along with University professor emeritus Robert Fisch and Johns Hopkins University professor Charles Gati – who all were in Hungary during the revolution – will share their stories tonight at an event cosponsored by the University’s Center for Austrian Studies.

The revolt, which spread across Hungary, initially succeeded in toppling the government. But Soviet troops brutally squashed all resistance after little more than a week.

At the time, Fülop was working in a factory in Budapest. The then-21-year-old witnessed the outbreak of the revolution firsthand.

The peaceful demonstrations turned violent when a delegation of students entered a radio building and sought airtime to broadcast a list of 16 demands, including the evacuation of Soviet troops from Hungary.

“The purpose of the initial demonstrations was really to make changes in the communist system,” Fülop said.

The state police arrested and eventually opened fire on the students, sparking anger from the crowd that had gathered outside the building.

“The people that had gone with them to the radio building started bombarding the windows with stones,” Fülop said. “At first this drew just the water cannon (from the state police), and later on smoke bombs, and later on actual bullets were fired.”

At one point, Fülop said state police shot at him and his friends after the youths demanded authorities stop firing at their fellow Hungarians.

“Thank God I wasn’t hit,” he said.

Fisch, a former University Medical School professor, was a physician in Budapest when the revolution broke out and treated both Hungarians and Russians during the conflict.


Fifty years after: The 1956 hungarian revolution revisited
WHAT: Johns Hopkins University professor Charles Gati will lead the discussion, accompanied by two Minnesotans native to Hungary, Robert Fisch and Laszlo Fülop.
WHEN: 8 p.m. today
WHERE: Minnesota History Center, 345 Kellogg Blvd. W., St. Paul

Although Fisch said he supported the revolution against communism, he wouldn’t deny anyone treatment.

“Everyone here is a patient,” Fisch said, recalling his thoughts at the time. “As long as a patient needs care, what’s happening in the street is a different story.”

It was a spiritual – albeit hard – experience for Fisch, he said.

“It was beautiful because people became idealists and fought for something more important than themselves,” he said.

As a concentration camp survivor, Fisch said he doesn’t think the world recognizes how brutal the Soviet communist system was.

“Today the whole world is still chasing the Nazis, but they never think about the communists who also killed many,” he said.

The Hungarian revolution in 1956 is what many would describe as a David and Goliath story, said Gati, who recently wrote a book on the revolution.

“The basic story is that a little country in the heart of Europe belonged to the Soviet bloc, not by design or wish, and wanted to be more independent and free than it was,” he said.

A supporter of the revolution, Gati noted many reasons why the Hungarians were opposed to an imposed communist regime.

“It was simply the terror and repression and shortages; there was nothing available,” Gati said. “So much was based on your parent’s social standing and background. If

they weren’t communists, it was really rare you could advance.”

The European studies professor will speak about what the Hungarians and the Western world, including the United States, should have done differently during the revolt.

After the Soviet Union had extinguished the revolutionaries’ hopes, hundreds of thousands of Hungarians fled the country, worried they would be executed or jailed.