Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 19
1 November 1999

H U N G A R Y:
The Welcome Refugees
Why the West opened its arms to fleeing Hungarians in 1956

Paul Nemes

Forty-three years ago, Hungary enjoyed a few days of freedom, followed by a brutal crushing of the democratic forces by Soviet Communism. The defeat resulted in the biggest mass exodus of Hungarians since the humiliating Treaty of Trianon, signed in 1920, severely truncated the state, leaving many ethnic Hungarians living in new countries.

Mass population movements and migrations are certainly nothing new to 20th-century Europe, and many peoples have had to leave their homes and homelands as a result of wars, oppressive regimes, border changes and attempts to create "nation-states". Hungarians had experienced several massive population movements. Following the end of the First World War and the redrawing of the borders in Central and Eastern Europe, Hungarians left in great numbers from what was then Upper Hungary, which became part of the new Czechoslovak state, from Transylvania which was ceded to Romania, and from Vojvodina which became part of another new state - Yugoslavia. Again, following the end of the Second World War, a large number of Hungarians were forcibly expelled from Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia.

The 1956 exodus was notable though in the way Hungarian refugees were welcomed in the West. This was in many ways due to a feeling of guilt. While the peoples of the West were supporting the Hungarians fully, their governments were doing very little to help Hungary protect what many thought was the country's newly won independence. Still, during the first days of the Uprising - when it appeared as if the Hungarians had done the impossible and actually defeated the Soviets - emphasis was on humanitarian supplies to Hungary, and not on refugees leaving the country.

Not surprisingly, members of the hated AVO (the name of a select group within the secret police, the AVH, which soon became the popular name for the whole organisation) were among the first to seek political asylum in Austria, as they realised that they had no place in a free Hungary, and ironically many of these hard-line supporters of the regime chose a life in the West in favour of protection by mother Russia. In Hungary it was still thought that the success of the first days of fighting against the Russians would result in neutrality. Therefore, the number of Hungarians crossing the border into Austria during these first days of fighting were almost negligible in comparison to the numbers that were to leave after the Soviet invasion. As Austria itself had a Soviet zone for many years after the Second World War, the Austrians did of course have some experience with the Russians, and they quickly understood that once the pressure eased in Hungary many would take the opportunity to leave. During Matyas Rakosi's Stalinist dictatorship even to think about escape to the West meant almost certain death. Like in the other countries behind the Iron Curtain, escape had been made as good as impossible by the presence of heavily armed border guards and minefields.

A change of tack

On 26 October, Austrian Interior Minister Oskar Helmer announced that every Hungarian refugee would be granted political asylum. It is perhaps surprising that so few took the opportunity to escape when it became a possibility. After having defeated the Soviet forces in Hungary, there was a great deal of hope for a new non-Communist Hungary. Eisenhower had promised to end the policy of "containment". What the Hungarians did not know was that US policy-makers already in 1953 had abandoned "peaceful liberation" - a policy immensely difficult to enact - in favour of the more pragmatic notion of "containment." The rhetoric of liberation, however, remained - with the result that Radio Free Europe and Voice of America kept encouraging the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe.

Hungarians began to leave their country in large numbers once it became obvious that the Soviet Union was not willing to accept Hungarian neutrality and when it became clear that the West would not risk the current status quo - the cornerstone of East-West relations - for the sake of a small Central European country. Already on 28 October, the Austrian Foreign Ministry sent the following message to London, Paris and Washington: "To all appearances, the uprising in Hungary will come to an end following massive Soviet military intervention. In that event, it can be presumed that larger Hungarian armed formations will cross into Austria." (Ferenc Cseresnyes, "The '56 Exodus to Austria", The Hungarian Quarterly, Vol 40, No 154, 1999). Most Hungarians disposed of their weapons shortly before crossing into Austria, but the Austrians were correct in assuming that a large number would leave.

On 4 November, the Soviet armoured attack on Budapest and other major Hungarian cities began. By noon, five thousand Hungarians had already crossed the Austrian border. In total, more than 200,000 people left Hungary after the failed Uprising. Just as they had fought in hope of a US and Western military intervention, Hungarians left for a life in the West they had heard so much about on Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. Although a transit country, it was Austria - a neutral country with no capacity to help Hungary militarily or otherwise - that was the least hesitant to accept Hungarian refugees.

200,000 is naturally a substantial loss for a country of only 10 million, but why did not even more people leave once it became clear that Hungary would remain in the Soviet sphere for the indefinite future? In Communist Hungary, news was hard to come by. Many also thought that a return to the old ways was impossible, and that the Kadar regime would accept this. Even many of the freedom fighters refused to leave, thinking that they would escape a long prison sentence or death. Attachment to the land was also strong. Most refugees came from Budapest and other cities, and far fewer from the countryside.

The politics of guilt

Hungary became a victim of Superpower politics. "It was against this general world constellation that the Hungary of 1956 revolted, though many or even perhaps most of its participants believed that they had the backing of the West in their struggle against the East". (F. Feher and A. Heller, Hungary 1956 Revisited) What went on behind the scenes and in the United Nations is another story. The Westís non-action left governments with a feeling of guilt. Therefore, Hungarian refugees were welcomed with open arms.

The West and the UN mobilised on a grand scale to assist the flood of refugees. Countries rushed to take the displaced Hungarians. As the situation in Austria became almost unmanageable between 7 and 14 November, seven countries offered to take Hungarians refugees. However, nearly everyone wanted a new life in the United States. The US was one of those countries to set a limit to the number of refugees it would take in. Even though the number quickly was increased from 6500 to 21,000 this was well below what would have been considered reasonable. The US had little choice but to increase the number further. In all, some 80,000 Hungarians went to settle in the US.

In November, Canada also declared its readiness to accept Hungarian refugees, and from December Canada was willing to accept an unlimited number of Hungarians. As a result, many chose to go to Canada as an alternative to the Unites States. Toronto is said to be the third largest "Hungarian" city in the world. The United Kingdom was also a popular destination. However, many blamed Britainís operations in Suez as the reason why there was no Western help and why the Uprising failed. The Suez crisis also had another effect. After having accepted 11,000 refugees Britain temporarily put a stop to immigration due to the return of Britons from the Middle East. In the end, 22,000 Hungarians went to the United Kingdom.

Initially, also France offered to take an unlimited number of Hungarian refugees. However, for the same reason as Britain, France set a limit of 7000. 13,000 Hungarians finally ended up in France but few volunteered to go there, with the ghost of the Trianon Peace Treaty (whose harsh terms were largely the influence of the French) still lingering. The generous offers of many countries were not fully taken up as Hungarians rather went to the US than anywhere else. As Russian troops, at least officially, were not allowed within five km of the neutral Austrian border according to an international agreement, the Kadar regime was not able to close the border until into the new year, and Hungarians continued to pour into Austria throughout the autumn and winter.

Paul Nemes, 31 October 1999



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