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The other Hungary—critical and opposition movements and groups in Hungary’s Kádár period

The Public Foundation of the 1956 Institute opened in 2005 a research programme entitled ‘The other Hungary—critical and opposition movements and groups in Hungary’s Kádár period’, designed to examine as wide a range of such movements as possible, using the techniques of history and historical sociology.

Recently, there has been growing nostalgia apparent for the Kádár period, which is even styled a ‘happy period of peace’, but little is said about the political, cultural or moral opposition to the Soviet-type system in this country, and any mentions are hardly flattering. Ten years after some notable beginnings, there is hardly any research on the subject taking place. Hardly anything is taught about it even in higher education. Generations are growing up with scarcely any idea that there was ‘another Hungary’ in those decades, whose representatives conveyed to the authorities by various means that they rejected the Soviet-type system in the country, and who not only nursed the spirit of opposition, but were prepared to show it, running the risk of repression.

The purpose of the research is to gather data on the ‘other Hungary’, process them and make them accessible for teaching and to all who are interested. There is no denying the role of a personal commitment in the aim of drawing public attention to this story, which is being forgotten. The plan of research for several years is to prepare 60–80 hours of oral-history interviews, work through the extensive state-security documentation on critical and opposition groups and movements, take account of the written and other (e. g. artistic) manifestations associable with these movements and groups, and collect photographs and films, leading to the preparation of printed publications and a database and a comprehensive multimedia content service accessible on the Internet and designed to serve as a basis for teaching programmes.

By the mid-1970s, there had formed a conglomerate that came to style itself the democratic opposition, consisting mainly of arts intellectuals living in the capital. There were several events in the period that demonstrated the existence of people acting in solidarity with each other and prepared to confront the system. There existed by then informal groups, within which there was regular open debate and critical analysis of the system. Of course, there was traffic between these groups and many people who did not belong to any, but knew individual members of the groups and the ideas they upheld. By the latter half of the 1970s, groups openly or tacitly opposed to existing socialism had developed within the various social science workshops and were including strong criticism of the system in their academic publications. By this time, intellectuals who had taken part in the ’56 revolution were able to get ‘normal’ jobs again, but their experiences in prison were still decisive to them.

News of the Soviet defeat of the Prague Spring in 1968 reached some Hungarian philosophers while they were on the Yugoslav island of Korčula, and alongside the other delegates to the international conference, they protested against the intervention by the Warsaw Pact countries. It fell like a thunderbolt in Hungary when news of the Prague trial, when Petr Uhl, Václav Benda, Jiří Dienstbier, Václav Havel, Otka Bednářová and Dana Němcová were arrested in 1977. The proceedings taken against the ‘spokesmen’ of the memorandum issued by the Prague leaders of the Charter ’77 human rights movement could hardly have been described as unusual for the region—similar events were even a weekly occurrence in the Soviet Union—but Prague had been weighing on the minds of the Hungarian intellectuals since 1968: they felt that the shame of Hungary’s participation in the invasion had to be remedied in some way. When news came that the civil-rights leaders in Prague had received harsh sentences, there was no longer any doubt in their minds that they had to express solidarity in some form. This led to letters being signed by a still unprecedented 250 people as an expression of their protest to the Hungarian head of state and the party first secretary.

Those who signed the two letters suffered reprisals of varying severity. It was clear by 1979 that the Kádárite authorities would use only a narrow range of administrative measures. In most cases, offenders were just dismissed from their jobs, and even then, efforts were made to push the odium of this onto the principal at the workplace, so that punishment of the signatories should not appear as retaliation by the centre.

This is where the research has begun. An attempt is being made through oral history to come closer to the motivations of the personalities behind the events, to hard data, to sociological attributes, and to the development of the Hungarian opposition movement—the other Hungary. With the completion of the first phase, about 30 interviews were made with chosen signatories of the two letters and published in the facsimile edition of the 1985 Monor Meeting. The plan is to make with further interviews, to process them on data sheets, and to conduct archive research.

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Copyright © 2000 National Széchényi Library 1956 Institute and Oral History Archive
Last updated:  Sunday, 1-October-2006

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