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Failed 1956 Hungarian Revolution Remembered

Fifty years ago, on October 23, 1956, Hungarians rose up against their communist rulers and for two precious weeks lived in relative freedom, until their revolution was brutally crushed by the Red Army. VOA's Barry Wood has this report on a somber anniversary, as reflected in a newly-released documentary ("Torn From the Flag"), and newsreels of the era.

Movie newsreel announcer: "Scenes on the Austro-Hungarian border. Now Hungary is rebel controlled. From the uniforms of the border guards and the flag, the red star has been ripped."

It was a revolt that riveted the world's attention. And at first it appeared to succeed.

Video: "There were hand-made posters all over the walls (proclaiming): There is freedom, everybody free. We don't want communism."

In 1956 Barrett McGurn was Rome bureau chief of the New York Herald Tribune. Sent to Budapest at short notice, McGurn arrived shortly after Soviet troops had withdrawn from Budapest. "The impression I had was that the Hungarians really thought that they were free. When we got in there, the first thing I saw was a huge bonfire in front of a communist book store."

Video: "At the end of a six day fight that astonished the world and shook the Kremlin to its foundations, Hungary was free, free to fraternize on its borders. But even as these scenes were recorded, rumors flared of the re-entry of the Russian forces and new fighting."

McGurn recalls, "On Sunday morning, November 1st, on All Souls Day, candles were burning in the windows when the Russians came in -- firing at everything."

Video: "And in the dark dawn, we woke up at the sound of the cannons. On the radio we heard (Prime Minister) Imre Nagy saying Budapest is under attack and we should defend it."

It was a devastating blow, "One of the correspondents said to me, and he mentioned a plaza, 'Have you been out there?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'There is a swatch of blond hair on the ground there. That is all that was left of a young woman who tried to stop a Soviet tank.' " recalled McGurn.

Video: "I was ready to fight and die along with those unarmed, unknown people around me."

Hopelessly outnumbered, Hungarian freedom fighters were no match for hundreds of Soviet tanks. Hungarians held their breath hoping that the United States and the West would come to their rescue. But President Eisenhower had his eye on an even bigger problem--the Suez crisis--in which British, French and Israeli troops were attacking Egypt, a major Soviet ally.

As the Russians tightened their grip on Budapest, McGurn and other foreign journalists were ordered out of the city and then unexpectedly were turned back by Soviet troops. "We were driving now into Budapest with the flags of 20 countries. And the Hungarians thought we were the arrival of the rescue battalion. We were cheered all the way. This acutely depressed us. Here we were adding to the misery of these poor people. Giving them the hope when it was absolutely hopeless."

Video: "The avenue to freedom is brief. As night descends on liberty behind the Iron Curtain a ring of red tanks blocks the last road. An estimated 80,000 have fled Hungary since the eruption against Soviet rule early in November. Entire families are risking everything for this chance for liberty."

More than 2,000 people died during the Hungarian revolution; 200,000 fled the country.

It was a close call; McGurn says, "I think we came very close to World War III. Perhaps not as close as during the Cuban crisis, but very close to it."

The dark night of imposed communism would endure in Hungary and neighboring east bloc countries for another three decades. But its dream of freedom was kept alive and finally triumphed when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

"Torn from the Flag" video -- courtesy Klaudia Kovacs/Vilmos Zsigmond