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Remembering the Hungarian Revolution

Fifty years ago, Hungarians rose up against their communist rulers and for two weeks lived in relative freedom, until their revolution was brutally crushed by the Soviet army. This somber anniversary is reflected in a newly-released documentary -- "Torn From the Flag" -- and newsreels of the era.

It conveys the drama of of the electrifying events taking place in Budapest during the last week of October 1956. It was a revolt that riveted the world's attention. And at first it appeared to succeed. "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."

No to Communism

Inez Kamenez, a freedom fighter of 1956, recalls what happened during the first days of the revolt. "There were hand-made posters all over the walls [proclaiming] 'There is freedom, everybody is free. We don't want communism.'"

Barrett McGurn, then a young reporter for The New York Herald Tribune newspaper, arrived in Budapest during the first days of the revolt. In the VOA studios 50 years later, McGurn remembers vividly what he witnessed.

"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," says McGurn.

The Universal newsreel picks up the story. "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."

The Soviet Union Attacks

Barrett McGurn says the euphoria ended suddenly once the Soviet army stormed into Budapest. "On Sunday morning, November 1st, on All Souls Day, candles were burning in the windows when the Russians came in -- firing at everything," says McGurn.

On that same day Inez Kemenez went to the center of the city to fight the Russians. "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."

On the days that followed, says McGurn, there were scenes of unspeakable horror. "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."

Inez Kemenez says, "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 another 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 into the city 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," says McGurn.

The Aftermath

The old 1956 newsreel now shifts to the pathetic scenes of Hungarian refugees fleeing west across the border into Austria. "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 thousand have fled Hungary since the eruption against Soviet rule early in November. Entire families are risking everything for this chance for liberty."

More than two thousand people died during the Hungarian revolution. Thousands more died later. Two hundred thousand people fled the country. Barrett McGurn believes the two weeks of the Hungarian revolution brought the world very close to war.

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

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.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.