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Central Europe’s Unsentimental Education

BUDAPEST – This month marks the 20th anniversary of the reburial of Imre Nagy, the leader of Hungary’s failed anti-Soviet revolution of 1956. The reinternment, organized by Hungary’s anti-communist opposition on the 31st anniversary of his execution, drew more than 100,000 attendees, heralding the beginning of the end of the country’s sclerotic regime. We Hungarians, and Central Europe in general, have come far since those heady times, but the past 20 years have also given us much cause to question the path we took.

Hungary played a special role in the collapse of Communism, accelerating the process by opening its borders for East German refugees. But democratic transformation in Hungary required an opposition strategy throughout the 1980’s: revolution wouldn’t work, as the Soviet invasion in 1956 showed. Nor would internal reforms work, because the Soviets would intervene to save the system, as they did in 1968 in Czechoslovakia.

Instead, the new strategy was to sideline the issue of political power. Rather than attacking Communist rule directly, we would create small islands of freedom, inter-connected social circles and associations, which, when the moment came, could all be connected in order to change the system. In Hungary, several youth organizations existed and were aware of each other, so the political community that took part in the political changes in Hungary in 1989 was organized on this basis.

History also played a part in the success of the Hungarian transition. The 1956 revolution was a real one, with barricades. In no other Central European country did Communists experience the possibility of paying with their own lives for the suffering and oppression that they inflicted on others. This historical experience was good for reform capability.