Diplomatic Pouch / October 6, 2016
By Larry Luxner
With Russia’s latest bombing attacks in Syria and threats against Ukraine as a backdrop, the Hungarian Embassy in Washington has organized a six-week-long series of public and private events in Washington to mark the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian revolution.
At the embassy’s entrance on Spring of Freedom Street, a Hungarian flag with the communist coat of arms cut out is proudly displayed as a symbol of the revolution — the first armed revolt against Soviet rule in Eastern Europe since the end of World War II.
“The importance of 1956 is coming to the forefront now because it was really the first serious uprising against Soviet communist aggression,” Réka Szemerkényi, Hungary’s ambassador to the United States, told the Diplomatic Pouch. “Although it was put down within two weeks, the values that the people were fighting for gave very strong inspiration for many generations of Hungarians and Central Europeans for decades.”
That revolt, which began as a student demonstration in Budapest, quickly spread through the country and led to the collapse of Hungary’s communist regime. But less than two weeks later, Soviet forces invaded Budapest and crushed the short-lived revolution; more than 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet soldiers were killed in the conflict, and an estimated 200,000 Hungarians fled the country as refugees.
Even though it ultimately failed, said Szemerkényi, Hungary’s 1956 uprising inspired the 1968 revolution in Czechoslovakia as well as the rise of Solidarity in Poland 12 years later — which ultimately led to the end of the Cold War in 1989.
“So the revolutionaries reached their dreams in 1989-90 with Hungary’s first free elections,” the ambassador told us. “This is why the 1956 freedom fight was a turning point in the Cold War. It showed the power of the people and the values that motivated them. This is why in 1990, when we started to rebuild our relations with the United States, we based those relations on the values of 1956: love of freedom and democracy.”
During a Sept. 28-29 visit to Washington, Péter Szijjártó, Hungary’s minister of foreign affairs and trade, said his is one of the most pro-American countries in Europe.
“This year marks the 60th anniversary of the 1956 revolution, when Hungarians stood up against the communist dictatorship,” said Szijjártó, speaking at an invitation-only gala dinner at the embassy honoring the CEPA Forum.
“The freedom fighters were abandoned, and did not receive any external help, so the revolution was defeated,” he said. “But the Hungarian people made it very clear that they simply would not accept even part of their sovereignty to be taken away, no matter how big the oppressor. This message of 1956 is total valid nowadays as well. Hungary and the Hungarian people will resist all kinds of pressure.”
To honor those early fighters, the embassy has planned a series of events between now and early November.
“I was born in 1966, but brought up on the stories of ’56,” said the ambassador, whom The Washington Diplomat profiled in its June 2015 issue. “From my childhood, I listened to them, so I’m very much inspired by this 60th anniversary celebration.”
Among the events commemorating the uprising is a 1956 Film Festival set for Oct. 11. “Freedom Dance,” a movie narrated by Mariska Hargitay; it tells the story of a young artist and his newly wedded wife literally running for their lives — on foot, by truck, by bus, by train and by boat — on a determined quest for personal independence. Following the screening is a Q&A with the film’s director, Steven Fischer.
The following day, Oct. 12, National Defense University will host a conference titled “1956: The Freedom Fight that Changed the Cold War: Geopolitics and Defense Policy.” Also that day, an exhibition on the ’56 uprising will open at the Pentagon; that same evening, the embassy presents a piano recital by Hungarian soloist Andre Hegedus, who has won prizes at 10 international competitions and has performed publicly more than 3,100 times throughout Europe as well as Australia, Japan, South Korea, the former Soviet Union, Canada and the United States.
On Oct. 16, the embassy will unveil its “Lads of Budapest” statue commemorating those young men who died in the 1956 uprising. The wreath-laying ceremony will take place at 1500 Rhode Island Avenue NW, site of the new Hungarian Embassy. That evening, an invitation-only VIP gala dinner will take place at Washington’s Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium. Hungarian pianist Csilla Szentpéteri and her on-stage band of musicians will provide entertainment for the invitation-only, black-tie dinner; they will perform a special one-night-only program, “The Tempest of October 1956,” in memory of the revolution.
Oct. 17 brings a slew of Hungary-related activities, including an exhibition about the revolution’s history at the Rayburn House Office Building, and “Taste of Hungary,” a presentation of Hungarian food and wine at the Library of Congress.
On Oct. 22, the Hungarian National Dance Ensemble will perform at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Va., and on Oct. 23, a Hungarian Embassy reception will feature the Csík Orchestra.
The six-week commemoration wraps up in early November, with a Nov. 3 performance of the Budapest Dance Production at Marymount University and a Nov. 4 concert by the Németh Ferenc Trio at the Hungarian Embassy.
For more information on the upcoming events, please email the embassy’s cultural counselor, Dávid Singer, at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (202) 686-4144.