The "Pozsgay coup"

The Kádár regime was born in blood. Crawlers of foreign tanks, a series of massacres and political assassinations created the basis of the power of the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party, but it was impossible to build legitimacy, i.e. social acceptance, on this foundation. Therefore, the regime consolidated: it used new techniques of power to quell the nation's resistance, to break its back, to nip the voices of discontent in the bud. This was the fermenting and all-absorbing world of "goulash communism", from under which the last ideological support fell on 28 January 1989. 

In a radio interview, Imre Pozsgay, the Minister of State, defined one of the brightest moments in the nation's history, the 1956 revolution, which had been treated as a taboo, as a popular uprising.Many saw the unexpected announcement as a coup d'état, which got the attention of the whole country, because the definition was not a semantic problem, but an existential issue: the legitimacy of the party's power was called into question by this single word.

Already in November 1956, on the day following the crushing of the war of independence, a race began to canonise concepts appropriate for the party: the road from popular uprising representing the legitimate indignation of the people to counter-revolution was short. At the beginning of December, the government declared that a counter-revolution had taken place in October, excluding all nuances from the interpretation of events, thus defining and delimiting the political thinking of the coming decades and setting the limits of public discourse. Kádár needed a radical interpretation, without which he could not have politically justified the period of retaliation. He sought reconciliation with the working class and the people of the countryside, but they could not forgive his betrayal, and so he had no alternative but to carry out a bloody showdown. However, a power that considers itself legitimate - and wants to give the impression of being legitimate - can only do this if there has been a counter-revolution against order, law, state and society in the country. The argument was, of course, weak, since in '56 an almost unique national unity was formed against the common enemy, and the memories and feelings of the people could not be erased by word magic. That is why the expression of struggle for freedom became taboo. The price of consolidation and relative prosperity was to keep silent about the most sacred thing that made the Hungarian soul Hungarian. Those who broke this unspoken public agreement also learned the true face of the dictatorship that had pretended to be "soft".

The second half of the 1980s brought a rapid collapse. Kádár was unable to adapt to the new winds blowing from Moscow - in contrast to a more alert group of party leaders who recognised that the pillars of legitimacy were slipping away under Kádár's regime, and that new communication was necessary if they were to regain power. The self-definition of the emerging opposition outside the party was primarily determined by its attitude to 1956, and this posed a serious threat to the ruling party, since their legitimacy was called into question by the mere mention of the revolution. They knew that they had to re-evaluate what had hitherto been referred to at best as the "regrettable events of October" and take responsibility for the execution of Imre Nagy, but that this could not be done as long as Kádár remained leader of the party. At the party meeting in May 1988, he was removed from his post, offered a nondescript chairmanship and then preparations were started for the party's official 'damascene conversion'.

Parliament, the session of the National Assembly, Imre Pozsgay and Gyula Horn. Source: Zoltán Szalay/Fortepan

Due to the increasing social pressure, the question of Imre Nagy's funeral could not be postponed any longer, but the state party led by Károly Grósz tried to treat it as a memorial gesture and separate it from the evaluation of 1956. It was a hopeless attempt. Allowing the recovery and dignified burial of Imre Nagy's earthly remains inexorably raised the question of responsibility, and thus the clarification of what happened between 23 October and 4 November 1956. It was no longer possible to prevent the demand for political rehabilitation and to answer the inevitable dilemma: if Imre Nagy is innocent, who is guilty? The stakes were enormous. The Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party, which was preparing for a multi-party system, wanted to maintain its power and remain the dominant force in the new order, and was therefore dancing on a razor's edge. It only had a chance of survival if it wrote the new narrative of 1956 itself, if the influential power of canonisation remained a communist monopoly. The master plan was to build a reformist communist image of Imre Nagy, to emphasise and highlight the reformist traditions of the party, as opposed to the glorification and pedestalisation of the freedom fighters who demanded national sovereignty and chanted anti-communist slogans.

In the summer of 1988, the party set up a committee headed by Imre Pozsgay, which was responsible for drafting the party's reform programme. One of its groups, the so-called Historical Subcommittee, was given the task of reassessing 1956. By January 1989, the official report was ready, which proposed the term "popular uprising" to the party leadership. The adoption of the report would have been the responsibility of the Central Committee, but Pozsgay thwarted the dubious outcome, and his statement gave no chance of rejection.

On 27 January 1989, the subcommittee concluded its work and held a press conference. After their vacuous announcement, Pozsgay called aside two journalists from Kossuth Radio and presented the committee's position in an interview. “The committee, based on current research, views the events of 1956 as a popular uprising, a revolt against an oligarchic form of rule that humiliated the nation." - was the then earth-shattering statement. The tape was scheduled to be aired the next afternoon, and Pozsgay requested strict confidentiality from the reporters. The only higher authority who could have prevented the release of the statement was Károly Grósz, but he left on an official trip to Davos the next morning.

The announcement caught the public by surprise, for many the end of the Kádár regime came within sight. The reformist wing of the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party took advantage of what had happened: they could position themselves among the parties preparing for the elections, because the reassessment of 1956 pushed the state party past its greatest difficulty, that of coming to terms with the past, opened the way for social consensus and created the opportunity to bury Imre Nagy and his comrades. It also contributed to a peaceful transition.