Fifty years after the Hungarian uprising, David Rennie talks to Bela Kiraly, now 94, who was urged to call for Western help — a call that could all too easily have sparked nuclear war
Half a century ago Bela Kiraly was invited to start World War III. He said no, though the price was the enslavement of his native Hungary by Soviet invaders. Kiraly was military chief of the Hungarian revolution at the time. The invitation was made on 4 November 1956 by an American reporter, who had somehow tracked him down in the blood-soaked centre of Budapest. The newspaperman was eager for a great scoop: a formal appeal for US military help, to fight off Soviet forces sent to crush Hungary’s week-old national uprising.
Colonel General Kiraly, to give him his formal rank, is 94 now, though he makes not the slightest concession to his age. He is exhausting — if magnificent — company, leaping from his chair to search out useful photographs or papers, or padding across his suburban Budapest cottage to pour another, lethally generous Scotch. He speaks a courtly, precise English, the fruits of three decades’ exile as a history professor in America.
At the height of Hungary’s 1956 uprising, the general was already a middle-aged man. He did not just fight in the second world war; he had already reached the rank of general by 1944, in Hungary’s fascist army. The Soviets tried sending him to Siberia, but he and 26 of his men escaped from the train carrying them east, and walked home. Challenged to prove he was not a fascist true believer, he produced evidence of the Jewish slave labourers whose lives he had saved. Years later that same evidence earned him the status of Righteous Among the Nations, from the Israeli Holocaust remembrance authority, Yad Vashem. The certificate hangs in his tiny study, next to his general’s full-dress uniform.
Seeing such artefacts is rather a comfort for an interviewer, as the details of Kiraly’s improbable life rush past: his postwar appointment as commander of Hungarian land forces; his 1951 arrest by the Soviets as an ‘American spy’; the four years spent on death row before his sentence was commuted to life; the years in America and his return to Hungary to become an MP in the first post-communist parliament.
Back in 1956 he had been out of prison only a month when the revolution began. And now here was a reporter from the New York Times, urging him to begin a war. The American did not waste time, Kiraly recalls. ‘He came to my office in Budapest, and he said, “You know, General, if you give me a statement inviting or asking the West to come and help you by means of arms, it will be on the front page of the New York Times tomorrow.”’
At first the general — elected commander-in-chief of the anti-Soviet ‘National Guard’ only days before — tried to dodge the question. He urged the reporter to seek out Imre Nagy, Hungary’s prime minister and hesitant leader of its revolution. Western governments, including Washington, had been all but silent through the first days of the revolution, even as unarmed students were shot dead by secret police, and teenage street-fighters took on tanks with Molotov cocktails.
The Hungarian revolution is ill-remembered in the outside world — certainly compared with the much more famous Prague uprising. In Britain we have some sort of excuse. The revolt coincided with the Suez crisis, leaving the UK rather distracted. But behind the Iron Curtain, these were febrile times. A few months before, Nikita Khrushchev had stunned the Soviet ruling elite by denouncing the cult of personality about Stalin in a secret speech. That summer workers had rioted in Poland, in Poznan.
General Kiraly finally answered the visiting American’s question. His answer was no. ‘I told him, “Look, I believe that if the West sends military help, it will develop into a war. And in a war I don’t believe that nuclear weapons could be disregarded. And if nuclear weapons are used, then we will be the first to be evaporated. And that is not why we are making a revolution.”’
The man from the New York Times went away, without his scoop. Within days the revolution was crushed. More than 200,000 Hungarians fled into exile, among them General Kiraly, who was helped to escape to the United States by covert CIA agents. More than 250 Hungarians were hanged, among them Prime Minister Nagy.
On both sides of the Iron Curtain there were fierce debates about whether the outside world had betrayed Hungary. Older Hungarians still bitterly recall the ferocious call to arms beamed into their country by the US-funded Radio Free Europe, whose émigré presenters urged Hungarians to fight and defeat the Soviets. ‘Even today there are still a lot of people who believe that the West, particularly Radio Free Europe, promised everything to Hungarians,’ the general says. ‘It is true, you know. I was in the Buda mountains, and Radio Free Europe was on our portable radio, and there was a voice on it that addressed me personally. It said, “Bela Kiraly, stand against the Soviet Union, etc. etc.”’ He waves a weary, dismissive hand. ‘Why did the West not help us? The world could not do anything.’
The Soviets called the invasion that followed an act of fraternal assistance, requested by the Hungarian government. That lie still has the power to make Kiraly fume. Four years ago, in Moscow, he had the chance to debate whether there had been a Soviet invasion with one of the Russian officers who fought in 1956, General Yevgeny Malashenko. Malashenko blustered well, until he accused Kiraly of lying about coming under Soviet air attack in one of the last battles of the revolution, in the hills around Budapest. General Kiraly pounced, inviting the Russian to visit him in Hungary, and travel with him to the mountain in question. The top is still pockmarked with craters, General Kiraly told him. Some are filled with earth, and locals grow cabbages in them. One large crater was made into a septic tank. ‘Come to Hungary,’ he urged General Malashenko. ‘You can pee-pee into your own crater.’ His offer was politely declined.
Now General Kiraly is a grand old man of the revolution’s 50th anniversary celebrations. Arguably, some of the gloss has been taken off their official host, the prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, since he recently admitted lying ‘morning, evening and night’ about Hungary’s public finances, triggering a continuing string of street protests. The general insists he is apolitical, though he does venture the opinion that the anniversary could have been organised with more vim. What’s more, he adds, Hungarian schools have never taught the revolution properly. He blames years of communism, and idleness. ‘Probably I expect more from people because I am 94, but I work. Some people stop working earlier,’ he notes.
A final whisky is offered and the interview is over. The general has work to do, ensuring that the world does not forget Hungary’s revolution.
David Rennie is Europe editor of the Daily Telegraph and contributing editor of The Spectator.