A forradalom emlékezete. Személyes történelem.

TitleA forradalom emlékezete. Személyes történelem.
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialMolnár, Adrienne, Zsuzsanna Kőrösi, and Márkus Keller

book. Title translated: The Memory of the Revolution. Personal History.

PublisherBudapest: 1956-os Intézet
ISSNISBN 963 86635 8 8
Review year


Full Text

The main text of A forradalom emlékezete, running slightly over 300 pages, includes edited parts of interviews with 156 individuals dealing with events that took place between the spring of 1956 and 1957. [1] The volume is based on one of the most valuable new sources on recent Hungarian history, the oral history archive of The Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The interviewing that contributed to this collection began in 1981 with the aim of recording the large and often highly significant, silenced part of the past, and by now the collection has over 600 interviews that deal with the 1956 revolution at least in some detail (see the list here, for some parts of this collection in English, click here). Several other edited volumes aiming at the widest possible readership have already appeared based on this uniquely precious oral history archive, such as the ones dealing with the stories of the leaders of workers’ councils ("Szuronyok hegyén nem lehet dolgozni"), freedom fighters (Pesti utca) and party leaders (Pártok 1956).
The materials included in A forradalom emlékezete are arranged thematically and form six larger chapters titled "Thaw", "Revolt", "A Country in Battle", "The Revolution Triumphs", "The Second Soviet Intervention" and "Rearguard Action" that cover the most significant events (for the titles of the subchapters, please click here). Accordingly, the individuals telling their stories also belong to one or another group that played a significant role in these days. Most of the stories included in A forradalom emlékezete are of people who have been on the side of the revolution, and many of them participated actively, though neither the former, nor the latter characterizes all of them – this is a highly significant point, since it means that this volume, as opposed to many other recently released ones, does not purport to establish a selective, normative, ideological version of the events.
While this volume cannot fail to be based on a certain idea of representativity either, it certainly paints a complex picture. Such memories that counter grand narratives include, for example, Miklós Vásárhelyi’s, who mentions how Imre Nagy was opposed to the demonstration planned for the 23rd of October (p.56), and Gábor Karátson’s who states  that “in my view, the revolution was directed not against something, but was for something. Exactly the opposite of what tends to be said” (p.68; all translations are my own - FL). Next to statements such as “A kind of euphoric, great Hungarian national soul has entered the participants, they walked down the street, they were joyous, they were happy, finally we got rid of all that had made us groan” (by János Somogyi, p.149), there is also statements of the kind made by András Szurdi: “One did not have this feeling of the clean, great glorious revolution, nor did we sense that there was a counterrevolution. Our impression was that this was a huge roughhouse. A good part of the kids experienced it as the right kind of roughhouse” (p.166). Moreover, one can find thoroughly ironic remarks, such as in the story of György Forintos, who says “I personally considered it completely insane [to choose to fight against the Soviets - added, FL], but if a whole nation goes insane, my place has to be there.” (p.105) For subdued, tragic expression of the drama of how individual lives get intertwined with historical developments, let me quote the following, though plenty of other remarks would equally belong here: “I said that on Monday I will go and hold my psychics class. So I considered the thing to be won, and was ready to return to the school to teach psychics on the 5th of November” (Endre Ebinger, p.187).
As usual in the case of oral history material, the reader is left to draw many of his/her conclusions, much is left for individual interpretation. For instance one needs to ponder whether the multilinear evidence adds up to a more or less coherent story (i.e. one large, national event, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution) or ought these stories be perceived as inherently fragmentary and contradictory? Similarly, the questions of which linguistic part of these stories comes from which time (more concretely: how are memories reworked over time[2] and how exactly is the telling of memories linguistically and socially multilayered?), and how do themes, vocabularies and arguments get combined in individual stories would be worthly subjects for in-depth analyses.
As a whole, the aims of A forradalom emlékezete are twofold: to add illustrative, telling and relevant pieces of information to our historical knowledge, while also providing a memorable and emotionally powerful text to present the revolution through the fate of individual stories. In other words, it is an attempt to combine the values of historical and sociological explorations with the aesthetic qualities of literary texts. In my assessment, the editors have admirably succeeded at producing a rich and dense text with coherent and well-rounded individual entries that can also be read one after another in a fluent way and with great excitement. A forradalom emlékezete covers many striking and significant details that form elements of a complex and dramatic story. In sum, while there was a veritable flood of cultural products (of highly uneven quality) related to 1956 released around the time of its 50th anniversary, and only the future can decide which of these many works will continue to be read and exert a long-term impact, based on the authenticity and strength of the materials presented on the pages of A forradalom emlékezete, in all likelihood this volume possesses the right qualities to set it among these.

[1] The choice of the spring of 1956 is justified by the claim that the way people tell their memories significantly changes around this time, or more concretely: vivid microhistories take the place of more uniform and predictable ones.

[2] Let me add an extra qualification to this question: as is well-known, the history of the memory of 1956 in Hungary is an extraordinarily complex topic, since while the events and their memories privately remained decisive for many, publicly 1956 was a taboo for decades (beyond the falsified, official version). The transmission of experience and knowledge about 1956 has been unusual in several ways, which arguably continues to this day.