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by William H. Benson

November 16, 2006

     Josef Toth’s mother passed away in 1954, weeks after her return from a six-month prison confinement, courtesy of the AVO, Hungary’s state police.  She had spoken out against the Russians one evening while enjoying a casual meal with friends in her home, “Everywhere you look you see the Russian flag.  I long for the old Hungarian flag.”

     Somebody reported her to the AVO, and the next day two AVO agents arrived at her home and hauled Mrs. Toth away.

     Upon her return she assured her family that the AVO had done nothing to her, but then she fell sick, and it was obvious that it was caused from the exhaustion, starvation and torture she had endured in prison.  When she knew she was dying, she told her son Josef that she had been forced to stand on one leg for four hours every day.

     So begins The Bridges at Andau, James Michener’s history of the Hungarian Revolution, a revolt against the Soviets that failed.

     In the nations of post-World War II Eastern Europe, the communist parties operated in the shadow of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party.  In Hungary the Chairman of the Communist Party was Matthias Rakosi, whose policies had ruined the economy and had produced widespread discontent.

     On October 23, 1956 students in Budapest, the capital, began demonstrating against the Russians’ control of Hungary.  News of their defiance spread quickly and disorder and violence erupted throughout the city.  The revolt spread, and the communist government collapsed.  By the end of October, the fighting had almost stopped, and a sense of normalcy began to return. 

     At first Krushchev, the Russian leader, said that he would permit the new government to reform the economy.  But then on Sunday morning, November 4, 1956, the Russian army rolled into Budapest.  From Gellert Hill, the highest point in the city, heavy artillery rained down shells in all directions.  The most ruthless foot soldiers in the Russian army, Mongols from central Asia, 140,000 in number, shot at anything that moved, out in the street or at a window or a door.

     In the attack called Operation Whirlwind there were some 4000 Russian tanks, jet planes, rockets and launchers, squads of flamethrowers, bazookas, walkie-talkies, armed jeeps, sub-machine guns, and seventeen Soviet divisions.  The students, writers, factory workers, and girls who dared to stand up to this Russian onslaught fought with homemade gasoline bombs. 

     They were annihilated, but not before a number of heroic battles.  Teen-aged girls discovered ways to kill a wounded tank by dousing it with gasoline and igniting it.  By November 10, Budapest was destroyed, hundreds had been killed, and 200,000 had fled the country, each anxious to escape communism and Russian domination.

     The Hungarian Revolution failed, but it showed Russian communism its true character to the world.  Hungary laid bare the great Russian lie.  It had a prescription for dominating a satellite nation: “Infiltrate a target nation, get immediate control of the police force, initiate a terror which removes all intellectual and labor leadership, deport to Siberia troublesome people, and then destroy the nation completely if the least sign of independence shows itself.”

     It was in Hungary that the Cold War turned hot.

     In 1980 Ronald Reagan was running for president, and his speeches sounded as if they came from the 1950s.  “Let’s not delude ourselves.  The Soviet Union underlies all the unrest that’s going on.  If they weren’t engaged in this game of dominoes, there wouldn’t be any hot spots in the world.”  He warned Americans against “simple-minded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries,” and he labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire” that had become “the focus of evil in the modern world.”

     Critics rounded on Reagan for his old-fashioned strident language, but the Hungarian people, such as Josef Toth, knew that what Reagan was saying had been their experience.