WASHINGTON — Thirty years ago this Thursday, Hungarians revolted against communist rule. Then on Nov. 4, 1956, 200,000 Soviet troops with 2,500 tanks and armored cars launched a massive attack on Budapest, killing thousands, deporting thousands more. The West said the brutality and treachery--the Soviets were even then "negotiating" withdrawal--branded communism forever an outlaw system. A year after the first post-war summit produced the Spirit of Geneva, the Cold War was back. Devastated Hungary symbolized heroism, failure, the impossibility of change within the boundaries of Soviet power.
How different it seems today. Everyone's favorite Eastern European country, Hungary stands for the pragmatic emphasis of "goulash communism" on living standards and toleration of dissent. When one speaks of a "crackdown" in Budapest, as some observers have in recent years, what is meant is apartment searches or fines, not violence or jail. Dissidents, like other Hungarians, travel to the West to study, work or tour.
Tourists liken Budapest to a Western city. They may see large banners proclaiming end-of-summer sales, but not the "fulfill the plan" exhortations familiar in Moscow or Prague. Nevertheless, a case can be made that Hungary is a Potemkin village. It remains a one-party state where Soviet interests are protected. The economy, despite experiments with decentralization and market forces, is troubled. Growth rates and living standards are slipping, the per-capita debt is higher than Poland's. Alcoholism and suicide rates signal social tension.
What does the Hungarian Revolution mean today? How much was won and lost? What lessons does the country, which still bears scars, offer to those who worry that Eastern Europe remains potentially one of the most dangerous areas for superpower rivalry
Its ideological significance has faded. Janos Kadar, now a widely respected patriarch, still leads the country he re-entered with the Soviet tanks, but too many Soviet leaders, summits and swings in the East-West climate have come and gone. No one in the West denies a need to reach understandings with the Soviets because of what happened in Budapest three years after Stalin died. Those who warn of risks use more modern, less dramatic cases.
If that long-ago November invasion is now part of the history of the Cold War, a good history of the events themselves has yet to be written. The 25th anniversary inspired surprisingly little; the Budapest and Moscow archives remain closed, and most of the prominent individuals involved have not written memoirs.
The heroic fight against overwhelming odds is an evergreen inspiration to all who treasure the indomitability of the human spirit, but there remains a need for an objective look at the full circumstances.
Several years ago, one of the Gabor sisters visited the U.S. ambassador's residence and exclaimed, "This is how everyone used to live!" It wasn't; nor was Hungary a democratic country before communism. There were anti-Semites and reactionaries as well as freedom fighters in the crowds that shouted for the blood of the largely Jewish Politburo and called for undoing the communist regime.
With all the contradictions of a society still authoritarian, if not totalitarian, and with appreciation that Austria, which shares so much common history, is both freer and richer, today's communist Hungary arguably provides its citizens more social justice than they ever enjoyed.
Without joining the essentially political debate over whether 1956 was revolution or counterrevolution, one can agree with Kadar that it was a national tragedy. Hungarians themselves, despite great interest among youth and an effort to show the period honestly in a few films, are not likely to go much past this lowest common denominator for years. The issues are too divisive, particularly while Kadar lives.
That formula, however, does contain the kernel of the main lesson the country has drawn: Politics should never again be pushed to extremes; another bloodletting could mean the effective end of the nation. In an unspoken compact, the party attempts to meet the desire for more goods and personal freedom; the people respect its judgment of how fast this can be done.
The second half of the compact is beginning to break down. Young people are more inclined to complain that society's glass is half-empty than to be grateful it is half-full. It is unlikely that either economic conditions or endemic Soviet conservatism will allow the party to move much faster. There is an urgent requirement to permit, at least when Kadar leaves the scene, a more candid national examination so a new generation can temper impatience with the 1956 perspective.