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Imre Nagy: Heroism Behind Closed Doors : IN THE NAME OF THE WORKING CLASS : The Inside Story of the Hungarian Revolution by Sandor Kopacsi (Grove Press: $16.95; 304 pp.)

October 25, 1987|Ferenc Feher | Feher, who teaches aesthetics at the New School for Social Research, New York, is co-author of "Hungary 1956 Revisited" (Allen & Unwin). and

An unusual combination of events in the life of Sandor Kopacsi has turned this son and grandson of leftist metalworkers into a key witness to Hungary's political drama in and after the revolution of 1956. The occupation of his forebears, which in Hungary proved to be a kind of proletarian pedigree, was a major impetus to his meteoric political rise. A further fortuitous circumstance led him to become a police officer and thus placed him close to the center of power in a brutal police state. No less coincidentally, he was assigned to the criminal rather than the secret political police, thereby escaping the predicament of either committing wholesale murder or committing suicide. Due to the unaccountable decision of his superiors to appoint him, as a young officer, to the post of police commissioner of Budapest, the capital city, he was suddenly in a position to supply the insurgents with arms during the revolution of 1956. For this "treasonous" act, he was tried in 1958, together with Imre Nagy and other leaders of the revolution. The most salubrious accident of Kopacsi's career, and the one to which we owe this book, is that he was not executed (or murdered without even the formality of a trial), as were the majority of the leaders of the Hungarian Revolution.

It was more than an accident, however, it was to Sandor Kopacsi's personal merit that he would not easily mold his character to the soulless bureaucracy in which his "accidental" appointment had placed him; he was not suited to be a cog in a great killing machine. Instinctive humanity had gradually taken form as a firm moral and political principle in this extraordinary Communist police commissioner. Humanity had opened his heart and mind (perhaps more his heart than his mind) to the program of the anti-Stalinist opposition in Hungary after 1953.

Despite moments of self-aggrandizement, Kopacsi apparently never considered himself the protagonist of this history, in which he played a major part, but simply an ordinary and decent citizen caught in extraordinary circumstances. The only historic mission he agreed to shoulder was the disclosure of a hitherto secret chapter of history, namely the Soviet persecution of Hungarian revolutionaries after their defeat. Kopacsi's survival was not entirely accidental. Fearing for his life but equally bent on fulfilling his self-assigned task, he made a compromise with the persecutors but did not capitulate to them.

We could legitimately ask how much credence can be given to Kopacsi's testimony, which, under the circumstances, is hardly documentable. Without a doubt there are serious flaws and gross errors in his chronicle. For example, he twice states, mistakenly, that Gen. Belkin, the omnipotent KGB commander in Hungary during the Stalin years--later executed in Khrushchev's mop-up operation to eliminate his arch-rival, Beria (Stalin's chief of police), and his entourage--was identical with Abbakumov, second in command during the postwar reign of terror. (Abbakumov, too, was executed at a later date.) Kopacsi often introduces as historical facts unsubstantiated, although not incredible or even unlikely, pieces of party gossip and news from the prison grapevine. He recounts episodes in which he participated--and in which Yuri Andropov, then Soviet proconsul in Budapest and later premier of the Soviet Union, repeatedly resurfaces--in the same manner in which he tells of encounters and political meetings of which he could only have heard or read afterwards. Yet he never tells a lie.

"In the Name of the Working Class" is not, as the subtitle asserts, the "inside story" of the Hungarian Revolution. Kopacsi, who like so many other disillusioned communists, sought--but could not entirely find--his political identity during the revolution, reports on those days in as confused a manner as he must have lived them. In those parts of his narrative in which he recounts the repression following the revolution, he becomes the key witness to a crime, with testimony crucial to the case. Here we experience directly a Hungary run by the KGB of Gen. Serov, a Hungary that for years became, for all intents and purposes, the 17th republic of the Soviet Union. We are face to face with the "responsible Hungarian statesmen," the later much-advertised champions of liberalization, in their appalling roles of messenger boys delivering the death sentences handed down in Moscow. At their most humane, these leaders literally beg for the lives of one or another prospective victims in their masters' court or, intimidated by their own secret police, send clandestine advice to some victims about how to save their necks.

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