Questions to the narrator
- 00:06Why did the revolution happen, and why did the workers support it so enthusiastically?
- 00:48Could you describe the fighting here in Csepel /a district of Budapest/?
- 01:45Explain how you became the leader of the Csepel workers.
- 03:35What was the political situation immediately after the Russians returned, the dual power?
- 07:04Could you describe your meeting with Kadar and if he had a programme?
- 12:04Why did the workers give in?
- 14:23Tell us about your arrest and what happened.
TranscriptPlease note that this transcript is based on audio tracks and doesn't have to match exactly the video
Why did the revolution happen, and why did the workers support it so enthusiastically?
Well, a revolution only breaks out when and where people suddenly realize that carrying on living like this is not possible and is not worth it. Marx said it, not me. And it seems that in 1956 in Hungary people realized that it was no longer worth living under such circumstances, such conditions anymore and they should try to achieve freedom. This was not just the opinion of one man, it was the opinion of all the Hungarian people, as the mass participation of the Hungarian people in the Revolution of 1956 proved it.
Could you describe the fighting here in Csepel /a district of Budapest/?
Well, it was very severe and difficult. Today’s Csepel is nothing like the Csepel of that time, there were no buildings like that around us, but small slum farms, workers’ colonies. There were heavy fights, they started on 4 November and Csepel fell on 11 November. A lot of Russian tanks were burnt out, shot out and people manned the guns. There was a mass of anti-aircraft guns, I don’t know how many, twelve, fourteen, sixteen, and these were firing at the approaching Russians, at their airplanes. The Russian planes were machine-gunning the streets in a deep attack, the people, as if it were a storm, were standing under the eaves, defending themselves, nobody was afraid. There were heavy fights.
Explain how you became the leader of the Csepel workers.
I see. I started working in Csepel in 1952. I worked here in the rolling mill behind us, in the steel mill, I was a rolling-mill operator. I got burnt and then I went to study another trade that was less dangerous, so I became a horizontal lathe operator. I worked here from the end of July 1952, after my first imprisonment. I came to work here out of necessity, I didn’t dare to work anywhere else. And why did I become the leader of the workers? I was not their leader, I was their representative. Workers never elect a leader, they always elect representatives. I could probably answer your question with the following: a revolution is characterised by the fact that in the first days of the revolution the organisations of violence, the organisations of state power, the representatives that had provoked the revolution are swept away and the workers elect their own representatives. Even today I am moved to think that the 35,000 people here elected me to represent them, to help create a freer, more democratic life, to help overcome the country’s economic difficulties. Why did they choose me? You should ask the workers, I don’t know, I must have won their confidence, naturally a lot of things had a lot to do with it. The political situation of that time, the circumstances, the struggles. I wasn’t an experienced man then, since I was only thirty years old. Yet I became the president, I don’t know why, even today. I didn’t deserve that trust, but I am still proud of it.
What was the political situation immediately after the Russians returned, the dual power?
Yes. It’s very difficult to answer that. In Hungary, as I’ve mentioned before, the people rebelled and made revolution then elect their representatives. And to break this revolution, somebody, whatever force is invading the country, overrunning the country, shooting up the city, then it is clear that there is no normal situation for a while. Here in Hungary, here in Csepel, a dual power has emerged. All the power was in the hands of the Workers’ Councils, we talked to the workers, they accepted our advice, they debated with us, the state leadership was concentrated in the parliament, under the protection of Russian tanks, and none dared to come down here. They wanted me to guarantee their personal security if they came here, but with what? I didn’t have weapons, I didn’t have tanks. I considered myself to be a worker and so was I. So we had the dual power of a government based on the Russian army at the top and Workers’ Councils at the bottom, from the middle upwards. We had many tasks, there was no food, no supplies, no coal. This factory needs two hundred wagons of coal a day to run its power station, to get work going here. We managed to get some from the Bulgarians, from the Austrians and then the then Ministry of Transport, I think, or its deputy, borrowed a convoy of coal and some coal slack from us to run the trains. I answered him, it was a telephone call, that they should continue to distribute the potatoes, that we don't need a ministry at this level, that they should organise life in the country, just as we organised the food and supplies for the workers in Csepel, and organised heating so that there would be no cold room for Christmas. The miners of Komló sent a whole cargo train of black coal as a present for the workers of Csepel to enable them to heat their rooms for Christmas. So it was up to the Workers’ Council to supply the people. There was a slaughterhouse here, they sold meat, we were supposed to transform the whole industry, we were very active. Our workload was very heavy. The economic representative of the UN in Hungary at that time was Mihály Szele, an economist. We asked him to examine why we had got into this mess, what was the reason for this mistake, and to show us the direction to proceed in, what to produce and for how much. He came here with 15 other people and this group of economists couldn’t even decide how much a motorbike should cost. We would have liked to change things, but we didn’t have time and beside this the political question weighed on us, too, since the opinion in Hungary was that we wouldn’t work as long as there was a single Russian in Hungary. And yet we started to work, it was difficult. The workers didn’t understand, not all of them. They didn’t understand that we remained all by ourselves, we were abandoned and that we didn’t need heroic deaths. We had to avoid genocide, we had to work, there was no help. We started to work in very tough conditions, we could barely create the conditions for production. Well, in a word or a bit more, that’s my answer for your question.
Could you describe your meeting with Kadar and if he had a programme?
We met Kadar on several occasions. At first, we didn’t go to him as one would go to a Prime Minister, because our belief and conviction was that Imre Nagy was the Prime Minister. Imre Nagy did not resign; he was taken away. They can’t explain this even today to me, at least not to me and I think to many people other than me, how Kádár became minister. Well, anyway, he was in the Parliament. Delegation after delegation went to ask him what they wanted. I have to add to this that I also talked to one of the commanders of the occupying Russian troops. It was a purely coincidental event. We went in, he had his residence somewhere in Gorky Avenue, and we asked him whether we, the Workers’ Councils, still existed on 4 November, that is after 11 November, or whether we had ceased to exist as a legal entity, because we had been elected as Workers’ Council leaders under the Presidential Council. So, to clarify this, I went to the Russian commander, with an escort of course, and he said that there are three possible paths ahead of Hungary: capitalist restoration – they wouldn’t allow it; the building of socialism under the leadership of the workers’ councils – they’d approve it, and the third alternative is probably to follow the old, tested Moscow method. But he didn’t believe in it, because he’d seen from the events that Hungarian people would not accept the Moscow method. That is we should just work on by all means, although our way will be very difficult since it’s an untried one. So in this belief we continued our work after 11 November and went to ask the government, ask Kádár what he wanted. He said the following: ‘Mr. Nagy, how could I announce a government program when I came from Cegléd to Pest in the tank no. 27, and I can’t write a program in a tank car.’ This was the essence of the first meeting. The following meetings were rather similar, he couldn’t propose any programme. I asked him: ‘Is the only change that HWPP has become HSWP. That grade one is best, not five? And that you’ve made a new national emblem?’ Time will bring the programme, we should work, the government will not interfere in the affairs of production, that was their concept. I don’t think they knew what they wanted either. We knew we had to work, had to produce, and that Hungarian industry should be directed with more sense, the Hungarian workers should be led more intelligently than they had been led so far. Not with demagogy. Well, that was the first three meetings with Kádár. My last conversation with him was on 30 December. I should first say that I was appointed by Kádár as a member of the Government Committee for economic control, with the aim of drawing up plans of new regulations to be adopted by the future parliament, on how workers’ self-government would be implemented. He said they wouldn’t deal with economic questions just with politics and we shouldn’t deal with politics. Of course it was an unrealistic request, you can’t do this. The request itself was unrealistic. We have dealt with politics, we have dealt with economics. We agreed that later we would meet again and then they would let us know what they wanted concretely, what was their idea. You shouldn’t take this as politics. Here in Hungary there was fixed wage-fund, everything was fixed and regulated, and we paid. The National Bank sent out the wages and the money on my signature, the Ministry of Finance could not, no ministry could say anything, so the government, the upper half of the dual power, was at the head of the country without any agenda, and we enjoyed the trust of the workers. This situation ended on 5 January 1957, when a five-party conference was held in Budapest. The five parties were the Soviet, Czech, Romanian, Bulgarian and Hungarian Communist Party, I don’t know if the East-Germans were here, but I know that Gomułka and his circle didn’t come. Gomułka’s group sympathized with the revolution, with us, the Workers’ Councils, he sent personal messages and I can say the same about Tito. After the five-party conference, I think on 5 January, the declaration was published. This declaration clearly stated that the old party system was coming back in Hungary, and the word ‘workers’ council’ or ‘workers’ self-government’ was not even mentioned in the entire government statement or in the archives.
Why did the workers give in?
Why did the workers give in in 1957? I don’t know whether they truly gave in. National consciousness is a strange thing. I don’t think all English people wake up every morning thanking God they’re English. Nor does a Hungarian wake up thanking God that he is Hungarian. National consciousness imposes in one’s mind at historical moments, for the English, for example, it’s not an everyday thing. When in 1957, at the beginning of January ’57, people saw, and we saw, that everything was hopeless, that we were on our own, what should we do? Keep fighting? Should we expel the people? Should we commit suicide? No. They hung up their guns on the wall, they didn’t give up their principles, they just didn’t say we have to live, we have to eat, we have to work and that’s the way of life, they started to eat, to live, to love, to work. I don’t know if they gave up. I don’t know, my generation surely didn’t. Those in whom history lives vividly, we don’t give in. We always trust in something. We trust that we’ll live under better circumstances. So much about this. And to answer your question if we turned against the government during the dual power, of course we did. In Budapest, the Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest was formed, with a national function. It was not an organisation of power; all the Workers’ Councils sent delegates to the Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest to bring things to reconcile different things. The Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest engaged in politics, repeatedly negotiating with the government. The government did not reject it, but it did not accept it either, always giving a delaying answer to all its questions. And the Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest had had enough and wanted to bring the matter to a decision, and called on Hungarian workers to go on a protest strike for forty-eight hours. The strike was unanimous in the country, and here too the factory yard was deserted. Of course the Martin furnace operated because you can’t leave the iron there because it freezes in the furnace and this would be an economic loss, but the strike was perfect all over the country, here too.
Tell us about your arrest and what happened.
On 11 January 1957, I went to the session of the government committee, previously I had resigned from my post in the Workers’ Council, here in this factory 867 Workers’ Council members resigned, since it was completely pointless to hope for anything after the five-party declaration. We didn’t want to work in vain. So I went to the government committee to announce my resignation, since they weren’t interested in Elek Nagy, but the president of the Csepel Workers’ Council, and the Workers’ Council in Csepel had ceased to exist. Meanwhile, here in Csepel, an armed clash with the armed forces broke out, with fatalities, the security forces shot up the factory with machine guns until 3 p.m. At the government committee four men came in to arrest me, but Gáspár didn’t let them and Fock phoned the chief commissioner of police, then they apologized and went away. At 6 p.m. I was on my way home when in front of the Yugoslav embassy, I don’t know why there, they grabbed me, put me in a car and arrested me. They took me away, they didn’t arrest me. I had a 24-hour interrogation, it was polite, I slept there, I wasn’t willing to speak any longer. To cut a long story short, I was sentenced to death within 3 days, then it was commuted, I was given life imprisonment, finally the Supreme People’s Court reduced my sentence to twelve years, of which I served almost six and a half years, six years and four months, I was released on amnesty. Let me not speak about prison. I had very bad experiences. I got into prison not guilty of anything, I couldn’t understand why, I can’t understand even today. I consider the workers’ trials to be show trials, just as I consider many other trials that took place in 1957 or in Hungary in ’58 to be show trials. Perhaps that is all I can say about that.
Elek Nagy (1926–1994)
Elek Nagy was born in 1926. He began his secondary school studies at the Upper Commercial School in Győr. As a high school student he received the so-called ‘SAS’ military conscription in May 1944. He did not participate in the fighting but was seriously wounded. After hospital treatment he fled to the West, returning home in August 1945. He graduated from high school in 1946.
In December 1945, he joined the Hungarian Communist Party, became involved in the work of the Hungarian Democratic Youth League and attended a party school. In the summer of 1948, he became a battalion party secretary and in the autumn he was enrolled at the Petőfi Academy. In January 1949, he was promoted and sent to General Staff Officer School in the Soviet Union. After his return, he was transferred to the Ministry of Defence and soon became head of the Independent Control Department within the General Training Group, with the rank of major. He was discharged from the army and then, denying his qualifications, took a job as a trained worker at the Rákosi Mátyás Iron and Metal Works in Csepel. Later he completed a retraining course for turners with distinction.
On 10 October 1956 he took the floor at the Petőfi Circle’s economic policy debate, and had a great success as a representative of the working class. On 25 October 1956, he was elected chairman of the temporary Workers’ Council of the Machine Tool Factory. On 29 November 1956, he was elected President of the Central Workers’ Council of the Iron and Metal Works in Csepel. He maintained contacts with the other Workers’ Councils in Budapest and the countryside, as well as with the Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest. After 4 November he held several meetings with representatives of the Kádár government. He was arrested after the resignation of the Csepel Workers’ Council and the resulting demonstration on 11 January 1957. In 1958, Elek Nagy and his associates, i.e. other members of the Workers’ Council, were convicted in a trial, and Elek Nagy was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
He was released on amnesty in 1963. He started working again at the Machine Tool Factory in Csepel. When the harassment became unbearable, he quit his job and became a translator for the Hungarian Office for Translation and Attestation. He resigned in 1969, but for a long time he only got a job as an unskilled worker.
He was one of the participants in the illegal conference on the revolution of ’56 held at István Eörsi’s apartment in December 1986. In 1988, he was a founding member and later vice-president of the Historical Justice Committee. In 1989, he participated in the organisation of the reburial of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs. He was rehabilitated and promoted to the rank of colonel in 1990, after the regime change. He died in 1994 and is buried in parcel nr. 300 of the Fiumei Road Graveyard.