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COLD WAR Chat: Geza Jeszensky
Hungarian Ambassador

The following is an edited transcript of the chat conducted on Sunday, November 8, 1998, with Hungarian Ambassador Geza Jeszensky, who was 15 years old in 1956 when Soviet troops entered Budapest to stop the revolution. This chat was moderated by COLD WAR Senior Editor Gregg Russell.

CNN Moderator: Welcome to CNN's Cold War Chat. Tonight's guest is Geza Jeszenszky, Hungarian ambassador to the United States. Mr. Jeszensky was 15 in 1956 at the time of the Hungarian uprising.

CNN Moderator: Our first question tonight is, what are some of your memories of 1956?

Geza Jeszensky: I would say not simply that I was 15. That I came of age. I was a student at a secondary school, so even in the days before the revolution started there was political tension, and the students, whether in their teens or in their 20s, were a force pushing for the acceptance of substantial changes. The university students put together their demands in 16 points.

They really covered all the essential headaches or worries of contemporary society. But what I would emphasize, is that nobody thought of an armed struggle [or] a revolution. It was a real spontaneous outburst, and I think Budapest never had such a crowd as gathered in front of the statue of Polish general who fought with the Hungarians in 1848. So in fact the Hungarian Revolution started as a demonstration in sympathy with Poles. With the demands of the Poles for change.

But the Hungarian communist authorities panicked and started to shoot at the people; I was not hit, but I could have been killed too. Not by a Hungarian secret police bullet, but by a Russian bullet, because the communists became aware that they cannot deal with hundreds of thousands of Hungarians alone. They needed the help of the Soviet troops, and they hoped that by the very appearance of Soviet tanks, the Hungarians would be intimidated and the demonstrators would go home. But the Hungarians took some classes from the Soviets in so-called partisan warfare, and that is how the Hungarians could use these bottles filled with gasoline that was called the Molotov cocktail. Named after the Soviet foreign minister, Molotov.

Chat Participant: Mr. Ambassador, what were your views of the political system at the time?

Geza Jeszensky: That was a brutal dictatorship. It was natural that people wanted to get rid of that system, that was a revolution that Karl Marx had dreamed about -- grass-roots revolution. The people in this large crowd understood that we really had power. We had power without weapons and so we became more bold, more courageous and started to demand not only freedom in general, the end of the terrorist system, but also withdrawal of the Soviet troops -- and that was too much for the Soviet Union.

Chat Participant: Do you think the U.S. betrayed the revolutionaries?

Geza Jeszensky: When I say that I don't think that the U.S. betrayed, I'm not simply being diplomatic. But I do think that the U.S. had made a big mistake. It is not only my personal opinion. Many contemporaries felt the same way. Let me just refer to a respected British historian, Hugh Sedon Watson. He was a respected historian and he did write that the problem was the U.S. did not even try to stop the second Soviet invasion. And to quote a friend of mine who recently sent a letter to the Washington Post reflecting upon CNN's series, this friend of mine, Frank Kosvorus, I quote him: "President Eisenhower could have accepted Dulles' proposal of October 25 to place the Hungarian question on the Security Council's agenda." My own view is that the U.N. had great authority then. Unfortunately, the Hungarian question was dealt with only when it was too late. After the second Soviet invasion. So probably at the end of October, the 30th or 31st, before the Soviets did decide to intervene again, by timely action it would have been possible to recognize the legitimate government of Hungary. In the program this evening, one of the speakers ... said that there was no legitimate government in Hungary. This is not true. That government asked for the U.N. to send observers to Hungary and to put the question of Hungary on the agenda of the U.N. This was not done. Then also some well-meant statements by the U.S. administration saying that they did not expect Hungary to become an ally that is to join NATO, these were well-meant statements, but the Soviets took them as kind of a green light for intervention.

Chat Participant: Do you think U.S. intervention would have led to World War III?

Geza Jeszensky: Absolutely not. Think of the Korean War. We did not think of U.S. intervention, but rather by the United Nations, like in Korea. Korea was not a U.S. war, but a U.N. war.

Chat Participant: Did the Radio Free Europe announcements of Western help calm the people or only disturb them?

Geza Jeszensky: Not at all. I kept listening to Radio Europe like 10 million Hungarians did. Radio Free Europe certainly encouraged the Hungarians to resist the Soviets. But it was not Radio Free Europe which instigated the Hungarian Revolution. Perhaps the Hungarians were misled, not by the radio, but by the propaganda language by the U.S. administration. It spoke about liberation and rollback. Eisenhower kept speaking about liberation, but as a historian put it, it proved to be only a myth. Liberation was not meant seriously.

Chat Participant: Do you think Imre Nagy made a mistake somewhere along the way that cost Hungary its long-term independence from the Soviet Union?

Geza Jeszensky: These are typical questions also well-intentioned questions, but based on insufficient knowledge. Hungary, or Imre Nagy, the prime minister, announced the withdrawal of Hungary from the Warsaw Pact on November 1 after the Soviets had decided to intervene. Today we know it from records. This was the kind of desperate attempt, this declaration of neutrality was a desperate attempt to forestall an impending invasion. And not only the Hungarian government, but ordinary Hungarians knew already that massive Soviet troop movements took place and large Soviet units entered Hungary. So with this declaration the government of Hungary tried to make Soviet intervention illegal, more obviously illegal, which was not a mistake at all.

Chat Participant: What are Hungarian people's opinions of the 1956 revolt in Hungary today?

Geza Jeszensky: It is very difficult to generalize. There are people, particularly those people who witnessed the revolution or participated in it. Such people may be really bitter today. They do speak about betrayal. Betrayal not simply by the U.S., but by the West in general. People a bit younger may think that yes, nobody could do anything, I mean there was no alternative, because the danger of a nuclear war really made it too risky for anybody to give real help. And for young people today, it is an old story. It is something which until recently they did not learn about or what they learned about was a lie, a falsified version of history. It was said it was a counterrevolution made by the CIA and the American imperialists. This was the official version. Now very few people believed that official version, but even today they don't really know what happened in 1956 because the Hungarians were united in their opposition to communism, but naturally, they were not united in what should replace communism. Today I think the new generations will understand better the significance of the revolution because as Hungary becomes successful, prosperous country and then ally of the United States, a member of NATO, most Hungarians will understand that the collapse of communism and a much better world has very much to do with the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and with the heroic struggle of the Hungarians.

CNN Moderator: Do you think that Khrushchev's "secret speech" contributed in any way to the events in Hungary?

Geza Jeszensky: To some degree it did. Not only in Hungary, but certainly also in Poland. It was a kind of iconoclastic speech. It destroyed the image of Stalin as the great man, the wise leader, and people learned what a kind of tyrant he was. That he was responsible for millions of people. It was not so much a novelty, even for me as a teen-ager then, but making the truth more available, more accessible certainly encouraged people to question their own leaders, and the crime of their own leaders. It indirectly exposed communism in general and each little Stalin in the so-called people's democracies. That is, the Soviet satellites.

Chat Participant: How well were Stalin's acts in other countries, such as Latvia, known to the Hungarian people?

Geza Jeszensky: Then, in '56, we did not know any details about the Gulag and we did not know that Stalin was really a nation-killer -- as the historian put it. But we knew that the Hungarian dictator Rakosi was a terrible tyrant and certainly we did not love Stalin; we children hated him but did not dare to say it, of course.

Chat Participant: Did the Suez conflict really affect Hungary?

Geza Jeszensky: I must say it did. It took attention away from Hungary. Some people probably in the U.S. had believed erroneously that the Soviet Union did something similar to what Britain and what France did. This was not the case, but for some people that was an appearance. But there is another aspect. The Soviet troops who were brought to Hungary for that second invasion were not told what they were expected to do. They did not know that they were fighting the Hungarians. Many of these Soviet troops thought that they were fighting the American and Western imperialists in Suez. And they thought that the Danube in Budapest was the Suez Canal. Just think, Soviet soldiers were expected to fight and die in Hungary not even knowing where they were.

Chat Participant: How many people were killed after the November 4 invasion?

Geza Jeszensky: About 3,000 people were killed in the streets in the battles, but when the fighting was over, when the military might from the Soviet Union prevailed, there were at first many summary executions on the spot. Just people having weapons, not even fighting. And then, after December 1956, tens of thousands of people were arrested, tried, and about 350 were executed. This was a war crime because they were really soldiers, or members of the New Hungarian National Guard, so they should have been taken prisoner perhaps. But they were tried, and many, as I said about 350, executed, including some teen-agers -- although in a strange cynical way, these teen-agers were kept in prison until they turned 18 because that's the legitimate age for the death penalty. And some young people were executed -- having been kept in prison for two years -- on their 18th birthday.

Chat Participant: Do you think this was not a fight the Soviet soldiers wanted to fight?

Geza Jeszensky: We must make a distinction. Soviet soldiers who intervened immediately after October 23 were soldiers who had been stationed in Hungary for some time. Many of them speaking to Hungarians in the streets came to realize that there was a legitimate rising by the people, and they did not want to fight. Quite a few even joined the Hungarian fighters. Some Soviet troops came over to the side of the Hungarians, even taking their tanks with them, putting the Hungarian flag on their tanks. But we don't know what happened to them. But most probably they were all executed by their own superiors. So that was one of the reasons the Soviets decided to withdraw their troops from Budapest, and they showed their readiness to make an agreement about their final withdrawal from Hungary. But in fact, they just replaced the unreliable troops with fresh troops, many from central Asia, and these were the people who did not know what they were doing and who were looking for, the Suez Canal in Budapest.

CNN Moderator: What were the conditions like in Hungary after the rebellion was crushed?

Geza Jeszensky: For weeks, there was defiance. The mood was a defiant mood. A general strike was proclaimed. There was a kind of resistance by the workers, not only by refusing to work, but they formed what were called workers councils or revolutionary councils, and they tried to negotiate with the puppet government installed by the Soviets, Kada, that was the new prime minister, but the Hungarians did not accept that government as a legitimate government. My schoolmates and I in the school I went to made even a declaration that we do not recognize the Kada government and that was a general mood. But after January, when the mass arrests started, the resistance of the people was broken and gradually people accepted that their fate, that communism was restored. And that's why many Hungarians, some 200,000, left the country. That was a very large figure; that was 2 percent of the population of Hungary. As if 4 or 5 million Americans would leave United States today, just imagine.

Chat Participant: Did the Soviet Union ever officially apologize for the bloodshed in Hungary in 1956?

Geza Jeszensky: Yes, not the Soviet Union, but the new Russia. Actually in one of his last public acts, even Gorbachev did apologize -- that was in 1991, December 6, 1991, when Hungary concluded a bilateral treaty with the still-existing Soviet Union, with Gorbachev. On that hour, Gorbachev verbally apologized. I was there, as I was then the foreign minister of Hungary. I was in Moscow when this verbal apology was made. But one hour later, we met Yeltsin, leader of the new Russia, and we signed another treaty with that new Russia. And in the preamble of that treaty Russia did apologize officially for what the Soviets did in Hungary in 1956, and this apology was repeated personally by Yeltsin a year later. When he paid a visit to Hungary he said it in the Hungarian parliament.

Chat Participant: How are relations between Hungary and Russia today? Are there any lingering hostilities?

Geza Jeszensky: The late prime minister of Hungary who died in 1993, Antall, before he became prime minister, when he was a leading figure in the opposition, he said in a public speech that if the shackles are being removed from the hands of the Hungarians, they are ready to offer a hand of friendship to the Russian people. We always knew that it was not the Russian people who were oppressing Hungary. It was the Soviet system and some Soviet leaders. So today Hungarians feel only sorry for the Russian people for what they had been through during communism, and we only wish them well to follow Hungary and to make a successful transition. But we also feel sorry that in Russia there is such a kind of poverty today and so much crime, and we hope that there will be a government in Russia which will be able to deal with these problems while remaining dedicated to democracy.

CNN Moderator: We have time for one last question.

Chat Participant: How easy was it to leave the country in 1956? And how do you believe this mass exodus affected the economy and general mood in Hungary?

Geza Jeszensky: Certainly it was a big loss because not only a large number of Hungarians left, but most of them were young people, energetic people, gifted people. It was not easy to leave Hungary especially after mid-December, so it became increasingly difficult to leave Hungary, and it was risky. When the Austrian border was already sealed, then the Hungarians tried to escape through Yugoslavia. But people's Yugoslavia was not very kind to them. Fortunately, they were not turned back, but it was more difficult for them to leave Yugoslavia and be admitted to those countries who opened their doors and received these Hungarian refugees with open heart. But in conclusion, I can say that although we lost these 200,000 Hungarians, most of them have succeeded in their new adopted countries. About 40,000 of them settled in the United States. These people today form a special bond between their new adopted country and their native country. And this very evening, I am in Cleveland with such Hungarian Americans, and we are all overcome with joy that Hungary is now a free country and very soon will be even legally an ally of the United States. So after this tragedy, it is a happy ending.

CNN Moderator: Thank you for joining CNN's Cold War Chat. Tonight's guest was Geza Jeszenszky, Hungarian ambassador to the United States. Join us next Sunday at 9:30 p.m. ET for another Cold War Chat with Sergei Khrushchev, son of Nikita Khrushchev.


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