Ferenc Cseresnyés
The '56 Exodus to Austria


Ethnic Cleansing by Any Other Name

The victorious powers' decision to rearrange the political map of Europe in 1918 greatly accelerated population movements which had ethnic or national, religious and political motivations. Approximately 6 million were affected. They included Greeks expelled from Istanbul (Constantinople) and other part of Turkey and resettled in Greece; Turks and other Muslims forced out of Romania, Bulgaria and Greece and moved to Turkey; Hungarians who had to flee from Romania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia; and Germans and Jews of German or Austrian citizenship who left the Baltic states, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania between 1918 and 1920 for Germany and Austria.

The greatest migratory wave in the period was set off by the October Revolution in Russia. Between 1917 and 1922 a total of 1.5 million Russians, Ukrainians, and White Russians left the territory of the future Soviet Union. The Nazi regime in Germany touched off another wave of politically motivated migration. Approximately 450,000 Jews and political dissidents were able to leave Germany and, following the Anschluss of 1938, Austria. The rest were carried off to concentration camps. In addition, both between the two World Wars and during the Second World War an intensive labour migration was taking place on the continent. This affected approximately 1,2 million workers and their families between 1918 and the mid-1930s in Europe. Poland was the main source of migrants, and France the prime destination. In the early 1940s, Nazi Germany absorbed the largest number of forced labourers. In 1944 the number of foreign workers in Germany had reached eight million.

In the second half of the 20th century various transnational migrations took place. Some of these still determine the main migratory trends today. The expulsion of East-European Germans and the repatriation of forced labourers and prisoners of war were the main events in the migratory period immediately following the Second World War. Between 1945 and 1949 some 12 million Germans left what had been eastern Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Hungary. Most of them were forcibly driven out. In the course of this early ethnic cleansing, a further 2 million people lost their lives. The German population was brutally expelled from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary with the approval of the Allied Powers, or in some cases on their explicit instructions. In Yugoslavia's case, no such approval was needed for the Germans' eviction. As a result of this collective punishment, nearly 8 million German refugees from the East and other displaced persons resettled almost exclusively in the American and British occupation zones. The part of Germany under Soviet occupation, the future German Democratic Republic (GDR), came to absorb 3.6 million refugees, while 530,000 remained in Austria. The same period witnessed the return of 10.5 million refugees and prisoners of war, forced labourers and the survivors of the concentration camps who were in Germany and Austria in 1945. A large number of prisoners of war and other refugees were repatriated to the Soviet Union against their will. Not until late 1946 did the Western Powers stop sending people back to the Communist regions of Europe. Many found their way to a new home overseas, in North America, Australia, and particularly in the future and then nascent Israel.

After the establishment of the German Federal Republic and the German Democratic Republic, a mass exodus started from the eastern half of Germany to the West. A total of 3.5 million people crossed the demarcation line in Germany. The mass exodus was ended by the erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961.

In addition to the German population of East Germany and German minorities in other countries, the shifting of borders and people, decided on in Yalta and Potsdam, affected people in other countries also. A total of 1.5 million Poles were forced to leave their homes in eastern Poland—today part of Lithuania, Belorus and the Ukraine—and to resettle in the southern parts of East Prussia, West Prussia and Silesia. Simultaneously, nearly 600,000 Ukrainians, White Russians and Lithuanians were herded from Poland and Czechoslovakia to areas annexed by the Soviet Union after 1945. (They too had been forced to leave their home countries.) Between 1945 and 1950 the Yugoslav authorities ordered 200,000 Italians to leave Istria and Dalmatia. Approximately 300,000 ethnic Hungarians were evicted from the Vojvodina, Transylvania and Southern Slovakia. (The move from the latter area took place under the veil of a government decree cunningly referred to as a "population exchange agreement".)

Once the Iron Curtain was in place, the number of refugees no longer reflected the actual intensity of politically and ethnically motivated persecution, except when the dam occasionally and momentarily burst. In countries with democratic political structures, the mass exodus of citizens was never a potential danger. In dictatorial regimes, however, there were minefields and barbed wires to prevent unchecked population movement. It is highly revealing that, right until 1989, only western democracies signed the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees. (The document was designed to protect persons threatened or persecuted either for their adherence to racial, religious, ethnic or other specifically targeted groups or for their political views.)

During the period of East–West confrontation, various conflicts on the domestic front set off several waves of refugees: in late 1956, before the Kádár regime was able to close the borders between Austria and Hungary with the help of the Soviet armed forces, 194,000 Hungarians left the country. In 1968/69, after the crushing of the Prague Spring, approximately 170,000 Czechs and Slovaks moved to the West. Having seen the pictures of the Soviet military interventions, the western public showed great empathy and kindness in receiving these refugees. After the mid-1970s, however, following the first serious economic recession after the war, public mood changed for the worse. The reception of Polish refugees after the Polish Solidarity movement came into being faithfully demonstrates this change. In Austria, for example, they needed a visa to enter the country. In 1956, tens of thousands of Hungarian refugees had been given automatic refugee status under the Geneva Convention. Any other decision would have touched off a public outrage in the recipient countries. Today the same people would have simply been classed as citizens of crisis and civil war zones—regardless of the point that in international law the legal basis for the recognition of political refugees is still provided by the Geneva Refugee Convention—and their application for political asylum would have been turned down in the absence of proof of individual political persecution. The calvary of Bosnian and Kosovar refugees vividly demonstrates this.


Austrian requests for Western help in November 1956

Masses of Soviet armour on Hungarian highways at break of day on November 4, a Sunday, rolling towards strategic points, put the manner in which the Revolution was going to end beyond doubt. It was on that morning that the avalanche of Hungarians fleeing towards Austria truly started. By noon five thousand had crossed the border, and according to the reports they kept on coming, without a break.

On Sunday morning the Austrian government met to decide on the most urgent measures. Decisions reflected initial uncertainty. Soldiers that crossed the frontier with or without weapons had to be placedin custody immediately, regardless of whether they were members of the Hungarian or other armed forces. They had to be disarmed and interned at as great a distance from the frontier as possible, and isolated from the civilian population. This measure also applied to civilians if they crossed the frontier carrying arms. It was not established, however, what, other than the carrying of weapons, determined that one was a soldier who had to be interned or a civilian. The government had decided that all care had to be taken to ensure the smooth reception of refugees and their transit through Austria. All means of public transport had to be used, and if necessary, privately owned vehicles too.

In keeping with the prior government decision, refugees had to be placed in camps. Local police were responsible for the security of the camps, and security within the camps. Crossing the frontier into Hungary with the aim of rescuing someone was not permitted, nor was it allowed to take a vehicle to Hungary for that purpose. Measures to close the frontier to Hungary were strengthened. Any exit in the direction of Hungary had to be prevented, even if the person concerned was in possession of a Hungarian visa.

Early in November the various ministries and voluntary and international organizations feverishly negotiated each other's duties and spheres of competence, and the measures taken or to be taken ugently. On November 6 a meeting was held in the Foreign Ministry for that purpose.

The representative of the Ministry of the Interior considered the establishment of more reception camps and their facilities to be the most important task. The Foreign Ministry suggested that passing on the refugees westwards must be negotiated at government level, but it was desirable that efforts should also be made through Red Cross organizations. Refugees from the frontier area were taken to, and through, Traiskirchen, but also to a camp established in Graz by the Styrian authorities, that is along two routes.

On November 6, Oskar Helmer, the Austrian Minister of the Interior, asked for international help in the placing and reception of refugees. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees sent a round robin to sixty governments asking them to support Hungarian refugees and for help in their reception. He stated that both UNHCR and ICEM were ready to co-operate in the selection and transport of the refugees, and that although the Vienna representatives of both organizations had been told that what mattered to Austria was a non-judgemental reception of refugees, taking them as they come, without selection.

The League of Red Cross Societies undertook to look after the basic needs of 10,000, as well as the care of refugee camps and of a maximum number of 33,000 Hungarian refugees.

After mid-November the mass exodus no longer went smoothly. There was a growing number of incidents between those who wished to escape and the occupation forces and the Hungarian paramilitary who collaborated with them. This was observed by the Austrians. In mid-November the Austrian Foreign Ministry felt that the time had come for a firmer reaction to the Soviet press and radio claim that Austria had offended against a self-imposed neutrality. At first it was intimated to the Soviet ambassador in Vienna that such stories did not contribute to an improvement in Austro-Soviet relations. Later a dispatch was sent to the Austrian ambassador in Moscow putting him in a position to deny the Soviet accusations. Similar accusations by the Kádár government, formed after November 4, were also rejected. The Austrians maintained that the Austrian armed forces had closed off the frontier zone, prohibiting all entry except on business; the prohibitied zone was supervised by the military attachés of the Great Powers in co-operation with the Austrian Minister of Defence; an invitation to the exiled former prime Minister of Hungary Ferenc Nagy was rescinded without delay; no Austrian entry visas were issued to foreigners (Hungarian exiles); the country's western frontier was more rigorously controlled; refugees and exiles were not permitted to engage in political activity; those carrying weapons were disarmed and interned.

In spite of all this the Hungarian mass exodus continued with an undiminished impetus. The Austrian Foreign Ministry, in its anxiety, put it on record in mid-November; "We are forced to introduce immediate measures if we are to keep control of the flood of refugees." Priority had to be given to moving on the refugees. An aide-mémoire was handed to every foreign envoy in Vienna, including those of states which had already promised to help, detailing conditions in Austria. What they had in mind primarily was the signatories of the Geneva Convention, European countries, and the United States in the first place, but also Columbia and Peru in South America. Seventeen dispatches and aide-mémoires were sent, including to Australia (and through Australia to New Zealand) and Canada. It was stressed, when the aide-mémoires were handed over, that the number of refugees in Austria had grown to almost unmanageable proportions. It was therefore urgent for them to move on. The greatest help would be if the newly arrived could travel on without any formalities. Another 5.000 had crossed the border before dawn on the fifteenth, and the latest reports spoke of several thousand that were due to come that very day.


UNHCR, ICEM and Red Cross local activity, UN debate on refugees

Apart from minor mishaps, relations between the Austrian Foreign Ministry and the representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as far as help for Hungarian refugees was concerned, could be said to have been harmonious and proper. In mid-November 1956 the UNHCR Vienna representative drafted a memorandum on the situation of refugees in Austria. He pointed out that available quarters were few, and that, on occasion, transports of refugees had to spend the night in railway carriages. According to his estimate, 16,500 refugees could be taken to other countries withing six months, if the countries concerned acted promptly. This necessarily needed more offers to take refugees, and a speeding up of transfers. The memorandum also formulated other expectations which could be interpreted as a backing for what the Austrian government had requested.

As part of the work of a committee that co-ordinated all business concerning Hungarian refugees, the Austrian authorities conscientiously informed the representatives of international organizations of all developments. The number of Hungarian refugees registered in Austria was 36,511 on November 21. The Vienna Police Directorate estimated that a further five thousand lived in private accommodation without registering with the police. Counting those who arrived on the 20th and 21st and others who had not registered yet one could say that between October 28 and November 21 around fifty thousand had taken refuge in Austria. Up to then 8,410 had left the country with the intention of emigrating. The difference between the two figures implies that, on the given date, around 42,000 Hungarian refugees resided in Austria.

According to the Geneva Convention, all refugees seeking employment had the same standing as Austrian citizens.

Point 2 on the agenda of the November 23 meeting of the 3rd Committee of the UN General Assembly was the UNHCR report. It was given by Deputy High Commissioner Read. Read described the Austrian situation in detail, covering all the aid given and its distribution. He thanked the Austrian authorities for their good and close co-operation.

The prolonged debate on the situation of Hungarian refugees in Austria followed. The Chinese representative, speaking first, criticized the Western countries. The Soviet representative then tried to stop the whole debate. Finally, the delegates agreed to discuss only the purely humanitarian and practical aspects of the problem. Nevertheless, the debate repeatedly strayed into politics, the Soviet delegate, Georgiy P. Arkadiev, distinguishing himself in this respect. According to him, a major part of the Hungarian refugees were fascists and criminals, meaning that the soli-citude of the West was concentrated on those who did not deserve it. In his opinion, many of the Hungarians in Austria had fled from the terror of White fascists (sic!) and their aim was to return to Hungary as soon as possible. Such refugees must be given a chance to return home, which must happen as the fruit of a direct agreement between Austria and Hungary.

In keeping with the prior agreement, the chairman tried repeatedly to restrict Arkadiev to humanitarian and practical aspects, but with scant success. Arkadiev's declarations thus elicited a heated response on the part of Western delegates. Western representatives had called at the camps, they had their own impressions of the refugees and were therefore in a position to deny the Soviet allegations. Most of those who spoke, spoke highly of the Austrian attitude to the flood of refugees, members of the Soviet block were the only exception, and repeatedly expressed their thanks to the Austrian government. The representative of Chile moved a resolution to this effect, and this was passed by 49 votes to none, with nineteen abstentions, including the Eastern block and a few African and Asian states. Hungary and Yugoslavia cast their vote on the side of the majority.

The debate on Hungary continued in the UN General Assembly on December 4, 1956. The White Russian representative argued that the Austrian government and the UNHCR put obstacles in the way of the return home of the refugees. He declared that, according to Austrian press reports, young Hungarian refugees were being recruited for further actions against Hungary. He added that Hungarian refugees were beginning to realize that they had been lied to, and that, therefore, they wished to return to Hungary once order was restored. According to the Soviet representative, the draft resolution clearly interfered in Hungarian domestic affairs, and point 2 bore the character of an ultimatum. Hungary had been liberated from fascism once and for all. Children who wished to return to their parents in Hungary were kept behind barbed wire in Austria. At the same time—he emphasized—the Soviet Union offered considerable support to Hungary. Five hundred railway carriages with goods for Hungary rolled across the Hungarian border every day.

The Western European countries, Israel, Canada and the U.S. and the reception of Hungarian refugees

Offers to provide refuge for Hungarians kept coming in from all over the world; between November 7 and 14 seven countries offered to take around 80,000. They, however, almost all wanted to go to the U.S. and nowhere else. This meant that many offers were not fully taken up. As part of a special programme, the Americans raised their annual quota of immigrants from 6,500 to 21,500 but this did not satisfy the expectations of Hungarians by a long shot. Hungarian Jews also had their sights trained on America. The American Joint Distribution Committee undertook to care for around 18,000 Jews. A few thousand amongst them were strictly observant, driving the Austrians to despair already at the border by insisting on kosher food. In spite of daily supplies provided by "Joint", problems did not lessen in the camps. The Ministry of the Interior therefore—in agreement with the American "Joint"—established a separate camp for Orthodox Jews, first in Korneuburg, later at Bad Kreuzen, offering greater scope for the practice of their faith.

Already at the beginning of November the Israeli ambassador in Vienna informed the Austrian government that Israel was prepared to admit every Hungarian Jewish refugee in Austria.

Canada had shown itself already in November as a country ready to take refugees and some of those hastening to the U.S. were ready to apply for Canadian admittance. J.W. Pickersgill, the Minister of Immigration was in daily contact with his country's embassy in Vienna and kept en fait with the refugee situation. At a special session of the Lower House of the Canadian Parliament, he pointed out that one or two forms may perhaps not be filled in Austria, some X-rays will not be taken, and the usual proceedings will generally be shortened. He did not deny that these made sense and were important but, in complete agreement with the Austrians, he stressed that the as early as possible journey to Canada by the refugees must be given priority on this occasion. Examinations could be carried out later. Already in November, the Canadian government reversed their earlier decision to provide travel costs as a repayable loan: refugees could travel to Canada free of charge, at government expense.


On December 10, 1956, the Washington Austrian envoy cabled to Vienna that the Vice President would pay a visit to Austria the following weekend, if the government considered that useful. All ministries were anxious to exploit the visit as an opportunity to impress the U.S. with the seriousness of the Hungarian refugee problem. They hoped that Nixon would understand that Austria was no longer in a position to master the situation. There were almost seventy-five thousand refugees in the country, the reception quotes of the European countries were almost exhausted, and more than 2,000 new refugees were arriving every day. They hoped to persuade Nixon and the U.S. to admit even more refugees than provided for by the raised quotas, that is a determined proportion of the total, perhaps as much as 50 per cent.

Half the Austrian government was present at negotiations with Nixon. The Americans, too, were well briefed. Nixon expressed the hope that he would be able to familiarize himself fully with the financial aspects of the refugee problem. He was not in a position to make decisions, but he hoped that, on his return home he would be able to influence decisions favourably. According to Chancellor Raab, the refugee problem had two levels. Politically, the mass presence of refugees was a threat to Austrian neutrality. Therefore as many as possible would have to be moved abroad as soon as possible. There were financial aspects as well, and he proposed discussing these first.

Kamitz, the Minister of Finance, pointed out that, up to that day (December 19, 1956) around 150,000 refugees had crossed the border. 70,000 had left for other countries, 80,000 were still in Austria. Around 30,000 will very likely finally settle in the country, either because they wish to do so, or because the country of their choice will not admit them. Nixon interjected and asked whether some sort of job could not be found for these 30,000. Kamitz agreed and said that a further 50,000 refugees could be expected to arrive in 1957, thus raising this figure to 80,000. Even if departures are continuous, so are arrivals. One must thus reckon with 30,000 continuously present refugees, and 50,000 in transit camps at one time.

According to Kamitz, at least 10,000 homes had to be build somewhere close to their jobs for the 30,000 refugees permanently settled in Austria. The cost of such housing was estimated at US $58 million. A further $40 million were needed for transit camps. $150 per head were spent on food, clothing, transport, etc. in 1956, a total of $8 million. According to Kamitz, the 30,000 permanently settled and the 50,000 in transit would, in 1957, require $23 million in current expenses and $8 million for occasional payments. These estimates did not include building costs.

Nixon thought those figures were pretty high. He was well aware that these were human problems and that this was not wasted money. All the same, he wondered whether other resources could not be employed. Kamitz noted that 10 per cent of the Austrian budget was spent on refugees, at a time when the costs of establishing the country's defence also had to be borne. Nixon promised that he would submit the problem to President Eisenhower. He was not in a position to say how many more refugees the US would admit, but he was sure it would be a fair number. William P. Rogers added that the US currently had two refugee programmes. The general one allowed for the admittance of an annual 200,000 to 250,000. A further 180,000 had migrated to the US in the past two years within the scope of the Refugees Relief Act programme.

Nixon promised that the American decision would not be delayed for months, and that he would also raise the problem of refugees of long standing. America expected, however, that Austria conduct similar negotiations with other countries, and that support be proportionate. He then asked about the financial arrangements. Could the money be transferred throught the UNHCR? Raab thought it preferable that the aid be sent directly to the Austrian government. That the issue was one of control was shown by Hollister, a financial consultant, who suggested that all refugee affairs in Austria be handled by a central agency, and that there be no financing of private accommodation. In view of the limited places available in camps, the Austrians did not think that the latter suggestion was feasible.

Izvesztiya reported Nixon's visit under the heading: "Humanitarian aims or subversion." The author, Stepanov, stood a report from Washington by a French paper on its head. According to Stepanov, they stressed the humanitarian aspects in Washington since Nixon's presence, so close to the Hungarian frontier, could well imply interference in the domestic affairs of the People's Democracies. Even in Washington only the initiated were aware of the true purpose of the visit, that is encouragement for the subversion and counter-revolution in Hungary.

According to Izvestiya the true aim of the Americans in Hungary was an early as possible repeat performance of the fascist putsch. Nixon notoriously belonged to the most reactionary wing of the Republicans, whose slogan was "liberation," which, in the last resort, meant interference in the domestic affairs of the People's Democracies with the aim of restoring the capitalist system. But that was not enough for Stepanov. He argued that international imperialists headed by certain American circles played an important role in the Hungarian fascist putsch. They not only wanted to restore capitalism in Hungary but also wished to stoke the embers of war in Central Europe. Nixon's visit demostrated that these circles were not reconciled to defeat.

Ferenc Cseresnyés is a historian, teaching at the Law School of the Janus Pannonius University in Pécs. His field of research is modern history and the major migrations of our time, which he examines from the perspectives of history and political science. He has published 12 major studies on this subject. This is a slightly abbreviated version of a paper which appeared in the journal Múltunk.

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The Hungarian Quarterly, VOLUME XL * No. 154 * Summer 1999 - Some Highlights

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