Early in September this year, I was traveling through Hungary and arrived in Budapest at the same time as reports emerged that 30,000 refugees had entered the country and were stranded outside Keleti train station. Primarily a result of the ongoing Syria conflict, yet also a consequence of continuing violence elsewhere, this summer Hungary became a popular gateway into Europe. A large proportion of refugees followed the Western Balkans route into Greece, through Macedonia and Serbia, into Hungary or Croatia. The train station awash with individuals, couples and families, clutching their possessions and attempting to escape the danger and uncertainty of their homelands in favour of a better life elsewhere.
The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, has refused to accept the emergency status of this crisis, instead referring to it as an example of ‘mass migration’. In an attempt to control the influx of refugees, in June 2015, the Hungarian government commissioned the construction of a 4-metre high fence to be erected as an act of protection across its borders. A police force containing 9,000 officers has been deployed to prevent, and arrest, undocumented refugees from entering the country. It is with this in mind that I began to question the attitude of the Hungarian leadership and their failure to acknowledge the similarities between this current crisis, and the mass migrations of Hungarian citizens in the aftermath of war and its oppressive occupation.
Hungary has played victim to two of the most infamously repressive and violent regimes of modern history. It was first occupied within the brutal confines of Nazi fascism and subsequently tortured during the occupation of the Soviet Union. Hungary has experienced an immeasurable level of violence and brutality, shaping and defining the view its leaders and politicians take of its own autonomy and its vulnerability to its more powerful neighbours. This has defined its international role, in particular its finding a place within the European Union.
When in 1945, Soviet forces swept across the Hungarian frontier, conquering both the Hungarian and German forces alike, Hungary became a Satellite state, ruled by the Soviet’s puppet Mátyás Rákosi. In the aftermath of the Nazi regime, it did not seem possible to the Hungarian citizens that worse was to come. However they had not yet experienced the dictatorial leadership of Rákosi. Modelling himself upon his idol, Josef Stalin, Rákosi used the protection of the Soviet Union to consolidate his rule and become one of the cruellest politicians Hungary had ever witnessed. Developing his own personality cult and imposing totalitarian rule across the country, he used his power to persecute, torture and kill anyone who posed even the smallest degree of threat to his reign. In the small time between 1948 and 1956, the number of officials and intellectuals purged rose to approximately 350,000.
The oppressive blanket of Communist rule lingered over the nation and in 1956 the Hungarian population retaliated. Powered by a sense of nationalistic fury and hatred, the people of Hungary armed themselves with petrol bombs and rifles and mobilised the nation against one of the world’s super powers.
Initially able to overcome their opponents, a sense of euphoria replaced the fear that had encompassed the country for so long. Rebel fighters stood astride conquered Soviet tanks, waving their national flag, a gaping hole in the place where the Soviet emblem once imposed its rule. The symbolism was clear. Hungary was liberating itself from the oppressive shackles of Soviet rule. The Western world was astounded.
Euphoria has a short life span. On 4th November Soviet forces rolled back into the country. The Hungarian resistance was brutally, and swiftly, crushed. The Soviet message had been sent, and the other Satellite States received the warning. Over 2, 500 Hungarian fighters had been killed, and the repercussions of the uprising mirrored the cruelty of those in its prelude. In the aftermath of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, 171,000 Hungarian citizens sought refuge in Austria, whilst a further 20,000 escaped into Yugoslavia. A 4-metre high fence preventing their entry was nowhere in sight. Help was provided to those in need.
This is the dilemma that troubled me when I saw the events unfolding in Budapest this summer. It is hard to understand how a country whose citizens sought and received refuge less than a century before, could refuse to provide relief for those in a similar position today.