Honouable [former] President of the Republic, Honourable [former] Prime Minister, celebrating Hungarians around the world, within and beyond the borders,
It is worthy and just that, as the closing chord of our national holiday, we should bow our heads to the Revolutionaries of ’56 here, at the Academy of Music. The 1956 Freedom Fight started the way our revolutions usually start. In our revolutions, the fuse would sometimes be lit by the words of a Petőfi or a Sinkovits, a performance by a young virtuoso pianist, a staging of Bánk bán, or the overture to an opera. At the Erkel Theatre Budapest on 22 October 1956, György Cziffra – who graduated from this music academy – played Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2. According to contemporary accounts, when he had played the last note, the applause from the audience was like an eruption of molten lava. Earlier the communists had smashed the bones in the hands of this young pianist, and then they forced him to break rocks in a stone quarry for three years. After his release he had to learn to play the piano again. Those who were there on that evening watching him perform knew that what they were seeing was not just a concert, but resurrection itself: a young artist’s resurrection and victory. It is no surprise that, brimming with enthusiasm, the audience of two thousand disciplined and order-loving citizens, connoisseurs of classical music, spilled out of the concert hall and onto the streets, and wherever they went they tore down from the walls every sign of communist outrage.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Fellow Celebrants,
When we think of the heroes of 1956, our first image is of young people: the lads and girls of Pest, who showed such overwhelming courage in raising their voices, their arms and their weapons against the occupiers and proconsuls. We recall their radiant faces, as they marched arm in arm through the streets of Budapest in that October spring. They were carried along by their youth, and they were carried along by the belief that they could turn around the fate of their homeland. They knew – or at least felt – that if the Soviet world were to continue, then there would be nothing left of Hungarian life. One thousand years of history would fade into nothing, and caustic red sludge would sweep away, corrode and consume everything: faith, culture, family, friends. It would overturn and cast to the winds everything that gives life meaning, and from which one can build a home and a homeland. Eleven years after the Second World War, every sane Hungarian – even those without a religious upbringing – knew that communism was the agent of chaos itself. They had to do something. So – in fire, in rags, orphaned, yet happy – they took up arms, because they saw that no other path was open to them. They did so with the resolve of one who is pushed to the edge of a precipice, knowing that there is nowhere to retreat to. There was only one path left: to fight for the land under their feet, the land that was still theirs. The minds of Hungarians – even those without a patriotic upbringing – were struck by a lightning flash of revelation: we Hungarians have just this one homeland. We have no other. We have no other place under the Sun: only this corner of the Earth is ours. Our dreams can only be conceived here, and only here in the Carpathian Basin can we achieve the great shared creation that we call Hungary and Hungarian culture. Sándor Márai wrote that the homeland is not made merely of earth and mountains, fallen heroes, the mother tongue, the bones of our ancestors in graveyards, bread and the landscape. No, it is we who are the homeland, from top to toe, body and soul: it gave us life; it will bury us; we experience and express it in all the moments of misery, elation, passion and boredom which together form the totality of our life. And our life is a moment in the life of our homeland. Sándor Márai was right – this is the reality. We are the homeland, all of us, from top to toe. This is the law. And it is also the law that there is a homeland only as long as there is someone to love it. There is a homeland only as long as there is someone to make a sacrifice for it. The law is that a homeland exists only where patriots exist; and the homeland will exist only for as long as there are more patriots than the combined numbers of collaborators, mercenaries in the pay of foreign forces and the Hungarian members of the international brigades of the day. Villainy will always form alliances; the question is whether patriots are prepared to combine their forces. As the poet Attila József taught us: “Conquer yourselves – first of all. Deal with the simplest thing: Join forces, so that, multiplied immensely, You may somehow find your way to God, who is infinity”. In October 1956 we joined forces. And once we had done so, we performed a miracle. We performed a miracle, and rose to heights never seen before.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today we are still sustained by this miracle. It is true, we have paid a high price for it, but Hungarian miracles never come cheap. Some three thousand people died during the conflict, two hundred and twenty-eight were executed, twenty thousand were imprisoned, and a hundred and seventy thousand fled the country. The freedom fighters of 1956 gave the most beautiful, the highest and the most precious thing one can sacrifice for their country. They gave their lives, they gave their freedom, they accepted exile: the bitter fruit of separation from one’s homeland.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Fellow Celebrants,
On 23 October 1956 the Hungarian nation demanded back its ancient right: it sought to freely decide how to live. And even back then we wanted for ourselves a Hungarian way of life: a European way of life.
A free and independent Hungary in a Europe of nations. And in this there was no contradiction, because at that time the western half of Europe was still indeed the shared home of free nations. There is the ancient warning that not a single country, town or house that turns against itself can survive. Neither Europe nor Hungary can survive if it turns against itself, if it goes against everything that keeps it alive. It cannot survive if it turns against its own past and heroes. It cannot survive if it breaks with the honourable way of life created on the triple foundations of freedom, independence and Christian brotherhood, which made Europe – and Hungary within it – the most successful continent in world history. We must be grateful to our ancestors for the fact that our existence as Hungarians could grow through a long history of freedom fights which – despite all our shortcomings and moments of weakness – made us a great and noble people.
The most hackneyed platitude in Hungarian political rhetoric is the phrase “a lesson from history”. But I believe that when we refer to the lessons of history we rarely stop to consider what we are talking about. These lessons do not mean the acquisition of some theoretical knowledge. On the contrary, they are highly practical. What’s more, the lessons of history always presume examinations. This is how it should be, because history is an ongoing challenge, a trial and an aptitude test. The fate of a people, the future of one nation or another, the survival or failure of one state or another, stands or falls on the answers, on whether the answers are correct or wrong. Yes, one can also fail these examinations. There are some who are held back, and then resit the exam; there are some who drop out of school – out of history altogether; and there are others who can go on to higher levels. Our ancestors gave a convincing and impressive historical account of themselves at decisive moments such as the conquest of the Carpathian Basin, the foundation of the state, the adoption and defence of Christianity, the Revolution and Freedom Fight of 1848-49, the Austro-Hungarian Compromise, and the uprising against communist dictatorship and Soviet occupation. It is easy to take it for granted that we have a free and independent country called Hungary that is built upon noble ideals. But this country was not merely received as a gift: it did not fall into our laps, it was no easy ride, and we did not win it at the card table. How many peoples have existed in history? Thousands, surely. How many have succeeded in acquiring a home and keeping it to this day? Around two hundred. Hungary is among these two hundred – and it is not in the lower half. In the autumn of 1956, the Hungarian nation graduated to a higher level with a historic achievement of moral radiance that was felt around the world. We know – as many of us remember life in the old world – that the harsh reality of communism slowly consumes human dignity. Therefore, after a period of occupation what is left is emptiness, surrender and pettiness. But in this, too, we Hungarians are an exception. We have the generation of 1956 to thank for the fact that during the dark hours of history – even during the long years of Soviet occupation – we preserved our courage and were able to hold our heads high; this was because – even if only in secret – we had something and someone to be proud of. The heroes of 1956 were victorious because they bequeathed to us, their descendants, not human weakness, not self-doubt, but the greatness of courage and heroism. Although the young people of today have not lived – and luckily did not have to live – under the dictatorship of occupiers, I have no doubt that, should the need arise, today’s lads and girls of Pest would stand their ground just as gloriously as their grandparents did in 1956.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Mariners know that they can safely steer a ship into port if they observe not only the water, but also the stars. Over the course of one thousand years, we Hungarians have learnt that on the waves of time we should fix our gaze not upon the changeable, not upon the transient, but always upon that which is permanent and enduring: upon God, homeland and family. Even today we could not choose a better guiding star. “The water runs on, and only the rock remains. The rock remains.”
Gloria victis! Glory to the heroes!