We have recently commemorated, and celebrated, the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 revolution  . It is appropriate therefore that we start our survey of the month of June in Hungarian history by looking at the life of Imre Nagy, who was not only born in the month of June, but died, and was reburied, in June. His reburial in Budapest on 16 June 1989 more than any event symbolises the end of communist regime and the beginning of the “change of system” that followed a few months later. Imre Nagy found his life’s meaning in the events of October 1956. Up to that point he had been, let’s be honest here, a committed and long-time Communist. Born on June 7, 1896, into a peasant family in Kaposvár, he joined the joined the Russian Communist party after being captured during World War I. He joined the Red Army and became a citizen of the Soviet Union. He spent 15 years in exile in Moscow following his role in the abortive Béla Kun government. While in the Soviet Union he was rumoured to be a spy for the Soviet secret police. On his return to Hungary and the new Communist regime, he enjoyed a certain amount of popularity as Minister of Agriculture for his avuncular, homely manner. He remained a prominent and enthusiastic supporter of a Communist Hungary, despite suffering at the hands, like so many others, of Rákosi.
As the events of the revolution began to unfold on 23 October he did not at first grasp the meaning of these events. Like the entire leadership was carried along by the tide. But somehow through the events of the following ten days he grasped the true meaning of October ’56: the fight for an independent Hungary. By the time the Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest on that grey November morning, Nagy had become much more of a Hungarian and much less of a Communist. It is that we should remember him for. He remained staunch in the face of his nemesis Janós Kadar, refusing the recant his actions or ask for clemency, and paid the ultimate price.
Imre Nagy was hanged at dawn on 16 June 1958. His body was originally buried in the prison grounds but his, and other victims’ bodies, were transferred to the far corner (plot 301) of the Budapest Municipal Cemetery. Their bodies were buried face down, as if consigned to the dustbin of history. It is a delicious irony that Nagy’s re-burial 31 years later to the day was followed a few weeks later by the death of Kádár and shortly thereafter the end of the very regime Nagy had been such a vital part of.
Throughout this series on Hungarian history, the treaty of Trianon has been referred to regularly. This most catastrophic event whereby Hungary lost two-thirds of her territory and 60% of its population was signed at the Grand Trianon Palace at Versailles, France, on 4 June 1921. On that day church bells tolled all over Hungary, black flags flew over buildings, traffic came to a standstill, newspapers appeared with black borders, and funeral services were held in churches.
Many will recall the popular response of Hungarians to Trianon: “Nem, nem, soha” which translates as “No, no, never”, meaning that the treaty would never ever be accepted. From what I can gather, this phrase originates from a corruption of the word “Tria-non” being ‘trios’, French for the number three, and ‘non’, the French word for no, hence, ‘three times no’.
The Treaty would come to dominant Hungarian political and social thinking for the decades, and not unnaturally enough, played a leading role in the life of Admiral Horthy, Regent of Hungary from1920 until 1944. He was born on 18 June 1868 in Kenderes, a small town in the middle of the Great Hungarian Plain (Alföld). Horthy had commanded the Austro-Hungarian fleet in World War I and following the chaos of post-WWI Hungary, entered Budapest on a white horse in 1920 and declared himself ruler of Hungary. He and his government sought to undo Trianon and restore Hungary’s borders, leading him to form an alliance with Germany. He managed to survive the inevitable defeat and was even a witness at the Nuremberg war-crimes trials in 1946. He later settled in Portugal where he lived until his death a few months after the 1956 Revolution. In his will, Horthy asked that his body not be returned to Hungary “until the last Russian soldier has left”. Thus in 1993 his body was returned to his place of birth and he was buried in Kenderes.
June marks the passing on a number of Hungarians who have made significant contributions to the cultural and artistic life of Hungary. The great ceramist Margit Kovács died on 4 June 1977. Her folkloristic works are distinctly Hungarian in approach and are instantly recognisable. They all seem to tell a story. They have a life, a character, and energy of all of their own. The museum in Szentendre where she lived and worked is a popular spot for tourists to visit.
The painter of the famous work depicting the Hungarian conquest, Árpád Feszty, died on 1 June 1914. This massive work is some 1800 m² in size was commissioned for the 1000th anniversary of the conquest in 1896. Painted as a cyclorama (a panoramic painting on a curved wall designed viewed by a central spectator), this work can be seen today at Ópusztaszer National Memorial Site.
June has marks the rather bizarre death of the actor Zoltán Latinovits. He was the greatest actor of the modern generation and was known as the “king of actors”. His film and poetry readings have a power and resonance few can match. He embraced life and lived with passion. But he was a troubled man. He became obsessed with the life and work of the poet Attila József .
Such was his obsession that he ended up committing suicide, on 4 June 1976, in the same manner as his hero; by lying on the tracks in front of an on-coming train, in small town on the southern shores of Lake Balaton.
As with many Hungarian heroes Latinovats’ death does not always mark the end of their impact or memory in Hungarian consciousness. In 1989, in the same year that Imre Nagy was reburied, Janós Kádár died and the democracy was restored to Hungary, Latinovits was posthumously awarded a Kossuth Prize, Hungary’s highest award for achievement.