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The Spirit of Radio: Hungary 1956, Radio Free Europe, and the Shadow Public Sphere

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This study explores popular responses to communist rule in Hungary and the role of Western media in the years leading up to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Most scholars to date have focused on the guiding role of the intelligentsia and the influence of Radio Free Europe. While these were indeed necessary ingredients in the revolutionary stew, Brown argues that the roots of the revolution are more complex. Hungarians from all social strata listened to many Western radio stations; as a result, many of them adopted critical and informed perspectives on the propaganda directed at them from both Moscow and Washington. As Hungarians listened in on the West, their discussion of news and politics generated a shadow public sphere, in which Radio Free Europe came to occupy a preeminent role despite its biased and propagandistic tone. The shadow public sphere incubated the postwar dream of an egalitarian and democratic Hungary until open political discourse became possible once more in October 1956.
Brown, Karl. “The Spirit of Radio: Hungary 1956, Radio Free Europe, and the Shadow Public Sphere.” Hungarian
Cultural Studies. e-Journal of the American Hungarian Educators Association, Volume 11 (2018) DOI:
10.5195/ahea.2018.324
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The Spirit of Radio: Hungary 1956, Radio Free Europe, and the
Shadow Public Sphere
Karl Brown
Abstract: This study explores popular responses to communist rule in Hungary and the
role of Western media in the years leading up to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Most
scholars to date have focused on the guiding role of the intelligentsia and the influence of
Radio Free Europe. While these were indeed necessary ingredients in the revolutionary
stew, Brown argues that the roots of the revolution are more complex. Hungarians from all
social strata listened to many Western radio stations; as a result, many of them adopted
critical and informed perspectives on the propaganda directed at them from both Moscow
and Washington. As Hungarians listened in on the West, their discussion of news and
politics generated a shadow public sphere, in which Radio Free Europe came to occupy a
preeminent role despite its biased and propagandistic tone. The shadow public sphere
incubated the postwar dream of an egalitarian and democratic Hungary until open political
discourse became possible once more in October 1956.
Keywords: Hungary, 1956, revolution, Radio Free Europe, public sphere
Biography: Karl Brown is an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater. He completed his
Ph.D in Modern European History at the University of Texas at Austin with a dissertation entitled “Regulating
Bodies: Everyday Crime and Popular Resistance in Communist Hungary, 1948-1956.” Karl has published articles
on hooliganism and illegal pig-killing, and is currently revising his dissertation for publication as a monograph.
brownk@uww.edu
Sixty years on, it might seem there is little left to say about the 1956 Hungarian
Revolution. Scholarly analyses appeared at regular intervals throughout the Cold War (see, e.g.,
Kecskemeti 1961, Molnar 1971, Radványi 1972); since 1989, the opening of the archives has
enabled ever-more-accurate recapitulations of the events of October and November of 1956 (see,
e.g., Litván 1996, Granville 2004, Eörsi 2001, 2004, 2006, Gati 2006). The main events of the
revolution are well-documented: on 23 October 1956, student demonstrations rapidly snowballed
into outright rebellion against the communist regime. Imre Nagy (1896-1958) was reinstated as
Prime Minister and attempted to appease the demands of both the revolutionaries and the
Kremlin in an effort to stave off Soviet intervention. His tightrope act was ultimately ineffective
(if, indeed, it ever had any hope of success). On November 4 the Red Army rolled back into
Budapest and crushed the revolution. Around 2,500 Hungarians were killed in the fighting;
193,000 more, or roughly 2% of the population, fled to the West in November and December.
Although Western powers loudly condemned the Soviet invasion, they did not intervene: it was
Brown, Karl. “The Spirit of Radio: Hungary 1956, Radio Free Europe, and the Shadow Public Sphere.” Hungarian
Cultural Studies. e-Journal of the American Hungarian Educators Association, Volume 11 (2018) DOI:
10.5195/ahea.2018.324
90
an election year in the USA, and Britain and France were occupied with their own imperialist
venture in the Suez. Hungary was returned to the Soviet sphere of influence, where it remained
until 1989.
Most scholars now concur on the basic goals and causes of the revolution: the
revolutionaries sought to abolish communism, but they did not wish to do away entirely with
socialism. Nagy and his cohort aspired to a third-road socialism reminiscent of the New Course,
or the New Economic Policy of the 1920s in the USSR: “a forerunner to the Prague Spring of
1968 and Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s perestroika” (Gati 2006:55). The genesis of revolutionary
sentiment is similarly a matter of little debate, as most accounts assert that the intelligentsia were
the primary engine of revolt. In the wake of the general amnesty issued in 1953, the crimes
committed in the Stalinist era became public knowledge; then, consumed by guilt for having
supported the regime, writers and other intellectuals began speaking out against Mátyás Rákosi
(1892-1971) and the Party’s hardline communists even as they gradually formed an oppositional
circle around Nagy. Revolutionary sentiment swelled among the intelligentsia, and was muted
but not silenced by Rákosi’s return to power in 1955 (Litván 1996:30). In February 1956,
Khrushchev delivered his electric secret speech to the Twentieth Party Congress; the text was
rapidly leaked, translated, and circulated widely throughout Eastern Europe. Thereafter the
tinderbox required only a few sparksnamely the Petőfi Circle debates and the June riots in
Polandto set the revolution ablaze. In short, the conventional narrative of 1956 concentrates
primarily on the international context of the revolution and articulate dissent by Nagy and the
disaffected intelligentsia.
The effect of Cold War radio broadcasting to Eastern Europe has emerged as a central
theme in this historiographical debate. In the 1950s, the struggle for hearts and minds was waged
on the airwaves: broadcasts by Radio Free Europe (RFE), Voice of America (VOA), Radio In
the American Sector (RIAS) and Armed Forces Network (AFN) augmented the foreign policy
and cloak-and-dagger skullduggery of both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. Most
histories of American broadcasting to the Eastern Bloc (many of them written by former
employees of American broadcasting organizations) implicitly assume that American stations
simply “broadcast freedom,” and that Eastern European listeners thereby readily absorbed the
evanescent values of liberty, civil society, and democracy (see, e.g., Urban 1997, Puddington
2000, Heil 2003; for more nuanced approaches, see Hixson 1996, Pittaway 2003, Webb 2013).
Radio Free Europe was unique among these foreign voices, inasmuch as its architects intended
that it serve American foreign policy objectives by taking on the role of “surrogate national
stations” for Eastern Bloc countries. To date, most American scholars have considered RFE’s
role in the 1956 revolution almost entirely from the former standpoint, asking whether Radio
Free Europe was somehow “to blame” for the Revolution or the subsequent Soviet crackdown.
According to this perspective, RFE’s alleged transgressions before and during the revolution
(namely, that it insinuated that the West would come to Hungary’s aid; that it attacked instead of
supported Nagy; and that it consistently goaded the revolutionaries on to more radical demands)
had a significant impact on the course of events (Granville 2005: 812, Gati 2006: 142, 183-185,
201). In the most comprehensive analysis to date, Radio Free Europe is largely absolved of guilt:
aside from a few incendiary broadcasts (including instruction in partisan warfare tactics) and
unduly emotional political commentary during the revolution, RFE seems to have done the best
it could in a generally impossible situation (Johnson 2010). Notably, the actual listening
Brown, Karl. “The Spirit of Radio: Hungary 1956, Radio Free Europe, and the Shadow Public Sphere.” Hungarian
Cultural Studies. e-Journal of the American Hungarian Educators Association, Volume 11 (2018) DOI:
10.5195/ahea.2018.324
91
practices of Hungarians and other Eastern Europeans in the 1950s have remained largely absent
from this debate.
My contribution herein is twofold. I argue that the revolutionary goals articulated as a
third road to socialism were not transmitted from the intelligentsia down to “the people,” but
rather in the opposite direction, and I argue that Radio Free Europe (and other Western
broadcasters) were catalysts in this process. RFE and other Western stations did not cause the
revolution in any useful sense; by summer 1956, Hungarians were primed for revolt regardless of
what they heard on the radio. However, western broadcasts provided different perspectives and
valuable informationabout Hungary, the USSR, the USA, and the world at largethat
thwarted the communist regimes’ attempts at totalitarian control of information behind the Iron
Curtain. The net effect of this informed and incessant discussion of politics was the formation of
a shadow public sphere, in which the heated political discourse of the immediate postwar era
focusing on topics such as land reform, nationalization, and democratizationwas carried on
sotto voce beneath the droning buzz of regime-sanctioned discourse. Shaped but not driven by
the revolt of the intellectuals in 1953, popular political opposition to the regime then resurfaced
with spectacular effect in October 1956.
* * *
In the first place, Radio Free Europe was only one among many Western broadcasters to
Eastern Europe in the early Cold War. Hungarians listened to many other stations, and many of
them were aware of, and wary of, the obvious bias in American broadcasts in generaland
Radio Free Europe broadcasts in particular. Like other Eastern Europeans, Hungarians drew on a
long tradition of listening to Western broadcasts in formulating their political worldview. They
had done so before and during World War II, and they continued doing so in the 1950s.
Although the American stations rapidly became popular, they were relative interlopers in an
established media sphere: the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had long been the station
of choice for news of world events. Numerous Hungarian (and other Eastern European) listeners
recounted listening to RFE, VOA, and AFN; however, they also tuned in to Radio Paris, Radio
Monaco, Radio Luxembourg, Radio Madrid, Vatican Radio, and above all the BBC on a regular
basis (Kracauer 1956). An audience survey conducted by the US Foreign News Service in early
1953 found that VOA was the most popular station among Eastern European listeners, followed
by the BBC and RFE. A follow-up survey in 1954, which focused especially on the reception
practices of listeners under age 26, revealed that significant numbers also tuned in to Paris,
Madrid, and Rome; almost three-fourths of them also listened to the regime’s broadcasts.
1
In
short, Hungarians consumed news, and were the targets of propaganda, from a number of
sources: the Soviets, the domestic communist regime, American stations, and a wide variety of
western European stations as well.
Radio Free Europe’s listenership grew swiftly during the early 1950s, but its burgeoning
popularity was not grounded in reliable or objective reporting or commentary. Radio Free
1
The former survey analyzes the reactions of 228 listeners; the latter, 110. In both cases, roughly 1/5 of the
respondents were Hungarians. Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library (hereafter ‘DEPL’) C.D. Jackson Papers,
Box 5, Nagorski-Wierzbianski folder, “Survey on Listening Habits Behind the Iron Curtain,” n.p., March 1953, and
“Reactions of Young Listeners Behind the Iron Curtain to Western Radio Broadcasts,” Chart I, 1 February 1954.
Brown, Karl. “The Spirit of Radio: Hungary 1956, Radio Free Europe, and the Shadow Public Sphere.” Hungarian
Cultural Studies. e-Journal of the American Hungarian Educators Association, Volume 11 (2018) DOI:
10.5195/ahea.2018.324
92
Europe’s creators at the CIA, Department of State, and the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC)
intended that it operate as an effective tool of US psychological warfare by creating surrogate
national stations” for its captive audiences behind the Iron Curtain. There was no shortage of
out-of-work émigrés looking for jobs after World War II, and thus it was possible to staff each
national radio—labeled “the Voice of Free Hungary,” “the Voice of Free Poland,” and so on—
with native speakers. Nominally a private organization (albeit largely funded by the CIA until
1967), RFE was not required to demonstrate the nuance or restraint required of the VOA or other
official mouthpieces of the American government, and it attacked its Cold War enemy with
abandon. Indeed, one contemporary scholar singled out Radio Madrid, the mouthpiece of the
authoritarian Franco regime, as the only other station that matched Radio Free Europe’s polemics
against communism (Kracauer 1956). Among the national radios, the Voice of Free Hungary,
staffed by ardent anti-communist émigrés, stood out as more strident and vehement than the
Polish or Czechoslovakian Desks (Gati 2006: 101, 102). While RFE’s propagandistic tone
appealed to some listeners, it also drove many to seek out alternate sources of information.
Many listeners recounted listening to other Western stations specifically in order to gain
perspective on Radio Free Europe’s biased content. One émigré interviewed in 1957 recounted
how he was a regular listener of AFN, RFE and VOAbut also Paris, Madrid, and the BBC, all
of which he found more reliable than RFE. Like many of the intelligentsia, he preferred the
BBC: “By putting together BBC broadcasts in English, German, and Hungarian I could get a
fairly complete picture of world events.… The Paris and Spanish radio were less propagandistic
than RFE, but still more than I would have liked.” A lawyer from the village of Vámosgyörk
reported, “The intelligentsia, or what is left of it, preferes [sic] BBC and VOA, where it can get
straight facts and news without the overtone of propaganda which is prevalent in RFE
broadcasts.” One university-educated listener interviewed in late 1955 delivered this scathing
indictment of RFE:
RFE programs contain a lot of propaganda slogans. Its commentators forget that the
people in Hungary hear only propaganda slogans from morning until night…. This does
not satisfy educated and cultured listeners. If it continues to take this course, RFE will
lose even those of its listeners who have only a high-school education. The intelligentsia
prefers to listen to BBC.
However, it was not only the intelligentsia that listened critically to Radio Free Europe
broadcasts. A former textile worker and his wife who escaped in 1953 averred that they liked
RFE, but always listened to the BBC and VOA first. One 33-year old farm worker echoed his
learned counterpart above almost point for point:
Brown, Karl. “The Spirit of Radio: Hungary 1956, Radio Free Europe, and the Shadow Public Sphere.” Hungarian
Cultural Studies. e-Journal of the American Hungarian Educators Association, Volume 11 (2018) DOI:
10.5195/ahea.2018.324
93
I think the tone of some RFE programs is too shrill, too sarcastic, and because of this has
a propagandistic flavor. People at home are already aware that the louder and more
persuasively the regime tries to sell something, the more likely that it is a lie. Thus when
they hear the same tone [from RFE], skepticism rears its head: ‘They want us to believe
so badly, perhaps it’s not true.’
2
Thus, not only did many Hungarians listen critically to Radio Free Europe: in its broadcasts,
some of them even heard echoes of Radio Budapest or Moscow.
More broadly, Radio Free Europe’s credibility gap was common to all American
broadcast organizations during the early Cold War. As RFE and VOA were tasked with
portraying the United States as the democratic, dialectic opposite of the oppressive Soviet Union,
they sought to downplay and even ignore elements of American domestic life that complicated
this narrative. However, the 1950s were the era of McCarthyism and the Civil Rights movement,
and these newsworthy phenomena were extensively covered by the world and Soviet press.
Western Europeans, like thinking people everywhere, saw McCarthyism as a direct threat to
American democracy. By 1953, European perceptions of McCarthyism were so negative that it
became the focal point of a July meeting of the National Security Council. Recently returned
from a trip to Europe, Eisenhower, “informed the Council that he was much disturbed and
concerned that so many of our allies seemed frightened of what they imagine the United States
government is up to…. The name of McCarthy was on everyone’s lips and he was constantly
compared to Adolf Hitler.”
3
The Civil Rights Movement was likewise covered extensively in the
world and Soviet press, as were the episodic acts of domestic terrorism committed by the Ku
Klux Klan and other racists in defense of the Jim Crow status quo (Dudziak 2003). Confidential
briefings prepared by the United States Information Agency repeatedly decried the image
problems caused by the murder of Emmett Till, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and other widely
2
Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Archive, Bakhmeteff Archive of Russian and Eastern European
Culture, Columbia University Research Project on Hungary (hereafter CURPH) Box 7, Interview 102, 57-59;
Open Society Archives, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Archives, Information Items HU 300-1-2 (hereafter,
OSA/RFE Items), 10200/53, microfilm roll (hereafter ‘mf’) mf 29; OSA/RFE Items 10600/55, mf 61; OSA/RFE
Items 11188/53, mf 30; OSA/RFE Items 8316/55, mf 59; see OSA/RFE Items 8316/55, mf 59, and OSA/RFE Items
6464/56, mf 70 for similar statements. A note to researchers: the OSA/RFE Items and the CURPH interviews are
two remarkable and underutilized collections of interviews with refugees and émigrés from Hungary. The former
were collected on an ad hoc basis from 1951 on, while the latter were conducted en masse in 1957. They are
problematic in a number of ways (for instance, the RFE interviewers focused primarily on the propaganda value of
the information they collected), but they remain valuable firsthand accounts of everyday life during the early
communist period in Hungaryespecially for my purposes here, as interviewees were asked specifically about their
radio listening habits. Both OSA/RFE and CURPH have been digitized, in their entirety, by the Open Society
Archives in Budapest and are now available online at
http://catalog.osaarchivum.org/?f%5Bdigital_collection%5D%5B%5D=CURPH+Interviews+with+1956+Hungarian
+Refugees&f%5Brecord_origin_facet%5D%5B%5D=Digital+Repository&q=1956 and
http://catalog.osaarchivum.org/?f%5Bdigital_collection%5D%5B%5D=RFE+Information+Items&f%5Brecord_orig
in_facet%5D%5B%5D=Digital+Repository, respectively.
3
DEPL, Whitman File, National Security Council Series, Box 4, 153rd Meeting of the NSC, 9 July 1953, 11-12.
Brown, Karl. “The Spirit of Radio: Hungary 1956, Radio Free Europe, and the Shadow Public Sphere.” Hungarian
Cultural Studies. e-Journal of the American Hungarian Educators Association, Volume 11 (2018) DOI:
10.5195/ahea.2018.324
94
reported flashpoints of racial tension.
4
While McCarthyism proved short-lived and some progress
was eventually made on the Civil Rights front, during the 1950s these issues rightly complicated
American claims to represent a truly democratic order.
Most importantly, Western broadcasts enabled Eastern Europeans to assess communist
rule in an objective light. Although all Hungarians interviewed before and after 1956 decried the
oppression, surveillance, and terror that accompanied communism in Hungary, many also
acknowledged certain beneficial aspects of the system. As one 1956 émigré recounted to her
interviewer,
As far as the relationships between equals and subordinates and superiors went, I must
emphatically say that the Communists have brought some good to Hungary. They have
abolished the tremendous class distinctions that existed before the war. They have
abolished the stiffness of relations that one experienced whenever approaching superiors.
A young factory worker who escaped in 1955 singled out the work-training system
introduced by the Communists as a particular benefit to Hungarian youths, who had previously
been subject to lengthy apprenticeships and social control by their elders (Kürti 2002: 58-62).
Another interviewee, a worker and former colonel in the army, found that the expansion of
public libraries under the communists was a benefit to cultural life, as “people become used to
reading and do not stop at the books selected by the party…. The works of Jókai, Eötvös,
Mikszáth,
5
Balzac, Maupassant, Zola, and Shakespeare can be seen in the hands of real workers
and not only those who became unskilled workers under the present regime.” He also spoke
highly of the various programs geared towards educating and training the youth. Finally, he
averred that the bulk of the Hungarian working class felt that
A planned economy is better than free competition because the latter serves only the
interests of the capitalists. This means that they only produce profitable goods instead of
what the community needs.
Significantly, many of the post-1956 respondentsinterviewed in mid-1957, with the memory
of the Soviets’ bloody crackdown still fresh—echoed these evenhanded perspectives on life
under communism.
6
Rather than disavow every aspect of communist rule, many of its subjects
assessed it relatively objectively.
4
See, e.g., National Archives and Research Administration, United States Information Agency, Office of Classified
Research, Briefing Reports (Soviet/Satellites), 11 April 1955, 9 January 1956, 19 March 1956. On the KKK in the
Hungarian media, see, e.g., “A Ku Klux Klan tagja voltam [I was a Ku Klux Klan Member]” Esti Budapest
[Budapest at Night], 14 July 1954.
5
Mór Jókai (1825-1904), József Eötvös (1831-1871), and Kálmán Mikszáth (1847-1910) were all famous
Hungarian writers; the first two were also major figures of the 1848 revolution.
6
CURPH Interview 108, Box 7, 21-2; OSA/RFE Items 10256/55, mf 61; OSA/RFE Items 11630/55, mf 62; see
also, e.g., CURPH, Box 7, Interview 101, 5, and CURPH, Box 10, Interview 152, 278-280.
Brown, Karl. “The Spirit of Radio: Hungary 1956, Radio Free Europe, and the Shadow Public Sphere.” Hungarian
Cultural Studies. e-Journal of the American Hungarian Educators Association, Volume 11 (2018) DOI:
10.5195/ahea.2018.324
95
Critical listening practices coupled with information and perspectives from non-
American sources militated against a straightforward acceptance of the RFE line. Many
Hungarians listened to Western broadcasts in order to counter the regime’s propaganda, then
turned to other Western stations in order to debunk the propagandistic content of RFE, VOA and
other American broadcast organizations. American broadcasters, and especially RFE, did not
simply “broadcast freedom,” as one apologist has asserted; however, their presence on the
airwavescoupled with the presence of other Western stations and the critical listening practices
detailed abovedid have a profound impact on Hungarian political culture.
* * *
For critical listeners in Hungary and elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain, non-regime
broadcasts served an important function. The unbiased (or rather differently-biased) information
of events on both sides of the Iron Curtain provided by foreign media outlets served as grist for
the conversational mill around the kitchen table, at work, and in the marketplace. Like other
Eastern Europeans, Hungarians often listened to foreign broadcasts in groups, and discussed
what they learned from them during work breaks, over meals, and in their spare time.
7
By
staying informed of the issues, by comparing different viewpoints, and by arguing about them in
cafés, at home, or on breaks at work, many Hungarians formulated political views independent
of either regime or American intentions. As all politics are local, Hungarians applied what they
learned from abroad to their particular situation.
The net effect of this informed and incessant discussion, coupled with a deep-seated
desire for change, generated what we might usefully label a shadow public sphere.
As Jürgen Habermas defines it, the public sphere emerges in the tension-charged field between
the body politic and the government. The public sphere is equal parts argument and agency: as
‘the people’ discuss political events, the power of the better argument prevails; public opinion,
having reached a consensus, then acts as a counterweight to the state’s authority. Although
Habermas restricts the ‘genuine’ public sphere to a very specific historical conjuncture (i.e., from
1688 in Britain, 1789 in France, and some unspecified time in Germany, until its
“refeudalization” in the mid-nineteenth century), it remains a viable model for analyzing the
relationship between popular opinion, the media, and politics in other contexts (Habermas 1991:
54, 62-73, 195). Nancy Fraser (1991) has correctly observed that Habermas’ argument glosses
over the issue of who is allowed to say what to whom: we must instead conceptualize a complex
system of interpenetrating and hierarchical spheres, in which participation (as both senders and
receivers) is determined by gender, class, and race. Jean-François Lyotard further notes that the
real efficacy of public discourse is dependent not on the crystallization of a hegemonic consensus
but rather the articulation of differing viewpoints: as he frames it, “a justice of multiplicity, and a
multiplicity of justices (Lyotard 1984, 1985: 82). To these critiques I would add that Habermas
does not adequately address the role of censorship and open access to information: although he
7
These points are agreed upon by most scholars (e.g., Nilson 1997: 64, Kracauer 1956: 128-132), and are borne out
by a number of the Items (see, e.g., OSA/RFE Items 11188/53, mf 30 and OSA/RFE Items 2326/56, mf 65 on group
listening practices, and OSA/RFE Items 7873/54, mf 43, OSA/RFE Items 3542/55, mf 53, and OSA/RFE 6464/56,
mf 70 on group discussions of foreign broadcast content). Oddly, Kracauer found that Hungarians were more prone
to discuss the news in groups than Poles or Czechs (Kracauer 1956: 129).
Brown, Karl. “The Spirit of Radio: Hungary 1956, Radio Free Europe, and the Shadow Public Sphere.” Hungarian
Cultural Studies. e-Journal of the American Hungarian Educators Association, Volume 11 (2018) DOI:
10.5195/ahea.2018.324
96
acknowledges the existence of precursor public spheres during the English Civil War and the
French Revolution, for him the public sphere only truly operates in regimes that have abolished
censorship. As other scholars have argued convincingly that political discourse in both of these
periods demonstrate characteristics similar to the public sphere proper (Smith 1994, Darnton
2000), it seems that regime control of media stifles but does not suppress oppositional political
discourse. In much this same manner, then, Hungarians in the 1950s carved out a discursive
space on the sly: their shadow public sphere was the infrapolitical
8
equivalent of the uncensored
public sphere that operates in non-authoritarian societies.
While this discursive realm was informed by broadcast content from both sides of the
Iron Curtain, it was grounded in the all-too-brief postwar democratic experiment. Between 1945
and 1948, Hungary enjoyed a brief spell of democratic coalition government. During the
interwar period, stringent property qualifications for the franchise and the absence of secret
balloting outside of urban areas (thus, for the majority of the population) had enabled the
continued dominance of noble landholders and the urban bourgeoisie. These conservative elites
vanished from the political sphere practically overnight as the war ground to a halt (Berend
1998). With no effective censorship, limited Soviet interference, and a slew of political parties
(chief among them the Smallholders’ Party and the Social Democrats) attempting to capitalize on
the new spirit of postwar democratic reform, political life in Hungary assumed a tempestuous
and passionate character. From 1945 to late 1947, at least, the public sphere in Hungary was
more vibrant, contentious, and inclusive than in any prior period.
Popular discontent during the interwar period had focused primarily on the Horthy
regime’s aforementioned antidemocratic tendencies and its unwillingness to seriously
contemplate breaking up the noble estates. The desired democratization of politics arose
organically out of the postwar power vacuum, and land reform was the first and most important
issue broached in this new discursive space. Prior to World War II, large noble estates
(latifundia) dominated Hungarian agriculture. The wealthiest noble families each controlled over
50,000 cadastral holds; the largest single landholder was the Catholic Church, which held 1.2
million holds.
9
After 1945, most Hungarians approved of breaking up these estates and
distributing the land to the peasantry. Land reform was carried out between 1945 and 1947: over
one-third of the country was seized from its prior owners and redistributed to the agrarian poor,
most (93%) of whom had previously farmed five holds or less. At the time, the Hungarian
Communist Party (Magyar Kommunista Párt, or MKP) supported this measure as a means of
winning over the peasantry to its cause, despite its “regressive” and heretical status in orthodox
Marxism. (In this, the MKP was no different from its counterparts throughout postwar Eastern
Europeor, for that matter, the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War). However, this
8
On infrapolitics, see Scott 1990: 198-201. I am adopting a narrower definition of ‘infrapolitics’ herein: I use it to
denote the actual articulation of oppositional political stances rather than the vast but mute panoply of “weapons of
the weak” he discusses at some length elsewhere (Scott: 1985).
9
The cadastral hold was the standard unit of land measurement in Hungary between 1851 and World War II. It was
.57 hectares, or 1.42 acres, or roughly just over half an ordinary soccer field; as a rule of thumb, one hold would feed
one person for one year.
Brown, Karl. “The Spirit of Radio: Hungary 1956, Radio Free Europe, and the Shadow Public Sphere.” Hungarian
Cultural Studies. e-Journal of the American Hungarian Educators Association, Volume 11 (2018) DOI:
10.5195/ahea.2018.324
97
tolerance lasted only until the MKP cemented its control over the government. Collectivization
began in earnest in 1948. It was widely resented: peasants who had only recently finally acquired
their own land were forced to surrender it, even as the regime silenced all oppositional media.
However, not all aspects of the Communist program were equally unpopular. Unlike land
reform, the nationalization of industry was fully in accordance with socialist preceptsbut some
degree of centralized control was also deemed necessary by most Hungarians well before
communist rule was imposed on Hungary in 1948. It enjoyed both precedent and, in the wake of
the havoc wrought by World War II, popular support as well. Prior to the war, the Hungarian
economy had already been characterized by a high level of state intervention and manipulation,
and this trend was only exacerbated during wartime. After decades of depression, occupation,
and warfare, a well-planned state appealed to many Europeans as they sought to rebuild after the
war (Judt 2000: 38, 75). Many factions in the established capitalist states of Western Europe also
supported a planned economy to one or another degree; in this regard, the Hungarian Communist
and Social Democratic parties made less strange bedfellows than the Social Democratic and
newly-emergent Christian Democratic parties in many western European states.
The initial drive towards the centralization of the Hungarian economy was not a
communist innovation: it began under the coalition government, in accordance with popular
sentiment. Mines and several major factories were taken over by the state as early as 1946. In
November of the next year, the banking system was also nationalized. To return to the broader
European context for comparison, even at this point Hungary was no more nationalized than
France; the initial version of the Three-Year Plan (1947-1949) “was scarcely more
interventionist than France’s Monnet Plan (Judt 2000: 63-77). The communist regime seized
power in March 1948, and significantly increased its control over the economy at that timebut
mines, major factories, and banks had all been nationalized, by popular consent, during the
previous period of coalition government (Swain 1992: 36-38). Although most Hungarians
disagreed with the extent to which the Communist Party controlled the economy, a majority
concurred that some degree of centralized control was necessary. The imposition of communist
rule in 1948 did not end this debate any more than it successfully convinced peasants that giving
up their land was necessary. It did, however, make it impossible to conduct this conversation
openly.
By any measure Hungary was a police state after 1948. The regime cracked down on all
forms of dissent and resistance even as it sought to transform the state into “a country of iron and
steel” along Stalinist lines. In the period 1948 to 1956, 1.7 million Hungarians were investigated
for crimes ranging from theft to prostitution to hooliganism; over 930,000 of these investigations
resulted in convictions (Statisztikai Évkönyv 1949-55, 1957: 355-358, 343-346). These are
remarkable numbers for a country that numbered only 9.8 million in 1956. While political
crimes incurred the worst penalties, up to and including torture and death, most of these crimes
were of a more quotidian nature: communist Hungary was a state in which one could receive
an eight-year prison sentence for illegally slaughtering pigs, a five-year sentence for
embezzling funds amounting to less than half an unskilled worker’s monthly salary, or a two-
Brown, Karl. “The Spirit of Radio: Hungary 1956, Radio Free Europe, and the Shadow Public Sphere.” Hungarian
Cultural Studies. e-Journal of the American Hungarian Educators Association, Volume 11 (2018) DOI:
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98
year sentence simply for uttering a caustic anti-regime remark while standing in a breadline.
10
Within less than a decade, “there can hardly have been a family in Hungary of which one or
more members had not found itself in trouble with the police or state security organs
(Romsics 1999: 273). Although communist rule in Hungary never quite reached the totalitarian
degree of control desired by its architects, as various forms of everyday or “passive” resistance
ranging from illegal pig-killing to hooliganism remained possible (Brown 2007, Horvath
2017), it successfully silenced open opposition throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s.
This changed with Stalin’s death in March 1953, as the erosion of Stalinist authority and
increased access to foreign broadcasts weakened the communist system and strengthened the
shadow public sphere thereafter. As shown above, listeners from all social classes listened to
Western broadcasts throughout the entire period despite incessant (albeit mostly ineffective)
jamming and the danger of harassment, detention, or arrest if caught. After Stalin’s death,
Eastern European communist regimes backed off on collectivization, redirected their economies
towards consumer goods rather than heavy industry, and released tens of thousands of political
prisoners from prisons and labor camps. This destalinzation process was most pronounced in
Hungary, where Imre Nagy replaced Mátyás Rákosi as leader. During the “New Course” that
ensued, writers and other intellectuals who had previously supported the party now turned
against it; they then continued their criticism after Nagy was deposed and Rákosi resumed
control in 1955. In doing so, they finally began to echo in regime radio and print media the
criticisms of the communist system previously relegated to the shadow public sphere.
Also during this period, Hungarians listened to more American and other western broadcasters
than ever before, as the number of radio licenses more than doubled between 1951 and 1954,
from 539,000 to 1,270,000. Although most of these radio sets were so-called “people’s radios”
(Néprádiók), designed to receive only signals broadcast on regime wavelengths, they often
picked up foreign stations as well (Pittaway 2003: 99). At the same time, Western broadcasters
increased their airtime and programming to Eastern Europe.
Radio Free Europe was at the forefront of this expansion. By 1956, RFE broadcast over
eighteen hours per day to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungarymore than three times its
closest competitors, the VOA and BBC. While news and commentary comprised the bulk of its
output, it also provided music, sport, and entertainment programs. Radio Free Europe augmented
its radio broadcasts with a balloon propaganda program, which spread millions of leaflets across
the Czechoslovak, Hungarian, and Polish countrysides between 1951 and 1956 (Johnson 2010:
47, 72-73). RFE’s extensive intelligence-gathering network ensured that it was usually the first
with the news, regularly “scooping” its competitors on key stories such as the 1953 defection of
Józef Swiatło (who then became a commentator for the station) and Khrushchev’s Secret Speech.
The countries behind the Iron Curtain were shaken by Stalin’s death, and in making sense of its
repercussions their denizens came more and more to rely on western radios, chief among them
Radio Free Europe.
10
Hungarian National Archive (Magyar Országos Leveltár, or MOL) M-KS-276. (Archives of t he
Co mmu nist P arty) f. 96 (Ad mi nist rat ive Offi ce ), (Iü) ( Lega l Divis ion) / 17 ő.e., p. 123, MOL
M-KS-276. f. 96 () / 5 ő.e., p. 134, and MOL M-KS-276. f. 96 (Iü) / 8 ő.e. (2), p. 69a, respectively.
Brown, Karl. “The Spirit of Radio: Hungary 1956, Radio Free Europe, and the Shadow Public Sphere.” Hungarian
Cultural Studies. e-Journal of the American Hungarian Educators Association, Volume 11 (2018) DOI:
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99
Fueled by foreign media, domestic dissatisfaction inched ever closer to rebellion
throughout 1956. The Petőfi Circle, first established as a regime-sanctioned debating society in
1954, pushed the limits of acceptable discourse with its lecture and discussion series throughout
early 1956. While it began with cautious criticisms of the party line delivered before small
crowds, it rapidly snowballed into riotous mass meetings in which major Party intellectuals such
as György Lukács (1885-1971) criticized the regime more openly than ever before. Although the
Petőfi Circle was shut down after the tempestuous July 27 meeting on the topic of press freedom,
which drew over 6,000 attendants (Hegedüs 1997), many of the criticisms leveled at the regime
in the Petőfi Circle formed the basis of the revolutionary demands three months later.
Meanwhile, Khrushchev’s Secret Speech in February was followed by the Poznan incident and
Rákosi’s ouster in June. All these events were covered extensively by Western media. RFE kept
up a steady drumbeat of criticism against the regime, repeatedly linking Rákosi with Stalin’s
worst excesses and predicting his downfall as early as February 20. When the protest at Poznan
was crushed by Soviet troops on June 28, Radio Free Europe broadcast this news less than
twenty-four hours after it happened.
11
Finally, on October 23, the public sphere exploded out of the shadows as local voices
joined the foreign broadcasters. Revolutionaries took over the Budapest and regional radio
stations, broadcasting news from all over Hungary, messages of support from abroad, and other
salient information. This was a cacophony rather than a choir. While Radio Budapest served as
the mouthpiece of the Nagy government, regional radios such Győr and Miskolcs adopted a
divergent and often more radical line. At the same time, many provincial stations broadcast only
intermittently; others renamed themselves in revolutionary fashion (“Radio Rajk,” “Radio
Rakoczi,” etc.) both in the spirit of the moment and as a means of eluding capture. Amateur and
military shortwave sets also chimed in periodically. Poor journalistic practices abounded, as one
should expect during a revolution, and increasingly-desperate rumors of foreign aid joined
reports of both real and imagined atrocities as the crisis unwound. Radio Free Europe’s entry into
this fray led to the charges later leveled against it by its detractors: its commentators failed to
deliver their content in a calm and dispassionate tone, it broadcast instructions on anti-tank
tactics and partisan warfare, and, most importantly, Radio Free Europe received and
retransmitted the broadcasts of these regional stations without identifying them as such (Békés,
et. al., ed., 2002: 286-289, Johnson 2010: 91-118). Understandably, given the preeminent role
Radio Free Europe had acquired in the years prior, these incidents then dominated memories of
the revolution afterwards.
If there is any criticism to be leveled at Radio Free Europe in this crisis situation, it is not
for its actions but rather for the Janus-faced contradiction at its core. 1956 revealed that, when
pushed to extremes, it was impossible to reconcile RFE’s goals as a mouthpiece of American
foreign policy with its role as a “surrogate national radio.” Even if the USA in the 1950s was a
model of democracywhich, as we have seen above, was a problematic claimthe propaganda
interests of a global superpower were bound to collide with those of its captive audiences behind
11
Hoover Institute Archives (hereafter ‘HIA’), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Broadcast Records 2724.5,
Program Summaries Daily Guidance, 20 February 1956, 29 June 1956.
Brown, Karl. “The Spirit of Radio: Hungary 1956, Radio Free Europe, and the Shadow Public Sphere.” Hungarian
Cultural Studies. e-Journal of the American Hungarian Educators Association, Volume 11 (2018) DOI:
10.5195/ahea.2018.324
100
the Iron Curtain. To take just one example, Radio Free Europe’s 1951 Policy Handbook
proclaimed:
The political or territorial aspirations of spokesmen for ethnic minorities are not a matter
for defense by either staff or guest speakers on RFE…. The reason is clear. RFE is a
multi-national station. It cannot take a position as between Hungarians and Romanians
in the matter of Transylvania, say, or as between Czechs, Ruthenians, and Ukrainians, on
the Carpatho-Ruthenian question, without alienating one group of listeners or another to
the detriment of its central purpose, which is the liberation of all the peoples it
addresses.
12
This is a common-sense guideline for an American Cold War-era propaganda agency, but would
have been anathema to most Hungarians and any radio station they actually controlled. Likewise,
any non-American radio (on either side of the Iron Curtain) would have reported more
skeptically on Eisenhower’s election-year promises not only to contain, but also “roll back”
Communism. October 1956, then, stands out as a rare moment at which Radio Free Europe,
however inadvertently, responded to the needs of its audience over the intentions of its creators.
Broadcasting instructions for partisan warfare was unduly provocative from Washington’s
standpoint but probably helpful to the youthful warriors in the streets of Budapest;
rebroadcasting unidentified regional radio content was similarly a misstep from the American
perspective, but in Hungary it added vigor to the revolutionary public sphere as it suddenly
surfaced, transcended geography, and sought, however unsuccessfully, to forge a new and
revolutionary national identity. In short, it was precisely when Radio Free Europe transgressed
its intended purpose as a weaponized form of Cold War media that it lived up to its promise as
the Voice of Free Hungary. * * *
During a tense moment in his 1957 interview, one seventeen-year-old peasant émigré cut to the
quick with his interlocutor:
In my opinion the West and East like to quarrel with each other. I was interviewed only in
order to obtain from me some material with which the United States can spit in the face
of Russia again by showing that the Russians were not able to create a better world in
Hungary and to maintain peace. Both Russia and America want to govern the whole
world. The whole world is only business for them. The Hungarian Revolution and the
whole misery of the refugees is only a good business for the West…. Why would you take
notes of all this material if you would not want to use this for anti-Soviet propaganda?
13
12
“Ethnic Minorities,” n.p., in “Radio Free Europe Policy Handbook,” 30 November 1951, HIA, Radio Free
Europe/Radio Liberty Corporate Records 288.1.
13
CUHRP Interview 403, Box 13, 37.
Brown, Karl. “The Spirit of Radio: Hungary 1956, Radio Free Europe, and the Shadow Public Sphere.” Hungarian
Cultural Studies. e-Journal of the American Hungarian Educators Association, Volume 11 (2018) DOI:
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As shown by the examples above, this angry young man was not alone in his distrust
towards the USA nor his awareness of the ulterior motives afoot. The revolutionary spirit and
goals shared by ‘56ers was the result of neither Western broadcasting to Hungary nor the popular
assimilation of the reform intelligentsia project; rather, it was a culmination of political trends
carrying through from the brief period of coalition rule, and the largely-uncensored public
sphere, of the period between 1945 and 1948. The Hungarian media world of the 1950s was
broad and diverse: American stations, especially Radio Free Europe, were treated with caution
by many Hungarians, who were quite cognizant of the American stations’ biases and ulterior
motives. RFE and VOA were indeed important to Hungarian listeners, but so were the BBC and
the other dissonant voices from abroadand these latter, contrapuntal voices agitated against the
wholesale assimilation of the biased American product just as the latter provided scathing
commentary on the regime’s media content. When the writers’ revolt finally occurred in 1953,
they were joining (or, rather, leaving) the party late. Further complicating Nagy and the
intelligentsia’s claim to speak for the revolution in 1956 was the fact that the reformers were, by
and large, the same people who had been preaching the party line prior to 1953.
The goals of the revolution were dictated by neither the reform intelligentsia nor Radio
Free Europe: they were homegrown, and their origin lies in the immediate postwar period.
Hungarians did not stop talking or thinking about politics between 1948 and 1956; they merely
did so much less openly than before. Eradication of social hierarchy, egalitarian access to
education, economic opportunity: these were themes that characterized western broadcasts
throughout the period, but they were also supported by Nagy and his reform intelligentsia. On
the other hand, the profound wariness of unfettered capitalism and the willingness for the state to
retain a significant degree of control over the economy were antithetical to American
propaganda. Although some ordinary Hungarians probably did simply buy into the
intelligentsia’s reform programmuch as some of them were doubtless brainwashed by regime
propaganda or Radio Free Europemost of them were simply trying to pick up in 1956 where
the ill-starred postwar democratic experiment had left off in 1948. Fueled by information from
western broadcasts, the shadow public sphere made possible the stubborn persistence of these
political aspirations. Then, in October 1956, after having been silenced for almost a decade, the
vox populi finally got the opportunity to talk back.
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Book
The Hungarian city of Sztálinváros, or "Stalin-City," was intended to be the paradigmatic urban community of the new communist society in the 1950s. In Stalinism Reloaded, Sśndor Horváth explores how Stalin-City and the socialist regime were built and stabilized not only by the state but also by the people who came there with hope for a better future. By focusing on the everyday experiences of citizens, Horváth considers the contradictions in the Stalinist policies and the strategies these bricklayers, bureaucrats, shop girls, and even children put in place in order to cope with and shape the expectations of the state. Stalinism Reloaded reveals how the state influenced marriage patterns, family structure, and gender relations. While the devastating effects of this regime are considered, a convincing case is made that ordinary citizens had significant agency in shaping the political policies that governed them.