RFE’s role during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution has been the subject of debate by researchers and Hungarian exiles. A. Ross Johnson, a former Director of RFE, has concluded on the basis of extensive research that RFE "did not" foment revolution or urge Hungarians to wage a hopeless fight against the Soviet Army, but many listeners believed from the tone of some RFE commentaries and the very existence of RFE Hungarian broadcasts that Western powers would intervene on their behalf.
WASHINGTON – Hungarians around the world marked this month the 60th anniversary of their country’s exhilarating, yet ultimately tragic effort to free itself from Soviet domination in October 1956. The Hungarian Revolution was a milestone of the Cold War, showing the lengths to which Moscow was willing to go to maintain control over its Warsaw Pact allies, and signaling to Western governments the longevity of communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe.
Radio Free Europe (RFE, later RFE/RL) and its Hungarian language service are widely credited with helping the Hungarian people endure four decades of Soviet rule, but the role they played during the Hungarian Revolution has been debated by researchers and Hungarian exiles in the years since 1956. A. Ross Johnson, a former Director of RFE who wasn't with the organization in 1956, reviewed RFE/RL archives now at the Hoover Institution and the Open Society Archives, examined declassified State Department and German Foreign Office records, and scoured memoirs of, and interviews with, participants in those events. Johnson's conclusion: while RFE "did not" foment revolution or urge Hungarians to wage a hopeless fight against the Soviet Army, "many" Hungarian listeners "did" conclude, "from the tone of some RFE commentaries and the very existence of RFE Hungarian broadcasts that Western powers would intervene on their behalf.”
In order to shed more light on RFE’s role during the revolution, Hungary’s National Szechenyi Library has posted online a unique database of all RFE Hungarian broadcasts from October 22 to November 12, 1956. The project, a collaboration with the Hoover Institution Library and Archives and RFE/RL, combines written transcriptions of each program with digitized audio files of the original broadcasts, recovered from low-quality, slow speed transmitter “log” recordings – the so-called “Koblenz” files. The NSL website Magyar Oktober also includes a wealth of other audiovisual material that documents the history of the revolution for a new generation of Hungarians.
Given RFE's mission and the nature of communist rule in postwar Central and Eastern Europe, RFE journalists generally were not able to report from the countries of the Warsaw Pact. In late October 1956, however, RFE allowed at least 14 Munich-based RFE reporters to cross the border into western Hungary to provide on-the-scene coverage. The diary of one of these reporters, Frederick ("Fritz") Hier, has now been posted in full to the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive.
Hier’s diary chronicles his arrival in Vienna on October 27 (with RFE colleagues Gabor Tormay and Jerzy Ponikiewicz, and a journalist from South German Radio), his reporting activities from the Austria-Hungary border, as well as his entry into Hungary on October 31 to report from the city of Gyor. Soviet soldiers kept the team from leaving Hungary on November 2; two days later, on November 4, Hier became an eyewitness to the Soviet occupation. State Department pressure was needed to secure the release of the reporters from Hungary on November 11. Thirty three years would pass before RFE reporters would again be able to cross the Iron Curtain and report directly from Hungary.
Additional items related to the Hungarian Revolution from RFE/RL’s vast archives, including collections of Western media coverage of the revolution, RFE Research Background Reports on this situation in Hungary, and special RFE reporting on audience opinion concerning Hungarian broadcasting activity in the 1950s, can be found at the website of the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives.
-- Martins Zvaners