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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hungary Remembers Its Heroic Stand of 1956

BUDAPEST -- Maria Wittner recalls vividly how she made "Molotov cocktails" to destroy Soviet tanks 40 years ago this month in Hungary's 1956 uprising.


With her hands, 59-year Wittner makes the motion of filling a bottle, and stuffing a rag in its neck. Holding a model tank she keeps on a bookshelf, she shows how young men would aim the bomb just behind the turret to set it on fire.


"It was like an explosion, like a fire," Wittner said of the surge of patriotism and anti-Russian feeling that swept Hungary and made thousands of people fight -- and briefly win -- against impossible odds in the October 23 uprising that shook Soviet domination of Eastern Europe to its foundations.


"We were always moving, there was no time to organize," said Wittner who, as a 19-year-old orphan doing odd jobs in Budapest at the time, joined hundreds of Hungarians holed up in the Corvin Cinema, one of several bases, to battle Soviet troops.


The uprising, in which 25,000 people were killed, posed the biggest challenge at that time to Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. But it was doomed to failure because the West, fearing confrontation could spark World War Three, failed to intervene.


After fanning the flames of rebellion with talk of "liberation" in propaganda on Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, the West did nothing when the Soviets struck back in early November with a massive invasion of tanks and troops.


"This revolution was the first obvious proof of the existence of the status quo policy [between the superpowers]," said Csaba Bekes, a researcher at Hungary's Institute for the History of the 1956 Revolution. "That was the lesson ... Many people understood but many did not and still do not."


"It was the first big blow to communism," said historian Charles Gati, who at the time was a 22-year-old journalist who had to flee Hungary because of articles he had written.


Hungary paid a heavy price for its pioneering effort, however.


Much of the nation's intellectual elite fled the country, thousands were imprisoned, many tortured and hundreds executed. Children of the uprising's leaders were stigmatized and found their way blocked to schooling or jobs.