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Oct 11, 2016 - Zoltán Kovács

No, the Hungarian refugees of 1956 are not the same as today’s migrants

It was a Tuesday, that October 23rd in 1956. The whole thing began as a peaceful, student demonstration, young people with a manifesto asserting the right to be independent from all foreign powers and that all Hungarians should enjoy the rights of free people in a democratic system. The crowds grew as the demonstrations moved throughout the city. By nightfall, State Security Police had fired on a crowd of unarmed demonstrators outside the state radio building, killing many.

Events escalated quickly and soon the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was in full swing. For many, it marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union, a revolution initially put down but which set in motion a process that would unravel communism’s oppressive grip on the freedom-loving people of eastern Europe, culminating in victory in 1989.

Red Army reinforcements rolled into Hungary in early November, supplementing the troops already in country and bringing the total force to some 17 divisions. The attack on Budapest began early November 4, and despite the optimism and heroic courage of Hungary’s freedom fighters of ’56, the revolution was crushed by the overwhelming force of Soviet tanks, artillery and even air strikes.

Though sporadic fighting continued, it became clear that the Revolution was doomed, and many Hungarians fled for the West. Approximately 200 thousand left the country as refugees, most of them arriving in Austria. It was the largest wave of refugees in Europe’s post-World War II history and inflicted a terrible loss on the nation.

Indeed it was the largest wave of human migration in post-war Europe – until recently. Many draw parallels between the refugees of 1956 and the migration that escalated to crisis proportions in 2015. They argue that the two groups are the same, and then they use the false parallel as an opportunity to unload criticism on Hungary for the Orbán Government’s building of a fence to secure the external border of the EU’s Schengen Area and our policy to limit immigration. In short, they say, when Hungarians fleeing the Soviet crack down were welcomed with open arms in 1956, how can Hungary be so cold in its response to today’s migrants?

It’s a seductive argument; afterall, people love a neat parallel. And any reasonable person can see similarities. Millions of Syrians have fled a civil war of unspeakable brutality and some of them are among the migrants attempting to come to Europe. But all things considered, this argument doesn’t hold up. The two are simply not the same.

First of all, these are two very different groups, connected with very different events. In 1956, over the course of just a few months, we had one major event that ended in a brutally violent crackdown by a communist dictatorship. The hundreds of thousands of people that crossed the border – again, mostly to Austria – were all Hungarians fleeing the violence and in many cases the threat of reprisals. There was no question about their nationality and the reason for their crossing the border. It was a homogenous group of people with a clear story.

Not so with the hundreds of thousands who have crossed, or have attempted to cross, the EU’s Schengen border in southern Hungary. In early 2015, many of those who were crossing illegally came from Kosovo. More recently, we’re seeing many from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria as well as Pakistan and northern Africa. Many do not have proper documentation or claim to be Syrian because it’s perceived that a Syrian national has a better chance at receiving asylum. Some are fleeing war, while others are economic migrants. It’s a deeply heterogeneous group and very difficult to document.

That brings up security. Responsible European leaders cannot ignore the link between migration and terrorism. The Islamic State has boasted about exploiting the migrant crisis and weak border control to move operatives in and out of Europe. At least two of those who carried out the atrocities in Paris, November 13, 2015, infiltrated Europe via Greece, “posing as war-weary Syrians,” the Washington Post reported, “carrying doctored passports with false identities.” Hungarian law enforcement apprehended in November 2015 two British nationals who had been banned from traveling abroad after serving jail terms for financing terrorism. They were believed to be on their way to Syria. Beyond the link to terrorism, we’ve seen disturbing reports (like this one from Germany’s federal police) associating migrants with a rise in crime rates.

Then there’s the respect for basic law and order in the manner of crossing the border into a host country. When the ‘56ers crossed the border, by and large they requested protection first in Austria, the first safe country in which they arrived. That meant that they had to go to camps or temporary lodging, waiting months or sometimes longer until their individual cases could be decided.

Not so with the current wave. Many of them flaunt these rules. Hungary sits on the so-called Western Balkan migration route. The hundreds of thousands of recent migrants that have followed that route to get to Hungary have passed through several safe and stable countries before reaching our border, an external Schengen border. But they did not seek protection in those safe countries as the international treaties require. Many of those that crossed illegally into Hungary in 2015, simply refused to cooperate with the asylum procedure and instead demanded to move immediately on to Germany or another European host country as if it were their right.

Finally, while we’re on the subject of borders, let’s speak frankly. These frontiers are also cultural.

The border that the ‘56ers crossed was a political demarcation between two states that have had a close relationship for centuries, under the Habsburg Monarchy and then the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary that lasted until World War I. Austrians and Hungarians fought together to oppose Ottoman expansion into Europe. We share not just this history but also our common Judeo-Christian heritage. When Austrians received the ‘56ers, it was like they were taking in their cousins.

Not so with the current group. The culture of these migrants most definitely does not have that relationship with our Judeo-Christian culture. We can ignore the elephant in the room and pretend that their assimilation in Europe is not an issue. But even Chancellor Merkel admitted that it’s been a “failure.” During a speech back in 2010, the chancellor said that at

"the beginning of the 60s our country called the foreign workers to come to Germany and now they live in our country…We kidded ourselves a while, we said: 'They won't stay, sometime they will be gone', but this isn't reality.

"And of course, the approach [to build] a multicultural [society] and to live side-by-side and to enjoy each other... has failed, utterly failed."

Nobody is denying the humanitarian dimension of the current crisis. Hungary has provided humanitarian aid and offered proposals to respond – specifically, by offering aid to the first safe countries on the front lines, like Turkey and Jordan, to help them better manage the influx.

But anyone who compares this to the 200 thousand Hungarian refugees of 1956 ignores more than a few essential differences.

(Picture: Hungarian refugees arrive to Austria in 1956 - credit: MTI archives)