Behind the Iron Curtain

 By Donald D. Erwin

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In 1945, at the end of WW2, the Soviets moved in to occupy Hungary and other East European countries on a “temporary” basis. They would stay for forty-five years. They closed the borders, and they eliminated freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of communication, and the right to a free and fair justice system. The puppet governments they established confiscated private property, forced the peasants to work in farmer cooperatives, closed all parochial schools, and banished nuns from their convents. Private businesses, with three or more employees, were taken over by the government. Telephone conversations were recorded and hotel rooms were bugged. Any criticism of the government was prohibited.

British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill visited President Harry S. Truman in Missouri in March 1946, and in a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri said:

“…From Stettin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent…”

In early February 1956 I arrived in Vienna via commercial air, and rode the Orient Express to Budapest, Hungary. One would have had to experience the early Cold War period of the 1950s to understand the feeling of dread when the Hungarian border guards came aboard the train at the Hungarian frontier. While some of the travelers were questioned and had their baggage searched, I was treated with every courtesy. Since I was traveling on a diplomatic passport they had no way of knowing that I was an enlisted Marine, reporting in to the Marine Security Guard (MSG) detachment, and not a “real” diplomat. The atmosphere was exactly like that of the spy mystery novels and movies of the period. I was a half-world away from my life as a rural farm boy in Kansas, but I felt very much like a sophisticated world traveler as I passed through the Iron Curtain.

In Budapest I was given a thorough indoctrination by the legation security officer concerning the potential pitfalls of duty in a communist-controlled country. It was stressed that although MSGs had diplomatic passports, the same as all of the other legation staff, that might not protect me from a lot of unpleasantness if I allowed myself to get into a compromising situation, especially if it was learned that I was in the military, and therefore a potential spy.

Left: Secret Police building

Center: U.S. residents building

Right: Hungarian Parliament

I was assigned an apartment in the U.S.-owned apartment building located on the south bank of the Danube River. It was located on Széchényi Rackpart, between the Hungarian Parliament building on the west, and the Hungarian Secret Police (AVH) headquarters building on the east. The latter had been the Nazi Gestapo headquarters during the German occupation of Hungary during WW2. In 2002, about ten years after the AVH was disbanded, the building was transformed into a museum called the “House of Terror.” Visitors are able to see the interrogation center and the prison, as well as the torture chambers used first by the Nazis, and later by Hungary’s puppet totalitarian government. I have since wondered how many poor souls died there during the few months I lived only a few hundred yards away. 

During the summer of 1956 the political situation started to heat up in Hungary. The older people could still remember a time when they were free, and the young people had not been totally indoctrinated. After all, WW2 had only been over about eleven years. Things came to a head on Tuesday, October 23, 1956, when a group of students from the Technical University staged a demonstration in front of the statue of General Bem, a national hero of the Hungarian fight for Independence in 1848. It was planned as a peaceful protest, but the location was near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building. After the crowd started to grow the police security forces were called out, and the peaceful protest turned bloody when the protestors were machine-gunned during the ensuing confrontation. Dozens died, but instead of quelling the demonstration, it drew hundreds more demonstrators.

As a contagious sense of freedom grew, thousands more soon joined in. The crowds of demonstrators – mostly young people – swept across the city waving hastily-made signs and shouting slogans. The one most often heard was: “Imre Nagy to the government, Rakosi in the Danube.” Nagy was a popular right-leaning government official and Rakosi was the Communist Prime Minister of Hungary. Most of the demonstrators then moved to Radio Budapest, the government-controlled radio station. They forced their way in, and began broadcasting demands for a free society. Hungarian Army troops soon arrived, however, and began half-heartedly assaulting the radio station. All the while the demonstrators were broadcasting a blow-by-blow of the action, interspersed with freedom messages and Beethoven’s “Eroica.”

Part of Stalin's statue

During the evening a crowd gathered at Stalin Square, later estimated to be about ten thousand. The previously passive demonstrators, now caught up in the growing frenzy, and encouraged by  young “freedom fighters,” knotted ropes around the sixty-foot statue of Stalin and pulled it down, leaving only the boots on the base. Stalin Square was summarily renamed Bootmaker Place. Hooting and cheering, the crowd dragged pieces of the statue through the streets to the National Theater. Later in the evening the crowds took up the chant: “Ruszki haza!” (Russians go home!). All American Legation personnel, and their dependants, were told to go to the legation building, and late in the evening we began hearing the crackle of small arms fire all around the city.

On Wednesday, October 24, at 8:13 AM, Radio Budapest reported Imre Nagy’s appointment as premier. During the next few hours things began to escalate as more and more people took to the streets. By midday the whole city seemed to be in flames. The demonstrators still held the main radio station, but now Imre Nagy and other Hungarian government leaders were on another station promising no retaliation if the demonstrators would lay down their arms and go to their homes. But Soviet Chairman Khrushchev had no patience with his Hungarian “children,” and on his personal orders, Soviet armored columns and truckloads of soldiers started moving into the city during the early morning hours, firing their weapons indiscriminately.

Young people had sparked the uprising, but older people and WW2 veterans soon joined in. We heard reports that many of the Hungarian Army troops refused to fire on the demonstrators. As events started to gain momentum, individual soldiers, then whole units, joined the demonstrators, bringing with them their weapons, ammunition, tanks, and other vehicles. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 had begun.

By October 28 the communist government started to cave in. Rakosi formerly resigned and Imre Nagy officially took over the government. The government casualty estimate, including both sides, was thirty-five hundred killed, but our legation intelligence officer estimated that the number could easily be double that. The fighting was still going on in some areas of the city. The Hungarian soldiers, for the most part, were either fighting with the insurgents or had simply gone home.

In some cases the Freedom Fighters had turned into vengeful mobs. The AVH were hunted down and killed. Some were strung up on lampposts by their feet, while others were simply left where they fell. While it is almost certain that some were guiltier than others, the punishment was the same for all. Dead Freedom Fighters, however, were treated with reverence.

Foreign newsmen quickly arrived in Budapest, and Western newspapers soon carried firsthand accounts of the fighting. Newsreels showing the spectacle of Soviet tanks in pitched battle with lightly armed Hungarian civilians in the streets of Budapest divided Western Communist Parties, and shook many Party zealots. In the West hundreds of Communists broke with the Party. Shortly thereafter rumors started to circulate that the leaders of the revolutionary Hungarian government had been executed without trial. It was later learned that it was Yuriy Andropov – Khruschev’s ambassador to Hungary and future head of the KGB and Chairman of the USSR – who lured the Hungarian revolutionary leaders to the negotiating table, where they were then seized by the KGB. Most were later secretly executed.

On November 1 church bells started ringing all over the city. The Soviets were leaving. It was reported that convoys of trucks carrying troops, as well as tanks and other armored vehicles, were headed toward the Czech border. People were in the streets cheering and crying at the same time. The feeling in the legation, however, was that the Soviets were giving up too easily. Nonetheless, we were told that the crisis was over for the moment, and that we could take turns going back to our apartments.

The next day, November 2, I had an opportunity to spend several off-duty hours walking about the city. Many of the AVH were still hanging from the lampposts, and were beginning to get pretty stale. Crews of men began to clear away the Russian dead, and funeral vehicles could be seen picking up the bodies of the Freedom Fighters. Most of the Freedom Fighters had been covered up somewhat, often with flowers, whereas the Russians and the AVH were left where they fell. Many of the downtown buildings still had WW2 damage, and now they were pockmarked with more evidence of war, while still others had been completely destroyed by tank cannon fire.

Civilians burning communist literature

The Soviets had losses other than their soldiers. I saw many tanks and armored vehicles that had been disabled or completely destroyed. Tanks weren’t at their best in the somewhat narrow streets of Budapest; it was too easy for the Freedom Fighters to toss a Molotov cocktail from a rooftop, or simply walk up behind a tank and toss a glass bottle full of gasoline onto the engine grill. A few cents worth of gasoline in an ordinary wine bottle dropped on the engine compartment might not destroy a tank, but it would stop it dead in its tracks. Our legation military attaché estimated that the Freedom Fighters had put as many as three hundred Soviet and Hungarian tanks out of action.

On November 4th and 5th the legation began getting reports that Soviets forces were massing near the Czech border. In the early morning hours of November 6th I was awakened in my apartment by a loud rumbling noise. As I looked out my second-floor balcony window a chill ran up my spine. A line of thirty or so Soviet heavy T-34 and T-55 tanks were parked in the street from the AVH headquarters on my right, clear down to the parliament building on my left.

T55 Soviet tank in front of U.S. apartment building

Around midday on November 6 we were instructed to move back inside the legation. The Soviets had not really left Hungary; they had merely moved to the border and regrouped. They were now moving back in great strength. In short order they captured and took control of most government buildings, the radio stations, and had roadblocks on all roads in and out of Budapest.

A T-55 tank and a contingent of Soviet soldiers appeared in front of the legation building, and it was feared that they were preparing to take over the legation. Our legation minister received orders from Washington to destroy all sensitive material. In those days we did not have shredding machines, so everything had to be burned. The legation had a huge furnace in the basement, and the MSGs were given the job. We took turns tossing papers into the furnace for two days and three nights.

As it turned out the Soviets did not attempt to enter the American Legation, but we heard that they had entered and searched some of the smaller Western missions. The Egyptian Embassy was sacked by Soviet troops, although the staff was not harmed. In the next few days over two hundred thousand Hungarians escaped to freedom across the border into Austria before the Russians slammed the Iron Curtain down once more. By the middle of November the Soviets and their Hungarian puppets had put down all resistance. By then over thirty thousand Hungarians had died and another thirty thousand had been injured, and the whole country had again lost its freedom.

During the weeks following the collapse of the uprising the secret police force was re-established, the Soviets moved back into their camps outside the city, and loyal remnants of the Hungarian Army patrolled the streets. Many Freedom Fighters escaped to Austria, but others stayed, were caught, and died in front of firing squads. Anyone who had actively demonstrated, or even spoken out during the uprising, was in danger of persecution and execution.

Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty

Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty had been an outspoken critic of communism for most of his adult life, and as head of the Catholic Church in Hungary he became a target of the postwar communist regime. In 1949 he was sentenced to life imprisonment for treason. He remained in prison until October 1956, when he was freed by Hungarian Freedom Fighters.

When the Soviet forces started to return in the early morning hours of November 4, he decided to seek asylum in the American Legation. Shortly after I went on duty at 7:00 AM that same morning, a Hungarian Army vehicle pulled up in front of the legation. Two Hungarian Army officers escorted two clerics to the front door of our building. He was obviously expected, because I was immediately instructed me to unlock the door and let the clerics in. It was only after they were in the building that I learned that the older of the two was Cardinal Mindszenty. 

On November 8, 1956, Cardinal Mindszenty sent the following coded and translated massage to President Eisenhower via our legation code room:

 As a shipwreck of Hungarian Liberty, I have been taken aboard by your generosity. I am a refugee in my own country and a guest of your Legation. Your hospitality surely saved me from immediate death. With deep gratitude I’m sending my heartfelt congratulation to your Excellency on the occasion of your re-election to the Presidency of the United States, an exalted office whose glory is that it serves the highest ambitions of mankind: God, Charity, Wisdom and Human Happiness. Let your abundance in these endeavors reflect a ray of hope on our long suffering people who at this moment are undergoing the fifth day if bombardment, gunfire, flaming death in testimony before God and the World of their will to be free; whose sons are even now being dragged into slavery, whose children with their dying breath are crying out for help from their destroyed homes, shelters and hospitals, whose daughters are facing looted stores and certain  starvation.

 

God bless you, Mr. President, and the People of the United States. 1 am ardently praying to our Heavenly Father to save and lead you and your people toward our common aims of bringing peace and happiness to this sorely tried world. May The Lord grant you and your nation greater strength and richer life. On the threshold of an ever greater future, I beg of you, do not forget, do not forget, do not forget this small honest nation who is enduring torture and. death in service of humanity.

 

Budapest, 6 November 1956

 

Signed: Jozsef Mindszenty

 

But there was little we could do for Hungary short of all-out war with the Soviet Union. In the weeks following the Soviet re-occupation of Hungary the legation had the unused top floor of the building remodeled into a complete apartment for the Cardinal. He stayed in his quarters during the day, often receiving visitors, but at night he would take the elevator down to an enclosed ground-level patio for exercise. I spoke to him many times when I was on night duty. He could not speak English, but my recent German language lessons allowed us to communicate.

Mindszenty had been a vocal opponent of oppression his entire life, but after he took refuge in the American Legation he became a symbol of political and religious resistance to the oppression of the Hungarian people by the Soviets and their Hungarian Communist Party puppets. He was a definite thorn in their sides. The Hungarian government repeatedly offered him guaranteed free passage out of the country, but he stubbornly refused to leave. His declining health, however, prompted Pope Paul VI to order him back to Rome in 1971. He was formally relieved of the primacy of Hungary in 1974. Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty died in Rome in 1975, but was reburied in post-communist Hungary in 1991.

On March 7, 1957, I flew from Budapest to Vienna on Aeroflot, where I transferred to a TWA Constellation that took me to New York City. I left the communist police state of Hungary and returned to a free America. I married, helped raise five children, and watched them grow to adulthood and have children of their own. Along the way I often wondered about the lives of the friends and acquaintances I left behind in Budapest. I didn’t attempt to contact any of them for fear that it would put them under suspicion of being a foreign agent. Decades passed, and it seemed as if the communist grip on Eastern Europe was as firm as ever.

But then Ronald Reagan became President of the United States of America. He rearmed America, and challenged the USSR on all fronts, and on June 12, 1987, he made a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin. Loudspeakers were set up for the benefit of the large crowd in West Berlin, but some on the other side heard his remarks as well. President Reagan’s speech was carried on national radio and television newscasts here at home as well. Only a few political scholars can describe the overall speech, but about half way through his remarks he made one statement that will be etched in the hearts and minds of free men and women for generations to come…especially in Germany. He said:

 “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

It didn’t happen over night, and it didn’t happen all at once, but the Berlin Wall, and the Iron Curtain itself, began crumbling that day. On November 9, 1989, shortly after President Reagan left office, the Berlin wall gate, known to Western occupation troops as “Checkpoint Charlie,” was opened for unrestricted movement in both directions. Bit by bit, brick by brick, the wall and the barbed-wire fences representing the Iron Curtain were torn down all across Eastern Europe. The barbed wire, the mine fields and the guard towers are all now gone. The Evil Empire has long since collapsed in on itself, and the Cold War is finally over. I like to think that some of the good people I met in Hungary fifty years ago this year lived to witness it, and to feel the wind of freedom on their faces once again. 

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Don Erwin - 1956

 

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