Tóth G (2019) Memory Unravelling: The 50th Anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising in U.S.-Hungarian Relations. In: Bauer P, Kozák K, Tóth G & Wanger A (eds.) Uses of Memory in Transatlantic Relations from the Cold War to the Global War on Terror. London: Routledge, pp. 168-198.
2006 promised to be a big year in Hungarian-U.S. relations. Just three years before, the Republic of Hungary had joined the United States as one of the countries of “New Europe” in its invasion of Iraq, opening a new chapter in the two nations’ geopolitical relationship. Now Hungary was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its 1956 uprising against its own Communist government, which, not in the least because of its tragic ending in Soviet armed suppression, at the time was widely interpreted in the West as a whole people’s desperate stand for freedom. Now both the United States and the Hungarian governments were planning a series of anniversary events involving representation at the highest level, where they would elegantly derive from the heroic past messages for the challenges of the present and guideposts for a shared future. Diplomats in both countries were expecting unproblematic, well-executed events of dignified remembrance, polite commendations of the veterans of that conflict, and emotional reminiscing by Americans about their sympathy for the teenage Budapest streetfighters and the thousands of Hungarian exiles who the United States took in after the crushing of the revolution.
Yet the official commemorations in Budapest proved to be anything but unproblematic. On October 23, 2006, 50 years to the day when Hungarian civilians battled their own security services and Russian troops on the streets of Budapest, the United States Embassy in the city watched with bated breath as Hungarian extremists, crowds in opposition to the Hungarian government, and even the veterans of the original 1956 events themselves, battled Hungarian riot police with everything they could get their hands on – including an original and still functioning 1956 tank.
Deploying approaches from Memory Studies and Performance Studies, this chapter will be an analytical history of how the memory of 1956 unraveled in Hungarian-U.S. relations in the fall of 2006. In government documents, personal interviews and their attendant media coverage, I will trace the anatomy of failure by both national governments to anticipate the explosion of commemorative protests by right-of-center and far-right political forces within Hungary, which arguably undid both countries’ commemorative diplomacy during the anniversary. This case study of the 2006 commemorations of the 1956 Hungarian uprising demonstrates that even the most carefully crafted official remembrance of the past is vulnerable to challenges to its memory régime by non-state actors – and national governments and their diplomats must plan for such contingencies.