The revolution’s negotiator

Per Olaf Csongovai created a fascinating splash of color in the history of the 1956 Revolution. Born in Ankara to a Hungarian father and German-speaking mother, he held leftist beliefs but nonetheless came to oppose the communists when in 1949 he saw how Mátyás Rákosi and his henchmen were destroying the country. Csongovai, who had a degree in film directing, had advocated for reforming the way workers were represented long before the revolution broke out. He held that the best way to represent the workers was not via the communist-controlled unions, but through workers’ councils. These councils that he supported would, he believe, be formed during the revolution.

Csongovai took part in the protests that turned into a revolution on October 23, 1956, and was inside the radio building during the siege. While there in the building, a secret policemen standing next to him was killed, and Csongovai feared he would not escape the building alive, even though he was on the side of the revolutionaries. After surviving the siege, on October 25th, he prepared fliers demanding that those responsible for the massacre at Kossuth Square be brought to justice. These documents were distributed with the intentionally ironic signature of “Temporary Government and Defense Committee”, for which he was later detained for three days by the military organization with which he had gone to negotiate. Csongovai was released October 28 on the condition that he would negotiate with the revolutionary groups about a ceasefire. His negotiations with the group at Tűzoltó Street ended up going so well that he was elected to be their co-leader.

By October 29, Csongovai was negotiating on behalf of the revolutionaries with Prime Minister Imre Nagy and Defense Minister Károly Janza, but these talks did not end with an agreement since the revolutionaries were unwilling to agree to an unconditional ceasefire. The following day, negotiations continued with János Kádár, who was a member of the Nagy Government before he betrayed the revolution, but these talks were also unfruitful. The lack of successful talks is what led Csongovai and others to form the Revolutionary National Defense Committee, which assembled a list of demands that were broadcast over the airwaves. This was the organization that protected the revolution’s achievements and oversaw the National Guard as well. Csongovai was also elected to the 10-member committee of this organization.

Upon receiving word of the Soviet invasion, November 4, Csongovai himself took up arms, even sitting at a negotiating table with a Soviet army officer November 5, but these negotiations also went nowhere because since the demand was again for unconditional surrender on the part of the revolutionaries. If we consider that General Pál Maléter, who had become Defense Minister in the final Nagy Government was arrested by the Soviets during negotiations November 3, then it can be said that Csongovai’s actions were dangerous in the extreme.

Following the overthrow of the revolution, he twice left Hungary for the West, returning once to meet with his fellow revolutionaries, by which time the revolution was lost. Csongovai lived the rest of his life in Paris, where he produced commercials. Unfortunately, he suffered a stroke in 1988 and paralysis on one side of his body before regime change came to Hungary. Nevertheless, he visited democratic Hungary on multiple occasions before passing away in 2005.

Bence Csatári