The Revolution’s Roadrunner Journalist
Noel Barber was a journalist with the British tabloid the Daily Mail, who holds the distinction of being the first western journalist to have interviewed Imre Nagy in October 1956 when he was readmitted to the communist party following his earlier expulsion on false charges a year earlier. Barber’s interview with Nagy paid dividends, for upon learning of the revolution while in London, Barber made his way toward Hungary and on Nagy’s order was swiftly issued an entry visa into Hungary. Barber achieved another first among western journalists when he became the first to be injured during the revolution.
Barber also earned the title of fastest journalist. On the morning of October 25th, he was still in London but flew via Paris to Vienna where he rented a car with which he made it to Budapest by that evening. Knowing well what life was like in Hungary in those days, he took ten cartons of American cigarettes with himself so that he’d be able to grease the wheels with the guards on the Austro-Hungarian border. In a revealing moment, when an English colleague also at the border asked him to take to Budapest a reporter for the British communist party’s newspaper, Barber flatly turned him down. Barber traveled frequently between Budapest and the Austrian border, where he had a colleague waiting for his latest dispatches to then take onward to Vienna.
Barber showed up in some remarkable scenes during the days of heavy fighting. He happened to be on the scene at the battle at Budapest’s Chain Bridge, where one of the lads of Pest was shot by the Soviets and died in the reporters arms. On October 28th, he and his companion were near the Nyugati Train Station when they passed a Soviet soldier who then turned and sprayed a round of gunfire at the car, injuring Barber in the head. One of his companions jumped out of the car and attacked the soldier barehanded, who was so shocked by the scene of a man jumping out and pursuing him that he “forgot” to pull the trigger. Barber, whose injuries were not life-threatening, was then taken to the British Embassy.
On November 3rd, a day before the Soviet invasion, Barber and a companion left for Austria in their bullet-riddled car, in order to provide his newspaper with new reports, but Soviet tanks blocked their path at the border. At the border town of Hegyeshalom, he saw how the Soviet troops had blocked western journalists from entering Hungary without any concern for how they would be perceived. Barber later revealed his experiences to the British press, such as when he saw a Soviet tank crush a western diplomat’s car as it tried to break through this blockade. The following day, November 4, much like that diplomat’s car, the dreams of the entire Hungarian people were crushed as the Soviet invasion commenced.
In addition to his frontline reporting, Noel Barber was among the first to publish a book on the revolution. A Handful of Ashes, which consists of his personal recollections of the revolution, was already in print by February 1957, just as the reprisals were coming into full swing.