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The Funeral of Imre Nagy

Contested History and the Power of Memory Culture*


On 16 June 1958 Imre Nagy, who had been the prime minister of
Hungary during the ill-fated Revolution of 1956, was put to death by
the Soviet-backed regime of János Kádár and buried in an unmarked
grave. Thirty-three years later, in a spectacular reversal of fortune, the
communist regime was delegitimized by the funeral and reburial of Imre
Nagy. Well over 300,000 Hungarians attended the ceremony, a very
sizable portion of the population for a country with less than ten million
citizens. In a forceful assertion of the collective will, the Hungarian
people demonstrated their power to resist the tyranny of foreign
occupation and made plain their desire for an autonomous state.
The funeral dramatically symbolized how Hungarian memory
culture reasserted its demand for sovereignty and was powerful enough
to sweep aside the thin veneer of legitimacy of the Soviet-backed regime.
Embodied in the Hungarian people’s imagined past, always at work just
below the surface of daily life, this memory culture must be understood
in the context of Hungary’s long history in Central Europe and beyond.
Hungary had been a powerful medieval kingdom until its defeat at the
hands of Suleiman the Magnificent, at the battle of Mohács on 29
August 1526. From that time on, except for brief intervals, the Hungari-
ans had been under occupation, or under the hegemony of another state,
most notably the Ottoman Empire, the Austrian Hapsburgs, Germany
and the Soviet Union.

The Funeral of Imre Nagy

Occupation, warfare and migration changed the nature of the

Hungarian population over time. Instead of allowing this history to
destroy their identity, however, the Hungarians managed to maintain
their cohesion as a people and a nation by clinging to their language,
culture and memories. The idea of Hungary was strong enough to create
a national culture, which is today an ethnic religious composite of
Magyars, Jews, Germans, Serbs and Slavs.1 In spite of the diverse
traditions embodied within each of these groups, enough elements
remain constant to create a sense of primordial loyalty to the idea of
being Hungarian. According to Clifford Geertz, primordial attachments
are “those congruities of blood, speech, custom and so on that seem to
have an ineffable and at times overpowering coerciveness in and of
One of the most important rituals that embodies memory in
Hungarian society is the concept of kegyelet. Kegyelet is synonymous with
Emile Durkheim’s concept of piacular rites and is defined as duty toward
the dead. Hungarians often use the analogy of Antigone’s obligation to
her brother in describing how powerfully this value operates in Hungari-
an society. Kegyeleti ritual reinforces that value in order to interpret the
historical context of the present through the remembrance of the past.
The hope of continuity is made manifest in the context of funereal rites.
Memory culture in Hungary is powerfully reinforced through the various
rites of memorial that include not only the burial of the dead but also
the remembrance of symbolic figures who help link Hungarian identity
to the concept of community and nation.
A cultural performance such as a funeral or memorial rite provides
a context in which the contemporary understanding of symbols can be
examined. The ritual process gives access to aspects of complex societies
that modern life can occlude and political analysis cannot penetrate.3 To
simply examine the political discussions surrounding the political
transition in Hungary in 1989 would not be enough to understand why
the transition occurred the way it did. A study of the funeral of Imre
Nagy thus links the essential institutions of social life with the memory
of Nagy’s role as a charismatic national symbol.
This article examines how people can dramatically incorporate
memory culture into the political process of a complex society and
provide the impetus for change.

Karl P. Benziger


Symbolically, the funeral and graveside rituals reenact the death and the
rebirth of the deceased and, most importantly, reaffirm the strength and
solidarity of the community itself. The closing of the coffin serves to
remind the family and friends of the reality of the separation between the
deceased and community. At a Roman Catholic funeral the priest
symbolically claims the body of the deceased by reading the story of how
Joseph of Arimethea claimed Jesus’ body after the crucifixion so he could
bury him properly. The hope of spiritual resurrection is expressed by the
priest in the context of the great sacrifice of Jesus.4 That the memory of
the deceased will live on in the context of the community is expressed in
the eulogy. Both memory and resurrection are intertwined at the
graveside where the grave mound is explicitly created in front of all the
participants. The flowers and wreathes that are placed on the top of the
mound represent both memory and rebirth, and just as the community
witnesses important rites of passage, such as marriage, so too does it
promise remembrance with the creation of the grave mound. Ribbons
accompanying the flowers and wreathes not only establish relationship to
family and friends but link the deceased to the community. The promise
of remembrance links the present to the past, and the decoration and
care of the mound is a constant reminder of the rebirth of this memory.
In a Hungarian funeral the deceased return not only to their immediate
family but also to the community of the Hungarian nation. As the “panic
of sorrow” subsides, the strength of the community is reaffirmed by the
ensuing solidarity that collective mourning brings.5 Rites of mourning
also create something that survives the decomposed body: the idea of the
soul.6 The grave mound becomes a physical place of remembrance for
the “soul” of the deceased and in this sense becomes a constant reminder
of the deceased’s solidarity with the community; even in death.
The “coerciveness” (to use Geertz’s term) of kegyeleti ritual can be
observed on the days and weeks surrounding All Souls’ Day in the
Roman Catholic calendar, which corresponds to the Hungarian Day of
the Dead. My observation of the Új Köztemető (New Public Cemetery)
in Budapest revealed a living city of the dead, in which thousands of
Hungarians came to care for the grave mounds of their deceased. The
entrance way to the cemetery was filled with purveyors of flowers,

The Funeral of Imre Nagy

wreathes and candles. To accommodate the large crowds the tourist

trains, still with their beer advertisements from one of the public parks,
took people to various points in the cemetery. The ritual performed at
the graveside was essentially the same. Prayers of the family and friends
were recited, candles lit and the grave mounds lovingly cared for. In spite
of the large numbers of people, the rituals within the cemetery at the
graveside remained somber.
Accompanying the ritual gatherings at the cemeteries of Hungary
during the days surrounding the Day of the Dead are concert venues at
the various music halls, such as the National Opera in Budapest and
Szeged, in which works of memorial such as the Brahms or Verdi
Requiems are performed. At one such performance that I attended in
1994, some members of the audience were openly weeping at the end
of the performance.
The political connection between personal funeral ritual and the
state is made explicit in national public rituals that mimic the very
personal remembrance that is the essence of kegyeleti ritual. Memorial-
ization of national heroes, encompassing not only the great revolutionary
heroes of 1848 and now 1956 but also great teachers and artists, is part
of the daily life of the Hungarian people. In the case of a hero a plaque
or a monument serves as the locus in place of an actual grave mound for
the performance of kegyelet. For example, on 6 October 1997 I observed
school children commemorating the Eternal Light Memorial of Lajos
Batthyány in order to honor him as a Hungarian hero on the day he was
executed by the Austrians in 1849. Batthyány had been the prime
minister of Hungary during the 1848–1849 Hungarian Revolution.
Hungarians use the term vértanu (blood witness) to describe martyrs of
the nation. The children brought flowers to the base of the memorial,
recited prayers and lit memorial candles under the supervision of their
teachers and parents who had accompanied them on this trip.7
Name days serve to reinforce this concept within the popular
Hungarian community. In Hungary, every “given” Hungarian name has
its own day and is the cause for celebration in both the home and the
office. In the case of a name day for a particular notable, it is common
for wreathes to be placed on hooks next to the commemorative plaque,
or a jar of flowers and possibly a candle under or near the plaque.

Karl P. Benziger

The Búcsú is the memorial day of a saint, which has its origins in
medieval times when priests would sell dispensations for the forgiveness
of sins, as well as pray for the intercession of the saint in the affairs of the
community. It is a day of both memorial and celebration.8 On St.
Steven’s Day, the twentieth of August, which is a national holiday in
Hungary, statues and plaques of Hungary’s first king are highly
decorated with tricolors, flowers and wreathes with ribbons (often from
Hungary’s leading political parties). According to legend it was Steven
who founded the Hungarian Kingdom in A.D. 996. The relic of St.
Steven’s hand is presented to the people at an outdoor mass held in front
of St. Steven’s Basilica in Budapest and is followed by a procession
through the streets. Steven’s relic is protected not only by an honor
guard dressed in the clothing of the former royal bodyguard (complete
with halberds), but it is also given an official military honor guard. At the
service in front of the basilica, Steven is invoked to intercede on behalf
of the Hungarian nation for God’s protection and guidance. Throughout
the country there are major celebrations; the day finishes in Budapest
with fireworks and the St. Steven’s Day fair which often runs for five
The importance of memorialization in the popular construction of
Hungarian history can be evidenced by films such as The Conquest, which
was produced by MTV 1 and first seen on the evening of St. Steven’s
Day, 20 August 1997.9 The film chronicles the invasion and conquest of
the Carpathian Basin by the seven Hungarian tribes through a drama-
tized enactment of Hungary’s founding legends. The dress and accoutre-
ments worn by the actors were based on archaeological finds that can be
viewed at museums throughout Hungary, but most prominently at the
National Museum in Budapest. At the National Memory Park at
Ópusztaszer these founding legends are further reinforced in the guise
of a nineteenth-century cyclorama by Feszty Árpád which depicts the
cataclysmic battle between the seven Hungarian tribes and the Moravians
for possession of the Carpathian plain.
As funerals and memorials are part of the bedrock of Hungarian
identity, political relationship to these hero figures is fundamental to
political legitimacy in Hungary. Popular construction of the meaning of
national symbols occurs throughout the calendar year at Búcsú celebra-
tions such as St. Steven’s Day, the more somber piacular rites surround-

The Funeral of Imre Nagy

ing the Day of the Dead and at places of memorial such as the Batthyány
Eternal Light Memorial. The construction of national history in this
guise is intimately interwoven with the symbols of national identity.
Whether originating from Hungarian Roman Catholic ritual, the 1848
Hungarian Revolution or points from Hungary’s distant past, what binds
these diverse acts of memorial together are their focus on national
sovereignty. The Hungarian historian István Rév claims that “the history
of Hungary is one of battles lost, the normal public rituals are therefore
funerals and burials rather than victory parades.”10 As such, the re-
arrangement of these hero figures can create differing chains of history
that can suit the needs of various political factions at a given time. The
funeral of Imre Nagy on 16 June 1989 provided just the sort of occasion
that encouraged a public reinterpretation of history.


Imre Nagy was and remains a contested figure in Hungarian politics. As

a national Communist who felt that the way to a socialist utopia for
Hungary could only be found through the institutions authentic to
Hungarian society, he was anathema to those Communists who professed
belief in the “universal man” and the Soviet path to socialism. He was
twice expelled from the Hungarian Communist Party and was most
probably compromised by the KGB to inform on fellow Hungarians
living in Moscow during his first banishment prior to World War II.11
The accession to power by the Soviet-backed Hungarian Commu-
nist Party in 1948 was marked by a brutality that affected well over
500,000 Hungarians who suffered arrest, interrogation, forced relocation,
imprisonment or execution. Under the leadership of Mátyás Rákosi,
Hungary embarked on a series of disastrous economic policies that, by
the time of Stalin’s death in 1953, had brought Hungary to the brink of
economic ruin. This was coupled by the imposition of Stalinist social
models in which Hungarian national symbols were subordinated to those
relevant to the creation of the Soviet conception of the “universal man.”
For example, St. Steven’s Day was celebrated as Constitution Day and
later as the Holiday of the New Bread. Hungarians were enraged by the

Karl P. Benziger

repeated affronts to their national identity, let alone the reign of terror
that Rákosi had unleashed against his own people.12
It was Nagy’s interest in Hungarian agricultural reform and
nationalism that endeared him to anti-Stalinist reformers within the
Hungarian Communist Party.13 Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953 and
Nikita Khrushchev’s rise to power strengthened the reformers’ hands
and, with the approval of Moscow, Nagy became prime minister. His
reforms during his first term (1953–1955), which included an ending
of the terror that had been enacted by the Hungarian Stalinists, made
him the focus of the students’ demands prior to the 1956 Revolution
that he be restored to the post of prime minister.14
Nagy was ousted from office following the resurgence of the
Stalinist faction in the Hungarian Communist Party in April 1955. He
remained a popular figure among the Hungarian people, and criticism of
Mátyás Rákosi and the Stalinists continued unabated. In the days leading
up to the 1956 Revolution, Nagy was idealized by the students and
transformed into a revolutionary hero embodying the demands of liberty
and sovereignty more akin to the revolutionaries of 1848 than to Nagy
himself, who was not particularly interested in liberal reform.15
In an attempt to quell the stormy protests of 23 October 1956, the
Hungarian Communist Party with the backing of the Soviets reinstated
Nagy as prime minister on the following morning. Nagy demanded that
the revolutionaries lay down their weapons. Nagy’s decision not to
request Soviet assistance or order the Hungarian security forces to put
down the Revolution were factors that allowed him to maintain
legitimacy with the Hungarian people in the streets. These eventually
would be the same factors that would turn the Soviets and conservative
members of the Hungarian Communist Party against him.16
It was only on 30 October that Nagy joined with the full demands
of the Revolution with his establishment of a coalition government and
its ultimate decision to declare neutrality and demand the withdrawal of
all Soviet forces from Hungarian territory.17 This point was emphasized
forty years later by Ottó Sándorffy, a member of the Smallholder’s Party,
during the debate on the Imre Nagy Memory Bill of 1996 in the
Hungarian Parliament: “Nagy probably knew his forthcoming destiny,
as he knew that his Communist comrades would never forgive his desire
to remain Hungarian.”18 Though Nagy was and remains a contested

The Funeral of Imre Nagy

figure within the Hungarian political scene, his decision to maintain

solidarity with the Revolution through his refusal to resign as prime
minister on 4 November 1956 assured his place among the Hungarian
people as a national martyr.
The power of Imre Nagy was well recognized by the communist
regime under János Kádár who came to power in Hungary with the
backing of the Soviet military on 4 November 1956. After a bloody
counterrevolution, Kádár enacted a reign of terror as part of his
demobilization strategy in a bid to silence those in opposition to the new
regime. This resulted in the incarceration of well over 22,000 people, the
emigration of over 200,000 and the execution of approximately 450
revolutionaries, including Nagy.19 Nagy and his compatriots were buried
in Plot 301 at the back of the Új Köztemető in Budapest. This plot was
used by the state as a burying place for the revolutionaries executed at
the Gyüjtőfogház Prison.
Statues to the new heroes of Kádár’s counterrevolution were erected
and a conscious attempt was made to rewrite history in which Nagy and
the revolutionaries were portrayed as traitors and an aberration of
Hungarian history.20 Nagy and his compatriots had been buried in
unmarked graves in an attempt to symbolically remove them from the
Hungarian community. Relatives were not allowed to visit the site to
perform kegyelet and, worse still, the graves were desecrated. Relatives
who erected grave mounds in secret would return to find them plowed
into the ground and the guards posted by the regime frequently rode
over the graves with their horses.21
The reality of the defeat of the Hungarian Revolution and the
Soviet occupation was somewhat ameliorated by Kádár’s modified
socialist economy. Small-scale capitalist operations were encouraged
though the state remained tied to the command economy of the Soviet
bloc. Hungarians enjoyed a certain degree of independence in exchange
for silence on the issues of national sovereignty and, most especially, the
Revolution and Nagy.22
Although Hungarians by and large accepted the political reality of
the time, they never accepted the legitimacy of the Soviet occupation.23
Since Nagy had been prime minister during the Revolution, he became
the principal symbol of both the Revolution and the idea of national
sovereignty. The demand to perform kegyelet became intimately

Karl P. Benziger

intertwined with resistance to the regime. The interpretation of national

symbols was split between the regime’s public interpretation and the
private interpretation that was discussed among family and friends in
intimate settings.24 The memory of the Revolution was kept alive
through state celebrations of the counterrevolution and the official
posting of guards at places of memorial on anniversaries related to the
Revolution or the idea of national sovereignty (such as the beginning of
the 1848 Revolution celebrated every year on the fifteenth of March).25
Silence regarding the Revolution was ensured by the state secret police
and the ever-present reminder of Soviet occupation.
The end came quickly and unexpectedly for the communist regime
with a downturn in the economy in the early 1980s which caused a split
between conservatives and reformers within the Communist Party. The
reformers believed that only a reform of the economy coupled with
democratic changes could save the economy. Soviet President Mikhail
Gorbachev’s new policies of glasnost’ and perestroika further emboldened
both reformers within the Communist Party and dissenters from without,
who now began to openly defy the regime.26 The end came in December
1988 when Gorbachev proclaimed that each client state was free to find
its own path to socialism. Although not immediately understood by the
dissenters to mean that the Soviet Union would no longer back up the
client regimes with force, it provided the impetus for radical action.27
The Hungarian state had attempted to thwart efforts by the
Hungarian people both to perform kegyelet and memorialize the 1956
Revolution. This, in turn, provided the opposition with a symbolic locus
for dissent. For example, Plot 301, where Nagy and his compatriots lay,
served as the focal point for a poignant protest that took place on the
anniversary of Nagy’s execution on 16 June 1988. The protest was
filmed by Black Box, an underground film studio associated with the
Free Democrats, at the time an illegal opposition group . The protest
was an acknowledgement of the graves and their contents. The graves,
marked by depressions in the ground covered by weeds, were symbolical-
ly marked with flowers. The names of the martyrs were read aloud,
followed by prayers and the singing of the Hungarian national anthem.28
A kopjafa (grave post) had been created by the dissident artists group
“Inconnu” to officially mark the plot and memorialize the martyrs. The
Kopjafa, literally a standing post or lance, is associated with the Székely

The Funeral of Imre Nagy

warriors of Transylvania who were entrusted with guarding the eastern

borders of the medieval Hungarian kingdom. The richly carved posts are
thought to have originated with the lances that were used to mark a
warrior’s grave.29 The kopjafa created for the protest was confiscated by
the police, but pictures of the post were brought to the protest and
distributed to the protestors during the ceremonies.30 Protests that took
place later in the day at the Batthyány Eternal Light Memorial and the
Hungarian Television station centered on memorializing the martyrs by
reading their names out loud and were forcibly broken up by the police.
As the political situation deteriorated for the conservative faction
within the Hungarian communist regime, the demand for a proper
reburial of Nagy and his compatriots became a demand for a public
reburial. Recognizing the symbolic power of Nagy and the Revolution,
the reform faction within the communist regime demanded an official
reevaluation of the period.
The public announcement in January of 1989 by Imre Pozsgay, a
leading member of the reform faction within the Communist Party, that
the Revolution had been a popular uprising revealed the public split
within the party.31 This announcement was pivotal in justifying the
opposition’s demand for a public reburial of Nagy. If the Revolution had
been a popular uprising, why had Imre Nagy and over 450 revolutionar-
ies been put to death?
In March 1989 the bodies of Imre Nagy and his colleagues were
exhumed from Plot 301 and prepared for burial. The Historical Justice
Committee, comprising a coalition of opposition groups which, along
with the families of the deceased, had advocated a public reburial of
Nagy and the other martyrs, signed an agreement with the Hungarian
government on 25 May 1989 for a public funeral to be held at the
Heroes Square in Budapest.
The construction of the Heroes Square had been begun in honor
of the celebration of the millennium of the Hungarian kingdom in
1896.32 The center of this square is dominated by a statue depicting
Árpád and the other six leaders of the seven Hungarian tribes entering
the Carpathian basin. A grave to the unknown soldier is placed in front
of the statue in the center of the square, and immediately behind it is a
semicircular pavilion that displays the pantheon of Hungarian kings and
heroes. Thus a national sacred space was created that was appropriate for

Karl P. Benziger

important national rituals and, in particular, for the memorialization of

the heroes of the 1956 Revolution on 16 June 1989.
Throughout that day Hungarians streamed to the ceremony. By the
end of the funeral service there was a veritable mountain of flowers in
front of the caskets. Nagy’s casket was decorated with the symbol of the
1956 Revolution—a Hungarian flag with the emblem of the communist
regime torn out of the center. The power of the opposition had been
demonstrated in its ability to have forced the regime to allow a public
funeral for Imre Nagy. It was then up to the Hungarian people to decide
whether to legitimate the ceremony or not.
Hungarians filed past the coffins throughout that day, the flow of
mourners interrupted only by the official wreath-laying ceremonies at 11
A.M. As can be seen from films recorded by Black Box and Hungarian
Television, individuals and families were provided with enough space as
they approached the caskets in order to pay their proper respects. In
some cases individuals were overcome with grief and had to be helped
away by family members and friends. By the end of the ceremonies at
Heroes Square the mound of flowers was as high as the platform on
which the coffins and the speaker’s lectern were placed.33 Not all who
attended had a chance to file past the coffins, and as the hearses left with
the coffins for the burial ceremony flowers were strewn in the path of the
The speeches were dramatic in their explicit demands for Hungarian
national sovereignty and democratic rule. Imre Mécs, who had been
condemned to death during the terror for his role in the Revolution and
was now a leader of the Free Democrats, urged that those who had been
responsible for the years of authoritarian rule should be brought to
account. “How could you [Hungarians] live without freedom for thirty-
three years?” he asked.35 When Mécs demanded that the crowd promise
to Imre Nagy that they would save the achievements of the Revolution,
his audience responded—citing from the National Verse written by the
fiery 1848 revolutionary Sándor Petőfi—that “they would not be held
captives any more.”36
Sándor Rácz, Union Leader of the Budapest Workers Council who
had spent seven years in prison for his participation in the Revolution,
attacked both the Hungarian communist regime and the Soviet Union.

The Funeral of Imre Nagy

Pointing to the presence of Soviet troops as the main obstacle to

Hungarian sovereignty, he declared:

These coffins and our bitter lives are the result of Russian troops on
our territory. Let us help the Soviet Union to withdraw its troops
from Hungary as soon as possible. The Communist Party is still
clinging fearfully to power. What it could not achieve in the past
forty-four years it cannot achieve now. They are responsible for the
past, they are responsible for the damaged lives of Hungarians.37

Rácz concluded his speech with a Roman Catholic hymn which calls on
the Virgin Mary to protect Hungary. The film made by Black Box
showed Hungarians on the street singing the hymn as they listened to
it over the radio.
Perhaps the most passionate speech of the day was given by Viktor
Orbán, today prime minister of Hungary and at that time a representa-
tive of the Young Democrats, a student opposition group. János M.
Rainer, a Hungarian historian and dissident, claims that the crowd that
day consisted of a large number of young people. Orbán spoke the
language of the young people and connected to them in a way the older
speakers could not.38 Orbán declared that the young people in the crowd
had come not only to honor Nagy but also to mourn for a future taken
away by the Hungarian Communist Party: “the bankrupt state that has
been placed upon our shoulders is a result of the suppression of our
revolution....”39 He vehemently attacked the reform Communists,
commenting ironically:

We cannot understand that those who were eager to slander the

revolution and its prime minister have suddenly changed into great
supporters of Imre Nagy. Nor can we understand that the party
leaders, who made us study from books that falsified the Revolu-
tion, now rush to touch the coffins as if they were charms of good

His emotional speech drew applause from the crowd seven times.
Having long been denied the ability to publicly mourn for the
consequences of the Hungarian Revolution, which had resulted not only

Karl P. Benziger

in the loss of life but also in the humiliating loss, once again, of national
sovereignty, the Hungarian people attended the funeral en masse. The
piacular rites, coupled with the solemn symbolism of Heroes Square,
stimulated Hungarians’ collective memory. Nagy’s funeral is illustrative
of Durkheim’s discussion of the “effervescence” caused by collective
grieving. Victor Turner extended Durkheim’s theory in his discussion of
structure and “communitas” (antistructure). The piacular ritual and its
“excited state” created a state of liminality for those participating in the
ritual. Turner argued that this liminal state can provide for the develop-
ment of an antistructure or communitas in which hierarchy and everyday
structure are replaced by a communal “we” identity, allowing for some
of the more important aspects of a society to be revealed.41 In the case
of Nagy’s funeral, it was the value of a sovereign national identity that
was revealed through the communal performance of kegyeleti ritual.
Though reform Communists appeared at the funeral to perform
kegyelet, they had only recently attempted to repossess the symbol of
Imre Nagy. As such, they were associated with the conservative members
of the Hungarian Communist Party as it existed then and, through them,
with the Kádár regime and the Soviet Union. Thus, they were fatally
linked to the official structure that was outside of what constituted a
sovereign Hungarian state as defined by the funeral. Never able to shake
off this image, the Communists were driven from power. Imre Mécs,
commenting on the importance of the funeral, noted that the “meaning
of the ceremony was driven home by the Hungarian people. In a
referendum held in November 1989 the Hungarian people abolished the
military arm of the Communist Party, closed their offices in the
workplace and voted to examine in detail the party’s financing.”42
The focus of the funeral was on the contents of the caskets as
symbols of national sovereignty, not on the disparity of political views
that abounded within the opposition or, for that matter, among
Hungarians themselves. A number of different political symbols were
displayed at the funeral, including, for example, flags bearing the royal
and Kossuth coats of arms (the latter, which had been used during the
1848 Hungarian Revolution, lacked the crown of St. Steven that
appeared on the former).43 Although members of the various factions
within the opposition were well aware of political differences, this was

The Funeral of Imre Nagy

unimportant to the vast majority of Hungarians who attended the

The process of negotiation between the superpowers, the political
élite and the various opposition groups has been well explored in the
works of Timothy Garton Ash and Rudolf L. Tőkés.45 Though these
portrayals reveal the complexity of relationships and deals that marked
the transition, they fail to account for the popular interpretation of these
events. One of the reasons why the Hungarian people did not need to
“go to the barricades” is in part explained by the disparity of symbolic
interpretation between the people and state which was made manifest at
the funeral of Imre Nagy. By attending the funeral, Hungarians
legitimized the opposition factions and hastened the end of the
communist regime. This was borne out not only in regard to the
electoral choices made by the Hungarian people, but by the collapse of
the Hungarian Communist Party without the military backing of the
Soviet Union.
Hungarian memory culture played an important role in the political
transition of 1989. Memory culture conditioned the process of political
socialization by delimiting the boundaries of Hungarian identity during
this period. A strong collective consciousness has appeared twice in
post–World War II Hungary—during the 1956 Revolution and at the
funeral of Imre Nagy in 1989. When sovereignty was threatened the
collective consciousness presented a unified front, thus explicitly
delimiting what constituted the idea of Hungarian identity. Conversely,
in times of peace, such as exists in the Republic of Hungary today,
memory culture acts as a stabilizing factor so that contentious dialogue
regarding the meaning of Hungarian identity can take place.


Almost as soon as the Republic of Hungary was declared on 23 October

1989 a fierce dispute emerged among the various political factions in
regard to Imre Nagy’s place among Hungarian heroes. The initial
interpretations of the political transition that had taken place in Hungary
and Central Europe were framed in terms that extolled the success of
Western liberalism at the expense of both the Soviet socialist model and

Karl P. Benziger

the socialist welfare model of Western Europe. In many ways these

interpretations reflected the political ideology left over in the wake of the
Cold War. In this light communism, always anathema to the values of
economic progress propounded by liberal ideology, died a deserving
death. Socialism was then transformed into the poor sister of the failed
communist ideology and was thus discredited.
Imre Nagy as a national Communist was problematic to those who
espoused this ideology. On the one hand, as the prime minister of
Hungary during the 1956 Revolution, Nagy had advocated a sovereign
Hungarian state, thus appearing to be an ideological ally of the West. On
the other hand, he had advocated strong state intervention in regard to
economic equity and social welfare. Moreover, as was mentioned earlier,
Nagy had been associated with the Moscow faction that had come to
power in 1948 and had been ultimately responsible for the creation of
an authoritarian state under the leadership of Mátyás Rákosi.
The strong right-wing factions within the coalition government of
the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) which had come to power in
the elections of 1990 made a concerted effort to remove Nagy’s name
from the First Act of Parliament. The First Act declared that the 1956
Hungarian Revolution had been a legitimate War of Independence and
that the revolutionaries who had fought in it were martyrs of the nation.
The original bill had recognized Imre Nagy’s role as prime minister, but
in a last-minute revision his name was removed.46 This infuriated
parliamentarians from the center and left wing of the MDF along with
other factions including the Free Democrats and Socialists. This, in turn,
ensured that the symbolic image of Nagy would be used as a pivot on
which to base factional legitimacy and the various interpretations of what
the nation-state should be.
It was only in 1996, after the formation of a left-wing coalition
government by the Socialist and Free Democrat Parties, that an official
bill making Imre Nagy a Martyr of the Nation came into being. The
bitter debate over the bill revealed not only the ideological differences
between the coalition partners but also the various factional interpreta-
tions of Nagy and the 1956 Revolution. Among the left-wing and
moderate factions, debate centered on issues of collaboration with the
Stalinists and Kádár’s Soviet-backed counterrevolution.47 An article that
appeared prior to this debate by the Hungarian historian Mária Schmidt,

The Funeral of Imre Nagy

currently the director of the Twentieth-Century Research Institute, helps

explain how Nagy was perceived by the right wing in Hungary at the
time of the debates.
Schmidt argued that both the Socialists and the Free Democrats,
who were then in power, were grateful to Imre Nagy for “saving the idea
of socialism by his martyrdom. The victorious soldiers of the failed idea
are still in power.” She concluded that in order for the liberal left to stay
in power they needed Nagy, the martyred prime minister, for political
legitimacy.48 However, according to the right wing in Hungarian politics
communism was an aberration in Hungarian history. Therefore, the
symbol of Nagy is subdued in favor of other national figures that are
more in accord with the right-wing agenda. For example, during the
tenure of József Antall, who was prime minister in 1990–1993, attempts
were made to memorialize the former Regent of Hungary, Miklós
Horthy, 1920–1944. Despite his alliance with the fascist powers, he is
perceived by some to have guided Hungary through the treacherous
waters of World War II until he was overthrown by the Arrow Cross
coup on 15 October 1944. His strong anti-bolshevism coupled with a
policy of territorial revision is used to excuse Horthy’s odious association
with the Axis powers.
It is interesting to note that factions within the current conservative
coalition under the leadership of Viktor Orbán, who spoke so powerfully
at Nagy’s funeral, are once again attempting to revise Hungarian history
to bring it more into accord with the agenda of the earlier Antall
government.49 The transfer of the Crown of St. Steven from the National
History Museum to the Parliament has reactivated the political symbol-
ism of the crown and the memory of Miklós Horthy. The resurrection
of strong anticommunist symbolism is important for the current
government in its attempt to associate the opposition with the failures of
Hungary’s two communist regimes. How this particular strategy will turn
out is uncertain, as the failure of the Hungarian Democratic Forum to
recapture Parliament in 1994 can in large part be ascribed to the positive
value the Hungarian people accorded their system of social welfare.50
This was a system associated with Imre Nagy, which had been expanded
and largely implemented by the Kádár regime.
Factional politics had been subdued by the authoritarian politics of
Hungary’s Cold War regimes. It was certainly not surprising then that

Karl P. Benziger

factional politics would forcefully resurface with the establishment of the

Republic of Hungary. Discussion of Hungary’s past cannot take place
without a discussion of Nagy and the 1956 Revolution. Whether seen as
a positive or negative symbol, Nagy, his ideas and his ultimate sacrifice
have come to embody the idea of a democratic Hungarian state.
The formation of what Turner called communitas among the
Hungarian people at the funeral and reburial of Imre Nagy came about
for several reasons. First, the Kádár and the subsequent reform commu-
nist regime had broken a deep-set Hungarian taboo by denying the
families of the dead the opportunity to properly bury and remember their
dead (perform kegyelet). In addition, the deliberate desecration of the
graves had further enraged Hungarians and served to reinforce the
former regimes’ association with “the other” (that which is alien to
authentic Hungarian identity). Second, the deliberate manipulation of
national symbols by the former regimes appealed to only a part of the
Hungarian population. For example, the attempt to transform St.
Steven’s Day into Constitution Day (1948) or the Holiday of the New
Bread under Kádár antagonized significant portions of the population.
Similarly, the erection of monuments honoring the Workers’ Militia,
which had been formed by Kádár to assist in the terror and general
demobilization of the Revolution, catered to the interests of those who
served Kádár’s Soviet-backed regime but openly insulted those who had
fought in the Revolution.
One of the deepest values that operates in Hungarian society
through the various rites of memorial is the concept of national
sovereignty. Although the 1956 Revolution was crushed, Hungarian
identity was not. Like Antigone, the Hungarian people are strongly
influenced by traditional obligations that take precedence over the secular
commands of those who hold the “reins of political power.” Thus,
denying the Hungarian people the right to perform kegyelet at the
various sites of the 1956 Revolution only heightened the emotions
associated with those sites and assured that the Kádár regime would be
linked to the crushing of the Revolution. Promises of material prosperity
in exchange for deeply held cultural beliefs were destined to ultimately
fail. Hungarian passivity during the Kádár regime can be much better
explained by the brutality of state terror coupled with a system of
surveillance that could wield the power of the state against those who

The Funeral of Imre Nagy

refused to comply than by a “pact of forgetting.”51 The threat of being

expelled from school or ousted from one’s job must have weighed very
heavily on those raising children, given their absolute dependence on
state social security.
Hungarians had been humiliated daily by the compromises that
allowed them to continue working at the universities or within govern-
mental institutions. In order to effect agency and survive in an environ-
ment openly hostile to those who had fought in the Revolution,
Hungarians were forced to accept a revision of history that most found
unpalatable. Imre Nagy represented a Hungarian who would not
compromise with this revision and who thus, in Kierkegaardian terms,
went beyond the bounds of everyday experience.52 In this sense, the
performance of kegyelet at Nagy’s funeral in 1989 allowed for an
expiation of the shame of compromise.
The official silence on Imre Nagy and the Revolution of 1956 only
temporarily staved off the day when the Hungarian nation could again
openly acknowledge the legitimacy of both Nagy and the Revolution.
This left the communist regime fatally associated with those events, in
addition to their association with a foreign power that had crushed what
was considered by the majority of Hungarians to have been a legitimate
revolution. Political opposition to the regime would not have been
possible without the support of the Hungarian people. The opposition
was successful because it acted as the mouthpiece of the Hungarian
people. Those who defied the regime such as Imre Mécs, Sándor Rácz
and Viktor Orbán were carrying out the will of the Hungarian people by
continuing to fight for the agenda of the 1956 Revolution in its many
In the “state of emergency” following the Soviet occupation of
Hungary, the common interpretation of the Revolution, its demand for
national sovereignty, unified the purpose of the opposition and was made
explicit at the funeral of Imre Nagy. A weak economy and the Soviet
Union’s unwillingness to prop up the Hungarian communist system with
force played into the hands of the Hungarian people and opposition. The
massive show of legitimacy that the Hungarian people demonstrated for
the concept of national sovereignty and goals of the opposition,
including the dismantling of the communist regime, verified this

Karl P. Benziger

The most significant aspect of the funeral and reburial of Imre Nagy
was the Hungarian people’s reassertion of the symbols that it regarded
as authentic to the nation. In the case of both the Kádár and the reform
communist regimes, the symbol system of the state, which rejected the
concept of national sovereignty as embodied by the 1956 Revolution,
was too exclusive to be considered legitimate by the Hungarian people.
Hungarians could not in any real sense accept as legitimate a government
that refused to recognize a national symbol such as Imre Nagy, who was
so intimately intertwined with Hungarian identity. It is memory culture
that aids each generation as it reinterprets the meaning of national
symbols. The events of 1989 reasserted the legitimacy that the Hungari-
an people accorded the events of 1956 because they represented a
conception of a Hungary free of foreign influence and free to choose its
own path. Sovereignty was the issue that all could agree on because it
would allow the Hungarian people to reimagine their identity in the
context of what it meant to be Hungarian, rather than under the
hegemony of a foreign power. In a sense this opened the door to a more
fractious nation as each of the many political factions vying for political
power could now attempt to convince the Hungarian people of its
particular vision of what the Hungarian state should be.


* I am very grateful to my wife, Klara Benziger Gendur, for her assistance in

translating documents and arranging interviews for this study.
1. Péter Hanák, “A nemzeti identitás konstrukciója” (The structure of national
identity), Európai Szemle 3 (Oct 1997): 66–67.
2. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York,
1973), 259.
3. Milton Singer, When A Great Tradition Modernizes: An Anthropological
Approach to Indian Civilization (New York, 1972), 70–71.
4. Temetési Szertartáskönyv (Funeral liturgy of the Hungarian Catholic
Church) (Budapest, 1982), 5, 10–11.
5. Durkheim comments: “A common misfortune has the same effects as the
approach of a happy event, collective sentiments are renewed which then lead
men to seek one another and assemble together. We have seen this need for
concentration affirm itself with a particular energy: they embrace one another,

The Funeral of Imre Nagy

put their arms around one another, and press as close as possible to one
another.” Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, trans.
Joseph Ward Swain (New York, 1965), 446.
6. Ibid., 448–49.
7. On the same day that Batthyány was executed 13 Hungarian generals were
executed in the city of Arad (now in Romania). The generals are known as Aradi
Vértanu. The importance of sites of memory relating to the 1848 Hungarian
Revolution and their interpretation in the twentieth century can also be found
in John Mason’s recent article, “Hungary’s Battle for Memory,” History Today
50, no. 3 (Mar. 2000), 28–34.
8. A Magyar Nyelv Értelmező Szótára (Etymological dictionary of the
Hungarian language), ed. Nyelvtudományi Intézet (Budapest, 1987), 1:724.
9. Honfoglalás (The conquest), MTV 1 (Budapest, 1997).
10. István Rév, “Parallel Autopsies,” Representations, no. 49 (Winter 1995):
11. János M. Rainer, interview by author, 6 Apr. 1998.
12. George Schöpflin, Politics in Eastern Europe (Oxford, 1993), 93, 101.
13. For an excellent discussion of Nagy’s agricultural policies and political
philosophy, see János M. Rainer’s multivolume biography of Nagy, Nagy Imre:
Politikai életrajz (Imre Nagy: A political biography), vol. 1 (Budapest, 1996).
14. See György Litván, The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (London, 1996),
48; and Bill Lomax, Hungarian Worker Councils in 1956 (Highland Lakes, OH,
1990), 5.
15. Nagy’s idealization by the University Student Organization, MEFESZ,
founded at József Attila University in Szeged, Hungary, is discussed by Charles
Gati, “From Liberation to Revolution, 1945–1956,” in Peter F. Sugar, Péter
Hanák and Tibor Frank, eds., A History of Hungary (Bloomington, 1994), 378,
and in Litván’s, The Hungarian Revolution of 1956, 52–57. For a discussion of
student radicalism, see Seymour Martin Lipset, “The Possible Effects of Student
Activism on International Politics,” in Seymour Martin Lipset and Philip G.
Altbach, eds. Students in Revolt (New York, 1969), 498.
16. Grzegorz Ekiert, The State against Society: Political Crises and Their
Aftermath in East Central Europe (Princeton, 1996), 57.
17. Charles Gati, Hungary and the Soviet Bloc (Durham, NC, 1988), 153.
18. Az Országgyülés: tavaszi ülésszakának 41. Ülésnapja 1996. Junius 3–an,
hétfön (Minutes of Parliament: 41st day of the spring session, Monday, 3 June
1996), 21203.
19. János M. Rainer, “The Reprisals,” The New Hungarian Quarterly 127
(Autumn 1992): 123. Rainer now believes that the number of revolutionaries

Karl P. Benziger

executed was less than 450, but these figures remain a point of controversy in
Hungary today.
20. For example, Sándor Balogh, et al., A magyar népi demokrácia története,
1944–1962 (The history of the Hungarian People’s Democracy) (Budapest,
21. Béla Kövér, “301-es parcella Köztemető,” (The Public Cemetery’s Plot
301) Magyar Nemzet, 3 May 1989, 21.
22. Gati, Hungary and the Soviet Bloc, 161.
23. George Schöpflin asserts that Hungarians accepted the inevitability of
Soviet dominance (Politics in Eastern Europe, 103).
24. This point was mentioned in many conversations that I had with
Hungarians and reemphasized in interviews that I conducted with the historians
Péter Zoltán, 11 July 1996, and Gábor Gyapay, 5 Aug. 1996.
25. Imre Mécs recognized the importance of Plot 301 and the performance
of kegyelet as a form of protest early on. In regard to visiting Plot 301 on
national holidays and the Day of the Dead he noted that “the guards wouldn’t
let you anywhere near the plot.” Imre Mécs, interview by author, 7 Nov. 1997.
The same was true for other memorial sites associated with the 1848 and 1956
Revolutions. Ágoston Gendur, interview by author, 15 June 1996.
26. Schöpflin, Politics in Eastern Europe, 211.
27. S. Agocs, “The Collapse of Communist Ideology in Hungary,” East
European Quarterly 27 (1992): 190.
28. Június 16, 1988 (16 June 1988) (Budapest: Black Box, 1988), video-
29. A Magyar Nyelv Történeti Etimólogiai Szótára (The etymology of the
Hungarian language), vol. 1 (Budapest, 1967), 1071. For a more in-depth
discussion of the political usage of kopjafa, see Nóra Kovács, “Kopja Fa: The
Anthropological Deconstruction of Hungarian Grave Posts as National
Monuments” (MA thesis, Central European University, 1997).
30. Virág Kedvelő (Flower Lover), “A Nap Története” (The story of the day),
Demokrata (1988).
31. Joshua Foa Dienstag, “The Pozsgay Affair: Historical Memory and Political
Legitimacy,” History & Memory 8, no. 1 (Spring / Summer 1996): 76.
32. András Gerö, Modern Hungarian Society in the Making: The Unfinished
Experience (Budapest, 1995), 203.
33. June 16th, 1989, produced by Dér-Pesty (Budapest: Black Box, 1989),
videocassette; Nagy Imre Élete és halhatatlansága (Imre Nagy’s life and
immortality), produced by Róbert Bokor (Budapest: Hungarian Television,
1996), videocassette.
34. June 16th, 1989.

The Funeral of Imre Nagy

35. Magyar Nemzet, 17 June 1989, 2.

36. June 16th, 1989.
37. Népszabadság, 17 June 1989, 3.
38. János M. Rainer, interview by author, 6 Apr. 1998.
39. Magyar Nemzet, 17 June 1989, 3.
40. Henry Kamm, “The Funeral of Imre Nagy,” New York Times, 17 June
1989, 6.
41. Victor Witter Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure
(New York, 1969), 96.
42. Imre Mécs, interview by author, 7 Nov. 1997.
43. Lajos Kossuth was one of Hungary’s great revolutionary figures who served
as the leader of the Hungarian Diet during the 1848 Revolution.
44. The opposition to the communist regime then in power was a coalition of
forces that embraced the Free Democrats, the Hungarian Democratic Forum,
Christian Democrats and Young Democrats, among others. Each faction had a
very different idea of what a sovereign Hungary should be like—for example, a
social democracy as advocated by the Free Democrats or a more conservative
laissez-faire capitalist state as advocated by the conservative faction of the
Hungarian Democratic Forum.
45. Timothy Garton Ash, In Europe’s Name (New York, 1994); Rudolf L.
Tőkés, Hungary’s Negotiated Revolution: Economic Reform, Social Change, and
Political Succession, 1957–1990 (Cambridge, 1996).
46. Gábor Murányi, “Második helybenfutás / Törvények Nagy Imréröl”
(Running in place for a second time / The Imre Nagy bills), Heti Világgazdaság,
no. 12, 24 Mar. 1996, 94.
47. Karl P. Benziger, “Imre Nagy Martyr of the Nation,” East European
Quarterly 35, no. 4 (forthcoming, Jan. 2001).
48. Mária Schmidt, “Miért Kell a kormánypártoknak Nagy Imre? / Miért nem
támogatják a szabaddemokraták az MSZP indítványát?” (Why do the governing
parties need Imre Nagy? / Why don’t the Free Democrats support the MSZP
proposal?) Népszabadság, 9 July 1996, 5.
49. Endre Babus, commenting on Orbán’s political shift, claimed that in 1992
Orbán had stated that “the MDF represents an old world that will never return
to Hungary,” but that he now seemed to have identified himself with an MDF
interpretation of history. Endre Babus, “A Szent Korona rehabilitálása?” (The
rehabilitation of the Holy Crown?), Heti Világgazdaság, no. 37, 18 Sept. 1999,
50. Hungarians were extremely frightened that their social security system and
the standard of living they had enjoyed in the 1980s was slowly being eroded as
a result of policies implemented by the MDF. See László Szamuely, “The Costs

Karl P. Benziger

of Transformation in Central and Eastern Europe,” The Hungarian Quarterly 37

(Winter 1996): 67.
51. This tradeoff known as the “pact of forgetting” is discussed in János Kis,
Politics en Hungary: For a Democratic Alternative (Highland Lakes, OH, 1989),
75. Éva Rostáné Földényi and Józsefné Kelemen, both gimnázium teachers in
Kiskunfélegyháza, approximately 170 kilometers from Budapest, reported that the
threat of dismissal always hung over the head of anyone who was suspected of
breaking the official silence (interview by author, 28 Jan. 1998).
52. See Kierkegaard’s reflection on Abraham’s faith that went beyond the
ordinary experience of man. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (Princeton,
1983), 35–38.