Many people today like to either romanticize or satirize Communism. From young millennials wearing Che Guevara t-shirts to friends jokingly describing things as “communist,” the Post-Soviet world seems to have forgotten its temporal proximity to the horrors of the last century.
Last week the world quietly remembered the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. For myself, however, this was a week of somber reflection. When history affects an individual personally, he or she tends to over-exaggerate the importance of that particular event, and maybe I am partaking in this phenomenon myself, but I feel as if America is always in need of a constant reminder of the liberties we are always in the danger of losing.
After the Second World War, the Soviet Union, instead of freeing the people it had just liberated, drew the iron curtain shut, trading one tyrant for another in places such as Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. The people of these countries were promised freedom but freedom became, as my grandmother put it: all children being forced to learn Russian in school, everyone owning the same car (if they owned one at all), and everyone being assigned a job. Eventually, their oppressive measures became too much for the Hungarian people, and on October 23, 1956, twenty thousand student protesters joined together in Budapest to announce to the world that they would no longer be slaves. Freedom fighters soon took control of Budapest through intense street fighting and pushed out the Russians. Hungary had won its freedom momentarily. On November 4, 1956, Russian tanks rolled into Budapest and extinguished the revolution. Overall, it is estimated that in the aftermath of the Revolution some 22,000 Hungarians were either arrested or deported and some 250 were executed for simply wanting to be free from tyranny.
During that week and a half of freedom, some 200,000 refugees escaped Hungary, fleeing to Austria, West Germany, Great Britain, and especially America. Among those refugees were not only my maternal grandparents but also my former professor, Dr. Peter Schramm, who passed away last year. Growing up, I always heard stories of life in Hungary during the Second World War and of the Revolution from my grandmother. Hearing these stories cemented Ronald Reagan’s prophetic words that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” Coming to the Ashbrook Scholar Program to study politics and history, Dr. Schramm introduced me to freedom. He always described his job as ironic in the sense that he was,
“teaching native Americans (I mean native-born Americans, not American Indians) how to think about their country. How odd it seems, and yet how perfectly American, that they should need me, a Hungarian immigrant, to teach them.”
I am lucky enough to be one generation away from tyranny, yet we all must remember that though America’s principles are permanent, their application is not. We must constantly water the tree of liberty, reminding each other of the necessity to remain constant to those self-evident truths enshrined in the Declaration and Constitution. By learning from not only our history but the history of others, we can come to understand that the words we use such as “liberty,” “equality,” and “natural rights,” are not merely words, but tools used by struggling patriots to break the bonds of slavery. We were once those patriots, yet freedom is not guaranteed. I do not know what I would have done on a crisp October morning in Budapest 70 years ago; however, I know that whether one fights or flees, one either dies nobly for freedom’s cause or tells the story to others so that they may be better equipped when faced with tyranny themselves.