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March 15: How the Communists Attempted to Exploit It, Then Feared It

Hungary Today 2020.03.14.

The 1848 Revolution is one of the most important national holidays in the history of Hungary. The memory of the fight for Hungary’s independence during the communist dictatorship was completely overshadowed, while the governing power tried to fill its meaning with a whole new ideology. It never succeeded, and after 1956, during the Kádár era, this celebration became the universal expression of the battle for Hungarian freedom and the fight against the communist dictatorship.

From 1948, the growing communist power in Hungary started expropriating the message of the 1848 Revolution. During the revolution’s centenary, they tried to fill it with a new ideology positioning Kossuth and Petőfi as their forerunners and, through them, they wanted to increase their support in society.

1848 Commemoration in 1950 at Petőfi square with pictures of Lenin, Rákosi, and Stalin. Photo via Fortepan/Magyar Rendőr

Following the communist system’s solidification, a major rework regarding the message of  March 15th began in the 50s.

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During the “cult of personality” climate of the Rákosi era, the significance of the holiday started to fade, it was reclassified as regular workday in 1951, and even Rákosi’s birthday on March 9th was celebrated with more grandeur than the commemoration of the Revolution.

First, the holiday lost its original character, and then the state party started appropriating it with Communist symbolism; next to the Hungarian flag, the red Soviet flag also started appearing at commemorations. Slowly, the values ​​of 1848 were abolished, and the remaining outline of the holiday became the celebration of the communist elite.

Kossuth Lajos square, Budapest, 1954. Photo: Fortepan/Magyar Rendőr


As a national holiday, March 15th commemorates the day in 1848 when Hungarians began a revolution that would become a war of independence against the Habsburgs. The newly recruited Hungarian Revolutionary Army held off the superior Austrian Empire’s forces to such an extent, that the young Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph I only defeated the Hungarians with the help of forces from the Russian czar.

The Revolution of 1956 also began in the spirit of the “Youth of March:” the formation of the Petőfi circle, peaceful demonstrations, and claims aggregated in various points. The appearing symbols which invoked March 15th were the cockade, the Kossuth coat of arms,  and the Kossuth song. One of the demands of the revolution was to celebrate March 15th in its true historical significance.

After the Hungarian Uprising was crushed by Soviet troops in November, the newly formed communist party, which had no real mass support, clearly felt the threat of the spreading slogan “we start over in March” (Márciusban újrakezdjük, MUK).  It was the motto of those who hoped the revolution could be revived. The acronym was painted on walls, and appeared on flyers, first in Budapest, but also in other parts of Hungary. The fight against the slogan became a prominent task of the propaganda machine trying to prevent the resurgence of a resistance.

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The citizens of Hungary and the State security members were all aware of March 15th’s twofold message: those who commemorate the events of 1848 are, in fact,  in support of the Revolution of 1956. This interpretation was further reinforced by the fact that for a long time the party state had done little to incorporate the March 15th celebration into its holiday culture.

In the first years of the consolidating Kádár era, the holiday was cast aside. Nonetheless, March 15th still had a prominent place in the Communist Party’s memory politics, and furthermore, embedded within the labor movement of the past, it represented the civil revolution, the forerunner of the later communist revolution. Thus, it was never abolished by the regime.

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Ten years after the bloodshed of ’56, however, the Communists felt their power secure enough to let the masses back on the streets on March 15th. Of course, the regime also produced an ideology around the holiday, thus the Revolutionary Youth Days (FIN) often called “revolutionary spring,” was born. It was a series of spring celebrations organized by the Hungarian Young Communist League (KISZ). The propaganda machine aimed to combine the holiday of March 15th, with the commemoration of the formation of the Hungarian Soviet Republic on March 21, 1919 and the liberation of the Fascist occupation on April 4, 1945.

Múzeumkert, Budapest, 1976. Photo: Fortepan/Tamás Urbán

The idea was to “mix” the three totally different holidays through the “flame of the revolution,” thereby reducing the significance of March 15th to the other two communist holidays. However, FIN did not live up to its hopes, witnessed by the fact that, from the 1970s, March 15th celebrations were often accompanied by minor, often spontaneous student gatherings in which they wished to commemorate 1848 in their own way, while also expressing their antipathy against the regime.

March 15 square, Budapest, 1989. Photo: Fortepan/Zoltán Marics

One of the biggest demonstrations was in 1986, when thousands of people gathered at the Petőfi statue. The police and undercover provocateurs led the demonstrators to the Chain Bridge, which was then sealed on both sides. The police force then started cruelly beating them with batons. The news of the police terror reached the Western press, with many of the names of the young people who were deported announced on Radio Free Europe.

A few years later the memory of the 1848 Revolution entered a new era with the regime change, and similarly to ‘56, it became the symbol of the fight against oppression.

In the featured photo: Petőfi square, Budapest, 1953. Photo via Fortepan

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