Weekly newsletter

In Memoriam 1956: Radio Free Europe – The Voice Of The Free World Behind The Iron Curtain

Tamás Székely 2016.09.09.

On the occasion of the upcoming 60th anniversary of Hungary’s 1956 revolution and war for independence, we pay tribute to the heroes by publishing our new 10-chapter series called “In Memoriam 1956”. Last week we wrote about the best movies about the revolution, today we take a look at the history of the legendary radio station Radio Free Europe.


In the era of Communism, the vast majority of the Hungarian audience could access to news only via the Budapest-based public radios (Kossuth and Petőfi) and the Radio Free Europe (RFE) operated from Western Germany. For the ordinary people, those three radio stations meant the primary – and consequently contradictory – sources of information for decades. Radios Kossuth and Petőfi were available across the whole country and despite the intense “jamming” activity by the Communist authorities, Radio Free Europe was also more-or-less accessible almost every part of Hungary, but only secretly in private circles.

München, 1981. december 24. Az amerikai kongresszus által a II. világháború után létrehozott, az elnyomott népek tájékoztatását szolgáló Szabad Európa Rádió 1951. október 6-án kezdte meg rendszeres magyar nyelvû adásait, a Szabad Magyarország hangja néven. A rádió több mint 40 éven át betöltötte feladatát: a kommunizmus elbukott. A Szabad Európa Rádió 1993. október 31-én szüntette meg magyar adását. A képen: a Szabad Európa Rádió és Szabadság Rádió egyik technikusa magnószalagot készít elõ az egyik adás számára. A felvétel 1977-ben készült. (MTI FOTO/AP)

From political perspective, Radio Free Europe played its most important role during the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and in the 1980s. The roots of the “radio cold war”, however, go back to 1949, when the so-called “National Committee for a Free Europe”, a Western organization that included politically active Eastern European emigrants, established and an anti-communist broadcasting services in New York. Funded by the US government but headquartered at Munich’s Englischer Garten from 1949 to 1995, RFE was broadcast to Soviet satellite countries, while its partner station Radio Liberty (RL) targeted directly the Soviet Union. The two organizations were merged in 1976.

In 1951 six Eastern and Central European RFE stations were established, including the Czechoslovak, the Hungarian and Polish ones. RFE stations were acting like they were the regular radio stations of the Eastern bloc countries. In most cases they operated with logical and well-structured program based on hourly news service and thematic magazines. RFE was listening and commenting the official Communist media as well, disproving and criticizing their claims and political arguments. It was also RFE’s mission to promote Western culture (modern lifestyle, arts and music) and national traditions (history, religion, folklore) among compatriots living behind the Iron Curtain. In a way, RFE was a tool the maintain and preserve the civic foundations of the Socialist societies, which were seen as prerequisites for a future democratic transition.


The Hungarian department of RFE started its experimental operation at the very beginning of 1950. The regular transmission was launched on 4th of August 1950 with daily two programs, while the official operation began only on 6th of October 1951. According to historians’ estimation, that time about half million Hungarian families had a radio device, which was eligible for accessing the transmission of RFE. The first head of the Hungarian editorial group was Gyula Dessewffy, a former editor-in-chief of Hungarian journal “Kis Újság” and former MP of the Independent Smallholders’ Party that was destroyed by the Communists in the late 1940s. Besides him Gyula Borbándi, Andor Gellért and Géza Ekecs are considered as key figures of the Hungarian RFE station. From the very beginning, the Communists authorities continually tried to jam the radio, producing electronic sounds on the same frequencies to make impossible to hear the program being broadcast.

During the hectic days of the Revolution in 1956 the Hungarian RFE broadcast was operating as spontaneously as the Revolution itself. Although before the uprising broke out, the Hungarian RFE did not told the Hungarian people to start a freedom fight, later they encouraged them to hold on indeed, suggesting that Western support was imminent. It was not the case at all, because the United States did not risk to provide military support for the Hungarians in order to avoid an even bigger military conflict with the Soviet Union. However, in the wake of the “Hungarian mistake”, several investigations were initiated by the US and West German governments against RFE. Although the Radio was cleared of provoking the uprising, a number of changes were implemented in order to transform RFE to a more professional, news-gathering and culture-oriented broadcasting service.

As a result of this, in the 1960s and 1970s Radio Free Europe was rather known for its entertaining and colorful broadcast than its political mission. In Hungary, the most popular broadcast of the Hungarian department was the so-called “Teenager Party”, edited by László Cseke, who was known on the radio as Géza Ekecs. The Western hits inspired Hungarian youth to make their pop-rock revolution of their own and find their freedom in music and songs. RFE became once again historically important in the 1980s, when its funding significantly increased during the Reagan Administration and the broadcasts were expected to be more critical of the Communist regimes. In the 1980s, RFE also played important role in disseminating self-published anti-communist literature called “samizdat”. After the fall of the Iron Curtain and the democratic turn in Central and Eastern Europe, RFE has lost its historic significance. In Hungary, it ended broadcasts in 1993.

sources: historia.hu, rubicon.hu, hoover.org, wikipedia