Today’s refugees follow path of Hungarians who fled Soviets in 1956

Story highlights

In 1956, some 200,000 Hungarians fled a Soviet crackdown, with most going to Austria

The world acted quickly, transporting nearly 93,000 refugees out of Hungary in 10 weeks

U.N. refugee chief said in 2006 such rapid action seems "almost inconceivable" today

CNN  — 

The thousands of Syrians and other asylum-seekers who walked from Hungary’s capital toward Austria in recent days followed a well-trodden route – one desperate Hungarians took 59 years ago as they tried to escape the Soviet suppression of their uprising against communist rule.

Revisiting that exodus provides parallels with Europe’s current turmoil and offers some lessons about the impact of a surge of desperate refugees and/or migrants. The Hungarian crisis would also become the template on which the international community would handle later refugee crises.

On October 23, 1956, a student protest in Budapest against communist rule quickly found broader support. Initially only a few hundred Hungarians tried to leave the country. But when the Soviet Union sent in armored columns to crush the revolt on November 4, the trickle became a surge.

Austria’s open arms

Altogether some 200,000 Hungarians fled in trucks, trains and on foot. The vast majority was able to enter Austria because border fences had been dismantled earlier in 1956 and minefields removed (as they would be again in 1989 with happier results.)

Austria’s interior minister, Oskar Helmer, announced that every Hungarian refugee would be granted political asylum. The Austrian people showed great compassion in the face of the sudden influx. Some braved freezing cold to set up camps on the border, where fires and blankets welcomed the exhausted Hungarians.

Joseph Nagyvary, one of the Hungarians to escape, wrote decades later: “Among the people I remember with immense gratitude are the students from the universities of Vienna. Many of them sacrificed an entire semester of study to provide essential services to the refugees.”

In “The Bridge at Andau,” author James Michener wrote: “It would require another book to describe in detail Austria’s contribution to freedom. … If I am ever required to be a refugee, I hope to make it to Austria.”

Many more would; the Austrians accepted Czech, Polish and Bosnian refugees in later decades. But in 1956 their generosity was all the more remarkable because Austria was still coping with the devastation of World War II.

Austria had only recovered its sovereignty the previous year after a decade of occupation by the allied powers. Vienna was a city of bombed out buildings, vividly portrayed in the movie “The Third Man.” The recently vacated barracks of the occupying forces were the only obvious resources for the refugees.

By comparison, the German government today says it can spend more than $5 billion to manage as many as 800,000 refugees this year alone without needing to raise taxes. If it was a question of capacity and cash in 1956, it isn’t now.

But compassion and sympathy can be fleeting sentiments. Austria was responding to an emergency in 1956, but within days of the Soviet crackdown was worried it would be left to shoulder the burden of accommodating the refugees – just as today Austria and Germany are demanding their European partners help absorb the new tide of refugees.

In 1956, the Austrian media soon began to carp about the cost of the Hungarian influx and competition for jobs. And in Germany today, coalition partners have criticized Chancellor Angela Merkel for sending a “totally wrong signal” in opening the door to so many asylum-seekers. And anti-refugee protests in Saxony last month turned violent.

Ultimately, the response of the international community in 1956 set a standard rarely matched since. True, the Hungarian refugees needed to cross just one border, not several as those today must. Even so, just 10 weeks after Soviet tanks crushed the uprising, 92,950 Hungarians had already been transported from Austria to new beginnings elsewhere in Europe and North America. Several countries, such as Canada, waived their screening standards.

Adapting, absorbing

There are important differences between 1956 and today. The Hungarians were fellow Europeans; until the early 20th century, they and the Austrians had belonged to the same country. The cultural bridge was far shorter than that faced by the Syrians, Iraqis and Eritreans of 2015.

Several East European governments – Hungary and Slovakia among them – have voiced anxieties about the possibility of militants among the Syrians and Iraqis coming north, or radical Islam taking root in what are socially conservative and homogeneous Christian countries.

European migrant crisis at a glance

Even in 1956, the Austrian authorities were worried that some of the refugees would begin organizing resistance against the Soviet occupation, compromising Austria’s declared post-war neutrality. The Austrian foreign minister at the time wrote that “it becomes harder and harder for the Austrian authorities to control and prevent the political activities of refugees.” There were also concerns that infiltrators from the Hungarian secret police were among the thousands who were fleeing.

And suicide was common.

“There was a really deep feeling of loneliness. The language, and the work we were offered. … It was really hard,” recalled the Hungarian novelist Agota Kristof, who settled in Switzerland. “I would have preferred to stay.”

Integrating refugees and other migrants into different societies is a costly undertaking with uncertain results. There are plenty of examples of second- and third-generation migrants in Europe feeling marginalized or discriminated against and turning against the countries that accepted their parents –sometimes responding with violence. But for all those failures, there are many more stories of assimilation and success.

One of the Budapest protesters on that October afternoon in 1956 was a young chemistry student born as Andras Grof. He eventually escaped to Austria and resettled in the United States with the help of the International Rescue Committee.

Grof changed his name to Andrew Grove and went on to become the co-founder and later CEO of computer giant Intel Corp.

Impact of television

The Hungarian uprising was also the first international crisis to be seen on television, and reports of its suppression and the flight of civilians were presented in the context of the Cold War. People were fleeing the Soviet Bear for freedom, just as today Syrians flee both Bashar al-Assad’s regime and ISIS. In both crises, images – beamed around the world – of desperate people seeking freedom moved public opinion. In 1956, there was also a feeling of guilt because Western governments were not prepared to challenge Soviet aggression directly, preferring a policy of containment.

Then, as now, public opinion ran ahead of government action in many countries. Austrian volunteers loaded trucks with supplies and drove into Hungary days after the protests began, surprising the Austrian Embassy in Budapest. In the United States, the International Rescue Committee raised $2.5 million in less than two months – more than $350,000 of it after a segment on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

In part responding to public sentiment, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower tripled the immigration quota for Hungarians (and sent Vice President Richard Nixon to Austria to see the situation firsthand.) The United States and Canada each took more than 40,000 of the Hungarian refugees.


The Hungarian crisis was also the first in which the U.N. refugee agency, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, took the lead in processing and distributing the refugees. And it turned a temporary organization tasked with resettling people after World War II into a major international organization that today runs camps for millions of refugees, many of them Syrian.

It was a rapid learning curve for the UNHCR in 1956; coordination with many governments and voluntary groups was ad hoc and initially chaotic. But a template of cooperation among different agencies was established.

The Hungarian crisis was also the first in which refugees were legally recognized and admitted en masse, rather than requiring individual screening. That became a highly significant precedent, used almost immediately for some 200,000 Algerians fleeing into Tunisia and Morocco from their country’s civil war.

But the lasting impression of 1956 was the goodwill and speed with which governments resettled refugees. There were no months-long wrangles over quotas and treaty obligations. The number of refugees resettled in those few weeks was nearly double the global total for 2013, according to UNHCR figures. Perhaps it was the cultural affinity for the Hungarians, or the shared fear of the Soviet Union that made the difference.

Looking back in 2006, UNHCR chief António Guterres said such rapid action seemed “almost inconceivable” today. “And unfortunately today we are witnessing situations in which the amount of suffering is much greater than what we saw in Budapest – and the indifference is also much greater.”