Interviews:

Bowie,
Robert

Khrushchev,
Sergei

Kiraly,
Bela

Lowis,
Flora

Pongracz,
Gergely

Vajda,
Anika

Wheeler,
Charles



     
   


INTERVIEW WITHCHARLES WHEELER

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INT: Hungary in October of 1956, how did you happen to be there?

CW: I'd been trying to get a visa to Poland, where interesting things were happening and I'd booked space on a aeroplane for the camera, which was an enormously cumbersome instrument in those days. You had to put it freight on British Airways. I'd booked seats and freight space to Vienna on my way to Warsaw - I never got a visa to Poland and I never got a visa to Hungary, so I thought well, I'll go to Vienna and I went with George Mikesch, who was a Hungarian writer, and we started on the border... We had orders from the BBC not to take the sound camera into Hungary, because the BBC was worried we might lose it and if we had, Panorama would have gone off the air, because sound cameras in those days were extremely valuable and difficult to replace. In the event, we decided we would go in and in fact it wasn't difficult. The guards on the border with Austria had taken their red stars out of their caps and really had become part of the revolution. And so we simply arrived and said, can we travel and we did. We didn't have a car, we hitchhiked on a coal lorry and so on, but we got into West Hungary very easily, which by time thought it had been liberated. They thought the Russians had gone. They knew the Russians had left Budapest, there were no Russian troops in that part of Hungary at all and as far as they knew, the revolution succeeded, although there were one or two people who were pessimists and said, well, maybe they'll come back.

INT: What was the visible evidence of the fact the people thought the Russians had gone for good?

CW: Well, people were enormously optimistic that life had changed. People kept talking about the ability... we can now travel, we can now read Western magazines, Western books. Everywhere in the country they Hungarian tricolour was flying with the middle torn out, the Communist emblem torn out. It was, seemed to be a completely liberated country. There was no sign of any opposition. The regime had virtually fallen apart. There were young men standing around public buildings with Tommy guns, who had disarmed and in some cases imprisoned the local Communist district secretary and staff and so on. And Hungary did seem to be a totally liberated country. And then we were in a town called Gyr in Western Hungary, interviewing the Resistance chief, who was a local government official, who had been a reformist Communist, who turned on us - this was two days after the British and French began fighting at Suez - and said, you've wrecked our revolution, the world will now look at the Middle East instead of looking at Hungary, you will now no longer have the moral authority to put pressure on the Russians to let us complete the revolution. Because the Hungarians were quite convinced that the United Nations would manage to put pressure on the Russians to stay out and in fact the United Nations had been to some extent engaged. The Americans were trying to call for meetings, Security Council and so on and all this was being broadcast to the Hungarian people. So they had this faith that the West would not necessarily intervene directly, but would at least prevent the Russians from coming back in and Suez, many people thought, really disarmed the West, meant that the West no longer had that degree of influence over the Russians, because the Russians would be able to turn round and say, what about you?

INT: What did you think at the time?

CW: I felt very isolat...

(INTERRUPTION)

INT: Could you tell us about interviewing people who'd survived the massacre by the ARVO police in Hungary?

CW: There's a town called Megarova, which is close to the Hungarian border, a crowd of - people said - maybe six or seven hundred people, advanced on a military barracks, which housed the border police and the security police and the crowd demanded that the authorities take the red star off the roof - this happened all over Hungary, people wanted the red star taken away, which was the symbol of the Russian occupation. The story is, eye witnesses told us, that the commandant of the barracks told the crowd to come forward and send a delegation in and as the crowd moved forward, machine fire started from the roof and from one of the windows and a lot of people were killed. We arrived, I should think, two days after this and we met eye witnesses who told us that there had been over a hundred people killed. We never did discover what the total extent of the casualties was, but undoubtedly it was one of about two or three instances in West Hungary where there is mob, where there is serious shooting by the ARVO. The ARVO were the security force and they managed to get hold of two or three of them and they hanged them from trees upside down.

There was a lot of lynching in those early days, because the ARVO were the equivalent, if you like, of the German Gestapo during the War and so on.

INT: Before the Anglo-French forces invaded Suez how edgy were you that the Soviets would come back into Hungary?

CW: I thought the Russians had gone for good. People in Budapest probably knew better, because there must have been intelligence reporthat the Russians had actually only pulled back to the border for logistical reaso. There weren't really enough Russian troops to cope with a large national uprising in that first phase. But then after we discovered that the British and the French were fighting in Suez, we did become nervous and I was worried, because I had the Panorama camera, Panorama's only sound camera in Hungary and I was worried that the Russians would cut the road and we'd lose the camera or possibly not get out at all. So our deadline was made, we had to be back in London by Saturday in order to get the Panorama story out on the Monday, so on the Friday night, we actually left and the Russians did in fact close the road about twenty four hours later.

INT: How much was there the general feeling after British and French forces had gone into the Middle East that everybody thought there was a very good chance that the Russians would come back?

CW: I think the Hungarians were over-optimistic. I mean, this great surge of optimism. Here were the Russians, who'd actually been involved in fighting in Budapest and they'd actually left or apparently left the country, everybody thought, we're liberated. Then, I think, when people really thought about it, people who had access to information, which most people didn't have, realised that the Russians would probably simply re-gather, get more reinforcements and then come back in again, which is exactly what happened.

INT: What was their reaction to the news? Was it broadcast on the radio that there had been the Suez invasion?

CW: Yes, because all the Western radio stations and presumably Hungarian radio also was reporting what was happening in the Middle East, so everybody knew about it once it happened.

INT: What was their reaction to that?

CW: I think people were worried. We were attacked ... let me say that again.

INT: How does it personally affect you the news of the Anglo-French forces landing?

CW: We went to interview the head of the Resistance in Gyr, which is the main town in Western Hungary, and he gave us an interview and then he said, you the British and of course the French have wrecked our rising by startingin war in the Middle East. This will put the Russians in a position where they can in fact act with impunity because the world's eyes will be on the Middle East and not on Hungary. So they were angry and disappointed.