The negotiated revolution in Hungary took a different form than it had in Poland, where workers had led the protest movement and had been motivated in large part by economic issues such as wages and prices. In Hungary, intellectuals and environmental activists led the opposition that coalesced around environmental questions, worries about the treatment of ethnic Hungarians in Romania, and a deep sense of anger about the way the regime handled the memory of Hungary’s revolt against Soviet control in 1956.
The Danube Circle [Duna Kor in Hungarian], formed in 1984, was the first organization to challenge the regime’s monopoly on power. The Danube Circle was created to fight construction of the massive Gabičkovo-Nagymaros dam across the Danube between Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Opponents of the dam argued that it would create an environmental disaster that would displace thousands of Hungarians from villages and towns where their families had lived for centuries. Opponents of the regime soon joined this burgeoning environmental protest and by the fall of 1988 the Danube Circle had about 10,000 core followers who actively demonstrated against the dam in the streets of Budapest. These actions mirrored protests earlier in the summer of 1988, in which more than 30,000 people marched in Budapest to express their anger over the Romanian government’s plan to bulldoze entire Hungarian villages in Transylvania. Hungary had not seen public protests on this scale since 1956. (Read a primary source from Duna Kor.)
The memory of 1956, however, proved to be the issue that the Party could not ignore. Throughout the late 1980s, students and other opponents of the regime staged small-scale public commemorations on three important dates in March, June, and October. March 15 was the traditional Hungarian independence day (from 1848). June 16 was the anniversary of the execution of Imre Nagy, the leader of the 1956 uprising against Soviets and their local Soviet sympathizers. October 30 marked the anniversary of the start of the 1956 uprising. By the fall of 1988, public pressure to recognize these dates in Hungarian history was strong and the Party agreed to start allowing the celebration of March 15. The Party also agreed to allow the formation of opposition parties, in the mistaken belief that the Communist Party was still sufficiently popular to fend off challengers.
The three most important parties that emerged were led by intellectuals and students, in contrast with the worker-led movement in Poland. The first to form, the Hungarian Democratic Forum, had a nationalist orientation. The second, the Alliance of Free Democrats, was primarily interested in reshaping the economy along capitalist lines. The last of the three opposition parties to form in the fall of 1988, the Alliance Young Democrats (most commonly known by its acronym FIDESz), was led by students who were especially impatient with the pace of change in their country. Faced with this burgeoning opposition, reformers within the Communist Party began to win control of the Party and, in an attempt to win back some of its eroding popular support, agreed to “rehabilitate” the leaders of the 1956 revolution.
In the Communist world, to be “rehabilitated” meant that a person who had been cast out by the Party (and declared something akin to being a non-person) was again recognized by the Party. For example, after the Party executed several leaders of the 1956 uprising, most notably Imre Nagy, it also removed them from public memory. When they were rehabilitated in 1989, these men were restored to the official history of their country. Approximately 200,000 people showed up in Budapest on June 16, 1989, to attend the reburial of Nagy, whose remains were moved to a hero’s grave from the obscurity where they had languished since the 1956 uprising.
To ordinary Hungarians, Nagy symbolized not only their country’s resistance to Soviet domination, but a symbol of the will of the Hungarian people to chart their own course in the world and at home. The most provocative speech given that day was by Viktor Orbán, the leader of FIDESz, who derided the Communist Party—whose leaders were sitting behind him on the stage—for its many crimes against its own citizens. See Video clip of Orban's speech HERE.
In the face of strong public sympathy for a Hungary free from a Communist monopoly on power, the government declared Hungary a Republic in October 1989, on the anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. It was no longer a “People’s Republic,” the standard designation of a Communist country. In May 1990, the first free democratic elections in Hungary since the 1940s were held and the Democratic Forum won 43 percent of the vote, effectively ending the era of Communist power.