While thousands of Nazis were rightly tried for their crimes following World War II, relatively few Communist thugs have ever had to face the music for their actions.
However, a former senior-level Communist Party official went on trial in Hungary this week, charged with his role in the shooting of civilians during protests surrounding the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.
Prosecutors have charged 92-year-old Bela Biszku regarding his role on a committee of the Communist Party they say was involved in ordering the shootings of civilians during protests in Budapest and in the town of Salgotarjan in December 1956, according to Reuters.
The case is important because it may enable Hungary to begin to face up to its communist past, something no former Soviet satellite state has done.
Biszku was one of Hungary’s most powerful leaders in communist times, and he is the first former Communist official to stand trial in the nation.
Biszku, who has previously denied all accusations against him, responded to the judge in a firm voice Tuesday, stating, “I do not wish to testify.”
The 1956 Hungarian Uprising was a spontaneous nationwide revolt against the Soviet-backed government of the People’s Republic of Hungary, lasting more than two weeks, from Oct. 23 through Nov. 10.
The event marked the first major threat to Soviet control since the USSR drove Nazis forces from Eastern Europe at the end of World War II more than a decade earlier.
Thousands of Hungarians and hundreds of Soviet troops were killed. Hundreds more civilians were executed and tens of thousands were imprisoned after the revolution was crushed by Soviet tanks.
Prosecutors say Biszku was a member of a committee of the Communist Party in 1956 that created armed militia to maintain order and carry out retaliations after the revolution was crushed, according to the wire service.
They say this party committee directly governed the leading body of the militia, the so-called Military Council.
Prosecutor Tamas Vegh said Biszku abetted the shooting of several people on Dec. 6, 1956, in Budapest and on Dec. 8, 1956, in Salgotarjan, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.Biszku’s lawyer Gabor Magyar said the accusations are unfounded.
In the sleepy mining town of Salgotarjan, in the north of Hungary, residents still vividly remember how nearly 50 civilians were shot dead by armed militia during the Dec. 8 protest.
Janos Fancsik worked as a doctor in a local hospital that morning when he heard gunfire and a short time later people began to bring in wounded and dead.
“The dead were all lined up in the backyard of the hospital. As far as I can remember, there were around 30 to 40 bodies,” Fancsik said. “They were all civilians; there was not one of them in uniform or with weapons.”
Fancsik, who still lives near the square where the killings happened, said most people in Salgotarjan probably welcomed the Biszku trial, adding: “Old age does not exonerate somebody from crimes that do not lapse.”
His friend Eva Tomes, who narrowly escaped the shootings when she walked her two small children home that day, said she thought the Biszku trial had come too late, according to Reuters.
“Opinions are deeply split. Everybody says this should have happened much earlier, not now,” she said.
In a 2010 interview with public Duna television, Biszku said he had “served the people” as interior minister from 1957 to 1961 and had done nothing he could “be held responsible for.”
(Top: Hungarians sit on top of a tank with a revolutionary flag in Budapest in October 1956.)