Erich Lessing - The 1956 Hungarian Revolution - 50 Years Later


Fifty Years Later
14 September - 4 November 2006

Reception: Thursday, 19 October, 6 - 8 pm
Leica Gallery / 670 Broadway / New York City 10012
212.777.3051 / Fax 212.777.6960 /
Tues–Sat 12–6

“Erich Lessing’s wonderful and deeply moving photographs of the Hungarian Revolution of
1956 are like brilliant windows illuminating the past. Nobody captured better the faces of the “Freedom
Fighters” (as they came to be known), or the cold, gritty reality of the streets of Budapest during the
fighting fifty years ago that astonished the world.
I remember seeing Erich Lessing there, a stocky, energetic figure, standing upright in the middle
of the fighting, festooned with Leicas, calmly changing lenses and film when almost anybody else
would have been taking cover. Like my father’s old friend Bob Capa, Lessing was of the old school of
combat photographer. He didn’t use telephoto lenses, he believed in getting in close to the action, and
not ducking when bad things went bang. It is for that reason, I think that his pictures of the revolution
have such an intense immediacy and intimacy—there is no distance between the photographer and the

Looking back on the events of October and November 1956 half a century later it is now
possible to appreciate their immense significance, which even those of us who were there could not see
at the time. Of course the revolution failed—although not until the Soviet Union was forced to commit
half a million men and more than five-thousand tanks to suppress with the utmost brutality a
spontaneous uprising of workers, students and Hungarian soldiers—but in the long run, the Hungarians
put the first deep crack in the gigantic monolith of Soviet and communist power, a crack which only
three decades later brought to an ignominious, crashing end the entire system of communism, not just in
eastern Europe, but in Russia herself.
The Hungarian Revolution was, therefore, a major turning point, the first and most significant
moment when ordinary people, men, women, even children, went out into the streets to fight the tyranny
that had been imposed on them, and exposed communism for the cruel sham it was.

Their action was exactly analogous to the determination of a small number of Massachusetts
farmers to leave their homes, take up arms, and confront the redcoats of the British Army at Lexington
and Concord on April 19th 1775—the day of the famous “shot that was heard around the world,” which
set off a war that would last ten years and end in a victory that established “a government of the people”,
dedicated to the rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The Europe we see today—a Europe of democratic nations, a Europe of freedom and growing
prosperity, a Europe in which people live without fear of the secret police, or one-party politics, or an
imposed foreign ideology, or the domination by one power over smaller nations—was born in the streets
of Budapest by people who were willing to fight and die for the same rights that the Minutemen fought
for in 1775, and it is they, as well as Erich Lessing, whom we honor in this exhibition that shows us, as
he recorded them, faces of courage, faces of sacrifice, faces of hope.

Sacrifice is never comfortable, still less so when it ends in a military defeat followed by brutal
punishment, so these photographs, while inspiring, are not always comfortable to look at—many of
these people were killed, or were wounded, or were arrested, imprisoned and tortured; many of these
young people (for it was a war mostly fought by the young) paid with their lives for the freedom that
Hungary—and the rest of Europe—now enjoys. All of us are in their debt, and looking at Erich
Lessing’s photographs should make us feel the weight of that debt. We owe to the people in these
photographs a determination to cling to freedom, to “the rights of man” (to use a potent, but oldfashioned
phrase), to political, religious and ethnic tolerance.
What they fought for—and paid for at such a high cost in lives and suffering—must be carefully
and lovingly preserved, and never taken lightly, we owe them that. Many of these people died so that
others could vote, pray, have the freedom to think and create and debate, and enjoy all the benefits of
liberty. As one who was with them at the time, I do not think they would have wanted to be thought of
as martyrs, nor even as heroes, but they would certainly have wanted people to appreciate their sacrifice,
and benefit from it, and perhaps even to learn from it. And what is a better way of learning than by
looking at these pictures?

In 400 B. C. King Leonidas of Sparta defended the crucial pass of Thermopylae with three-hundred
Spartans against the vastly greater invading army of Xerxes, and held the Persian king’s troops off for
nearly three crucial days and nights. Leonidas and all his men were killed, and the monument in their
memory bore the words:
“Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by.
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”
Neither Leonidas, nor his men, nor Xerxes, nor even the other Greek city-states, could guess that
this would be a major turning point of history, but looking back in time over twenty-four centuries we
can recognize that it was just that. And indeed it is always so, whether it is Leonidas and his Spartans, or
the 2,000 young fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force on whom the survival of Britain depended in the
summer of 1940, or the men who landed on the Normandy beaches on June 6th, 1944. Freedom, liberty
of thought and _expression, common decency, these can only be won and preserved by those who are
willing to fight, often against what seem to be hopeless odds.

The Hungarian Freedom Fighters whom Lessing photographed and who were my companions
were united by a common revulsion against the lies and cruelty of their own government, which itself
ruled from Moscow, and also by the hope of a new Hungary, one freed from the cruelty of dictatorship
and ideology.
Their faces are here, haunting, speaking to us directly in these photographs; their monument is in
a Hungary reborn, the Hungary that they dreamed of and fought for fifty years ago, a democracy, united
at last with the West in a Europe of free and equal democracies. They were truly the Spartans of the mid
20th Century, and Erich Lessing’s record of their valiant fight is at once a work of art and a document of
historic importance.”

Michael Korda
Author of Journey to a Revolution: A History and Memoir
of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and
Editor in Chief Emeritus of Simon & Schuster
Erich Lessing was the first photographer to arrive in Budapest, covering all aspects of the shortlived
rebellion from its exhilarating commencement through its horrific climax, even returning
afterward with medicine and food. As he notes, the mass revolt that began in Budapest on October 23,
1956 was “a situation that had never happened before and would probably never occur again. But it
can…be described as the beginning of the end of Soviet domination, even if it took another thirty
was, and still is, the symbol of a national uprising.” To mark the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian
Revolution, Leica Gallery and the Consulate General of Hungary in New York are pleased to exhibit the
landmark photographs of Erich Lessing. These indelible images, while both riveting and harrowing,
provide a full documentation of this short-lived uprising and its aftermath.
Erich Lessing was born in Vienna in 1923. He worked as a photographer at Associated Press
and, in 1951, based upon his work and his international reputation as a photojournalist, he became the
tenth member of the prestigious Magnum photo agency. He has taught photographic workshops
throughout the world; his work has appeared in publications worldwide; and he has won numerous
awards. Signed copies of his most recent book, Revolution In Hungary: The 1956 Budapest Uprising
(Thames & Hudson, 2006) will be available during the exhibition.
Rose and Jay Deutsch
On-Site Directors

Date : 2006-09-14
Time :

Photo gallery : no

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