The Burden of Precedent: Reflections on the Sixtieth Anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution

By Laura Madokoro

This month marks the sixtieth anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, which was violently suppressed by Soviet forces, leading to the flight of thousands of people to neighbouring countries, including war-weary Austria. It’s also been sixty years since countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia responded to both the Soviet violence and the migration of people by resettling thousands of refugees. Canada took in almost 37,000 people in an event that continues to be celebrated as evidence of the country’s extraordinary compassion.

As we reflect on the events of sixty years ago, against the backdrop of the ongoing violence in Syria and Iraq, the destruction of the migrant camp in Calais, France and the continued efforts to address the needs of thousands of people who have fled violence in the Middle East, not to mention ongoing displacement in Africa and southeast Asia, it bears contemplating how the events of sixty years ago shaped the current landscape in which refugee assistance and resettlement takes place. There is a particular urgency to this task because Canada’s response to the refugees of the Hungarian Revolution has been cited again and again as evidence of the country’s humanitarian character. Yet the policymakers of 1956 never expected that their commitment to resettling refugees at what was arguably one of the tensest moments in the cold war would lead to future, if intermittent, resettlement efforts. Little did officials know that in committing to refugee resettlement as a way of relieving the situation in Austria and condemning Soviet violence, that they would be transforming the landscape in which advocates would demand comparable action for events in other places in the decades that followed.

 The drama of the Hungarian Revolution, followed by its swift repression, captured international attention. In Canada, the events in Hungary were front page news. On 8 November 1956, the Globe and Mail’s front page headline reported the tragic turn of events as Soviet forces retook Budapest: “Russians Crush Last of Budapest Patriots: Rebels Save Last Bullet for Selves”. There was a great deal of public interest in the events in Hungary and an outpouring of cash donation and support, but the notion of providing resettlement assistance to those who fled the violence, including many students, was not immediately in evidence.

The impetus and momentum for a large-scale resettlement program emerged after it became clear that many of the people who had fled the violence were well-educated students and skilled professionals. The government of Canada committed to resettling significant numbers of refugees after Jack Pickersgill, the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, visited Vienna to investigate the refugee situation and became “excited” at the prospect of so much “talent”.[1]

Laval Fortier, Deputy Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, communicated the minister’s enthusiasm to university leaders across the country. To Victor Sifton, Chancellor at the University of Manitoba, he wrote: “these young men are the kind of people we need in Canada to advance our mineral frontiers just as the earlier immigrants your father (Clifford Sifton) brought to Canada advanced our agricultural frontiers.”[2] So desirable were the migrants that universities competed to host students, especially the forestry school from the University of Sopron. The Sopron faculty ultimately went to the University of British Columbia where the university invested significant resources in their integration and settlement, intent on ensuring that the resettlement program would be successful. This included locating appropriate residences and classrooms (a difficult task on a crowded postwar campus) as well as disseminating informational materials prior the arrival of the Hungarian students to ensure they would be well-received. An open letter published in the student newspaper explained:

The group includes musicians as well as athletes, among others soccer players of note, fencing experts, and tennis champions of Hungary. They bring with them cultural traditions centuries old. There is little doubt but that their impact on UBC will be considerable and lasting. They in turn will learn much from our own students that will be of value in their new life in a bewilderingly strange land…. We foresee many problems, none of them unsolvable, but all requiring mutual tolerance and understanding and effort.[3]

As the final sentence suggests, those invested in the resettlement program were anxious about what they were undertaking despite the pedigrees of the arriving migrants and their successful settlement (conventionally measured in economic terms).

Any sense of the initial anxiety that attended the resettlement effort has been lost over the past sixty years. Instead, the largesse of the initiative is remembered, while any hint of rectitude has largely been erased from the collective conscience of Canadians. This erasure makes it easy for politicians and activists to point to the Hungarian precedent again and again in making the case for the resettlement of refugees. It was cited as precedent in 1968 as the Soviets crushed the Prague Spring movement in Czechoslovakia, in 1973 following the coup in Chile that overthrew the democratically elected regime of Salvador Allende, and again during the 1970s as Canada’s leaders debated how to respond to the emerging humanitarian crisis in Southeast Asia with the flight of hundreds of thousands of “boat people”. On each of these occasions, the federal government ultimately resettled people to Canada as a way of providing humanitarian assistance and condemning the political situation that had caused people to flee in the first place.

Most recently, we saw reference to Canada’s response in 1956 in the face of an initially lacklustre commitment to assisting Syrian refugees. Hungarian refugees themselves made the case that their experience should serve as historical precedent for a resettlement initiative.

A single refugee movement sixty years ago set the stage for the admission of tens of thousands of others in subsequent decades. Unbeknownst to all the participants, they were setting a precedent that would be cited by governments and advocates as humanitarian situations emerged around the globe in later years. It was an extraordinary event, for its time and for its impact. Yet it is also serves as a cautionary tale for the expectations that are imposed on arriving migrants to successfully acclimatise and integrate, a phenomenon we are witnessing with the arrival of migrants from Syria. As the example of Hungarian refugees makes clear, it’s a burden that migrants carry not only in terms of present-day impact but also for future generations of migrants seeking refuge.


Laura Madokoro is an Assistant Professor of History at McGill University who specializes in global migration.


[1] See correspondence in Library and Archives Canada, Department of Citizenship and Immigration Fonds, RG 26, vol. 146, file 3-41-22.

[2] Library and Archives Canada (hereafter LAC), Department of Citizenship and Immigration Fonds, RG 26, vol. 146, file 3-41-22, “Admission to Canada of Hungarian Refugee students,” Fortier to Sifton, 7 December 1956.

[3] The Ubyssey (15 January 1957).

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