The Bridge At Andau
James A. Michener

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The Bridge At Andau




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I got this from a pile of free books. It’s a beat-up paperback with stamps indicating previous inclusion in both school and public libraries. At the time, I didn’t realize either that it dealt with events occurring when I was five years old, or that I would get around to reading it during a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

This story includes brutal warfare and massacres of civilians. It also deals with a background of systematic oppression, including widespread censorship and torture.

The story also resonates with a current trend in American media, with many readers voluntarily rejecting honest journalism in favor of both left- and right-wing propaganda.

The Bridge At Andau

© Copyright 1957 by James A. Michener


At dawn, on November 4, 1956, Russian communism showed its true character to the world. With a ferocity and barbarism unmatched in recent history, it moved its brutal tanks against a defenseless population seeking escape from the terrors of communism, and destroyed it.

A city whose only offense was that it sought a decent life was shot to pieces. Dedicated Hungarian communists who had deviated slightly from the true Russian line were shot down ruthlessly and hunted from house to house. Even workers, on whom communism is supposed to be built, were rounded up like animals and shipped in sealed boxcars to the USSR. A satellite country which had dared to question Russian domination was annihilated.

After what the Russians did to Hungary, after their destruction of a magnificent city, and after their treatment of fellow communists, the world need no longer have even the slimmest doubt as to what Russia's intentions are. Hungary has laid bare the great Russian lie.

Several critics regretted that some of the characters through whom I told the story of the great Hungarian uprising were composites. They correctly pointed out that this dampened the force of the narrative. I agree. But it was not I who chose to use composites. It was my Hungarian narrators, who said simply, “If the secret police identify me in any way, they will kill my mother and father.” A writer thinks twice before betraying an identity in such circumstances, even though by using masked composites he does somewhat diminish the impact of his story.


The Intellectuals

In spite of its propaganda that only communism can build a classless society, the system is actually built upon a horde of subtle class distinctions. Certain members of the party get all the rewards of society—the good apartments, the good radios, the good food, the best clothing—and it is by these constant bribes that communism builds an inner core of trusted leaders. The rest of the people can starve, for they are not of the elite, and since they lack power, they can do nothing to harm the movement.



“Under communism a young couple cannot live unless each works ten hours a day. The price structure is kept so high that they can afford nothing, even with such slave hours. As a communist leader I was able to make my purchases at special stores where the reduction was sometimes seventy per cent. The working people ate little and wore less.

“But again it was the economy of the nation itself that made me first question communism. Our country was being used as an indecent experiment to strengthen Russia; I cannot recall a single decision that was ever made in terms of Hungary’s good. With our productive capacity and our hard work we ought to be able to provide our people with a good living. We used to, when we knew less and worked less. But now everything goes to Russia.”


At the Kilian Barracks

Csoki had reason to hate the AVO, for during his army career each unit he had served with had contained several AVO men, and they had instinctively distrusted his jovial attitude toward life. “You’ve got to be serious when you’re a communist,” an AVO man warned him. He was not yet a communist, but since he wanted to become an officer, he knew he would have to join the party. So he had held his temper and done what the AVO men told him.

Note (Hal’s):
The AVO, mentioned frequently in this book, were the secret police of communist Hungary. Michener explains the terminology thus:

  • formal name: AVH (Allam Vedelmi Hatosag, State Protecting Organization);
  • generally known as: AVO (Allam Vedelmi Osztag, State Protecting Special Group).

— end note

The soldiers had conducted no formal discussion: “Shall we fight the Russians?” Officers had made no fiery speeches: “We will drive the Russians out of Budapest.” There had only been an unspoken, universal understanding: Everyone hates AVO men, Russians support the AVO men. Therefore the Russians are as bad as the AVO men, therefore if you fight one, you’ve got to fight the other. As for defending Russia, or communism, no one even thought about that.

AVO (defn.)

The miracle of the fight at Kilian Barracks was not the triumph of Hungarian patriots over Russian tanks. Nor was it the heroism of men and boys fighting without weapons. It lay in this simple fact: Of the four hundred communist soldiers in the barracks on the night of October 23—and they were men both trained and pampered by the Russians—not a single one remained faithful to communism.

Throughout all of Hungary the percentage was about the same.


Brief Vision

As he listened to this extraordinary concoction, Zoltan Pal felt weak. “I was there,” he kept repeating, as if one man’s witness of incontrovertible fact could somehow outweigh the confirmed lies of a regime. And in this growing realization of the web of falsehoods and terror in which he was caught, Zoltan Pal became a revolutionary.



One of the most touching proofs that freedom had really arrived—and you could see men and women all over the city fingering these proofs with actual affection—was the appearance, almost as if by magic, of many different kinds of newspapers. There were socialist papers, peasant-party papers, labor union papers, and organs proclaiming this or that sure pathway to national prosperity.



Moscow implied that if the revolution succeeded, Hungary would be plunged back into medievalism or worse.

But the new Hungary, if it had been allowed to survive, would have been a socialist state devoid of absentee land ownership, large concentrations of private capital or private ownership of important industries. One might have termed it a modified communism lacking dictatorship features.


The Russian Terror

At four o’clock on Sunday morning, November 4, the Russians returned to Budapest. With a terror unparalleled in recent years they destroyed a city, and in doing so they stood unmasked before the world for the aggressors, the murderers, the insane fanatics that they are.

In the rubble of Budapest, in the graves of women and children mowed down by machine guns, and in the unrelieved terror of Soviet revenge lay buried Russia’s claims to friendship with the satelite countries who live within her orbit. In eight hellish days Russia proved that she holds Poland and Bulgaria and Lithuania and many of the Central Asian republics by cold, brute force.

After the Russians had won the military victory in Budapest, they still had to win a propaganda victory. They therefore launched a world-wide attempt to prove that the United States triggered the revolution and that it was participated in only by reactionaries, former Horthy fascists, armed refugees smuggled in from Germany, Cardinal Mindszenty and enemies of the working classes. Russia is already claiming that true communists, honest workmen and intelligent students remained loyal. These lies will be repeated endlessly, and in some parts of the world will probably be believed.

At one time the street boys selling the new communist newspaper Nep Szabadsag (People’s Freedom)—a typically communist juggling of the former name, Szabad Nep (Free People)—hawked their wares by shouting, “Today’s most recent complete lies, all for only half a forint.”




The AVO Man

Why must communism depend on such dregs of society? We must answer either that communist philosophers are inherently evil beyond the capacity of a normal imagination to conceive—which I am not willing to claim—or that no matter on what elevated plane communism begins its program of total dictatorship, it sooner or later runs into such economic and social problems that some strong-arm force is required to keep the civil population under control. It is this latter theory that I accept.

What happens is this. When communism is wooing the workers in Csepel, all kinds of exaggerated promises are made if they seem likely to awaken men’s aspirations and their cupidity. These promises are couched in such simple terms and such effective symbols that they become immediate goals of the revolution, and I think we have seen in Hungary how eagerly the fulfillment of those goals was awaited when communism did triumph.

But the promises were so vast and unrealistic that there never was a chance of attaining them, and probably the organizing communists who made the original promises knew then that they were totally beyond any hope of realization.

AVO (defn.)

Any system—either state socialism or enlightened capitalism—would have had to work intelligently and hard for at least ten years to achieve what the communists promised. Under communism, with its irrational production, its gross favoritism and its downright incapacity in management, there was never a chance of success. Within two years the people of Hungary realized that the promises which had seduced them would never materialize, and that instead of freedom they had purchased only tyranny.

When an awakening of such magnitude begins to spread across a nation, the communist leaders, who from the first have been aware of the impracticality of many of their promises, must take steps to silence the protests that naturally begin to arise.

I am not sure who is right, I in my belief that an AVO matures by a process of inevitable deterioration on a communist society, or the Hungarians who point out that Lenin preached the introduction of terror and the liquidation of opposition in the first days of a communist regime as a calculated strategy of power. In either event the end is inevitable total terror.

AVO (defn.)

In a factory a spy ring reports on each workman. Within this spy ring, inner spies report on the work of lesser spies. The AVO itself is ridden with spies, and even the upper circles of the communist control groups are checked constantly by their own spies. There was in Hungary no prison cell so remote but what the man in the next cell might be a spy, there was no AVO post so insignificant but what some other AVO man was spying upon it.

One of the awful aspects of interrogating Hungarians regarding their life in communism is their admission that they had to take into constant consideration the fact that their neighbor, or their schoolteacher, or their butcher was an AVO spy. The number of men and women I have met who were betrayed into weeks of brutal AVO treatment by intimate friends was a constant shock to me. In fact, this studied tearing down of the fabric of normal society was perhaps the AVO’s outstanding contribution to Hungarian life. Their goal was to incriminate every living Hungarian, and many of the dead. When everyone was incriminated, then any normal social relationship was impossible, and only the AVO could thrive. It is against such a conclusion that we must judge the men and women who gathered in Republic Square that November day and finally came face to face with the evil which had corrupted the entire nation. That an outraged citizenry should have risen to smite their tormenters should be no surprise.

AVO (defn.)



It remained for the communist terror, as administered by the AVO, to debase Hungarian life and at the same time to announce that this was being done as an act of friendship. When Russia introduced her terror into Hungary she stole the produce of the land and called it “elevating the peasants.” She victimized the workers and called it “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” She corrupted every institution of government and called it “the new society.” She stole from housewives, contaminated children, allowed the old to die in poverty and called it "“world brotherhood.” And through the AVO, she declared war on every Hungarian citizen and called it “peace.”

The first five terrors in Hungarian history were honest brigandage and murder. The Soviet terror was a sanctimonious cynicism. It remained for Russia to introduce into the terror business a completely new dimension: hypocrisy.

AVO (defn.)

One characteristic of the AVO damns communism and makes it doubly hypocritical: the typical AVO officer had been a bully boy for the Horthy regime, a servile tool of Hitler’s Nazi occupiers, and a brutal operator for the Szalasi dictatorship. These were all fascist governments, and fascism was supposed to be the deadly enemy of communism. But when the Soviets assumed control, they adopted into their system the worst elements of the fascist police force and called them good communists. Many of the AVO didn’t even know what communism was.

Some officers, however, were dedicated party members and many had acquired good educations. Those who progressed most rapidly in the system were apt to be graduates of the Moscow school of terrorism, and their loyalty to Russia was unquestioned.

AVO (defn.)



It is one of the dismal characteristics of humanity that in any society there is an irreducible minimum of men and women who enjoy sadistic work and who would volunteer for it if the opportunity arose. Communism is the form of government which surrenders its governing obligations to such men.




The Man from Csepel

First there was the very good store for Russians only, and here the best things produced by Hngary were on sale at eighty-percent reductions. Second were the stores that were almost as good, for Hungarian officials and AVO men, where the reduction sometimes amounted to seventy per cent. Next came the stores for minor communist officials, where the goods were of fine quality and the prices reasonable. “And when everything good has been used up by those stores,” Mrs. Szabo complained, “what’s left is placed in stores for us workers, and we pay the most expensive prices. Why is this?”

Gyorgy said, “It’s that way with everything, I guess.”

But his wife persisted, “I thought you told me that in communism everybody was going to be equal.”

“After they get things properly worked out, everybody will be equal.”

“Until then, Gyorgy, will you please see if we can buy in one of the better stores?”

But in spite of his good record and his unquestioned loyalty to the party, Gyorgy found that no ordinary worker could possibly buy in the good stores. “They’re for the big bosses,” he was told. “You wouldn’t feel at home in big stores like that.”

AVO (defn.)

But no propaganda, no matter how skillfully constructed, can ever explain away the coldly rational, unemotional strike of the Csepel men. It was conceived by workers, and by workers in heavy industry. It was carried out without the aid of writers, students or churchmen. Of greatest importance was its duration and determination, proving that it was neither hastily conceived nor emotionally operated.

The Csepel strike was a solemn announcement to the world that the men whom communism is most supposed to aid had tried the system and had found it a total fraud. Most of the leaders of this Csepel strike were members of the communist party. They had known it intimately for ten years and had, in some cases, even tried to help direct it along the promised channels. There was not, so far as I can find, a single excited intellectual or daring philosopher of freedom involved in this strike.

This was communism itself, rejecting itself.

I have long suspected that raw courage, like that required for blowing up a tank, is largely a matter of adrenalin; if a man gets a strong enough surge of it he can accomplish amazing feats, which the world calls courage. But courage such as the workers’ committees of Csepel exhibited is not a matter of adrenalin, it is based on heart and will. Voluntarily these men signed manifestoes, although they knew that their names were being collected by the Russians. Without protesting they permitted themselves to be photographed, although they could be sure that these photographs would be filed and used to identify strikers for later retaliation. They were willing to stand forth undisguised and to demonstrate their contempt for their Soviet masters. I call that the ultimate in courage.




The Bridge at Andau

You can see that this bridge at Andau was about the most inconsequential bridge in Europe, and if it had been left to its placid farmers and their hay fields it might have lasted for several more generations, until its timbers finally rotted and fell into the canal. It would have vanished unremembered.

But by an accident of history it became, for a few flaming weeks, one of the most important bridges in the world, for across its unsteady planks fled the soul of a nation.

No one I know in Hungary wants to put young Count Esterhazy back in control of his 1938 peasants, or even to restore to him his four thousands holds of land near Budapest. Those days are gone, and he knew it better than I.

But for a society conscientiously to degrade human beings because of their accidental birth is disgraceful. For any nation to deprive itself of the capacities of any man is really a sin against the entire society. And if a system not only refuses to use native capacities but establishes a regime for stunting or destroying those capacities, then such a regime is doomed.

Young Esterhazy played no part in organizing or operating the revolution. That was done by others who were disgusted with the way their nation in all its aspects was being criminally abused. When I last saw Esterhazy he was on his way to Great Britain. “Maybe plastics or automotive engineering or electronics,” he said. “Anything that’s useful to the world.”

Those of us who met the refugees at the border or in Vienna were unprepared for the spiritual hunger with which these people wanted to talk about art and ideas, about politics and the nature of man’s experience. One of the most promising aspects of the Hungarian revolution was that it was initiated by men who wanted the human spirit to be inquiring and free. They wanted the simple rights of talk, and honest newspapers, and respect for differing opinions.

The aspect of the revolution which surprised me most was the profound longing with which Hungarian intellectuals wanted to return to the community of European nations.



“But do you know why the students felt they had to revolt? Because whenever they wanted to read one of the world’s important books they were forbidden. But they were free to read some communist’s critique of the book. I know what communism thinks is wrong with Schopenhauer. But I don’t know Schopenhauer. Only what some third-rate communist thought about him.”


Books (general)

I cannot yet see clearly by what means the Russian yoke will be lifted from the necks of the Hungarian people, but I am convinced that in that happy day Hungarians from their new homes all over the world will send in their money—their francs, their dollars, their pounds Australian, and their pesos—to erect at Andau a memorial bridge.

It need not be much, as bridges go: not wide enough for a car nor sturdy enough to bear a motorcycle. It need only be firm enough to recall the love with which Austrians helped so many Hungarians across the old bridge to freedom, only wide enough to permit the soul of a free nation to pass.


The Russian Defeat

“It was partly our fault for trusting in words. It was partly America’s fault for thinking that words can be used loosely. Words like ‘freedom,’ ‘struggle for national honor,’ ‘rollback,’ and ‘liberation’ have meanings. They stand for something. Believe me when I say that you cannot tell Hungarians or Bulgarians or Poles every day for six years to love liberty and then sit back philosophically and say ‘But the Hungarians and Bulgarians and Poles mustn’t do anything about liberty. They must remember that we’re only using words.’ Such words, to a man in chains, are not merely words. They are the weapons whereby he can break his chains.”

Ferenc Kobol took an honorable part in the freedom movement within his country. He risked his life to attain freedom, and he said, “I was motivated primarily by words.” He added, “If America wants to flood Eastern and Central Europe with these words, it must acknowledge an ultimate responsibility for them. Otherwise you are inciting nations to commit suicide.”



We turned the job of selecting the refugees we would accept over to voluntary religious groups who stipulated the most extraordinary requirements and made themselves the laughingstock of Vienna by sending out notices that no divorced persons could enter the United States, since such people had obviously broken with religious teaching, and America wanted no one who was not openly devout. The countries of Europe, by contrast, backed steam-heated trains up to camps and said, “England or France or Switzerland will take every man, woman or child who can find a seat on this train.”

When the United States finally got organized, it behaved rather well, and by mid-March, 1957, had accepted over thirty thousand Hungarian refugees.

So the emotional cycle was complete: initial shock, embarassment, reassurance, and finally a modest pride in traditional American generosity.

But the fact that America finally accepted its responsibilities in a time of great crisis must not obscure the more important fact that originally we were befuddled. We have got to rethink our attitudes in the cold war.

In time, I found myself exhausted by this frustrating business of trying to argue against skillful propaganda without any hard-core facts that I could make my adversaries accept. Always they had Russian-imagined statistics and I had only logic and common sense.

I remember saying once in real anger, after a baffling session with some young Chinese who were trying to drag Singapore into communism, “I wish I could take those kids to some communist heaven like Poland or Lithuania. I’d like to have them ask Poles and Lithuanians what they thought of Russian communism.”

It is now possible to ask Hungarians.

If ninety-five per cent of Hungarians hated their brand of communism, what per cent of Red Chinese hate their brand? If Hungarian troops deserted communism almost to a man, what percentage of Chinese soldiers would remain loyal? If communism could be maintained in Hungary only by the exercise of brute force, is not a similar force required in Red China, and must not the people hate it? And, to extend the scope of the question somewhat, if one of the most striking facts about the Hungarian revolution was the number of North Korean visiting students who volunteered to fight the Soviets, how secure is communism in North Korea?

text checked (see note) April 2022

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