What caused the Hungarian Revolution of 1956?

Many consider the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 the nation’s greatest tragedy. This utmost Uprising, also commonly referred to as the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, represented a clearly spontaneous revolt by the Hungarian people against the ruling Stalinist regime and Communist party at the time, both of which in turn were crippling post-war Hungary’s development under Moscow’s Soviet policies and the Russian oppression. Although the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 comprised of several major events, undoubtedly, it did begin with the vast students’ protests on October 23 in Budapest and it was quickly, though fiercely, crushed only a few weeks later with the infamous proclamation by the Soviet-backed Janos Kadar on November 11 announcing that he had killed the Uprising.

Nowadays it is a National Holiday when commemorations take place in Budapest and entire Hungary to remind Hungarian people their brave historic revolt against the communists’ oppression and Soviet ruled system. Furthermore, later in 1989, after the fall of communism, Hungary symbolically declared a republic on October 23, as well. Thus, “Day of the Republic” turned into a memorial recognition of the Hungarian emblematic act of nationwide heroism.

Pre-existing conditions for the revolt in the post-war Hungary

In 1945, the residents of Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the other countries in the region, welcomed the Soviet troops pouring in Eastern Europe in pursuit of the fleeing German Army as liberators. Unfortunately, soon enough the euphoria died out with the quick realization that Stalin did not intend to withdraw from Eastern Europe after the defeat of Nazi Germany. Instead, the absolute Soviet ruler was planning to turn the region in Russian satellite friendly nations.[1] Furthermore, like many of its neighboring countries in the region, in 1949 the Russians coerced and effectively forced Hungarians to sign a mutual assistance treaty with the Soviet Union, granting them rights to enforce a continued military presence and thereby assure ultimate political control. Gradually the communists shifted power transferring it from the freely elected Hungarian government Independent Smallholders Party to the Soviet-backed Hungarian Socialist Worker’s Party led by the infamous and sinister Matyas Rakosi.

A man of Stalin’s ilk, Rakosi initiated his relentless Soviet-backed authoritarian regime over Hungary and set about communizing the country and purging the nation of dissidents, arresting or executing his political opponents often mercilessly and without proper trials. Meanwhile, his mishandling of the economy and huge expenditures for militarization of the regime unsurprisingly led to drastic falls of quality of life for virtually every Hungarian.

However, following Stalin’s death in 1953 the Soviet block started to weaken with riots in East Berlin and Poland in the following year.[2] Furthermore, Hungarian conditions got a little improved when the same year Moscow forced Rakosi to also resign in 1953. The far more liberal Imre Nagy became the leader of Hungary and declared a new, more liberal government program, which aimed at increasing standard of living and easing the burdens of farmers. Nagy promised a new course – ending the forced development of the heavy industry, providing more consumer goods, no more forcing of peasants into the collectives, the release of political prisoners, and the closing of internment camps. Introducing these reforms, however, Moscow hesitated to support him for being well too liberal at the time. Nagy started a positive change in the politics by a thorough review of the illegally condemned nationals’ cases.

On the other hand, the members of the previous leadership feared their vanishing privileges and that they would be accounted for their prior unjust deeds. Meanwhile, former Hungarian communist leader Rakosi had held a decent political power post as General Secretary of Hungarian Workers Party in the background. Unsurprisingly, the members of the previous leadership backed Rakosi who convinced the Russian party leaders that Nagy’s program endangered the very state of socialist-communist system in Hungary. [3]Moscow ordered Nagy to withdraw his government program, but he refused to cooperate. As Nagy set about releasing anti-Communists from jail and removing state control of the media, Rakosi campaigned against him. Soviets quickly discredited and denounced Nagy, removed him from power and quickly excluded him from the communist party. Rakosi then once more became the nation’s leading politician. However, Nikita Khrushchev who had succeeded Stalin in Kremlin, shortly removed him from power denouncing Stalin and all of his close followers acknowledging their mistakes endangering the very socialist-communist regime. Nevertheless, before stepping down, Rakosi secured the appointment of his close follower Erno Gero as the new General Secretary of Hungarian Workers Party. The political leadership with Erno Gero – the former second in command of Rakosi cabinet – did not aim at conducting any reforms, while more and more Hungarians were demanding real changes. Therefore, the scene was still ripe for unrest.

Furthermore, it turned out that the events in Poland were the trigger for the Hungarian Revolution. Although the Polish government forces violently put down the staged mass protest of Poznan workers earlier in June 1956, the Soviets in Moscow were worried and they let Poland to negotiate wider autonomy and liberalization in order to avoid further unrest. A year earlier Austria had also managed to declare itself neutral and avoid joining the Warsaw Pact. In turn, many Hungarians hoped to achieve something similar, and when students from the Budapest Technical University (who had become a strong political voice) heard that the Hungarian Writers Union planned to express solidarity with pro-reform movements in Poland, they decided to join them.

Hungarian protests vs Soviet violence – first wave of Russian tanks enter Budapest

The tension reached its peak in October 1956. On the evening of October 22, 1956, students of the University of Technology in Budapest had decided to demonstrate the next day. They organized their demands in 16 point resolution, which included: withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Hungary; granting free elections, liberty of speech and press; abolishment of surrendering of goods and the right to sell Hungarian uranium deposits on the free market; removal of the Stalin statues; Imre Nagy to be appointed prime minister. In the late afternoon of October 23, 1956, over 50 000 people gathered at the statue of Hungarian General Bem to demonstrate on the streets and read out their proclamation of independence together with the Hungarian Writers Union. In the following hours, the crowd marched across the Danube to demonstrate outside the Hungarian parliament where people demanded Imre Nagy to deliver a speech. By 6 pm, more than 200 000 people had gathered and the mood was spirited but peaceful. However, at 8 pm Erno Gero broadcasted a speech dismissing the demands of the Writer’s Union and the students and labelling them Hungarian enemies of the state.[4]

This uncompromising stance infuriated the Hungarian people and they carried out one of their demands in the sixteen point resolution, tearing down the statue of Stalin erected in 1951. By that time, other demonstrations started at several other parts of the city. A large crowd gathered at the headquarters of the Hungarian Radio as it became the focal point of the events. Moreover, the AVH (Hungarian Secret Police) heavily guarded its entrance and tried to prevent the oncoming delegation from attempting to broadcast their demands nationwide. The AVH then threw tear gas and opened fire on the unarmed crowd and this cold-blooded killing provoked a full scale riot against the communists and the AVH. Police cars were set on fire, weapons were seized and Communist symbols torn down and vandalized. In the following panic, Erno Gero called on military intervention from the Soviet Union to suppress the uprising as the freedom fighters seized control of the Radio building and other important parts of Budapest. On the eve of October 23-24, Imre Nagy returned as an appointed prime minister once more in assurance to continue with his reformist program.

Around 2 am on October 24, the first Soviet tanks entered Budapest and positioned strategically outside the parliament building as to bring down the revolution. Meanwhile more Soviet troops penetrated key positions in the city. On the radio, Nagy called for end to violence and promised to initiate political reforms abolished three years earlier. Despite all efforts for a peaceful resolution of the riots, when Erno Gero ordered a Soviet tank to fire upon unarmed peacefully demonstrating protesters in Parliament Square on October 25, the fighting escalated. [5]The demonstrators tried to seek refuge in the ministry of agriculture building but they weren’t allowed in and around 800 died that day in what is now referred to as the “Bloody Thursday”. After the Soviet public massacre, the revolution was unstoppable. The Soviet troops and their AVH cohorts continued to fight against the revolutionaries until 28th October, when Moscow ordered the Soviets to retreat from the city. Communist regime was widely denounced by Hungarians with Hungarian Workers’ Party discredited and Erno Gero was forced to resign as First Secretary, with Janos Kadar replacing him.

In order to prevent any further escalation and in attempt to calm the infuriated masses, Nikita Khrushchev initially decided to order Soviets retreat from Budapest. Оn October 28, Nagy announced an immediate and general cease-fire over the radio and, on behalf of the new national government declared that a multi-party system was to replace the communist single-party dictatorship as well as: that the government would assess the uprising not as counter-revolutionary, but as a “great, national and democratic event”; an unconditional general cease-fire and amnesty for those who participated in the uprising; negotiations with the insurgents; the dissolution of the AVH; the establishment of a national guard; the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops from Budapest and negotiations for the withdrawal of all Soviet forces from Hungary.

Hungary’s Fate decided in Moscow. Soviet following decisive interventions of 4 November: The Soviet Empire strikes back ending the Revolution

The Soviet Union’s new leader Khrushchev had different approach from Joseph Stalin, and he debated the matter of Hungary’s independence in Moscow even considering negotiating the constant withdrawal of troops from the country. Despite the initial decision of the Politburo and Presidium not to remove the new Nagy Hungarian government and to withdraw the Soviet forces from Hungary, only a day later - on 31 October, the Soviet leaders decided to reverse their decision and to strike back. Soviets believed that the rebellion directly threatened the very Communist rule in Hungary and that the West would quickly recognize a sign of weakness in Moscow’s lack of response, especially after the British, French and Israeli strike against Suez that had begun on October 29. Soviets also feared the spread of anti-Communist feelings in Hungary, which also started threatening the rule of neighboring satellite leaders. Finally yet importantly – the members of the Soviet party would fail to understand any lack of response by force in Hungary. [6]

Undoubtedly, most of the following developments within the very Hungarian leadership also played a key part in Moscow’s decision. Nagy, who Moscow reinstated once more into the country’s leadership role after it became clear that the crowd completely discredited all old Stalinist leaders, had proved ineffective in following strict Moscow’s orders. His appeal to the United Nations for help in establishing the country’s neutrality, endangered Soviet Union and represented a breach in the Soviet defensive buffer zone of satellite nations. Soviet fear of invasion from the West as well as of development of yet another capitalist state were decisive. On November 1, 1956, Nagy formally addressed Hungarian people over the National Radio and declared Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact as well as Hungary’s stance of neutrality. He also released many political prisoners and allowed previously banned political parties to reappear and join the coalition. The mood was defiantly optimistic. For a short period, it seemed that Nagy was going to be able to achieve the Hungarian people’s wishes for a neutral, multi-party social-democratic nation. However, he conducted dramatic steps that did not please and infuriated the Soviet leaders in Moscow.

The second Soviet intervention left no one guessing about the oncoming outcome. In the early hours on November 4, the strongest continental army lead by the Russians attacked Budapest and Hungary with over 1 000 tanks, destroying the fierce but uncoordinated resistance of the poorly armed Hungarian freedom fighters. Soviets quickly seized control and occupied all key positions in the city. Nagy made his final broadcast to the world at 05:15 in the morning, appealing for international help. However, Western powers were much more concentrated at the Suez Crisis at the time. Janos Kadar, fully backed by Moscow, proclaimed himself head of a new “Hungarian Revolutionary Worker-Peasant Government”. He declared that Imperialistic western powers were financing this counter-revolution and he called on Soviet help to put it down and restore order since Nagy’s government was “illegal”.

The Soviets backed up the so-called “restoration of order” by heavy artillery and airstrikes as Budapest became bloodshed field with over 2000 dead casualties, most of them under 30 years old. Another 13 000 were injured with many more imprisoned and executed, as the Soviet troops often failed to distinguish between civilian citizens and freedom fighters, firing indiscriminately at people and buildings. More than 700 Soviet soldiers also gave up their lives, most of them executed for refusing to fight. Janos Kadar proclaimed end of revolution officially on November 11, 1956. Soviets, led by Kadar, later lured, trapped and arrested Nagy and his followers. Janos Kadar then charged them with treason and executed all on June 16, 1958.

Aftermath of the 1956 Revolution and International recognition

Recriminations followed with tens of thousands of Hungarians arrested, imprisoned and deported to the Soviet Union, often without evidence or any proper trials. Until mid-1957, many enemies of the communist regime were executed without trace and more than 200 000 people fled Hungary - either fearing for their lives, or simply to escape from the Communist regime. Moreover, many of them were Hungary’s best educated people searching for a better life in the Western world.

With most of Budapest under Soviet control by November 8, Kadar became officially Prime Minister of the “Revolutionary Worker-Peasant Government” and General Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party. Few Hungarians rejoined the reorganized Party, its leadership having been purged under the supervision of the Soviet Presidium. Step by step Kadar steadily increased his control over Hungary and neutralized dissenters. In May 1957, the Soviet Union increased its troop levels in Hungary and Hungary accepted the Soviet presence on a permanent basis under a new enforced treaty.

However, despite seeming to sell out to the Soviets, Kadar proved to be a better leader for Hungary than many expected. After the excessive reconstruction of the post-revolution period, he successively eased much of the oppression felt by the people, famously declaring, “who is not against us is with us”. He also engineered a unique brand of Communism which incorporated elements of free market economics which was later dubbed “Goulash Communism”. Indeed, Hungary was considered to be one of the happiest Soviet satellites until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.

National leaders of this period as well as later historians saw the failure of the uprising in Hungary as a firm evidence that the Cold War in Europe had become a stalemate. Moreover, in January 1957, United Nations General Assembly resolutions requested investigation and observation of the events in Soviet-occupied Hungary. UN Secretary General subsequently established the Special Committee addressing the problem of Hungary. For over five months the Committee interviewed more than 100 refugees, both Communist and non-Communist. However, the new Hungarian government utterly refused the UN officials entry and independent investigation, and the government of the Soviet Union did not respond to requests for information. The Committee Report was presented to the General Assembly in June 1957, concluding “the Kadar government and Soviet occupation and intervention were in violation of the human rights of the Hungarian people”. The General Assembly resolution was approved, confirming “the repression of the Hungarian people and the Soviet occupation” with no other action effectively taken.

The Hungarian representative at UN disagreed with the Committee Report’s conclusions, accusing it of falsifying the events, and argued that the very establishment of the Committee was illegal. Hungary then accused the Committee of being hostile to Hungary and its social system.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, in December 1991 and again in 1992, Russia, represented by Boris Yeltsin, apologized officially for the 1956 Soviet actions in Hungary.

Nevertheless, the Hungarian Revolution clearly indicated the weaknesses of the enforced Soviet system and Hungarian people free will for reforms and better life. It did further paved the way for the oncoming Eastern European revolts and challenges spreading across the remaining Soviet satellite countries against the common Oppressor – mostly Yugoslavia, Poland, Czechoslovakia with its emblematic Prague Spring of 1968 requiring over 650 000 Soviet troops to further enforce an end of the country’s call for more liberal reforms.

References

  1. Hungarian history: War and renewed defeat -https://www.britannica.com/place/Hungary/History#ref411390
  2. 1956 Hungarian Uprising: Post War Hungary & Sowing The Seeds of Dissent - http://www.local-life.com/budapest/articles/1956-hungarian-uprising
  3. October 23 1956 Revolution - http://www.budapestbylocals.com/event/23rd-october-1956-revolution/
  4. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956: Russians go home! - http://www.historyinanhour.com/2013/02/21/hungarian-revolution-of-1956-summary/
  5. Hungarian Revolution of 1956: First shots - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hungarian_Revolution_of_1956
  6. The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents - http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB76/