Professor László Borhi is the Peter A. Kadas Chair of the Central Eurasian Studies department of the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. Read more about his research and work on his Indiana University profile.
In October and November 1956, an uprising that began in Budapest engulfed the whole country. Soon it would rock the communist world to the core. After a decade of terror, ordinary people lost their fear of their intimidating regime. What did they rebel against? Was it hunger or perhaps the hopeless drudgery of Stalinist every-day life? Their shattered dream of a better, more prosperous life after the devastation of the war? Or perhaps the pain of silence imposed on all those who wanted something else? Who thought otherwise? Who had no desire to parrot the falsehoods of Communist propaganda? A rebellion by those whose loved disappeared without a trace to the gallows and dungeons of Rákosi’ regime?
The only armed challenge to Soviet rule behind the iron curtain throughout the Cold War, the Hungarian uprising arose from the deep discontent over all of the above as well as the country’s subjugation and economic ruin as a result of Soviet authority that had been in place there since shortly after the end of World War II.
Through the summer of 1956, political crisis had been looming over the grave social and economic injustices felt by many Hungarians. Although the Hungarian Workers’ Party (HWP), with Soviet backing, removed the country’s hated dictator Mátyás Rákosi and introduced moderate reform, such measures came too late. Rákosi’s successor, hitherto the country’s second-in-command Ernő Gerő, proved inept in dealing with the developing crisis. On October 22, students at the Technical University compiled a list of sixteen demands, including democratic elections, freedom of speech, free press, a new government under the reformer Imre Nagy, the dissolution of the State Security Police, the withdrawal of Soviet troops, and the fundamental revision of the unequal Soviet–Hungarian political and economic relationship. The students stopped short, however, of advocating the restoration of capitalism or pulling out of the Warsaw Pact.
Inspired by the apparent success of the Poles in the recent Polish unrest, on October 23 some 200,000 demonstrators gathered in front of the Parliament to hear the party’s reformer, Nagy, who had just been appointed prime minister. Nagy’s speech was disappointing, and the crowd departed in dismay. Gerő called the demonstrators “fascists,” further inflaming the situation. Part of the crowd proceeded to the Radio Building demanding to air their sixteen points. State Security Police initially detained the protesters inside the building, and when demonstrators outside demanded their release, the police began firing at the crowd, causing several fatalities. The confrontation quickly escalated into armed conflict as news of the events at the Radio Building spread throughout the city and beyond, sparking further confrontations between revolutionaries and police. The same night the administration solicited Soviet intervention and after some deliberations the Soviet presidium obliged.
On October 25 the government announced that the “attempted counter-revolutionary putsch had been foiled” but this was untrue. Instead of surrendering, resistance groups were formed in various parts of Budapest, carrying out attacks against the Soviet troops, which had taken over the capital. Of the estimated fifteen thousand combatants, most were working-class youths in their late teens and early twenties. After the massacre at Kossuth tér on October 25 where up to eighty peaceful demonstrators were killed by the state security police firing from a rooftop, it became apparent that a political solution was needed.
Gerő, who had urged the Soviet presidium to sanction armed intervention to put down the rebellion, was removed and the more moderate János Kádár was installed as the party’s new leader. Initially Kádár offered reform but pledged to end the uprising with an iron fist. Convinced by his talks with revolutionary delegates from the countryside and representatives of armed groups that the movement engulfing the country was a democratic revolution rather than an attempt at restoration, on October 28 Nagy sided with the freedom fighters and Kádár soon followed suit. In a few days the government was revamped to include non-communists and reform communists, the state security police force was disbanded, and the multiparty system was reintroduced. On October 30 Nagy announced talks on Soviet troop withdrawal. Democratic national councils sprang up in provincial towns, in many places supported by the local police and the army. In factories, workers’ councils took charge of production, and the state-controlled trade union asserted its independence. Eventually the party itself was disbanded and renamed the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party, demonstrating an effort to break with the past.
Meanwhile, party hardliners demanded that the revolution be crushed. New Soviet units were introduced, and fighting escalated in several localities of Budapest with heavy casualties on both sides. The heaviest fighting occurred in Corvin köz, where the freedom fighters were aided by soldiers of the Hungarian army from the nearby Kilián garrison. For the second time in just over a decade, Budapest were reduced to rubble. Some hardline Hungarian military commanders resorted to massive reprisals. In Mosónmagyaróvár, Hungarian troops shot at unarmed demonstrators, killing sixty-seven people. In Tiszakécske warplanes killed seventeen people and injured 110. On October 28, after an unsuccessful Soviet onslaught in Corvin köz, a ceasefire came into effect and the Soviets agreed to pull out of Budapest. Briefly it seemed that the revolution had triumphed.
On October 30 an armed crowd gathered around the Budapest party headquarters in Köz-társaság tér. Thinking that there were secret dungeons beneath the building, they decided to lay siege to it. The party headquarters were defended by armed party functionaries, officers sent from the Ministry of Defense, and members of the State Security Police. The latter changed into the uniform of the regular police in order to deceive the crowd, which considered the State Security Police their worst enemy. When the battle started, the defenders, for unknown reasons, fired even at medical personnel that were attending to the wounded. A T-34 tank belonging to the Hungarian army joined the attackers and fired at the building. On the verge of defeat, the defenders asked for reinforcements. The XIIIth district party headquarters sent four tanks. Unfortunately for the defenders, these tanks, instead of relieving them, fired at the headquarters by mistake. This decided the outcome of the battle. When the defenders wearing state security police uniforms surrendered, twenty-three were lynched in a grisly manner. The timing of the attack was unfortunate, for it helped change the momentum of Soviet policy towards a decisive armed intervention.
The Soviet presidium equivocated about a suitable course of action. After first announcing on October 30 that it would give Nagy a chance to consolidate his power and issued a manifesto pledging to rectify the Soviet Union’s imperial policies towards the satellites and offered talks on the status of Soviet troops in the occupied territories, the next day the presidium voted to crush the revolution. Explaining the abrupt shift, Soviet officials proclaimed that, with the rapidly deteriorating situation in Hungary, “socialism” in the region was in danger. They also referred to the bombing of Egypt that commenced on October 31, which, they said, “changed the international situation.” The Soviets acted with ruthless brutality. Their approach was best summed up by the statement of KGB director Ivan Serov, who when arresting the Hungarian military mission designated to negotiate with representatives of the Soviet army quipped: “why did you not kill them (the state security people in the rebels’ custody)? Men sprout like weeds.”
Paradoxically the bloody events of Köztársaság tér stabilized the situation: the National Guard was established to maintain law and order, and the workers’ councils called off the national strike. Upon learning that Soviet troops had been reintroduced into Hungary, Nagy announced Hungarian neutrality on November 1 in an attempt to force the Soviets into a diplomatic settlement. By then the Soviet leadership had decided to put down the uprising due to fears that the situation in Budapest was spiraling out of the control of Imre Nagy and the Anglo-French bombing of Suez. That day Kádár was flown to Moscow. On November 3 KGB chairman Ivan Serov arrested the Hungarian military delegation negotiating Soviet troop withdrawal. A day later the Soviets attacked and Kádár was installed as the leader of the Soviet established Revolutionary Workers Peasants Government. Armed resistance ceased on November 20. Political resistance continued: the newly established Greater Budapest Central Workers’ Council called a general strike, but its leaders were arrested on December 11. Thereafter Kádár’s militia and Soviet units subdued every form of dissidence.
In retrospect, after the Soviets crushed the revolution with overwhelming force, there was great support for the “freedom loving” Hungarians. The reality was different. China as the East European pro-Soviet states urged the Kremlin to intervene with force. What about the response of the “free world”? India, the leader of the non-aligned movement was also in support of crushing the “rebellion.” The Foreign Office in London was troubled by the actions of the “hotheads” in Budapest. The French, as the Americans did not anticipate and armed rebellion behind the iron curtain believing that it was suicidal. Washington wanted nothing more than the roll back of Soviet power this was in fact the primary goal of US foreign policy after 1948. The Hungarian revolution offered the perfect opportunity. But the time for rollback had not arrived. Historians praise the Eisenhower administration’s “prudent” approach to the crisis for not embroiling Europe in a suicidal third world war. The philosopher Michael Walzer has written that any intervention is “immoral” if it puts the people to be saved or other groups of people into mortal danger. Military intervention behind the Iron Curtain, US decision-makers believed would do just that. We don’t want to destroy the people we want to save the president quipped. War games mimicking a limited nuclear war on West German territory revealed that more people in Germany would die in a week that during the whole of the Second World War. Eisenhower’s “heart went out for the Hungarians’ but his secretary of state, J. F. Dulles rejected a Spanish offer to send arms to the Hungarians on the grounds that it would lead to “unnecessary bloodshed.”
Mainly however, the White House was well aware that in their zone of vital interest Moscow would do anything to keep the Warsaw Pact together. This intelligence was prescient. Party leader Khrushchev said as much to the Yugoslav dictator, Tito. The US made a desperate offer to the Soviets to buy time: troop withdrawal from Europe in return for the “Finlandization” on East Central Europe. The Kremlin did not want to hear the message. Nothing less than domination was acceptable to them.
Radio Free Europe (RFE) encouraged armed struggle against the Soviet army and exhorted even the regular Hungarian army to engage the Soviets in the forlorn hope that the Hungarians would dig America’s chestnuts out of the fire.
Throughout the nearly month-long uprising, approximately 3,000 Hungarians were killed and more than 19,000 were wounded in the fighting. Out of the 58,821 Soviet soldiers, 669 were dead, 1,540 wounded and 51 missing. In the reprisals 229 people were executed (plus another 20 in Rumania), 20,000 were sent to jail and 17,000 to internment camps. Out of fewer than 10 million inhabitants 193,885 emigrated; 11,447 eventually returned. On November 4 Hungarians looked into the abyss. For all they knew, the lights would not be lit again in their lifetime. Fear would be the companion of those who dissented once again until it dissipated again in the exhilarating moments of self-liberation in 1989.