Imre Nagy’s re-interment, 16 June 1989, Budapest

In Budapest, on 16 June 1989, a solemn and symbolic ceremony was held. On this day, almost thirty-three years after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Imre Nagy was re-interred and, 31 years after his execution, honoured with a funeral befitting a man of his stature. Tens of thousands of people lined the routes and crowded into Heroes’ Square, paying their respects to the great man who, more than anyone, had symbolised the hope and the ultimate defeat of the Uprising.

Hungarian flagAlongside him, the coffins of four other leading participants of the Hungarian Revolution, and next to them, a sixth coffin – an empty one to commemorate all the victims of Soviet and communist repression during 1956. Shops and businesses were closed, schools given the day off. In the square, flowers and wreaths lay everywhere, Corinthian pillars were decked in black and white, Hungarian flags with the central Soviet emblem removed, and people with bowed heads, united by grief and ingrained memories.


Imre Nagy had died exactly thirty-one years previously, on 16 June 1958, less than two years after the communists, with their Soviet masters, had quashed the uprising and re-established one-party rule.

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Blood in the Water – Cold War water polo

6 December 1956 saw one of the most violent and politically-charged sporting clashes in history, an event that came to be known as ‘ Blood in the Water ’. The occasion was the Olympic water polo semi-final between Hungary and the USSR. Played against the backdrop of Cold War politics, the game was, from start to finish, fraught with tension.

Water Polo

Olympic flagHungary was the undoubted superpower of 1950s water polo. They had won gold at three of the four previous Olympic Games, and silver at the London Olympics of 1948; and were firm favourites to triumph again at the Melbourne Olympics of 1956, the first Olympics to be held in the southern hemisphere.

The Soviets, jealous of Hungary’s success in the water, had been training in Hungary in the months leading up to the Olympics, trying to learn what made the Hungarians so good at their game. Since 1949, Hungary had been a Soviet satellite and thus the Soviet team arrived, uninvited, and made use of Hungary’s pool facilities and expertise.

A ‘friendly’ match in Moscow earlier in the year had erupted in violence; the Russians having won thanks to some dubious partisan referring.

Hungarian Revolution

Hungarian Revolution 1956Then, in October 1956, came the Hungarian Revolution. The people of Hungary stood up to the oppression of a tyrannical and foreign ruler. The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, sent in the tanks to quell the uprising and restore order. The tanks, having failed, were withdrawn. Khrushchev replaced Hungary’s hard-line communist rulers with the more populist Imre Nagy. Nagy announced his decision to withdraw Hungary from the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, introduce much-needed reform and, most alarmingly for Khrushchev, spoke of independence.

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Paik Sun-yup – a brief summary

Born 23 November 1920, just south of Pyongyang in what is now North Korea, Paik Sun-yup had a colourful military career, during which he was to emerge as South Korea’s most distinguished general.

Paik Sun-yupHis early life was one of hardship. His mother was widowed at a young age and she struggled to bring up Paik and his two siblings, taking whatever work she could find. After school in Japanese-controlled Korea, Paik studied to become a teacher. Yet at the age of 19 he had a change of heart and travelled to Mukden in Manchuria – a Japanese puppet state at the time. There he enlisted in the army, where he trained to become an officer in the Manchukuo Imperial Army.

By now Japan was deeply embroiled in war in China, though Paik spent most of his early military career in the far north of Manchuria, suppressing communist guerillas. The experience was to contribute to his deep-seated hostility towards communism. As the Second World War drew to a close, Paik was posted to northern China, where his unit fought against Mao’s forces. With peace at hand, he returned to his family in Pyongyang.

His new found contentment was not to last, however. Known for his anti-Communist sentiments, it soon became dangerous for Paik to live in the North. He, therefore, travelled to Seoul, where he joined the nascent South Korean Army as a Lieutenant. By the time of the invasion in 1950, he was in command of the 1st Division of the ROK Army, one of its best formations. During those early months of the war, Paik managed to hold together the semblance of a command, and his greatly reduced division made a significant contribution to the defence of Pusan.

Only two months later, Paik’s troops were to be the first to enter Pyongyang, his home town. By April 1951 he was in command of the  ROK I Corps, which was roughly handled by the Chinese upon their intervention later that year. After a successful spell with the II Corps he was appointed Chief of Staff in July 1952. Paik’s work in this role was to be central to the upgrading of the ROK Army. He ended the war as South Korea’s first full General.

With peace came a successful diplomatic and then ministerial career. Paik served as South Korean Ambassador in Taiwan, France and Canada, and as the country’s Transport Minister. He now lives in quiet retirement.

Korean WarAndrew Mulholland

The Korean War: History In An Hour published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.99, and downloadable audio.

Walter Ulbricht – a summary

Most leaders possess a strength of character, charisma even, for which they are either admired or disliked, loved or loathed, but always acknowledged. Walter Ulbricht, East Germany’s head of state from 1950 to 1973, was an unusually dull man, devoid of personality, devoted to the socialist cause but with no empathy for the working masses, the very people he was supposedly fighting for.

Born 30 June 1893 in Leipzig, Walter Ulbricht left school after only eight years and became a cabinetmaker.

Early Days

Walter UlbrichtJoining the German army in 1915, during the First World War, Walter Ulbricht served in both the Balkans and the Eastern Front but deserted towards the end of the war. Imprisoned in Belgium, he was released during the chaotic days of the German Revolution.

In 1920, he became a member of the German Communist Party, the KDP, and quickly rose through its ranks. He studied in the Soviet Union at the International Lenin School, a secretive school in Moscow that taught foreign communists how to be perfect Leninists and Marxists. In 1928, back in Germany, Ulbricht was elected into the Reichstag. It was a time of violent clashes between the communists and Nazis. Once Hitler assumed power as chancellor in January 1933, opposition parties were soon outlawed by his Enabling Act, and communists all over Germany fled or went into hiding. Ulbricht was one of them – fleeing first to France and Czechoslovakia, and then Spain during the Civil War of 1936-39 where he sided with the republicans in the International Brigades. He later received a medal for his time in Spain, angering fellow recipients, as Ulbricht never saw active service, preferring instead to hunt out Trotskyites and other unreliable elements within the KDP.

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Imre Nagy – a summary

Imre Nagy is remembered with great affection in today’s Hungary. Although a communist leader during its years of one-party rule, Nagy was the voice of liberalism and reform, advocating national communism, free from the shackles of the Soviet Union. Following the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Nagy was arrested, tried in secret and executed. His rehabilitation and reburial in 1989 played a significant and symbolic role in ending communist rule in Hungary.

Imre Nagy plaqueImre Nagy was born 7 June 1896 in the town of Kaposvár in southern Hungary. He worked as a locksmith before joining the Austrian-Hungary army during the First World War. In 1915, he was captured and spent much of the war as a prisoner-of-war in Russia. He escaped and having converted to communism, joined the Red Army and fought alongside the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution of 1917.


In 1918, Nagy returned to Hungary as a committed communist and served the short-lived Soviet Republic established by Bela Kun in Hungary. Following its collapse in August 1919, after only five months, Nagy, as with other former members of Kun’s regime, lived underground, liable to arrest. Eventually, in 1928, he fled to Austria and from there, in 1930, to the Soviet Union, where he spent the next fourteen years studying agriculture.

Following the Second World War, Nagy returned again to Hungary serving as Minister of Agriculture in Hungary’s post-war communist government. Loyal to Stalin, Nagy led the charge of collectivization, redistributing the land of landowners to the peasants.

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Matyas Rakosi – a summary

Matyas Rakosi was, from 1949 to 1953, Joseph Stalin’s man in Hungary. A Stalinist to his core, Rakosi secured and maintained power by methods of terror and oppression, but, soon after the death of his mentor, was removed from office.

Budapest, II. Weltfestspiele, Festumzug, EhrentribüneMatyas Rakosi was born one of eleven children to Jewish parents on 9 March 1892 in a village called Ada, now in Serbia but then part of the Austrian-Hungary empire. He would later renounce his Judaism and all forms of religion. A polyglot, Rakosi could speak eight languages. He served in the Austrian-Hungarian army during the First World War, being taken prisoner on the Eastern Front by the Russians and held for years in a prisoner of war camp during which time he converted to communism. Returning home in 1918 as a member of the Hungarian Communist Party, he was given command of the Red Guard during the 134-day Hungarian Soviet Republic formed by Bela Kun in 1919. Following the collapse of the republic, Rakosi fled to Austria, then onto Moscow.


In 1924, Stalin sent Rakosi back to Hungary with instructions to re-establish the Hungarian Communist Party which had been forced underground by the new regime. Rakosi was arrested in 1927, and sentenced to eight years imprisonment, which, later, was extended to life. But in November 1940, after 13 years in a Hungarian prison, he was released – in exchange for a set of symbolic Hungarian flags and banners that had been stored in a Moscow museum since their capture in 1849. Again, Rakosi returned to Moscow to prepare for the next stage in the communist struggle for power in his homeland.

When, in April 1945, at the end of the Second World War, Stalin’s Red Army liberated Hungary from Nazi control, Rakosi again returned to Hungary and served as General Secretary for the Hungarian communists.

Slices of salami

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Nikita Khrushchev’s Secret Speech

On 25 February 1956, Nikita Khrushchev delivered a speech to a closed session of party leaders in which he dismantled the legend of the recently-deceased Joseph Stalin and, over four hours, criticized almost every aspect of Stalin’s method of rule. The speech entitled On the Cult of the Individual and Its Consequences would become known as simply Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’.

Why stir up the past?

Joseph Stalin had died three years earlier, on 5 March 1953. In late 1955, Nikita Khrushchev had been mulling over the idea of ‘investigating Stalin’s activities’ for some months. It was a momentous prospect – Stalin had ruled the Soviet Union with an iron fist for the best part of three decades; he had taken the nation to victory over the fascist Germans; and his legacy was still everywhere to be seen.

Stalin with Molotov and VoroshilovKhrushchev’s colleagues were aghast at his proposal, especially the ones who had served in senior positions under Stalin, men like Kliment Voroshilov and Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov (both pictured here with Stalin). These were men with blood on their hands, who, under Stalin’s orders, had facilitated and organised the liquidation of tens or hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women. Not surprisingly they asked, ‘Why stir up the past?’

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The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 – a summary

In October 1956, the people of Hungary stood up against the oppression of Soviet rule. The subsequent uprising almost succeeded but the Soviet Union, in a full show of force, re-established its control and the revolution was quashed as quickly as it had erupted.

Slices of Salami

Budapest, II. Weltfestspiele, Festumzug, EhrentribüneFrom March 1944, during the Second World War, Hungary was occupied by the forces of Nazi Germany, being liberated by the Soviet Union’s Red Army on 4 April 1945. Backed by Joseph Stalin, Hungary’s fledging communists, led by Mátyás Rákosi (pictured), the self-styled ‘Stalin’s best pupil’, bullied their way into power. Having destroyed all political opponents by ‘cutting them off like slices of salami,’ as Rákosi later boasted, the communists consolidated their grip on power and in 1949, Hungary had officially become the People’s Republic of Hungary with Rákosi at its helm.

In just a matter of years, over 300,000 Hungarians were purged under Rákosi’s rule: exiled, imprisoned or killed. Stalin would have thoroughly approved of Rákosi’s hardline tactics but within four months of the Soviet leader’s death, on 5 March 1953, the Soviet politburo replaced Rákosi with Imre Nagy, whose softer approach gained him popular consent. Life improved, goods appeared in shops, and political prisoners were released. But Nagy became too popular for the Kremlin’s liking and in April 1955 Rákosi was put back in charge and the oppression started anew. But Nagy remained a hero.

A year after his re-appointment, Rákosi was replaced by fellow hard-line Stalinist, Erno Gero. (The Kremlin, finally realising how unpopular Rákosi was, told him to resign on grounds of ill health and fly to Moscow for treatment. He did, never to return to his home country. He was not missed). But under Erno Gero, nothing changed – arrests continued, the AVO, the Hungarian secret police, was busier than ever, while discontent simmered and people longed for the return of Imre Nagy.

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Jan Palach – a summary

On 16 January 1969, a 20-year-old Czechoslovakian student, Jan Palach, staged a one-man protest on Prague’s Wenceslas Square by dousing himself in petrol then setting himself on fire. Three days later, on 19 January, he died of his injuries. Palach’s protest was against Czechoslovakia’s authoritarian rule, re-imposed after the brief but significant period of liberalization, the Prague Spring, of the previous year.

Prague Spring

Leonid BrezhnevThe Prague Spring had been led by Czechoslovakia’s new communist party chairman, Alexander Dubcek, appointed in January 1968. Although claiming to be loyal to his Soviet masters in Moscow, Dubcek ushered in a period of political and cultural freedom unheard of in the previous twenty years of Czechoslovakian communist rule. The Soviet leadership, under Leonid Brezhnev (pictured), became increasingly concerned with what they considered Dubcek’s treachery and Czechoslovakia’s counterrevolution and demanded he reversed the reforms.

While outwardly agreeing and promising to compromise, Dubcek did nothing to halt the growing movement of liberalisation. Dubcek had gone too far, and so Brezhnev decided to act. On 21 August 1968, Soviet troops appeared in Czechoslovakia and on the streets of Prague to quash the ‘Prague Spring’ and to reassert stricter communist rule. Dubcek was initially arrested, restored briefly to power, albeit heavily monitored, before being replaced by Gustav Husak, a hardline alternative, loyal to Brezhnev and the communist cause. The Prague Spring was over.

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The Prague Spring – a summary

On the night of 20-21 August 1968, Soviet troops appeared in Czechoslovakia and on the streets of Prague to quell the growing movement of liberalisation, a movement known as the ‘Prague Spring’. Here, History In An Hour summarizes the events of the Prague Spring, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and its aftermath.

Socialism with a Human Face

On 5 January 1968, amongst growing discontent of economic failure, the Czechoslovakian communist party appointed Alexander Dubcek as its new chairman. Dubcek promised reform, democratisation and, using Nikita Khrushchev‘s phrase, ‘socialism with a human face’. He eased press censorship, allowed greater artistic and cultural freedom, pardoned victims of political purges, eased travel restrictions, promised to guarantee civil rights and liberties and permitted a degree of democratic reform.

Leonid BrezhnevBut while urging democratic communism, Dubcek remained loyal to Moscow and at no point was he advocating the dismissal of his or the country’s socialist principles. The Soviet leadership, under Leonid Brezhnev (pictured), saw it otherwise, becoming increasingly concerned with what they considered Dubcek’s treachery and Czechoslovakia’s counterrevolution.

Evidence of the transformation was immediately apparent – young men grew their hair, women wore mini skirts, anti-state newspapers appeared, films and plays long since banned by the regime reappeared, including the work of dissident playright, Vaclav Havel.

In July 1968, Brezhnev, fearing Czechoslovakian independence, met with Dubcek and demanded that he re-imposed strict communist control over his people and ordered Dubcek to reign in his ‘counter-revolutionary’ methods. Dubcek promised to compromise but over the coming weeks, it came clear to Moscow that nothing was being done. Brezhnev applied greater pressure, often ringing Dubcek and bellowing at him down the telephone.

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