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
From 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.
In June 1953, the Poles demonstrated against Stalinist rule. Soviet tanks went in, there were shootings, many were killed, but then Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, withdrew the tanks and granted the Poles a degree of concession and reform. If the Poles could do it, why couldn’t the Hungarians?
Russians go home!
On 23 October 1956, students in Budapest staged a peaceful demonstration, having, the night before, drawn up a list of sixteen demands. Among them, the demand for a new government led by Imre Nagy; that all criminal leaders of the Stalin-Rákosi era be immediately relieved of their duties; general elections by universal and secret ballot to elect a new National Assembly with all political parties participating; for the Russian language to cease being a compulsory subject in Hungarian schools; and for the removal of Soviet troops from Hungarian soil.
The students met at the statue of General Jozsef Bem, a national hero of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution. By the evening of the 23rd, the demonstration had reached 200,000 in number. ‘Russians go home!’ they shouted. Red stars were torn down from buildings. A 30-foot bronze statue of Stalin in the city’s Hero Square, erected five years previously as a gift to the dictator from the Hungarian People, was pulled down, leaving only his boots on the plinth. A delegation of protestors tried to broadcast their demands on national radio, demanding that the radio should belong to the people. The police opened fire and killed several demonstrators. Erno Gero condemned the protest and sent in the troops, but, to his dismay, found that many of his soldiers sided with the demonstrators.
At 2 am, at Gero’s request, the Soviet tanks began arriving. Martial law was imposed. What had began as a peaceful demonstration had turned very quickly into a fullscale revolution. The Kremlin responded by putting Imre Nagy back in charge believing that ‘limited concessions’ were necessary to satisfy the Hungarian people. Nagy promised his people reform in return for an end to the violence.
We lied by night
On 28 October, Khrushchev withdrew his troops from Hungary – but only as far as over the border. Hungarians sensed victory. Political parties, long since banned, reformed; new newspapers sprung up, most only a side long, plastered up on shop fronts, trees and street lamps. Hundreds of Hungary’s secret police were lynched – punishment for their years of torture and oppression of the Hungary people. Nagy, riding the wave of optimism, promised open elections and a coalition government. A few days later he went even further – promising Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact.
The citizens of Budapest took control of the radio; the state broadcasters were happy to cede control and confessed to having been instruments of the state: ‘We lied by night, we lied by day, we lied on all wavelengths. We, who are before the microphones, are now new men.’
This went much further than Poland; Nagy had gone too far. The rebels hoped and expected support and aid from the West but Britain and France were distracted by the emerging crisis over the Suez Canal and the US by presidential elections. The aid never materialised. Meanwhile, in China, Chairman Mao heckled Khrushchev for being weak and encouraged him to take a firmer line. So Khrushchev, taking advantage of the West’s preoccupations, ordered the tanks back in. They duly reappeared in Hungary on 3 November and entered Budapest the following day. This time, with brutal efficiency, the uprising was crushed.
Our troops are still fighting
Nagy appeared on Radio Budapest early on the morning of 4 November as the tanks started their devastating work in the capital:
‘This is Imre Nagy speaking. Today at daybreak Soviet forces started an attack against our capital, obviously with the intention to overthrow the legal Hungarian democratic government. Our troops are still fighting; the Government is still in its place. I notify the people of our country and the entire world of this fact.’
And that was it. Nagy’s voice disappeared – no one ever heard it again. Seconds later, the National Anthem played, not the communist version but the anthem that brought tears to patriotic hearts. A couple hours later, at 8.10, Radio Budapest broadcast its last appeal, ‘Help Hungary… help, help, help,’ before being taken off air.
The ‘entire world’ that Nagy had appealed to, ignored him. Western powers spoke loud words; the US condemned the attack as a ‘monstrous crime’, but did nothing – the risks of venturing into an Eastern European conflict, and the potential for escalation, were too great.
Just after 1 pm on 4 November, Moscow radio announced, ‘The Hungarian counter-revolution has been crushed.’ Nagy sought sanctuary in the Yugoslavian embassy and was replaced by the harder Janos Kadar, who, loyal to Moscow, welcomed the return of Soviet forces to crush the ‘counter-revolutionary threat’. Over 200,000 Hungarians fled across the border into Austria and the West until that escape route was sealed off. Thousands were executed or imprisoned by Kadar’s regime in reprisal.
Imre Nagy, lured out of the embassy by a promise of safe passage to Belgrade, a promise written by Kadar himself, was arrested and taken to Romania. Later, he was smuggled back into Hungary, charged with treason, tried and, on the orders of Kadar, was hung on 16 June 1958. He was buried within the prison yard.
Janos Kadar remained in power for thirty-two long years, only resigning on grounds of ill health in May 1988.
On the 31st anniversary of his execution, 16 June 1989, Imre Nagy’s body, along with many of his comrades, was reburied; an emotional and significant event attended by over 100,000 people. The writing was on the wall for Hungary’s communist rulers. Sure enough, on the 33rd anniversary of the start of the revolution, 23 October 1989, the People’s Republic of Hungary was replaced by the Republic of Hungary with a provisional parliamentary president in place. The road to democracy was swift – parliamentary elections were held in Hungary on 24 March 1990, the first free elections to be held in the country since 1945. The totalitarian government was finished – Hungary, at last, was free.
The 23 October is now celebrated as a Hungarian national holiday.
Illustrated with over 30 contemporary photographs, The Hungarian Revolution, 1956 provides a perfect introduction to one of the momentous occasions in 20th century history.