Political controversy has dogged commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian popular revolt against communist rule. Hungary’s conservative prime minister, Viktor Orban, has used the occasion to condemn what he has called the ‘Sovietisation’ of the European Union by Brussels bureaucrats.
According to Orban’s rhetoric, in 1956, the Hungarian people rose against the Soviet empire; in 1989, they revolted again and opened their borders to refugees from communist East Germany, helping to collapse the Berlin Wall; and then, in 2015, Hungary’s decision to close its frontiers against mass immigration from the Middle East saved European civilisation.
Orban’s opponents in Hungary protest that in 1956, the insurgents looked for leadership from reform communists such as Imre Nagy, not from nationalist politicians. They also point out that other European nations did not turn their back on the 200,000 Hungarian refugees who fled the bloody Soviet suppression of the revolt.
Meanwhile, the traditional Soviet analysis of the Hungarian rising as being a violent counter-revolution continues to command support in contemporary Russia. The Russian media has compared 1956 to the violent events that took place in Kiev in 2014, and depicted the rising as an early example of a western-engineered regime change.
But the scholarly judgement of most historians is that the events of 1956 were not foreign-inspired or manipulated but arose as a spontaneous, home-grown insurgency that aimed to reform rather than overthrow the communist system. But the heavy-handed Soviet military action provoked a radicalisation of the protesters who subsequently became increasingly violent in response.
Thousands of citizens died as Budapest became a battleground that pitted relatively poorly-armed people’s militias against Soviet tanks rolling through the streets and well-trained, well-armed Red Army soldiers.
The Hungarian insurgency was part of a more general crisis that gripped the communist bloc in 1956. Hopes were high since in February the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, had denounced Stalin in a secret speech to the 20th party congress, the contents of which quickly became public.
Khrushchev’s speech was part of a process of deliberate “destalinisation” in the USSR that had begun after the Soviet dictator’s death in 1953. The expectation was there could be fundamental reform of the authoritarian communist system, not only in the USSR but in Central and Eastern Europe, too.
The mood supporting change was most evident in Poland and Hungary.
In Poznan, Poland, workers rioted and hundreds were shot dead by security police in June 1956. Rather than resort to further repression the communist authorities restored to power Wladyslaw Gomulka, a former party leader who had been purged in the late 1940s as a so-called ‘national communist’ who put the interests of Poland before those of the Soviet Union.
Gomulka’s aim was to draw the teeth of the popular revolt by introducing moderate reforms, such as replacing Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky as Polish defence minister. The part- Polish Rokossovsky gained fame as a skilful Soviet general during the Second World War and his control of the defence ministry guaranteed Poland’s fidelity to its military ally, the USSR.
Alarmed by the proposal to remove Rokossovsky, Khrushchev flew to Warsaw in October 1956 to negotiate with Gomulka. The Polish leader, in the face of threatened military intervention, managed to persuade Khrushchev that Poland would remain communist and within the Soviet bloc.
Gomulka’s efforts to calm the situation were also supported by the Catholic Church which despite communist antipathy to religious observance, remained a strong and well-supported institution among sections of the population. In supporting its congregations, the church engaged in a balancing act of appearing independent of the country’s regime without threatening its rulers.
A more surprising ally was Radio Free Europe, the western propaganda station, whose Polish broadcasters urged moderation and pragmatism rather than outright revolt. Gomulka’s regime was among the most liberal of the Soviet bloc and it was developments in Poland in the 1970s and 1980s that paved the way to the collapse of the communism in 1989.
But a quite different scenario unfolded in Hungary. Inspired by events in Poland, Hungarian protesters gathered in central Budapest on October 23, 1956, and a giant statute of Stalin was pulled down (only his boots remained), the central state radio station was attacked and shots were exchanged — although who fired first is not clear. Rumours about the authorities shooting demonstrators spread like wildfire and the city was soon in a state of insurgency.
Called upon to quell the revolt the following day, Soviet armed forces stationed in Hungary deployed 30,000 troops and 1,000 tanks to seize strategic locations in Budapest and sealed the Austrian-Hungarian border. On October 25, the Soviets clashed with protesters outside the Hungarian parliament and dozens of demonstrators were shot.
While insurgent groups had begun to arm themselves with commandeered weapons, there was little organised violence at this stage of the revolt. But adding fuel to the flames of revolt were an intransigent, anti-communist Catholic hierarchy and irresponsible propaganda from the Hungarian desk of Radio Free Europe urging people not to compromise with the communist regime.
The Hungarian communists recalled Imre Nagy to power. Nagy, a reforming prime minister in 1953-1955, had been forced out of office by party hardliners.
Unfortunately Nagy was no Gomulka. He failed to assert decisive leadership over the protest movement and allowed himself to become a prisoner of events, deepening Moscow’s grave concern about the situation in Hungary. The country had a history of pro-fascist sympathies and had fought on the Nazi German side during the Second World War. Soviet leaders feared that if communism fell in Hungary this would have a domino effect in the rest of the bloc. The very existence of the Warsaw Pact — established in 1955 as a counter to Nato — seemed to be at stake.
Anguished debates took place in Moscow about whether further military action was necessary. High-ranking emissaries were sent to Budapest to talk to Nagy and their reports convinced Khrushchev to give the new Hungarian leader a chance to stabilise the situation.
Soviet troops were evacuated from Budapest and on October 30, the Presidium — as the Politburo was then called — decided against an invasion of Hungary and adopted a resolution promising more equitable relations between the USSR and its East European allies.
In a dramatic reversal of its position the next day, the Presidium decided instead to send in the tanks. The about face was prompted in part by an attack on communist party offices in Budapest which resulted in the public lynching of a number party officials and security personnel. Photographs of the atrocity flashed across the globe, empowering hardliners in Budapest and Moscow who wanted urgent and decisive military action to crush the revolt.
Yet Khrushchev remained reluctant to intervene further militarily. He much preferred a Polish-style resolution of the crisis but had lost faith in Nagy’s ability to deliver such a solution. Then, on October 30, Nagy announced that multiparty elections would be held in Hungary and, in a private conversation with the Soviet ambassador, threatened neutrality and withdrawal of Hungary from the Warsaw Pact.
As far as the Soviets were concerned, this signalled that Nagy had reneged on his agreement to take control of the situation and to slow down the pace of change.
The broader context for Khrushchev’s decision to invade was the coincidence of the Hungarian crisis with the Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt following Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal.
Egypt at that time was a Soviet ally, and as Khrushchev told the Presidium on October 31: “If we leave Hungary, it will encourage the American, British and French imperialists. They will see weakness on our part and go on the offensive. To Egypt they will then add Hungary.”
Soviet leaders rattled their sabres at the British and French, even threatening rocket attacks if the invasion of Egypt continued but, in reality, there was little they could do to help their Arab allies. It was American pressure that eventually forced Britain and France to withdraw their forces from the Suez Canal.
Hungary, however, was a different matter. On November 4, the Soviets launched a massive military intervention in Budapest and throughout the state. A total of 17 invading divisions took part in combined tank, infantry and air operations against the by now well-armed insurgents.
There were no more than 15,000 to 20,000 active fighters but the battle was particularly fierce in Budapest, where the insurgents fought back with barricades, small arms, and Molotov cocktails. The Soviets suffered more than 2,000 casualties, including 700 dead.
An estimated 5,000 Hungarians were killed and another 20,000 wounded. Many of those who suffered were civilians caught in the crossfire.
While Soviet military operations lasted only a few days, strikes and demonstrations continued for several more weeks. Thousands of Hungarians were arrested and hundreds executed.
Imre Nagy was deposed from power and fled to the Yugoslav embassy but was subsequently captured and spirited to Romania. Tried in secret and executed in 1958, he was buried in a prison yard. In 1989, Nagy was rehabilitated and reburied, his grave becoming a sacred place in post-communist Hungary.
The Soviet invasion of Hungary had a devastating effect on the world communist movement. Tens of thousands of western communists tore up their party membership cards in protest. Particularly hard hit was the communist-led peace movements which had spent years cultivating the Soviet Union’s image as a peace-loving state.
The Hungarian revolt was depicted by the Soviets as a fascist counter-revolution aided and abetted by imperialist subversion and covert action by western intelligence agencies. But apart from the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe, there is no evidence of significant foreign interference in Hungary’s affairs. The Americans talked about rolling back Soviet power and liberating Eastern Europe from communism but did little about it. Hungary was in Moscow’s sphere and the US would not risk a war with the Soviet Union to aid the insurgents.
There were indeed fascist elements among the insurgents but most were disaffected rather than motivated by a desire to restore a reactionary regime in Hungary. Many were young, uneducated, unskilled workers who had fallen foul of the forces of law and order law before.
Students and intellectuals did play a part in the revolt but they were not the mainstays of the violent resistance to the Soviets.
Could the Hungarian revolt have succeeded? Yes, but only if the insurgents moderated their demands. Liberation from the Soviet bloc was geopolitically impossible but a more moderate form of communism along Polish or Yugoslav lines was entirely possible. Important to such an outcome would have been American assurances to the Soviets that they were not attempting to subvert Moscow’s bloc in Eastern Europe. Most important, the situation demanded a more effective leader than the romantic and idealistic Nagy.
Nagy’s successor as Hungarian leader was Janos Kadar, a reform-minded communist who on the eve of Soviet invasion threw his lot in with Moscow. Kadar suppressed national memory of the 1956 revolt but he was adept at maintaining a relative liberal regime in Hungary until his retirement in 1988. Kadar’s “goulash communism” was an important ingredient feeding into the radical reform of the Soviet system attempted by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s.
The communist regime in Hungary could have been changed without resort to force, as it was in Poland. Arguably, there was a trend towards reform throughout the communist bloc in the mid-1950s that was curtailed by the violent events in Budapest. Not until 1968 in Czechoslovakia was there another important reform movement in the communist bloc.
As in Hungary and Poland in 1956, the movement was led by reform communists. Once again, changes were introduced that were too far-reaching for Moscow’s taste.
Like Khrushchev, the new Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, lost faith in the local communists and the tanks were sent into Czechoslovakia, this time supported by the USSR’s Warsaw Pact allies, including, ironically, Hungary and Poland.
The Czechs and Slovaks resisted the invasion but peacefully and there was no large-scale loss of life.
It was Czechoslovakia’s ‘Prague Spring’ not the violent Hungarian revolt that provided the template for Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempted reform of the Soviet system and became the inspiration for the peaceful revolutions that overthrew communism in 1989.
Viktor Orban’s commemoration speech was delivered on the steps of the Hungarian parliament. He did not mention Imre Nagy but his eyes might have strayed across Martyr’s Square to Nagy’s memorial. A favourite for tourist selfies, Nagy’s statue stands relaxed on a bronze arch bridge wearing a raincoat and a trilby hat.
An all-too-human figure, Nagy lacked the political skills and determination that might have enabled him to avoid the violent denouement of the Hungarian Rising of 1956.
Geoffrey Roberts is professor of history and dean of graduate studies at UCC, and a member of the Royal Irish Academy