2016 was a landmark year for Hungary, marking the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Uprising. In December, the Budapest Business Journal, among other publishing outlets, was ommissioned by the Public Endowment for the Research on Central and Eastern European History and Society to produce a special supplement detailing the events of that time.
Acknowledgements and thanks: We would like to record our gratitude to historian György Gyarmati for his help and expertise in producing this Now and Then Retrospective. This supplement has been financed by the 1956 Memorial Committee, established for the 60th anniversary of the Uprising, in the framework of The Year of the Hungarian Freedom program series.
Words by Levente Hörömpöli-Tóth and Robin Marshall, page layout and design by Norbert Balázs, photos by Fortepan (www.fortepan.hu).
While the death of the Soviet leader Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin in 1953 paved the way for the rise of his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, it was not until February 25, 1956 when the latter officially denounced Stalin’s terror and abuse of power in a speech at a closed session of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This was a major milestone of his de-Stalinization campaign, also known as the “Khrushchev thaw”, as a result of which censorship was relaxed, many political prisoners were released and thousands more who had perished during Stalin’s reign had their reputations rehabilitated.
The speech triggered a loosening of the Soviet grip on its Eastern European satellite states, and it seemed that Moscow would tolerate ambitions for more freedom. Reform communists like Hungary’s Imre Nagy were encouraged by such developments. However, Khrushchev’s struggle with his high-ranking Stalinist rivals was far from over and it soon transpired that the whole idea was rather about fine-tuning power and control methods, not letting the empire collapse. That was to be made abundantly clear by the invasion of Hungary in October 1956.
The Hungarian uprising was heavily inspired by events in Poland. The hard-line Stalinist faction in Poland suffered major blows throughout that year following Khrushchev’s speech in February and the death of the country’s top communist leader, Bolesłav Bierut in March. The Poznań workers’ uprising on June 30 was aimed at demanding more political rights and even though it was put down within two days, it revealed the regime’s vulnerabilities. Tensions were getting out of control by October, and though some hoped the situation might be normalized by the appointment of Władysław Gomułka, a reform communist, Khrushchev initially boycotted his rise to power since Gomułka wished to keep the Soviet presence in the Polish administration to the minimum. Moscow was even considering military intervention as last resort.
Gomułka, riding a wave of Polish popularity for his perceived anti-Khrushchev stance, was eventually permitted to be elected on October 22, and he even secured greater autonomy for his government. He realized, though, that the power of the Communist party could not be maintained without Russian help. Invoking “Polish state interest”, he argued that only the presence of the Soviet army and – perhaps crucially in terms of his ultimate survival – membership of the Warsaw Pact would guarantee border security vis á vis Germany; infringing such state interest, he maintained, would lead to an intervention, as would very soon happen in Hungary.
In parallel with events in Budapest and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, another large-scale crisis was unfolding, namely at the Suez Canal in Egypt, where Britain and France, working clandestinely with Israel, engaged in military conflict against Egypt. Gamel Abdul Nasser, Egypt’s populist leader, had nationalized the canal, which gravely hurt the interests of the two European powers. Nasser’s further goal was to destroy Israel with arms bought from the Soviet Union. Israel launched an attack on October 29, 1956, allowing Britain and France a pretense to deploy troops acting as peacekeepers; only a truce brokered by the UN helped suspend military action effective from November 7.
The exact nature of the connections between the Suez Crisis and the Hungarian Revolution remains a matter of much dispute, but it must surely have served as a great distraction since the Western powers were engaged with solving the conflict in the Middle East, while Eastern Europe was in any case deemed part of Soviet sphere of influence, a legacy of the February 1945 Yalta Conference towards the end of World War II. The United States expressed sympathy for the Hungarian cause, but it wasn’t prepared to risk a large-scale military conflict. The Soviets, in turn, argued that if the U.K. and France had the right to intervene in Egypt in order to protect their own rights, the West could hardly protest when the Soviets did the same in Hungary.
To Western eyes, at least, the 1956 Uprising is often seen purely as a Budapest event. To a degree this makes sense; many foreigners will only be familiar with the capital, and it is, after all, the seat of power. But as we hope to show on these pages, the Revolution played out across the country. Indeed, if you include the Melbourne Olympic Games and the infamous “blood in the water” water polo match (more on this in our next issue), it had violent ramifications far beyond the borders. But every event has a genesis, and some small credit for the early gathering momentum of opposition to the regime must go to the students of the beautiful southern city of Szeged. As Sir Bryan Cartledge, the former British Ambassador to Hungary (1980-83) turned historian, notes in his comprehensive work “The Will to Survive: A History of Hungary”, even before 20 October “.…the students at Szeged University voted to break away from DISZ (the Party-sponsored youth organization) and to establish the independent student association MEFESZ [the Association of Hungarian University and College Unions]”. It is unlikely it ever crossed the minds of those students in Szeged that they were taking a potentially revolutionary stand, but their actions certainly formed an important part of a pattern of previously unprecedented dissent.
On October 22, 1956, students of the Technical University of Budapest decided to organize a rally for the next day in solidarity with events in Poland, and they drew up a shortlist of 16 demands that included free elections (something the Soviets had actually guaranteed at that same Yalta conference mentioned earlier), the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country and freedom of speech. On October 23, by the time the protesting students had reached Budapest’s Bem tér, the crowd had swelled to number hundreds of thousands. A large group of people went on to Parliament where Imre Nagy gave a speech. In the evening, the Stalin statue was demolished – one of the iconic photographic moments of the early days of the Uprising – whilst many headed to the national radio.
Late in the evening of October 23, the first shots of the Uprising were fired at the national radio building, where protesters had gone wanting their demands to be announced on air. Instead they were shot at from inside. As a result the building was invaded, protesters gained control, and Soviet troops stationed in Hungary were asked by the Communists to restore order. This is the point where resistance evolved into a full-blown revolution.
Combat was fiercest in Corvin köz and neighboring streets such as Práter utca in District VIII, as it had a strategic location to control Üllői út, along which forces would head towards downtown, and Ferenc körút, where tanks would come from the direction of Petőfi híd. Lead by Gergely Pongrátz and László Iván Kovács, up to 2,000 revolutionaries fought here and, along with their fellow fighters in Csepel, resisted for the longest in the city. Széna tér and Móricz Zsigmond körtér, both in Buda, witnessed similarly heavy clashes.
The latter körtér base assumed a crucial role as it was to block reinforcing tanks arriving from Transdanubia and headed for the bridges. Other key strongholds included Baross tér, Újpest, Tűzoltó utca, Újpest, the Buda Castle, Pasarét, and Szabadság-hegy. Heavy firefights took place in the area of Akadémia utca, Astoria, and Ferenciek tere as well. On October 25 a rally on Kossuth tér ended in bloodshed leaving more than 100 dead (see map on page 17.)
The violence on Kossuth tér accelerated the spread of protests countrywide. One of the epicenters was Hungary’s second city, Miskolc, where students bringing the news about the Budapest events were imprisoned and the crowd that gathered to demand their release was shot at. In Mosonmagyaróvár (Western Hungary), the scope of the bloodshed became especially large when people gathering at the military barracks in hopes of convincing the army to join their side were fired at. Armed clashes against the communists took place in places like Szentendre, Vác and Várpalota, among others. In the latter case, Soviet troops crossing the town suffered heavy casualties as well.
Komárom was of significance, as the Soviet army not only had several units stationed there, but also a key ammunition depot in the Monostor fortress. The Soviet’s Budapest forces received ammo supplies from there and Komárom students had been planning to ambush the convoy, but were talked out of it by the local national council in fear of retaliation against civilians.
On October 30, Prime Minister Imre Nagy announced the end of the single-party system, preparations for democratic elections and, again perhaps crucially for what was to follow, an exit from the Warsaw Pact. The Communist party headquarters on Köztársaság tér were besieged and many inside were lynched. The Soviets showed a willingness to remove troops from the country in exchange for Hungary withdrawing her request filed with the UN to put the matter on the agenda. One day later, however, Khrushchev changed his mind and decided to move forward with a full-blown invasion, even as the media was carrying the opposite news, namely that all army units were to leave Hungary.
See part two in our next issue for details of how the Revolution was crushed, the immediate aftermath and the eventual realization of its aims and goals: a sovereign, free and democratic Republic.
See part two in our next issue for details of how the Revolution was crushed, the immediate aftermath and the eventual realization of its aims and goals: a sovereign, free and democratic republic.