Hungary became part of the Soviet bloc in the early 1950s. The ‘Sovietisation’ of Hungary was neither peaceful or supported by a majority of the population. Post-war was governed by a democratic coalition, led by a conservative prime minister, Zoltan Tildy. The local communist party was a small but vocal group, receiving less than one-fifth of the vote in the 1945 elections. But Hungary’s communists were backed by the Soviets, who continued to occupy the country into the late 1940s. As in other places, Soviet agents interfered in Hungary’s domestic politics, manipulating local parties to facilitate communist rule. They achieved this in 1948, when Hungarian communist groups merged with local social democrats to form the Hungarian Working People’s Party. The new national leader was Matyas Rakosi, who modeled himself on Stalin and set out to mimic Soviet policies. In 1950 Rakosi created a political police force, the Allamvedelmi Hatosag (‘State Protection Authority’ or AVH). Over the next six years more than a quarter-million Hungarians were arrested, imprisoned or murdered by the AVH for political crimes, both real and imagined. Rakosi’s regime also prioritised industrialisation and military spending – to the detriment of the people, who suffered shortages of food, fuel and consumer goods.
The people’s uprising
Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 denunciation of Stalin had implications for Hungary. Rakosi was replaced as leader and shipped out of Hungary, on the orders of Moscow. This led to growing optimism among Hungarian students and workers, who believed that political reform and liberalisation was imminent. At the head of this movement were students, who for years had been suppressed by the pro-Soviet government and AVH. Under Rakosi, Hungarian schools and universities had been forced to teach communist-approved syllabuses; learning Russian was also compulsory in many institutions. Teachers, academics and students who failed to abide by these regulations were sacked or expelled – or in some cases, dealt with by the AVH. In the autumn of 1956, student unions once banned under Rakosi were revived, and students began organising discussion forums to debate the future of Hungary. In the capital Budapest, one group constructed a 16-point set of demands for political reform:
1. We demand the immediate withdrawal of all Soviet troops…
2. We demand the election of new leaders in the Hungarian Workers’ Party … by secret ballot.
3. The government should be reconstituted … all criminal leaders of the Stalinist-Rakosi era should be relieved of their posts at once… …
12. We demand complete freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of the Press and a free Radio, as well as a new daily newspaper of large circulation…
13. We demand that statues of Stalin, the symbol of Stalinist tyranny and political oppression, should be removed as quickly as possible…
The student uprising soon expanded and became a popular uprising. On October 23rd, more than 100,000 people gathered in Budapest, where the students’ 16-point demands were read and received with cheers. The crowd then marched on a ten-metre high bronze statue of Stalin in the centre of the city. They looped steel cables around its neck, pulled it to the ground with trucks and defaced the fallen icon. Such an act would have been unthinkable a few years before, while Stalin was still alive. Elsewhere in Budapest, another group battled police outside a local radio station, while AVH squadrons were besieged and attacked. Revolutionaries took over public buildings, destroyed Soviet symbols and opened the jails, freeing political prisoners who had been locked away for years. The violence continued until after midnight, when the first Soviet tanks entered the capital to assist the AVH with restoring order. But the presence of the Red Army did not daunt the citizens of Budapest. Some unpacked rifles to fire on the tanks, while children darted out from alleys to hurl projectiles . There were a few attacks on Soviet soldiers – but in most cases they were welcomed and invited to join the rebels, with a few taking up the offer.
The first phase of this Hungarian Revolution, as it became known, produced a victory for the rebels. The pro-Soviet prime minister fled to Russia in fear of his life and the national leadership passed to Imre Nagy. On October 27th, Nagy acceded to popular demands by dissolving the AVH, abolishing one-party restrictions, promising free elections and an end to Soviet-style economic collectivisation. Political parties once banned under Rakosi began to reappear. At first the Soviet government took no punitive action against Nagy and the new Hungarian government. Orders were given to withdraw Soviet tanks and troops from Hungary. US president Dwight Eisenhower hailed this Soviet restraint, calling it the “dawning of a new day” in eastern Europe. In reality, the Politburo in Moscow was equivocating about what action to take. Hardliners wanted to send in tanks and crush the uprising, while others thought Hungary could be brought back into the Soviet fold with political pressure.
But Soviet inaction did not last long. On October 30th, mobs in Budapest attacked communist buildings and several AVH agents were killed. The following day, Imre Nagy bowed to public pressure and declared that Hungary would withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. Both events convinced the Politburo to take firm action to suppress the uprising in Hungary. To allow it to proceed would suggest weakness to the West and encourage similar uprisings elsewhere in the Soviet bloc. Sensing an imminent Soviet invasion, Nagy appealed to the United Nations for assistance, in the event of a Soviet attack. But the UN, US and other Western powers – at the time busy with another international crisis in the Suez – did not respond.
The rebellion crushed
On November 3rd, Russian troops closed Hungary’s borders and surrounded Budapest. They entered the capital overnight and occupied the parliamentary building. Soviet troops marched along the streets of the capital, firing indiscriminately into buildings, while industrial areas – which Moscow believed housed most of the rebels – were destroyed by Russian artillery and airstrikes. Nagy remained in power until dawn on November 4th, broadcasting news that Budapest was under attack from the Soviets before taking refuge in the Yugoslav embassy. He was later arrested by the Soviets and given a secret trial, before being hanged. It took a week of fighting before Soviet troops were able to subdue resistance, with more than 2,500 Hungarians dying. Moscow then installed Janos Kadar, another local communist, as the new national leader.
There was a mixed international response to the Hungarian Revolution and its brutal suppression by the Soviets. Both the UN and NATO were criticised for their inaction, for failing to offer assistance to the rebels. The UN convened a special inquiry into the events of October-November 1956, however both the Hungarian and USSR governments refused to participate. The inquiry resulted in a condemnation of the Kadar regime, but no other action or significant findings. TIME magazine named the ‘Hungarian freedom fighter’ its ‘Man of the Year’ for 1956, describing him as having “shaken history’s greatest despotism to its foundations.” In the long term, the Hungarian Revolution strengthened the stalemate between East and West. NATO countries recognised that attempting to destabilise the Soviet bloc by promoting internal uprisings only risked harm to local populations. Other nations behind the Iron Curtain were also given a clear lesson in what might happen if they challenged Soviet control.
1. Post-war Hungary, like other eastern European nations, had a pro-Soviet communist government.
2. In 1956, Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin ignited of liberal reforms and protests in Hungary.
3. Started by students, the Hungarian uprising soon became a popular one, targeting the state police.
4. Moscow equivocated at first, however Warsaw Pact troops eventually entered Hungary to quash the uprising.
5. The Hungarian uprising ended with the installation of Janos Kadar, a loyal Soviet communist, as the nation’s leader. The Soviet response invited criticism and condemnation around the world.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Hungarian uprising”, Alpha History, accessed [today's date], http://alphahistory.com/coldwar/hungarian-uprising/.