This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when the tiny country of Hungary brought the Soviet Union to its knees when no one else dared. The failed revolution sent 200,000 Hungarians fleeing across the borders, including 35,000 who were taken in by the U.S. Even those who were displaced persons (refugees of WWII) have vivid memories of 1956 and how it affected their lives as new immigrants here.
History of the 1956 Revolution
Hungary fell under Soviet control after the communist-rigged elections of 1947. The years that followed introduced a system of tyranny under which Hungarians suffered economic deprivation, mass arrests, and a systematically cruel oppression by the communist government. In 1953, following the death of Stalin, signs of economic crisis appeared, caused by a fatally misguided state-controlled agrarian policy. The Hungarian communist hard-liner, Mátyás Rákosi, was suddenly replaced by reformer Imre Nagy, also a communist, but one who believed in “Communism with a human face.”
This welcome “thaw” lasted for only 18 months, to be followed again by a period of repression first under Rákosi, then under his lieutenant, Ernõ Gerõ. But Khruschev’s famous speech given at the February,1956 Party Congress, in which he surprisingly criticized Stalin’s personality cult and actions, opened the gate in Hungary to similar criticism against the morally bankrupt Communist system. Dissatisfaction with the system grew: writers, university students and journalists pressed for major changes, until it all erupted in a mass demonstration of support for the striking workers of Poznan, Poland. On October 23, in a spontaneous demonstration approximately 200,000 Hungarians gathered in front of the Parliament. Thus, the Hungarian Revolution began.
The following timeline includes information on some of the most significant events of the Revolution…
Hungarian university students gathered and marched to the statue of József Bem, a Polish General who led Hungarian freedom fighters during the 1848 Revolution, to express solidarity for the Polish workers fighting against communism. The protest soon swelled to 200,000 Hungarians demanding independence in front of the Parliament.
The thousands of protestors marched to Radio Budapest to have their 16 demands read on air, but were denied access to the building by the hated AVH (Hungarian Secret Police, also referred to as AVO). When the students did not disperse, but instead began yelling slogans like, “Russians, go home!” The AVH fired on the crowd.
Hungarian soldiers who did not agree with the troops shooting on unarmed student protestors quickly joined forces with the freedom fighters and provided them weapons to protect themselves.
Stalin statue was toppled and dragged through the streets.
An uprising broke out at the Szabad Nép newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party.
News of the events in Budapest spread across the country.
Soviet and Hungarian military armored units entered Budapest.
The first Revolutionary newspaper, entitled Igazság (Truth) was published.
Protestors again gathered in front of the Parliament and began calling for Imre Nagy. AVH troops lined up on the top of the Parliament and the Ethnographic Museum, across the street, opened fire and killed more than 100 (some sources estimate between 300-500) protestors.
Workers Councils were formed at the Csepel Iron and Metal Works.
Revolutionary groups were formed in the Thököly út-Dózsa György út area (7th District) and at Széna tér (2nd District). Freedom fighters also occupied Móricz Zsigmond körtér (11th District), and the Danubia Arms Factory.
The Revolution spread to the countryside. In Mosonmagyaróvár the AVH fired into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators, killing 85 men, women and children.
The army occupied Szabadság Bridge and Móricz Zsigmond Square.
The Radio announced the composition of a new government.
The new government was sworn in.
Imre Nagy reclaimed his position as Prime Minister and began negotiations with the Soviets to convince them to leave Hungary.
In his radio address, Imre Nagy stated that the Soviet troops would withdraw from Hungary, the AVH would be dissolved, and the traditional Hungarian flag would be used, among other promises.
The most severely compromised communist leaders – such as: Ernõ Gerõ András Hegedûs and, István Kovács – fled overnight to Moscow.
Israel invaded Egypt, beginning the Suez Canal crisis.
Cardinal József Mindszenty was freed.
Soviet troops withdrew from Budapest to await further orders.
Imre Nagy announced on the radio the end of the one-party system and the formation of a Coalition government.
Szabad (Free) Kossuth Radio began radio broadcasts.
Freedom fighters stormed the headquarters of the Hungarian Workers Party (MDP), defended by AVH troops on Köztársaság Square. Some estimates claim that 43 AVH officers were killed, 7 of them lynched by protestors hungry for revenge after the Mosonmagyaróvár massacre.
On Köztársaság tér, freedom fighters heard human cries coming from under the street. They began several days of digging to look for a secret underground AVH prison, but to no avail.
Soviet Leadership made the secret decision to crush the rebellion with military intervention.
Withdrawal of Soviet troops from Budapest was completed.
Imre Nagy declared Hungary’s neutrality and attempted to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, but no one responded.
November 2 Soviet leaders Khrushchev and Malenkov met with Romanian, Czechoslovak and Bulgarian leaders in Bucharest, as they prepared for the Soviet military intervention in Hungary.
November 3 General Pál Maléter agreed to meet with the Soviet leadership to sign an agreement to withdrawal their troops from Hungary. Despite their promise of safe conduct, Maléter and his delegation were arrested, kidnapped and taken to Romania (they were later executed).
November 4 At dawn, approximately 2,000 tanks rolled back into Budapest from Romania to crush the Revolution.
The Kilian Barracks were captured by the Soviets after fierce fighting.
Cardinal Mindszenty sought political asylum at the US Embassy, where he remained for 15 years. SOS messages were repeatedly broadcast to the UN and the West, but no one responded.
After the Soviet Army crushed the Hungarian Revolution, sporadic arms resistance continued in various cities until mid-December. But it was the passive resistance, the silent political struggle, the calls for strikes that continued to present a challenge to the puppet government of Soviet-picked János Kádár. His communist colleagues, especially the Soviets and Romanians, pressured him to hit the revolutionaries hard.
Reprisals began in late November with mass arrests, deportations to Ukraine, special courts and military trials, and the establishment of internment camps. More than 200,000 Hungarians escaped to the West. In order to gain legitimacy, Kádár had to destroy the Revolution’s Prime Minister, Imre Nagy, and accordingly, his trial, secret execution and burial took place in June, 1958. General amnesty for most prisoners took place only in 1963.
Although the governments of the free world watched the Hungarian Revolution with deep admiration, they never seriously considered providing military support, nor condemnation strong enough to stop the brutal actions of the Soviet Union.
However, the heroes of 1956 did not die or suffer in vain. They demonstrated such uncommon bravery, such a universal yearning for freedom from foreign tyranny, that the whole world was forced to see the true face of communism at last. The Revolution’s spirit came full circle in June, 1989, when Imre Nagy and others were finally given the public burial by a grateful Hungarian nation that had waited 33 years to pay homage to their sacrifice.
The 1956 Revolution was the first step in the dissolution of Communism to be followed by the Prague Spring in 1968, the founding of Solidarity in Poland in 1980, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The Communist system, that received its first mortal blow in Hungary in 1956, disintegrated across the region in 1989. Soon thereafter the Warsaw Pact dissolved. The last Soviet soldiers left Hungarian soil in June, 1991, and at long last Hungary was free.
**This was originally published on www.freedomfighter56.com, written by Andrea Lauer Rice.