The Hungarian Revolution 1956

Written by Maddie Alpar. Edited by Emma Ward.

The collapse of the Hungarian fascist regime during the Second World War left an empty political vacuum in Hungary. The Soviets treated Hungary as a defeated country and with the backing of Stalin, Hungary’s communists demolished all political opponents and bullied their way into power. The new Hungarian leader, Mátyás Rákosi, was put in charge by Stalin and with the support of the USSR reorganisation of the country quickly took place.  By 1950 Hungary had adopted the ‘Stalin constitution’ and evolved into a total gleichschaltung to the Soviet system; communist government had been established. The two main instruments of power, the police and the army, were controlled by the communists with the addition of the secret police (AVH). Thousands of political opponents were exiled, imprisoned or executed and in the first few years of Mátyás Rákosi’s leadership over 300,000 Hungarians were purged.

Due to new soviet polices any industrial and agricultural wealth was taken from Hungary by the Russians. Increased poverty, falling living standards and the banning of the Catholic Church led to protests demanding economic betterment which created a rising revolutionary climate in Hungary. The motive power and main cause of the revolution was the need for both individual and state freedom. The Hungarians hated communism and Russian control and aimed to overthrow the communist regime.

In 1953 Stalin died and was replaced by the new leader Krushstev. In June of that year Poland succeeded in demonstrating against Stalinism through street protests and displays of rebellion. Khrushchev granted them a degree of concession and reform which stirred up hope and passion in Hungary. In July 1956 Mátyás Rákosi was forced to resign. The Hungarian people expected reform and improvement in their country but they received none; this combined with economic hardship created a volatile situation.  The uprising began on 23rd October when Hungarian students and intellectuals began demonstrating against the communist government. They issued sixteen demands such as the independence of trade unions, free elections and a change of leadership to be led by Imre Nagy. Protesters were joined by thousands of industrial workers at the parliament square demonstrating the reinstatement of Nagy as leader. The demonstration quickly got out of hand and turned into a revolt. Protestors proceeded to the Stalin statue which was pulled down and dragged through the streets of Budapest. The central authority’s general secretary proclaimed the relationship between the two states had been equal since 1945. This ignited the flame of out and out revolution. Demonstration was not just contained in the centre. Due to the complete unity of the Hungarian people by 24th October protest and demonstration for change extended throughout the whole country. It was on this day Imre Nagy took over as Prime Minister and on the 28th Khrushchev agreed to demands and the Russian army pulled out of Budapest. Hungary had succeeded in its aims as between 29th October and the 3rd November the new Hungarian Government led by Nagy introduced democracy.  The Hungarian hold on power was only short lived as on the 4th November at dawn soviet troops and 1000 Russian tanks moved into Hungary. The uprising and Hungarian army was quickly crushed. Freedom fighters fought hard as two weeks of street fighting followed with 4000 killed fighting the Russians. Nagy appealed to the West for help but no one came. The Hungarians lost and by 14th November soviet rule was re-established.

The Hungarian revolution of 1956 coincided with the Suez crisis which had disastrous consequences for Hungary. Due to the radical opposition towards communism the Hungarians believed that western states and the UN would intervene in the uprising and militarily and politically aid them. However, due to intervention in the Middle East, attention was deflected from the more brutal struggle of the Hungarian uprising as the Suez crisis was seen as more economically beneficial for intervention. The lack of help from western states and the UN showed how much economics played a part in world politics, as the prospect of oil and trade was put much higher on the political agenda than the lives of those needing help in Hungary. As a result between 2,500 and 3,000 Hungarians were killed with the majority being civilians along with 700 troops. Thousands were arrested and imprisoned and 200,000 Hungarian refugees fled to Austria.

The Hungarian revolution was the first major threat to the USSR’s communist control .With his ally Nasser under attack and uprisings in Budapest, Khrushchev realised that his power and prestige were falling in two states under his influence. The crisis in Suez gave the Soviets an exceptional distraction to intervene in Hungary with brute military force, whilst sending a message to the West that the Soviet Union was as powerful as ever. The uprising showed Russia that it could do as it pleased when it came to force, encouraging them to pursue their policy of nuclear weapons. It was the first time the USSR had ever made a nuclear threat, which helped confirm the USSR’s claim on Eastern Europe and further escalated the cold war by increasing the political divide between east and west. There was no question that the Soviet system was the representative of absolute power. After the events in Hungary the Iron curtain was firmly controlled by Russia and until Czechoslovakia in 1968 no other satellite state dared to challenge Soviet authority.