Hungary 1956; ‘Normalization’ in Budapest

March of protesters on 25 October

The crushing of the 1956 Hungarian uprising led to repercussions far beyond the borders of the country itself.  In its wake communist fellow travellers were forced to confront the grim realities of Soviet realpolitik, the West’s inaction undermined the confidence of Eastern European people as to the resolve behind the rhetoric of the free world, reformists saw their hopes of ‘socialism with a human face’ dashed.

Often described as a ‘revolution’ the events of 1956 were more akin to an insurrection in that they were for the most part spontaneous and leaderless. Ironically as a ‘revolution from below’ it ticked many Marxist doctrinal boxes.  Prime Minister Nagy and his followers were referred to as ‘the government’ but largely for the wont of a more credible alternative. Predictably Soviet apologists wrote the insurgency off as a CIA backed coup,  however the Agency’s focus was at the time on the Middle East where the Suez crisis was about to break.  No evidence exists to link outside intelligence agencies with the uprising although the idea of a Volunteer Freedom corps recruited from Eastern European exiles had been floated with Albania as a possible insertion point behind the iron curtain, however the idea never got off the ground. A resistance cell was said to exist in the Hungarian army but this was probably a communist ‘front’ organization.

The Cold War had seen the division of Europe into two ideologically opposed armed camps. The Eisenhower administration (1953-57) had advocated ‘rollback’ in contrast to ‘containment’ as a policy for combating communist expansionism. Funding had been channelled into supporting clandestine radio networks and émigré organizations. This constituted more an acceptance of the status quo than the threat of armed intervention. Washington considered encouraging ‘evolutionary changes’ like ‘national communism’ along the lines of Tito’s Yugoslavia.

The post war imposition of communist rule on Hungary was harsh, the Party (MDP) forced through radical, largely inept industrialization and collectivization measures. Between 1947 and 1956 around 280,000 Hungarians were annually arrested including prominent communists, while the security service (AVO) underwent considerable expansion under the guidance of the KGB. According to a US intelligence report the Party had support from approximately 10% of the population.

The failure of the Hungarian economy coupled with the death of Stalin (1953) and anti-communist uprisings in East Berlin and Poznan led to a softening of Moscow’s line. Hungary’s economic stagnation provided the pretext for appointing Imre Nagy as prime-minister. The new prime-minister was and would remain a fervent communist. Nagy had cut his political teeth before the war by infiltrating Hungarian political parties such as the Social Democratic Party. He fought in the Red army during the civil war and had served time in several Hungarian jails. Nevertheless, his reforms including a reduction in investment in heavy industry, lowering prices and the opportunity to opt out of agricultural co-operatives, earned him some credibility among many Hungarians.

Although hardliners saw Nagy ousted for ‘rightist deviationism’ the Hungarians didn’t forget the thaw of his tenure. Students demanding free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary organized a protest march for the 23rd October 1956, a bold decision given that a similar demonstration had been quashed by Polish security forces in Poznan four months earlier.

Marching through Budapest towards the Parliament building the number of protesters grew to over 200,000 people. The demonstrators called upon Nagy to address the crowd but the former prime-minister’s appearance proved to be an anti-climax; Nagy advised the protesters to disperse claiming that their concerns would be raised and addressed. Meanwhile other demonstrators toppled statues of Stalin and outside the Hungarian Radio Building. AVH troops fired on the crowd leaving several dead and wounded. Hungarian troops from the 8th tank regiment went over to the rebels, cars and trucks were overturned, weapons seized.

Soviet forces entered Budapest on 24th October following a heated politburo session. Nagy was made Prime Minister on 24th October advocating limited reforms but events were spiralling out of government control. The fight had escalated from a struggle over domestic grievances to resistance against a foreign invader. While similar uprisings were taking place elsewhere in Hungary Soviet troops in Budapest were attacked with Molotov cocktails and gunfire.

Nagy’s prevarications highlighted a fundamental insurgent weakness; it was to all intents and purposes leaderless. Workers Councils were improvised with different people, workers, anti-communists, democrats, wanting different things. Insurgent bands formed around leaders, often deriving their names from the streets and squares in which they fought. These bands captured arms from captured AVH personnel and occupied factories. The favoured weapon was the Molotov cocktail; a glass bottle was filled with gasoline plugged with a rag then upon impact with its target sprayed with bullets thus igniting the contents. This unsophisticated device created havoc amongst Soviet tankers traversing their machines through unfamiliar Hungarian streets. Idealistic students saw see themselves sidelined by hard-line elements, hoodlums and street-thugs.

Much has been made of the role of Radio Free Europe during the crisis.  It was accused of encouraging the Hungarians to feel that military assistance would be forthcoming. Eisenhower admitted ‘exciting’ the Hungarians ‘then turning our backs on them in their hour of need’. RFE later confessed that its transmissions ‘could have led to misunderstandings’ and that their tone was ‘exaggerated’. Some broadcasts disseminated sabotage, civil defence and anti-tank techniques all of which implying that the west would offer practical support. In truth there was never much chance of direct intervention. Equipment, particularly anti-tank bazookas could have been airlifted in, however, unlike far-flung theatres like Korea and Vietnam a military response in Central Europe would have escalated into world war.

In Budapest there was at the outset some fraternization between insurgents and Soviet troops. This changed when shots were fired from the roof of the Kossuth building on Parliament Square. In the ensuing panic seventy-five people killed; AVH troops were believed to have carried out the shooting under KGB orders. Captured AVH personnel and Soviet soldiers were subsequently lynched by incensed mobs.

Engagements with Soviet troops became fiercer. On 25th October the 128th Guards Rifle Division and the 33rd Guards Mechanized Division were ordered to disperse insurgents from the south-eastern quarter of Budapest. The Corvin Passage was an excellent defensive position however, a warren of underground alleyways and corridors through which rebel fighters could launch swift surprise attacks then   disappear. Fourteen Soviet tanks and thirteen artillery pieces were captured or set ablaze. The passage flanked by the Corvin Cinema and the Kilian Barracks, was occupied by Hungarian troops who had thrown in their lot with the rebels. A subsequent attempt by the Soviets on the 28th October to take the passage was repulsed with the loss of several more tanks.

An impromptu ceasefire was declared promising immunity for the rebels and the abolition of the AVH, but the government could no longer reign-in insurgents intoxicated with a new found sense of power.

When Soviet forces withdrew from Budapest many Hungarians celebrated victory.  The ignominious retreat and worldwide loss of face meant that the Soviets would be back. KGB boss Yuri Andropov played a waiting game assuring the world that no intervention was planned whilst simultaneously briefing Moscow on the inability of the Hungarian government to maintain control.

The Kremlin allowed Nagy to form a new government but there were no further concessions to the rebels. Nagy however had to placate the insurgents in order to exert any kind of influence over them. On 1st November he announced Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. Mock negotiations took place though Soviet intervention was now considered imminent. In the meantime prominent members of the government were seized and airlifted to Moscow by Soviet airborne units.

Operation Vichr (Whirlwind) began in the early hours of 4th November.  Soviet troops seized key strategic points like airfields, road junctions and bridges. Nagy broadcast to the world what was happening while his eventual successor Kadar announced that the uprising had deteriorated into a fascist coup and that he had asked the Soviets to intervene.  This was what Marxists termed ‘normalization’.

Though fighting erupted around the Corvin cinema, the Castle and the Gellert Hills the issue was never in doubt.  Some 3,000 Hungarians are thought to have died during the uprising with Soviets losses around 1,000 dead and wounded.

Nagy was arrested and executed. The central committee of the Socialist Workers Party declared the uprising a ‘counter-revolution’. Mass arrests took place in December and martial law was reintroduced, an estimated 33,000 people were arrested during the clampdown, 230 of them executed.

The U.S subsequently softened its propaganda approach towards Eastern Europe, developing trade, cultural and economic aid to Soviet satellites in order to undermine Moscow’s control. Nevertheless, the Hungarian Uprising was a moral defeat for the Soviet Union further cementing the hatred of the native population towards them. The communists began to realize that a better standard of living meant more to people than ideological claptrap with some economic reforms being introduced over the next decade. Eventual economic implosion would lead to the demise of the Soviet Union. During the 80’s Hungarians began to talk more openly about 1956. In May 1990 Hungary became an independent democratic country once more.  The Hungarian Uprising failed but it had exposed the lie at the heart of the Warsaw pact.

© Ian Maycock 2020

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