During the Cold War the Soviet Union occupied Hungary as one of its 'satellite states' behind the Iron Curtain. In 1956 the Hungarians were frustrated and angry: a situation that culminated in a spontaneous, violent uprising.
Hungary had fought on the same side as Germany during the Second World War. The Soviets were on the winning side and treated Hungary as a defeated foe. This meant that Hungary was forced to pay huge reparations for the damage caused on the USSR and there were forced land reforms.
How the USSR Gained Control in Hungary
After 1945, Joseph Stalin, the leader of the USSR, and Winston Churchill had a spoken agreement that became known as the 'spheres of influence'. In essence it meant that whatever Eastern European countries the USSR had liberated from the Nazis would become part of the Soviet sphere of influence. This meant that the West would not interfere, regardless of what the Soviets chose to do. In the same way, Western Europe (including Greece and Turkey) became the capitalists' sphere of influence.
At the end of World War II, once the Nazis had been defeated, the Hungarian government was in a shambles. It had been run as a Fascist state and now it had no-one to take control of it. As Hungary's liberators, the Soviet Union stepped into positions of importance in government under the guise of keeping law and order. At first, the Hungarians appreciated this as the USSR had liberated them from the oppressive brutality of the Nazi regime.
The USSR used three stages to gain control in Eastern Europe. Firstly, they set up a 'People's Republic' with promises that the people would take control of their country after a period of time. Many landowners were now unpopular with the workers and peasants as they had cooperated with the Nazis. The Soviets won the people's support by giving them this land.
Secondly, there were local Stalinist takeovers. The Soviets allowed elections to take place where the peasant-farming parties generally won the majority. The secret police and army moved in, arresting the leaders of these parties and any opposition who were then replaced by Moscow-trained communists loyal to the USSR.
The final stage of takeover would then be to centralise control. In 1947 Stalin established COMINFORM (the Communist Information Bureau). Its membership included all the European Communist parties1. Its official purpose was to try to establish information exchanges between Europe's communist parties and coordinate activities but in reality it was so that the USSR could have total control.
The USSR also had control over the economies of the satellite states through another organisation known as COMECON (Council Of Mutual Economic Assistance). This was set up in 1949 and bound Eastern Europe economically to the USSR. The satellite states were forbidden from trading with the west and were not allowed to accept the USA's Marshall Aid2 which would have helped to revitalise the failing Hungarian economy. They were forced to sell the USSR cheap raw materials and had to buy Soviet goods. This made Hungary beholden to the USSR.
Any opposition on the part of the satellite states was crushed. This was achieved as the USSR had control of the government, the secret police and, for the most part, the army. Anyone who spoke out against the USSR or showed unorthodox tendencies was imprisoned, tortured or executed (or a combination of all three). By discouraging religion and through mass indoctrination with pro-Soviet propaganda the communists managed to remain the only source of power and stay in control.
Life in Hungary
Life in Soviet Bloc countries was far from easy. There was no democracy, no freedom of speech, low wages, religion was discouraged, the police imprisoned any opposition, work conditions were poor, and there were few consumer goods. Travel and trade with the West was banned. The Soviets promoted their language in the satellite states by making children learn Russian in school and by changing the street names to Russian ones. This was part of the work of COMINFORM. The Soviet army kept the satellite states under control by occupying the countries. The Eastern European countries were forced to pay all the expenses of the Red Army.
Communism did yield some positive results. Education and health care were free and unemployment was low. In general, however, living conditions were difficult which left the ordinary people angry and resentful towards the Soviets.
Soviet Relations With Hungary
In the free elections agreed to at the Yalta Conference, the Communist party only won 17% of the Hungarian vote, with most of the seats being won by the Small Farmers Party. However, it was unacceptable to have a communist minority so the USSR forced the Hungarians to put communists in key positions. Matyas Rakosi, a pro-Stalin communist, ran Hungary. He was a hard-line communist and used terror and brutality to maintain an iron grip on the country. Rakosi and his lieutenant Gero used the hated secret police, the AVH, to imprison thousands of his political opponents. This increased the Hungarians' hatred of him.
Under Rakosi's government the Hungarian standard of living dropped. Rakosi radically changed Hungary's system of education. He wanted to replace the educated class with what he termed a 'toiling intelligentsia'. Communist indoctrination took place in schools and universities; while everyone was educated it meant that the possibility of them rebelling was small as they were all taught to believe in communism. Religious teaching in schools was denounced as propaganda and was gradually phased out of the education system. This was extremely unwelcome, as many Hungarians were extremely devout.
Among these prisoners was Laszlo Rajk, a leading anti-Stalinist, who was hanged by the Soviets in 1949. Also in 1949 the leader of the Hungarian Catholic Church, Cardinal Mindszenty, was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for opposition to Communism.
After Stalin's death in 1953, the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wanted to give communism a more humanitarian image and so replaced Rakosi with a more moderate communist called Imre Nagy. Nagy was far more liberal and tried to improve the standard of living. Meanwhile Rakosi remained a powerful figure in Hungarian politics. He was given a position as First Secretary in the Communist party.
During Nagy's first two years in power he made little economic progress and was ridiculed by the press for this failure. Rakosi was given the task of replacing Nagy to try to improve the Hungarian economy. However, Rakosi returned to his harsh Stalinist rule and his second session in power proved even more unpopular than his first. During the Rakosi era the AVH probably executed 2,000 Hungarians and imprisoned between 100,000 and 200,000 people. Rakosi boasted about how he dealt with opposition from members of his government by 'cutting them off like slices of salami.'
The Rise of Khrushchev
Stalin died in 1953 and his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, only emerged in 1955. He had a different idea of how communism should work. He thought that communism needed reform and explained that:
If after forty years of communism a person can not have a glass of milk or a pair of shoes, he will not believe that communism is a good thing, no matter what you tell him.
At the 20th Party Conference of the Communist party in 1956, Kruschev gave a secret speech where he criticised Stalin. He spoke against the purges, Stalin's power-abuses and the creation of a 'cult of personality'. During Stalin's reign this sort of open criticism would have been unthinkable. Following this speech a period of de-Stalinisation occurred in the Soviet Union, where Khrushchev attempted to change the situation Stalin had created.
During de-Stalinisation, Khrushchev:
Released political prisoners
Closed down COMINFORM in 1956, as part of his policy to reconcile Yugoslavia's leader, General Tito3
Dismissed Stalin's foreign minister, Molotov
Tried to improve the standard of living and introduced more consumer goods
Became the first Soviet leader to travel to the West
Talked about 'peaceful co-existence' with the West
Abolished the Soviet secret police, the NKVD
Kruschev wasn't a pushover though, and in 1955 he set up the Warsaw Pact. It linked all of communist Europe in a military alliance with the USSR. It was a communist version of NATO4 and was created because NATO's formation threatened the Soviet Union so the USSR wanted to ensure its safety.
In June 1956, Polish workers in Poznan went on strike in protest about exorbitant prices, high taxes and low wages. Soviet troops were stationed on the Polish border but Khrushchev allowed the popular leader Gomulka, one of Stalin's political prisoners, to become Poland's leader. Gomulka had been imprisoned by Stalin for supporting Tito5. Gomulka was allowed to develop his own version of Communism as long as Poland stayed loyal to the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Khrushchev also allowed the devout Polish Catholics more freedom of religion.
This all encouraged the Hungarians to believe that Khrushchev would similarly allow them more freedom.
Events of the Hungarian Uprising
Finally Rakosi was ousted from power for a second time but tenaciously he managed to keep control to a certain extent by ensuring that his second-in-command Erno Gero was placed in charge. However, this proved immediately unsuccessful with the Hungarians who wanted the return of Nagy.
23 October, 1956
Encouraged by the return of Gomulka in Poland and by Khrushchev's de-Stalinisation, the students took to the streets of Budapest demanding free elections, free press, the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the return of the popular leader Nagy. Workers in Budapest supported them. A massive statue of Stalin in Budapest was pulled down and its head was dragged through the streets. Protesters rebelliously chanted: 'Russians go home', 'Away with Gero' and 'Long Live Nagy'. Street-fighting occurred between the secret police and protesters. The Hungarians went so far as to remove the communist arms from the centre of the nation's flag leaving a blatant hole in defiance.
Soviet tanks were sent into Budapest to try to restore a state of peace. Nagy6 was reinstated as Prime Minister and announced over the radio that he was now the leader of the Hungarian government, promising:
...the far-reaching democratisation of Hungarian public life, the realisation of a Hungarian road to socialism in accord with our own national characteristics, and the realisation of our lofty national aim: the radical improvement of the workers' living conditions.
After talks between Nagy's government and the Soviets, the Soviet troops and tanks were withdrawn. Nagy asked the rebels to remain calm but they were encouraged by the American President Eisenhower, who said 'I feel with the Hungarian people' and the words of the American secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, who said 'You can count on us.'
The Hungarians took these as signs that the USA supported their actions and would come to their aid when needed. However, the Americans were only offering moral support and made no mention of either military or political intervention.
Nagy decided that reforms were necessary in order to preserve peace. His reforms were:
For free elections to take place
To bring an end to the communist one-party system
The release of political prisoners, such as Cardinal Mindszenty
Freedom of speech and of the press
Free trade unions and the right to strike
Freedom of worship
To make Hungary a neutral state in the Cold War
For Hungary to have Western trade links
Nagy also wanted Hungary to leave the Warsaw Pact. Khrushchev could have tolerated many of these reforms but the threat of leaving the Warsaw Pact was too great a threat to Soviet security. Under the guise of helping to restore law and order in Hungary, Soviet tanks returned.
The Soviets put on a huge show of force as masses of tanks returned to Budapest's streets. The Hungarians fought bravely using guerrilla tactics but the odds were against them. Almost immediately Soviet tanks had captured Hungary's airfields, highway junctions and bridges. A telex message sent by the rebels during the fighting read:
We have almost no weapons, no heavy guns of any kind. People are running up to the tanks, throwing in hand grenades and closing the drivers' windows. The Hungarian people are not afraid of death. It is only a pity that we cannot last longer. Now the firing is starting again. The tanks are coming nearer and nearer. You can't let people attack tanks with their bare hands. What is the United Nations doing?
The Hungarians pleaded for help but none came as Eisenhower feared an atomic war and the United Nations were too preoccupied with the Suez Crisis to help. Lynch mobs attacked the AVH, snipers shot at Soviet soldiers and children as young as 12 fought using homemade weapons. Considering that the Hungarians had very limited numbers of conventional weapons, they showed great resourcefulness by spreading washing up liquid on the streets to prevent the tank treads from gripping the roads and making fake, but realistic-looking, 'landmines' using up-turned soup plates. This proved surprisingly effective. Hungarian soldiers at the Killian Barracks fought for three days but the rebels were eventually overcome by the might of the Soviet army.
The exact number of fatalities is unknown but is expected to have been about 20,000 - although the official number was much lower. This is a huge loss compared with Soviet casualties. 7,000 Soviet soldiers were killed or wounded during the insurrection.
After ten days of fighting, the uprising was over and a new Soviet-backed government was put in power, led by Janos Kadar. Kadar wasn't a Stalinist, like Rakosi, with none of Nagy's radical ideas. Fearing for his safety, Nagy sought refuge in the Yugoslav embassy in Budapest. Kadar offered him safe passage but no sooner had Nagy set foot outside the embassy than he was arrested. He was taken to Romania and was executed behind closed doors two years later.
One consequence of the Hungarian revolution was that relations between the USA and USSR deteriorated making the Cold War even colder. Another was the creation of over 200,000 Hungarian refugees who escaped to the west fearing for their lives.
Reasons why Khrushchev Invaded Hungary
Nagy wanted to leave the Warsaw Pact which could have had catastrophic consequences for Soviet control of Eastern Europe. If Hungary had left the Warsaw Pact it would have left a gap in the Iron Curtain. This could have caused a ripple effect where other satellite states would have demanded to leave and thus diminish Soviet security and control of Europe. The satellite states were needed for trade with the USSR and acted as a buffer-zone against Western influences.
Khrushchev was under immense diplomatic pressure from Mao Zedong the leader of the other major communist state, China. He urged Khrushchev to take a hard line with the Hungarians in order to maintain face. Khrushchev was also in an unstable domestic situation and needed to boost his popularity with a show of force against a country that was so obviously flouting Soviet policy.
Khrushchev was confident that he would not face opposition from the west as they were preoccupied with the Suez Crisis that was taking place at the time in Egypt. The United Nations was also deeply involved in the Suez Crisis and did not pay attention to the Hungarians' plight.
Presidential elections were nearing in the USA, which meant that Eisenhower did not want to jeopardise his chances of re-election, and so merely protested.
The Hungarian Uprising is an example of how people react during times of oppression. The Hungarians failed because they lacked support and because the uprising was spontaneous and so lacked planning. It showed that Khrushchev was not prepared to compromise on major issues such as Soviet security. This caused the Polish workers to become more cautious in their demonstrations against the Soviet Union after seeing what happened to the Hungarians. However, it did give a glimpse into what a more liberal type of communism might be like.
Under Kadar the Hungarians had a much greater choice of consumer goods and Hungary became virtually economically independent from the USSR. Hungary remained part of the Soviet block until September 1989 when Hungary shocked the world by opening its Western borders. In a previous era this would have been completely unthinkable. This prompted a mass exodus of thousands of Eastern Europeans into Austria and heralded the collapse of the Soviet Union in the following months.
If you would like to see the streets of Budapest including the major sites of the uprising in the form of an interactive map with a 360 degree view and historical photographs then visit the Budapest Interactive Map