In order to understand the significance of Budapest in 1956 it is necessary to know a little about the history of Hungary and its people.
As early as 1526 Hungary had laboured under foreign rule. It was first subjugated by the Ottoman Turks and then the Austrian Habsburgs. In 1703 Ferenc Rákóczi II led an uprising against the Austrians which lasted 8 years. Although unsuccessful this time, it demonstrated the Hungarian reluctance to be ruled by a non-Hungarian government. The Hapsburgs, however, were finally ousted by a second rising in 1948. For a brief period the state was free of occupation and a real sense of patriotism was born. This optimism was shorted-lived as the Russians lent support to the Hapsburgs through the proviso's of the Holy Alliance and retook Hungary in 1849. With careful negotiation an uneasy balance was struck and, by 1867, the Austro-Hungarian pact was sealed, awarding Hungary equal parity with Austria.
Events took a turn for the worse after WWII when Franklin D Roosevelt, failing to recognise the potential danger of Stalin, 'handed' Hungary over to Soviet Russia. Stalin appointed Mátyás 'Little Stalin' Rákosi as premier of the Peoples' Republic of Hungary. Hungary was transformed into a satellite state where even expressing a mild anti-communist/soviet opinion was punished with torture and death. Thousands died, the most telling statistic being that over ninety-five percent of the prisoners were jailed for political rather than criminal reasons.
Things improved slightly from 1953 when a more liberal leader, Imre Nagy, was appointed premier. His relaxed attitude to communism led to his dismissal in 1955 and he was replaced by a far harsher man, Ernö Gerö - Rákosi's right hand man, who resumed the political purges of Rákosi. The Hungarian people, who had enjoyed a brief respite from persecution, were once more living in fear and started to show their anger and frustration by gathering to show support for the Polish uprising.
On October 23, in Jozsef Bem square, in Buda, a small group of students assembled to declaim the Soviet occupation. Shouting slogans such as Ruszkik haza!1, the numbers swelled to over 10,000 and soon people were cutting the Soviet symbol from the Hungarian flag. Hungarian soldiers, watching from a nearby barracks, refused to fire on their countrymen and even ripped the emblems from their uniforms. By now more crowds had formed outside the national radio building in Pest and The ÁVO2 began firing on them. What could have been a massacre was averted by the intervention of workers from nearby Csepel Island who produced weapons for the demonstrators.
Imre Nagy appeared outside the Parliament building and led the crowd in singing the Hungarian National Hymn, Isten áldd meg a Magyart3, long-banned for its Nationalistic words and sentiments. In Heroes Square, a giant statue of Stalin was, over the course of a few hours, pulled down, decapitated and the head dragged through the streets to the accompaniment of jeering and spitting. The protests continued. On 25th October a child was killed by the ÁVO. After an impassioned plea by its mother, the Russian general in charge ordered his troops to realign their tanks to fire on the ÁVO rather than the crowd. The revolution was in full swing!
Two major battles took place in the city. The first was in Széna Square in Buda. Protestors barricaded the streets and the square with carts forcing the tanks to skirt the outside. This made them easy prey for the Hungarian youths who had been well-trained (by the Russians!) in the art of disarming and disabling tanks. The second was at Killián Barracks which was manned by youths and defecting Hungarian soldiers. Under heavy fire, they played a waiting game until the tanks came into range. Then, armed with machine guns, Molotov cocktails, a hastily repaired anti-tank gun and the knowledge supplied to them by the Soviets, a few boys single-handedly destroyed several tanks in front of the barracks and stopped seven advancing tanks. When a second wave of tanks arrived other students kept watch and gave warning and these, too, were destroyed by the freedom fighters.
The unrest spread throughout Hungary; most notably in the border town of Magyaróvár where 85 unarmed civilians were slaughtered by the
ÁVO. Incensed, their family and friends soon exacted retribution. The ÁVO here and in Budapest either fled or were killed. Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, Prince Primate of the Hungarian Catholic Church, was freed alongside many political prisoners - although many still perished because the entries to their cells were concealed. Nagy renounced the Warsaw Pact and declared Hungary a permanently neutral nation. He dissolved the one-party system and for the first time since 1946 multiple parties emerged. He ordered the Soviets out of Hungary and, for a while, they complied.
This wasn't the end, however. On the morning of November 4th Russian tanks returned to Budapest and bombarded the city. General Maléter, the hero of the Killián Barracks who had been made Minister of Defense, had been removed from the scene - kidnapped by the Soviets during peace talks. The freedom fighters were weakened by hunger and short of ammunition. The battles were short and bloody with no distinction made between fighters and innocent civilians. After a few days the Russians gained the upper hand and installed a new premier, János Kádár. Imre Nagy, who had taken refuge in the Yugoslav embassy, was promised safety if he returned home. His bus, however, was intercepted by tanks, the two Yugoslavian guards thrown off and the bus driven to Romania. After months of torture he was executed in 1958.
Waves of refugees attempted to leave Hungary, most choosing to escape into Austria via the bridge at Andau. This was dynamited in mid-November. About three hundred thousand people left Hungary and ten's of thousands were deported to Siberia to serve out the rest of their lives in the infamous Gulags.
Although the freedom fighters lost, Budapest became a symbol of the fight against enforced communist rule. It proved that the mighty Russian army could be brought to its knees by a minor country and that, above all else, people yearn for the freedom to express themselves. The phrase Communism is the friend of man no longer ran true.