Fifty years on from the Hungarian Revolution

They were three weeks that shook the world, when a revolt begun by students forced out both a government and hated Soviet forces, only to end in bloodshed and repression
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Fifty years ago today, something extraordinary happened in Hungary. A nation, one of the proudest and most distinctive in Europe, that had endured two catastrophic world wars, the loss of much of its territory and subjugation to the brutal might of the Soviet Union, spontaneously decided that it wasn't going to take it any more.

It wasn't the first time Soviet power had been challenged. In June of that year, workers in Poznan, Poland had risen against the government.

Repression was swift and ferocious, with dozens of rebels killed and wounded by security police. A poor example to follow, you might think, but in October Poland's communist government granted many of the rebels' demands and after tense negotiations the Soviets agreed to reduce their troop levels in Poland.

Posthumously, the slaughtered rebels had won. Following the death of Stalin in 1953, the long, bleak Stalinist winter appeared to be waning. Winds of change were beginning to blow through the eastern bloc.

But that is to view the events of 23 October 1956 with the deceptively calm gaze of hindsight. At the time they were astonishing and unexpected: the Soviet Empire had not received a challenge on this scale since the end of the war. The Hungarian Uprising, or Revolt, or Revolution, flared up out of practically nothing, the disgruntlement of a few thousand students. It swept up in its onward surge millions of ordinary people, overthrew the government and forced the withdrawal of the Soviet forces - then was crushed and pulverised by Soviet military might with the deaths of tens of thousands of ordinary people, all within the space of three tumultuous weeks.

It was the most dramatic eruption that the Soviet empire was to experience before its final eventual disintegration - of which it was the first omen. "The whole thing was so spontaneous, we didn't really think things through," says Gergely Pongratz, a leader of the uprising. "We just took a gun and acted."

The revolution was a textbook demonstration of Alexis de Tocqueville's tenet that "the most dangerous moment for a bad government is that in which it sets about reform." Following Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin in February 1956, Stalin's hardline representative in Hungary, Matyas Rakosi, responsible for thousands of atrocities against political opponents, was elbowed from power and the rehabilitation of more liberal communists began.

Communism itself was not being challenged, only the imposition by the Soviet Union of its own brutal and foreign way of doing things.

The official communist student union, for example, was rejected on 16 October by students in the city of Szeged, who re-established their own democratic student organisation that had been banned under Rakosi. Their example flashed across the country, imitated everywhere. Suddenly freedom seemed possible. The Russians had liberated Hungary at the end of the Second World War, and Stalin's agreement with Churchill guaranteed that the Soviets would have only a 50 per cent share in the rule of the country. That proportion was steadily raised by Rakosi's so-called "salami" tactics, taking more power one slice at a time, and within a few years Stalin's placemen were fully and ruthlessly in charge everywhere. Compulsory nationalisation and collectivisation followed, with the familiar results of collapsing productivity and economic stagnation. But the ubiquity of the much feared state security police, the AVH, and Rakosi's readiness to imprison, torture and execute his enemies, ensured that dissent remained mute.

Now that was suddenly changing. Students and writers, no longer prevented from banding together freely, set up discussion groups to thrash out the nation's dire problems. Thousands joined in. To show solidarity with Polish rebels, students decided to honour a hero of Hungary's War of Independence, General Bem, who was of Polish origin. On 23 October 1956, 20,000 demonstrators duly thronged around the general's statue in Budapest.

Some sang the banned national anthem, with its rousing chorus, "We vow, we vow, we will no longer remain slaves..." Someone cut the hammer and sickle out of the Hungarian flag, leaving a hole in the middle, and suddenly everyone was doing it.

We have seen these intoxicating events in our own age, Prague's Velvet Revolution, the overthrow of Ceausescu, the huge demonstrations that brought down Milosevic in Serbia. This was the grand-daddy of them all.

The demonstrators had started gathering in the afternoon, and by 6pm they numbered 200,000, including tens of thousands of workers. The majority of them had moved to the Parliament Building. Even now there was no sign of trouble. "There are big student demonstrations," a Budapest editor told an English colleague. Any trouble? "A few nationalist slogans, but everything is good-humoured."

Charlie Coutts, Budapest correspondent of Britain's communist Daily Worker, told his office on the phone, "The quiet and orderly behaviour of the marchers is impressive."

At this point the regime decided to come down hard. At 8pm Erno Gero, general secretary of the Communist Party, went on the radio and made a speech rubbishing the demonstrators' demands. They were reactionaries, counter-revolutionaries, he said, "hostile elements" bent on disturbing "the present political order in Hungary." The timing was exquisite: Gero had lavished oil on the flames.

The demonstrators showed no sign of going home - and Gero's attempt to regain the authoritarian upper hand merely made them furious. A large crowd gathered outside the headquarters of Radio Budapest, which was heavily guarded by the AVH. A delegation of some 300 students got inside, bent on broadcasting their demands, but they were detained.

The temperature of the event began to soar. Rumours began swirling through the crowd that the delegation inside the radio station had been shot. AVH men in the building threw tear-gas canisters from upper floors and began firing at the demonstrators. An ambulance bringing more weapons and ammunition to the AVH was intercepted by the crowd. Hungarian Army soldiers arrived to disperse the demonstrators but, harangued by them, they tore the red stars from their caps and sided with the crowd. The revolution with no leaders and no plan was giddily underway.

That night the embattled Hungarian government appealed to the Soviet Union to send troops and tanks "to suppress a demonstration that was reaching an ever greater and unprecedented scale." The next day, Soviet tanks rumbled into place outside parliament building and at major bridges and crossroads. But there was no stopping the revolution. Many of the Soviet soldiers, like the Hungarian ones, fraternised with the revolutionaries and sympathised with their aims. Charlie Coutts reported seeing a peaceful demonstration encountering a Soviet tank. "The tank stopped," Coutts told Peter Fryer, the British journalist who wrote a book, Hungarian Tragedy, about the uprising, "a soldier put his head out, and the people in front of the crowd began to explain they were unarmed and were engaged in a peaceful demonstration. The soldier told them to jump on the tank; a number of them did so, and the tank set off in the demonstration."

When the crowd escorting the tank got to Parliament Square they found three more tanks and two armoured cars, all on the demonstrators' side, all fraternising cheerfully. Then shots rang out from parliament, fired by AVH secret police, leaving 30 demonstrators dead. The tipping pointof the conflict had suddenly arrived: the government collapsed, its leaders fled to Moscow, the revolutionary forces were chaotically in control. By 28 October, after six days of chaos, a ceasefire was agreed, and the Soviet forces returned to barracks. A huge hole had been blown in the iron curtain.

Two things are remarkable about the ensuing week of freedom: the West made no attempt to exploit the chaos in Hungary, despite Khrushchev's premonition that it would try to "add Hungary to Egypt." The Suez crisis was monopolising the West's attention, and the Cold War had reached a sort of stasis. And, although the Stalinists had ranted about "reactionaries" from day one, the revolutionaries in the countryside were in no doubt that what they were doing was reforming communism.

"The Government will retain from the Socialist achievement everything which can be...used in a free, democratic and Socialist country," said a member of the new government on 3 November. "No one must dream of going back to the world of counts, bankers and capitalists," said another leader. But Moscow was not interested in democratic socialism. With the declared neutrality of Austria, which Hungary wished to emulate, the Soviets saw the Warsaw Pact unravelling before their eyes. Hardliners in the Kremlin insisted that the process be stopped. And there was only one way to do it.

On 1 November, 12 new Soviet divisions began grinding into Hungary, many of them brought from remote corners of the Union and with no knowledge of European languages. By 3 November they had Budapest encircled. By dawn the next morning shots were heard all over the city, and prime minister, Imre Nagy, made a final, futile broadcast appeal to the world. "Operation Whirlwind" was underway, combining air strikes, artillery barrages and tank and infantry attacks. It was a grossly unequal fight.

Peter Fryer wrote, in a dispatch censored by the Daily Worker: "For four days and nights Budapest was under continuous bombardment. I saw a once lovely city battered, bludgeoned, smashed and bled into submission...It was heart-breaking."