By the spring of 1953 the Hungarian economy was in deep crisis. The economic policies of the Communist Party, under the leadership of Ernő Gerő, president of the National Economic Council, were proving unsuccessful. The farms produced by land reform were too small for Hungary's economy, and the government had emphasized heavy industry despite a lack of natural resources to sustain it. Neither Prime Minister Mátyás Rákosi nor the top leadership of the Communist Party dealt effectively with the difficulties. On 4 July 1953 Imre Nagy, with Soviet support, replaced Rákosi as prime minister. Nagy introduced a reform program dubbed the New Course. It included reformation of the administration, an end to or reduction in forced labor, an accommodation with religion, an end to police brutality, curtailment of the power of the secret police, amnesty for political prisoners, allowing peasants to end the collective farms, and relaxation of economic controls and the pace of industrialization. These were also the demands of the rebels in 1956.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev became concerned about these reforms. When the political climate in Moscow changed in favor of the hard-liner Rákosi in the spring of 1955, Nagy was forced to resign. Rákosi's reappointment and the suspension of Nagy's reform program were badly received in Hungary.
The Poznań riots in Poland in June 1956 and Władysław Gomułka's return to power there encouraged the Hungarian reformers. With the situation in Hungary fast deteriorating, Khrushchev ordered Rákosi to resign as party secretary on 18 July 1956. But Rákosi's Stalinist replacement, Ernő Gerő, was not acceptable to party moderates, who favored greater liberalization. Gerő proved just as unpopular as Rákosi.
By 1956 there was widespread dissatisfaction in Hungary. Under Rákosi the economy had deteriorated. A poor harvest and a fuel shortage in the fall of 1956 coupled with events in Poland added to the already serious situation.
At the same time there was rising discontent among Hungary's intellectuals, who had come to enjoy limited freedom in the thaw following the March 1953 death of Josef Stalin. In 1955 nearly sixty of them signed a memorandum that called for an end to rigid state regimentation of Hungarian cultural life. Although most were forced to retract this daring measure, by spring and summer of 1956 there was a rising chorus of protest. The principal outlet for the intellectuals was a debating society known as the Petőfi Club, named for Sándor Petőfi, the young nationalist poet who had died in the Hungarian War of Independence (1848–1849). The dissidents were not anticommunists; rather, they demanded that the government bring its policies and practices into line with stated communist ideals.
All the while, Nagy's popularity was on the increase, and intellectuals and journalists were demanding reinstitution of his reform program. Reformers within the party warned that if he did not return and the government was not reorganized under his leadership, there would be an explosion. The party leadership, however, resisted such steps.
College and university students were now committed to political change. Students from the Technical University founded a new independent youth organization, convening an assembly on 22 October 1956 to finalize their main demands for political and social change. The demands included the withdrawal of Soviet troops, appointment of a new government with Nagy as prime minister, political pluralism, new economic policies, and trials for Rákosi and his fellow communists. The minister of interior authorized the student-led demonstration scheduled for 23 October.
The demonstration began peacefully at the statue of Petőfi. The protesters' next stop was the statue of József Bem, hero of the Polish Revolution of 1830 and of the Hungarian War of Independence. Originally planned as an expression of sympathy for the Polish movement, the march reflected acute dissatisfaction with the Hungarian government. The students then laid a wreath at the Bem statute and read out their list of demands. Emboldened by the growing crowd, the students instead of disbanding moved to Kossuth Square in front of the Parliament building. A series of events that evening transformed the reform movement into rebellion.
In front of the Parliament building, more than 200,000 people listened to Nagy's speech. In it he agreed to most of the demands, but as a moderate reformer he refused to institute radical changes. Disappointed, the crowd moved on to the building housing the National Radio Network with the objective of announcing their demands on the air. A speech made by Gerő, general secretary of the Communist Party, was broadcast instead. In the speech, Gerő made arrogant and incendiary remarks that enraged the demonstrators and led to an escalation of tensions. Fighting then broke out between the demonstrators and police defending the National Radio complex. When police tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas first and then opened fire, the crowd stormed the radio building and occupied it. On 24 October, Hungarian military officers and soldiers joined the demonstrators. The demonstrators toppled a large statue of Stalin, chanting "Russians go home," "Away with Gerő," and "Long live Nagy."
In an emergency meeting on the evening of 23 October, the party's Central Committee voted to bring back Nagy as prime minister. The appointment was announced the next day, and Nagy delivered a radio speech announcing amnesty for the protesters if they stopped the fighting. Also that day, Soviet troops began moving into Budapest and taking up positions in the city.
The demonstration consequently assumed an anti-Soviet, nationalist character. Over the next four days sporadic fighting occurred between the Soviet troops and the so-called Freedom Fighters, groups of students, workers, and former prisoners. On 25 October in the course of a huge demonstration in front of the Parliament building, Soviet tanks opened fire on the crowd.
Meanwhile, Soviet leaders Anastas I. Mikoyan and Mikhail A. Suslov arrived in Budapest from Moscow and decided that Gerő would have to go. He was replaced by János Kádár, neither a reformer nor a Stalinist, as general secretary of the party. The Soviet leadership plainly hoped that Nagy and Kádár would be able to control the situation.
The uprising, however, was rapidly spreading throughout Hungary. Nagy announced that negotiations were under way for the withdrawal of Soviet troops once law and order had been restored. On 27 October Nagy finalized his new government, which included noncommunist politicians such as Zoltán Tildy and Béla Kovács. Nagy and Kádár then commenced negotiations with the Soviets on a cease-fire agreement.
During his brief tenure as prime minister, Nagy attempted to bring events under control. He proposed only limited reforms as a start. His ultimate intention, however, was to implement the political program of his first premiership in 1953. He offered a general amnesty to the protesters and promised the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. He soon realized, however, that his 1953 program was out of step when the revolution spread to the rest of the country. Therefore, he acceded to most of the population's wishes, namely the introduction of political pluralism and Hungarian withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact.
On 28 October the new government convened for the first time in the Parliament building. The government then ordered the dissolution of the secret police. Meanwhile, the Political Committee of the party agreed to the cease-fire. Nagy also announced that Soviet troops would soon withdraw from Budapest, and on 29 October Soviet troops began to leave the city.
A four-party coalition government was founded on 30 October. As such, the Smallholders' Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the National Peasants Party were all reconstituted. At the same time, the communist Hungarian Workers' Party was dissolved. Nagy freed political prisoners including Cardinal József Mindszenty, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment by Rákosi in 1948. Nagy also informed the people of his government's intention to permanently abolish the one-party system.
This marked a decisive turning point in Nagy's policy. He abandoned his moderate reform agenda and became fully committed to the more radical demands of the population. On 31 October, in a speech on Parliament Square, he announced that Hungary would begin negotiating its withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. On 1 November Nagy formally declared his intention to leave the Warsaw Pact, proclaimed Hungarian neutrality, and asked the United Nations (UN) to mediate his nation's dispute with the Soviet Union. At the same time, a new communist party, the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party, was founded. On the evening of 1 November, the general secretary of the new party, János Kádár, went to the Soviet embassy to begin negotiations with Soviet authorities. He was then secretly flown to Moscow, where he met with Khrushchev.
On 3 November the new government began negotiations for the final withdrawal of Soviet troops, and a new coalition was founded that included communists, three members of the Smallholders' Party, three Social Democrats, and two representatives from the National Peasants' Party. General Pál Maléter, the new minister of defense and one of the heroes of the revolution, visited Soviet Army headquarters on the evening of 3 November under a pledge of safe conduct to negotiate for Soviet withdrawal and Hungarian departure from the Warsaw Pact. He was not allowed to leave the headquarters and was kept under house arrest until the end of January 1957, when he was handed over to the new Hungarian authorities. Maléter was tried and executed in the summer of 1958.
Meanwhile, Khrushchev and the Soviet leadership had become increasingly alarmed with the developments in Hungary. While Moscow was willing to make some concessions, a multiparty cabinet and free elections plainly threatened Soviet control over all of Central Europe. Soviet leaders may also have believed, as they charged, that Western agents had been at work stirring up revolt. Military leaders also demanded action to reverse the humiliation suffered by the Red Army in withdrawing its tanks earlier. Nagy's announcement on 1 November 1956 of Hungary's intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact was the straw that broke the camel's back and triggered Soviet military intervention.
At dawn on Sunday, 4 November, Khrushchev sent 200,000 Soviet troops and 2,000 tanks into Hungary. The troops immediately secured Hungary's airfields, highway junctions, and bridges and laid siege to the major cities. Nagy called for resistance to the Soviets. Fighting broke out across Hungary, but the center was in Budapest. Unaided from the outside, the fight lasted only a week. Nagy and some of his associates sought and obtained asylum at the Yugoslavian embassy. Cardinal Mindszenty sought refuge in the U.S. legation, where he remained until 1971.
Kádár immediately denounced Hungary's withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and, with Soviet military backing, took control of the government. On 8 November he announced the formation of the Revolutionary Worker-Peasant Government and its Fifteen-Point Program. The latter included the protection of the socialist system from all attacks, an increase in living standards, the streamlining of bureaucracy, the augmentation of agricultural production, a justification for the Red Army's intervention, and the withdrawal of troops from Hungary. The last point was rescinded following pressure from the Warsaw Pact.
Thousands of Hungarians were arrested, and an estimated 200,000 others fled the country—many of them young and well-educated—most of them across the western border into Austria. Nagy, promised safe passage from the Yugoslavian embassy, was arrested by the Soviets on 22 November and imprisoned. He was subsequently tried and executed on 16 June 1958. Some 70 other people were also executed.
One effect of the failure of the Hungarian Revolution was a loss of faith in the West. Hungarians genuinely thought that they had been promised assistance, and many Hungarians and Western observers believed that the United States prolonged the fighting because Hungarian-language broadcasts over Radio Free Europe, then covertly financed by the U.S. government, encouraged Hungarians to believe that either the United States or the UN would send troops to safeguard their proclaimed neutrality. Hungarians repeatedly asked Western journalists covering the revolution when UN troops would be arriving. President Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had talked about "liberating" Eastern Europe and "rolling back communism," but this had been intended largely for domestic U.S. political consumption rather than for the East Europeans. U.S. inactivity over the Hungarian situation, however, indicated tacit acceptance of the Soviet domination of their part of the world.
The UN Security Council discussed the Hungarian situation but adjourned the meeting because the Soviets appeared to be withdrawing. Then, in a matter of a few hours, the UN was faced with the fait accompli of 4 November. At the same time, however, UN attention was focused on the Anglo-French Suez invasion. This and the split between the United States and its two major allies effectively prevented any concrete action against the invasion of Hungary. In December 1956 the UN censured the Kádár regime, but this did not in any way change the situation in Hungary.
There was another point worth considering. No matter how the West might have felt about intervening in Hungary, there was no way to get to that country militarily without violating Austrian neutrality. Nonetheless, the West did not come off well in Hungary.
The effects of the Hungarian Revolution were particularly pronounced in Eastern Europe. Any thought that the people of the region might have had of escaping Moscow's grip by violent revolution was discouraged by the example of Soviet willingness to use force in defiance of world opinion. Nevertheless, open rebellion by the very groups upon which the communists were supposedly building their new society was shattering from a propaganda standpoint, as was the crushing of free workers' councils (soviets) that had sprung up in Hungary during the 1956 revolution nearly four decades after the victory of Russian soviets in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The Soviet military intervention did have a considerable impact on West European communist parties. They suffered mass resignations, including some illustrious intellectuals.
The Hungarian Revolution ultimately led to changes in Soviet policy toward Eastern Europe. Moscow allowed some modifications in economic planning within the East European bloc to meet the needs of individual countries, including more attention to consumer goods and agriculture and a slowed pace of industrialization. For the time being, however, an opportunity to begin the liberation of Eastern Europe had led to a heavy-handed reassertion of Soviet mastery.
By June 1957 Kádár had stabilized the situation and secured his position as the most prominent Hungarian political leader of the Cold War era. For the next thirty-two years in Hungary, the 1956 revolution was officially referred to as a counterrevolution. It was not until 1989, after the Velvet Revolution began in Czechoslovakia, that it was officially called an uprising. On 23 October 1989 the Hungarian Republic was formally declared. That same year witnessed the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Hungary. In 1991 the Hungarian Parliament declared 23 October a national holiday.
Anna Boros-McGee and Spencer C. Tucker
Granville, Johanna C. In the Line of Fire: The Soviet Crackdown on Hungary, 1956–1958. Pittsburgh, PA: Center for Russian and East European Studies, University of Pittsburgh, 1998.; Litván, György, ed. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956: Reform, Revolt, and Repression, 1953–1963. London and New York: Longmans, 1996.