In 1925 Nagy joined the illegal Hungarian Communist Party and in 1930 left for the Soviet Union. During the next fourteen years, he studied agriculture and became an expert on rural welfare. In December 1944 he participated in talks with Soviet leader Josef Stalin on future Hungarian governance.
With the defeat of Germany, Nagy returned to Hungary and served as agriculture minister (1944–1945), interior minister (1945–1946), speaker of parliament (1947–1949), minister of food supply (1950–1952), minister of harvest (1952), and vice prime minister (1952–1953). In 1945 he implemented long-awaited land reforms.
Nagy's criticism of the Hungarian Communist Party's agricultural and economic policies resulted in his expulsion from the party leadership in 1949, although he was readmitted in 1950. On 4 July 1953 he became premier, replacing Mátyás Rákosi, who had fallen out of favor with the new Soviet leadership following Stalin's death. Nagy's 1953 reform program, called the New Course, was aimed at relaxing the pace of industrialization, allowing peasants to leave collective farms, and mitigating police terror. When the political climate in Moscow changed in favor of the hard-liner Rákosi in April 1955, however, Nagy was forced to resign and was expelled from the party in November.
Nagy again became premier during the anti-Soviet Hungarian Revolution of 24 October–4 November 1956. At first, he advocated only moderate reforms. But by proclaiming Hungary's neutrality and announcing its withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact on 1 November, he clearly overreached and provoked a Soviet intervention. After the Soviets invaded Hungary on 4 November to crush the rebellion, Nagy secured political asylum at the Yugoslav embassy in Budapest. Promised safe conduct out of the country by Hungarian authorities, he was arrested on 22 November by Soviet authorities when he left the Yugoslav embassy and was sent to Romania, where he was held for seven months. In February 1958 he was secretly tried on charges of treason and found guilty. Nagy was executed on 16 June 1958 in Budapest. In 1989, during the Velvet Revolution, Nagy's courage and sacrifice were officially recognized, and his remains were reburied with honors in a state funeral.
Dornbach, Alajos, ed. The Secret Trial of Imre Nagy. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994.; Méray, Tibor. Nagy Imre élete és halála [The Life and Death of Imre Nagy]. Budapest: Bibliotéka, 1989.; Nagy, Imre. The New Hungarian Economic Policy. New York: National Committee for a Free Europe, Research and Publications Service, 1953.