The Cold War’s forgotten Hungarian Revolution

Hungarian Revolution in Budapest, 1956 (colorized)
Hungarian Revolution in Budapest, 1956 (colorized)

On October 23rd 1956, thousands of Hungarian workers and students flooded the streets of Budapest. With fists raised in defiance, they shouted for “Freedom from Soviet tyranny!” The students issued a declaration in Parliament Square called the Sixteen Points. It included demands for withdrawing Soviet troops, personal freedom, economic reform, eliminating the hated Secret Police, and removing their Communist leader Mátyás Rákosi.

Rákosi, appointed by Soviet Premier Josef Stalin himself, had presided over a decade-long, oppressive regime that finally brought people’s resentment to a boiling point. When crowds of unarmed civilians were gunned down by security forces 2 days later, the Rebellion became a Revolution, between ragtag armed rebels and heavily armed Soviet troops.

What began as peaceful demonstrations in Budapest, quickly escalated into an armed resistance across all of Hungary.

Protestors tore down a statue of Stalin in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square, dragged its metal carcass through the city before decapitating it for all the world to see. Soviet red star flags were ripped down from government buildings. Russian stores were painted with slogans “Ruszkik Haza!” (Russians, Go Home!).

The Soviet emblem, cut from the center of the Hungarian tricolor flag, became the new revolutionary banner. Communists leaders were arrested and publicly beaten. Although many called for peace and condemned the violence, reprisals against communist leaders continued. Communist henchmen suddenly reaped the wrath they had brutally sowed for over a decade under Stalin.

Poorly armed but fearless fighters, carrying only rifles and Molotov cocktails, proved surprisingly effective at knocking out some Soviet tanks. Young men and women with no military training managed to outmaneuver the Russian Red Army. Most of the Hungarian military, siding with the rebels, though reporting to Moscow, did nothing.

Radio Free Europe urged the rebels to continue the fight, raising Hungarian’s hopes that Western aid was imminent.

In response, the Communist Party sacked Rákosi. They appointed the more reform-minded Imre Nagy as the new leader, a politician who’d been dismissed for his open criticisms of Stalin. The Kremlin said it was simply a way to appease the Hungarian “hooligans.”

It was an offer Nagy reluctantly accepted, hoping at best to steer the uprising towards a peaceful end. He failed at first to connect with the shouting crowds – thousands massed in front of the neo-gothic Parliament building on the Danube River.   But over the course of a week, Nagy underwent a remarkable transformation into a leader willing to sanction unprecedented and daring reforms.

Nagy restored peace by asking the Soviets to withdraw their troops from Hungary. Thousands of Russian troops had been stationed in Hungary since 1945. As another gesture of appeasement, the Kremlin agreed and the Red Army pulled out. But Nagy pushed the revolt even further,

He abolished one-party Communist rule, allowing for a new multi-party state!

For a few weeks, it seemed like the rebels might actually pull this off. After a ceasefire was declared on October 28, the atmosphere in Budapest was euphoric as Soviet forces continued to withdraw. Images of triumphant rebels posing for pictures atop burnt Soviet tanks stunned the world.

On October 31, the Russian newspaper Pravda published a Kremlin declaration promising greater equality between the USSR and Hungary. The crisis seemed on the verge of being resolved in a way no-one in the world had dared to dream. On November 1st, Nagy took the dramatic step of declaring that Hungary would withdraw from the Soviet’s Warsaw Pact!

That was a step too far and would prove to be a fatal mistake.

Even as Soviet forces retreated, victory was to be short-lived. Regardless of the Pravda statement, Nikita Khrushchev had already decided to restore strict order in Hungary with brute military force. Hungary would NOT become the 1st Soviet satellite behind the Iron Curtain to reject the Kremlin’s iron fist.

On November 4, Soviet troops launched Operation Whirlwind. Hundreds of Soviet tanks reversed course and invaded Hungary. They rolled back into Budapest in an overwhelming force to crush the rebellion, restore Communist order and install a new puppet leader.  The Hungarians were stunned and unprepared for hundreds of Soviet tanks in the streets of Budapest.

Vicious street fighting broke out, but the Soviets’ greater power was undeniable. The Soviet military struck back with Stalin-like savagery. They poured reinforcements in, completely encircling the capital Budapest. Prime Minister Nagy announced the invasion to the nation in a grim broadcast, declaring:

Our troops are fighting! The Government remains in place!”

Imre Nagy, 1956

The Red Army captured and executed the leaders of the Revolution; and eliminated the last pockets of resistance within a single week. They acted with immense brutality, killing even the wounded insurgents. Tanks dragged rebel bodies through the Budapest streets as a warning to the population. Resistance was futile.

At the end of the week, Budapest Radio burst out: “Russian MiG fighters are over Budapest! The Soviet infantry is advancing toward Parliament! We shall die for Hungary! Any news of help? Quickly, quickly please!”then Budapest fell.

Soviet tanks in Budapest, Hungary 1956
Soviet tanks in Budapest, Hungary 1956

By November 7, Soviet forces had Janos Kádár, a former colleague of Nagy, take the oath of office in Parliament as the new Communist leader. The USSR’s brutality stunned the West. Much like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had pledged a retreat from Soviet-style repression, but the violent actions in Budapest proved otherwise.

US President Eisenhower was deeply upset by the crushing of the revolt. He spoke out: “I feel with the Hungarian people. To all those suffering under communist slavery, let us say you can count on us.” But in the end, America and NATO countries never answered the Hungarian’s pleas and did nothing. Both sides in the Cold War were nuclear powers and the risk of all out World War III over one nation was far too great.

By November 14th, Soviet control had been restored across all of Hungary.

3,000 men, women and children were killed and 200,000 more fled to Austria in the west as refugees. The Communists arrested Nagy and found him guilty of treason.  He was publicly executed by hanging, and buried in an unmarked prison yard grave. For the next three decades, to even mention the name of Imre Nagy was to risk incarceration, or worse.  

Today, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 serves as a haunting symbol of martyrdom for all Hungarians. Though their revolution failed, they were the first to stand up against Soviet tyranny. The Soviet Union began to unravel in the late 1980s. In 1989, 33 years to the day, Hungary was officially and finally declared a Republic. Poland’s Solidarity party had already taken control from the Communists that summer. A month later in November, thousands of German citizens attacked another hated symbol of the Cold War – the Berlin Wall. It had not even been built when Budapest citizens first rose up against their Soviet oppressors. Czechoslovakia followed in December 1989 with its Velvet Revolution.

Every year, on October 23rd, Republic Day, the iconic Hungarian flag with hollow circles adorns streets of Budapest and across the country. The Iron Curtain had fallen and the Cold War was finally over (for now). Today, we sadly see the history of Soviet expansion repeat itself; this time under President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation into Chechnya, Crimea and Ukraine.

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7 thoughts on “The Cold War’s forgotten Hungarian Revolution

  1. I was in Budapest over Christmas break in 1970. There were Soviet soldiers in every café, ice rink and patrolling the streets. When I asked why such a strong presence, I was told that it was because of the Hungarian Revolution and it was close to the anniversary. The Hungarians were truly a people oppressed. On my return to Milan, I met a man in Vienna who was in exile because he had been part of the Revolution. It was a real eye-opener for me to see someone pay such a high price for his beliefs!

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