Hungary and the Revolution of 1956

Rakosi, the Communist leader in Hungary, was totally under Moscow’s control until, following Stalin’s death in 1953, a period of fluctuation set in. In July of 1953, he was deposed as Prime Minister in favor of Imre Nagy. Nagy was still a “Muscovite”, but both in physical and mental attributes, he was Hungarian, and not unpopular with the people. Nagy instituted some reforms, including more consumer goods production, relaxation of peasants being forced into collectives, release of some political prisoners, and closing of internment camps. Moscow, however, neglected to support his reform policies, and in 1955, he was dismissed from office and expelled from the Communist Party. Eventually, the new boss became Gero, who had been Rakosi’s “Number Two”, and was detested almost as much. Gero reinstituted all prior repressive policies.

The relaxations of pressures under Nagy, transitory as they were, stimulated and emboldened the victims of tyranny. On October 23, 1956, a group of University students in Budapest staged a march, which was to end with the presentation of a petition asking for a redress of their own and the nation’s grievances. Gero responded with an unwise and truculent speech, and had the secret police fire into the crowd in an attempt to disperse them. Businesses and factories were just letting out, and with word of the shootings spreading like wildfire throughout the city, a crowd of thousands soon gathered in front of Parliament to protest the outrage. Party members panicked, and in addition to calling out the rest of the secret police forces, called out the Army, ordering them to fire upon the crowd. The Hungarian Army, rather than following orders, instead joined with the protesters, and began to battle with the secret police and their Russian Army supporters. They opened up the Hungarian Army depots and munition factories, handing out arms to the revolutionaries. Heavy fighting began throughout the city between the now armed revolutionaries and the elements of the Russian divisions. Despite superior equipment and heavy weapons, the Russians were driven out of the city. Outside Budapest, local councils sprang up in every town; peasants reoccupied their confiscated fields. The Communist bureaucracy melted away. Prison doors were opened; the members of the AVO (the secret police) fled where they could. A number were dragged out into the street and executed by the families of those they had killed or oppressed. A cheering crowd escorted Cardinal Mindszenty (hiding inside the American Embassy for years) back to the palace.

Our apartment was located a block from the main Ring Street of Budapest, and 5 blocks from one of the main train stations of the city. Given our strategic position, we became witnesses to some of the heaviest fighting and its aftermath.  This was not an organized or planned revolt. It was the result of penned up frustration and fury of people who had been oppressed for too long, who were desperate enough to take on tanks and trained troops with little more than hand weapons and improvised Molotov cocktails. Boys 14-15 years old would lie down in the streets, cover themselves with newspapers (the closest we had to caskets in a conflict where over 50,000 Hungarians would lose their lives in less than three weeks) pretending to be dead themselves, and wait for a tank to roll by to toss a Molotov cocktail underneath its gas tank. Snipers in surrounding buildings would then dispatch the tank crew. In the first days of the conflict, before the Russians caught on, boys would hang out from overpasses as a tank came by, and quickly affix the new Hungarian flag (without the hammer and sickle) to the Russian tank. Since the Russians knew that the rebellion was using Russian equipment, another Russian tank seeing the flag would fire on its comrade, thinking that it was the enemy. Unlikely as it was, the Freedom Fighters, as the Western press liked to call them, successfully drove the Russian troops back to the Hungarian borders.

I remember walking with my father during the short lull before the Revolution was crushed down the Ring Boulevard, strewn with empty shell casings and unspent bullets of all calibers. Buildings I had known my whole life were partially standing, their facades blown away by tanks. One apartment with a wall missing had a grand piano teetering on two legs, with the body of the person on the piano bench slumped over the keys. The land around the trees along the boulevard was covered with fresh mounds, marking the makeshift graves of those whose bodies were too many to cart away. Thousands of people were walking around, holding hands, with faces reflecting hope, grief and disbelief, all at the same time. Groups of men in civilian clothes wearing armbands of the Hungarian tricolor ran by us, carrying rifles or Russian made submachine guns strapped to their backs, likely looking for more AVO members hiding in buildings. I remember coming back to our building, pocked with bullets but still standing. In a scene that would stay with me all my life, and about which I had nightmares for many years, I saw, with a gust of wind blowing away the newspaper covering his body, a young boy I recognized as being one of our neighbors from across the street. He was covered in blood, clearly dead. He was but one of so many!

In a remarkably short time, numbered in days, the people called for the return of Nagy, and a coalition reform government was formed. Nagy announced he was negotiating for the complete removal of Russian troops from Hungary, and requested recognition of Hungary as a neutral state, under joint protection of the Great Powers (England, France, USA and Russia.) The Russians, fearing an outbreak of revolution in other Iron Curtain countries under their dominion, pretended to negotiate with Nagy and his people, and at the same time bringing additional armored divisions to reinforce the ones still at the borders. Colonel Maleter, head of the Hungarian national forces, was invited to conference with his Russian counterparts, but when he showed up, he was arrested, never to be seen again. By November 3, 1956, Russian armored divisions had surrounded Budapest, entering the city at 4 AM on November 4th. Despite being completely outgunned by the Russians, Hungarian defenders, prompted by promises of aid from American forces stationed in Austria being broadcast by Radio Free Europe, held out for three more days, suffering heavy casualties. The promise of aid, sadly, didn’t come. While the uprising was a great propaganda coup for the US, Eisenhower was facing election, and was unwilling to engage Russia directly, fearing both political repercussions and the possible start of a nuclear war.

Nagy took refuge in the Yugoslav Embassy, and Cardinal Mindszenty in the American Embassy (where he remained until his eventual death). After the Russians installed another puppet government under Janos Kadar, Nagy left his place of refuge under promise of safe conduct. He was then abducted, taken to Romania, and executed.

The Revolution, never planned for but improbably successful, was crushed. It took several more weeks to wipe out smaller pockets of resistance throughout the country, but in less than a month, Communism was again back in control.

What happened next to me and my family is the next story, to be continued…

 

This entry was posted in Communism, Family, Hungary, Lies, News and politics, Revolution, Russians, Thoughts & Musings, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s