The Hungarian Revolution of 1956

Also commonly referred to as the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, the event was a nationwide revolt against the government of the Hungarian People’s Republic and its Soviet-imposed ways. The revolution lasted from October 23rd until November 10th of 1956. Even though there were no leaders present when the revolution first started, it was the first major threat against Soviet control since the USSR’s forces drove out Nazi Germany at the end of WWII.

The revolt began as a student demonstration, which attracted thousands of people as they marched through central Budapest to the Parliament Building. They called out into the streets using a van that had loudspeakers broadcasting through Radio Free Europe. A student delegation, entering the radio building to try to broadcast the students’ demands, was detained. And when the delegation’s release was demanded by the demonstrator’s located outside, they were fired upon by the State Security Police from inside the building.

There was one student who died, was wrapped up in a flag and held above the crowd. This was the beginning of the Hungarian Revolution. As the news started to spread, disorder and chaos erupted in the streets and all throughout the capital.

The Collapse of the Hungarian Government

The revolt moved quickly across Hungary and the government began to collapse. Thousands of people organized into militias as they battled against the AVH and Soviet troops. Pro-Soviet communists and AVH members were executed or imprisoned and former political prisoners were released and armed to fight.

The Radical impromptu workers councils wrestled with municipal control from the ruling Hungarian Working People’s Party, and demanded political changes be made. A new government disbanded the AVH, and declared its intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. They pledged to re-establish free elections, and by the end of October, fighting had almost stopped and a sense of normalcy began to return to the area.

The Calm Before the Storm

After they had announced a willingness to negotiate a withdrawal of Soviet forces, the Politburo changed its mind and moved to put a stop to the revolution. On November 4th, a large force of Soviets invaded Budapest and other regions of the country. The Hungarian resistance continued to hold their ground until November 10th.

Over 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed in the conflict. And 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. Mass arrests were made and denunciations continued for several months afterward. By January 1957 the new Soviet-installed government had suppressed all public oppression. These Soviet actions, while strengthening control over the Eastern Bloc alienated many Western Marxists, leading to splits and considerable losses of membership for Communist Parties located in the west.

Public discussion about this revolution was suppressed in Hungary for more than 30 years. Since the thaw of the 1980s, it has been a subject of intense study and debate. At the inauguration of the Third Hungarian Republic in 1989, 23 October was declared a national holiday.

The International Reaction

Although John Foster Dulles, the United States Secretary of State recommended on 24 October for the United Nations Security Council to convene to discuss the situation in Hungary, little immediate action was taken to introduce a resolution, in part because other world events unfolded the day after the peaceful interlude started, when allied collusion started the Suez Crisis. The problem was not that Suez distracted US attention from Hungary but that it made the condemnation of Soviet actions very difficult. As Vice President Richard Nixon later explained,

“We couldn’t on one hand, complain about the Soviets intervening in Hungary and, on the other hand, approve of the British and the French picking that particular time to intervene against [Gamel Abdel] Nasser”.

The US response was reliant on the CIA to covertly effect change, with both covert agents and Radio Free Europe. However, their Hungarian operations collapsed rapidly and they could not locate any of the weapon caches hidden across Europe, nor be sure who they’d send arms too.

The agency’s main source of information were the newspapers and a State Department employee in Budapest called Geza Katona. By 28 October, on the same night that the new Nagy government came to power, RFE was ramping up its broadcasts – encouraging armed struggle, advising on how to combat tanks and signing off with “Freedom or Death!” – on the orders of Frank Wisner.

When Nagy did come to power, CIA director Allen Dulles advised the White House that Cardinal Mindszenty would be a better leader (due to Nagy’s communist past); he had CIA radio broadcasts run propaganda against Nagy, calling him a traitor who’d invited Soviet troops in. Broadcasts continued to broadcast armed response while the CIA mistakenly believed that the Hungarian army was switching sides and the rebels were gaining arms. (Wisner was recorded as having a “nervous breakdown” by William Colby as the uprising was crushed).