Soviets Crush Hungarian Uprising

The Hungarian people demanded political freedom and the withdrawal of Soviet military forces from their country, but these demands were forcibly suppressed, strengthening the Soviet grip on the nations behind the Iron Curtain.

Summary of Event

Hungary, defeated in World War I, fought on the side of Nazi Germany during World War II hoping to regain lost territories. The conquest of Hungary by the Red Army of the Soviet Union in the winter of 1944-1945 marked the beginning of nearly five years during which Hungary was a single-party communist state led by Mátyás Rákosi. Freedoms of speech, assembly, press, and religious expression were severely curtailed. A state security organ was created, accountable only to the ruling Council of Ministers. Over 300,000 informers reported to this security apparatus, which established files on more than 10 percent of the population. Although a new constitution was declared in 1949 that allegedly protected individual rights, there was, in fact, no independent judiciary in Hungary, and scant attention was paid to due process of law. Instead, the Communist Party, Communist Party, Hungarian under Rákosi, reigned supreme. Rákosi patterned his rule on that of Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union. Hungarian Revolution (1956)
Revolutions and coups;Hungary
Eastern Europe, domination by Soviet Union of
Soviet Union;and Eastern Europe[Eastern Europe]
Iron Curtain
[kw]Soviets Crush Hungarian Uprising (Oct. 23-Nov. 10, 1956)
[kw]Hungarian Uprising, Soviets Crush (Oct. 23-Nov. 10, 1956)
[kw]Uprising, Soviets Crush Hungarian (Oct. 23-Nov. 10, 1956)
Hungarian Revolution (1956)
Revolutions and coups;Hungary
Eastern Europe, domination by Soviet Union of
Soviet Union;and Eastern Europe[Eastern Europe]
Iron Curtain
[g]Europe;Oct. 23-Nov. 10, 1956: Soviets Crush Hungarian Uprising[05300]
[g]Hungary;Oct. 23-Nov. 10, 1956: Soviets Crush Hungarian Uprising[05300]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 23-Nov. 10, 1956: Soviets Crush Hungarian Uprising[05300]
[c]Cold War;Oct. 23-Nov. 10, 1956: Soviets Crush Hungarian Uprising[05300]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;Oct. 23-Nov. 10, 1956: Soviets Crush Hungarian Uprising[05300]
[c]Independence movements;Oct. 23-Nov. 10, 1956: Soviets Crush Hungarian Uprising[05300]
Nagy, Imre
Rákosi, Mátyás
Kádár, János
Khrushchev, Nikita S.
[p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;Iron Curtain
Mikoyan, Anastas

Stalin’s death in 1953 was followed by a period of collective leadership in the Soviet Union, from which Nikita S. Khrushchev ultimately emerged as the most powerful figure. The states of Eastern Europe were urged to follow the Soviet lead. In Hungary, Rákosi was forced to share power with Imre Nagy. Nagy explicitly criticized the abuses of individual rights by state authorities and sought to restore a measure of legality to the lives of Hungarians. By 1955, however, Nagy had been politically outmaneuvered by Rákosi and was expelled from the Communist Party. Nagy remained, however, an immensely popular figure in Hungary because of his advocacy of a more tolerant, national form of communism Communism;Hungary
Economic systems;communism .

In February of 1956, Khrushchev startled the world with a harsh critique of Stalin’s rule. Destalinization
Secret Speech (Khrushchev) He also promised more autonomy to the communist states of Eastern Europe as long as they remained committed to following the path of socialism. Khrushchev’s words led to increasing demands for political and economic freedoms in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland and Hungary. In March, Hungarian writers and other intellectuals created the Petofi Circle Petofi Circle , a forum for debate and discussion that quickly became intensely critical of the government. Rákosi attempted to disband the Petofi Circle, planned to arrest Nagy and other dissident communists, and introduced repressive measures against the growing freedom of expression. On July 17, Anastas Mikoyan, a member of the Soviet Union’s ruling party presidium, arrived in Budapest with word that Rákosi would have to step down as leader of Hungary’s Communist Party in favor of Erno Gero Gero, Erno . Additional appointees to the party leadership included János Kádár, who had been a victim of an earlier Rákosi purge.

Rákosi’s departure and the other personnel changes were insufficient to stem the rising tide of demands for reforms in Hungary. Central to these was that Nagy should be returned to power. On October 13, Nagy’s party membership was restored, but opposition groups and manifestos continued to proliferate. The opposition was inspired by the increasingly successful efforts of the communist leadership in Poland to win concessions from the Soviet Union. Among the most important of the Hungarian reform proposals was a list of demands drawn up on October 22 by students from the Technical University in Budapest. These included the immediate withdrawal of all Soviet troops from Hungarian territory; the reorganization of the Communist Party along democratic lines; the formation of a new government, to be led by Nagy at first, with free multiparty elections; extensive economic reforms; complete recognition of freedom of opinion, expression, press, and radio; and the removal of Stalin’s statue from one of Budapest’s main squares.

On the evening of October 23, a crowd of students attempted to gain access to Budapest’s radio headquarters in order to broadcast these demands. They were fired on by members of the Hungarian security police. Demonstrations began occurring throughout Budapest. These multiplied and reached new levels of intensity as a result of an inflammatory speech by Gero accusing the demonstrators of being enemies of the working class. Responding to public pressure, the government then reorganized itself, naming Nagy as premier, but also requested assistance from Soviet military forces already stationed in Hungary. This initial Soviet intervention was limited and rather halfhearted, emboldening rather than discouraging the protestors. Meanwhile, Mikoyan returned to Hungary with Mikhail Suslov Suslov, Mikhail , another high-ranking Soviet official. Gero and other Hungarian party leaders were compelled to resign, and Kádár was appointed the new party chief.

Despite leadership changes in Budapest, events in the Hungarian provinces were developing a momentum of their own. Revolutionary councils of workers, students, and peasants were being formed and, although some of their specific goals varied widely, their common objectives included the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the creation of a pluralistic political order in Hungary. Nagy, his good intentions notwithstanding, found himself trapped between the forces demanding radical change and the political reality of having to deal with the Soviet Union. Nagy’s difficulties were further exacerbated by foreign radio broadcasts, particularly from Radio Free Europe, which harshly questioned his motives and encouraged opposition groups to press their demands.

Nagy continued to seek a way out of his dilemma and, on October 30, it appeared that he might succeed. Mikoyan and Suslov had returned to Budapest carrying a Soviet declaration from Moscow that called for negotiating the question of Soviet troops in Hungary along with other issues of mutual concern. On the same day, Nagy announced on Hungarian radio that a multiparty political system would be restored and that negotiations would begin on the withdrawal of Soviet military forces. Even this momentous development was insufficient to silence many in the opposition who demanded that Hungary withdraw from the Warsaw Pact and unequivocally declare its neutrality.

The apparent willingness of the Soviet Union to negotiate with Hungary on these issues masked a furious Kremlin debate over how to deal with a direct challenge to Soviet political hegemony in Eastern Europe. If Hungary were permitted to pursue a course of complete independence, what impact might this have on Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and other satellite states? By November 1, there were ominous hints that the Soviets intended to resolve the issue by force rather than by compromise. On that date, Nagy received reports that Soviet troops were entering Hungary, not withdrawing, and his efforts to clarify the situation with the Soviet ambassador to Hungary, Yuri Andropov, were unavailing. Nagy went on Hungarian radio to announce that Hungary was, in fact, intending to leave the Warsaw Pact Warsaw Pact and become a neutral state. Nagy also informed the secretary-general of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, of Hungary’s intention. Simultaneously, Kádár, along with several other party leaders, mysteriously disappeared from the Hungarian capital.

By the morning of November 4, Soviet intentions became clear. The Red Army began a massive military intervention that was to result in approximately three thousand Hungarian deaths. Half of those killed were under thirty years of age and many were teenagers. The mystery surrounding Kádár’s disappearance was solved when it was revealed, also on November 4, that he and several other party leaders had fled to the Soviet Union, from where they declared that Hungary was threatened with counterrevolution, requiring the formation of a new government. In the face of the Soviet intervention, Nagy was compelled to seek refuge in the Yugoslav embassy. On November 10, the last pocket of organized military resistance to the Soviet invasion surrendered, ending the revolution. Nagy remained in the embassy until November 22. When he left the embassy, he was arrested. In 1958, Nagy was executed. The United States and the United Nations, caught up in the events of the simultaneously evolving Suez Canal crisis, vigorously protested the Soviet invasion but failed to intervene. Hungary’s dramatic effort to achieve political self-determination had been crushed.


The massive intervention of Soviet military forces in Hungary was condemned internationally as a blatant violation of Hungarian sovereignty and of the human rights Human rights;Hungary of its citizens. Thousands throughout the world, including many in the United States, resigned their memberships in the Communist Party. The image of communism as a champion of human rights, already greatly damaged by Stalin’s crimes, was irreparably destroyed.

In Hungary itself, the casualties caused by the military invasion were compounded by additional widespread repression. Over the following year, twenty thousand were arrested, two thousand were executed, and thousands were deported to the Soviet Union. More than 200,000 became refugees, and most of these fled across the border to Austria; many were subsequently resettled to other Western countries, including tens of thousands who immigrated to the United States and Canada. Workers’ councils were abolished, and the recently acquired freedoms of press and intellectual expression were severely curtailed.

Kádár faced a formidable challenge of reconstruction in Hungary. He was widely disliked and distrusted, and the country was in political and economic chaos. Surprisingly, however, Kádár was able to effect a policy of gradual reconciliation that was to heal some of the wounds inflicted in 1956. Although the Communist Party retained its monopolistic hold on political power, some reforms were initiated, notably the New Economic Mechanism (NEM) introduced in 1968. The NEM strengthened the role of market forces in the economy and created a less centrally controlled structure of prices. In other spheres of activity, such as culture and religion, the regime displayed increasingly tolerant attitudes. The result was that, during the rest of the Cold War, the reputation of Hungary was that of the most liberal of the Soviet-bloc East European states. Hungarian Revolution (1956)
Revolutions and coups;Hungary
Eastern Europe, domination by Soviet Union of
Soviet Union;and Eastern Europe[Eastern Europe]
Iron Curtain

Further Reading

  • Dornbach, Alajos, ed. The Secret Trial of Imre Nagy. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994. Excellent research tool that provides access to the documents related to Nagy’s trial.
  • Gati, Charles. Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006. Study of the effects of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 on the global Cold War, particularly relations between the Soviet Union and the United States and the internal power structures of both Washington and Moscow. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Gyorkei, Jeno, and Miklos Horvath, eds. Soviet Military Intervention in Hungary, 1956. New York: Central European University Press, 1999. Scholarly volume that recounts the Soviet military actions in Hungary in light of newly reclassified government documents.
  • Kovrig, Bennett. Communism in Hungary: From Kun to Kadar. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1979. One of the few English-language surveys of the history of Hungary in the twentieth century. Rich in detail, loaded with sources, but very readable. Index and bibliography are included.
  • _______. The Myth of Liberation: East Central Europe in U.S. Diplomacy and Politics Since 1941. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973. Best discussions of United States and United Nations reactions to the Hungarian uprising.
  • Lasky, Melvin, ed. The Hungarian Revolution: The Story of the October Uprising as Recorded in Documents, Dispatches, Eye-Witness Accounts, and World-wide Reactions. Freeport, Conn.: Books for Libraries Press, 1957. The title is self-explanatory. The book is a gold mine of information on the Hungarian revolution, presented in chronological fashion. Included is a historical overview by Hugh Seton-Watson, a leading scholar of East European history and politics.
  • Meray, Tibor. That Day in Budapest: October 23, 1956. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1969. One of several books on the Hungarian revolution written by Meray, a close associate of Imre Nagy. Meray’s descriptions are detailed and vivid, and his insights quite valuable. Among the very best of the detailed accounts of the events of October and November.
  • Zinner, Paul E. Revolution in Hungary. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962. Political scientist Zinner’s study was sponsored by the Columbia University Research Project on Hungary. The study relies on extensive interviews as well as documentary sources. It successfully explains the origins and antecedents of the revolution. The book is one of the best analytic, as opposed to purely descriptive, studies of the Hungarian rebellion.

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