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Hungarian Revolution of 1956


The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (or Hungarian Uprising of 1956)3 was a spontaneous nationwide revolt against the Communist government of Hungary and its Soviet imposed policies, lasting from October 23 until November 10, 1956. It began as a student demonstration which attracted thousands as it marched through central Budapest to the Parliament building. A student delegation entering the radio building in an attempt to broadcast their demands was detained. When the delegation's release was demanded by the demonstrators outside, they were fired upon by the State Security Police (ÁVH) from within the building. The news spread quickly and disorder and violence erupted throughout the capital.

The revolt spread quickly across Hungary, and the government fell. Thousands organized into militias, battling the State Security Police (ÁVH) and Soviet troops. Pro-Soviet communists and ÁVH members were often executed or imprisoned, as former prisoners were released and armed. Impromptu councils wrested municipal control from the communist party, and demanded political changes. The new government formally disbanded the ÁVH, declared its intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact and pledged to re-establish free elections. By the end of October, fighting had almost stopped and a sense of normalcy began to return.

After announcing a willingness to negotiate a withdrawal of Soviet forces, the Politburo changed its mind and moved to quash the revolution. On November 4, a large Soviet force invaded Budapest, killing thousands of civilians. Organized resistance ceased by November 10, and mass arrests began. An estimated 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. By January 1957, the new Soviet-installed government had suppressed all public opposition. These Soviet actions alienated many Western Marxists, yet strengthened Soviet control over Central Europe, cultivating the perception that communism was both irreversible and monolithic.

Public discussion about this revolution was suppressed in Hungary for over 30 years, but 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, October 23 was declared a national holiday.


After World War II, the Soviet military occupied Hungary and gradually replaced the freely elected government (Independent Smallholders, Agrarian Workers and Civic Party) with the Hungarian Communist Party.4 Radical nationalization of the economy based on the Soviet model produced economic stagnation, lower standards of living and a deep malaise.5 Writers and journalists were the first to voice open criticism, publishing critical articles in 1955.6 By October 22, 1956, university students had resurrected the banned MEFESZ student union,7 and staged a demonstration on October 23 which set off a chain of events leading directly to the revolution.

Postwar occupation

After World War II, Hungary fell under the Soviet sphere of influence and was occupied by the Red Army.8 By 1949 the Soviets had concluded a "mutual assistance treaty" with Hungary which granted the Soviet Union rights to a continued military presence, assuring ultimate political control.9

Hungary began the postwar period as a multiparty free democracy, and elections in 1945 produced a coalition government of the Independent Smallholders, Agrarian Workers and Civic Party under Prime Minister Zoltán Tildy.10 However, the Soviet-supported Hungarian Communist Party, which had received only 17 percent of the vote, constantly wrested small concessions in a process named "salami tactics," which sliced away the elected government's influence.11

In 1945 Soviet Marshal Kliment Voroshilov forced the freely elected Hungarian government to yield the Interior Ministry to the Hungarian Communist Party. Communist interior minister László Rajk established the State Protection Authority, the Hungarian State Security Police (Államvédelmi Hatóság, later known as the ÁVH), which employed methods of intimidation, false accusations, imprisonment and torture, to suppress political opposition.12 The brief period of multiparty democracy came to an end when the Hungarian Communist Party merged with the Social Democratic Party to become the Hungarian Workers' Party, which stood its candidate list unopposed in 1949. The People's Republic of Hungary was declared.4

Political repression and economic decline

Hungary became a communist state under the strongly authoritarian leadership of Mátyás Rákos The Security Police (ÁVH) began a series of purges in which dissidents were denounced as “Titoists” or “western agents,” and forced to confess in show trials.13 Thousands of Hungarians were arrested, tortured, tried, and imprisoned in concentration camps or were executed, including ÁVH founder László Rajk.1314

The Rákosi government thoroughly politicized Hungary's educational system in order to supplant the educated classes with a "toiling intelligentsia."15 Russian language study and Communist political instruction were made mandatory in schools and universities nationwide. Religious schools were nationalized and church leaders were replaced by those loyal to the government.16 In 1949 the leader of the Hungarian Catholic Church, József Cardinal Mindszenty, was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for treason.17 Under Rákosi, Hungary's government was among the most repressive in Europe.414

The postwar Hungarian economy suffered from multiple challenges. Hungary agreed to pay war reparations approximating US$300 million, to the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, and to support Soviet garrisons.18 The Hungarian National Bank estimated the cost of reparations as "between 19 and 22 per cent of the annual national income."19 Moreover, Hungary's participation in the Soviet-sponsored COMECON (Council Of Mutual Economic Assistance), prevented it from trading with the West or receiving Marshall Plan aid.20 Postwar economic recovery reversed under the Rákosi government. The Hungarian currency experienced marked depreciation in 1946, resulting in the highest historical rates of hyperinflation known.21 By 1952, disposable real incomes sank to two-thirds of their 1938 levels; whereas in 1949, this figure had been 90 percent.22 By 1953, post-war Hungarian manufacturing output fell to one-third of pre-war levels.23 Manipulation of wage controls and different pricing systems for producers and consumers fueled discontent as foreign debt grew and the population experienced shortages.5

International events

On March 5, 1953, Josef Stalin died, ushering in a period of moderate liberalization during which most European communist parties developed a reform wing. In Hungary, the reformist Imre Nagy replaced Mátyás Rákosi, "Stalin's Best Hungarian Disciple," as prime minister. However, Rákosi remained general secretary of the party, and was able to undermine most of Nagy's reforms. By April 1955, he had Nagy discredited and removed from office24 After Khrushchev's “On the Personality Cult and its Consequences” secret speech at the Twentieth Party Congress of February 1956, which denounced Stalin and his protégés,25 Rákosi was deposed as general secretary of the party and replaced by Ernő Gerő on July 18, 1956.12

On May 14, 1955, the Soviet Union created the Warsaw Pact, binding Hungary to the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe. Among the principles of this alliance were "respect for the independence and sovereignty of states" and "noninterference in their internal affairs".26

In 1955 the Austrian State Treaty and ensuing declaration of neutrality established Austria as a demilitarized and neutral country. This raised Hungarian hopes of also becoming neutral and in 1955 Nagy had considered "… the possibility of Hungary adopting a neutral status on the Austrian pattern".27 Austrian neutrality altered the calculus of cold war military planning as it geographically split the NATO Alliance from Geneva to Vienna, thus increasing Hungary's strategic importance to the Warsaw Pact.

In June 1956, a violent uprising by Polish workers in Poznan was put down by the government, with scores of protesters killed and wounded. Responding to popular demand, in October 1956 the government appointed the recently rehabilitated reformist communist Władysław Gomułka as first secretary of the Polish Communist Party, with a mandate to negotiate trade concessions and troop reductions with the Soviet government. After a few tense days of negotiations, on October 19 the Soviets finally gave in to Gomulka's reformist demands.28 News of the concessions won by the Poles emboldened many Hungarians to hope for similar concessions for Hungary and these sentiments contributed significantly to the highly-charged political climate that prevailed in Hungary in the second half of October 1956.

Social unrest builds

Rákosi's resignation in July of 1956 emboldened students, writers and journalists to be more active and critical in politics. Students and journalists started a series of intellectual forums examining the problems facing Hungary. These forums, called Petõfi circles, became very popular and attracted thousands of participants.29 On October 6, 1956, László Rajk, who had been executed by the Rákosi government, was reburied in a moving ceremony which strengthened the party opposition,30 and later that month, the reformer Imre Nagy was rehabilitated to full membership in the Hungarian Communist Party.

On October 16, 1956, university students in Szeged snubbed the official communist student union, the DISZ, by re-establishing the MEFESZ (Union of Hungarian University and Academy Students), a democratic student organization, previously banned under the Rákosi dictatorship.7 Within days, the student bodies of Pécs, Miskolc, and Sopron followed suit. On October 22, students of the Budapest University of Technology and Economics compiled a list of sixteen points containing several national policy demands.31 After the students heard that the Hungarian Writers' Union planned to express solidarity with Poland on the following day by laying a wreath at the statue of Polish-born Józef Bem, a hero of Hungary's War of Independence (1848-1849), the students decided to organize a parallel demonstration of sympathy.


First shots

Flag of Hungary, with the communist coat of arms cut out. The flag with a hole became the symbol of the revolution. (Photographed at the "Corvin köz")

On the afternoon of October 23, 1956, approximately 20,000 protesters convened next to the Bem statue. Péter Veres, President of the Writers' Union, read a manifesto to the crowd,32 the students read their proclamation, and the crowd then chanted the censored "National Song" (Nemzeti dal), the refrain of which states: "We vow, we vow, we will no longer remain slaves." Someone in the crowd cut out the communist coat of arms from the Hungarian Flag, leaving a distinctive hole and others quickly followed suit.33 Afterwards, most of the crowd crossed the Danube to join demonstrators outside the Parliament Building. By 6 P.M., the multitude had swollen to more than 200,000 people;12 the demonstration was spirited, but peaceful.12

At 8 P.M., First Secretary Ernő Gerő broadcast a speech condemning the writers' and students' demands, and dismissing the demonstrators as a reactionary mob.12 Angered by Gerõ's hard-line rejection, some demonstrators decided to carry out one of their demands-the removal of Stalin's 30 foot(10 meter)-high bronze statue that was erected in 1951 on the site of a church, which was demolished to make room for the Stalin monument.34

By 9:30 P.M. the statue was toppled and jubilant crowds celebrated by placing Hungarian flags in Stalin's boots, which was all that was left of the statue.12

At about the same time, a large crowd gathered at the Radio Budapest building, which was heavily guarded by the ÁVH. The flash point occurred as a delegation attempting to broadcast their demands was detained and the crowd grew increasingly unruly as rumors spread that the protestors had been shot. Tear gas was thrown from the upper windows and the ÁVH opened fire on the crowd, killing many.12 The ÁVH tried to re-supply itself by hiding arms inside an ambulance, but the crowd detected the ruse and intercepted it. Hungarian soldiers sent to relieve the ÁVH hesitated and then tearing the red stars from their caps, sided with the crowd.3312 Provoked by the ÁVH attack, protesters reacted violently. Police cars were set ablaze, guns were seized from military depots and distributed to the masses and symbols of the communist regime were vandalized.12

Fighting spreads, government falls

During the night of October 23, Hungarian Communist Party Secretary Ernő Gerő requested Soviet military intervention "to suppress a demonstration that was reaching an ever greater and unprecedented scale."28 The Soviet leadership had formulated contingency plans for intervention in Hungary several months before.35 By 2 A.M. on October 24, under orders of Georgy Zhukov, the Soviet defense minister, Soviet tanks entered Budapest.12

On October 24, Soviet tanks were stationed outside the Parliament building and Soviet soldiers guarded key bridges and crossroads. Armed revolutionaries quickly set up barricades to defend Budapest, and were reported to have already captured some Soviet tanks by mid-morning.33 That day, Imre Nagy replaced András Hegedűs as prime minister.36 On the radio, Nagy called for an end to violence and promised to initiate political reforms which had been shelved three years earlier. The population continued to arm itself as sporadic violence erupted. Armed protesters seized the radio building. At the offices of the communist newspaper Szabad Nép unarmed demonstrators were fired upon by ÁVH guards who were then driven out as armed demonstrators arrived.12 At this point, the revolutionaries' wrath focused on the ÁVH;12 Soviet military units were not yet fully engaged, and there were many reports of some Soviet troops showing open sympathy for the demonstrators.37

On October 25, a mass of protesters gathered in front of the Parliament Building. ÁVH units began shooting into the crowd from the rooftops of neighboring buildings.38 Some Soviet soldiers returned fire on the ÁVH, mistakenly believing that they were the targets of the shooting.3312 Supplied by arms taken from the ÁVH or given by Hungarian soldiers who joined the uprising, some in the crowd started shooting back.3338

The Parliament massacre forced the collapse of the government.12 The communist first secretary, Ernő Gerő, and former prime minister, András Hegedűs, fled to the Soviet Union; Imre Nagy became prime minister and János Kádár first secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party.39 Revolutionaries began an aggressive offensive against Soviet troops and the remnants of the ÁVH.

As the Hungarian resistance fought Soviet tanks using Molotov cocktails in the narrow streets of Budapest, revolutionary councils arose nationwide, assumed local governmental authority, and called for general strikes. Public communist symbols such as red stars and Soviet war memorials were removed, and communist books were burned. Spontaneous revolutionary militias arose, such as the 400-man group loosely led by József Dudás, which attacked or murdered Soviet sympathizers and ÁVH members.40 Soviet units fought primarily in Budapest; elsewhere the countryside was largely quiet. Soviet commanders often negotiated local cease-fires with the revolutionaries.36 In some regions, Soviet forces managed to quell revolutionary activity. In Budapest, the Soviets were eventually fought to a stand-still and hostilities began to wane. Hungarian general Béla Király, freed from a life sentence for political offenses and acting with the support of the Nagy government, sought to restore order by unifying elements of the police, army and insurgent groups into a National Guard.41 A ceasefire was arranged on October 28, and by October 30 most Soviet troops had withdrawn from Budapest to garrisons in the Hungarian countryside.12


Fighting had virtually ceased between October 28 and November 4.

The New Hungarian National Government

Statue of Imre Nagy, facing the Parliament.

The rapid spread of the uprising in the streets of Budapest and the abrupt fall of the Gerő-Hegedűs government left the new national leadership surprised, and at first disorganized. Nagy, a loyal party reformer described as possessing "only modest political skills,"42 initially appealed to the public for calm and a return to the old order. Yet Nagy, the only remaining Hungarian leader with credibility in both the eyes of the public and the Soviets, "at long last concluded that a popular uprising rather than a counter-revolution was taking place".43 Calling the ongoing insurgency "a broad democratic mass movement" in a radio address on October 27, Nagy formed a government which included some non-communist ministers. This new national government abolished both the ÁVH and the one-party system.1244

Because it held office only ten days, the national government had little chance to clarify its policies in detail. However, newspaper editorials at the time stressed that Hungary should be a neutral, multiparty social democracy.45 Many political prisoners were released, most notably József Cardinal Mindszenty. Political parties which were previously banned, such as the Independent Smallholders, Agrarian Workers and Civic Party and the National Peasants' Party, reappeared to join the coalition.12

Local revolutionary councils formed throughout Hungary, generally without involvement from the preoccupied national government in Budapest, and assumed various responsibilities of local government from the defunct communist party.46 By October 30, these councils had been officially sanctioned by the Hungarian Workers' (Communist) Party, and the Nagy government asked for their support as "autonomous, democratic local organs formed during the Revolution."46 Likewise, workers' councils were established at industrial plants and mines, and many unpopular regulations such as production norms were eliminated. The workers' councils strove to manage the enterprise whilst protecting workers' interests; thus establishing a socialist economy free of rigid party control.12 Local control by the councils was not always bloodless; in Debrecen, Gyor, Sopron, Mosonmagyaróvár and other cities, crowds of demonstrators were fired upon by the ÁVH, with many lives lost. The ÁVH were disarmed, often by force, in many cases assisted by the local police.46

Soviet perspective

On October 24, the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union discussed the political upheavals in Poland and Hungary. A delegation in Budapest reported that the situation was not as dire as had been portrayed. Nikita Khrushchev stated that he believed that Party Secretary Ernő Gerő's request for intervention on October 23 indicated that the Hungarian Party still held the confidence of the Hungarian public. In addition, he saw the protests not as an ideological struggle, but as popular discontent over unresolved basic economic and social issues.28

After some debate,47 the Presidium at first decided not to remove the new Hungarian government, on October 30, adopting a “Declaration of the Government of the USSR on the Principles of Development and Further Strengthening of Friendship and Cooperation between the Soviet Union and other Socialist States,” which was issued the next day. This document proclaimed: "The Soviet Government is prepared to enter into the appropriate negotiations with the government of the Hungarian People's Republic and other members of the Warsaw Treaty on the question of the presence of Soviet troops on the territory of Hungary."48

Although it was widely believed that Hungary's declaration to exit the Warsaw Pact caused the Soviet intervention, minutes of the October 31 meeting of the Presidium record that the decision to intervene militarily was taken one day before Hungary declared its neutrality and withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact.49 A hard-line faction led by Vyacheslav Molotov was pushing for intervention, but Khrushchev and Marshal Zhukov were initially opposed. However, several key events alarmed the Presidium and cemented the interventionists' position:

  • Simultaneous movements towards multiparty parliamentary democracy, and a democratic national council of workers, which could "lead towards a capitalist state." Both movements challenged the pre-eminence of the Soviet Communist Party in Eastern Europe and perhaps Soviet hegemony itself. For the majority of the Presidium, the workers' direct control over their councils without Communist Party leadership was incompatible with their idea of socialism. At the time, these councils were, in the words of Hannah Arendt, "the only free and acting soviets (councils) in existence anywhere in the world."5051
  • The Presidium was concerned lest the West might perceive Soviet weakness if it did not deal firmly with Hungary. Khrushchev reportedly remarked "If we depart from Hungary, it will give a great boost to the Americans, English, and French-the imperialists.… To Egypt they will then add Hungary."49
  • Khrushchev stated that many in the communist party would not understand a failure to respond with force in Hungary. De-Stalinization had alienated the more conservative elements of the party, who were alarmed at threats to Soviet influence in Eastern Europe. On June 17, 1953, workers in East Berlin had staged an uprising, demanding the resignation of the government of the German Democratic Republic. This was quickly and violently put down with the help of the Soviet military, with 84 killed and wounded and seven hundred arrested.52 In June 1956, in Poznań, Poland, an anti-government workers' revolt had been suppressed by the Polish security forces with 74 deaths. Additionally, by late October, unrest was noticed in some regional areas of the Soviet Union: while this unrest was minor, it was intolerable.
  • Hungarian neutrality and withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact represented a breach in the Soviet defensive buffer zone of satellite nations. Soviet fear of invasion from the West made a defensive buffer of allied states in Eastern Europe an essential security objective.

The Presidium decided to break the de facto ceasefire and crush the Hungarian revolution.53 The plan was to declare a "provisional revolutionary government" under János Kádár, who would appeal for Soviet assistance to restore order. According to witnesses, Kádár was in Moscow in early November.54 and he was in contact with the Soviet embassy while still a member of the Nagy government.12 Delegations were sent to other communist governments in Eastern Europe and China, and to Tito in Yugoslavia, seeking to avoid a regional conflict, and propaganda messages prepared for broadcast as soon as the second Soviet intervention had begun. To disguise these intentions, Soviet diplomats were to engage the Nagy government in talks discussing the withdrawal of Soviet forces.49

International reaction

Although the John Foster Dulles, the United States secretary of state, recommended on October 24 that the United Nations Security Council convene to discuss the situation in Hungary, little immediate action was taken to introduce a resolution. Responding to the plea by Nagy at the time of the second massive Soviet intervention on November 4, the Security Council resolution critical of Soviet actions was vetoed by the Soviet Union. The General Assembly, by a vote of 50 in favor, 8 against and 15 abstentions, called on the Soviet Union to end its Hungarian intervention, but the newly constituted Kádár government rejected UN observers.55

President Dwight D. Eisenhower was aware of a detailed study of Hungarian resistance which recommended against U.S. military intervention,56 and of earlier policy discussions within the National Security Council which focused upon encouraging discontent in Soviet satellite nations only by economic policies and political rhetoric.57 In a 1998 interview, Hungarian ambassador Géza Jeszenszky was critical of Western inaction in 1956, citing the influence of the United Nations at that time and giving the example of UN intervention in Korea from 1950-1953.58

During the uprising, the Radio Free Europe (RFE) Hungarian-language programs broadcast news of the political and military situation, as well as appealing to Hungarians to fight the Soviet forces, including tactical advice on resistance methods. After the Soviet suppression of the revolution, RFE was criticized for having misled the Hungarian people that NATO or United Nations would intervene if the citizens continued to resist.59

Soviet intervention of November 4

On November 1, Imre Nagy received reports that Soviet forces had entered Hungary from the east and were moving towards Budapest.60 Nagy sought and received assurances from Soviet ambassador Yuri Andropov that the Soviet Union would not invade, although Andropov knew otherwise. The cabinet, with János Kádár in agreement, declared Hungary's neutrality, withdrew from the Warsaw Pact, and requested assistance from the diplomatic corps in Budapest and Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN secretary-general, to defend Hungary's neutrality.61 Ambassador Andropov was asked to inform his government that Hungary would begin negotiations on the removal of Soviet forces immediately.6263

On November 3, a Hungarian delegation led by the minister of defense, Pál Maléter, was invited to attend negotiations on Soviet withdrawal at the Soviet Military Command at Tököl, near Budapest. At around midnight that evening, General Ivan Serov, chief of the Soviet Security Police (NKVD) ordered the arrest of the Hungarian delegation,12 and the next day, the Soviet army again attacked Budapest.12

This second Soviet intervention, codenamed "Operation Whirlwind," was launched by Marshal Ivan Konev.64 The five Soviet divisions stationed in Hungary before October 23 were augmented to a total strength of 17 divisions.65 The new Soviet troops, in order to ensure loyalty, had been transported from distant Soviet Central Asia, and many did not speak European languages. Many believed they were being sent to Berlin to fight German fascists.66 By 9:30 P.M. on November 3, the Soviet Army had completely encircled Budapest.67

At 3 A.M. on November 4, Soviet tanks penetrated Budapest along the Pest side of the Danube in two thrusts: one up the Soroksári road from the south and the other down the Váci road from the north. Before a single shot was fired, the Soviets had effectively split the city in half, controlled all bridgeheads, and were shielded to the rear by the wide Danube River. Armored units crossed into Buda and at 4:25 A.M. fired the first shots at the army barracks on Budaõrsi Road. Soon after, Soviet artillery and tank fire was heard in all districts of Budapest.67 Operation Whirlwind combined air strikes, artillery, and the coordinated tank-infantry action of 17 divisions.65 The Hungarian Army put up sporadic and uncoordinated resistance. Although some very senior officers were openly pro-Soviet, the rank and file soldiers were overwhelmingly loyal to the revolution and either fought against the invasion or deserted. The United Nations reported that there were no recorded incidents of Hungarian Army units fighting on the side of the Soviets.67

At 5:20 A.M. on November 4, Nagy broadcast his final plea to the nation and the world, announcing that Soviet forces were attacking Budapest and that the government remained at its post.68 The broadcaster, Radio Free Kossuth, stopped broadcasting at 8:07 A.M.68 An emergency cabinet meeting was held in the Parliament building, but was attended by only three ministers. As Soviet troops arrived to occupy the building, a negotiated evacuation ensued, leaving minister of state István Bibó as the last representative of the national government remaining at post.69 Awaiting arrest, he wrote a stirring proclamation to the nation and the world.

At 6:00 A.M. on November 4,68 in the town of Szolnok