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The Revolution and War of Independence of 1956

On the second of October, Professor László Borhi began the 2013-2014 Hungary Lecture Series with his talk “The Revolution and War of Independence of 1956”. This series is designed for a general audience and traces Hungarian history starting from the uprising in 1956, and working back through the Holocaust, the World War I Treaty of Trianon, and later examining medieval Hungary as well as Hungarian settlement in the Carpathian Basin.  

Professor László Borhi is the Fulbright Professor and former Hungarian Chair at IU, as well as Senior Research Fellow at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He is the author of “Hungary in the Cold War - Between the Soviet Union and the United States, 1945-1956” and is currently working on "Dealing with Dictatorship: The U.S. and Hungary in an East European Context, 1942-1989”. In 2006 he was awarded the Gold Cross of Merit of the Hungarian Republic.

This first lecture centered on the events of the 1956 revolution in Hungary. Although brief in nature, the revolt lasted from the 23rd of October until the 10th of November 1956. It was significant in scope for Europe, the Soviet Union, as well as the U.S. The uprising marked a change where Hungarians turned decisively against the communist party, which proved to be the first major threat to the Soviet Union since World War II, and would play a role decades later in the Soviet downfall.  The 1956 Revolution also demonstrated that the US was unwilling and unable to do anything about Soviet presence in Eastern Europe. In short, Soviet nuclear deterrence worked.  

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a democratic and anti-colonial reaction resulting from poor Soviet administration of satellite states. Stalin’s death in 1953, the Warsaw Pact in 1955, the Austrian National Treaty that proclaimed Austria as a neutral state in 1955, as well as the Polish workers’ uprising in June of 1956 raised Hungarian hopes of leading a successful rebellion.  On October 23rd 200,000 protestors gathered before the parliament building, waiting to hear Ernő Gerő, the Hungarian Communist Party Leader, speak in response to their 12 point demands, which included free elections, freedom of expression, the re-establishment of political parties, and changes in the conditions of workers and peasants. Gerő’s speech condemned the writers, rejected the demands, and only served to anger the demonstrators. According to Professor Borhi, Gerő was unable to appreciate the movement as bona-fide for another four to five days.

Erika, a 15-year-old girl, carries a machine gun in Budapest during the 1956 Revolution. She was eventually shot by the Soviets. Photo by Vagn Hansen.
Erika, a 15-year-old girl, carries a machine gun in Budapest during the 1956 Revolution. She was eventually shot by the Soviets. Photo by Vagn Hansen.

 

The turning point occurred when the crowd went to Radio Budapest building guarded by State Security Police (AVH) with the intention of broadcasting their demands to the rest of Hungary. Protestors sent a delegation into the building to speak with the director. The situation quickly spiraled after the police killed the delegation and shot on the unarmed crowd killing approximately 100 unarmed peaceful demonstrators.  Workers obtained arms from sympathetic soldiers and police and a five day siege of the building began.

The Soviets had initially thought that the troops in Hungary were enough to contain the situation. Professor Borhi explained that Khrushchev had even opposed Soviet intervention on October 30th despite the demands of an intervention by the Soviet ambassador to Hungary, Yuri Andropov.  The following events transpired rapidly: János Kádár went to the USSR to appeal to Soviets to restore order, the protestors’ in Budapest attacked Party Headquarters, the Suez Crisis happened, and Liu Shaoqi urged the Soviets to intervene as he viewed the uprisings as a capitalist revival. Dr. Borhi questioned why Khrushchev would move from a policy of troop withdrawal to a crackdown in 24 hours. He believes the strongest element of persuasion was the Suez Crisis, where Khrushchev stated that the Soviets couldn’t afford to give imperialists both Hungary and Egypt.

Professor Borhi pointed out that while the revolution was a retraction of Soviet ideals, it was not pro-capitalist and the Hungarians maintained no attachment to a free market system. Interestingly, the message of the revolution was carried to the countryside by peasant workers and has been hailed as a ‘workers’ revolution’.  He also noted that although civil society in Hungary had been crushed in 1946 after initial Soviet occupation and organized private activities were prohibited (even the soccer clubs were state owned); by the time the Soviets interfered on November 4th (12 days into the revolution) many political parties had begun to emerge to take part in the new face of politics.

Following the Soviet crackdown János Kádár came to power as Prime Minister of the "Revolutionary Worker-Peasant Government" and led an intensive crackdown on Hungarians. Professor Borhi mentioned that in later years Kádár was haunted by some of his actions, including involvement in the execution of Imre Nagy, the popular leader of the 1956 revolution.  Nagy became Chairman during the uprisings and moved for a multiparty system as well as Hungarian withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. In 1962 Kádároffered a social contract with citizens exchanging higher living standards for political acceptance.

The Revolution of 1956 was largely suppressed in Hungary, becoming a taboo subject that in later years still holds a degree of contention.  There is still no consensus on whose revolution this was, and while October 23rd is now a national holiday, political parties do not celebrate together as each claims the event as their own.

  Freedom fighters sit on top of a tank with a revolutionary flag in Budapest at the time of the uprising against the Soviet-supported Hungarian communist regime in 1956. Hungary will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1956 uprising on October 23. The picture was taken in the period between October 23 and November 4, 1956.  REUTERS/Laszlo Almasi (HUNGARY)