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Did the Revolution Have to Fail?

During the thirteen days between October 23 and November 4, 1956, crowds of unarmed Hungarian demonstrators and a few thousand lightly armed revolutionaries forced a tyrannical one-party government to resign. They also caused the retreat from Budapest of the Soviet occupation forces, the dissolution of the hitherto all-powerful Communist Party, and the virtual disappearance of the political police on which one-party rule had been based. The Revolution freed all the political prisoners in the country and allowed for the appearance of a free press as well as of free radio stations.

On November 1, a newly installed democratic multiparty government under Imre Nagy announced that Hungary was withdrawing from the Soviet-led Warsaw military pact and adopting a position of neutrality, which it appealed to the United Nations to protect. Only the large-scale intervention of Soviet armored columns brought in from the East put an end to the democratic experiment on November 4; but civilian resistance continued for many weeks afterward.

One of the major dilemmas of an account of the Revolution is how far back one ought to go in history to trace the origin of events that enabled a small nation to defy the largest country in the world. That Hungarian was an isolated language and that Hungary had its own cultural tradition in a sea of Slavic speakers were certainly factors; the Magyars feared, rightly or wrongly, a great Slavic threat. Then, in 1849, we find that 300,000 Russian troops invaded the country in order to salvage Habsburg power from independence-minded Hungarians, led by Lajos Kossuth. In March 1919, when Béla Kun and his Communist companions seized power, they vainly hoped for—and Hungary’s social and political elite unnecessarily feared—an invasion by Lenin and Trotsky’s “Bolshevik hordes.” In the same year, counterrevolutionary Whites established an authoritarian regime in which anti-Bolshevism, anti-liberalism, and anti-Semitism were articles of belief. But the crucial event leading to the Revolution of 1956 occurred in June 1941 when Hungary joined in the German military attack on the Soviet Union. Miserably equipped Hungarian troops sent to the Don River perished in the winter war. The inevitable next step was the country’s invasion, in 1944, by the triumphant and vengeful Red Army.

The war, including the death of perhaps a million Hungarian citizens, half of them Jews whom the right-wing regime of Regent Miklós Horthy deported to Auschwitz, destroyed public morality and left the country in ruins. Consequently, in the early postwar years, Hungary’s weak democratic forces were unable to resist the power of the Communists, who had the support of the Soviet occupation forces in establishing a Stalinist regime.

No less importantly, between 1938, which was the date of the first anti-Jewish law, and the 1960s, when Communist terror became less severe, the country experienced a series of social convulsions brought about by the extermination of nearly two thirds of its Jewish citizens; the expulsion of most members of the German minority after the war; and the flight, imprisonment, forced relocation, and expropriation of the landowning nobility, the functionaries of the Horthy regime, and much of the bourgeoisie. Their places in the higher echelons of society and government were taken by a new class made up of pre-war Communist activists, Jewish former forced laborers whose families had perished in Auschwitz; members of the old non-Jewish intelligentsia who were sufficiently flexible in their loyalties, and ambitious artisans, workers, and peasants.

Many from poorer backgrounds within the new elite moved into the abandoned apartments, learned how to use other people’s furniture and silver, and sent their sons and daughters to the universities from which “class enemies” were excluded; they put suspect members of the former elite, as well as, increasingly, one another, into prisons.

Between 1948 and 1953, Prime Minister Mátyás Rákosi and his former associates in Moscow exile, nearly all of them of Jewish origin, took over for the state whatever had not yet been expropriated; they also led a foolishly conceived drive for full-scale industrialization and rearmament. They forced masses of independent peasants into farmers’ collectives, kept hundreds of thousands in prison and camps, and freely used torture and terror to suppress dissidents and force confessions. But when Stalin died in 1953, the new collective Soviet leadership appointed the less fanatical Communist Imre Nagy as prime minister of Hungary; Rákosi remained as first secretary of the Party. Nagy, selected as the new head of government in part because he was not of Jewish origin, relaxed the drive for industrialization; he tried to provide more consumer goods, allowed some peasants to leave the collective farms, and, most importantly for the coming events in 1956, freed a number of political prisoners, many of them Communists. Most of those who formed the revolutionary government toward the end of October 1956, including the Communist János Kádár, later the murderer of the revolutionaries, had been in prison during a part of the Stalinist era.

In view of the preceding years, reforms introduced in 1953 as well as the events of 1956 may be seen as attempts to slow down the pace of the cruel and often mindless social revolutions that had begun in Hungary in 1938. But no amount of goodwill could have quickly undone the harm done to the country’s two most productive minorities—the Jews and the ethnic Germans—the fatal weakening of the old administrative and economic elites, and the destruction brought about by war, dictatorship, ignorance, and greed.

The years between 1953 and 1956 were marked by political seesawing between the forces of moderation represented by Imre Nagy and of Bolshevik fanaticism represented by Mátyás Rákosi. Yet once hopes for reform had been awakened, and the Soviet system itself was evolving under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, no one could stop young Communist journalists, novelists, poets, and philosophers, many among them of Jewish origin, from demanding a more humane socialism. In April 1955, the Soviet leadership replaced Imre Nagy as prime minister with András Hegedüs, a nonentity. This meant that all political power had passed back to the Communist Party leadership. Nagy was eventually even expelled from the Party, which only increased his popularity.

The reform Communists now organized mass debates in the so-called Petöfi Circle on the problems and the future of socialism, and these attracted thousands of non-Party members. Among the keenest participants were university students, most of whom belonged to the new elite, and who were dissatisfied with the regime’s lies and the rigid discipline at their schools. Their own meetings became more and more agitated until, on October 16, students at the University of Szeged in southern Hungary created an organization free of Party control. This was an unheard-of move in a country where not even a local chess club could exist without official supervision. Amazingly, the bewildered authorities proved powerless to stop this and hundreds of subsequent independent moves.

On October 22, students at the Technical University in Budapest went even further by formulating their Sixteen Points, which demanded, among other things, free parliamentary elections, freedom of expression, a more patriotic economic policy, and the departure of the Soviet troops. There was, however, absolutely no demand for an end to socialism.1 What was new was that unlike the reform Communists, the students were an unknown element in politics; they had set up a free organization and even put forward their views on foreign policy. Some of those who led the debates were functionaries of the Party’s youth organization.

The student movement was powerfully reinforced in October 1956 by momentous political reforms in Poland by which Wladyslaw Gomulka, a Communist with some national support, came to power. On October 23, students in Budapest organized a march for reform that quickly turned into a bloody encounter with the security police after workers and some soldiers joined the demonstration.

No sooner did the demonstrators confront the authorities than organizations sprang up spontaneously to create some cohesion among the many groups. Workers’ councils, revolutionary councils, and provincial committees were formed in factories, offices, schools, municipalities, and regional administrations, sometimes by outsiders, more often by daring workers. As all the recent historians clearly demonstrate, there is absolutely no evidence of any earlier planning for a revolution; nor of any machinations by the “imperialist West” to organize an uprising, as Communist writers later liked to claim.

Even the actions of the armed revolutionaries were spontaneous and improvised. Those who picked up arms were mostly individual soldiers, high school and university students, factory workers, unskilled laborers, and former convicts, nearly all of whom had been trained in the use of weapons by the militaristic Stalinist regime. The fighters assembled locally around self-appointed commanders, some of them Communist Party members. One of the more famous among the commanders was a survivor of Auschwitz who was hanged after the Revolution.

The authors of the books under review, as well as the political leaders of today’s otherwise profoundly divided Hungary, generally agree on the background of the Revolution I have sketched here. Hungarians of various leanings are also united in condemning the policies of the Soviet, American, British, French, Yugoslav, East European, Indian, and Chinese governments toward the Revolution. Moreover, all denounce the CIA, Radio Free Europe, and the American propaganda machinery in general for holding out prospects of liberation that they could not make good on. Regarding the foreign governments, one must generally agree with the critics, even though, in my opinion, the US and Soviet leaders behaved with some caution during the Hungarian crisis. They understood that a major mistake on their part could destroy the world.

Disagreements arise when details of the thirteen days in 1956 are being discussed and, even more, when it comes to assigning blame for the Revolution’s tragic end. Following an early group of often excellent books on the Revolution,2 a large number of studies of it appeared in 2006, the anniversary year. The best among them are based on often revealing materials the authors have uncovered in newly opened archives in Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and elsewhere.

Erich Lessing’s Revolution in Hungary is a large and elegant photographic album, which also contains some very fine essays. Its magnificent photographs show not only the Revolution and its immediate aftermath but also many scenes in pre-1956 Hungary, a poor country, forcibly isolated from even its socialist neighbors but also hard at work. Life was not without satisfactions for those who were content with simple pleasures and who believed in the Party’s promises, as undoubtedly many did. Then after Stalin’s death, when both Khrushchev and Imre Nagy came to power, Lessing’s photographs depict the two men as endearing grandfathers. Here readers should keep in mind that in the late 1930s Khrushchev was in charge of the terrible purges of Party members in Ukraine while Nagy, when young and in the Soviet Union, was a paid NKVD informer, and later a protégé of the abominable Lavrenty Beria.3

  1. 1

    The Sixteen Points are reprinted in Victor Sebestyen’s Twelve Days and in The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents, edited by Csaba Békés, Malcolm Byrne, and János M. Rainer (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2002), pp. 188–190.

  2. 2

    See, for instance, Tibor Méray, Thirteen Days That Shook the Kremlin, translated by Howard L. Katzander (Praeger, 1959); Tamás Aczél and Tibor Méray, The Revolt of the Mind: A Case History of Intellectual Resistance Behind the Iron Curtain (London: Thames and Hudson, 1960); Ferenc A. Váli, Rift and Revolt in Hungary: Nationalism versus Communism (Harvard University Press, 1961); and Paul E. Zinner, Revolution in Hungary (Columbia University Press, 1962).

  3. 3

    The Austro-Hungarian author Paul Lendvai states in his book on 1956, Der Ungarnaufstand 1956: Die Revolution und ihre Folgen (Munich: Bertelsmann, 2006), p. 51, that Imre Nagy’s often lethal role as an NKVD informer in the Soviet Union, at least between 1936 and 1940, has been personally confirmed to him by the former KGB chief, General Vladimir Kryuchkov, and that the former Russian ambassador to Budapest, Valeri Musatov, does not doubt that role either. The English version of Lendvai’s book, translated by Ann Major, will be published by Princeton University Press.

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