By Freedom Newspapers
On Oct. 23, 1956, what began as a student demonstration against Soviet control of Hungary attracted thousands of people as the crowd marched through central Budapest to the country’s parliament building. When a student delegation entered the radio building to broadcast the demands of the demonstrators, it was detained. When the crowd outside the building demanded the delegation’s release, the state security police fired on them.
News of this violent repression spread quickly throughout the country and rebellion metastasized. Before long the Soviet puppet government fell and a new government headed by former premier Imre Nagy, a communist with a reputation as a reformer, was formed. Before long it was vowing to establish a multi-party democracy and withdraw Hungary from the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet-dominated military agreement targeted at Western Europe.
The grievances that erupted in 1956 had a long history. After World War II the Soviet military occupied Hungary and gradually replaced what had been a multiparty democracy that had begun to recover economically with a one-party communist state. By 1949 Matyas Rakosi took over as dictator.
As was to be expected, strict socialist economic policies led to economic decline. By 1952 disposable income had sunk to two-thirds of 1938 levels. By 1953 manufacturing output was at only one-third of prewar levels.
Meantime, trouble was stirring throughout the Soviet empire. In 1953 Joseph Stalin died and a short-lived rebellion emerged in East Germany. In 1955 Austria was re-established as a demilitarized and neutral country, raising hopes in Hungary for a similar outcome. In June 1956 a violent uprising in Poznan, Poland, was put down brutally, but by October the Soviets had given in to demands for some reforms in Poland.
All this heartened hopeful Hungarians. Led by students, writers and journalists, some 20,000 convened next to the statue of the Polish-born General Bem, who had been instrumental in establishing Hungary’s independence in 1848-49. And for a few days it looked as if independence would be reasserted. Many in the Hungarian army went over to the side of the revolution, and even some Soviet soldiers openly sympathized.
Subsequently released documents suggest there was disagreement in the Kremlin about what to do, but the Soviets finally decided to put down the rebellion. Even as it was announcing its willingness to negotiate the withdrawal of Soviet troops, the Soviet Union was assembling troops from other parts of the empire. On Nov. 3 the Hungarian delegation was arrested and on the next day the Soviet army, with 17 divisions, attacked Budapest. The Hungarian army put up sporadic resistance but was overwhelmed.
Some 2,500 Hungarians and 722 Soviet troops died in the fighting. In the aftermath 26,000 Hungarians were arrested and 13,000 imprisoned. About 200,000 Hungarians fled the country.
Although the Hungarian revolution failed, it demonstrated to all that the “peoples’ republics” of eastern Europe were in fact repressive dictatorships and Soviet puppets that could only maintain power through massive force and repression. Soviet rule was constantly imperiled thereafter, with open revolts in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland in 1980. By 1989 the empire imploded.
The Hungarian Revolution reminds us that the thirst for freedom is universal and tyranny is perpetually unstable. After 1956 perceptive observers may not have known the day or the hour, but they knew Soviet tyranny was doomed.