The events in Hungary in October to November 1956 have been characterized both as an uprising and a revolution. The revolt was spontaneous, and its adherents came from diverse political and social backgrounds with disparate motivations. However, the speed with which the unrest spread across the country evidenced a commonly held and deep-seated bitterness over the nation’s political and economic plight. Moreover, most of those involved blamed the crisis squarely on the Soviet-dominated regime that had been in place since 1949, and demanded the removal of Soviet forces from Hungary as well as the reintroduction of a multiparty political structure. The magnitude of popular opposition and the general objective of abolishing the existing system merit classifying the events of 1956 as a revolution.
Despite its failure, the revolution had significant effects. In the short term, it did result in greater consolidation of Soviet control over both Hungary and the region. With Moscow’s backing, the newly installed leadership under János Kádár (1912–1989) violently quashed the rebellion, executing hundreds, including the reformist prime minister Imre Nagy (1896–1958), and imprisoning thousands, thus eliminating all overt political dissent. Regionally, the revolution forced Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to be more cautious in encouraging East European Communist rulers to pursue reforms. However, the long-term effects of the revolt were more significant. The crisis exposed the ideological bankruptcy of Sovietled communism and the brutality of Moscow’s methods, and served as a permanent symbol for the causes of self-determination and independence in the region.
Half a century later, scholarly debates persist about many aspects of the revolution, although the opening of archival records in recent years has helped to resolve important issues. In Hungary the scale of the revolt, the manner in which it unfolded, the behavior of various groups in different parts of the country, and the methods employed to fight the Soviets are all well known. Of particular interest among the new findings are records describing the actions of Nagy and his colleagues in the temporary government. Nagy emerges as a figure both complex and courageous, if ultimately inadequate to the task, who was thoroughly underestimated by both Moscow and Washington. The circumstances surrounding his fate are more fully understood as well: Kádár, not the Soviets, pressed for his execution, which finally took place in 1958.
The archives further explain a great deal about decision making in Moscow. Handwritten notes of Soviet Presidium meetings by Vladimir Malin, head of the General Department of the party, record key debates over whether to acquiesce to the changes in Hungary or to suppress the revolt. Khrushchev and his more moderate allies clearly hoped to avoid a major intervention, and the Kremlin appeared to be on the verge of ordering a troop withdrawal from Hungary (a public declaration to that effect appeared on October 30) when he suddenly reversed course a day later.
The U.S. role is also clearer. The revolution caught the White House by surprise, and the Eisenhower administration came under criticism from certain quarters for its passive reaction. Yet suspicions have lingered that the United States quietly undertook certain covert operations such as unleashing trained émigré units and providing weapons to the rebels. Recently declassified internal records from the Central Intelligence Agency make clear, however, that no such activities took place, nor did senior White House officials contemplate them. Furthermore, it is well established that President Eisenhower opposed any actions that might provoke a direct conflict with the Soviet Union.
Yet, a number of questions remain unanswered. Kádár is still a controversial figure in Hungary, and his exact motivations in accepting the role of the Kremlin’s agent of repression are still in dispute. Scholars also continue to discuss the most contentious aspect of U.S. involvement––Radio Free Europe (RFE). RFE tapes from the period confirm that the organization broadcast statements that at the very least encouraged insurgents to take action. Although recent analyses downplay the impact of those broadcasts, there is some disagreement over whether U.S. officials authorized them and to what degree they were responsible for inciting Hungarians to risk their lives in the revolution.
Regarding the Soviet response, although we now know better which issues concerned Khrushchev—the descent into chaos inside Hungary, the Suez crisis, domestic political considerations and possibly China’s views—it remains unclear exactly which of these, or what combination of these, ultimately changed his views. A related difference of opinion exists over whether and how the Suez crisis affected events in Hungary beyond influencing Khrushchev’s thinking. Underlying these questions is the fascinating debate over whether the crushing of the revolt was inevitable or whether different choices by the rebels, Nagy, members of the Soviet leadership, or even the Americans might have averted the tragedy.
SEE ALSO Berlin Wall; Cold War; Glasnost; Khrushchev, Nikita; Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; Warsaw Pact
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Kovrig, Bennett. 1991. Of Walls and Bridges: The United States and Eastern Europe. New York: New York University Press.
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Rainer, János. 1996–1999. Nagy Imre: Politikai életrajz [Imre Nagy: A Political Biography]. 2 vols. Budapest: 1956-os Intézet.
The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was the first major anti-Soviet uprising in Eastern Europe and the first shooting war to occur between socialist states. In contrast to earlier uprisings after the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in March 1953, such as the workers' revolt in East Berlin (1953) and the Polish workers' rebellion in Poznan, Poland (October 1956), the incumbent Hungarian leader, Imre Nagy, did not summon Soviet military troops to squelch the revolution. Instead, he attempted to withdraw Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. Hence, the Hungarian revolution symbolizes perhaps the first major "domino" to fall in a process that ultimately resulted in the Soviet Union's loss of hegemony over Eastern Europe in 1989.
When Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, delivered his Secret Speech at the Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956, he not only exposed Stalin's crimes, but also presented himself as a proponent of different paths to socialism, a claim that would later prove hard to fulfill. All over Eastern Europe, hardline Stalinist leaders wondered fearfully how far destalinization would go. Meanwhile, their opponents, who criticized Stalinist policies, suddenly gained in popularity. In Hungary, Nagy was one such critic and reformer. He had served as Hungary's prime minister from July 4, 1953, to April 18, 1955. In the spring of 1955, however, Nagy was dislodged by a hard-line Stalinist leader, Mátyás Rákosi, who had been forced to cede that post to Nagy in mid-1953.
Social pressures continued to build in Hungary under the leadership of Rákosi, called Stalin's "best disciple" by some. He had conducted the anti-Yugoslav campaign in 1948 and 1949 more zealously than other East European party leaders. Hundreds of thousands of Hungarian communists had been executed or imprisoned after 1949. By late October 1956 the popular unrest in Hungary eluded the control of both the Hungarian government led by Rákosi's successor, Ernõ Gerõ, and the USSR.
On October 23, 1956, several hundred thousand people demonstrated in Budapest, hoping to publicize their sixteen-point resolution and to show solidarity with Poland where, in June, an industrial strike originating in Poznan turned into a national revolt. The Budapest protesters demanded that Nagy replace Gerõ, the Hungarian Communist Party's first secretary from July 18 to October 25, 1956. Fighting broke out in Budapest and other Hungarian cities and continued throughout the night.
It is now known that Soviet leaders decided on October 23 to intervene militarily. Soviet troops executed Plan Volna ("Wave") at 11:00 p.m. that same day. The next morning a radio broadcast announced that Nagy had replaced András Hegedüs as prime minister. On October 25, János Kádár, a younger, centrist official, replaced Gerõ as first secretary. However, this first Soviet intervention did not solve the original political problem in the country. New documents have revealed that the Kremlin initially decided on October 28 against a
second military intervention. But on October 31, they reversed course and launched a more massive intervention (Operation Vikhr, or "Whirlwind"). During the night of November 3, sixteen Soviet divisions entered Hungary. Fighting continued until mid-November, when Soviet forces suppressed the resistance and installed a pro-Soviet government under Kádár.
See also: hungary, relations with; khrushchev, nikita sergeyevich;
Békés, Csaba; Rainer, János M.; and Byre, Malcolm. (2003). The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents. Budapest: Central European University Press.
Cox, Terry, ed. (1997). Hungary 1956—Forty Years On. London: Frank Cass.
Granville, Johanna. (2003). The First Domino: International Decision Making in the Hungarian Crisis of 1956. College Station: Texas A & M University Press.
Györkei, Jenõ, and Horváth, Miklós. (1999). The Soviet Military Intervention in Hungary, 1956. Budapest: Central European University Press.
Litván, György, and Bak, János M. (1996). The Hungarian Revolution of 1956: Reform, Revolt and Repression, 1953–1963. New York: Longman.