Bekes Rainer 1956 - The Revolution
On October 6, 1956 the most famous communist victim of the Rákosi era Laszlo Rajk, who had been executed in 1949, received a ceremonial reburial The hundreds of thousands of people at the ceremony considered the event as an overture for the burial of Stalinism On October 16 a meeting of university students from Szeged passed a decision to form the Unified Organization o Hungarian University and College Students, a political student organization independent of the unified communist youth organization, the Democratic Youth Association. That was already the wind of revolution. It was a crack in the monolithic political institutional system and the erosion continued irresistibly over the following days. And students did not stop at criticizing the present order; they actually declared definite aims and took radical action. They printed and distributed the list of their demands and prepared for a demonstration.
On 22nd October news reached Budapest about changes in the Polish communist party leadership. Wladislaw Gomulka - who represented a trend similar to Imre Nagy's in his party - had won the fight against the Stalinist leadership in Warsaw. Khrushchev flew to Warsaw and Soviet troops were mobilized, but the unified action of the Polish leadership - and Gomulka's determination to stay within the federal system of the Warsaw Pact - averted the danger of a clash. Having received the news from Poland the students of the Budapest Technical University put together a 16-point list of demands. Besides the party opposition objectives, like calling a party congress and reappointing Imre Nagy as prime minister, it also contained democratic and national slogans, such as the withdrawal of Soviet troops, a multi-party system, free elections, economic independence and the reestablishment of traditional national symbols and holidays. The students called for a peaceful demonstration on 23rd October to show their solidarity with the Polish people and to fulfill their demands.
On October 23, 1956 the party leadership first forbade, and later permitted the demonstration. The march started anyway, paying no regard to the leadership's hesitation. Some hours later not only the students but the entire population of the capital came out to march in the demonstration. In the crowd the slogans of the party opposition were replaced by calls demanding national independence and democracy, without any adjectives substituted for socialist democracy. The thousands of people arriving from different directions first gathered at the statue of Joseph Bern, the hero of Polish origin during the 1848-49 Hungarian revolution and war of independence. The marchers then split into several, still huge, crowds. Almost two hundred thousand people waited in front of Parliament for Imre Nagy to give a speech, while others demolished Stalin's statue on the march-past square, and a third group in front of the National Radio Station urged the immediate broadcasting of their demands.
Imre Nagy had spent the previous day, 22nd October, in the country, then he returned to Budapest. On 23rd October he met several leading figures of the party opposition in Géza Losonczy's apartment, including Miklos Gimes, Sandor Haraszti, Ferenc Jánosi and Miklos Vasarhelyi At that time they still believed that changes could be reached through reforms.
Following the request of the Hungarian Workers' Party's Political Committee, at 9 p.m. on 23rd October Imre Nagy spoke to the crowd gathering in front of Parliament warning them to stay calm and to return to the reforms of 1953. His speech was not a great success. The people of Budapest felt that the time to act had arrived and they were no longer to be satisfied with the uncertain promise of gradual changes within the party.
Early in the evening of 23rd October, Ernő Gero turned to the Soviet embassy for military assistance. Local representatives of the Soviet Union were ready to answer this call as Soviet troops based in Hungary were already on alert.
Tension reached a climax when units of the State Security Authority - without higher command - fired into the crowd preparing to occupy the radio station and broadcast their claims. It was the evening of 23rd October. The armed uprising had begun.
At a meeting late in the evening the party leadership decided to take up arms to suppress the "anti-revolution revolt", but at the same time it accepted Imre Nagy among the leadership. Nagy, the leading figure in the party opposition, became confused by the crowd's actions. He hoped to be able to prevent confrontation and accepted the call of his party rivals. On 24th he took over the post of prime minister.
The leadership in Moscow was just as confused, and in the beginning it was reluctant to use military intervention. Later, after the decision that put the Red Army into action, they tried to keep Soviet military action within limits.
Young Budapesters did not retreat when seeing the columns of tanks entering the capital on 24th October, but they decided to rise up in armed revolt. Many centers of rebellion and spontaneous "formations" developed in the 8th and 9th districts on the Pest side, on Széna square on the Buda side, and on the outskirts of the city. The majority of armed rebels were quite young workers, apprentices and secondary school students in their teens or early twenties who came from the poorest industrial parts of Budapest, from company hostels or dormitories.
Mainly the younger generations felt restricted and angered by the Stalinist system's humiliating rule and ritual discipline. In the fifties the majority of young people, just like lots of other people in society, felt with good reason that they had been devalued. An armed revolt appeared a romantic and heroic way out of this situation.
Relatively few people from the older generations or intellectuals participated in the uprising. However, the leaders of occasional troops usually belonged to these groups as they were the ones with at least elementary military and political experience. The most daring rebels also rose among the leaders. They headed attacks against Soviet and State Security troops. Some outstanding figures included Laszlo Iván-Kovács and the Pongrácz brothers in Corvin passage; lstvan Angyal and János Barany in Ferencvaros and the 9th district; and János Szabo on Szena square. There were a larger number of real Budapest "tough guys" among the rebels, some of them even with police records from earlier years. During the revolt, however, they too were caught up by the naive faith and pure heroism of the majority.
This behaviour was characteristic of the people of Budapest in those days. During the battles almost no 'traditional' crimes were committed, nobody looted goods from the broken shop-windows, and troop leaders paid even for fighters' food. The rebels' firmness proved to be a crucial factor: they continued fighting even in the most critical days - between 24th and 28th October - against an enemy with a great superiority in numbers.
In the days after 23rd October the Stalinist party state collapsed except for some State Security units. Within a few days spontaneous self-organization had formed the revolution's own institutional system. Following demonstrations in rural towns, revolutionary committees were set up all over the country and workers' councils were elected at firms. A general political strike began.
The "scenarios" for revolutionary events were almost identical everywhere. During general mass demonstrations initiated by students people took possession of the squares which had previously been the domain of the hated repressive organizations of power. The removal from these squares of the symbols of power such as red stars and Soviet war memorials represented symbolic acts of cleansing. Throwing down the idol was the expression of spiritual freedom from dictatorship.
Events continued with the formulation of demands, the election of representatives to hold talks with local power centres, and developing buds of self-organization. This process was crowned by open armed confrontation with the forces of the Stalinist Rákosist system.
The widespread participation on the part of workers, youngsters and local officers characterized the self-organization of provincial towns. The revolutionary leaders in villages were individual farmers who had always been opposed to the political suppression and collectivization of the Rákosi era. Several still respected leaders of the post-1945 coalition parties were obvious choices to lead revolutionary committees both in Budapest and in the countryside.
Village national committees or company workers' councils formulated mainly local or class-specific claims which were actual action plans going beyond the allencompassing social and national objectives. Every organization and political power in the capital and in the countryside agreed with the revolution's triple objective: national independence, a civil democratic political structure, and the protection of social benefits.
The revolutionary self-organizations in the countryside put tangible political pressure on the state and party leadership, namely on Imre Nagy. From this point of view they were just as important as the armed rebels battling in the capital. Without their political pressure the Nagy government probably would have stopped half-way between the party opposition programme and the revolution's true objectives.
While revolutionary organizations and Budapest rebels were clinging to the demands of 23rd October, a bitter political fight was developing between the hardliners and Imre Nagy and his followers. In the beginning Imre Nagy tried to fulfill people's expectations while calming the Soviet leadership's worries about the unity and cohesion of the socialist bloc. However, later he was forced to make a choice. He was aware of Gerö's catastrophic policies and always kept in mind the fact that he, Nagy, was no longer the right leader in the Soviets' eyes. Nagy himself had no doubt about being held responsible, no matter how things ended. Under such conditions he tried to influence the situation in a positive way and continued his fight in the party leadership. His Hungarian rivals and the Soviet delegates, Anastas Mikoian and Mikhail Suslov, who had arrived in Budapest by that time, eyed him with suspicion. However, they knew that without Nagy's help only Soviet bayonets could save the communist system, and even the Soviets initially wanted to avoid this radical solution fearing the unpredictable international reaction and consequences of a possible massacre.
It appeared that on 25-26th October the hardliners and military units under their command could still control developments. On 25th they shot into unarmed demonstrators standing in front of Parliament causing a real massacre. In many towns around the country volleys killed hundreds.
Another critical event on 25th October was - following Soviet pressure - Ernő Gerö's resignation as party leader. He was succeeded by János Kádár.
On 27th a new government was formed with the participation of two leading figures from the re-activated Smallholders' Party: Zoltán Tildy, expresident of the republic, and Béla Kovács, who had just returned from Soviet captivity.
On the night of 27th October after a three-day debate Imre Nagy and the supporters of development made a change in the Political Committee with the support of Soviet leaders. They qualified the events as a national democratic movement instead of a "counterrevolution", and immediately halted all armed operations against rebels. Imre Nagy ordered a cease-fire on 28th October. Over the next two days the party leadership and the new government accepted the majority of the revolutionary demands. Soviet troops retreated from Budapest, and on 30th October Imre Nagy declared a multiparty system i.e. he accepted the proportions of the 1945 coalition government and recognized local self-organizations and company workers' councils. Within the government a small political conciliation body, the cabinet, was formed including Zoltán Tildy, Béla Kovács, Géza Losonczy, János Kádár and Ferenc Erdei. One place was reserved for the Social Democrats. Imre Nagy announced his government's negotiations about the complete withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. Rebels were included in the newly developing armed forces which were led by military and police officers who had supported the revolution, like Pál Maléter, Béla Király and Sándor Kopácsi. On 30th October the government dissolved the State Security Authority.
Over the next few days both stabilizing and destabilizing factors existed side by side. The cease-fire and the government's decisions brought some calm to the streets. Armed forces were formed and different democratic parties organized. At the same time the hatred against the old system - hidden for long years - came to the surface and in some cases it was expressed in people's verdicts on the streets. Lynchings followed an attack against the party headquarters in Budapest's Köztársaság square where a dozen people fell victim to the rage.
The more radical revolutionary organizations and a part of the rebelling groups had not trusted the government from the very start. They pressed the government to take definite steps to ensure national independence. They wanted and urged a clean sweep of the government of the old, "Rákosist" ministers. Workers' councils maintained their strikes.