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The Hungarian Revolution: Freedom's Call from WWII to 1956

The Hungarian Revolution: Freedom’s Call from WWII to 1956

Géza Radics

The Hungarian revolution and fight for freedom was one of the most significant events in 20th century European history. To have a better understanding of these events, it is necessary to recapitulate some of the political, social and economic conditions which preceded it. It’s also instructive to examine the political power struggle which paved the way for the decades-long tension of East-West relations known as the “Cold War”.


When World War II was finally over in 1945, a sigh of relief flooded over victors and vanquished alike. Even in those countries which would fall under Soviet occupation, the reconstruction started out with great vigor and enthusiasm. It didn’t take long, however, for everyone to realize that heady expectations for a better life lived in freedom would not yet be realized. In Hungary, for example, with the help of massive voter fraud and outright cheating, the Communists stole the 1947 election. The Communists (using an infamous blue ballot with which they could easily cast their vote as many times and in as many places as they wanted because no identification was required) traveled by buses and trucks from town to town, casting their cobalt ballots over and over. Following their victory, and with the assistance of the Soviet occupation forces, the Communists went about setting up their government. The regime led by dictator Mátyás Rákosi (who received his primary training in communism in Moscow) became the most ruthless to be found in any Soviet satellite country. Their opening shot was to outlaw all other political parties and organizations having anything to do with formulating or raising a national consciousness. Next, they liquidated people by the hundreds, perhaps by the thousands, whom they considered enemies of the “people” – i.e., opponents of the Communist system. They then began filling the prisons and concentration camps with thousands of victims. Within a couple of years, those workers (and even peasants with a few acres of their own) who bristled and refused to join the collectives gradually became “enemies of the state”. In schools across the land, the greatness of Communism and the worship of the Soviet Union were taught. The Communists uprooted Hungarian society across all classes and walks of life – and anyone who dared to raise his or her voice was mercilessly punished, or disappeared forever without a trace.

By 1952, really hard times fell upon the Hungarians, especially the farmers. Ever greater quotas were set and demanded for production – far higher than was within the collective’s capacity. Even so, the Communists confiscated everything from them – their livestock, their grain to feed their family, and even the seed needed to sow the following year’s crop. The living standard became horrendous, falling below the level of the early 20s. As the farmers ran out of everything, they naturally began to revolt; they were put down mercilessly. Many had hanged themselves in despair; the less fortunate found themselves in one of the many Communist concentration camps. These camps were run by the feared ÁVH (‘Államvédelmi Hatóság’), the Soviet-backed Hungarian Communist secret police. The political arm of the ÁVH was the ÁVO (Államvédelmi Osztály); they were the guardians, or more to the point, the masters of life and death. Only the most sadistic and brutal individuals, lacking any morals, were chosen and willing to serve in these organizations, especially the ÁVO. There were very few exceptions to this rule.

People of certain occupations from the old regime like the csendőr (mounted gendarmerie for the protection of the countryside), portions of the regular police, as well as civil and military judges were singled out and persecuted because of their alleged “cruelty” in the old system. (Communists were firmly treated before WWII, it is true; nonetheless, between 1920 and 1945, there were only nine (9) executions in Hungary – all common criminals, with not a single political execution among them.) Most of those who returned from Soviet POW camps, if they survived at all, were transferred to the most notorious camps operated by the ÁVH. Ödön Herendi was one of them. He wrote in one of his letters to an author collecting information for his book on the camp of Kazincbarcika:

In the ÁVH-run system, however, [humiliation of the prisoners] was the most important facet. In the Soviet POW camps we could write letters and receive Hungarian and Russian newspapers, while in the ÁVH-run camps or prisons this was forbidden – and don’t even mention physical punishment.” [1]

To be sure, international law gave at least some minimal protection to prisoners in the Soviet POW camps (which, of course, didn’t hold for the concentration camps of the Gulag), whereas in the ÁVH-run camps or prisons this didn’t apply. The commander of these institutions was the supreme ruler. In the camp of Kazincbarcika, for instance, he would inform the inmates:

First we will destroy you physically, then we will break your resistance, and after that we will hang you. We can do anything in this country, whatever we want.” [2]

The camp at Kazincbarcika operated between October 6, 1951 and September 16, 1953. After this time, following the death of Soviet dictator Stalin, the camp was dismantled and the prisoners were released; however, these “freed” men had a very difficult time re-integrating into society. Generally the only type of work available for them was at entry level. They were barred from settling in any major Hungarian city (even if their family lived or had property in one of them) and they were under police surveillance until 1989 – and some even beyond that point.

Just how cruel and unjust these Rákosi-led years were in Hungary can be found in the statement made by the head of the Soviet NKVD (Russian secret police, the predecessor of the KGB), Lavrenti P. Beria. When the top Hungarian leaders were summoned to Moscow on June 13th and 16th, 1953, Beria questioned Rákosi about his overzealousness in carrying out Moscow’s instructions:

Could it be acceptable that in Hungary – a country of 9,500,000 inhabitants – prosecutions were initiated against 1,500,000 people? Administrative regulations were applied against 1,150,000 within two and a half years. These numbers show that interior and judiciary organs and the ÁVH functions very badly…” [3]

Nikolai A. Bulganin, the Soviet Minister of Defense, brought up the unacceptable situation in the Hungarian Army in regard to disciplinary actions:

In 1952 and in the first quarter of 1953, 460 officers and generals were discharged for political reasons. The Army was not established in 1952. Why was it necessary to discharge this many people for political reasons? If comrade Rákosi and the CC looked at these 460 people, it would become clear that some of them are our friends, our people. Thus they turn honest people into traitors. There were 370 desertions in 1952. There were 177,000 disciplinary punishments in the army in one year and 3 months.” [4]

Coming from the Soviet leaders, these comments are obviously very interesting, to say the least. What is quite clear here is that, although the Communists in Hungary carried out Moscow’s instructions, Rákosi being overzealous either by nature or by fear, always overdid what was expected of him. He personally bears much of the responsibility for what transpired during his time in power.

After Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953, a very significant change took place in the Kremlin, with respect to governing style. First of all, the feared and “great” leader Stalin was no longer around, and thus, Beria was in position to take charge since he was the head of the NKVD. However, for some reason, it seems that he wasn’t interested in the job, which is difficult to explain in retrospect. The fact is, nonetheless, that there was a thaw in the Kremlin which manifested itself in its relationship to the satellite countries as well as in international East-West relations.

Among the top leaders of Moscow, Beria and Georgii Malenkov recognized some of the failures of the socialist Soviet economy. The almost exclusive concentration on heavy industry in order to produce military armaments devastated the country in every other non-military aspect. The population of the Soviet Union paid a heavy price for the Communist aim to dominate – and eventually conquer – the world for their kind of socialism. The living standard was extremely low, with personal freedom practically nonexistent. Beria and Malenkov sensed the unrest among the population; they launched an ambitious foreign policy to improve East-West relations. This, they hoped, would give them an opportunity to cut back on military spending; scale back heavy industry; build up light industry in order to produce more consumer goods; and raise the living standard. They felt that socialist agriculture, based on collective farming, also needed reform. Peasants, they believed, should be given the choice to work in the collectives or start out on their own as independent farmers if they find the ambition and ability within themselves to do so. Beria believed that people with skills and inborn ability should be put into leadership roles and should be given the freedom to carry out their position as they see fit (i.e., only the final results are important). Additionally, senseless political terror against the innocent populace, including filling up Soviet concentration camps, should also be curtailed.

Thus, the leading Hungarian officials – Mátyás Rákosi, Ernő Gerő, András Hegedűs, István Hidas, Rudolf Földvári, Béla Szalai, István Dobi and Imre Nagy – were instructed to follow the Kremlin’s lead. In a meeting held at the Kremlin on June 13, 1953, Beria, Malenkov, Molotov, Bulganin, Mikoyan and Khruschev were present. On the 16th Kiselev and Boiko also attended.

Beria led the way with the others seemingly following in his footsteps. He instructed the Hungarian Communists on the new principles. He told them how the reforms should be implemented regarding industry and agriculture, without weakening Communism and the political power structure. He believed that Imre Nagy should be the prime minister and, as an economist, he should be able to carry out the reform; yet, Beria insisted on the Stalinist Rákosi as the First Secretary of the Communist party.

At issue was the size of the Hungarian Army. Malenkov castigated Rákosi, saying: “We wanted you to develop the Army. We [will] correct this mistake. There are 600,000 people in the army, so you carried the Soviet Union’s wishes to the extreme.” [5] Beria added his displeasure: “The development of the army was discussed with comrade Stalin. Comrade Stalin gave incorrect instruction.” [6]

Comrade Stalin gave incorrect instruction”? The uttering of such an opinion was unheard of, unthinkable just a few months ago, and carried the risk of capital punishment. Yet Beria made an even more puzzling statement to Rákosi regarding the army: “Today the Red Army is still in Hungary, but it won’t be there forever.” [7]

It was a remarkable time in the history of Communism – when even the top leaders were forced to exercise some self-criticism. They were going about the work of recognizing some of their own mistakes. Although their remorse was expressed mostly amongst themselves, occasionally it was publicly acknowledged on radio or in newspapers, too.

The Hungarian delegation returned home, Imre Nagy setting forth his “New Course” according to the instruction of Beria. However – only 10 days later, on the 26th of June – Beria was arrested on a trumped up charge. He was accused of spying for the British government. He was quickly executed in December of that same year. Even following these events, Nagy wasn’t hindered by the Kremlin. Malenkov and the others (although somewhat reluctantly) were still supporting his work. However, the tensions between Nagy and Rákosi intensified after the execution of Beria. Not only did Malenkov’s power lack the same weight that Beria’s had, he was now alone. Nagy was a reformist, while Rákosi was a Stalinist, who demonstrated keen ability to liquidate those who dared to cross him. However, a change in Moscow – even without Beria – was still in place. So Rákosi, the ruthless dictator, set out to make Nagy’s life more difficult. He obstructed Nagy’s “New Course” reforms in any way he could. Aiding him were the Stalinists still deeply entrenched in the Hungarian Communist party and economic sector.

After Beria was removed, Malenkov was elected prime minister. In September Nikita Khrushchev was elected to be the First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party.

On May 5, 1954 Rákosi set up a meeting with the Soviet leadership, in direct opposition of Nagy. Nevertheless, they both went to Moscow where they were castigated in short order. Both were instructed to exercise self-criticism and recognize their mistakes. The Soviet leaders still supported Nagy (which must have angered Rákosi) as they were sent back home to Hungary. The problems continued between Nagy and Rákosi and, in January 1955, they were ordered to return to the Kremlin. By this time, the mood had soured towards Nagy. He was severely castigated. What angered the Soviets was Nagy’s unwillingness to offer any self-criticism or recognize his mistakes. At one point, Nagy offered his resignation as the Soviet leaders became unhinged. ‘How dare he? Who is he to decide what he wants to do and what not?’ Even Malenkov made an unfavorable remark: “Rotten movements hide behind comrade Nagy.”[8] After this showing, Nagy was demoted and eventually excluded from the Communist Party. There may be more to Nagy’s removal than meets the eye, however. In the spring of 1955, Malenkov lost his job, too; he found himself demoted to Deputy Prime Minister.

The death of Stalin directly affected the relationship of the two superpowers, as well as world politics in general. In April 1953, Charles E. Bohlen became the United States Ambassador to Moscow; he remained in that capacity until April 1957. Through his post, Bohlen personally knew the Soviet leaders when the first tangible changes took place in that country in the years preceding the Hungarian revolution. In 1973, after forty years of diplomatic service, he wrote a book titled Witness to History: 1929-1969. Bohlen wrote about the difficulties in gathering information in a secretive, closed and oppressed society, such as the Soviet Union. Foreign diplomats could not – or were very rarely allowed to – make contacts with Soviet citizens, and only for a short time, because even occasional contact jeopardized their freedom and their very life. Thus, the diplomat’s main source of information was the news media, where learning to read between the lines became a high art, along with picking up bits of information from other western diplomats. On more than one occasion, one or other high-ranking Soviet official blurted out something newsworthy. That happened in the case of Beria’s demise.

According to one of Bohlen’s contacts, Beria was disposed of because he was replacing the old Stalinists from the NKVD with his own people. The others feared him, and in turn, before he could become all-powerful like Stalin, they arrested him. This reasoning on the surface looks convincing, however, Beria (as the head of the NKVD) had the power in the first place to eliminate his political enemies. From all accounts, he does not appear to have done this, however. Unlike earlier, his Stalinist ‘enemies’ were not liquidated physically; they were either demoted or removed from their positions. Other factors besides these may have also been in motion behind the scenes. The available information on Beria, however, seems to indicate that he wanted properly qualified people in charge; he appears not to have been merely interested in grabbing power. He was probably a team player just like the others. Bohlen called it “collective dictatorship”, meaning from that point forward the decisions in the Kremlin would be made collectively.

As we know, East-West relations at the time were quite rocky. We like to think that those bumps were all caused by the Soviets; however, a closer examination bears out that this was not always the case. For instance, in the fall of 1954, Khrushchev (like the others) supported the development of light industry in order to produce more consumer goods. But, wrote Bohlen, “By December, after plans to rearm West Germany were announced, he shifted the emphasis to the development of heavy industry.” [9] This was most likely the reason for Nagy’s removal and Malenkov’s demotion. In Bohlen’s judgment, Malenkov was the most intelligent of all. The decision by the US to arm West Germany is hard to understand even today because the talks were proceeding in a good direction regarding the Soviet removal of troops from Austria. The day before the agreement was signed on May 9, 1955, West Germany became a member of NATO. On May 14, the Soviets responded with the Warsaw Pact. Even with this escalation, the Soviet troops were withdrawn from Austria by December. The Soviets also released 9,626 German prisoners of war along with the last Hungarian POWs.

Other significant events happening in 1955 also deserve mention, including the decision by the Soviets to bring Yugoslavia back into their camp. In 1948, the Yugoslav dictator, Tito, broke away from Moscow. With western help, he’d begun building his own kind of socialism. The Kremlin’s move to lure this country back into the fold affected Hungary as well and especially Rákosi. When Tito broke away from Stalin’s “fatherly love”, he became America’s “dog on leash” in the eyes of the Soviet camp. As far as the international Communists were concerned, Tito was a traitor – a traitor who had collaborators. László Rajk was Rákosi’s Interior Minister; in 1949, Rajk and some others were singled out for “spying” for Tito. They were arrested for espionage and later that year swiftly executed. Rákosi personally directed the preparation of the charges against Rajk and bragged about it publicly. Tito, of course, didn’t take these events lightly. Consequently, when the Soviet Union offered an olive branch to Tito, Rákosi found himself in the hot seat, forcing him to bend over backwards to please the Yugoslav dictator. Eventually, Hungary was forced to pay $85 million reparation to Yugoslavia.[10]

So it is that we arrive in great leaps and bounds to 1956, which started out with a big bang. On February 14-25 the Soviet Communist Party held its XX. Congress, shrouded in complete secrecy. Only high-ranking party officials were invited, including those from the puppet governments of the captive nations. However, just like Bohlen wrote in his book, some participants dropped a telling public remark here and there. Anastas I. Mikoyan, member of the Soviet Politburo, offered the opening shot in a speech on Stalin’s mistakes and on the personal cult that he surrounded himself with. When Khrushchev delivered a speech shortly before the conclusion of the Congress, he went even further than Mikoyan, castigating Stalin as well. He did admit, however, that for some criminal acts they themselves were also responsible. One example is the great purge of 1937. In that year, approximately 750,000 citizens fell victim to the ruthless system in place; Khrushchev said they must ask for the forgiveness of their comrades for this deed. They would release some of the political prisoners – mostly Communist – who were interned on trumped up charges. The truth-telling and forgiving had its limits, of course. Khrushchev did not mention the six million Ukrainians and the three million in the Don-valley who were deliberately starved to death in 1932 and 1933. Even so, it was still a significant step. (The speech was published 30 years later in 1996.) It had to be a jolt to the Stalinists in the Soviet Union as well as to the delegates from the satellites. The chills were probably running down the spines of the Stalinist leaders from Hungary, although this was good news to Nagy and his followers. This is the congress which gave birth to the idea of “peaceful coexistence” between the East and the West.

In the spring and summer of 1956, barbed-wire fences and minefields were removed from the Hungarian-Yugoslav border. Later that year, the same was done on the Hungarian-Austrian border, indicating the gradual improvement in East-West relations. In Hungary, as time passed by, the Irodalmi Újság (the newspaper of the Writers’ Union) contained ever-bolder articles criticizing the general conditions – and even the Communist Party itself. It’s important to remember that these writers were all Communists but not necessarily Stalinists or pro-Soviet. A new Communist writer’s group, the Petőfi Circle, was formed, its members intent on reforming the party. They wished perhaps to get rid of the Stalinists, but they were determined to keep the system in place. They held their first important meeting on the 17th of March. To this meeting, they invited the former leaders of the banned MEFESZ (Association of Hungarian University and College Unions). Budapest’s hearts were stirring, and the meeting of June 27th found 5000-6000 participants. There were people in the audience who raised issues that had been taboo for ten years. They openly discussed the occupying Soviet forces in Hungary and the 1920 and 1947[11] peace dictates – commonly known as Treaty of Versailles and Paris – which followed the first and second World Wars (as a result, Hungary was dismembered and lost 2/3 of her territory and population). The widow of Rajk, Júlia, declared that Rákosi not only killed her husband, but also separated her from her young child.[12] This openness could not stand, and the Central Committee of the Hungarian Workers’ (Communist) Party on June 30 banned the Petőfi Circle. The Writers Union openly protested this action – something that could have never occurred when Stalin was at the helm.

The Soviet leaders understandably sensed the worsening situation in Hungary and, on the insistence of Tito, they replaced Rákosi with Ernő Gerő as the First Secretary of the Communist Party. András Hegedűs remained as Prime Minister. Unfortunately, these moves did nothing to solve the problems as far as the Hungarian public was concerned; in fact, they added further fuel to the fire, as both appointees were Stalinists. Rákosi stepped down, citing his health as the reason for his “resignation”.

Incredible events began to unfold at a fast pace. Early in September, the Presidential Council pardoned 50 Social Democrats. In the middle of the month, the Writers’ Union demonstrated in support of Imre Nagy. On the same day, the Petőfi Circle resumed organizing public meetings again. On October 4th, high ranking ÁVH officers were arrested.[13] On the 6th, László Rajk’s reburial took place, with some 200,000 people attending. The Szabad Nép (the Communist newspaper) published an article on the first page titled “Never Again,” meaning that no Communist should be executed again. On the 12th, a long-time high ranking party official, Mihály Farkas, was singled out to pay for all the ills and was arrested. On the following day, Imre Nagy was reinstated into the Communist Party. Three days later, on the 16th, some 1,600 University of Szeged students reestablished the formerly banned MEFESZ, which was independent of both the Communist Party and the DISZ (Association of Communist Youth). On October 19th, all of the Soviet occupation forces in Hungary were alerted and placed in a state of readiness. The same day, the MEFESZ sent their delegates to all universities and colleges to organize and formulate their demands. On the 22nd of October, a large assembly of students from across Hungary convened at the Technical University in Budapest, where they drafted the first version of demands in 16 points. On the 23rd, the Szabad Nép featured an article on the first page, entitled: the “New Spring Parade.” These are just a few of the many breathtaking things that occurred during those heady days; the reader most certainly notes the acceleration of events which took place.

On the 23rd of October, around 11 in the morning, people demonstrated in Debrecen, a large city near the eastern Hungarian border. At 12:53 pm, Radio Kossuth in Budapest announced the ban on all demonstrations. An hour and a half later, the authorities revoked the ban. Obviously, they were quickly losing control. Around 3 pm, a large group of demonstrators congregated in front of the Statue of Petőfi, one of the most loved Hungarian poets from the 19th century. They then marched to the statue of Bem – a Polish general who fought for Hungarian independence in 1848-49 – where they showed their solidarity to the Polish people struggling under the yoke of Communism as well. Around 5:00 in the afternoon, a crowd of about 200,000 strong gathered in front of the Parliament in Kossuth Lajos Square (Kossuth was the leader of the 1848-49 Freedom Fight). By this time, people of all walks of life had joined the student protestors. Large groups of people were gathering in front of the Radio building where the students and other protestors wanted their 16-point demands to be aired. This was denied. The crowd swelled and the authorities answered by reinforcing the guards (members of the hated ÁVH). It was in Debrecen – not Budapest – where the first shots in the Hungarian Revolution were fired, around 6 pm. Three deaths were recorded and scores were wounded. As the events spiraled out of control, Gerő, the first secretary of the Communist Party, requested help from the Soviet Union. At 9 in the evening, Imre Nagy addressed the crowd in Kossuth Square from the balcony of the Parliament. However, he made the mistake of calling the demonstrators “elvtársak” (‘comrades’). This didn’t go over well at all. Jeers and boos were the response. With a newfound strength in numbers, Hungarians now wished the Communists, the Soviets, and even Nagy to return to Moscow. By the evening, it seemed that all of the citizens of Budapest were on the streets. At 9:30 pm, people tore down the statue of Stalin, one of the most ruthless tyrants ever. (According to the latest estimates, he is responsible for the loss of 40 million lives.) The first shot to be heard at the Radio Building was fired by the ÁVH around 8:30. At this time, all hell broke loose. The demonstrators now became revolutionaries. People armed themselves with weapons procured by soldiers and police; even more firearms were available from the Budapest Lámpagyár (’Lamp Factory’). It was common knowledge that the “lamp factory” was a code name and in fact it was a weapons factory, under heavy guard at all times. Yet, curiously, on the evening of the 23rd, an unarmed old man guarded the facility. (There are a number of curious events that many believe point to provocateurs working behind the scenes to create a revolt, only to crush it later. It is quite possible that the Stalinists in the Soviet NKVD and the Hungarian ÁVH had a vested interest in torpedoing the Reform Movement in order to save their own hides.) At the Radio Building the battle went on until dawn the next morning, when the rebels overtook the building.

On the morning of October 24th, I was getting ready for work at the usual time. I heard some unusual noises from outside; they sounded like gunshots. The streets were filled with people, a sight I had never seen before. I was told that a revolution was going on; no one was going to work; public transportation had been halted in the entire city. So, I walked to the nearest square, where I found a truck being loaded. The driver said he was carrying people into the city center where the fighting was still in progress. Blood and brain tissue were splattered on the floorboards of the truck. That startled me for a second, but I understood that these were serious times, revolutionary times, where some would die. I got on the truck which then dropped me off near Calvin Square in the downtown area of Budapest. I saw a dead Hungarian soldier lying on the sidewalk, an automatic weapon beside him. I picked up this gun and started to walk toward the sound of gunfire. It turned out to be the Radio Building. At that time, there was an empty lot next to the building; it was covered with dead people, civilians and soldiers alike. I would estimate they numbered over one hundred. I walked through this open lot, stepping over the bodies. It didn’t occur to me then that I could have been shot down like a rabbit. The sound of the gunshots came from the other side of the building and, when I got there, the last of the six ÁVO men who were defending the building surrendered. As this was around 10 am, they were probably hiding in the building overnight, or they came back after the revolutionaries left from the evening before. Some in the crowd wanted to execute them; others thought it should be left up to the law and they were escorted away. I don’t know what happened to them.

Finally, Soviet armored units from Székesfehérvár were ordered into Budapest. They reached the city limits around 3 or 4 am on the 24th. When the Soviet troops fired their first shot, the revolutionaries became freedom fighters because an occupying force had interfered with Hungarian internal affairs. It took some time for the Soviet leadership to realize that they had made a grave mistake. First, they didn’t recognize the deep-seated resentment and desperation of the Hungarian people. They disregarded Hungarian valor, of which there are plenty of examples in Hungarian history. They didn’t figure in Hungarian resourcefulness either. The Soviet officials mistakenly believed that once Soviet tanks appeared on the streets of Budapest and other major cities, the would-be freedom fighters would simply disappear. It happened differently.

Another surprise was awaiting the leaders of the Kremlin. A number of views have been conjectured as to what caused the fall and dismemberment of the Soviet Union. A number of good reasons could be cited; however, the most important has never been mentioned. The decline of the Soviet Union started with the occupation of Eastern Central-Europe at the end of the Second World War. That was the first time that Soviet soldiers and civilians by the millions realized that they were not living in the supreme earthly paradise their Marxist-Leninist classes had indoctrinated them to believe in. For example, occupation forces serving in Hungary became friendly with the people and had a good life, compared to the Soviet Union. When they were given the order to fire upon the people they had made friends with over the years, they found it a tough thing. Much later, stories revealed that at times, political officers held pistols to their backs in order to force them to fire their guns.

The contribution of these relatively friendly Soviet troops, however, takes nothing away from the heroism and resourcefulness of the freedom fighters. Large numbers of heavy fighter groups developed throughout Budapest without any central leadership or organization. Each one of these centers developed their own tactics, fighting with great efficiency. The Soviets, ironically, became intimately acquainted with the effectiveness of the Molotov-cocktail as Hungarian freedom fighters captured tanks, anti-tank guns, ammunitions, and many other weapons using this crude device. One of the most organized and successful fighter groups operated in the Corvin Köz area. The heaviest fighting there occurred on the 26th of October, according to their leader, Gergely Pongrátz, who was elected as Commander in Chief on the 30th. On that day, they destroyed 17 tanks.[14] After the Soviets began sending more fresh troops into Hungary – troops who were unsympathetic to the plight of the nation – they suddenly announced their withdrawal from Budapest. By the time the October 29th ceasefire was declared (a mere few days into the Revolution), the Soviets lost about 100 tanks and suffered 600 dead and many wounded. The freedom fighters also suffered heavy casualties.

The destruction was massive. Barricades and burned out tanks and buildings lay in the fighting’s wake. There were broken shop windows with valuable merchandise exposed, but no one touched it. To help families that had lost the sole breadwinner, the Hungarian Writers’ Union placed a large wooden box on one of the city’s main street corners seeking donations. No one had to guard it as it filled up with money. Materialistic considerations were not the inspiration of this fight – achieving freedom and independence for Hungary were the main goals.

Scores of other cities reported clashes with Soviet troops, and more so with the ÁVH. Debrecen, Miskolc, Kecskemét, Székesfehérvár, Esztergom, Mosonmagyaróvár, Zalaegerszeg, Nagykanizsa and others all rose up to do what they could to secure a better future.

While the fighting went on, the farmers brought food to the city. This was their contribution. International aid, mainly medicine, was also coming in by airplane. The first flight arrived from Warsaw on the 26th , exhibiting yet again the close relationship between the Poles and Hungarians that had existed over many centuries.

The battle, however, was far from over. The ÁVH still held out in several places in Budapest. One area of severest fighting took place at Köztársaság tér (‘Republic Square’) on October 30th. As already noted, The ÁVH were known for their cruelty; they thought nothing of killing even rescue team members coming to the aid of the wounded in the streets. At some point, the ÁVH-members who were defending the Party headquarters signaled their willingness to surrender by waving white flags in the windows. As the freedom fighters got closer to the entrance, sudden machine gun fire greeted them, killing scores. Consequently, the remaining ÁVH thugs captured here would find themselves on the receiving end of one of the few occasions where the crowd lost its temper and lynched some of them.

On the 30th, Hungarian soldiers and freedom fighters rescued Cardinal Mindszenty, who was arrested in 1948 on fabricated charges and had been jailed at Rétság. On the next day, a convoy of cars brought him to Budapest. People on both sides of the road lined up by the thousands as church bells rang jubilantly. In solidarity, Pope Pius XII sent a telegram to the tortured high priest.

On the evening of the 29th, Imre Nagy, acting as Prime Minister again, recommended talks be held between the Government and the freedom fighters. They commenced in the Defense Ministry building. Besides the freedom fighters, high-ranking military officers took part in the negotiations. Each group of the freedom fighters sent their delegates to these talks. From the Corvin Köz, Ödön Pongrátz (the brother of Commander Gergely Pongrátz) and Dr. Sándor Antalóczi (a young doctor who went by the name “Doki”) were present. An engineer, József Dudás, rose up to demand the removal of Stalinists from leadership positions. (Dudás was executed in January 1957). General Gyula Váradi chaired the meeting. His intention was to acquire a written and signed declaration from the freedom fighters to lay down their arms[15] because the demands of the people had already been fulfilled – so he said. Ödön Pongrátz stopped this idea in its tracks, saying that he knew of no revolution where the victors laid down their arms. The freedom fighters made it clear to the officers present that they would not do so as long as Soviet troops were on Hungarian soil. Thus, the Nagy government was forced to take up negotiations with the Soviet Union to withdraw their troops from Hungary. At a subsequent meeting,held on the 31st of October, an agreement was reached to set up a new National Guard in which the freedom fighters would be represented.

Near Corvin Köz was the Kilián military barracks whose commander was Captain Lajos Csiba. He was home on the night of 23rd , when he received a call from the barracks that the rebels were trying to break in. By the time he was able to reach the compound, the main gate was open and the revolutionaries were inside the building. They were demanding guns. At the barracks they had very few guns, so Csiba requested some from his higher ups, but they could not deliver any. Since Kossuth Radio had begun constantly airing the Government demand that the rebels lay down their arms, Csiba thought that he could capture and disarm some of them in order to bring about order. He needed their guns anyway. At this point, bad blood developed between Kilián and the freedom fighters of Corvin Köz. On the 25th, Colonel Pál Maléter, Csiba’s superior officer, showed up with five tanks. They set up one of them in front of the main gates. Csiba in his Napló (’Journal’) stated: „In the evening and night we exchanged gunfights with the rebels. At the main gate, Captain Szabó and first-lieutenant Kolmann and a soldier were wounded; we took them to the hospital.” [16] The hostility didn’t stop between the Kilián and Corvin factions until the ceasefire was announced on Kossuth Radio on the 29th in which, Csiba says, “…they called the rebels armed patriots. This was the time when we really found out that we fought against armed patriots.” [17]

October 29th was a nice fall day. I went out for a walk in Népliget, a large park within the city of Budapest. The western side of Népliget borders on Üllői Road, with the Kilián barracks on the other side. I noticed a large group of demonstrators on Üllői, marching towards downtown, and chanting “Ruszkik haza!” (‘Russians go home!’) and “Nagy Imrét a kormányba!” (‘Imre Nagy for Prime Minister!’). When we reached the Kilián, the crowd stopped. Somebody in front shouted “Maléter, the heroic defender of Kilián!” and “Maléter into the Government!” The crowd repeated the chant, including myself. It took decades by the time I realized that this demonstration was probably organized by the Communists intending to get popular support for their man. Maléter’s star was like a comet, reaching its zenith on the 3rd of November, when Nagy made him a General and the Minister of Defense. That evening, Maléter and three others – General Miklós Szűcs, General István Kovács, and a Communist politician Ferenc Erdei – left for Tököl (the Soviet military headquarters in Hungary) to finalize the details of Soviet troop withdrawals. They were all trapped and arrested.

The night before, on November 2nd, the same people and Csiba had dinner at the Kilián barracks. Pongrátz quotes General Szűcs in his Memoirs stating that Maléter made the following statement: “I’m a believer of Socialism, I didn’t shoot, and I’m unwilling to shoot, or order to shoot on the Soviet troops, because I can thank them for my life and career.” [18] Maléter was warned that the Soviets might arrest them, but these officers who were one hundred percent loyal to the Soviets and Communism, either could not, or would not imagine that possibility. What makes this whole Maléter story unique is that he has been promoted as hero of the Hungarian Revolution, when in fact he was on the Soviet side from start to finish. Even that being the case, the Communists executed Maléter along with Nagy in 1958. They were both Communists to the end, during a very difficult time; yet, both tried to save the Communist system. Nagy, for example, could have elevated Colonel András Márton to the post of Defense Minister, who not only refused an order to launch an attack against Corvin Köz with 400 officers, but he personally went to the freedom fighters to offer them any assistance they needed to carry on the fight. The execution of Nagy and Maléter by the Communists is just another example of how that system actually worked.

As is the case with most major events in history, decades pass before light can be shed on what happened behind the closed doors of the all-powerful. Telling information has recently come forward in regard to the Hungarian Revolution, especially its bloody demise.

The Hungarian Revolution broke out during a time when the American presidential and congressional campaign season had just gone into its final stretch. President Dwight D. Eisenhower insisted that Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, insert the following statement in his campaign speech delivered at Dallas, Texas on October 27th: “… the American leadership does not regard the Eastern European states potential military allies of the United States.” [19] This was the day after Hungarian freedom fighters achieved their most significant victory over Soviet forces. On October 28th, Henry Cabot Lodge, America’s ambassador to the United Nations “… quoted the relevant passages from Dulles’ speech during a session of the Security Council.”[20] Was America delivering an unmistakable message to the Soviets of her “neutrality?”

Charles Bohlen, the United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union from April 1953 to April 1957, served at a very critical time when important changes took place in Moscow. In his book Witness to History one chapter is devoted to the Hungarian Revolution. The following passage is noteworthy to explore:

Quite a few big black Zis limousines were seen entering the Kremlin on October 29th, indicating that the full Presidium was meeting or had met, and officials were being instructed on carrying out the plans. I had just received a cable from Dulles, who urgently wanted to get the message to the Soviet leaders that the United States did not look on Hungary or any of the Soviet satellites as potential military allies. The cable quoted a paragraph from Dulles speech at Dallas to that effect, and emphasized that it had been written after intensive consideration at the “highest level” – an obvious reference to President Eisenhower.” [21]

Bohlen continued:

I was able to convey the message to Khrushchev, Bulganin and Zhukov at the receptions that afternoon in honor of Turkey’s National Day and at the Afghan Embassy.” [22]

Thus, according to Bohlen, the message was delivered on the same day in the afternoon. The ambassador recalled that “the American assurance carried no weight with the Kremlin leaders. They made up their minds to crush the Revolution …” Interesting, but there is a discrepancy if one compares it to the since-released confidential minutes of the Central Committee meetings of the Soviet Communist Party.

The Soviet Central Committee most likely met on a daily basis while the fighting went on in Hungary. A very important decision was made on the night of October 30th. The following leaders were present: Bulganin, Vorosilov, Molotov, Kaganovich, Saburov, Brezhnev, Zhukov, Sepilov, Svermyk, Furtseva and Pospelov. Khrushchev joined them a little later (he was meeting with Chinese delegates opposing the pullout from Hungary).

At the beginning of the meeting, a letter was read from Hungary in which Mikoyan and Suslov informed the leaders of the situation in that country. It was getting worse by the hour, they wrote. Remarks from the minutes:

Zhukov touched on some other relating issues, then said: “Nagy is playing a double game (in Malinin’s opinion). Comrade Konev is to be sent to Budapest.”

At this point Khrushchev stepped in and informed the others of the agreement that was reached with the Chinese. They agreed to the plan of removing the troops from Hungary. Then he said): “We should adopt a declaration today on the withdrawal of troops from the countries of people’s democracy (and consider these matters at a session of the Warsaw Pact), taking account of the views of the countries in which our troops are based.”

Molotov:Today an appeal must be written to the Hungarian people so that they promptly enter into negotiations about the withdrawals of troops.”

Voroshilov:We must look ahead. Declarations must be composed so that we aren’t placed into an onerous position. We must criticize ourselves – but justly.”

Shepilov:There is no need for an appeal to the Hungarians. We support the principles of non-interference. With the agreement of the Government of Hungary, we are ready to withdraw troops.”

Zhukov:We should withdraw troops from Budapest, and if necessary withdraw from Hungary as a whole.”

Furtseva:We should adopt a general declaration, not an appeal to the Hungarians.”

Saburov, agreeing about the need for a Declaration and withdrawal of troops: “It’s impossible to lead against the will of the people.”

Khrushchev: “We are unanimous. As a first step, we will issue a Declaration.” (…) “There are two paths: a military path – one of occupation, and a peaceful one – the withdrawal of troops and negotiations.”

Molotov: “We should clarify our relationship with the new government. We are entering into negotiations about the withdrawal of troops.”

The Declaration was written in accordance with the above statements, and sent out to respective governments. It was also published in Pravda on October 31st, indicating that the Hungarian matter would be solved peacefully. At this point, it appeared that the Hungarian Revolution was victorious. But what happened? What forced the Soviet leaders to make this decision besides the success of the revolutionaries? Most likely it was the previously mentioned good relations that had developed over the years between the Soviet occupation forces and the Hungarian people. Emil Csonka in his book A forradalom oknyomozó tanúi (’Investigative witnesses of the Revolution’) writes that a number of high ranking Soviet officers worked out truces with Hungarian officials in the countryside. He cites one case from Győr where Colonel Schwarz made a radio announcement stating: “I believe that the Hungarian people have the right to rise up against their oppressive leaders.” [23] Not only did high numbers of soldiers and officers join the Hungarians in actual combat, they also supplied or sold weapons, ammunitions, and even gasoline to them. Some of that fuel was used quite successfully for Molotov-cocktails.

Returning to the cable message that Ambassador Bohlen received and delivered to the leaders of the Kremlin, the Communist leaders had already “made up their minds”, according to the ambassador. One obvious question is: why would they write a cumbersome Declaration on the following day, indicating that they were willing to negotiate and withdraw their troops from Hungary? Why would they publish it in Pravda on the 31st? Chances are low that they wrote the Declaration for sole deception; they just as effectively could have used diplomatic channels and the media for that purpose, something they had done already in previous days. Perhaps Bohlen’s recollection of the events had faded somewhat by the time he wrote his book; or perhaps he purposefully mischaracterized what actually happened. What we do know is that it is difficult to imagine that when Bohlen read the Declaration in Pravda on the morning of the 31st, he would not remember it clearly in the future. He likely found it astonishing; after all, it wasn’t an ordinary Declaration – and it certainly wasn’t an ordinary day. Bohlen, however and perhaps suspiciously, doesn’t even mention the Declaration in his book. Based on the evidence we now have at our disposal, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that Bohlen himself was the one to actually inform the State Department of the Declaration’s contents. If the Soviet leaders unanimously agreed to solve the Hungarian matter peacefully on the 30th, what prompted them a mere 18 hours later, on the 31st, to decide to crush the revolution? Would it be ludicrous to suggest that the reception at the Afghan Embassy was in the afternoon of October 31st, instead of the 29th? Or the cable itself was sent on the 31st? Could it be that the Soviet leaders received assurances from the United States that it would not intervene, delivered personally by a representative of the US? This might have in fact changed their minds as to the course they could take to solve the Hungarian situation. And why was it even necessary to send such a message?

There were other noteworthy events in those crucial days of revolution. For example, on October 31st, President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his radio and television address “assures the Soviet Union that the Unites States does not view either the new Polish or the new Hungarian leadership as potential allies.” [24]

Thus, as Molotov wants to clarify about “the relationship with the new government” of Imre Nagy, Eisenhower doesn’t see “the new Hungarian leadership as a potential ally.” This was made clear to the Soviets by Secretary of State Dulles on October 27th and reaffirmed by Ambassador Lodge on the 28th at the UN. And how about “the new Polish leadership?” On October 19th, Wladyslaw Gomulka was elected First Secretary of the Polish Communist Party. Just like Nagy, he was jailed during Stalin’s era. Gomulka was removing some of the Stalinists from his Party and was working to gain more independence from the Soviet Union. Evidently, this didn’t go over very well with President Eisenhower. Now, if it wasn’t the telegram that changed the minds of the Soviet leaders, then what was it?

Some people believe that the Suez-crisis offers a possible explanation. While this could not be completely ruled out, we have to keep in mind that the British-French-Israeli joint operation started on the 29th of October with the Israeli attack on Egypt. A few months earlier, Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal (which had been under British control), and the invaders wanted to reestablish their authority. The Soviet decision to solve the Hungarian issue through negotiations was made on the 30th. Gazing at it through this timeline, it’s very unlikely that this crisis had anything to do with the Soviet change of heart. Khrushchev even made a remark at their meeting on the 28th: “The English and French are in a real mess in Egypt. We shouldn’t get caught in the same company.” [25] Evidently he already had information of the coming attack.

One possible explanation might be found in the smoke-filled room of the almighty powerbrokers. W. Cleon Skousen in his book titled The Naked Capitalist wrote:

Dr. Dodd said she first became aware of some mysterious super-leadership right after World War II when the U.S. Communist Party had difficulty getting instructions from Moscow on several vital matters requiring immediate attention. The American Communist hierarchy was told that any time they had an emergency of this kind they should contact any one of three designated persons at the Waldorf Towers. Dr. Dodd noted that whenever the Party obtained instructions from any of these three men, Moscow always ratified them. What puzzled Dr. Dodd was the fact that not one of these three contacts was a Russian. Nor were any of them Communists. In fact, all three were extremely wealthy American capitalists.”

Dr. Bella Dodd was a former member of the National Committee of the U.S. Communist Party. Mr. Skousen served 16 years in the FBI, 4 years as Chief of Police in Salt Lake City. He was also the Editorial Director of the police magazine, Law and Order for ten years and a university professor for seven.

Could it be possible, that the above statement had something to do with the hard-to-explain statements and decisions of President Eisenhower at a time when the two superpowers were supposedly archenemies? Shouldn’t have America taken advantage of what the Hungarian Revolution presented? Apparently not.

Yet, there is another aspect of the actions and attitudes of the United States in regard to the Hungarian revolution. At one of his news conferences, Eisenhower made another interesting statement: “The United States does not now and never has advocated open rebellion by an undefended populace against force over which they could not possibly prevail.”

Oh really? Not advocate open rebellion? Doesn’t this sound like Pontius Pilate two thousand years ago?

Two American reporters, Ted Koppel and Peter Jennings of the American Broadcasting Corporation put together a presentation in 1985 on the Cold War – a sort of situation analysis of the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Among the many issues they explored, they touched upon the East-German, Polish and Hungarian revolutions. They interviewed Richard M. Nixon (Vice President at the time of the Hungarian revolution) who said in 1985:

It was a tragedy and a tragedy to which we contributed. We contributed to it because some of our programs that were carried on radio in Hungary called for the Hungarian people to rise up. I think many of them got the impression that we would come to their assistance. It was a terribly difficult decision for Eisenhower not to do so. But he looked at the situation and the situation was that the Soviet Union had overwhelming conventional superiority in the area. So what is our answer to Hungary, to bomb Moscow? Eisenhower had to make a decision and thought that it would not be credible to threaten to do so.”

On the 31st of October, the Soviet Central Committee convened again. Khrushchev announced an abrupt change in plans. Saburov alone held out for the peaceful solution they’d earlier all agreed to. Marshall Zhukov ordered his armies and 2,000 tanks to cross the Hungarian border. These were fresh forces, many of them transferred from Siberia and Mongolia, and some of them were apparently told that they were at Suez. By the nightfall of November 3rd, they surrounded Budapest and all the airports and major strategic points in the country. A day earlier, on November 2nd, the State Department sent another cable to Tito, the Yugoslav dictator. It read in part: “The government of the Unites States does not look with favor upon governments unfriendly to the Soviet Union on the border of the Soviet Union.” [26] Could it be that the United States wanted to offer assurances to the Soviets that the first cable on October 29th (or on the 31st) wasn’t a mistake? On November 4th, early Sunday morning, the sound of heavy artillery awakened the citizens of Budapest. Fierce fighting went on for 4-5 days, and eventually the revolution was crushed. The number of people killed in action is estimated officially at around 2,600, but it is probably much higher than that. Soviet losses were heavy as well.

In the fallout, János Kádár was installed by the Soviets as the all-powerful first secretary; he remained in that post until 1988. Interestingly enough, he himself was jailed and tortured under Stalin. Yet, under his rule similarly heavy punishments were handed out. The exact number of victims executed or imprisoned is not known to this day. The system made sure these people disappeared without a trace. According to the best estimates available, at least 356 were executed, 341 of these confirmed. Teenagers who fought in the revolution were executed on their 18th birthday, the last ones meeting their fate in the summer of 1961. Charges were raised against 35,000 people; 26,000 of them were litigated of which 22,000 were sentenced. In addition, 13,000 were interned into forced labor camps. 200,000 people escaped to the West during the months following the revolution. In total, it was a huge loss for the nation of 9.5 million people. The reform movement was also broken, never to return in its original form.

In memory of the freedom fighters, and the “pesti srácok” (’the boys of Budapest’) as they became immortalized by collective memory, we bow our heads with respect, sorrow and pride. They wrote their name into Hungarian history with their own blood.


Oak Forest, February 2006.



Békés, Csaba – Byrne, Malcolm – Rainer, János M. (eds.) The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents. Central European University Press, Budapest-New York, 2002.

Bohlen, Charles E. Witness to History: 1929-1969. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.,. New York, 1973.

Csiba, Lajos. Napló. In: Szivárvány 1989. szeptember.

Csonka, Emil. A forradalom oknyomozó története: 1945-1956. Veritas, München, 1981

Görbedi, Miklós. Szögesdrótok mögött a Sajó völgyében. Magyar Ciszterci Diákok Szövetségének Egri Osztálya, Eger

Pongrátz, Gergely. Corvin köz 1956. A szerző kiadása. 1982–1992.

Skousen, W. Cleon. The Naked Capitalist. Salt Lake City, 1970.

Szalay, Róbert. 1956 A forradalom igaz története. Budapest, 1999.

Szűcs, László. 1956 A debreceni cívis városban. Budapest, 2005.

XXX ed. A magyar forradalom és szabadságharc a hazai rádióadások tükrében. Free Europe Press, New York, 1957



[1] Szögesdrótok mögött a Sajó völgyében. Page 14.

[2] Szögesdrótok mögött a Sajó völgyében. Page 73.

[3] A History in Documents. Page 15.

[4] A History in Documents. Page 17.

[5] A History in Documents. Page 19.

[6] A History in Documents. Page 19.

[7] A History in Documents. Page 16.

[8] A History in Documents. Page 62.

[9] Witness to History. Page 367.

[10] A forradalom oknyomozó története. Page 367.

[11] A History in Documents. Page XXXV.

[12] A forradalom oknyomozó története. Page 383.

[13] A History in Documents. Page XXXVI.

[14] Corvin köz 1956. Page 74.

[15] Corvin köz 1956. Page 114.

[16] Szivárvány. Page 66.

[17] Szivárvány. Page 70.

[18] Corvin köz. Page 263.

[19] History in Documents. Page XXXIX.

[20] History in Documents. Page 209.

[21] Witness to History. Pages 412-423.

[22] History in Documents. Page 413.

[23] A forradalom oknyomozó története. Page 417.

[24] History in Documents. Page XLI.

[25] History in Documents. Page 268.

[26] (46) Congressional Records, Volume 106, Part 14, Eighty-sixth Congress, Second Session, 31 August, 1960. 18785.

Source: magtudin.org


Editor's notes:

 Ilona Tóth, Hungarian medical intern, tended selflessly to the wounded, whether street fighter or communist, Hungarian or Russian. She was hanged on June 28 1957 at age 24 for her role in the fight for freedom. The communist vengeance-orgy that followed the 1956 uprising targeted especially the innocent and the virtuous.

In light of the viciousness of the atrocities committed by the communist regime during and after the 1956 uprising, it should be pointed out that neither the communist dictator, Rákosi (originally Rosenfeld or Rosenkrantz), "the most ruthless to be found in any Soviet satellite country," nor the most powerful man in Hungary as first secretary of its ruling communist party, Gerő (originally, Singer) were Magyars (ethnic Hungarians) - nor were any of their prominent accomplices or successors. Their origins are stated as:

Rákosi: "was born into a Jewish family," the son of József Rosenfeld and Cecília Léderer (wikipedia.org). "Rákosi was born as Mátyás Rosenkrantz in Serbia, the son of middle-class Jewish parents" (encyclopedia.com). "Mátyás Rákosi (1948-1954) included a large number of atheist ethnic Jews in prominent and influential decision-making positions" (search.com, History of the Jews in Hungary).

Gerő: "Gerő" was born in Terbegec, Hungary (now Trebuąovce, Slovakia) to Jewish parents... born Ernő Singer" (wikipedia.org). "Ernő Singer, dit Ernő Gerő" (larousse.com)

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