THE HUNGARIAN REVOLUTION, 1956
After Stalin’s death in 1953, the rigid political controls in Hungary were relaxed. Some patriotic reformers were willing to grant greater freedom to the spirit of nationalism and individual enterprise stirring among the people. In 1956, the year of Khrushchev’s attack on Stalin, the Hungarian yearning for escape from Soviet domination exploded. On October 23 a student demonstration in Budapest provided the spark. Throughout the country, communist officials were ousted and the Soviet troops forced to withdraw. A coalition government was formed to restore Hungary’s independence; it even appeared that the country would withdraw from the newly formed Warsaw Pact controlled by Moscow. In Budapest especially, the popular excitement over the country’s liberation from the Soviet yoke knew no bounds, as is described in the eyewitness account that follows. The author, Andor Heller, was a Hungarian news photographer. He fled to Western Europe with photographs of the invasion and published them in his book No More Comrades (1957).
Depression followed the anger caused by the Soviet counterattack that killed thousands of people and drove 200,000 into exile.
I saw freedom rise from the ashes of Communism in Hungary: a freedom that flickered and then blazed before it was beaten down—but not extinguished—by masses of Russian tanks and troops.
I saw young students, who had known nothing but a life under Communist and Russian control, die for a freedom about which they had only heard from others or from their own hearts.
I saw workers, who had been pushed to the limit of endurance by their hopeless existence under Communism, lay down their tools and take up arms in a desperate bid to win back freedom for our country.
I saw a girl of fourteen blow up a Russian tank and grandmothers walk up to Russian cannons.
I watched a whole nation—old and young, men and women, artists and engineers and doctors, clerks and peasants and factory workers—become heroes overnight as they rose up in history’s first successful revolt against Communism.
Tuesday, October 23, 1956
No Hungarian will forget this day….
In spite of the cold and fog, students are on the streets early in the morning, marching and singing. No one shows up for classes at the universities. After a decade of Communist control over our country, we are going to show our feelings spontaneously, in our own way—something never allowed under Communist rules.
The students carry signs with slogans that until now we have never dared express except to members of our own family—and not in every family. The slogans read:
RUSSIANS GO HOME!
LET HUNGARY BE INDEPENDENT!
BRING RAKOSI TO JUSTICE!
WE WANT A NEW LEADERSHIP!
SOLIDARITY WITH THE POLISH PEOPLE!
WE TRUST IMRE NAGY—BRING IMRE
NAGY INTO THE GOVERNMENT!
The walls of Budapest are plastered with leaflets put up by the students during the night. They list the fourteen demands adopted at the stormy meetings held at the universities:
1. Withdrawal of all Soviet troops from Hungary.
2. Complete economic and political equality with the Soviet Union, with no interference in Hungary’s internal affairs.
3. Publication of Hungary’s trade agreements, and a public report on Hungary’s reparations payments to the U.S.S.R.
4. Information on Hungary’s uranium resources, their exploitation, and the concessions given to the U.S.S.R.
5. The calling of a Hungarian Communist Party congress to elect a new leadership.
6. Reorganization of the government, with Imre Nagy as Premier.
7. A public trial of Mihaly Farkas and Matyas Rakosi.
8. A secret general multi-party election.
9. The reorganization of Hungary’s economy on the basis of her actual resources.
10. Revision of the workers’ output quotas, and recognition of the right to strike.
11. Revision of the system of compulsory agricultural quotas.
12. Equal rights for individual farmers and cooperative members.
13. Restoration of Hungary’s traditional national emblem and the traditional Hungarian army uniforms.
14. Destruction of the giant statue of Stalin.
During the morning a radio announcement from the Ministry of Interior bans all public meetings and demonstrations “until further notice,” and word is sent to the universities that the student demonstrations cannot be held. At that moment the students decide that the will to freedom is greater than the fear of the A.V.H.—the Russian-controlled Hungarian secret police. The meeting will be held!
At 3 P.M. there are 25,000 of us at the Petofi Monument. We weep as Imre Sinkovits, a young actor, declaims the Nemzeti Dal (“National Song”), Sandor Petofi’s [a great Hungarian poet and revolutionary hero in the anti-Austrian rebellion of 1848—1849] ode to Hungary and our 1848 “freedom revolution.” With tears in our eyes, we repeat the refrain
“We swear, we swear, we will no longer remain slaves.”
The student voices are tense with feeling. No policeman or Communist official is in sight. The young people are keeping order on their own.
[W]e have swelled to some 60,000. Someone grabs a Hungarian flag and cuts out the hated hammer and sickle that the Communists had placed at its center.
One after another of the purified Hungarian flags appear. Suddenly someone remembers to put the old Kossuth [Lajos Kossuth was the leader of the Hungarian uprising of 1848— 1849) coat-of-arms on the flag, in place of the Communist emblem.
We have created a new flag of freedom!
Meantime we all sing the. . . Appeal to the Nation, and the Hungarian National Hymn that begins “God Bless the Magyar”—both of which had been banned under the Communist rule.
We cannot get enough. The actor Ferenc Bessenyei recites the National Song again, and follows once more with Appeal to the Nation. Peter Veres, the head of the Hungarian Writers’ Federation, leaps to the top of a car equipped with a loudspeaker. He reads the Hungarian writers’ demands for more freedom—many of them the same as those in the fourteen points of the students.
The day is ending. We begin to march toward the Parliament Building. The crowds are peaceful, marching in orderly lines. We carry the new Hungarian flag.
As we march we are joined by workers leav ing their jobs. By the time we arrive in Kossuth Lajos Square there are at least 150,000 of us, in front of the Parliament Building. On the square, the traffic stops.
Suddenly everyone makes torches of newspapers, and lights them. It is a marvelous spectacle—ten thousand torches burning in the Square before the Parliament Building.
But finally, Imre Nagy appears on the balcony. “Comrades!” he begins, but the crowd interrupts him with a roar: “There are no more comrades! We are all Hungarians!”
The crowd grows still bigger, and we head for the Stalin statue. Now the demonstration has spread so large that it is going on simultaneously in three places: at the Parliament Building; in Stalin Square, where the crowd is trying to pull down the huge Stalin statue with tractors and ropes; and at the building of Radio Budapest, where part of the crowd has gone to demand the right of patriots to be heard over the air.
I go with the group that heads for Stalin Square. Some of the workers have got hold of acetylene torches. They and the students are trying to cut down the dictator’s twenty-five-foot metal figure. At the edge of the crowd the first Russian tanks appear, but at the moment they are only onlookers. The crowd pulls hard at the cables that have been attached to the Stalin statue. It leans forward, but is still held by its boots—a symbol, we feel. The cables are now being pulled by tractors, and the men with the torches work feverishly. The statue, though still in one piece, begins to bend at the knees. The crowds burst into cheers.
[W]e watch the Stalin statue cut off at the knees, fall to the ground with a thunderous crash.
Suddenly shooting breaks out from all sides. The security police—the A.V.H.—are firing into the crowds. In minutes the streets are strewn with the dying and wounded. News of the A.V.H. attack spreads. All over Budapest the workers and students are battling the hated A.V.H.
The peaceful demonstrations of the youth and the youth and the workers have been by the Communist guns into a revolution for national freedom.
For four days—from October 31 to November 3, 1956—Hungary was free. Although the Russian forces were still in our country, they had withdrawn from the cities and the fighting had stopped. The whole nation recognized the Imre Nagy government, which, knowing it had no other alternative, was ready to carry out the will of the people.
On November 3, Radio Free Kossuth summed up: “The over-whelming weight of Hungarian public opinion sees the result of the revolution as the establishment of a neutral, independent and democratic country, and just as it was ready to sweep out Stalinist tyranny, so it will protect with the same determination and firmness its regained democratic achievement.”...
In those four days of freedom, political liberty came quickly to life.
Before October 23 there had been only five newspapers in Budapest, all under complete Communist control. On November 4 there were twenty-five. Neither news nor opinions could be suppressed any longer.
Plans for a free general election were speeded.
Religious freedom, like political freedom, came back to strong life in those four days….
In the countryside, the peasants and their spokesmen were mapping the changes of the farm laws and regulations. All were agreed on the goal of a free farm economy based on the individual working farmers and peasants. Peasants would be free to join or leave the farm collectives. If the collectives were dissolved, the land, tools and stock were to be distributed to the individual peasants. Compulsory deliveries at government fixed prices were abolished.
The factory committees and workers’ groups were putting forward the needs and demands of the workers, not the government. The right to strike—a criminal act under the Communists—was upheld. Wages, prices, pension rights, working conditions were eagerly discussed and debated.
The economy was slowly getting on its feet. Everyone wanted to be on the streets together....
Return of the Russians
At dawn on November 4, 1956, Soviet Russia attacked Hungary with 6,000 tanks, thousands of guns and armored cars, squadrons of light bombers, 200,000 soldiers—and a tidal wave of lies.