Yesterday Budapest marked the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Hungarian Revolution. History is repeating itself as police used tear gas and rubber bullets to quell protesters against the current government who disrupted anniversary celebrations. Demonstrators have been on the streets for the last month protesting against Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany after he admitted lying to win re-election. Veterans of the 1956 uprising refused to shake hands with him at Monday's commemoration and the main opposition party said it was boycotting events where he was due to speak. By the end of the day it was difficult to tell whether marchers were celebrating the anniversary of the revolution or protesting against the government.
The events of the fortnight following 23 October 1953 were astonishing. It was the first major challenge to Soviet military power since the violence that ended World War II. What began as a student demonstration turned into a full scale revolution. It was eventually destroyed by the might of the Soviet Red Army. The revolution was a wildfire that quickly engulfed the country. It caused the fall of the central government in Budapest for two weeks before the Russians intervened to crush the rebellion.
Hungary fought on the side of Germany during the War. Its Second Army was annihilated at Stalingrad and Hungary looked to make peace with the Soviets. As a result Hitler ordered Nazi troops to occupy Hungary and forced its government to increase its contribution to the war effort. When the Soviets invaded Hungary in 1944, they quickly signed an armistice which was repudiated by Germany. The country became a battlefield and the last Nazi troops did not leave Hungary until April 1945. Even before the war had ended, Churchill had agreed with Stalin the Soviet Union would enjoy 80 percent influence in Hungary, with Britain retaining the rest. Communists were part of a provisional government that took power after the war.
In November 1945, the non-communist Independent Smallholders' Party won power in an election. The communists used what one of their own leaders called “salami tactics” to gradually increase power by discrediting and arresting opponents. The Communist leader Rakosi took control of the police and set up a secret unit called the AVH. The Smallholders party was slowly marginalised and eventually made illegal. In 1947 relations between the Soviets and the West deteriorated markedly. Stalin pushed for the creation of a Soviet state in Hungary and the Communists quickly took control. In 1949 the regime held a single-list election, and later that year the government ratified a Soviet-style constitution. The Hungarian economy was reorganised according to the Soviet model. But it was performing dismally. Stalin’s death led to a new breed of leaders including Imre Nagy. Nagy freed political prisoners and ended the forced collectivisation of Hungarian agriculture. Hardline Communists regained control in 1955 and Nagy was forced to step down. But Nagy still had much support in the community. Hungarians were resentful that much of the food and industrial goods they produced were sent to Russia while the local population starved.
On 23 October 1956, students in Budapest held a rally in support of Polish efforts to win autonomy from the Soviet Union. It sparked mass demonstrations of 200,000 people. The police attacked, and the demonstrators fought back tearing down Soviet symbols. Alarmed, the Communist leaders called out the Hungarian army, but many soldiers handed their weapons to the demonstrators and joined the uprising instead. The following day, Soviet troops entered Budapest. This further enraged the Hungarians and the day saw many pitched battles with troops and state security police. The extremely popular Nagy was named Prime Minister on 25 October. He brought non-Communists into the government. He dissolved the hated AVH secret police and promised free elections. For most of the next 12 days, Hungarians fought the Soviets in ferocious street battles. The Soviet ambassador Yuri Andropov (who led the USSR briefly before his death in 1984) publicly agreed to remove their forces from Hungary but they secretly sent new armoured divisions instead.
When Nagy found out the double-cross, he was enraged. He immediately withdrew Hungary from the Warsaw Pact and called on the West to support it as a neutral nation. But the west was otherwise engaged in the Suez Crisis. The Israelis had invaded Sinai, and a day later, the British and French had bombed Egypt, hoping to force the country to reopen the recently nationalised Suez Canal. President Eisenhower kept the US out of the Suez issue and was also sympathetic to the freedom movements in Eastern Europe. But he was not prepared to go to war to save Hungary. The US secretly told the Soviets that Hungary was in their sphere of influence and would not protest if the Soviets ended the revolution.
The Soviet response was devastating. On 3 November Red Army troops bolstered by regiments from Eastern Asia surrounded Budapest and closed the country's borders. The Asian troops could speak no European languages and were told they were going to Berlin to fight German fascists. Overnight they entered the capital and occupied the parliament building. They easily overpowered the poorly armed local forces. Nagy fled to the Yugoslav embassy as the Hungarian Communists announced on state radio that they had regained control. The head of the Hungarian Catholic Church, the remarkable Cardinal Mindszenty (recently released after being had been imprisoned for 8 years after the war) sought refuge in the US embassy. He was to live there for the next 15 years until the Hungarian government let him leave the country. Meanwhile 200,000 Hungarians fled across to Austria before being re-settled in the West.
Over the next five years, Hungary executed 2,000 rebels and imprisoned another 25,000. Nagy was arrested and apparently deported. However two years later, Hungary admitted he was secretly tried and executed. A bitter Hungarian joke of the time expresses local sentiment:
Two men meet on the street after the revolution.
First man: you know, come to think of it, we Hungarians are very lucky people
Second man: What? You don’t mean you’ve become one of them?
First man: Oh no, but just think. The Russians came here as friends. Imagine what they’d have done if they came as enemies.