Hungary, 1956 – Soviet tanks in Budapest

Image: Timi Keszthelyi
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By RONALD LEÓN NÚÑEZ*

The “thaw” that began with the XNUMXth Congress of the CPSU showed, in a few months, that it would not turn into a spring

A workers' and popular revolution shook the Stalinist bureaucratic regime in Hungary between October 23 and November 10, 1956. It was a broader and deeper process than the general strike in East Berlin three years earlier. However, she suffered the same fate. The Hungarian political revolution would be crushed by the Red Army, but not without leaving a lasting example of militancy that would inspire future anti-bureaucratic processes in Eastern Europe.

Two important precedents. In February 1956, the XNUMXth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was held, at which Nikita Khrushchev denounced “Stalin's crimes” in a partial and hypocritical manner, given that he himself had participated in them. He also announced reforms in the state and the party. The maneuver of Stalin's successors consisted of installing the idea that the deficiencies of the Soviet regime were reduced to the “personality cult” of the former supreme leader.

The so-called secret speech promised a “de-Stalinization” of Soviet society, a purpose that would be widely used as justification for successive purges in the bureaucracy itself, in crisis since Stalin's death. This rhetoric, moreover, responded to the pressures of growing discontent among the masses in the sphere of influence of the former USSR.

In fact, the announced changes soon turned out to be cosmetic. No faction of the bureaucracy intended to democratize the Stalinist apparatus. Doing so would imply social suicide. However, the political earthquake caused by the XNUMXth Congress of the CPSU caused sectors of the communist parties in Eastern Europe, but mainly the people of the Soviet bloc countries, to conceive of its outcome as the possibility of a real opening.

The masses in these countries perceived, at the very least, a fissure that could be exploited. However, when they moved to expand it, channeling their legitimate material and democratic aspirations, the so-called “de-Stalinization” announced in Moscow exposed their falsehood. The response was the same as Stalin would have given: slander, persecution and merciless repression.

Posnania: “we demand bread and freedom”

The first sign of this was in the Polish city of Poznania, the second immediate antecedent of the Hungarian revolution. Between June 28 and 30, 1956, more than 100 workers at the Cegielski factory went on strike for better working and living conditions. The protest was repressed by the action of more than 10 soldiers and 400 tanks from the Polish army, commanded by Russian officers. The result was 57 dead, around 600 injured and hundreds of opposition members arrested.

Although Stalinist propaganda accused the protesters of being “anti-communists” or “counter-revolutionary and imperialist agents provocateurs”, the truth is that the strikers were singing the International as they paraded with banners that read “We demand bread and freedom”. After the repression in Poznania, aware that there was a democratic awakening and a movement towards national self-determination underway, the dictatorship of the Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR) decided to increase wages by 50% and promised political changes.

However, popular discontent had not been suppressed. In the Polish case, to Stalin's death must be added that of the party's then general secretary, Boleslaw Bierut, known as the “Stalin of Poland”. The crisis of the hard-line wing of Polish Stalinism deepened to the point that the apparatus itself rehabilitated a “moderate” leader, Wladyslaw Gomulka, to take over the government. Moscow threatened to invade the country.

A new wave of popular protests broke out. Khrushchev himself went to Poland to prevent the rise of Wladyslaw Gomulka. But, he had the support of the Polish army and enjoyed credibility among the people. After tense negotiations and full assurances that Wladyslaw Gomulka and his followers were not a serious threat to the Russian government and did not defy the Warsaw Pact, the Kremlin gave in to the changes. Wladyslaw Gomulka won the arm wrestling match, skillfully capitalizing on popular anger against Moscow. Polish bureaucrats gained greater autonomy in internal affairs.

On October 24, 1956, before a large demonstration in Warsaw, Wladyslaw Gomulka called for an end to the demonstrations and promised a “new path to socialism”, a kind of “Polish national communism”.

Moscow did not invade Poland because it was able to control the unrest through the local bureaucracy. Thus, the Russians avoided confronting Poland and Hungary simultaneously, opting instead for military suppression of the Hungarian revolution, which had broken out on October 23. The political revolution in Poland would resume in 1970-71.

The Hungarian revolution

The Polish process was closely followed in Hungary, where a terrible Stalinist dictatorship also reigned. The working class had no voice in political and economic decisions, controlled by the leadership of the Hungarian Workers' Party (MDP, by its acronyms in Hungarian),[I] which, in turn, was under the tutelage of Moscow.

In this one-party regime, without the right for the working class to form parties or unions independent of the government, the political police, called the State Protection Authority (ÁVH), were little less than omnipotent.

The absence of democratic freedoms was combined with a hateful national oppression, expressed, above all, in a terrible plunder of national wealth in favor of the Soviet bureaucracy. After the end of World War II, the victors imposed the payment of 300 million dollars over six years in war reparations to the USSR, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.[ii] The Kremlin was penalizing the Hungarian people for the alliance that their bourgeoisie had made with Nazism. The Hungarian National Bank estimated in 1946 that the cost of repairs consumed between 19 and 22% of annual national income. By 1956, hyperinflation, shortages, and rationing had become intolerable. Popular patience was running out.

The concessions obtained by the Poles encouraged the Hungarian people to fight. Even before Khrushchev's speech, there were signs of intellectual dissent within the ruling party itself. The best known was the Petöfi Circle, named after the national poet Sándor Petöfi, a symbol of the 1848 bourgeois revolution against the Habsburg dynasty. This group of intellectuals published a series of critical articles starting in 1955.

The political crisis worsened. On 18 July 1956, the Soviet Politburo demanded the resignation of Mátyás Rákosi as general secretary of the party. Mátyás Rákosi, who described himself as “Stalin’s best Hungarian disciple”, had held the position since 1948. His fall highlighted the regime’s weakness. He was succeeded by Erno Gerö, nicknamed the “Butcher of Barcelona” because of his efficient involvement in the repression of the POUM and the murder of Andreu Nin during the Spanish Revolution. However, this measure did not calm things down. In a few months, his government would be overrun by events.

On October 22, a university assembly approved a list of sixteen political demands.[iii] The first read: “We demand the immediate withdrawal of all Soviet troops…”. The second point required the election, by secret ballot, of a new leadership for the communist party at all levels. Point three demanded the formation of a government “under the leadership of Comrade Imre Nagy”, the only party leader with relative credibility.

They added: “All criminal leaders of the Stalin-Rákosi era must be deposed immediately.” The other demands ranged from the right to strike, freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, free radio, minimum wage for workers, etc. The student movement also announced its support for a solidarity march with “the Polish libertarian movement”, called for the following day. The leaflet ended with an appeal: “Factory workers are invited to participate in the demonstration.”[iv]

On October 23, around 200 people marched to the Parliament building. Students and workers shouted: “Russians out! Rákosi, to the Danube! Imre Nagy, for the government! All Hungarians, with us!”

Erno Gerö issued a proclamation in which he called the protesters reactionaries and chauvinists. This provoked the anger of the crowd, who toppled a ten-meter-high statue of Stalin. One part marched towards Radio Budapest, which was heavily protected by ÁVH. When a delegation attempted to enter to convey their proclamations, the political police opened fire. People were killed. Angry protesters set fire to police cars and raided weapons depots. Instead of repressing, some Hungarian soldiers showed solidarity with the protest. The revolution began.

That same night, Russian soldiers and T-34 tanks invaded Budapest. There was shooting in the city. On October 24, workers declared a general strike. More units of the Hungarian army went over to the side of the revolutionaries. The rebellion took over the country within hours.

Erno Gerö and the then Prime Minister, András Hegedüs, fled to the Soviet Union, but not before signing a request for “assistance” to Soviet troops. János Kádár assumed the position of general secretary of the party and appointed Imre Nagy, a leader of the wing considered reformist, to the position of prime minister.

Without wasting time, Imre Nagy tried to demobilize the people. He promised to negotiate the withdrawal of Soviet troops if order was restored. Too late. The revolution was underway. The first workers' councils and militias emerged, with delegates elected in factories, universities and army units. In the factories, there were discussions about the internal democracy of the communist party. Despite their military superiority, the invaders suffered heavy casualties. The Hungarians, resorting to urban guerrilla tactics, disabled dozens of Soviet tanks.

On October 27, a new government was formed under the leadership of Imre Nagy, which included philosopher Georg Lukács as Minister of Culture and two non-communist ministers. In the heat of events, the first independent newspapers emerged and some political parties were legalized.

With these concessions, the government tried to appease the masses, make the movement retreat and negotiate with the Russians. Following an agreement with the Kremlin, Imre Nagy announced the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops from Budapest and the dissolution of the ÁVH. By October 30, most Soviet units had left for their barracks outside the capital. There was jubilation in the streets. Apparently the Russians were leaving Hungary for good.

The feeling of victory strengthened the movement. Workers' councils multiplied. In some municipalities, they took on the tasks of a parallel government. There were plans to elect a National Council. The political revolution was generating embryos of dual power.

The action of the masses seemed unstoppable. Pierre Broué records the testimony of Gyula Hajdu, a 74-year-old communist activist, who made public his indignation with the bureaucracy: “How could the communist leaders know what was happening? They never mix with the workers and the common people, you don't find them on the buses because they all have cars, you don't find them in the shops or in the market because they have their special shops, you don't find them in the hospitals because they have sanatoriums for them.”[v]

The anti-bureaucratic political revolution, like its predecessors, also took on the content of a national liberation revolution. The fight against national oppression carried out by the Russians, at the time personified by the Stalinist regime, was one of the most powerful social drivers in Hungary. It was not a “chauvinist” and “fascist” process, as Stalinism preached, in the same way that the Ukrainian resistance presents it today, but the cry of an oppressed nation.

The Stalinist apparatus claimed to be facing a counter-revolution with the aim of restoring capitalism and handing the country over to NATO. This is completely false. None of the main demands of the students, workers and the Hungarian people in general questioned the nationalized economy. The revolution aimed to democratize the party and the state. Its objective was to assert the right to national self-determination, starting with the expulsion of Russian occupation troops. So much so that, for this task, the majority trusted Imre Nagy and a wing of the communist party itself.

During the interregnum in which Russian troops were outside Budapest, crowds invaded the headquarters of the ruling party, burned USSR flags, and lynched members of the political police, not necessarily out of “hatred of communism”, but out of repulsion towards Stalinism and its local agents. .

The Hungarian government was in a difficult situation. He proved unable to restore order. On November 1, Imre Nagy announced Hungarian neutrality and a possible withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. The Kremlin decided to launch a second and final offensive to suppress the revolution.

On the night of November 3, Operation Whirlwind began, commanded by Marshal Ivan Konev. The Russians invaded Budapest from several locations, through air strikes, artillery, and the combined action of tanks and infantry from 17 divisions. Around 30 soldiers and 1.130 armored vehicles entered the capital, shooting at everything that moved. Hungarian resistance was concentrated in industrial areas, which were incessantly attacked by Soviet artillery. The revolution ended crushed on November 10th. More than 2.500 Hungarians were killed and almost 13 were injured. The Russians lost more than 700 soldiers and hundreds of tanks, a testament to the fighting spirit of the revolutionaries.

On that date, a new government took office under the leadership of János Kádár. He was completely subservient to Moscow and remained in power until 1988. The persecution was relentless. An orgy of political revenge was unleashed. Around 20 thousand people were arrested, many of them sent to gulag Siberians. Many were summarily executed. Imre Nagy himself was shot in 1958. It is estimated that 200 Hungarians left the country to escape repression. Once again, the central Stalinist apparatus managed to stifle an attempt at political revolution.

The Hungarian workers' councils were the most advanced point of the revolution. However, these bodies were unable to develop a strategy independent of all wings of the bureaucracy – the trust of a large part in the figure of Imre Nagy proved fatal –, which aimed to achieve a regime of workers' democracy without altering the economic base. capitalist. The Hungarian revolution confirmed that the idea of ​​peacefully reforming Stalinist states and parties “from the inside out” was a reactionary utopia.

The sociopolitical dynamics of that autumn of 1956 showed not only the barbarity driven by Moscow, but also the non-revolutionary character of the so-called Polish and Hungarian “reformers”. The course of the revolution proved that no sectors committed to a genuine political revolution emerged from the depths of the bureaucracy.

The “thaw” that began with the XNUMXth Congress of the CPSU showed, in a few months, that it would not turn into a spring. The repression in Hungary deepened the crisis within communist parties around the world.

However, the Eastern European masses were not defeated. The totalitarian regime, unbearable national oppression, scarcity and national oppression would lead to new political revolutions in the countries of the old Soviet bloc. The next attack would be on Czechoslovakia, in the iconic year 1968.

*Ronald Leon Nunez he holds a doctorate in history from USP. Author, among other books, of The War against Paraguay under debate (sundermann).

Translation: Marcos Margarido.


[I] In the course of the revolution, the party was reorganized under the name of the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party (MSZMP), which it maintained until its dissolution on October 7, 1989.

[ii] Search: https://web.archive.org/web/20060409202246/http://yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/wwii/hungary.htm#art12

[iii] The demands were drawn up by a section of students from MEFESZ (Students' Union of Hungarian Universities and Academies). The meeting was held at the University of Construction Technology.

[iv] Search: https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demandas_de_los_revolucionarios_h%C3%BAngaros_de_1956.

[v] FRYER, Peter; BROUÉ, Pierre; BALASZ, Nagy. Hungary of 56: revolutions working against Stalinism. Buenos Aires: Ediciones del IPS, 2006, p. 106


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