On October 23rd 1956, thousands of Hungarian workers and students flooded the streets of Budapest. With fists raised in defiance, they shouted for “Freedom from Soviet tyranny!” The students issued a declaration in Parliament Square called the Sixteen Points. It included demands for personal freedom, economic reform, eliminating the hated secret police, withdrawing Soviet troops, and removing Communist leader Mátyás Rákosi.
Rákosi, appointed by Josef Stalin himself, had presided over a decade-long, oppressive regime that finally brought resentment to a boiling point. When crowds of unarmed civilians were gunned down by security forces 2 days later, the Rebellion became a Revolution between ragtag armed rebels and Soviet troops.
What began as peaceful demonstrations in Budapest quickly escalated into an armed resistance across all of Hungary.
Protestors tore down a statue of Stalin in Heroes’ Square, dragged its metal carcass through the city before decapitating it for all to see. Soviet red star flags were ripped down from government buildings. Russian stores were painted with slogans “Ruszkik Haza!” (Russians, Go Home!).
The Soviet emblem, cut from the center of the Hungarian tricolor flag, became the new revolutionary banner. Communists leaders were arrested and publicly beaten. Although many condemned the violence, reprisals continued. Communist henchmen suddenly reaped the wrath they had brutally sowed for over a decade.
Poorly armed but fearless fighters, carrying only rifles and Molotov cocktails, proved surprisingly effective at knocking out Soviet tanks. Young men and women with no military training managed to outmaneuver the Russian Red Army. Most of the Hungarian military, siding with the rebels, did nothing.
Radio Free Europe urged the rebels to continue the fight, raising Hungarian’s hopes that Western aid was imminent.
In response, the Communist Party sacked Rákosi. They appointed the more reform-minded Imre Nagy as the new leader, a politician who’d been dismissed for his open criticisms of Stalin. The Kremlin felt it was the simplest way to appease the Hungarian “hooligans.”
It was an offer Nagy reluctantly accepted, hoping at best to steer the uprising towards a peaceful end. He failed at first to connect with the shouting crowds – thousands massed in front of the Parliament. But over the course of a week, Nagy underwent a remarkable transformation into a leader willing to sanction unprecedented and daring reforms.
Nagy restored peace by asking the Soviets to withdraw their troops from Hungary. Thousands of Russian troops had been stationed in Hungary since 1945. As another gesture of appeasement, the Kremlin agreed and Red Army pulled out. But Nagy pushed the revolt even further,
He abolished one-party Communist rule, allowing for a new multi-party state!
For a few weeks, it seemed like the rebels might actually pull this off. After a ceasefire was declared on October 28, the atmosphere in Budapest was euphoric as Soviet forces continued to withdraw. Images of triumphant rebels posing for pictures atop burnt tanks stunned the world.
On October 31, Pravda published a Kremlin declaration promising greater equality between the USSR and Hungary. The crisis seemed on the verge of being resolved in a way no-one in the world had dared to dream. On November 1st, Nagy took the dramatic step of declaring that Hungary would withdraw from the Soviet’s Warsaw Pact!
It would prove to be a fatal mistake.
Even as Soviet forces retreated, victory was to be short-lived. Regardless of the Pravda statement, Nikita Khrushchev had already decided to restore strict order in Hungary with brute military force. Hungary would NOT become the 1st Soviet satellite behind the Iron Curtain to reject the Kremlin’s iron fist.
On November 4, Soviet troops launched Operation Whirlwind. Hundreds of Soviet tanks rolled back into Budapest in an overwhelming force to crush the rebellion, restore Communist order and install a new puppet leader. The Hungarians were stunned.
Vicious street fighting broke out, but the Soviets’ greater power was undeniable. The Soviets struck back with Stalin-like savagery. They poured reinforcements in, completely encircling Budapest. Prime Minister Nagy announced the invasion to the nation in a grim broadcast, declaring:
“Our troops are fighting! The Government remains in place!”
The Red Army executed the leaders of the revolution and eliminated the last pockets of resistance within a single week. They acted with immense brutality, killing even the wounded. Tanks dragged bodies through the Budapest streets as a warning to the population. Resistance was futile.
At the end of the week, Budapest Radio burst out: “Russian MiG fighters are over Budapest! The Soviet infantry is advancing toward Parliament! We shall die for Hungary! Any news of help? Quickly, quickly please!” … then Budapest fell.
By November 7, Soviet forces had Janos Kádár, a former colleague of Nagy, take the oath of office in Parliament as the new Communist leader. The USSR’s brutality stunned the West. Much like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had pledged a retreat from Stalinist repression, but the violent actions in Budapest proved otherwise.
US President Eisenhower was deeply upset by the crushing of the revolt. He spoke out “I feel with the Hungarian people. To all those suffering under communist slavery, let us say you can count on us.” But in the end, America did nothing. Both sides in the Cold War were nuclear powers and the risk of all out global war was far too great.
By November 14th, Soviet control had been restored across all of Hungary.
3,000 men, women and children were killed and 200,000 more fled to the west as refugees. The Communists arrested Nagy and found him guilty of treason. He was executed by hanging and buried in an unmarked prison yard grave. For the next three decades, to even mention the name of Imre Nagy was to risk incarceration, or worse.
Today, 1956 serves as a haunting symbol of martyrdom for all Hungarians. Though their revolution failed, they were the first to stand up against Soviet tyranny. Every year on October 23rd, Republic Day, the iconic Hungarian flag with hollow circles adorns streets of Budapest and across the country.
In 1989, 33 years to the day, Hungary was officially and finally declared a Republic. A month later, thousands of German citizens attacked another hated symbol of the Cold War – the Berlin Wall – which had not even been built when Budapest citizens first rose up against their Soviet oppressors. The Cold War was finally over (for now).
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