Foundation for the History of Totalitarianism

Winning essay in the 2022-23 essay competition

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956

     On 6 December 1956, the Hungarian water polo player Ervin Zádor climbed out of the Olympic pool with blood streaming down his face. It was the semi-final of the 1956 Olympics, which had begun just after the revolution was crushed back in Hungary, and the Hungarians were playing against their invaders. It didn’t take long for verbal and physical abuse to start flying back and forth, culminating in the moment when Soviet player Prokopov hit Zádor in the eye, drawing blood. The ‘Blood in the Water’ match was widely publicised, with the grainy image of Zádor’s injury printed in newspapers the world over coming to signify anti-Soviet resistance. Public response to the incident, and the revolution, was outrage and empathy for Hungary. Newspapers depicted the Hungarians as plucky defenders of liberty, determined to stand up to the corrupt Goliath of Soviet power. Yet the failure to respond of those in power in the West resulted in the Hungarian Revolution becoming not just a fundamental crack in the Soviet regime, but an indictment of Western unwillingness to help those fighting tyranny in Eastern Europe.

The Hungarian Revolution was essentially caused by the injustice and deprivation of life under a Soviet puppet government, and what seemed to be a substantial body of evidence of impending ‘de-Stalinisation’, which appeared to increase the likelihood of Soviet acquiescence to the demanded reforms. Hungary had languished under the despotic regime of Matyás Rakósi since 1947, with Nagy’s ‘New Course’ representing only a brief interlude. Material living conditions had plummeted since the Soviet occupation. Wages had stagnated while prices continued to increase, and the depopulation of the villages meant continuous shortages of food, as well as consumer goods, due to the regime’s disproportionate investment in heavy industry. The breadline was ubiquitous in 1950s Hungary. Repression of Hungarian culture was universally loathed; the restoration of national holidays and the Kossuth coat of arms to the flag were both demanded in 1956. The education system had been restructured based on the Soviet model, with Russian mandatory as the sole foreign language. Ironically, it was this knowledge of Russian that enabled the Olympic team to insult their opponents so effectively in 1956.

Political freedoms had likewise been heavily curtailed; Rákosi’s Great Terror cast a long shadow over everyday life. An atmosphere of fear and suspicion was pervasive throughout Hungarian society due to the insidious presence of the secret police; even in 1989, the ÁVH still employed 8,000 active informants.[1] Hungarians could be, and were, subject to torture and long-lasting prison sentences for purely fictitious crimes. The regime’s paranoia had grown to the extent that 14% of the population faced trial in a period of just three years.[2] The Great Terror’s most prominent casualty was Foreign Affairs minister László Rajk, executed in 1949 for ‘treason’. When, in 1956, the regime rehabilitated Rajk, admitting that the charges against him were fabricated, it was a crisis of faith for many loyal Party functionaries. As the regime’s justifications for its brutality began to slip, dissent grew ever louder. By October, it became a deafening roar.

Hopes that the USSR would relax its policy in Eastern Europe had been present since the death of Stalin in 1953. Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’, in February 1956, castigated the ‘cult of personality’ around Stalin and his repression.  The appointment of Gomułka in Poland, concurrent with the revolution, seemed to constitute proof of a ‘thaw’. Rajk’s reburial on 3 October, attended by some 100,000 mourners,[3] was a melting pot of dissent and outrage against the regime. The first anti-government protests of 1956 emerged from the funeral, as Budapest students demonstrated for the withdrawal of Soviet troops.[4] By 23rd October, the students had drafted their 16-point programme, which would be so significant in defining the aims of the revolution.

In a society of such endless, grinding poverty, where the average urban worker had a living space smaller than a train compartment,[5] Khrushchev’s Secret Speech – in which Stalin’s atrocities were denounced – could not fail to light the fuse of revolution. Discontent had only been growing since the end of WWII; seeing Soviet acceptance of a more moderate government in Poland, Hungarians could not help but imagine an end to the terror and injustice of their own regime. Indeed, Radio Free Europe’s 1957 survey of Hungarian refugees found that 85% of those questioned counted ‘suffering under Communism’ as the primary cause of the Revolution; Gomułka’s thaw in Poland was ranked second.[6] The initial student protests were organised in support of Poland, proving that the apparent relaxation of Stalin’s death grip on Eastern Europe sparked widespread solidarity and reform hopes.

There was a brief period, at the end of October, when it seemed as though the revolution had succeeded. Beginning on 23rd October, student protests swelled to as many as 200,000 people;7 protestors tore down Budapest’s Stalin statue. The first violence took place the same day when students were shot at by ÁVH agents as they attempted to broadcast their demands from the Budapest Radio Building. But the protests turned definitively to revolution after the ÁVH massacred crowds at Kossuth Square on the 25th of October. In the early stages of the revolution, the protestors were mainly students and writers; after ÁVH violence at the radio building and Kossuth Square, the revolution swept through the whole of Budapest society. Increasing numbers of Hungarians took up arms, which were supplied by soldiers who had defected; children as young as twelve hurled Molotov cocktails at Soviet tanks, which were ill-equipped for the city streets and guerilla warfare of Budapest. Gero fled Budapest and a multi-party government was announced. On the 28th of October, Nagy announced, to great public jubilation, Soviet withdrawal from Budapest. Yet Soviet leadership never intended to honour this agreement. By 1 November, it had become clear to an increasingly desperate Nagy that Soviet troops were gearing up for a massive offensive. His appeals to Moscow went unanswered or were dismissed with obvious fabrications; this is what drew him to appeal for help from the UN. But his appeal to the UN, as to Moscow, was unanswered. When Soviet tanks drew into Budapest for the second time, on 4 November, it spelled the end of the 1956 Revolution.

The reason most commonly cited for the Soviet invasion of 4th November was Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and declaration of neutrality. Khrushchev feared that this would signal to other satellite states that they could follow the same path, which would be the end of communism in Eastern Europe. Thus, the Red Army invaded with 6,000 tanks [7] in order to reassert Soviet authority and crush demands for independence in the wider Eastern Bloc. But Khrushchev approved the plans for a Soviet invasion on 31 October – and Nagy, who was ‘fully aware’ of this [8] – did not announce withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact until a day later, on 1st November. It is true that Khruschev had reason to think that Nagy wanted to leave the Warsaw Pact but, writing 50 years after the revolution, Bela Kiraly (military commander of Budapest in late 1956,) asserted that Nagy only declared neutrality as a last resort against Soviet invasion. Nagy was thus able to appeal to the UN to defend Hungary’s neutrality; it was felt that Soviet aggression would be taken more seriously against a country not in the Warsaw Pact. Thus it appears that Nagy’s declaration of neutrality was a consequence of mounting Soviet aggression, rather than the cause of an invasion which was already decided upon.

What, then, was the reasoning for the 4 November offensive known as ‘Operation Whirlwind’? There were convincing arguments against invasion, namely that it would damage peaceful co-existence and credibility with Western nations, for whom the Soviet sphere of influence had long been a point of contention. An invasion would also contradict Khrushchev’s thaw, which had been gradually unfolding since his ascension to power in 1953, although only widely promulgated with the Secret Speech. Ultimately, it appears that Soviet fears over the consequences of the loss of the Eastern Bloc outweighed the possibilities of condemnation on the world stage. While Nagy’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact might not have been explicit at the point when Khrushchev approved an invasion, it wasn’t necessary – it was impossible for the USSR to have allowed a free and independent Hungary. Condemnation did come; the Revolution was a foreign policy debacle for the USSR. But England and France had lost the moral high ground because of Suez. The probability that they would be accused of hypocrisy weakened the potential for criticism of Soviet conduct. Though the Western powers condemned the USSR, they took little to no direct action.

Fighting in Budapest continued for up to a week after the 4th of November. But in the complete absence of Western aid, ‘Operation Whirlwind’ was always going to spell the end of the revolution. Scattered resistance went on for the rest of 1956, but Kadar’s repressive measures against participants in the revolution meant that up to 200,000 refugees fled Hungary by 1957.

How could an uprising that had lasted just twelve days constitute such a blow to the foundations of the Soviet regime? On the face of things, the Hungarian Revolution was not so different from other Eastern European uprisings throughout the period of Soviet expansionism. The brutality of the repression was key. The killing of up to 3,000 Hungarians was a death-blow for Western communist parties, which lost members in droves and subsequently any real political influence. While the use of force was certainly not unusual in putting down uprisings, what distinguished the Hungarian Revolution was that it was incredibly well-documented, which facilitated Western condemnation. Further, an unprecedented number of refugees flooded into other countries; a large Hungarian diaspora were able to preserve memories of the Revolution, meaning that it could not be obliterated as Stalin’s atrocities against Soviet citizens had been. The loss of credibility for the USSR, as it proved willing to use barbaric force against its ‘fraternal’ socialist states, ultimately forced a softening of repressive policy. By the 1960s, Kadar’s liberalising ‘Goulash communism’ meant that Hungary was jokingly referred to as the ‘happiest barrack in the Soviet prison camp’.[9] Hungarians knew, of course, that they were not free. The ÁVH was dissolved but replaced by a ‘workers’ militia’ the same year, and there was no democracy whatsoever.

Eisenhower retained his domestic popularity, winning the 1956 election. But on the world stage, American credibility took a hit comparable to that sustained by the USSR. Promises to ‘roll back’ communism had withered when confronted by the possibility of nuclear war and the concurrent Suez Crisis, which proved a heavy distraction for American diplomats.

Indeed, the American ambassador to Hungary was, in fact, not even in the country until November the 2nd.[10] This negligence flew in the face of the rhetoric espoused by Radio Free Europe which was covertly funded by the US Congress.[11]  The radio station had broadcasted fervent anti-Communist messaging from 1949 and throughout the revolution. Eisenhower would maintain that American military assistance had not been explicitly promised, however it is hard to deny that it was heavily implied. The U.S. had cultivated the image of itself as a powerful ally to Hungary in the years leading up to 1956. Yet when revolution finally struck, its propaganda campaign came to nothing. Eisenhower went so far as to veto Franco’s suggestion of supporting Hungary. This inaction was a source of major resentment in Hungary, where Radio Free Europe broadcasts had led half the population to expect Western support.[12]

The Hungarian Revolution and its repression continue to have echoes today. In March 2022, Hungarians protested against Putin’s war in Ukraine outside a Russian-owned bank in Budapest: placards bore the slogan ‘Ruszkik Haza’, a popular refrain of dissent during the 1956 uprising. That this revolutionary slogan of 1956 still serves the same purpose nearly seventy years later proves that governmental repression is not close to vanishing in Eastern Europe and beyond. It must be hoped that the West’s response to the Ukrainian conflict proves more decisive than that undertaken in 1956.




Please note that this essay should not be regarded as a “model essay” or example to be imitated. The Foundation welcomes essays written in different styles.


[1] Erwin A. Schmidl, László Ritter, Peter Dennis, “The Hungarian Revolution 1956,” (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2006,) p.31

[2] Victor Sebestyen, “Twelve Days: Revolution 1956, How the Hungarians tried to topple their Soviet masters,” (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006,) p.41

[3] Sebestyen, “Twelve Days,” p.96

[4] Brian Moynahan, “The Claws of the Bear: A History of the Soviet Armed Forces from 1917 to the Present,” (London: Hutchinson Press, 2014,) p.678

[5] Moynahan, “The Claws of the Bear,” p.676

[6] Michael Palmer Pulido, “Transmitting a revolution: mass communications and the 1956 Hungarian uprising,” MA diss., (University of North Carolina Wilmington, 2007). 7 Schmidl, Ritter, Dennis, “The Hungarian Revolution 1956,” p.32

[7] Sebestyen, “Twelve Days,” p.126

[8] Béla K. Király, “Ten truths of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956,” AARMS Volume 1, Issue 1 (2002) pp.145-170

[9] Charles Gati, “Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian revolt,” (Chicago: Stanford University Press, 2006,) p.226

[10] Martin Ivan Elzy, “American Governmental Response to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution,” MA diss., (Illinois: Eastern Illinois University, 1969,) p.53

[11] Sebestyen, “Twelve Days,” p.59

[12] Pulido, “Transmitting a Revolution,” p.86

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