In 1956, Communist Hungary seemed the very model of a modern Leninist dictatorship. It had a ferocious political police; a carefully recruited and heavily indoctrinated army; a large and disciplined party (10 percent of the total population); and complete regimentation of the economy, the media, the schools, and the labor unions. But in just a few days in October 1956, this apparently all-powerful regime rapidly and utterly collapsed. This Hungarian cataclysm might have alerted the world to the fact that the Soviet empire was perhaps not the omnipotent, inevitable monolith that it seemed-and that in politics, much is illusion, nothing is certain, and anything is possible.
One of the most reprobate and lupine organizations in the entire Communist empire was the Hungarian State Security Service, known as the AVH. The members of this remarkable force loomed above both the party and the state. According to the chief of the regular Budapest police (an organization totally separate from the AVH), even cabinet ministers were afraid of it. The AVH ran its own prisons, at least one of which had an acid bath wherein prisoners’ bodies, dead or sometimes alive, were disposed of; they also had their own crematoria. AVH men received higher pay, wore snappier uniforms, and carried deadlier weapons than other police units. The regime carefully segregated them from society. Many of them had been recruited from the notorious Arrow Cross movement, a pro-Nazi party/militia that had flourished in the 1940s. To this AVH belongs the distinction of being the group that actually ignited the uprising of 1956.
On October 23, 1956, a large and peaceful demonstration of students assembled in front of Budapest’s magnificent Parliament building to show support for the reform movement in Poland. Considerable numbers of factory workers and off-duty soldiers joined the students, and the whole demonstration moved to the State Radio Building. (Both places are on the eastern-or Pest-side of the Danube.) It was here that the AVH provoked the uprising. A United Nations report later stated that the first casualty in the uprising was a major in the Hungarian army who wanted to present a list of student grievances to the head of the State Radio. At 9:00 P. M., AVH men in the upper stories of the radio building began firing on the unarmed and still peaceful demonstrators. Possibly as many as six hundred men and women were killed in this massacre
Reinforcements in the form of regular army units were rushed to the State Radio Building. But when these troops reached the scene of carnage, soldiers and officers in the crowd cried out to them not to shoot. Accounts of what happened next vary, but instead of opening fire on the demonstrators, the soldiers actually began handing over their weapons to them. The refusal of army units to protect the security police from the wrath of the people meant that, for all practical purposes, the Hungarian Communist regime was finished. All through that night and into the following days, the demonstrators and the thousands who now joined them received more arms, from soldiers, from army depots, from factory workers’ militia centers. The regular Budapest city police (who also feared and hated the AVH) provided additional guns and ammunition to the demonstrators. Many students knew how to handle weapons because of the compulsory military training in the universities.
In contrast to nearly all other similar upheavals, “the almost unique characteristic of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 may be considered its complete lack of a revolutionary body” to organize and direct it. But perhaps the most shocking aspect of the uprising, from the Communist viewpoint, was the attitude of the Hungarian military cadets. These young men had been carefully selected by the regime according to class background, heavily indoctrinated with Marxist-Leninist teaching, and thoroughly infiltrated by the AVH. Nevertheless, great numbers of these cadets-the favored children and future protection of the regime-openly sided with the revolution.
During those same days, AVH units continued to fire into peaceful civilian crowds. They killed over a hundred civilians in Parliament Square, and yet another eighty in the city of Magyarovar. The responsibility of the special security police for the great effusion of blood that would soon take place in Hungary is undeniable and staggering. “We can see now,” wrote George Mikes, “how much of the bloodshed in this revolution was due to the AVO [AVH] opening fire at peaceful demonstrators.” Peter Fryer, a reporter for the British Communist Daily Worker, wrote on October 26: “After eleven years of `people’s democracy’ it had come to this, that the security police was so remote from the people, so alien to them, so vicious and so brutal that it turned its weapons on a defenceless crowd and murdered the people who were supposed to be the masters of their own country.”
The years of silent hatred and fear, ignited by the senseless massacres of innocent civilians, now had their condign consequence. It became common in Budapest and other cities and towns to see the bodies of AVH men hanging from lampposts and other hastily selected instruments of popular justice. Fearless when the arrest and torture of single suspects, or even an entire family, was involved, the AVH tended to be much more discreet when confronted by crowds of armed civilians. Its members soon disappeared into their various holes and waited.
Events moved very rapidly. Budapest crowds pulled down the larger-than-life statue of Stalin. The slogan Ruszkik Haza! (“Russians out!”) appeared everywhere. So did the Hungarian flag, with the Communist red star cut out of it. On October 24 the regime announced over the radio, “Fascist and reactionary elements have launched an armed attack against our public buildings and against the forces of law and order.” By smearing the uprising as Fascist, the party was saying that any use of force against it would be justified. Yet on that very day Imre Nagy, an advocate of “reformed” Communism, was installed as prime minister, and Janos Kadar, boss of the Hungarian Communist Party, declared that organization dissolved.
In the wake of World War II, Communist regimes were imposed on several Catholic countries besides Hungary, including Poland, Czechoslovakia, Croatia, and Slovenia. In all of them, Church leaders were imprisoned after grotesque show trials. In the West, the best-known of these churchmen was Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty of Hungary. Imprisoned during the war by the pro-German regime, Mindszenty suffered similar treatment under the Communists. Freedom fighters released him, and the Nagy cabinet declared the charges against him “unjustified.” During the second Soviet invasion, the cardinal took refuge in the U. S. embassy, remaining there for many years.
The First Soviet Intervention
As one noted historian of these events wrote, “Had the Soviet Army not been called upon to help, the entire Communist regime would have collapsed within twenty-four hours.” But of course the Soviet army was called upon, by the outgoing puppet Prime Minister Hegedus, on orders from Soviet ambassador Yuri Andropov (no less). On October 24, two mechanized Soviet divisions crossed into Hungary from Romania. (The Budapest police chief later wrote that Soviet tanks were already moving on October 23.) This first Soviet intervention inflamed opinion, especially in Budapest: “It was the calling in of the Russians which . . . quickly and unequivocally gave the movement its true character-that of a national uprising.”
The freedom fighters had obtained a substantial amount of weapons from various sources, including the army and the city police, but the number of persons who wanted to join the fight far exceeded the number of guns available. Soon to call themselves the National Guard, these freedom fighters were students, workers, and soldiers; many of them had, of course, been Communist Party members: “This was the alliance of the workers and intellectuals that Lenin said was indispensable to a revolution.” The knowledge gained from courses about Russian guerrillas and partisans, required of all university students, would now be turned by them against their oppressors.
Although organized units of the Hungarian army fought the AVH from the start, the army as such did not resist the invading Soviets at first. For one thing, Hungarian troops did not possess the equipment to withstand the Russians. Nevertheless, many soldiers fought as individuals alongside the freedom fighters. Even more importantly, Hungarian troops refused to protect Soviet tanks in Budapest; this was a most serious situation, because the Soviet T-34 tanks used in the first invasion had clearly marked petrol caps on one side, hence were very vulnerable to Molotov cocktails. Infantry could have offered a good deal of protection to the tanks, but few infantrymen accompanied the invading Soviet armored columns, and those few were reluctant to stay on the streets at night. Another consequence of sending tanks unsupported by infantry was this: since the soldiers in their tanks had very poor visibility, the insurgents could stop a tank column by laying on the streets overturned soup plates, which looked liked mines to the men inside the vehicles. One student of the revolution speculates that the Kremlin sent tanks into Budapest unaccompanied by infantry so that Russian soldiers would not become aware that the Hungarian standard of living, such as it was, clearly outclassed that of the Soviet Union, and also to prevent them from learning that they were fighting to suppress a true national movement. (Forty years later the Soviets would send unaccompanied tanks into Grozny, with the same results.) Soviet tanks in Budapest would shoot at any building that had lights on at night, including even the main city police station.
All sorts of signs indicated that, as they became aware they were fighting workers and students, the morale of many of the Soviet troops sank very low. And there were reports that Russian soldiers sold their personal weapons-and even their tanks-for food.
During these dramatic days, there was no looting in Budapest by Hungarians, only by Russian soldiers. The Russians broke into stores and then forced Hungarians to carry out goods while they were being photographed. These faked pictures then appeared in the Soviet party newspaper Pravda to prove that the revolutionaries were nothing but mobs of hooligans and fascists. Hastily assembled insurgent units guarded jewelry stores whose windows had been broken. “Witnesses of all nationalities have testified that there was no looting in Budapest during these ten days, despite the temptation offered by smashed-up windows.” Farmers were giving away ducks, chickens, eggs, and potatoes in the streets of Budapest in the days just before the second Soviet invasion, to show their gratitude to the freedom fighters for ending the forced collectivization of agriculture. All sides agreed to an armistice on October 28. By the next day, when Soviet forces had ceased fighting, two hundred of their tanks had been destroyed or damaged.