At 03:00 on 4 November 1956, Russian tanks penetrated Budapest along the Pest side of the Danube in two thrusts: one up the Soroksári road from the south and the other down the Váci road from the north. Thus before a single shot was fired, the Soviets had effectively split the city in half, controlled all bridgeheads, and were shielded to the rear by the wide Danube river. Armoured units crossed into Buda and at 04:25 fired the first shots at the army barracks on Budaörsi Road. Soon after, Soviet artillery and tank fire was heard in all districts of Budapest. Operation Whirlwind combined air strikes, artillery, and the co-ordinated tank-infantry action of 17 divisions
Between 4 and 9 November, the Hungarian Army put up sporadic and disorganised resistance, with Marshal Zhukov reporting the disarming of twelve divisions, two armoured regiments, and the entire Hungarian Air Force. The Hungarian Army continued its most formidable resistance in various districts of Budapest and in and around the city of Pécs in the Mecsek Mountains, and in the industrial centre of Dunaújváros (then called Stalintown). Fighting in Budapest consisted of between ten and fifteen thousand resistance fighters, with the heaviest fighting occurring in the working-class stronghold of Csepel on the Danube River. Although some very senior officers were openly pro-Soviet, the rank and file soldiers were overwhelmingly loyal to the revolution and either fought against the invasion or deserted. The United Nations reported that there were no recorded incidents of Hungarian Army units fighting on the side of the Soviets.
At 05:20 on 4 November, Imre Nagy broadcast his final plea to the nation and the world, announcing that Soviet Forces were attacking Budapest and that the Government remained at its post. The radio station, Free Kossuth Rádió, stopped broadcasting at 08:07. An emergency Cabinet meeting was held in the Parliament but was attended by only three ministers. As Soviet troops arrived to occupy the building, a negotiated evacuation ensued, leaving Minister of State István Bibó as the last representative of the National Government remaining at his post. He wrote For Freedom and Truth, a stirring proclamation to the nation and the world.
(extracted and slightly adapted from Wikipedia).
CHRIS and BETTY BIRCH were British Communist Party members in Budapest during the uprising and the Russian invasion. Here they recall (for the Morning Star on 24 and 25 Oct 2016) the events; their eye-witness account is valuable for obvious reasons, but Shiraz Socialist wouldn’t agree with everything they say (eg that the uprising was “taken over by anti-communists”).
Sixty years ago a popular uprising in Hungary led to fighting on the streets, many deaths and huge political consequences.
It was started by communists, mainly writers and students, taken over by anti-communists and eventually ended, after 17 days, by Soviet tanks. We were there. Why did it happen? Have the lessons been learned?
We arrived in Budapest with our 19-month-old son in August 1955, and our daughter was born there in July 1956. We were part of a small international community but we had many Hungarian colleagues and friends.
On February 25 1956 Nikita Khrushchov delivered his secret speech at the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in which he denounced the cult of the individual and Stalin’s crimes.
Some weeks later we were sent a copy of the Observer with the full text of the speech with a letter saying that the British party had no reason to think that the speech was inaccurate.
When we tried to discuss it with a Soviet friend, we were told that it was an internal Soviet party affair and none of our bloody business.
Like hell it wasn’t! That speech had enormous repercussions all over the world.
The British party held a national congress which criticised the Soviet party for keeping the speech secret instead of allowing a public discussion of how things had gone so horridly wrong.
In October we were in Poland and went to a political cabaret. One sketch involved a woman’s joy in hearing that her shoe shop had had a delivery of shoes of different sizes and styles. The punch line was: “Poor woman. She still believes in fairy tales!”
A week later Wladyslaw Gomulka was first secretary of the Polish party and initiated “the Polish thaw.” And things were moving in Hungary too.
At least half of the students were the sons and daughters of workers and peasants who would never have seen the inside of a university in pre-war Hungary.
While they were prepared to accept regimentation in thought and isolation from the West at the start of the cold war, they were no longer willing to accept it in 1956.
They were bitter about their inability to get Western and even Polish and Yugoslav books and magazines, and doubly bitter about restrictions on travel. The compulsory study of Marxism was a sore point.
These feelings provided fertile ground for students from middle-class families and reactionary professors.
All this was made worse by the fact that students were not allowed their own organisation; they had to belong to the all-embracing Democratic Federation of Hungarian Youth.
Many young people felt that they had no part to play in society, no say in what was going on, that politics had nothing for them — much the same as many young people feel in capitalist society.
The rigid bureaucracy in Hungary was unbelievable. Our son went to a creche. If any child was even a minute late, admission was refused, his mother had to take the child home and miss a day’s work.
All Hungarian children had to learn Russian at school, and the Soviet marking system was imposed on the schools.
This rigid bureaucracy infected the Hungarian Working People’s Party, which had grown from a few thousand in 1946 to more than 800,000 in 1956.
Many of those who joined the party were jumping on the bandwagon, covering up their past or seeking to secure jobs.
They were not communists by conviction or ideology. Some were enemies of the party. They only acted on directives from above and by giving orders to those below.
In the main, party officials opposed change. They were only too ready to persecute comrades who thought for themselves. The party had been reduced almost to political impotence.
It was widely believed that the Hungarian party was run by the Soviet party, and that all major decisions were made in Moscow.
Inside the party and also outside the idea was promoted that the Soviet Union could do no wrong.
This was propagated with such lying and hypocrisy that it produced the opposite result.
A member of the social democratic party in 1946-7 was recruited to the Working People’s Party as a result of party work in her factory.
At a party school in 1948 she was told that the Soviet Union received much help from Britain and the US in the war against fascism.
The next year the story was that the Soviet Union alone had defeated fascism. And the next time it was implied that Britain and the US were really on the side of the fascists.
In yesterday’s article, we explained that many of those who joined the Hungarian Working People’s Party in the years after the second world war did so because some jobs were dependent on party membership and being a communist came with privileges.
Top communists drove around in big cars with darkened windows and had access to special shops where they could buy goods from the West.
They even had their own party hospital which was clean and modern, while most of the others were old and dirty. And it operated a caste system.
Senior comrades: private room with telephone, radio and balcony (like the one where our daughter was born); lesser comrades: room shared with three others, no radio; other comrades: a room for eight.
Whatever the facts of the matter, and we do not know them, there was widespread belief that Hungary had become a Soviet colony.
Many workers felt that they were more exploited than they had been under capitalism.
As soon as they increased production, the norm was raised so that their wages stayed the same. They felt that the products of their labour were going to the Soviet Union, and this led to a brake on all attempts to win big increases in production.
Two of the demands put forward at the start of the uprising were “Hungarian uranium deposits to be used in Hungary’s interests” and “Publish all foreign trade agreements.”
Many workers were on very low wages of 800 forints a month. These low wages may well have been because of the need for capital development but this was never adequately explained. And sacrifice has to have a limit, and this limit comes all the more quickly if the workers feel that others are living at their expense.
Party functionaries, and there seemed to be thousands of them, earned 2,000 forints a month or more.
The churches were open to all but faced restrictions and were frowned on by the regime. Most Christians retreated into the closet. One friend of ours came out as a Catholic during the uprising.
Criticism of the regime was punished. Workers were under threat of losing their jobs if they failed to turn out for May Day parades.
Our Scottish friend Charlie Coutts visited Szeged with a young student as interpreter. She told him about the lack of freedom in her studies, and Charlie mentioned this to an official of the youth organisation. Charlie later learned that she had been arrested and was in prison.
The Khrushchov speech was never published in Hungary. Daily Worker reports on the rehabilitation of Laszlo Rajk, the leading Hungarian communist and minister of the interior who was executed after one of Matyas Rakosi’s show trials, were suppressed.
One could buy capitalist newspapers in Poland but not in Hungary. Naturally these things affected intellectuals much more than the working class, but the latter also felt that they had no power to decide anything.
By and large the trade unions fulfilled their role with regard to health, holidays etc, but the workers were not involved in factory management.
They felt they were there to carry out the party’s plans and directives without any say in those plans.
This is why the demand for workers’ councils was so strongly voiced during the uprising.
The press was a travesty of what one would have expected the press in a so-called people’s democracy to be.
If you had read the party paper Szabad Nep, you had read all the other newspapers as far as any important matter was concerned.
And it went further than that. A Hungarian journalist wrote an article on the need to abolish the death penalty, quoting the point of view of the British party.
No paper or magazine dared to publish it because the Hungarian party had not pronounced on the issue. This kind of thing even extended to articles on sport.
After the 1947 elections there were 150 members of the eight opposition parties in parliament, who had together polled 1,995,419 votes.
By the time of the 1949 elections none of these parties still existed. There had ben no edict banning them. They had simply disappeared. Political differences were often settled by the use of the security police. In fact the lack of democracy in the state, in the factories, in the party, in all aspects of society lay at the heart of the Hungarian problem.
A week after the end of the fighting, Janos Kadar, the Hungarian party’s new general secretary, told a meeting of party activists in Budapest: “The whole idea of socialism is now compromised in Hungary. The masses of workers now say: ‘We are not interested in socialism or capitalism. We just want to live better’.”
Socialism without democracy, without the full involvement of the people, is like an egg without a yolk. It has a fragile shell that is easily broken.
JD recommends some reading and resources:
- 1956: the Hungarian revolution – A short and clearly written history of the Hungarian workers’ revolution against the Stalinist dictatorship.
- Hungary ’56 – Andy Anderson – Excellent pamphlet, published by Solidarity. An invaluable guide to the events of the Hungarian uprising of 1956.
- Hungary ’56: “the proletariat storming heaven” – Mouvement Communiste – Analysis of the Hungarian workers’ uprising, stressing the importance of the collective action taken by workers and critically examining the demands and programmes they put forward.
- Hungarian Tragedy – Peter Fryer An account of events in Hungary 1956 by Peter Fryer, then a columnist for the Daily Worker, the official paper of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Other recommended reading:
- The Hungarian revolution: 1956 – Anonymous account of the events of the near revolution of 1956, containing interesting information from interviews with participants.
- United Nations report on the Hungarian uprising 1956 – UN special committee report on the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Examines the revolutionary workers councils established by Hungarian workers, and analyses the dangers they posed to both the Soviet bureaucracy and capitalism.
- Hungary ’56 – Nick Heath – History of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, published as a special supplement of Anarchist Worker on the 20th anniversary in 1976.
- The Hungarian workers’ revolution – Syndicalist Workers’ Federation – Revised second edition of a pamphlet written by British syndicalists in 1957.
- Hungary 56 photo gallery – Photo gallery of the events in Hungary 1956