On October 23, 1956, a peaceful student demonstration against the Communist regime in Budapest escalated into a full-scale revolution, which toppled the Soviet-backed government and saw the return of Imre Nagy as Prime Minister.
By the end of the Second World War, Hungary had fallen under the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. The Hungarian Working People’s Party came to power shortly after the end of the war, and in 1949, the socialist People’s Republic of Hungary was declared.
Under the authoritarian leadership of Mátyás Rákosi, thousands were arrested, tortured, tried, and imprisoned in concentration camps, deported to the East, or executed. Russian language study and Communist political instruction were made mandatory in schools and universities nationwide.
But Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 ushered in a period of moderate liberalization in European communist parties, and in Hungary, the reformist Imre Nagy replaced Rákosi as Prime Minister. Rákosi nevertheless remained General Secretary of the Party and was able to undermine most of Nagy’s reforms, and by April 1955, he had Nagy discredited and removed from office.
In the face of mounting public discontent and pressure on Rákosi, the Soviets forced the unpopular leader to resign from power in July 1956, replacing him with his equally hard-line second in command Ernő Gerő, a change which did little to mollify public dissent.
The Hungarian Revolution
By October 1956, students from the Technical University in Budapest compiled a list of sixteen national policy demands, the third of which was Nagy’s restitution to the premiership. And on October 23, approximately 20,000 protesters convened next to the statue of József Bem in Budapest for a massive opposition demonstration. But Ernő Gerő broadcasted a speech condemning the demands.
Angered by Gerő’s hard-line rejection, a large crowd gathered at the headquarters of the Hungarian Radio, which was heavily guarded by secret police, and grew increasingly unruly after a delegation attempting to communicate their demands was detained. Tear gas was thrown from the upper windows and the security forces opened fire on the crowd, killing scores.
The demonstrations quickly escalated into a full-scale revolt. Police cars were set ablaze, guns were seized from military depots and distributed to the mass while symbols of the regime were vandalised, and Stalin’s 30-foot-high bronze statue was toppled. Hungarian soldiers sent to crush the demonstrators tore off the red stars from their caps and sided with the crowd.
During the night Ernő Gerő requested Soviet military intervention and by noon the next day, Soviet tanks were stationed outside the Parliament, with Red Army soldiers guarding key bridges and crossroads. Armed revolutionaries quickly set up barricades to defend Budapest, even capturing a handful of Soviet tanks. Ernő Gerő fled to the Soviet Union and Imre Nagy became Prime Minister, in an attempt to appease the populace.
Revolutionaries began an aggressive offensive against Soviet troops and the remnants of the secret police. And as the Hungarian resistance fought Soviet tanks using Molotov cocktails in the narrow streets of Budapest, revolutionary councils arose nationwide, assuming local governmental authority and calling for general strikes in support of the revolution. Public Communist symbols such as red stars and Soviet war memorials were removed, and Communist books were burned.
By October 28, a ceasefire was arranged, and most Soviet troops were withdrawn from Budapest to garrisons in the Hungarian countryside. But the rapid spread of the uprising in the streets of Budapest and the abrupt fall of the Gerő government left the new national leadership surprised and disorganised.
The Soviet invasion
After demanding the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary, Imre Nagy formally declared Hungary’s neutrality, withdrew from the Warsaw Pact, and requested assistance from the diplomatic corps in Budapest and Dag Hammarskjöld, UN Secretary-General, to defend Hungary’s neutrality.
But on November 3, a Hungarian delegation led by the Minister of Defense Pál Maléter was invited to attend negotiations on Soviet withdrawal at the Soviet Military Command at Tököl, near Budapest. But unbeknown to them, Soviet forces which had secretly entered Hungary from the east started moving towards Budapest.
At around midnight that evening, General Ivan Serov of the KGB ordered the arrest of the Hungarian delegation, and at 05:20 a.m., Imre Nagy broadcast his final plea to the nation and the world, announcing that Soviet forces were attacking Budapest.
Soviet tanks had 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. And before a single shot was fired, the Soviets had effectively split the city in half and controlled all bridgeheads, with the Hungarian Army putting up sporadic and disorganised resistance.
With the five Soviet divisions stationed in Hungary before October augmented to a total strength of 17 divisions, the Soviet invasion, codenamed “Operation Whirlwind”, was led by Marshal Ivan Konev, who had been appointed commander of the Warsaw Pact armed forces.
By November 8, the Red Army was in full control of Budapest and the Hungarian Revolution had been crushed. The longest holdouts against the Soviet assault lasted until November 11 when the last insurgents finally succumbed to the Soviet onslaught. Hungarian casualties totalled around 2,500 dead with an additional 20,000 wounded, with Budapest bearing the brunt of the bloodshed, with 1,569 civilians killed.
Imre Nagy took refuge in the Embassy of Yugoslavia, and despite assurances of safe passage out of Hungary by the Soviets, Nagy and his group were arrested when attempting to leave the embassy and taken to Romania. Nagy was eventually returned to Hungary where he was was tried for treason and executed by hanging in June 1958, “as a lesson to all other leaders in socialist countries”.
Mass arrests and denunciations continued for months after the Hungarian Revolution, causing more than 200,000 Hungarians to flee to the West as refugees, and by January 1957, the new government had suppressed all public opposition.
But while strengthening control over the Eastern Bloc, the bloodshed alienated many Western Marxists, and led to splits and considerable losses of membership for communist parties in capitalist states.
Time magazine named the Hungarian Freedom Fighter its Man of the Year for 1956.
At the inauguration of the Third Hungarian Republic in 1989, October 23 was declared a national holiday. That same year, Imre Nagy, Pál Maléter and other prominent figures of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 were rehabilitated and reburied with full honours, on the 31st anniversary of their execution by the Communist authorities.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.