In 1956, Hungary was a nation of 9 million. Allied to Germany during World War II, it was occupied by Soviet troops in 1944–45. Hungarian Communists began the process that by the late 1940s would give them control over the government. By that time, Hungary’s government had undergone changes that ensured that the leadership strictly followed directives from the Soviet Union. The first Communist leader, from 1949 to the early 1950s, was the hard-liner Laszlo Rajk. He, in turn, was replaced on Moscow’s orders by an equally harsh leader, Mátyás Rákosi.
While the imposition of Communist rule in Hungary was particularly repressive, it was applied with force throughout Eastern Europe into the early 1950s. At that time, a series of events took place that indicated restrictions from the Soviet Union and internal restrictions might be loosening. The first event was the death of Stalin in 1953. A slight thaw and liberalization followed in both the Soviet Union and the satellite states. There were changes in the internal policies in the East European states. Hard-liners died mysteriously, and in countries where rebellions against the Soviets had been put down, there seemed to be a certain degree of liberalization.
Closer to home, there seemed to be a change in Hungary’s direction. Rákosi was pushed aside and a moderate, Imre Nagy, was brought in to take his place. Nagy left this position in 1955 and his predecessor, Rákosi, returned. In July 1956 Nikita Khrushchev suggested to Rákosi that he should visit Moscow. Nagy was back in, but left the government after a very short while. This is when the troubles began.
On October 23, 1956, students demanded that Nagy return to the government. The students were fired on by the police, and on the following day martial law was declared. Soviet troops in Hungary put down the increasing number of riots and demonstrations. The violence escalated until October 28, when Nagy returned to the government, a cease-fire was signed, and the Soviet troops withdrew from Budapest.
In the next week Nagy and the newly formed government began making changes that alarmed not only hard-line Hungarian Communists but the leadership in Moscow as well. Political prisoners were released and the one-party system was ended.
Most serious, however, was the statement made that Hungary would begin withdrawing from the WarSaw Pact. Khrushchev ordered the Soviet army to commence Operation Whirlwind, a strong military response to the rebellion. Whirlwind commenced on November 4 and lasted until November 12. It was a Soviet-only operation, as the 120,000-man Hungarian army was not trusted politically. Most of the fighting took place in the streets of Budapest.
There was a political movement as well. János Kádár arrived in Budapest on November 7. He was a long-time Communist operative with a history of being in and out of power. When the revolt began, Kádár left Budapest and went to the Soviets, formally asking them to intervene in ending the disorder. Coming from a member of the Hungarian government, this request reinforced the impression of the legitimacy of the Soviet intervention.
In the end, the Soviet army saw 700 men killed and approximately 1,500 wounded. Three thousand Hungarians died, most in Budapest. Many thousands of Hungarians left the country, first to Austria, where refugee camps were set up, and then later to the United States, Canada, France, and Britain.
As the Soviet Army put an end to the rebellion, Kádár, assisted by the Soviet ambassador Yuri Andropov, restored political order. Nagy was taken by the Soviets and executed in 1958. Kádár’s rule was, at first, charac- terized by harshness and reprisals against anyone who participated.
In the following years, however, Kádár liberalized the regime, instituting what Khrushchev and others contemptuously referred to as “Goulash Communism.” Kádár did not look for loyalty so much as conformity. Hungary, in relation with other members of the Warsaw Pact in the 1960s–1980s, was very liberal. By 1989 it had the most advanced economy in eastern Europe. Authors did not have to submit their works to a censor prior to publication, but those who crossed the unstated line could still find themselves in trouble.
The United States government, which many considered to have instigated the rebellion through Radio Free Europe broadcasts, had decided that the potential for a nuclear war outweighed the benefits of assisting the Hungarians. From 1956 on, American diplomatic talk of rolling back communism was replaced with the phrase “containment.”
Although Khrushchev succeeded in reestablishing the Communist government, his indecisiveness and actions prior to the rebellion damaged his credibility. It took the prodding of many within the Soviet government to make him act, and the fact that he had had to fly to Yugoslavia to get Tito’s approval before intervening led many to question his leadership. In 1957 an attempt was made to replace him, which failed. His continued problems in foreign policy, however, finally led to his ouster in 1964.
By 1989 there were significant changes. In April the Hungarian government tore down the barbed wire fences on its frontier with Austria. In June that same year, 200,000 Hungarians attended the reburial of Imre Nagy from a common grave to a place of honor.
See also Prague Spring.