In a Nutshell: The Hungarian Revolution

Although a failure, the armed uprising was the first major threat to Soviet control since the end of World War II...

In a Nutshell: The Hungarian Revolution © Wikimedia Commons

What was it?

The Hungarian Revolution was a popular uprising in 1956 against Soviet-imposed Communist rule in the country.

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What were the people protesting about?

The origins of the revolution date back to the end of World War II, when the Soviet Union’s Red Army defeated the Nazi German occupiers of Hungary and their Hungarian collaborators. After the war – as was the case in much of Eastern Europe – the Soviet Union retained a military presence and sought to bring about a government that was friendly to its interests.

With Soviet support, the Hungarian Communist Party marginalised political opposition until, by 1949, Hungary had effectively become a Communist dictatorship, modelled on the Soviet Union. Many Hungarians were opposed to the new regime that had been forced on them and in October 1956, this hostility turned into open revolt.

How did revolt flare up?

The timing of the revolution reflected events taking place elsewhere in Europe. In February of that year, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made a speech denouncing some of the worst actions of his predecessor Josef Stalin.

This came as a great encouragement to people who lived under Soviet domination, who could hope that reforms might be possible. In fact, an uprising in Poland that summer had already led to a change in the government there. Hungarians had also had a taste of a more liberal government from 1953-55 under the leadership of the reformer Imre Nagy, who had eventually been ousted by the Soviet Union and replaced with unpopular hardliners.

The spark for the uprising came on 23 October 1956 at a rally in Budapest. It began as a student demonstration, demanding changes in how Hungary itself was governed. But when government authorities opened fire on demonstrators, violence erupted and soon the country was in a state of rebellion.

What were the aims of the revolution?

The demonstrators wanted to reinstate Nagy and then move the country into a more liberal direction with democracy and free elections. They also hoped to reduce Soviet influence.

Did the revolution succeed?

Initially it was a great success. Soviet forces were compelled to withdraw from the country and Nagy became Prime Minister, promising to bring through a series of widespread reforms.

For a few days, the Soviet leadership was unsure of how to respond, but it was decided that an uprising like this could not be allowed to succeed in one of their ‘satellite’ states. The retaliation was harsh. On 4 November, a Soviet invasion force stormed into Hungary and, with overwhelming firepower, swiftly crushed the revolution. Nagy fled and was replaced by a new leader, Janos Kadar, who brought the country back into the Soviet orbit.

Photos of Hungarian Victims line the House of Terror museum in Budapest © Tupungato
Photos of Hungarian Victims line the House of Terror museum in Budapest © Tupungato

How did the West respond?

Western powers such as the United States expressed support for the revolution, but took little action against the Soviet Union – having no desire to risk confrontation with a nuclear-armed superpower. Meanwhile, a recent disastrous Anglo-French attack on Egypt (known as the Suez Crisis) made it difficult for the West to criticise Soviet actions without being accused of hypocrisy.

What was the legacy of the Hungarian Revolution?

Well over 2,000 Hungarians were killed during the uprising, and thousands more were later imprisoned or executed for having taken part. Fear and intimidation led to more than 200,000 being forced to flee the country. Two years after the revolution, Nagy was executed in secret, while Kadar, the man who replaced him, would go on to rule Hungary until 1988.

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However, the revolution was not a total failure, in that the Kadar regime did introduce a number of liberal reforms during its period in office. At the same time, the Hungarian Revolution foreshadowed later revolts such as an unsuccessful uprising in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and, finally, the wave of protests that helped bring down Communist Eastern Europe – and the Soviet Union itself – from 1989-91.

This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of History Revealed.