The Hungarian Revolution, 1956

“Russia Go Home!” written on a shop window in Budapest. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

On November 1st, 1956 the Hungarian Revolution turned hot when revolutionary leader Imre Nagy announced his plan to withdraw the country from the Warsaw Pact and distance itself from the Soviet Union. Hungary, like most of Eastern Europe at the time, was a “satellite state” of the USSR – that is, a country that was technically independent but economically and politically dominated by Russia. The Warsaw Pact – a military alliance of eastern Communist Powers designed to emulate NATO – was instrumental in keeping satellite states in line.

ASAP: Hungarian requests for rights were met with Soviet tank brigades, but the brutality of Russia’s reaction paved the way for a liberalizing of Hungary.

Read on for details!
Russian tanks advance into Budapest on November 4th. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The uprising began officially in late October when students published a list of 16 demands, including reducing the powers of the ÁVH secret police (a Soviet puppet organization). Nikita Khrushchev had initially kept Soviet troops from intervening; but on November 1st with Nagy’s announcement of Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, the Russian premier sent tanks into Budapest. The uprising was brutally suppressed, with roughly 20,000 revolutionaries killed. Imre Nagy was spirited away and eventually murdered in 1958 by Russian security forces.

The confusing political state of Eastern Europe during the Cold War. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

In defeat, however, the Hungarians found a victory of sorts (to paraphrase Paul Lendvai, the definitive author on Hungarian history). After a brief but brutal campaign against “enemies of the state”, the new Prime Minister János Kádár led Hungary into what’s known as the Kádár Thaw: police powers were limited, economic restrictions were limited and the country gradually transformed into “the Happiest Barracks” of the Eastern Bloc. After the 1940s and 50s – a time of brutal Stalinist repression across the East – Hungary experienced a new sort of relative freedom in the 1960s. Hungarian leadership had apparently learned that pushing the people too far had consequences, and found that “softer” power was more sustainable (despite being behind the “Iron Curtain” of Communism). Hungary remained one of the most progressive and “free” of the satellite states right up until the end, when it peacefully voted itself out of the Soviet system in the late 1980s.

Main Points

In a hurry? Here are the main points on this topic.

  • In 1956, Hungary was under brutal Soviet-style governance. Students and citizens didn’t like this, and staged an uprising – a Hungarian tradition dating back to 1848 and before.
  • Soviet leadership was unsure what to do until Hungarian leader Imre Nagy tried to withdraw the country from the Warsaw Pact (an Eastern Bloc military alliance). Soviet troops entered Budapest and killed 20,000 Hungarians. Hungary was placed back under the control of a Russian puppet leader.
  • Wary of further revolutions, initially brutal Hungarian leader János Kádár kicked off a series of reforms that made Hungary one of the “happiest” communist countries in the Eastern Bloc.

Food for Thought

Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic. (Remember – be specific! Hungary’s had a lot of revolutions).

  • What are some other disasters throughout Hungarian history, and did they have a productive outcome for the nation? How do they compare to 1956?
  • Was Hungary unique within the Warsaw Pact?
  • Why did Nikita Khrushchev feel pressured to send Soviet troops in to stop the uprising?
  • What were some of the causes of the 1956 Uprising? Was it inevitable?
  • Could the uprising have succeeded? If so, how? Compare it to other uprisings around the world in the mid 1950s.

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Lendvai, Paul. “The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat.” Princeton University Press, 2003.
  • Dreisziger, Nador F. “The Hungarian Revolution of 1956: The Legacy of the Refugees.” Nationalities Papers 13, no. 2 (1985): 198–208.
  • Danyi, Gábor. “Phantom Voices from the Past: Memory of the 1956 Revolution and Hungarian Audiences of Radio Free Europe.” The Hungarian Historical Review 5, no. 4 (2016): 790-813.
  • Poggi, Isotta. “The Photographic Memory and Impact of the Hungarian 1956 Uprising during the Cold War Era.” Getty Research Journal, no. 7 (2015): 197-206.
  • Király, Béla K. “Budapest 1956: A History of the Hungarian Revolution. By Miklós Molnár. Translated by Jennetta Ford. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1968. 303 Pp. £4.25.” Slavic Review 32, no. 4 (1973): 842–42.

One thought on “The Hungarian Revolution, 1956

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s