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Blood in the Water? The Hungarian Revolution of 1956

A bloody face: Ervin Zádor leaves pool bleeding after Olympic water polo match
A bloody face: Ervin Zádor leaves pool bleeding after Olympic water polo match

6 December 1956: The closing moments of an Olympic water polo match. Hungarian Ervin Zádor leaves the pool bleeding due to a punch from Soviet player Valentin Prokopov. The fracas? Evidence of the tensions consequential to a month’s worth of revolt in Hungary against the Soviet regime between 23 October and 10 November 1956.

The uprising of a student-led revolution characterised an opposition to the oppressive Soviet regime. Preceding the revolt, Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ of February 1956 condemned Stalin and his deputies within the Eastern bloc. The broadcast of the speech across Eastern Europe encouraged widespread anti-Soviet sentiment. Likewise, the US, aware of the potential nuclear consequences of turning the war from ‘cold’ to ‘hot’, were encouraging the bloc to rise and oppose the Soviet Union. In the summer of 1956, the US-Hungarian relationship brought fears that links with the West would weaken Communist dominance.

Hungarian opposition to the Soviet rule was typified on 23 October by a mass gathering under the dominating silhouette of a statue of Hungarian national hero, József Bem. Perhaps the most evocative symbol was protestors emphatically cutting the Communist badge from their flag. Their manifesto was simple: independence from foreign authority, democratic socialism, membership in the UN and the rights of free men. The revolt spread rapidly over the following days, attacks on parliament resulted in the fall of government on 24 October and a new regime was sworn in just four days later. A temporary ceasefire and an announcement from Hungary that it was withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact marked the transition from October to November. Nonetheless, fighting continued, and when the Soviet tanks arrived on 4 November, it took just a week to claim Soviet victory over these Hungarian freedom fighters.

The revolution was devastating in casualties and losses. Approximately 722 Soviet forces were killed with 1,540 wounded. An estimated 2,500-3,000 Hungarian revolutionaries were killed and 13,000 wounded. Over 3,000 civilians were killed. But what exactly was the legacy of this uprising? On the one hand, it was an exhibition of Soviet strength, which arguably intimidated other countries within the bloc. On the other, it was symptomatic of twentieth-century politics, the construction of a nationalistic drive for freedom against a dictatorial regime. It is difficult to point to the Hungarian uprising as a contributing factor to the eventual demise of the Soviet regime. However, the revolt incited ideological fissures within communist parties in Western Europe and garnered significant international attention, with Time magazine even naming the Hungarian freedom fighter its ‘Man of the Year’ for 1956. Fifty years on, and 23 October is heralded and commemorated as a Hungarian holiday, the legacy of the fight for nation and freedom perhaps its truest victory.