This article will feature in issue 37: Oppression and Resistance
Hungary had a rough 20th century – active in the first world war from the beginning, and losing with an incredibly unjust peace treaty (Treaty of Trianon, 1920). The country was massively destabilised during the interwar period.They joined the second world war on the side of Nazi Germany, who had promised the lost territories back for Hungary. During the war, Hungary lost many battles, the Russians had occupied its territory from 1945 and after the end of the war, they posed a claim to incorporate Hungary into the Soviet Union and establish a Communist State there. From 1944, a communist dictatorship was being built by the advice and supervision of the USSR. A one-party system was established by 1950 and all decisions were made within the structure of the communist party, the MDP Magyar Dolgozók Pártja, Hungarian Working People Party (MDP). The party controlled all aspects of economical, political and cultural life and the government and parliament functioned only to masquerade the authoritarian decision-making of the Party.
By 1953, there were grave issues with the Hungarian economy. After the death of Stalin there was also a certain level of uncertainty in the air – people were removed from positions and states’ politics were redefined. Due to these changes, two major groups within the party were formed – reformers led by Imre Nagy, who was Prime Minister at the time, and Stalinists, led by the infamous Rákosi-Gerő duo. The reformers executed many positive changes, such as people became able to leave from kolkhozes (collective farming facilities) and wages were raised.However, in 1955 Nagy was removed from his position and the new Stalinist government encouraged policies such as developing industry, speeding up collectivisation and compulsory increase in agricultural storage. People were unhappy due to these radical changes, and the tension between party and people grew day by day. Not only national political decisions, but other international events influenced the sentiments of the unsatisfied Hungarians (such as the revolution in Poznan).
During the fall of 1956, academics and university students had been vocal about their desire for systematic changes. The Magyar Egyetemsiták és Főiskolások Szövetsége, Association of Hungarian University and College Students (MEFESZ) issued 16 points, aiming at 16 different aspects of their current situation which they felt urgent to be dealt with. On the 23rd of October, the MEFESZ organised a solidarity march for Poznan, Poland. Within a few hours, there were 200,000 people participating and the silent commemoration became an aggressive protest against communism. There were three main groups of insurgents – those who went and destroyed the statue of Stalin, those who acted in armed conflict in the city centre and occupied the building of the National Radio station and those who went to continue protesting peacefully in front of the parliament. The 16 Points were read out all across Budapest, and they became the slogan of Revolution.
On the 24th, soviet tanks arrived at Budapest and the armed fights between the two sides became more intense. The news was spreading fast and many cities and villages in the countryside also protested against communism. People were shot dead at peaceful protests and people thought to be communist sympathisers were beaten to death. Imre Nagy was appointed as a new prime minister on the 24th of October and by the 28th, he decided to support the revolution. He encouraged the soviet tanks to leave Budapest, re-established pre-soviet symbols of democracy (for instance, the Kossuth-címer) and announced many other new plans for government reform. On the 31st, he announced that talks had begun for Hungary to leave from the Warsaw Pact. However, he did not know that due to international events (the Suez Crisis), the USSR has decided to destroy every possible element of resistance in Hungary.
By the 1st of November, there was news of forming soviet groups preparing to attack Budapest. Nagy announced Hungary’s seceding from the Warsaw Pact and declared independence. However, it was too late, and Hungary received no help from the West. On the 4th of November soviet forces started attacking Budapest and destroyed the ‘counter-revolutionaries’ (a name used to mark people participating in the Revolution of 1956).
The consequences of the revolution included a huge economic downturn, political instability and social crisis. The party changed direction in governance – led by János Kádár, the new prime minister, the party was still communist but pursued anti-Stalinist policies. This change in leadership won over most of the communist and anti-communist parts of the population. Within a few years, the country recovered economically, politically, and socially from the revolution. Kádár encouraged policies which improved standard living conditions, and the atmosphere was calm and peaceful for years. This made it possible for the party to establish a steady rule for nearly three decades.
The 23rd of October is a national holiday in Hungary. Its symbol is a Hungarian flag, with a hole in the middle, symbolising where participants cut out the communist state’s symbol. The music associated with the revolution is Beethoven’s Egmont Overture – which was one of the few records available on the Radio during the revolution. After the protesters occupied the main Radio Station, they played it often.
Culturally, the revolution still has a huge impact on today’s Hungarians – most young people have at least one family member who has direct connections to this revolution. They might not know them personally, but they know they were their grandparents or great-grandparents.
By Sara Kata