It has already been explained how deep was the crisis in the Hungarian communist system by the summer of 1952, due to the bad harvest and the strains of the first five-year plan, whose targets had been raised in 1951 far above what was realistic. All branches of the economy began to show serious imbalances. The signs were proliferating in 1952, but the crisis was not consciously acknowledged until almost a year later, early in the summer of 1953.

Worst hit was the countryside, where the first signs of mass rural resistance to the compulsory agricultural delivery system appeared in the summer of 1952. Sporadic acts of defiance-strikes by harvesters, denial of produce deliveries, demonstrations and instances of violence-occurred several times during the year. The opposition and unrest that became apparent in society led to hesitant moves to curry public favour. Free-market sales of grain were permitted again and some delivery norms were reduced. However, these did little to alter the fact that as 1953 began, Hungarian villages were short of food and of sowing seed.

Meanwhile the Prime Ministers Office began to make a comprehensive survey of the economic situation. Reports on some areas were completed, but they never submitted to the government or the HWP leadership. Word of them leaked to Moscow, however, through the network of Soviet controllers and advisers. So did some reports made in 1952 by the Administrative Department of the party centre, detailing the scale of the repression being used against the public. These were forwarded to the Kremlin by Yevgeny Kiselev, Soviet ambassador in Budapest, who appended the view that `excessive stringency´ against the workers was being coupled with `liberalism´ in the face of the enemy.

As in everything else, Rákosi sought to follow Stalin in his last great wave of reckoning. The HWP Central Committee announced at the end of February 1953 that Gábor Péter, head of the State Protection Authority (ÁVH), had been arrested, with several other senior ÁVH officers and leading party officials (including István Szirmay and András Bárd). The reckoning was coming perilously close to the inner circles of the party. Grave criticisms were levelled at István Kovács and Zoltán Vas, who were dropped from the Political Committee and sent to provincial posts. All these targets were of Jewish origin. The idea of an `anti-Zionist´ purge had emanated from Moscow, where it had begun in earlier years, but the signs of crisis probably increased the dormant tensions in the leadership as well. That was the situation when news arrived of Stalin´s death on March 5, 1953.


András Hegedüs, Mátyás Rákosi, Mihály Farkas and Sándor Rónai with foreign guests on the tribune of the plinth of the Stalin statue
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


There were still no signs of approaching change in Hungary after Stalin´s funeral. The results of the general elections held in May repeated those of 1949.


Mátyás Rákosi addresses an election rally in Kossuth Lajos tér, Budapest
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


Not until the end of spring 1953 did the first indication come from Moscow that the Soviet party leadership wanted some policy changes in its Eastern European allies, including Hungary.

Stalin´s successors - primarily Malenkov, Beria, Molotov and Khrushchev - had to face two fundamental questions. One was the succession, which it had not been possible to address during Stalin´s lifetime. The other was the need to consolidate the Soviet empire. Moves connected with the latter began with days of Stalin´s death. The ones that attracted most attention were the halt to the investigation of the `Jewish doctors´ accused of deliberately causing illness and death among the leadership and early measures to improve the standard of living. Malenkov and his colleagues were not traversing entirely uncharted territory. There were several signs that Stalin had been thinking of making certain changes during his last period of clarity, for instance of reducing the Cold War tensions. He had raised in 1952 the idea of uniting Germany as a neutral country and spoken of the possibility of avoiding another world war. The changes were made more urgent by discontent on the periphery of the empire, manifesting itself in strikes in Czechoslovakia in March 1953 and East Germany in mid-June, accompanied by open rebellion in East Berlin.

After Stalin´s death, his successors took the view that several countries in East-Central Europe were nearing detonation point. The reasons for this were similar in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and even the Soviet Union. The mass terror had assumed a scale and reached a level of unpredictability that no longer acted as a deterrent, because people had nothing to lose. Furthermore, it had ill effects on the operation of the economy, which combined with the grave imbalances caused by forced growth. Living standards in most countries had fallen sharply in 1951-2, from their already depressed post-war levels. Meanwhile the collectivization campaigns were causing on a smaller scale the problems apparent in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early 1930s: food shortages, depopulation of villages, shrinking livestock herds, land left uncultivated etc. The Eastern European party leaders (including Hungary´s at the end of 1952) tried to ease their economic difficulties with Soviet loans, although these funds were sorely needed for economic reconstruction in the Soviet Union itself. There were strong motives for settling relations with the West in some way, by consolidating the European situation, reducing the level of confrontation outside Europe (ending the Korean War), building more normal economic relations, and so on. Stalin´s successors were keen to consolidate and stabilize the domestic situation in the satellite states, whose Sovietization had proceeded too fast. However, much of the attention and energy of Stalin´s successors went into their personal struggles for power. There was agreement among them on the main issues, although some observers have intimated that Beria and Malenkov sought deeper changes than Molotov or Khrushchev (at least at that time). What really divided them were their several ambitions to gain the supreme position. The outcome of these had not been decided when the change of political course began in Hungary. Soon afterwards, however, in the last days of June 1953, the other three leaders combined to oust Beria, who was immediately arrested.


Khrushchev, Nikita Sergeyevich
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


Beria, Lavrentij Pavlovich
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


Rákosi had maintained direct, personal (and radio) contact with Stalin during his lifetime. It had largely depended on the dialogue between them what aspects of the information gathered by the Soviet supervisory apparatus in Hungary were used and how this was done. After Stalin´s death, quantities of data and reports that had been shelved in earlier years were brought out again. Foreign Minister Molotov called for a report from Ambassador Kiselev and studied collections of papers dating back several years. These provided a basis on which he and other members of the leadership reached an assessment of the situation in Hungary.

At the end of May 1953, the CPSU leaders told Rákosi that they thought excessive investment was causing the living standard to fall, which in turn was poisoning the political atmosphere. They advised him to lower the plan targets for 1953 and 1954. Projects calling for big investment and offering a slow rate of return should be delayed and public consumption raised. These changes should also be accompanied by personnel changes, he was told, with young, intellectual cadres of the post-1945 generation joining the leadership. Rákosi was to be relieved of his position as party general secretary. There was even talk of an amnesty to mark August 20 (`Constitution Day´), although the cadre exchange also admitted the possibility of a purge.

Early in June 1953, the Soviet party leaders summoned Rákosi and several other Hungarian party leaders to Moscow. Rákosi headed the delegation, which left on June 12, 1953. It included three of the five deputy premiers (Ernő Gerő, Imre Nagy and István Hidas), the head of the government secretariat (Béla Szalai), the agriculture minister (András Hegedus), the first secretary of the Budapest HWP Committee (Rudolf Földvári), and the president of the Presidential Council (István Dobi, not formally a party member). Behind the choice lay the May call for changes in the Hungarian party and state leadership. Rákosi had so far failed to suggest anyone as his own deputy. So the guest list consisted partly of prospective candidates for promotion, according to the Soviet leaders´ own information, Kiselev´s reports and briefings from Rákosi.

Rákosi, in his introduction at the talks, described a situation in which any mistakes had already been corrected, in line with the instructions he had received earlier from Moscow. That was not the construction his negotiating partners had been expecting. `We have the impression that the Hungarian comrades underestimate the shortcomings,´ said Malenkov. He cited the situation with the agricultural cooperatives, the excesses in the compulsory delivery system and the great number of prosecutions of peasants.


Malenkov, Georgij Makszimilianovics
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


The other Soviet leaders concentrated mainly on the catastrophic plight of agriculture, the excessive pace of industrialization and the vast scale of repression. Beria strongly criticized the fact that Rákosi was personally directing the state-security system, intervening in specific investigations and giving personal orders for physical force to be used. He announced that Rákosi had to resign as prime minister in favour of Imre Nagy. Khrushchev stated that Rákosi was clearly to blame for the mistakes. Rákosi tried to defend himself on some questions, pleading Soviet instructions received from Stalin or elsewhere, but it was fruitless. At several points, Beria clearly distanced himself and his colleagues from the dead leader.

The Soviet leaders more or less ordered the Hungarians to prepare a written plan of action for correcting the errors and to compile a list of the envisaged changes of personnel. The delegation members duly produced these two documents while they were still in Moscow. Imre Nagy successfully argued that the proposals should include abolishing the kulak list and making it possible for members to withdraw from agricultural cooperatives. The draft party resolution compiled by the Hungarians was then discussed with the Soviet leaders at a second round of talks. The latter insisted that the document should specify the personal responsibility borne by Rákosi, Gerő, Mihály Farkas and Révai. At Molotov´s suggestion, it was stated that forcibly organized agricultural cooperatives could be dissolved.


Molotov, Vjacseszlav Mihajlovics
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


Back in Budapest, the change of political direction was still implemented in the old way, through the leading bodies of the party, under Rákosi´s direction. It was decided that a different motion should be put before the Central Committee than before `the broad public´. Alarmed by the East Berlin strike and uprising of June 16-17, Rákosi agreed that the `gravest crisis´ would threaten unless the Hungarian leadership immediately changed course.An expanded meeting of the Central Committee met on June 27. Rákosi analysed in detail his personal responsibility for the mistakes committed. As instructed, he condemned the cult of personality, excessive personal direction, concentration of power on himself and a few others, relegation of cadres `of Hungarian extraction´ (i.e. the preponderance of those of Jewish origin in the leadership), and party domination over the organs of the state. Imre Nagy went further than the criticism from the Soviet leaders, which was devoid of deeper analysis, to address the question of how such grave distortions could have happened. `The mistakes for which Comrade Rákosi, as party leader, is primarily responsible arose because the party under his leadership departed, in its internal operation, guiding principles and practical activity in many fields of work, from the bases of Marxism-Leninism, offended against them... We offended against the underlying principles of people´s democracy, in respect of the party and the state and of the party and the popular masses.´ Nagy did not use the expression `party-state´, but he spoke of a `shadow government´ and of a `police state´. His proposals included the phrases `the democratic principle of true popular representation´ and `governmental responsibility´. He added that `further steps must be taken in the field of democratizing the life of the state.´ He dismissed the economic policy pursued as adventurist. Although everyone supported the resolution, the identification with it remained formal in many cases. Most Central Committee members showed no inclination to take Imre Nagy´s appeal seriously or even to ponder on the `roots of the mistakes´.

The Central Committee left the final wording of the resolution to the new Political Committee. As for the question of publishing it, Rákosi received a message from Moscow during the meeting. `The comrades called him to the telephone and said they recognized this resolution, we should not publish this resolution, we should only publish the resolution once the results of it had appeared.´ In this way, it was decided to publish news of the new political course not in a report of the Central Committee meeting, but in Parliament, as the programme of the new government.

The Central Committee resolution (eventually published only in 1985, in a Hungarian samizdat publication) fell into four main sections. The first dealt with the mistakes committed, the second with the causes of these, the third with immediate economic-policy and other measures, and the fourth with organizational tasks. The first section established that the economy has been run according to a sectarian type of policy that treated socialist industrialization as an end in itself. An exceptionally grave situation had arisen in agriculture, due to the reduction of investment, hindrances to the independent peasantry (taxes, compulsory deliveries, penalties), excessive burdens on the kulaks and the forced rate of collectivization. The living standards of the population had fallen significantly. Society was burdened by masses of oppressive measures.

The resolution saw as the main reason for the mistakes the fact that the party was under personal leadership instead of collective leadership, for which Mátyás Rákosi and also Ernő Gerő, Mihály Farkas and József Révai were responsible. Rákosi had personally directed the ÁVH, which had carried out the repression.

There would have to be a radical change in the economic policy of the party. This meant reducing the pace of industrialization, especially in heavy industry, and revising the development plans for the economy, including those for investment. In agriculture, it proposed abolishing the kulak lists, substantially reducing the burdens on individual peasants, and allowing withdrawals from agricultural cooperatives (albeit not immediately and under unfavourable conditions).

The final section discussed structural changes to be made in the political leadership. The title of general secretary was to be abolished. There would be a new, smaller Political Committee, to which the Secretariat would be subordinate. The positions of prime minister and party leader would be held by different people. The party leadership recommended Imre Nagy for prime minister. Mihály Farkas and Révai were to remain in the Political Committee, but its make-up was to change radically. Rákosi remained as first secretary of the party and Gerő received considerable power as deputy prime minister and interior minister.

What had directed Moscow´s attention to Imre Nagy? In 1952, the anti-Zionist campaign had helped to advance him from minister of collection to a deputy prime minister, since he was a non-Jewish member of the Hungarian leadership. He was thought to be the best expert in Hungary on agricultural matters, at a time when the Soviets saw agriculture as one of the main factors behind the crisis. Furthermore, Moscow needed someone whom it `knew´, and whose previous life and political character could be `checked´. Nagy had lived in Moscow from 1930 to 1944. He was the only member of the Hungarian leadership to have argued with Rákosi and Gerő over the issue of agricultural transformation in 1948-9, advocating precisely the platform that Moscow had now adopted as the remedy for the crisis. Coupling the over-industrializing Rákosi and Gerő with a politically trained agricultural expert as head of government offered a basic equation for the `balance of personnel´ that was seen to be so important in Moscow.

The new Parliament elected on May 17, 1953 convened on July 3. Rákosi submitted his resignation in the name of his government. The new government was elected the following morning, on July 4, after which Imre Nagy gave his speech outlining his government programme. This was reported by the radio in its midday news bulletin and broadcast in full at eight o´clock in the evening. By that time, the whole country was listening with strong expectations, since it had emerged from the news bulletins that the sitting of Parliament and the prime minister´s speech were events of real interest. (Little heed had been paid to them in previous years.)


Imre Nagy presents his government programme on the second day of Parliament
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


Imre Nagy´s speech in Parliament was built mainly on the third section of the Central Committee resolution, to do with the immediate tasks. However, Nagy expanded this and altered its political tone in some places. For instance, he announced that with this Parliament, `a new stage in our development begins, in which stronger expression must be given to the sovereignty of the people and a greater role to Parliament in legally directing the activity of the state, deciding the underlying principles and objectives of responsible government, and asserting the constitutional rights of the National Assembly.´ The part covering economic policy set out from the June party resolution. `I have to state frankly before the country that the targets of the increased five-year plan exceed our capacities in many respects... The government will reconsider the economic plan in the production and investment fields and make a recommendation for reducing it appropriately. The development direction of the people´s economy will also have to be altered. There is nothing to justify the excessive industrialization and effort towards industrial autarky, especially if we do not possess the requisite basis of raw materials.´ When it came to agricultural policy, Nagy went beyond the party document, calling for a change of strategy. `Our agricultural production is known to rest decisively on individual farms... The government intends to strengthen the security of peasant production and property by every means.´ He announced that the government would leave room for private enterprise and enable the issue of permits to ply a trade. Nagy addressed strata and groups in society such as the old intelligentsia and religious people, who had been referred to only pejoratively (if not as enemies) in recent years. `We must show greater tolerance in religious matters,´ he said. `It is unacceptable to apply administrative methods in this field.´

The passage on policy towards the intelligentsia was followed by a sentence in the government programme that most listeners were to remember word for word: `Greater attention than hitherto must be paid to the people´s schools. Investment in them must increase and the number of schools, classrooms and teachers proliferate, to ensure optimal conditions for the elementary education of the hopes for the future, the little Hungarians.´ Yet the most important part of his speech, affecting the whole of society most generally, was still to come: `The government, in all its activity, stands on the basis of legal order and legality laid down in the constitution. The basis of our people´s democratic system of state and our economic and social activity is socialist legality-strict observance of the civil rights and obligations laid down in the constitution and the laws of our people´s republic.´ Nagy qualifies the word legality with the attribute socialist, which the decisive majority of his listeners would have taken as narrowing its scope. But what came next named the events for what they were, without any qualification. `Our judicial and police organizations and local councils have often failed in their work to give due validity to the fundamental principle of the people´s democratic theory of state and of government: legality. The many judicial and petty proceedings, widely applied administrative procedures, mass excesses and abuses in compulsory deliveries, tax collection, kulak lists and consolidation of holdings, and other types of harassment have offended against the public´s sense of justice and shaken their faith in legality... Even otherwise correct, fair and lawful measures have been implemented in a way that embitters the lives of the people... Consolidating legality is one of the government´s most urgent tasks.´ What Nagy outlined was no less than having his government end the state of war against society.

The vast majority of Hungarian society greeted the speech with pleasure, relief and hope. It may not be an exaggeration to say that this was the first speech from a communist leader since 1945 to be applauded by most of the country. The beneficiaries of the policy of previous years, on the other hand, greeted the government programme with suspicion, fearing for their privileges, great and small. The programme did not promise radical alterations or a change of system. It simply announced a course correction so that the system would remain workable. However, it rested on recognition that even a Stalinist tyranny was unable to force through the `building of socialism´ while diametrically confronting society. It showed that communism itself was not uniform, but a plural phenomenon susceptible to reappraisal, in which reformers and intentions of reform might appear. This meant much in the very tense situation at that time. More than anything, it gave hope that political thinking and political struggle would become relevant again, even if this happened in a narrow sense, under very straitened conditions.

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This page was created: Friday, 5-Dec-2003
Last updated: Friday, 5-Dec-2003
Copyright © 2003 The Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

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