On the morning of October 23, 1956, Szabad Nép (Free People), the national daily paper of the communist party, ran a leading article entitled New, spring muster of forces. (The title was taken from a revolutionary poem written by Endre Ady in 1911, in a reference to traditions of modernization and intellectual revolution at that time.) The leader warmly welcomed the politicizing youth of Hungary, as partners in the struggle to democratize socialism. The editors endorsed most of the university students demands, although they toned down or ignored some of the strongest political aspirations. Nonetheless, the revolt by the paper was an important event on that day. The students, who had the initiative on their side but still lacked political weight, had gained help and protection from one of the important factors of power. Alongside the leader supporting the demands, the paper published the communiqué of the Writers Union, greeting enthusiastically the changes in Poland, but dissociating itself from the demonstration in support of them.
The situation was still unsettled. The radio had also reported that there would be a demonstration of sympathy. However, there was no way of telling whether the authorities would support it or simply tolerate it, and if they supported it, what forces would favour it and for how long, and what relations would develop among the forces championing the reforms.
The position of the group of intellectuals and politicians surrounding Imre Nagy was not clear either. Nagy himself came out strongly against the demonstration, because several points in the university students demands went beyond what he envisaged. He justifiably feared that the radicalism of the young people might jeopardize the gains already made, which were looking more hopeful still after the events in Poland. Nagy interpreted the dismissal of Rákosi and the restoration of his own party membership to mean that the party at last thought it was time to continue the reforms of 1953.
On the same morning, the party and government delegation led by Ernő Gerő arrived back from Belgrade, having concluded a historic reconciliation with the Yugoslav leadership. They were astonished to hear the bleak picture of the domestic scene painted by their colleagues who had remained behind. The Political Committee of the Hungarian Workers Party (HWP) met immediately, but heard first Gerős account of the Yugoslav negotiations. Only then was Lajos Ács, the senior Political Committee member to have stayed at home, able to report on the domestic situation and the demonstration of young people due to take place later in the day. Two strongly opposing views developed. One was advanced by József Révai and György Marosán. They saw a threat of counter-revolution and pressed for the strongest measures: ban the demonstration and authorize the armed forces to use arms against those who defied the ban. The interior and defence ministers still considered that the armed forces they commanded would be capable of implementing such a resolution. At the other extreme was the assessment Ács made. He disputed that the situation threatened to become a counter-revolution and supported the political remedy of bringing Imre Nagy into the government.
The work of the Political Committee kept being interrupted by the arrival of delegationsfrom the editors of Szabad Nép, the Budapest party committee, the Union of Working Youth (Disz), the Writers Union, the heads of the Petőfi Circle, and so on. There were violent disputes and debate interspersed with personal recriminations before a compromise decision could be reached. The rally was banned, but authorization to fire on those flouting the ban was withheld. Political Committee members were sent to key places to implement the resolution and help to maintain order. Révai went to the offices of Szabad Nép, János Kádár to the Radio, György Marosán to the National Council of Hungarian Trade Unions (Szot), and others to the Budapest and district party committees. Those who were sent off soon discovered for themselves that the resolution could not be implemented. During the morning, the majority on the Political Committee were denounced not only by people in the street, the students and the opposition, but by increasing numbers within the party apparatus. The all-powerful party discipline of old had broken down. Several party organizations protested immediately at the ban on the demonstration and the way the Central Committee meeting was being postponed. Disz, eager to retain its residual influence over young people, decided to ignore the Political Committee ban, join the demonstration and try to take control of it. One decisive factor was that growing numbers of workers joined the students in their demands. Meanwhile loyalty was shaken at the officers schools, which formed the basis of the security forces in Budapest, and the students of the military academies, approached by their university counterparts, assured them of their support. Sándor Kopácsi, the Budapest chief of police, announced that his force would not use arms against peaceful demonstrators. The reliability of the army was also in doubt, so that the security police, the ÁVH, remained as the only armed force on which the authorities could fully rely. These developments convinced the party leaders they lacked the force to crush the demonstration. Reluctantly they lifted the ban, authorized the demonstration, and even called on Budapest party organizations to take part, so as to prevent the opposition demands from spreading. The defence minister, István Bata, allowed soldiers to attend, unarmed, of course, and not in their units.
Elsewhere, some measures to keep order were attempted. Armed reinforcements were sent several times to the Radio, where the students had been demanding since the previous evening that their demands be read on the air. Detachments were also sent to other points of strategic or other importance.
The demonstration set off simultaneously from Pest and Buda at three in the afternoon, increasing rapidly in numbers and becoming more radical on the way. The slogans demanding reforms grew stronger and sharper, and the national elements gained ground. Workers arriving after the morning shift joined the young people on mass. The initial bloc of university students was joined by more and more sections of the public. The march was urged on by increasingly strident shouts of approval and encouragement from windows and pavements as it went by.
|Demonstrators on the
inner boulevard of Pest (Tanács körút) on October 23, 1956
Not even the organizers or the Petőfi Circle, which had undertaken to lead the demonstrators, were expecting such a crowd. They were unprepared for the task of controlling it, which they could hardly have managed in any case. The Circles one loudspeaker van became lost in the throng. The two marches met in Bem tér, the Buda square on the opposite bank of the Danube from Parliament, where the symbol of the revolution was bornthe Hungarian tricolour with the crest of Rákosis Soviet-type regime cut out of it. There Péter Veres read out the demands of the Writers Union, but his voice was lost in the multitude.
|Students of Eötvös Loránd
University on October 23, 1956, at the statue of József Bem, a
Polish general who served in the 18489 Hungarian War of Independence
Most of the crowd marched from Bem tér to Kossuth tér, the square before Parliament, calling for Imre Nagy. Others gathered at the Radio or at the statue of Stalin.
Although the situation was already tense in the afternoon, it might still have been possible to prevent the events from turning into an armed uprising. In the event, there was no one taking part in the events of October 23 who would have been capable of averting the storm. The authorities showed a combination of weakness and resistance. Although strong reinforcements had arrived at the Radio, it was a long time before the authorities dared to use force against the demonstrators, while on the other hand, they were not prepared to yield to the demands. Instead of seeking a solution, they tried a stratagem, providing the protesters with a microphone attached to a van, as if they were going to broadcast the demands. In other words, the authorities were unable to say no and unwilling to say yes, which only enhanced the demonstrators commitment and boldness, and their frustration. The situation was the same in Kossuth tér. The street lighting in the square was turned off, in the vain hope that this would persuade the crowd waiting for Imre Nagy to disperse. Instead the demonstrators lit torchesmainly made out of copies of Szabad Nép, the daily paper with the biggest circulation. This literally added fuel to their commitment. The lights were soon switched on again, but in response to calls from the crowd, the light in the red star on top of the Parliament building was switched off. Such small successes encouraged people to hope for greater ones.
All these developments placed one of the keys to the situation in the hands of Imre Nagy. It was not an encouraging sign that he refused to budge from his home despite the demands of the demonstrators and the urgings of his friends and followers. Only when called upon to do so by the party would he appear on the balcony of Parliament, about nine oclock in the evening, and even then, his speech caused disappointment. It was not just that he began it with the official style of greeting (Comrades) or that much of it could not be heard. It was also because of what could be heard. Nagy promised no more (or less) than consistent implementation of his 1953 programmea moderate reform of socialism, to be conducted by the ruling party. At an early stage this would have sufficed, but it was too little for a crowd that had lost its fears and was voicing demands that reached further than the promises Nagy was making. The demonstration did not break up. Only a minority returned home at Nagys behest. Meanwhile the chance had been lost for a communist leader who was respected and trusted by the people to come forward, head the crowd, keep events within bounds, and avert the outbreak of armed conflict.
The violence broke out at the Radio studios, where both sides had been receiving reinforcements all day. ÁVH men, police and later soldiers (the last without ammunition) had been arriving on the one side, and demonstrators on the othergroups who had broken off from the marches or come straight to the Radio, and later groups from the demonstration in Kossuth tér. By the time the scheduled speech of Gerő was broadcast at eight in the evening, there had been several minor clashes, but shots had not yet been fired. The party first secretarys speech was oil on the flames. The demonstrators, hearing the speech from radios in windows, were understandably enraged to hear Gerős unjust and insulting accusations while they were still trying in vain to have their demands broadcast. They already had weapons by this time. The crowd contained large numbers of workers aware of which Budapest factories manufactured and stored arms, which they were able to obtain quite quickly. Increasing numbers of demonstrators obtained arms from the soldiers sent to defend the Radio, some of whom were prepared to surrender their weapons voluntarily or after nominal threats had been made. Last but not least, many of the weapons and ammunition being delivered for the defenders found their way to the besieging crowd instead. The first shot was fired from the Radio building about nine oclock that night under circumstances that have still not been clarified exactly. Then followed the siege of the Radio, ending with its capture at dawn.
|The siege of the Radio
evening of October 23, 1956
At the same time as the armed conflict broke out, the massive statue of Stalin in Dózsa György út was being toppled. The colossus was dragged behind a lorry to Blaha Lujza tér, before the National Theatre, where it was smashed to pieces by the people.
|The toppled statue of Stalin in Blaha Lujza tér in October 1956 (photograph by Sándor Bojár)|
Some important events also took place in the provinces on October 23. Party members in Miskolc had been gathering complaints and problems from their fellow workers for some days, with the intention of debating them at an all-day free discussion within the party. This gave rise on October 23 to a 17-point list of demands. The Miskolc university students added a further four points of a clearly political nature and immediately placed the list before the factory and city party leaders. The organizers of the protest formed a Workers Organizing Committee, a prototype of the later workers councils. Demonstrations were held in several other university towns, of which the most important was in Debrecen. There the first demonstration set out from the Faculty of Humanities building in the morning, with the students calling on the factory workers to join them. By late afternoon, some 20,00030,000 people, parading before the county police headquarters, were fired upon by ÁVH men, first with blanks and then with live bullets. Six people were injured and three lost their lives. They were the first mortal victims of the revolution.
Meanwhile Marshal Georgy Zhukov painted a bleaker picture of events than the real one, based on reports being received from Hungary. Nonetheless, the Soviet leadership hesitated before deciding on an armed intervention. One factor was certainly the success in finding a peaceful solution to the crisis in Poland, which had greater strategic and political significance than Hungary. This seemed to increase the chances that a similar scenario might ensue in Hungary. Furthermore, Moscow was reluctant to resort to a violent, military intervention for fear of upsetting the process of international détente, which was sluggishly getting under way at this time.
Hardly an hour after the armed conflict had broken out at the Radio, Khrushchev was talking to the Hungarian party first secretary over the telephone. After repeated prompting from Gerő and Soviet Ambassador Yury Andropov, Khrushchev said he would give permission for Soviet forces stationed in Hungary to take part in restoring order, provided the Hungarian Council of Ministers (government) subsequently requested them to do so in writing. (András Hegedüs signed such a request several days later.) At the same time, Moscow sent to Hungary Ivan Serov, president of the KGB, and Army General Mikhail Malinin, deputy chief of staff, which showed that after its initial hesitation, it was taking the situation very seriously and prepared to give every support to restoring order quickly. The Soviet units duly received orders at nine oclock that night to advance on Budapest and help in restoring order. That put paid to any hope of a relatively bloodless solution to the crisis. The intervention of the Soviet troops swelled the ranks of the resisters and added to the revolution the dimension of a national liberation struggle.
Apart from providing military help to the Hungarian communist regime, Moscow also contributed two members of the Presidium of the CPSU to the political struggle. The choices were Anastas Mikoyan, the only Presidium member to speak against military intervention, and Mikhail Suslov, a hard-liner. They were to complement and supervise each other while cooperating on resolving the crisis.
The Political Committee and then the Central Committee of the HWP, or rather those members who could be informed and could reach the party centre, remained in session from the evening hours until dawn the following day, October 24. Imre Nagy, who arrived from Parliament, had to wait before he could take part in the decision-making and debate, until he had been re-elected to the party bodies. The leadership started from the assumption that the Soviet troops arriving in Budapest would break up the disturbances without meeting any resistance. The Hungarian partys task would mainly be to support the Soviet display of strength and the conditions for political development alongside the military restoration of order. So they chose a course of deterrence. A curfew and a ban on all gatherings were imposed along with state of emergency. A Military Committee headed by István Kovács was convened to provide coordination between the Soviet and Hungarian armed forces. The Central Committee issued a blanket condemnation of the action. It dubbed those who took part in the armed uprising the dark horde of reaction, whose purpose was to rob our people of their freedom and restore the rule of capitalists and landlords.
On the other hand, to appease the public, some personnel changes were agreed. Imre Nagy was nominated for the post of prime minister, although the new government was not inaugurated, so that the cabinet of András Hegedüs remained in office until October 27. After some debate, changes were also made in the leading bodies of the party. Gerő was retained as first secretary. Nagy had tied his acceptance of the premiership to Gerős dismissal, but Gerő still had the support of Nagys own candidate for the position, János Kádár, and of the majority of the Central Committee, so that Nagy had to bow to the inevitable. However, he managed to have two of his reforming supporters, Ferenc Donáth and Géza Losonczy, elected to the Central Committee and several Stalinists dropped from it.
During the night, before the Soviet troops arrived, there were attacks not only on munitions factories, but on printing presses and telephone exchanges, and late at night on police stations and military and paramilitary institutions. Insurgents also captured the offices of Szabad Nép for a time. Fighting intensified and spread after the Soviet forces arrived at dawn. Armed groups formed mainly along the main transport lines, intent on preventing the Soviets from entering Budapest and later central Budapest.
|Rebels erecting a street barricade|
Despite being poorly armed, the young people, brought up on Soviet war films and novels, fought successfully against the Soviet tanks, which lacked infantry support and had not been expecting resistance, so that they suffered some serious losses. The fiercest clashes occurred round the Radio and the Szabad Nép offices and on the routes to them: in Boráros tér (the square at the Pest end of Petőfi Bridge), at the junction of Üllői út with the grand boulevard, and in Baross tér, outside the Western Railway Station. Because of the fighting, the Soviets could not even approach the Radio on the morning of the 24th, and it was occupied by the insurrectionists at dawn. However, the transmissions were transferred to an emergency studio in Parliament.
The strong measures taken overnight (the curfew, the ban on assemblies, the state of emergency, and placing the armed forces on alert) helped temporarily to prevent the uprising in Budapest from escalating or spreading to the provinces. Although there were demonstrations in a few towns on the 24th, local party and military leaders remained in control of the situation. Most people were receiving only defective and sporadic information. They tended to remain as observers, trying to find out what was going on in the country. The curfew announced on the radio after nine in the morning kept the less committed people off the streets, but it could not stop employees following events at work, where groups discussed the developments with increasing boldness.
More tangible help for the rebels also reached Budapest. Demands were formulated in a small number of cases, and even in the provinces there were sporadic attacks on the advancing Soviet forces.
The bans and the state of emergency, backed by Soviet armour, failed to end the armed uprising. Indeed the rebels scored some significant successes on the 24th. Early in the morning, they took over a military recruitment centre in Csepel, one of the main industrial districts of Budapest, and the Athenaeum Press, where they set about printing leaflets. However, the important achievement of the armed rebels was not to capture an occasional public building and retain it for a few hours, but to keep the uprising alive, so that the show of force and even armoured attack by the Soviet regular army failed to sweep them away. The rebels held out against greatly superior Soviet forces, while suffering quite serious losses, and by doing so they raised the prospect of a political victory.
The delegates from the Presidium of the CPSU were briefed on the military situation in the early morning hours, and then had talks in the afternoon with a small group of HWP leaders. Mikoyan and Suslov agreed with the Hungarian leaders in hoping that the uprising could be suppressed in a matter of hours. As they said in their report to Moscow, All the centres of the rebels have been dispersed and elimination of the main centre, at the Radio, is now taking placed [sic]. Indeed they reproved the Hungarian leadership for exaggerating the danger in the information they passed to Moscow. The Soviet delegates optimism helped the Hungarian leaders to see hope in the situation, so that most of the discussion concerned what consolidation measures to take after the armed suppression of the revolt.
The respite after Soviet help arrived permitted Imre Nagy, in a speech broadcast about midday, to refer to his plan for radical reforms. It also meant that the authorities could refrain from applying the provisions of the state of emergency to rebels who had been caught. There was confidence that the remaining centres of resistance could be broken up overnight. So it was announced that the curfew would be lifted temporarily next day, to allow the public to buy food and the authorities to demonstrate that order had been restored.
Yet the country presented and perceived a quite different picture outside the charmed walls of the party centre. Ferenc Donáth and Géza Losonczy, elected at dawn to the Central Committee, realized that the partys half-hearted, ambiguous decisions could never produce a situation that they could accept. The scarcely changed leadership was incapable of democratizing the country or even managing the crisis, and its inconsistent policies were sweeping the country towards an even greater catastrophe. The two put their assessment of the situation and their proposals for resolving the crisis in a letter to the Central Committee, adding that under the circumstances they saw no chance of joining in the work of the party leadership. In their view, the basic condition for progress would be for the party to make a radical break with its mistaken and criminal policy, and place Hungarys relations with the Soviet Union on a new footing. As a foundation for all this, they called for far-reaching personnel changes. There was a temporary cooling of relations with Imre Nagy, whom they thought had left them and the reforms in the lurch.
Despite the delusions of the party leadership, the chances of victory, rather than defeat for the revolution were increasing during the day. After the CPSU delegates arrived, Nagy remained in the office and position he had gained despite the cautious, but clear disapproval of Khrushchev. During the early days, the Imre Nagy group did not follow its leader, did not bow down to the party leadership, and for want of the requisite guarantees, did not endorse the way order was being restored. The temporarily independent course taken by Nagys followers had its dangers. Divorced from those who shared his ideas, it was possible that Nagy might come under the influence of the hard-liners, or fail to pursue consistently the purposes that had prompted him to accept the position offered to him. However, it also left open the possibility that Nagy, influenced by his former associates, might return to the course he had been forced to abandon on the night of October 23, and stand again at the head of those struggling for consistent reforms. This is indeed what happened in the next few days.
Of course all further consideration of the political chances would have been irrelevant if the Soviet army had managed to sweep the armed rebels aside. In the event, they graduated into freedom fighters and held out. This left no room for restoring order with the help of limited forces. It obliged Moscow and the Hungarian communist leadership to choose between military intervention on the one hand, with its unforeseeable loss of life (and international repercussions), or a political solution on the other.
Another important contributing force to the revolutions success emerged on October 24. The demands drawn up by the workers of Miskolc were accepted by the county first secretary of the HWP, Rudolf Földvári, who was a former Political Committee member, and he agreed to head the delegation delivering their 21 points to Imre Nagy. For the workers in one of socialist Hungarys heavy industrial strongholds to make demands that matched the ones made by the people of Budapest weakened the arguments of those who tried to attribute all the events in the capital to the machinations of counter-revolutionaries. It was not a mob that was trying to impose their demands on the premier. Here was one of his fellow comrades putting forward a list of points, of which many could be read in programmes drawn up earlier by Nagy himself.
The radio broadcasts in the early morning of October 25 (the only regular source of news) took the aims and assessments of the Central Committee at face value and declared that the fighting was over. The bulletin at 4.30 a.m. announced, The counter-revolutionary gangs have largely been eliminated. This was repeated in an official statement from the Council of Ministers two hours later: The attempted counter-revolutionary coup has been eliminated! The counter-revolutionary forces have been routed! The radio went on to report that life was getting back to normal. Transport was running again. People had been called back to work. Pensions were being posted on time. One sign of the authorities renewed self-confidence was the behaviour of one of the senior officers at National Police Headquarters. Reckoning that the fighting was over, he gave orders for the pursuit of those who had fled to the provinces.
These moves by the party leadership were mistaken from the outset.
|Russian soldiers by the Pest end of Liberty Bridge, on October 25, 1956|
Further Soviet units were brought into Hungary from abroad, but even with the reinforcements, the Soviets found they were unable to mop up the resistance, notwithstanding the reports to the contrary. The Radio, in the heart of the city, remained in rebel hands. Indeed groups began to organize themselves on the 24th and 25th into rebel units with a more permanent character and composition, usually with a core of men who had known each other personally beforehand, for instance at work. The actions of particular groups or individuals began to have influence on their neighbourhoods as well. In short, the situation on the morning of the 25th differed fundamentally from the forecasts of the previous evening. This meant that lifting some of the emergency measures was not going to have the expected effect unless it was coupled with essential reforms (such as Gerős dismissal). There was no other way of disbanding the rebels or dispersing an ever more sympathetic and supportive public.
Crowds poured into the streets when the curfew was lifted. Those venturing out found the opposite of what they had heard on the radio. The armed struggle was not over. The city was not overrun with lootersthe goods were still there behind the broken shop windows. It was not a question of the Soviet army helping the Hungarian army to restore order. It was doing so with the support of ÁVH units, while many Hungarian soldiers were on the rebel side. Above all, the rebels were not hooligans or fascists, but workers, students, neighbours and friends. People took every opportunity to try to convince the Soviet soldiers, who had presumably been deceived, as they had. Everywhere the tanks on the streets of Budapest were surrounded by groups of gesticulating people trying to explain, in the sparse school Russian they had learnt in recent years, that this was not a fascist rising, but one that was national, democratic, and in decisive respects socialist as well. Many such attempts succeeded. Several groups of young people set off for Parliament in, or accompanied by a Soviet tank flying the Hungarian tricolour, to protest against the accusations being made against them, and against the man seen as most to blame for these and for the fighting: Ernő Gerő. Even without reliable news services, word about Soviet soldiers changing sides spread rapidly round the city, often in an exaggerated, generalized form. So it was an ever more jubilant crowd, self-confident and certain of victory, that gathered in Kossuth tér, outside Parliament, during the morning hours.
The forces deployed to defend the government buildings round Parliament panicked at what they saw. Far from the situation normalizing, as the authorities hoped, the square was filling with people, accompanied by armed men and armoured units. The flags and young demonstrators draped on the tanks made it difficult to decide whether these were Soviet or Hungarian units that had gone over to the rebels.
|Demonstrators in Kossuth
Lajos tér, before Parliament, on October 25, 1956
(photograph by Sándor Bojár)
General Serov, attending the HWP Central Committee meeting at the Akadémia utca party headquarters, learned of the developments immediately. He left the meeting, and after a while gave the order to fire. For Serov it was unacceptable that Hungarian units should change sides and Soviet soldiers fraternize with the enemy. The shots that rang out caused panic among the demonstrators and among the Soviet soldiers, who also began to fire. They fired in the direction from which the shots had come, but they also fired on the young people they had been fraternizing with moments before, in the belief that they had led them into a trap. The situation was further complicated when the Hungarian unit detailed to guard the party headquarters was embroiled in a gun battle with the Soviets, and the ensuing confusion claimed further victims. The massacre cost a hundred lives and 300 wounded.
Just as the wave of optimism had swept over the city before the blood bath in Kossuth tér, so the new message spread: The ÁVO are killers, down with the ÁVO! The crowd of protesters fleeing from the square swelled into another demonstration, this time with blood on its banners. News of the events also spread quite quickly to the provinces, where feelings were also roused further.
News naturally reached the Akadémia utca party headquarters as well, often in an exaggerated form. Reports told of the continued armed struggles, the new mass demonstration, the fraternization with the Soviet troops, and of course the massacre. There was also food for thought in the increasing flow of information arriving from the provinces and from the Budapest factories. The most important aspect was that the relative calm had ended elsewhere in the country. Reports of demonstrations and strikes arrived from more and more places. It was increasingly apparent that the rest of the country was joining in with the protests and demands in the capital. This was more dangerous still, because the Hungarian regiments stationed in the counties had been weakened in the last few days so that large contingents could be sent up to Budapest. The events elsewhere in the country on the 25th included armed clashes, not just peaceful demonstrations. Several lorry-loads of young people set out from Miskolc to help the rebels in Budapest. On the way, they disarmed the police and the army recruitment centre at Mezőkövesd, and occupied the buildings of the local party committee and the local and district councils. Only by bringing in reinforcements from several other places could the group be dispersed. Some of those who returned to Miskolc were arrested, and this prompted on the following day a clash outside the county police headquarters, which degenerated into lynching. Reports of fighting arrived from many other parts of the country: Szentendre, Vác, Sztálinváros (now Dunaújváros) and elsewhere. The most serious clash occurred in the late afternoon at Várpalota. Demonstrators, after minor exchanges of fire, managed to take over the town, occupying the party committee building and winning the army and the police over to their side. Since the town lay on one of the Soviet armys important lines of communication, the decision was inevitable: the rebels tried to stop the Soviet advance. Several Soviet units were held up by hastily erected barricades, and two lorries, carrying fuel and arms, were halted. The fighting lost the Soviets 13 men, including a major.
The partys policy for handling the crisis was bankrupted by the events of October 25. The Hungarian military command, despite the Soviet aid, proved helpless to prevent the uprising from spreading and re-establish the order required for a political settlement. Even so, there was a group among those in power who continued to press for a military solution, urging tougher measures against the rebels, reimposition of a total curfew, and relentless application of the state of emergency. However, this hard line lost ground rapidly during the afternoon. The first blow came when Gerő, on the proposal of the Soviet delegates, was relieved of his position as first secretary and replaced by János Kádár. Though Kádár did not count as a reformer, he was not considered as an opponent or hindrance to reform either. The other development that weakened the strength and determination of the authorities was the firing in front of Parliament. The confused and conflicting reports of the bloodshed intimidated some of the leadership, who became increasingly concerned that they could not control the disturbances and rightly scared that revenge and terror would be directed against them.
The Political Committee judged that the policy of a somewhat restricted use of force coupled with slight concessions had not worked and could not be continued, but it still proved unable to change it. Though the basis on which to do so had weakened, the intention of suppressing the uprising by force remained. So the Military Committee was strengthened and given absolute powers. However, the party leadership were looking ahead to the consolidation period, and could not accept that order should be restored solely by Soviet military force, although it became steadily clearer that it could not rely on the Hungarian army. As for the Budapest police, commanded by Sándor Kopácsi, they had played no part so far in restoring order. After talks with a delegation from the rebels and demonstrators, the police were presumably suffering from a moral crisis brought on by the Kossuth tér massacre when they released the political prisoners in their charge. Thereafter they progressed from being more or less passive bystanders to active participation in the events, and not on the side of the party leadership.
Ground was gained within the Political Committee by those who saw real reforms as the solution. The meeting during the morning of the 25th was attended for a while by Ferenc Donáth and Géza Losonczy. Another member, József Köböl, also moved closer to their position, proposing that negotiations on a complete withdrawal of Soviet troops should begin after order had been restored. This was strongly opposed by the Soviet delegates, who were present, but a reference to troop withdrawals found its way into Imre Nagys speech in the early afternoon, which the Political Committee had approved.
There were more and more factors making it urgent to undertake a radical reassessment of the situation. Apart from the futility of the military actions and the blood-bath in Kossuth tér, there were the reports reaching the party centre. Apart from the events in Budapest, attention also had to turn to the provinces, which were also becoming revolutionized, and to the way workers in large factories were taking up the rebel demands. The leadership of the HWP, which saw and professed itself to be the party of the working class, had to address the fact that it could no longer rely on the workers support in restoring order. On the contrary, the class it had seen as the main social basis of its power was turning against it, and there was a special poignancy about the disturbances taking place in two bulwarks of the provincial labour movement. At this point Imre Nagy received the Miskolc workers delegation headed by Rudolf Földvári. The importance of their negotiations was reflected in the coverage given to them on the radio, and in the Szabad Nép next day. Meanwhile news came from Miskolc that the Lenin Metallurgical Works had been represented at the mass meeting held in the university quarter. In other words, while the HWP was planning to involve the workers in the struggle (though still not daring to carry it out), the students, the originators of the crisis, had successfully done just that. A similar event took place in Pécs, once a stronghold of the Social Democrats, where miners and factory workers held a demonstration of sympathy outside the students hostel. Leadership of the afternoon protest was taken over by the university students, who managed to dissuade the workers from storming the ÁVH barracks and divert the demonstration to the citys main square, Széchenyi tér, where they removed the red stars from public buildings.
So the impotent and inadequate policies of the party leadership were no longer just threatening to broaden the range of those turning against it. This was actually happening. The discontent had spread to the provinces, and the workers were giving increasingly active and organized support to the leaderships opponents.
Although Soviet troops had retaken the gutted Radio building in Bródy Sándor utca that morning, the rebels made several other significant military gains. Party buildings in Csepel and the 18th District of Budapest were occupied, the Újpest police headquarters was disarmed, and the Vörös Csillag (Red Star) Printing Press was taken without a shot being fired by the crowd marching behind bloodstained banners.
New institutions designed to organize the revolution and support the insurgents began to form. A University Revolutionary Students Committee was established at the History Faculty of Budapests Eötvös Loránd University, headed by Professors István Pozsár and János Varga. The first revolutionary newspaper, the Igazság (Truth), appeared with Gyula Obersovszky as editor. This end to the communist monopoly of the press marked a partial attainment of the rebels latest demands.
The afternoon session of the Central Committee could find no solution to the situation. By that time the main reason was no longer the leaderships hesitation and false assessment of events, but the deepening division into two strongly opposing camps. For the moment, neither side had the strength to impose its will on the other, and thereby on the increasingly paralysed party apparatus, but each had enough strength to curb and obstruct the others measures. But the news that the uprising was spreading appeared like a spectre haunting the leadership, whose panic left it unable to take logical, clear decisions. Kádár, the new party leader, wavered, promising at once to bring in radical reforms (a real change of government) and to take tough, committed measures next day (crush the resistance). To strengthen the party leadership, he was even prepared to promise to Donáth and Losonczy, who were insisting on resigning, that they could put forward their views freely within the party, even though factionalism was strictly prohibited in the communist movement.
Contrary to expectations, the fighting in the capital intensified and spread instead of diminishing on October 26. The armed rebels and the ever larger number of soldiers who joined them, despite the enormous and growing superiority of the forces against them, kept control of their main bases and organized some new focuses of resistance. They were strongest in the 8th and 9th Districts in Pest, where they took control of several major thoroughfares, including the Nagykörút (grand boulevard) between Petőfi Bridge and the Oktogon, and Rákóczi út and Üllői út. The most important units were the Corvin köz group commanded by László Iván Kovács and the Tompa utca group under János Bárány. They had managed to capture some heavy weapons to augment the small arms obtained in the early days. A reputation was also being gained at this time by some Buda units, at Széna tér (commanded by János Szabó) and Móricz Zsigmond körtér and in the Castle District.
|Budapests Széna tér in October 1956|
The tactics followed by these groups, which formed spontaneously, was to keep a constant watch on the main thoroughfares and attack the Soviet military units travelling along them. After each attack they would withdraw into the narrower side streets, where the Soviet tanks could not or dared not follow. Their many successes against these older-type tanks, which had hardly any infantry support, were due to their superior local knowledge, the unconditional, self-denying support of the local population, and their inexhaustible inventiveness. On some occasions they managed to fend off tank attacks with home-made small arms or Molotov cocktails, or even without arms at all, by placing frying pans made up to look like anti-tank mines in the road, or spilling oil to impede the tanks movement. Shot-up or burnt-out vehicles made good barricades for the next skirmish, so that every Soviet loss benefited the ever more confident rebels twice over.
Apart from these actions by combat units defending their localities, offensives were launched, usually designed to capture party premises, local authority buildings or district police headquarters. These are worth distinguishing from several points of view. They differed from the increasingly deliberate, organized actions of groups defending specific areas or thoroughfares in being spontaneous and in attracting more active participation from the general public. What prompted them was often conspicuous arrogance and toughness by local representatives of authority. There were several examples on the 26th in outer districts of Budapest. The Csepel and the 15th District police headquarters were disarmed and occupied. The Újpest local council building was captured, and so were the Rákosszentmihály and Soroksár party buildings. Revolutionary committees were immediately formed to administer these districts, with their own special police forces, the national guard.
The gunfire on the 26th was not confined to the capital. The number of provincial demonstrations and armed clashes multiplied and strikes became general throughout the whole country. Demonstrations were taking place in every town. The crowds on the streets made more or less the same demands, adding to them an end to the fighting and an amnesty. However, on several occasions they went further than the 16 Points drawn up at Budapest Technical University on October 22, calling for withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and a declaration of neutrality, for instance. Meanwhile people in most places set about removing the hated symbols of the old regime, ripping up red flags, breaking off red stars, toppling Soviet memorials, and tearing or breaking up the portraits and statues of communist idols. (In one case, a bust of Rákosi was hung from a lamp post.)
The events can be placed in four categories, depending principally on how the local authorities behaved. In some places the party or military leadership used main force to prevent a local take-over of power. This was the case in Esztergom, and in Kecskemét and district, where Colonel-General Lajos Gyurkó, commander of the 3rd Army Corps, used Draconian measures to ensure the obedience of his subordinates (threatening to execute those who disobeyed commands) and brutally suppressing all acts of resistance. This included shooting from the air at demonstrators, who were still unarmed in most cases. The clashes on the 26th claimed several lives. Except in the special case of the 3rd Army Corps, the authorities in each locality still needed to apply only a limited amount of force to keep order at this stage. Bringing in soldiers normally sufficed to disarm the demonstrators. Although some other towns besides Budapest suffered armed operations and salvoes of fire, these claimed relatively few victims.
The second category of events occurred in places where the aggression of the authorities failed to have the desired effect. The operations simply fuelled the flames and resulted in a complete collapse, so that the revolutionary forces took power. That is what happened in Miskolc, where a demonstration gathered outside the police headquarters to demand the release of the young people who had been arrested and brought back to the city on the previous day. The defenders tried to negotiate with the rebels, but then fired into the crowd. Prompted by the bloodshed, the local miners and factory workers moved in on the police and a siege developed. The police and ÁVH men defending the building appealed for help from the workers councils being formed in the factories, and from the university students, but by that time it would have taken a sizeable military force to turn back the enraged crowd. There were no Soviet troops in the city and the Hungarian army commander refused to assist those responsible for the bloodshed. In fact the army joined the besiegers, delivering an ultimatum calling on the police and security men inside to surrender. Eventually the defenders hung out a white flag. The crowd took over the building, and those thought to be responsible for the deaths were massacred on the spot.
With the collapse of the local ÁVH and the army joining the workers councils and the university students, Miskolc became one of the main provincial centres of the uprising.
The bloodiest events of the day, apart from those in Miskolc, took place in Mosonmagyaróvár, near the western border of the country. A demonstration called by the students and joined by the factory workers and other residents of the town, proceeded at first like any other in the country. Hated symbols were removed from public buildings, demands based on points drawn up by the Sopron university students were formulated, and speeches and recitations were heard. Here as in many other towns, the crowd marched to the barracks and called on the border guards to join them. Those defending the barracks made no attempt to stop the demonstrators from approaching the gate, but when they reached it they were met by a murderous volley of fire. The crowd fleeing from the square disarmed the police and placed a blockade round the barracks, whose commander escaped to Czechoslovakia, leaving his subordinates to their fate. The Mosonmagyaróvár insurgents appealed for help to Győr. A force of soldiers and armed civilians, with delegates from the newly formed Győr National Council, arrived during the day intending to prevent further bloodshed. They called on the guards to lay down their arms, which they did. The enlisted men streamed out of the building, and the crowd entered. As in Miskolc, an officer deemed to be responsible for the volley was beaten to death forthwith. The detachment from Győr, led by Gábor Földes, risked life and limb to protect the other border-guard officers, but two more officers lost their lives as the disturbances continued next day. The volley fired by the ÁVH and the border guards shot away the old fabric of power in Mosonmagyaróvár and district. After that there was no force left that dared to oppose the enraged crowd. The party and council officials ceded power without resistance to the new revolutionary body.
The third possible course of events, which occurred in many towns and cities, including several county seats, was for the old leadership to hand over to the new within putting up any appreciable resistance. Revolutionary councils, which chose various names reminiscent of the revolution of 1848, took power in Debrecen, Veszprém, Győr and many other places.
Finally, there were areas where the revolutionary forces were only just forming, and the local leadership did not face any major challenge or attack.
The political situation in Budapest and the whole country became increasingly plain. This was not a case of isolated acts by unruly elements, but of a healthy, nationwide, democratic campaign. The party centre, however, still could not devise an effective policy.
The two decisions taken on October 25 (to initiate political measures, alongside the armed restoration of order called for by the Military Committee and the state of emergency) led to mutually conflicting steps being taken. When broadcasting began at dawn, the radio announced that strict measures were being applied, similar to those ordered on October 24, but an hour and a half later it said that the curfew was being lifted temporarily. The official newspapers, appearing again after a break of two days, gave prominence to articles supporting a political solution. Népszava (Voice of the People), for instance, published a settlement programme devised by the trade-union movement.
|The front page of Népszava on October 26, 1956. The headlines read A New Government Based on Broad National Unity Forms TodayThe Hungarian Trade Unions Programme of immediate measures|
The last was particularly worrying to the party leadership. Independence was being shown by yet another mass organization hitherto under strict party command, and furthermore a traditional labour organization. Worse still, the unions issue of the programme showed plainly the bankruptcy of party control. Its very publication showed that the party had lost its influence over the official newspapers, at a time when openly opposition journals were also appearing. Furthermore, it showed the party leadership that if they proved unable to find a solution, other bodies would take over control. For they guarded their power as jealously from the unions as they did from the insurgents.
There were two, closely related topics on the agenda of the Political Committee and then of the Central Committee. One was the change of government announced on the night of October 23, in other words, the task of finalizing the list of government members. Here Imre Nagy tried to push through some radical changes. His candidates included some relatively well-known and increasingly respected public figures committed to his notions of reform: József Szilágyi, Géza Losonczy, Ferenc Donáth, László Kardos, Gábor Tánczos, Sándor Kopácsi, Áron Tamási, and the strongest reformer among the existing party leadership, József Köböl. Apart from them, the name of the Smallholders Party leader Béla Kovács was mentioned, as a gesture in the direction of coalition government. This list of ministers was unacceptable to the party leadership, and in the event, Béla Kovács was the only one given a place in the cabinet announced on October 27.
Ferenc Donáth put forward his political ideas at the Political Committee meeting, as he had promised János Kádár he would the previous evening. Donáth drew a sharp distinction between the two aspects hitherto treated together the chances of a political and of a military solutionleaving no doubt that he favoured the former. He maintained that the party leadership had to revise radically its assessment of the events. It had to state that the blame for the demonstration on October 23 and the subsequent outbreak of fighting lay with the partys mistaken policy up to now. It had to meet the demonstrators democratic, socialist and national demands, and after order had been restored, start negotiating for a complete withdrawal of Soviet troops. He also warned that any failure to do this would not only lose the party its remaining influence, but cause a radicalization of the demands in a polarized situation. In fact the Political Committee adopted a new programme based on Donáths assessment of the situation, and this was proposed by Kádár at the Central Committee meeting, which began at nine oclock in the morning. In his report, the new first secretary tried not to confront members with the fact that the Political Committee proposal was not a correction of previous policy, but a strategic change of direction, with all the consequences that would have. By these means he persuaded the Central Committee to endorse the Political Committee proposal, and a drafting committee started work on the statement to be published, although the serious debate on the matter had still not been held.
After the new line had been adopted, the radicals seemed to be building up to another attack. Donáth, in his contribution, went beyond the proposed resolution, insisting on direct negotiations with the representatives of the rebelsin other words he wanted not a one-party decision but a consensus one, almost a coalition decision bringing in all the existing political forces. He also went beyond the idea of granting some of the rebel demands, saying that the new national government (not even the party any longer) should stand at the head of the new democratic, national movement.
However, as Donáth was speaking, members of the Military Committee, warned from the party centre, were rushing to the scene to launch a counter-attack. They maintained that a reappraisal of the situation was impossible, because if the uprising was a national one, those struggling against it must be anti-national. If it was democratic, those struggling against it must be anti-democratic. There was no way back for the communist party, which knew itself to be the vanguard of revolutionary efforts and human progress. Either the communists represented the historical truth or the party and the movement had no legitimacy. The intervention by Military Committee members Antal Apró and László Földes made plain what Kádár had tried to disguise: accepting the new political solution also meant surrendering some of the partys power. So they warned that there was no stopping such a surrender of power: the masses would sweep Imre Nagy away as well.
The members of the Military Committee also claimed that the other way, the military solution, was feasible. The main hindrance to it was not the weakness of the armed forces, but the treachery present in the party leadership. They pointed to those who obstructed the restoration of order with defeatist measures, such as suspending the curfew, those who scared the Central Committee with nightmares about the working class lining up alongside the armed rebels.
There is no way of telling whether the prospect of a legitimacy crisis or the hope of support from the working class had the greater effect, but the stance of the Central Committee altered radically after the Military Committees intervention. Instead of the draft resolution on which work had begun earlier, a statement containing nothing new of any substance was accepted and published.
The party leadership had chosen the worst course from its own point of view, the one from which it had been unable to rid itself for several days. It continued to work for a military solution, while trying to detach supporters from the opposing camp by offering paltry, feeble and belated reforms. The October 26 promises were aimed at winning over the working class, by satisfying their mainly financial demands, while the October 27 list of ministers was meant to woo the peasantry by including in the government two representatives of the Smallholders Party: Zoltán Tildy and Béla Kovács.
The position taken by the Soviet delegates was clearer than the Central Committee resolution, but more inconsistent with itself. Mikoyan and Suslov made a strong attack on Donáth and some criticisms of Imre Nagy as well. They warned against making any further concessions, especially against raising the question of the Soviet troops withdrawing, which in their view would lead to the fall of party power. On the other hand they still urged political measures rather than military actions, with the main aim of winning over the working class. They did not see clearly that the top item on the workers widely expressed list of demands was the withdrawal of Soviet troops and an amnesty for the rebels. So there was no hope of appeasing them with promises to remedy some of their financial grievances.
While Kádár tried to reach agreement with the working class and detach it from the rebel camp, he unwittingly helped to establish a type of organization with which he would have to fight long battles after November 4. On October 24, workers councils began to form in various parts of the country (initially in Pécs and Miskolc, and at the United Incandescent Lamp factory in Budapest). However, the call made on October 26 by the Central Committee, echoing Szot, gave a significant boost to the process. In what seemed to be a stalemate and a power vacuum, workers were concerned to have an independent organization to defend their jobs, their factory and its assets in times of armed combat. With rapid changes occurring, they also required a body responsible to them, able to represent their interests in the new power structures that were emerging. Among the reasons given by the Győr Waggon Factory for sending delegates to the citys national council were to prevent any restoration of the gentry and to represent the specific interests of the working class.
All this activity gained a double legitimacy after the partys appeal. The demands formulated in line with the revolution ensured support from the masses outside the factory gate, while the Central Committees appeal gave their activity a seal of approval from the still existing authorities. On the other hand, the existing workers councils and those established later were unanimous in rejecting the tutelage of Szot or any other intervention in their establishment or the running of their affairs. Indeed one of their stated aims was reform and democratization of the trade unions, through the election of officers from below. In the meantime they tacitly or explicitly took over the unions rights and duties and often their premises as well, and many discredited shop stewards were removed.
The Political Committee of the HWP, on October 26, had committed itself to a radical change of political line. This the Central Committee would have endorsed, had it not been deflected by the arguments of members of the Military Committee. However, it became clear next day that the assessment of the situation and the solutions proposed by Antal Apró and his associates bore no relation to the truth. The heads of the Military Committee had won over the Central Committee with two assertions. (i) They had claimed that there were no broad masses of workers on the rebel side, and those who had drifted towards it could be won back by limited reforms. In other words, the communist party of the working classs was not being confronted by the working class. So the crisis could be handled or resolved by military means, alongside political measures that would not jeopardize the retention of power. (ii) They had warned that the Political Committees reappraisal of the events and the whole situation was pushing the party towards a legitimacy crisis.
By October 27 it was clear that the first assertion did not correspond with the truth. Indeed the contrary was true. The programmes of the workers councils, established in large numbers after the Central Committees appeal, featured the same proliferating demands that were reaching Imre Nagy and the central authorities from other revolutionary organizations all over the country. They too called for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the struggle, from Budapest and from the whole country. They too demanded the dissolution of the ÁVH and all remnants of the Rákosi regime from public life, an amnesty for those who had taken part in the fighting, and the introduction of a multi-party system. So the working class supported not only the demands, but the armed insurgents, calling for an amnesty for them. Moreover the economic platform put forward by the workers councils coincided with the ideas of the party opposition: scope for some private ownership and enterprise, while maintaining the socialist character of the economy as a whole.
It had to be recognized that the partys mass basis of support could not be retrieved with limited reforms. The workers had not even reacted to the promises addressed to them. Furthermore, the new government, proclaimed to be a national one, proved to be stillborn. The real shift towards coalition government that it represented was too cautious, because all the prominent candidates of the Nagy group had been omitted. Of the two Smallholder politicians included, Tildy did not possess the political prestige and weight that the communist leaders assumed and hoped he had. Far from regaining the confidence of the public, the appearance of the new government generated a new wave of civil disobedience, with piles of protest telegrams arriving to demand the dismissal of individual ministers.
Despite Antal Aprós confident claim that the Military Committee was master of the situation, the moves to defeat the armed uprising brought no success. The attacks designed to break up armed groups in Budapest failed, while the provinces were lost to party control. Only Lajos Gyurkó, in the Kecskemét district, waged a consistent and ever more relentless battle. On the 27th he sent in fighter planes against unarmed demonstrators in Tiszakécske, in a massacre that left 17 people dead and more than a hundred injured. Except in the area controlled by the 3rd Army Corps, there were only sporadic military moves against rebels and protesters. Parts of the country (including several county seats and other towns) were already being run by local bodies brought forth by the revolution. Even in other places, the old set of functionaries could only retain influence by sharing powerby establishing new, ostensibly revolutionary organizations themselves, or having the old council and the new, revolutionary council exercise authority together.
As the hopes inspired by the Military Committee were dispelled, the other question also had to be addressed: the problem of the partys legitimacy. When Apró and his associates presented a choice between socialism and capitalist restoration, no Central Committee member, of course, could have expressed a preference for the latter. But events after the meeting, especially on the 26th and 27th, gave reason for reflecting on whether the right question had been put. Were these really the exclusive alternatives? Would rejection of the insurgents demands and military confrontation really be the most effective way to continue building socialism?
Not only Donáth, branded dangerous and excessively radical, but the hesitant Kádár thought that exclusive use of Soviet troops to crush the uprising would greatly impede the building of socialism in Hungary in the long term. (Donáth thought it would rule it out altogether.) On the other hand, it could be seen from the news reaching the political leaders, especially Imre Nagy, that most of the rebel demands were directed against the existing form of socialism, not socialism itself. Many (including Nagy) could ascertain that there were forces aiming for complete restoration of the capitalist system. Nonetheless, it was clear that the object of the most generally and forcefully expressed programmes was not to reject socialism entirely, but to repair its mistakes and satisfy the basic national demands. A high proportion of those involved in the uprising could be comrades-in-arms with the party in its efforts against those aiming for total restoration. It could also be ascertained that the provinces were lost to the existing power of the party, but people there could be recruited to a policy of remedying the mistakes committed. The new county and city bodies formed in various parts of the country were headed by people with whom the party could cooperate. The Debrecen Socialist Revolutionary Committee had some party members among its leaders, and included the commander of the local guard. One of the leaders of the Borsod County Workers Council was Rudolf Földvári, the county first secretary of the HWP. The Győr National Council was run by Attila Szigethy, the local member of Parliament and former deputy chairman of the county council. The revolutionary council elected in Békés County included the county chief of police, while in Szolnok the towns military commander was on it, and so on.
In other words, there would be much greater chances of retaining socialism if the authorities (the party, or rather the government headed by Imre Nagy) were headed by anti-Stalinist forces. This would gain them the right to a place in the political arena after the ceasefire, where they could struggle by political means for the future of socialism, rather than relying only on weapons. Putting the uprising down with the help of Russian bayonets would make it impossible to build a democratic form of socialism, against the opposition of the defeated people. So the Rákosi form would certainly be restored. Victory for the armed uprising, on the other hand, would sweep away not only Stalinism, but all socialist efforts.
The last opportunity arose on October 27 for the party reformers, above all Imre Nagy, to decide on a radical change. There is no evidence available that they knew the hard-liners were planning a military dictatorship. However, the prime minister would have noticed that his adherents were being sent off from the party centre on various pretexts. He also knew the military leaders were planning a brutal, final showdown with the Corvin köz unit, which would not have spared the civilian population. Another blood bath would conclusively eliminate all chance of a reconciliation.
|A scene in Corvin köz, with a captured Soviet 122 mm howitzer|
Furthermore, one group in the party leadership had decided upon stern measures that had only been threatened so far. These included using the terms of the state of emergency, and arming functionaries and former World War II partisans who were thought to be reliable, which would have escalated the fighting into a bloody civil war.
On the other hand, October 27 brought personnel changes that improved the position for Imre Nagy. Ernő Gerő, the main leader of the hard-liners, had been removed from the top position in the party on October 25. On the 27th András Hegedüs, the main opponent of Nagy and the reforms, was dropped from the government.
The deciding nudge for the prime minister was probably his meeting with a group styled the Angyalföld Workers Delegation. Two workers from Budapests 13th District were brought to him in the afternoon, by some close associates of his. For once Imre Nagy could hear what the real objectives of the working class were, while his former adherents and true comrades criticized him strongly for his moves since October 23. They sought to persuade him to recognize the movement as a national democratic revolution, to come forward and head it, and by moving his office from the party headquarters to Parliament, to make it clear that the government was running the country, not the single party.