A szabadság napjai

October 28

By October 27, Imre Nagy had realized the decisions could be postponed no longer. An immediate change was required. To precipitate them, he threatened to resign as prime minister, which would have brought down the new government, unless his new political concept was approved.

Imre Nagy was joined in this insistence by János Kádár. He learnt on the night of the 27th that the official trade-union federation Szot had agreed with representatives of the University Revolutionary Students’ Committee and the Writers’ Union on a joint statement of the revolution’s demands. Kádár, as the new first secretary of the HWP, could not allow his party to lose its monopoly of power. Indeed, even political ascendancy and control seemed to be slipping from its grasp. Since the Szot statement had already been printed and the party no longer had full control over the press, it could only hold up publication for a short time. That short period was all that was left to Kádár for convincing the Soviets and the leading bodies of his own party that change was essential.

Anastas Mikoyan and Mikhail Suslov were obliged to yield to the arguments of Nagy and Kádár. Based on their report, Khrushchev gave his blessing to the change. There was no real alternative to the Hungarian proposal. The uprising had spread across the whole country, and at that juncture at least, it could not be suppressed by the available Soviet forces alone. There were neither the political nor the military conditions for doing so, as no preparations had been made for the political consolidation that would be needed after suppression of the armed uprising. Nor would a military victory be certain. The Soviet army needed rest, regrouping and reinforcements after the four days of fighting, and it could expect resistance from the Hungarian People’s Army as well, especially in the provinces. The solution that Imre Nagy and his associates proposed would save the Soviet army from an ignominious withdrawal from Budapest. It would withdraw because a political solution had made further fighting superfluous. The proposals did not affect the leading role of the communist party or Hungary’s place in the Warsaw Pact, so that the foundations of people’s democracy seemed to be safe. At this time, there was still no mention in Hungary of a change in the power structure or a change of system. The ceasefire and troop withdrawals were expressly intended to prevent such an outcome and allow the communist politicians leading the country—the prime minister and the party first secretary—to resolve the crisis by political means. However, Mikoyan and Suslov warned the Hungarian leaders to prevent at all costs any further drift to the right, signifying that these proposals marked the limit to which the Soviet were prepared to go.

The press was informed of the decision without any meeting of the HWP Political Committee or Central Committee or consent from them. A leading article in the October 28 Szabad Nép (Free People) rejected the way the party had earlier stigmatized the rebels, arguing that they too were seeking to accomplish socialist democracy. However, street sales of the issue of the Népszava that reported the agreement between Szot> and the other two organizations were prevented.

The front page of the Szabad Nép on October 28, 1956

The decision that had been so long in the making and now had Soviet approval had been rendered urgent by international considerations as well. The US administration had been taken by surprise by the Hungarian revolution and had no policy concepts prepared for such an eventuality. The administration was reduced to improvising, while impeded by the simultaneous presence of conflicting expectations. On the one hand, the uncertain advantages to be gained from the Hungarian revolution were outweighed by the drawbacks of upsetting a relatively smoothly operating status quo in Europe and jettisoning a several-year process of international détente. On the other, the United States had to live up to its propaganda, and as a democratic country, meet the expectations of a public that gave wholehearted support to the Hungarian struggle for freedom. The latter had induced Washington, on October 26, to raise the Hungarian question in the UN Security Council. Its main allies, Britain and France, were preparing for war over Suez, which they had resolved upon on October 22. This made them reluctant to join in the American campaign over Hungary, since it might establish a precedent that rebounded on them. However, they had not told the Americans about their impending attack on Egypt. Since their excuses for not doing so were still secret, they were obliged to give way to US pressure. The outcome was that the three powers called jointly for a meeting of the Security Council on October 27, to debate the Hungarian question. The Soviet Union had a veto on the Security Council, so that this move did not pose a danger, but the meeting would certainly have been uncomfortable. That gave the Soviet Union a further reason for accepting the Hungarian leaders’ proposal, which was intended to bring a peaceful solution to the crisis and confine it within acceptable bounds.

The proposal, having received Soviet approval, was accepted by the HWP Political and Central committees, not least because disquieting reports were arriving at the party centre <Akadémia utca party centre>. These convinced members of the leadership that their control and authority over the provinces was collapsing. They could only retain their influence by supporting the local revolutionary bodies that were forming, against the demands of the radicals, whom they saw as counter-revolutionaries <counter-revolution>. There were increasingly frequent reports of soldiers going over to the side of the revolutionary councils. The wave of mass demonstrations was reaching the villages as well, where compromised local party and council <local government> officials were being expelled. Győr National Council, led by Attila Szigethy, addressed an ultimatum to Imre Nagy, calling for an immediate, effective end to the fighting. Otherwise, ‘the inhabitants of Transdanubia would rush to the aid of the Budapest freedom fighters.’ In other words, there was a mounting danger that postponing a full political settlement would radicalize or sideline the revolutionary forces intent on reaching agreement with the reformers inside the communist party. So an immediate ceasefire was announced during the day. It became clear from a government announcement read by Nagy on the radio (and supported by the HWP Central Committee in a statement) that this was no temporary measure, but a radical turn of events. According to Nagy, the crimes committed in the past justified the national democratic movement that had arisen in the last few days. He guaranteed that warranted demands would be conceded immediately. He recognized the revolutionary organizations <revolutionary councils and committees> that had formed. He announced that the ÁVH was disbanded and that a new armed security force would be established, into which the armed rebels would be incorporated as well. Negotiations would start on the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. So on October 28, Nagy, armed with a party resolution that had Soviet approval, was at last able to present the country with a government programme that could reasonably be expected to meet the demands of the masses and lead to a peaceful settlement.

Consolidation was under way in the provinces and villages, although the party resolution had little to do with this. The rapid change of power and the almost immediate settlement there were due to several factors. The villages contained no effective apparatus of power able to intervene against the people with any hope of success. By the time the village demonstrations began on October 27 and 28, the old order no longer had reserves to deploy. If the representatives of power waited for the demonstrators to arrive at all, they simply handed over the keys of the council <local government> office without resistance. Then a local national council <revolutionary councils and committees> would form, with members who had often served in the old council apparatus, which ensured continuity and professionalism in local government. This made it easier for the handful of inadequately armed police to treat the new body as legitimate, and for a national guard to be organized, to keep order and defend public and private property.

The political demands formulated (and frequently implemented) in the villages corresponded with the points proclaimed around the country. As a rule, villages took the set of points compiled in a large nearby town as a basis and added references to specific local needs and grievances. The peasants’ demands, like those of the workers, looked no further back than 1945. Just as the working class did not want to see the factory owners return, so the villagers had no wish to reverse the 1945 land reform. (Indeed the role Nagy had played in the 1945 redistribution, as minister of agriculture, was relevant to the fact that rural Hungary had a deeper trust in him in 1956 than the urban population did.) The structure in the pre-communist, post-war period of 1945–8 was what they aspired to recreate. Many places decided to dissolve their agricultural cooperative <collectivization>, although implementation of the decision was often postponed. Time was required to arrange a fair distribution and complete the autumn farm work. Furthermore, members felt it was inappropriate to pursue their personal profit and remedy their own grievances while the struggle was still going on in Budapest. The villages were anxious to play their part in this. The oddest assortment of vehicles would arrive in the capital every day, laden with food for the fighters or the sick and wounded in the hospitals. There were cases when a village national guard travelled up to Budapest together, joined a rebel unit, and took part in the fighting after November 4.

Life in the villages normalized as soon as local power was transferred. The country people wanted to leave the course of political settlement to those in whom they trusted: the government led by Imre Nagy and the revolutionary council running the county. The local revolutionary or national councils managed affairs efficiently. The main tasks for the national guards were to ward looters off the harvested produce and gather weapons from the privileged of the old regime. Restoring the natural order of things was not even seen as a change. The crucifix would return to the school—the task of bearing it was often assigned to the former party secretary. The Soviet war memorial, which symbolized occupation and wartime sufferings, might be pulled down, or a ‘nationalized’ mill be restored to its rightful owner. All Saints and All Souls (November 1–2) became a festival again. The latter took on special significance, as a day of remembrance for those who had died in the uprising.

October 29

Far from bringing the general consolidation expected, the decision taken by the HWP Central Committee on October 28 caused an avalanche. One reason was that the two sides put different interpretations on the situation and on the change in the HWP’s behaviour and policy. Imre Nagy wanted to strike a compromise with the rebels against the extremists. He would accept and fulfil the maximum demands that the Soviets could be brought to accept, in return for cooperation from the rebels against what seemed to be a real threat of counter-revolution. The rebels saw the change of stance by the party leadership as a partial victory that justified them in battling on to fulfil their complete programme.

The most urgent task in Imre Nagy’s eyes was to restore order as soon as possible. He knew that was the only way he and his policies could win Kremlin support, or at least tolerance. The proclaimed ceasefire had to be enforced. The revolutionaries had to be persuaded to lay down their arms and the workers to return to work, because these events would be seen as offsetting the concessions the party leadership was making. So the prime minister, as he moved into the government offices in Parliament on October 29, having given his name to the party leadership’s actions since October 23, tried to persuade his rebellious country to lay aside the two instruments with which it had succeeded: its arms and the strike.

The rebels remained wary of the prime minister and still more of the government. Their suspicions had been enhanced by several events since October 23 (the call for Soviet troops, the introduction of summary justice, the volleys fired on the rebels in several towns, etc.) The events happening at the time also gave them cause to be cautious.

Heavy battles were fought in Budapest on October 29 against the Soviet troops. This gave the revolutionaries the impression that the ceasefire proclaimed by Nagy did not apply to the Soviets, or that the prime minister could not guarantee the ceasefire, so that there was no sense in it. (Even on October 31, some important objects in Budapest such as the Interior and Defence ministries and the Soviet Embassy were still being guarded by Soviet armoured troops.) Fighting also continued in Kecskemét.

Bodies are collected during a lull in the fighting on October 28, 1956, on the corner of József körút and Pál utca (8th District)

The uncertainty was exemplified by events in Ózd on October 29. The commanding officer of the town’s national guard had a nervous breakdown and started shooting wildly in his office. No one was injured, but a rumour spread through the town that the police and the already disbanded ÁVH were shooting on the rebels. A crowd rushing to defend those it thought were under attack lynched an investigator from the prosecutor’s office, a policeman and an ÁVH officer.

The uncertainty was coupled with incomprehension. Rebels all over the country could not see why they should back down at a time of victory, why they should lay down their arms and return to work. Arms and the strike had brought them their gains and seemed to be their chief hope of gaining more concessions.

The government statement of October 28 conceded several of the revolution’s demands, but not two of the main points formulated at the Budapest Technical University: free, multi-party elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungarian territory. The rebels could not consider they had won a full victory unless these essential demands were granted as well. Their continued insistence on them after the 28th was not just a dogged pursuit of their full programme. Without a multi-party system and full Soviet withdrawal, there was no guarantee that the communist regime would not be restored. The government would have to accept these demands before the rebels laid down their arms or the workers called off their strike.

The government concentrated its efforts on October 29 on persuading the revolutionaries to lay down their arms in the light of the ceasefire. The negotiations were impeded by mutual suspicions and lack of a clear structure of command among the rebels. The leaders of the rebel groups could not always guarantee that terms they agreed to would be accepted by their members. Their relations with other groups were confined to occasional cooperation on a specific action. There was no rebel commander-in-chief, with whom the prime minister or his representative could treat. There were successive negotiations, at Parliament, the Defence Ministry and the Budapest police headquarters, where the rebels advanced successive demands. (Arms would only be handed over to Hungarian units after the Soviet army had left the country, provided the government guaranteed that units volunteering to join would be incorporated into the new security force, etc.) The rebel negotiating position was strengthened by support from the Kilián Barracks and their commander, Colonel Pál Maléter, who drew up six ceasefire conditions in conjunction with the rebels. The most insistent rebel demand was for the withdrawal of Soviet troops, which Mikoyan and Suslov, representing the CPSU <Communist Party of the Soviet Union> Presidium in Hungary, warned against strongly. Having conceded this demand, it became impossible for Imre Nagy to justify his decision of October 28 to the Soviet leadership, which increased Moscow’s suspicions of the prime minister further.

Another serious challenge to the government was the October 29 programme of the Revolutionary Committee of the Hungarian Intelligentsia, founded the day before as an umbrella for several revolutionary organizations. While the turn of events on October 28 was welcomed, the committee’s proclamation said the policy outlined by the government did not go far enough. National reconciliation (order and consolidation) could only be reached by meeting the rebels’ main demands in full. In other words, there had to be a radical <radicals and reformers> transformation that went beyond a reform of the existing system, while maintaining the system of socialist ownership. The question was not whether the party, having lost absolute power, should continue to hold power at all, but whether it should remain in sole office or be obliged to share power with the newly forming democratic parties.

Imre Nagy and János Kádár were aware by October 29 that the party they wished to keep in power had largely collapsed and disintegrated. Some of the central and local leaders and cadres were in hiding. Others, notably Ernő Gerő, had fled to the Soviet Union or placed themselves under the protection of Soviet troops stationed in Hungary. Lower and middle-level party leaders found they could only remain political factors by creating a new leadership and programme, allying with and protected by the new revolutionary authorities <revolutionary councils and committees> and legitimized by contributions to the revolution.

When Imre Nagy moved on October 29 from the Akadémia utca party centre to the Parliament building, central power effectively passed from the party leadership to the government. The HWP no longer had any real means of influencing events.

October 30

Recognizing that the existing situation was untenable, Imre Nagy announced on the radio in the afternoon that the one-party system was abolished (or rather, acknowledged that it had ceased to exist.) A coalition ‘government cabinet’ would take over the running of the country, he said. Realizing that only the government had a chance of exercising central control, the head of the HWP, János Kádár, also joined the new body.

October 30 was undoubtedly the first day of consolidation, for which the HWP Central Committee resolution of October 28 had only laid the foundations. Revolutionary councils formed in the remaining few counties, taking over the control of local administration. They received firm support from the local press and radio, which were controlled by armed units of soldiers and civilians, organized as a local national guard. Most administrative institutions clearly supported the revolution by this time, including the local revolutionary councils (which had replaced the local-government system), the police, the law courts and the mass media. Only the government represented a slightly different line, but even this had come closer to the line being taken in the rest of the country than it had been before October 28. The party’s change of direction and the disbanding of the ÁVH left the Soviet army as the one force still threatening the revolution’s gains.

The talks at the Budapest police headquarters in Deák tér (5th District) led to the formation of the Preparatory Committee of the Revolutionary Armed Forces Committee, by representatives of the army, the police and the armed rebels. The purpose was to establish the national guard as the new armed security force and provide it with a central command.

Following an order issued the previous day by Lieutenant General Károly Janza, revolutionary military councils formed to keep order and defend the gains of the revolution, demonstrating that the army supported the people in their uprising. Officers of the Rétság armoured corps freed the Hungarian primate, Cardinal József Mindszenty, from house arrest at Felsőpetény. The rechristened Free Kossuth Radio went on the air, setting out to provide authentic, impartial information.

The radio building in Bródy Sándor utca (8th District) during the revolution. The banner reads ‘Hungarian Free Radio’

Imre Nagy’s address on the radio was followed by initial appeals from the newly reconstituted political parties. These all had serious problems to overcome. First, there was the question of past conduct. Antagonisms arose between those who had spent the communist period in obscurity and those who had been (or appeared to have been) fellow travellers. Many of the armed rebels took exception to the reappearance of the parties, feeling that others were trying to muscle in on their victory. Some opposed the new parties and party politicking because they thought it might endanger the national unity produced by the revolutionary struggle. This point was raised in the newspaper Új Magyarország (New Hungary) by the novelist and playwright László Németh, who had joined the steering committee of the revived National People’s Party (Petőfi Party).

The Independent Smallholders’ Party elected a provisional governing body. Its head was considered to be Béla Kovács, whose political stance was to take the coalition period of 1945–7 as a pattern. This implied that the 1945 general elections, as the last free parliamentary elections, should be recognized as a basis and the Smallholders restored to pre-eminence. The party was prominent in organizing the Capital City National Committee, a revolutionary body designed to direct events in Budapest and forming an important factor in the consolidation.

The Social Democratic Party also chose a governing body, with Anna Kéthly in the chair. This received immediate international recognition and a representative was invited to the meeting of the Socialist International on November 1 in Vienna. The party’s reappearance placed a question mark over the legitimacy of the HWP, which had resulted from the merger of the Hungarian Communist Party and the Social Democrats in 1948, and speeded up its collapse, which brought the prospect of national reconciliation closer. On October 30, a member of the HWP Presidium, Zoltán Szántó, was among those who proposed the dissolution of the HWP, since it was tainted by the old regime, and the foundation of a new party capable of representing the new policy in an authentic way. However, the Presidium could still not bring itself to dissolve the party at this stage.

Representatives of the National Peasants’ Party met on October 31 at Vajdahunyad Castle, in Budapest’s City Park (14th District), where they resuscitated the party in the absence of their previous leader, Ferenc Erdei, who had held ministerial posts under the communists. They underlined their break with the recent past by adopting a new name, the Petőfi Party, after the poet Sándor Petőfi, an instigator of the revolution on March 15, 1848. This implied both support for revolution and a continuing link with the writers.

The clear achievements of consolidation on October 30 were coupled with some serious challenges. Among these were measures taken to attack and limit the power of the central authorities, which were trying to take control again. The first edition appeared of a newspaper entitled Függetlenség (Independence), published by the Hungarian National Revolutionary Committee led by József Dudás, which had formed the previous day. This organization differed from the other revolutionary councils and committees in considering and naming itself as a national body, with aspirations to be a counter-government. Indeed the paper bore a banner headline on October 30 declaring, ‘We do not recognize the present government!’ Many people were criticizing the cabinet announced on October 27 because it still contained cadres who had served Rákosi, but the Hungarian National Revolutionary Committee was the only one to demand a new government altogether. It proposed that this should contain representatives of the freedom fighters and elected members of the Committee, as well as Imre Nagy, János Kádár and Béla Kovács. The Committee even turned to the UN Security Council, calling for recognition as a warring party, the provision of a ceasefire commission, and ‘financial, and if need be military aid’ for Hungary. It anticipated Imre Nagy by two days in repudiating the Warsaw Pact and declared Hungary’s neutrality after the Austrian pattern. It also made efforts to gain acceptance as a sovereign <sovereignty> government at home. Declaring itself the leader of the revolution, it called on representatives of the country’s revolutionary councils and committees to attend a mass meeting in the Budapest Sports Hall on November 1, where a kind of revolutionary parliament would be held.

The offices of the newspaper Szabad Nép on the corner of József körút and Blaha Lujza tér (8th District), taken over by the Dudás group as its headquarters

Although Dudás had no appreciable forces behind him, he managed to join members of the Revolutionary Committee of the Hungarian Intelligentsia in obtaining a meeting with Imre Nagy on the same day, aimed at clearing up misunderstandings as rapidly as possible. Thereafter his paper (now entitled the Magyar Függetlenség—Hungarian Independence) continued to attack the government, but drew a distinction between Imre Nagy on the one hand and the fellow travellers of the Smallholders’ and National Peasants’ parties on the other, who were called upon individually to resign.

News of similar threats arrived from Győr. The Győr National Council, headed by Attila Szigethy, had been founded on October 26 to cover Győr-Sopron County. This repeatedly expressed support for Nagy and his policies, but the radicals in the city persistently urged the Council to turn against the Nagy cabinet and form an alternative government. Keen to win over the radicals by meeting some of their demands, Szigethy agreed on October 28 to invite representatives of the revolutionary councils in Western Hungary to a meeting on October 30, to agree on a common assessment of the situation and on the tasks ahead. There were understandable fears in Budapest that an alternative government might form in Győr. Whether Szigethy succeeded in preventing this would depend on the mandates that had been given to the delegates attending the meeting. Otherwise, the country might even split in two like Korea. The dangers were increased by an incident in the afternoon of the 30th. Lajos Somogyvári, claiming to represent the young freedom fighters of Budapest, arrived in Győr with a body of armed men, intent on establishing a new government with himself at its head. This was dangerous because he echoed demands that were already being voiced in the city, and the regional meeting later in the day would make a suitable forum for proclaiming such a government. Only firm action at the city’s largest factory prevented an attempted coup: the workers’ council at the waggon factory mobilized to support the national council. After Somogyvári and his men had been removed, the meeting established the Transdanubian National Council, to ensure ‘complete implementation of the revolution’s demands’. The Council did not aspire to be an alternative government or act on the government’s behalf, only to convince the executive to take the remaining measures required to bring full social reconciliation. It demanded the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Hungarian territory and a declaration of the country’s neutrality. The next day, Szigethy negotiated personally with Imre Nagy in Budapest, where they agreed fully in their assessments of the situation and their ideas for the future.

The events in Győr may have contributed to Imre Nagy’s announcement on October 30 that an inner cabinet had been formed. This omitted the Rákosi-ite cadres, whose presence in the government was being widely criticized, and gave greater weight to representatives of the 1945–8 coalition parties. However, this still did not make the government adequately representative of the democratic, revolutionary organizations. Partly because Nagy relied on personal ties, the former coalition politicians he chose for the new cabinet had not been in the forefront of their parties in the coalition period. In many cases, their activity at that time or their later collaboration with the communists meant they could no longer represent their old party to the extent that Nagy imagined or hoped. The reconstituted National Peasants’ Party was not prepared to accept or cooperate with Ferenc Erdei, though he had been included in the cabinet as its representative. Over the next few days, the Smallholders showed suspicion of Zoltán Tildy, to whom Nagy had given the important post of deputy prime minister with the rank of a state minister. Tildy was not elected to the party’s nine-member provisional steering committee and could take as referring to himself a critical article that appeared in the party’s Kis Újság (Little Newspaper) on November 1. The Social Democrats had yet to nominate a politician to represent their party in the government. This left Béla Kovács of the Smallholders as the only authentic representative of the fact that other parties were being drawn into the government, and he had already been a member of the October 27 cabinet. Very few people appreciated the fine distinction between having ‘non-communist-party persons’ in the government and including representatives of the coalition parties.

Although the attempts to oust the government were countered, there was a third danger facing the leadership on October 30: mob violence. The Soviet and Hungarian military units guarding the premises of the HWP Budapest Committee in Köztársaság tér (8th District) withdrew at dawn on that day. The revolutionaries had taken over several district party buildings on the 29th, as the troops withdrew and the ÁVH was disbanded. On the 30th, armed rebels arrived in Köztársaság tér with a similar purpose. The Budapest party headquarters were seen as one of the main centres of resistance to the revolution, not least because the ÁVH officers defending it had taken several prisoners in recent days. A delegation found its way in, but instead of talks, a gun battle ensued. As news of the clash spread, growing numbers of local armed units arrived in the square to lay siege to the building. There was bitter fighting, during which the defenders even fired on Red Cross workers tending the wounded. When news of the engagement reached the authorities, five army tanks were sent to save the party building. However, these were not linked by radio, and two of them never arrived at all, as the crews had no local knowledge. Those that reached the square were confused at finding a Hungarian tank fighting on the rebel side and began to bombard the building as well. That decided the battle. The defenders ceased to resist. Members of parliament leaving the building—two army generals and Imre Mező, the secretary of the party committee, who sympathized with Imre Nagy—were shot down straight away. The crowd that stormed the building brought out into the square the defenders they found, most of them ÁVH men. Several were immediately shot or lynched.

László Elek, a conscripted soldier serving in the ÁVH, is lynched outside the Budapest party headquarters on October 30, 1956

Many members of the organized armed groups present tried to save the prisoners, in some cases snatching them from the hands of the enraged crowd, but their interventions could only reduce the number of victims. After the party building had been captured, the crowd broke up the furniture and burnt books and documents in the square. Then began several days of fruitless searching for rumoured secret underground prisons. The siege and the subsequent mob justice cost 23 lives. During the next few days, all the revolutionary organizations spoke of the need to keep the revolution pure and condemned the lynchings. On October 31, an ÁVH captain was killed by a crowd in Budapest, but the mob violence died down with the fulfilment of the final point in the revolutionary demands (the declaration of neutrality) and the establishment of a revolutionary force to impose law and order, the unational guard.


October 31

The ambiguous events in Hungary on October 30 (progress with consolidation coupled with developments that threatened it) were followed by ambiguities in Moscow on the 31st. There had been strong debates in the Kremlin on October 28, but eventually, the turn of events proposed by the Central Committee of the HWP had been accepted, with some strict conditions attached. Imre Nagy was to form a stable government, on which he would rely in restoring order in the country. However, the basis for this could not be the acceptance of further revolutionary demands. Khrushchev made it plain that he saw the call for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary as a hostile move. Even if that were allowed, serious heed had to be taken of Mikoyan’s warning to the HWP Political Committee in Budapest on October 28: ‘Comrades have to show and behave with firmness in this. If there are further concessions tomorrow, there will be no stopping things.’

In the event, the HWP had to make several further important concessions after October 28. It lost its remaining influence over the armed forces and over the press. The central party daily, Szabad Nép (Free People) ceased to appear on October 29 and the local newspapers and radio stations became mouthpieces for the rebels. Hungary seemed likely to restore a de facto multi-party system. The Soviets remembered what vote the communist party had received under far more favourable conditions in the 1945 general elections.

The leaders of the CPSU <Communist Party of the Soviet Union> were accurately informed about the situation in Hungary. Their informants told them of the anti-communist sentiments of the population, greatly exaggerating the atrocities that were being committed. An account was kept of all the Soviet war memorials overturned and war graves desecrated. The information in these reports was corroborated on the following day by the mob justice dispensed in Köztársaság tér, which was also reported in the Western press. Reports and rumours that the Hungarians were brutally murdering any Soviet soldiers that fell into their hands were still credible eleven years after the Second World War. They confirmed the view that there was a danger of a fascist take-over, which the Soviet Union had an obligation to prevent, as it had once before. On October 30, Mikoyan and his team reported that it was impossible to halt the armed uprising by peaceful means. The rebels had occupied party buildings, printing presses and telephone exchanges. Furthermore, a change could be expected in Hungary’s international policies. ‘We think that Comrade Konev,’ the Warsaw Pact commander-in-chief, ‘should come to Hungary without delay.’

This was the kind of information possessed by the Presidium of the CPSU <Communist Party of the Soviet Union> when it sat down to discuss the Hungarian crisis on October 30. Hungary’s chances of escaping a Soviet intervention were lessened further by Soviet air-reconnaissance reports of a concentration of transport planes near Vienna. This could be interpreted by the Soviet leaders as preparations for a possible Western invasion. The willingness of the West to fight had been demonstrated on October 29 when war broke out with Egypt over Suez. The message of reassurance to the Soviet Union from President Eisenhower was by no means a guarantee.

So it is surprising, in fact, that Khrushchev, when addressing the CPSU <Communist Party of the Soviet Union> Presidium, should initially have rejected the demands of the hard-liners for immediate intervention. Indeed he agreed to the publication of a government statement promising a radical revision of relations between the Soviet Union and the people’s democracies. This meant that Moscow accepted the events in Hungary for the time being. It was endorsing not only the changes of October 28, but the introduction of a multi-party system and the formation of a coalition government. However, Khrushchev on October 28 had also outlined a military alternative, detailing a scenario in which a counter-government would be set up and a concentrated attack made, with prior agreement from the leaders of the ‘fraternal’ parties.

At the meeting of the CPSU <Communist Party of the Soviet Union> Presidium on October 31, First Secretary Khrushchev changed his position of the previous day and decided on military intervention. Preparations began and roles were assigned straight away, according to the plans prepared in advance. The members of the future government and the committee that would draft its programme were decided. The army was given the three days it needed for preparation. Khrushchev undertook to brief the leaders of the fraternal parties, including those of Poland and Yugoslavia, whose endorsements were least certain and most important. The Chinese leaders were in Moscow at the time. Despite previous support for the changes in Eastern Europe, they had already proposed on the afternoon of October 30 that there should be a military solution to the Hungarian crisis.

In the light of events, the curious aspect is not that CPSU <Communist Party of the Soviet Union> Presidium, after thorough debate, decided on military intervention on October 31, but that it had not done so a day earlier, on October 30. The most plausible explanation is that the full picture to be gained from all the alarming news that arrived on October 30 only took shape the next day. By then it was apparent in Moscow that communist power in Hungary would collapse (if it had not done so already), unless the Soviet Union gave immediate military assistance. The prospect of Hungary breaking away from the Soviet bloc was unacceptable to the Kremlin in several ways. Any erosion of Stalin’s legacy could bring an end to de-Stalinization and the de-Stalinizers in Moscow. They would be accused of allowing the ‘imperialists’ (the Western powers) to move their positions up to the Soviet border. Khrushchev needed only to remember the fate that had overtaken the ousted Beria three years before, which was too high a price to pay. The Soviet leadership felt that the opposing world order would interpret the changes in Central Europe as weakness on their part. This had already been a factor in the Suez affair and could only be refuted by a display of force. Finally, there was a danger that Hungary’s secession might lead to the disintegration of the socialist camp, which was unacceptable to Soviet (or even Polish) security policy. So the Moscow leadership had no other option but to intervene militarily. Analysing the situation, the US intelligence services had reached the same conclusion on October 30. The reports they prepared on that day note that the Soviet policy-makers were facing two courses—either to accept the new situation in Hungary and allow it to become independent, or to restore their power by force of arms. They concluded that Moscow would certainly choose the latter course. The Soviet decision was followed by an influx into Hungary of further Soviet units, much more modern in their equipment and reliably manned than those deployed on October 23.

The disintegration of the Hungarian communist party was hastened by the events in Köztársaság tér, so that paradoxically, these helped to further the consolidation. The Akadémia utca party centre became almost deserted, although the insurgents of Tűzoltó utca (9th District) agreed to guard it at János Kádár’s request. There were similar tendencies at other party premises, where a decreasing number of other party committees were still operating. Radical reform of the party could not be deferred. The question was no longer whether the party would retain a share of power, but whether it would survive at all, whether Hungary would continue to have a communist party of any kind.

These events led on October 31 to the dissolution of the HWP and the foundation of a new communist party, the HSWP. This was not just a change of name, although that too had importance. It was a radical renewal, as the composition of the new Provisional Executive Committee showed: János Kádár, Imre Nagy, Géza Losonczy, Ferenc Donáth, Zoltán Szántó, György Lukács and Sándor Kopácsi. Replacement of the old party by a new one had become inescapable. The Soviet delegates, who returned to Moscow on the 31st, agreed that it offered the one possibility of having communist policies represented by a party and a leadership with mass credibility and a chance of retaining a share of power, even in free elections.

There was success on the same day in the government’s talks with the armed rebels. Adults were to be allowed to keep their weapons. The rebels were to be incorporated as units into the new public-security force, the national guard formed at the Kilián Barracks, which was viewed as the centre of the armed revolutionary struggle. Army General Béla Király was appointed commander-in-chief of the national guard, but representatives of the young revolutionaries were also included in its leadership. The result was an agreement with the armed rebels, so that a start could be made to clearing away the barricades and wreckage, and incorporation of them into a security force able to keep order and prevent further lynchings and mob justice.

Parallel with the establishment of the Revolutionary Armed Forces Committee and the national guard, a Revolutionary National Defence Committee was set up at the Ministry of Defence. The generals of the Rákosi period were dismissed from command of the army, opening the way for it to present itself as a popular force dedicated to defending the revolution. So the position of the armed forces on October 31 looked settled: the dilemma hitherto facing officers—whether to side with the people or obey the government’s orders—seemed to have been resolved.

Soviet forces during the withdrawal, seen in Budapest’s Hősök tere (Heroes’ Square, 14th District) on October 31, 1956 (MTI photograph)

The process of redressing one of the most serious grievances from the past—political prisoners—continued, or rather concluded with the release of those held in the Budapest National Prison. Cardinal József Mindszenty, freed from house arrest on the previous day, was accompanied to Budapest by the Rétság armoured unit commanded by Antal Pálinkás (Pallavicini) and by a group of revolutionaries from Újpest (4th District).

Events in the provinces had been moving somewhat faster. Since October 28, the revolutionary organizations had hardly had to contend with any political or military force. (Nonetheless, the consolidation can be considered to have culminated on October 31 in the provinces as well. That was when Major General Lajos Gyurkó in Kecskemét, the last army commander to put up armed resistance to the revolutionary changes, placed himself under the protection of the Soviets.) From October 28 onwards, the revolutionary councils consolidated and forms of cooperation developed between the revolutionary organizations of various kinds (local and workplace bodies and workers’ councils). The revived political parties, which also began to reorganize in the provinces on October 30, sought to introduce themselves into this existing system of local and regional relations. To maintain order and prevent further mob violence, ÁVH officers were taken into protective detention, as were compromised police and army officers and party and council functionaries in several places. That the consolidation was faster in the provinces is apparent from the absence of any further provincial victims of mob violence, after the lynching in Ózd on October 29. Although blows were struck and knives drawn in several places (especially villages), respect for the revolutionary organizations sufficed to prevent people taking the law into their own hands.

November 1

Imre Nagy was not informed of the Kremlin’s decision to intervene militarily in Hungary. However, he immediately learnt that the direction of the Soviet troop movements had changed. Reports from Záhony, Nyíregyháza and Miskolc in the east of the country made plain a situation that was more or less confirmed by Soviet Ambassador Yury Andropov, when he summoned the Hungarian prime minister to his office. Responding to a question from Nagy, Andropov said the task of the new troops entering Hungary was to cover the troop withdrawal. Nagy was also receiving reports of troop movements within the country, as the Soviets sealed off airfields, for which Andropov gave the same explanation.

It could be assumed that Moscow had decided on a military solution again, although the government had not been officially informed of the fact, which was evidence that the CPSU <Communist Party of the Soviet Union> did not trust it any more. This predicament placed two alternatives before Nagy. One was to fall in behind the Soviet army as it restored order, in which case he would have a chance of remaining in power, provided he took the political steps the Soviets expected. Although the chances of that were slim, there was little hope in the other course, which he eventually chose to pursue. In the early afternoon of November 1, Yury Andropov, the Soviet ambassador in Budapest, was invited to attend a government meeting. When Andropov again failed to explain the threatening Soviet manoeuvres adequately, the government decided to renounce the Warsaw Pact and declare Hungary’s neutrality, calling upon the four permanent members of the UN Security Council to guarantee this. The logic behind this desperate move was that renouncing the Warsaw Pact would remove the Soviet Union’s right to intervene. Rather than offering armed assistance to an ally, they would be attacking a sovereign <sovereignty>, neutral, independent state. This was the only hope of restraining the Soviets from attacking the country and receiving effective international support and protection.

The decision to pursue this course was a unanimous one. However, Andropov indicated in that day’s report to Moscow that Ferenc Erdei, Géza Losonczy and Zoltán Tildy had supported Imre Nagy’s proposal strongly, while János Kádár and István Dobi (president of the Presidential Council) had taken note of it ‘not exactly with gratification’. This perceived division could also have reinforced the Soviet resolve to set up a counter-government. The Soviets chose János Kádár as one of the leaders of this, although he was a member of the Imre Nagy government and described the revolution in a radio broadcast on November 1 as a ‘glorious uprising of our people’. In this broadcast, he mentioned the domestic forces acting against the revolution, but given more emphasis to threat from outside (from the East).

However, by the time the speech was broadcast, Kádár was no longer in the Parliament building. He and Ferenc Münnich had talks in the afternoon with Soviet Ambassador Andropov, and went to the Soviet Embassy. Then they were taken in an armoured vehicle to the Soviet headquarters at Tököl, from where they flew to Moscow the next day. They told no one they were leaving. Members of the government were still looking for them on November 3, fearing they had been taken prisoner by the Soviets (or possibly the rebels).

Hungary’s declaration of neutrality did not have the desired diplomatic effects. The West, in the tense atmosphere of the Suez crisis, was reluctant to pick up the gauntlet of Hungary. The development influenced public opinion and social organizations in Western countries, rather than politicians.

Hungary’s declaration of neutrality displeased American policy-makers in various ways. The State Department thought it did not go far enough. They would like to have left open the possibility of Hungary, as an independent country, becoming a Nato member one day. A mere weakening of the Soviet side did not meet their requirements. President Eisenhower thought that the Soviet Union would not be prepared to watch its satellite break away. So any official recognition of Hungary’s neutrality would have disagreeable consequences if Hungary were drawn back into the Soviet camp by force of arms. So the measure by which Imre Nagy hoped to gain diplomatic protection for his country did not have the desired effect, although at home it completed the consolidation, by meeting the last of the revolution’s major demands.

November 2–3

On November 2, the government nominated delegations to negotiate on the various issues at stake. The delegation appointed to implement the withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact was led by Géza Losonczy. Politicians and army representatives were to be accompanied to Warsaw by a workers’-council member, as a personal guarantee that the decision really came from the Hungarian people, with the support of the working class. The delegation to have accompanied Imre Nagy to the UN General Assembly consisted of Zoltán Tildy, Anna Kéthly and Béla Kovács. The delegation to discuss the troop withdrawals with the Soviets was to be headed by Ferenc Erdei and Pál Maléter.

Meanwhile Marshal Ivan Konev, commander-in-chief of the Combined Armed Forces of the Warsaw Pact arrived in Szolnok, which had been designated as the Hungarian headquarters of the Soviet army. He gave an immediate briefing and issued the order for an attack on November 4.

The country was not left to enjoy its temporary victory in peace. Amidst all the news of normalization, there were tense expectations and measures to avert a renewed attack. A succession of workers’ councils voted for a return to work on Monday, November 5. Indeed work was resumed on Saturday the 3rd in several places, so that production could resume on Monday at full capacity. Local branches of political parties sprang up all over the country. The revived parties of the 1945–7 coalition were the quickest to organize, but more than 20 other parties came into being, of which the Christian Democrats were the only one with realistic political prospects.

The revolutionary councils, in cooperation with the national-guard units and the army, began to organize and install defences against the threatened Soviet attack. Partial mobilization was ordered in several places. Soviet troops and roads into towns were kept under observation. Dressing stations were set up. The mood of the country was marked by relief at the victory and faith in a better future won at the price of bloodshed, but at the same time by anxiety over the Soviet menace.

The apparent ambiguity of the Soviet moves increased on November 3. On the one hand, Soviet troops, having surrounded the airfields, blocked off the larger cities and closed main roads and the Western frontier. On the other, negotiations began in Parliament on troop withdrawals. Based on the reports received from the army, the Hungarian leaders believed that the Soviet forces stationed and still arriving in Hungary were of unwarranted size compared with any expected Hungarian resistance. It could therefore be assumed that their real purpose was to offset the contingency of an attack by the West. This interpretation lent importance to an announcement by the Austrian ambassador that his government had formed a demilitarized zone along the Hungarian border, to prevent any movement of regular or irregular troops towards Hungary. At the negotiations in Parliament, both sides stated their points of view. Pál Maléter put the Hungarian government’s position according to instructions received from Imre Nagy. The Soviet units that had arrived since October 23 were to withdraw from the country by December 31. Negotiations would resume later on the Soviet troops stationed in Hungary earlier under the terms of the Warsaw Pact. It was agreed to continue the talks later the same day. The second round would be held at the Soviet base at Tököl.

November 3 also brought a cabinet reshuffle, to meet the demands of the revived political parties, which wanted to delegate representatives to replace the coalition politicians that Imre Nagy had invited. This brought into the government István B. Szabó of the Smallholders, István Bibó and Ferenc Farkas of the Peasants’ (Petőfi) Party, and József Fischer and Gyula Kelemen of the Social Democrats. The new defence minister was to be Pál Maléter, who was promoted to the rank of major general. Except for Ferenc Erdei, the other members of the government (János Kádár, Anna Kéthly, Béla Kovács, Géza Losonczy and Zoltán Tildy) remained in office.

Having strengthened order at home, Imre Nagy concentrated his energies on averting the threat from abroad. Apart from the government reshuffle, only one important measure was taken to consolidate the domestic situation, and even that had a foreign dimension. The prime minister turned to the Polish ambassador, requesting him to try to influence Cardinal Mindszenty, through the Polish primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński. Nagy was concerned that Mindszenty should not to disturb the new social peace or raise new tensions with a radio broadcast that the cardinal planned to make in the evening.

The government had twin objectives at this time. One aim, through the international press, was to reassure the world, especially the Soviet Union, that there was no counter-revolution of any kind taking place in Hungary. The government was united behind the fundamental social changes that had occurred after 1945, such as land reform and nationalization, in other words behind a new order that was acceptable to Moscow. The other approach was to appeal to the Polish and Romanian diplomats to mediate, to try to prevent the Soviet Union from using armed force against Hungary.

It was fruitless. After the CPSU <Communist Party of the Soviet Union> Presidium had taken its decision on October 31, Khrushchev first obtained approval from Gomulka. Then he expressed his views of the Hungarian question to the party leaders of the less important satellite countries, in a short address delivered in Bucharest. Overnight on November 2–3, he had a secret meeting on the Adriatic island of Brioni with Tito, leader of the League of Yugoslav Communists. Tito placed no obstacles in the way of the planned Soviet intervention, as Khrushchev had feared he might do beforehand. He promised to neutralize Imre Nagy and his group when the moment came, by offering them refuge in the Yugoslav Embassy in Budapest and persuading Nagy to resign. Finally, it was agreed at the talks with Tito that János Kádár would head the counter-government, not Ferenc Münnich, whom the Soviets would have preferred.

Kádár and his group arrived in Moscow on November 2, where they immediately took part in a meeting of the CPSU <Communist Party of the Soviet Union> Presidium. Kádár argued cautiously for a peaceful solution, favouring the retention of the present government and institutions. There are several possible explanations for this fact, which is curious indeed in the light of subsequent events. For one thing, Khrushchev was still absent, so that Kádár may not have realized how united the Presidium was in its decision. For another, Kádár had emphasized several times, even before the turn of events on October 28, what dangers would lie in defeating the revolution by force of arms, unless it were coupled with the most necessary political reforms. He saw clearly that simply to crush the revolutionaries with Soviet might would block subsequent political development: the military victory would rule out a real settlement that removed the causes of the crisis. The government that took over would simply be a Soviet puppet, which was a role that had few attractions for Kádár. Until Khrushchev returned, Kádár did not know what positions the heads of the other people’s democracies were taking, or whether others, besides the Soviets, would be taking part in the occupation. (Participation by Romania, which Bucharest offered, would have made the position of the new Hungarian government even more difficult for historical reasons: the intermittent conflicts and antagonism between the two countries, ever since the revolution of 1848.) He had no way of telling what stance the Yugoslavs and the Poles were taking, either. Finally, he was unclear about how far the Soviets wanted to go in restoring the old regime. He saw no guarantee that Rákosi and his supporters would not return to power, which would mean he had to wage a struggle on two fronts, against the reformers <radicals and reformers> in the party and against the hard-liners. Since he would be facing the opposition of the whole country, his failure under those conditions would be certain.

Khrushchev, on his return to Moscow on November 3, hastened to reassure Kádár, who may also have been persuaded by further news he received from Hungary, such as the formation of a real coalition government. He received an undertaking from Khrushchev that Rákosi would not be allowed to return to Hungary, let alone re-enter the political scene. Khrushchev also gave an account of his talks with Gomulka and Tito. As a result, Kádár would have the support of the other reforming countries in the bloc. Kádár’s discussions with Khrushchev also made it clear that the Soviet decision was irrevocable. Kádár faced only two courses: to cooperate and remain in power, or to stick by the government, Imre Nagy and the Hungarian people and face the consequences. He chose the first alternative, although he made a faint gesture by stipulating, ‘This government should not be a puppet government.’ In fact there was no chance of it being anything else. The Soviets drew up the list of ministers. The government programme was composed in Russian, and Kádár, who did not speak the language, could not even help with the translation. To avoid any complications, the Soviets sent in politicians as well as soldiers. Kádár was accompanied back to Hungary by three members of the CPSU Presidium: Georgy Malenkov, Anastas Mikoyan and Leonid Brezhnev.

While Kádár and his Soviet staff were in Moscow, preparing to travel to Hungary after the decision had been reached, Cardinal Mindszenty was delivering a speech on Free Kossuth Radio. The head of the Catholic Church in Hungary did not come out against the Nagy government, but he described its members as ‘successors of the fallen regime’. He called for the return of the Catholic Church’s ‘institutions and societies’, but not of the landholdings confiscated in 1945. The speech was calmer than many people had expected. However, the emphases in it and the fact of a political declaration by the cardinal meant that the possibility of a new centre of power, opposed to the government, had emerged.

The whole country sensed the looming danger on November 3, but everyone was still hopeful. They trusted that the Soviets would refrain from opposing a Hungarian will that was so united. They trusted that the demand for the withdrawal of Soviet troops would not bring the predictable reaction from Moscow. After all, the Soviets had withdrawn from Finland and Austria, when they were offered requisite guarantees, and there had a reassuring start to the negotiations in Hungary. They trusted that any further Soviet aggression would be prevented and the country’s sovereignty and neutrality defended by the United Nations, of which Hungary had become a member less than a year before.

Hungary is admitted to the UN on December 14, 1955

Hopes were increased by a further improvement in domestic law and order on November 3. After the initiatives of November 2, most workers’ councils agreed to end the strike, in decisions that were often endorsed by representatives of the armed groups and the political parties. The end of the fighting and the nationwide resumption of work showed plainly that the government was in control again. Hungary was not in crisis and outside intervention was not required. In many places, a start was made to re-examining the cases of people arrested or placed in protective detention during the revolution. In some, the process was completed: those found innocent being released and the rest transferred to cells at police stations.

The country retired to bed on Saturday, November 3, hopeful of a peaceful Sunday after a tense week and a half. Meanwhile, during the evening and overnight, the final steps were being taken in Budapest and in the provinces to prepare and secure the Soviet attack on the next day. When a Romanian delegation arrived in Budapest, Imre Nagy and members of the HSWP Executive Committee tried to probe them about Soviet intentions and persuade them to mediate on behalf of maintaining peace. The Romanians, however, tried to draw out the negotiations, to keep Nagy occupied and reduce the government’s chances of acting and informing itself.

The Hungarian government delegation led by Ferenc Erdei and Pál Maléter arrived at the Soviet command in Tököl in the late evening. They had hardly begun their negotiations when Soviet security men armed with machine guns burst in, headed by General Ivan Serov, head of the KGB. They flouted international law and basic diplomatic norms by arresting the delegation and thereby (figuratively for the time being) disarming the Hungarian army on the eve of the attack.