Forradalom és szabadságharc

The Soviet occupation

The country woke on November 4 to the sound of artillery, as the Soviet attack on Budapest and several other cities began at 4.15 a.m. However, almost an hour went by before the formation of the new Kádár government—the Hungarian Revolutionary Workers’ and Peasants’ Government—was announced in a radio transmission from Uzhgorod (Uzhkhorod, Ungvár). The speech read by János Kádár stated that the mass movement of October 23 had changed into a fascist uprising. For that reason, it had become necessary to call on Soviet troops for help. He promised impunity to all who had ‘joined the movement for honest, patriotic reasons’ and added that several of the revolution’s demands would be met. For instance, the new government would initiate negotiations on the withdrawal of Soviet troops once order had been restored.

A quarter of an hour after Kádár’s announcement, Imre Nagy read a proclamation on Free Kossuth Radio. It was too soon for the prime minister to have an accurate picture of the situation. He did not yet know what had happened to the Hungarian negotiators arrested by the Soviets in Tököl the night before. All he could tell the nation at this stage was that the government had not invited in the Soviet forces. He did not give (and could not realistically have given) an order to resist, although he did not forbid resistance either. (However, the generals in the Ministry of Defence at the time forbade the Hungarian army to resist, based on a written order they received from Major General István Kovács, who had been arrested at Tököl.) Imre Nagy made one more effort. He appealed on the radio for the Maléter team of negotiators (the army chiefs of staff) to return from Tököl immediately. When this had no effect, he accepted the offer of asylum at the Yugoslav Embassy. There he was joined during the day by 42 people, counting family members. Cardinal József Mindszenty, who was also in the Parliament building at the time, took refuge in the American Embassy. Minister of State István Bibó, the only representative of the lawful Hungarian government to remain in the Parliament building, addressed a proclamation to the nation and the world, defending the revolution and the nation that had conducted it.

The Soviet forces had to pursue two main purposes. One was to occupy military installations, disarming the Hungarian army and the national-guard units. The other was to abolish the revolutionary councils and committees and other revolutionary bodies, and isolate those directing them.

On the military side, the Soviets had surrounded the Hungarian barracks overnight. At dawn, they called on those inside them to lay down their arms. The response even to token resistance was to open fire, which happened in Záhony, Komárom, Békéscsaba, Szombathely, Székesfehérvár and several other places. W The Hungarian army was unable to defend itself against such rapid, surprise attacks. Only in a handful of places was any attempt made to resist (partly because of the Defence Ministry order). Units defending the Petőfi Barracks in Budapest engaged with the enemy, but soon saw that the battle was hopeless and laid down their arms. Soldiers, national guards and armed civilians controlling the main road through Soroksár (20th, now 23rd District) had a short gun battle with a Soviet unit at Jutadomb, but having caused severe losses to a superior Soviet unit heading for the city centre and forced it to retreat, they themselves retreated from their positions. Only in two places—Csepel (22nd District) and Dunapentele (Sztálinváros, Dunaújváros)—did lasting, well-organized cooperation develop between the army and the armed revolutionaries. However, neither of these was attacked on November 4. Elsewhere, after the Soviets had occupied the army barracks, they disarmed the soldiers and in most cases dispersed them. The officers were only allowed to retain side arms if the locality had seen no armed resistance or firing at all.

Even so, the Soviets found that the modern military technology introduced did not have the desired results in Budapest. There were strong clashes at various places in the city. The armed revolutionaries could never have imagined they could defeat such strong Soviet forces directly. However, they believed they could hold out until Hungary’s predicament had caused such international outrage that the attackers would be forced to withdraw. They also trusted that the UN would aid them, diplomatically in the main, although some broadcasts from Radio Free Europe were construed to mean that military help could be expected as well. Another problem for the Soviets was that the armed revolutionaries reacted differently from the military. They were often led by their emotions, rather than logical considerations. This meant they were psychologically incapable of bowing to enemy superiority, which would mean surrendering freedoms they had won only a few days before. The results of their self-sacrifice resembled those of October 24. They managed to prevent the Soviets from breaking all the resistance in a single attack. However, this time there was no scope for a bilateral political settlement. The only chance of help lay with strong international pressure, which the Hungarian revolution never received. The organized resistance broke up after a few days. Molotov cocktails were powerless against T-55 tanks. The determination of the Soviets, who responded to every attack with a tank bombardment, broke people’s will to resist and weakened the bonds between the public and the armed rebels. The strongest attacks were made on the places where heavy fighting had occurred before October 28—Corvin köz and surroundings (8th and 9th districts).

Disabled Hungarian tanks in Üllői út (8th and 9th districts)

Boráros tér (9th District), the area round the Eastern Railway Station (7th and 8th districts), the Széna tér area of Buda (1st and 2nd districts) and the Móricz Zsigmond körtér area (11th District). On the afternoon of November 5, two hours of preliminary bombardment preceded a concentrated attack on the Corvin köz group. Although the Corvin Cinema, which acted as its headquarters, was burnt out, the Soviets could not break the resistance of the men commanded by Gergely Pongrátz until the following morning. Before the intervention, there had been less surveillance of the groups formed since the ceasefire, so that these were able to sustain themselves for longer. The forces in the 7th District, which combined during the fighting, under the command of Lajos Steiner, managed to defend their base in Dob utca until November 9. They then retreated north-westwards towards the village of Nagykovácsi in the Buda Hills, hoping to link up with armed units rumoured to be holding out there. The army officers deployed by the government after October 28 to organize and train the revolutionary groups left their units fairly soon after the Soviet intervention. This was partly because they thought further bloodshed was useless, and partly because the men were more inclined to obey their elected commanders, which made it pointless for them to stay. On the other hand, there were many cases of conscripted soldiers and army officers joining the armed struggle.

Éles sarok (10th District) in November 1956

Corporal Sámuel Silye, for instance, led and organized the resistance at Éles sarok, a road junction in Kőbánya (10th District), where the rebels held out until November 8, destroying several Soviet tanks. Officers who had left their unit took over command of the group based at the Schmidt Mansion in Óbuda (3rd District), which made several successful attacks on the intervention forces up to November 7. The parts of Budapest where resistance lasted longest were Újpest (4th District) and Csepel (21st District).

These districts escaped the initial attack on the heart of the city. The real fighting in them began later, which meant the resistance could be better prepared. In Csepel, the national guard and the local army unit joined forces against the Soviets. Although the latter managed to capture most of the heavy weaponry in a surprise attack, some batteries, which had been well sited by Hungarian artillery officers, continued to do serious damage to the Soviets for several days. The Csepel forces also had some anti-aircraft guns, with which to fire on Soviet planes and even bombard the runway at Tököl. They slowed the Soviet entry into Budapest by blowing up roads and blocking the way with girders from the steelworks. There were plans to blow up bridges as well, but these never materialized. The resistance of the Csepel forces was broken on November 9 by the increasing superiority of the Soviet forces.

The corner of Ráday utca and Boráros tér (9th District) on November 10, 1956. The Csepel oil refinery is seen burning in the background

The Soviet forces met with resistance in several places outside Budapest, although the revolutionary military councils decided to surrender without resistance and advised national-guard units and other armed groups to do likewise. A compromise between surrender and resistance was to withdraw from the locality, which left open the possibility of resuming the struggle later. Groups of armed young rebels, many commanded by army officers, withdrew into the hills and woods round several towns (Keszthely, Szekszárd, Pécs, Tatabánya, Miskolc, Sátoraljaújhely etc.) On November 5, a force of about 200 national guards from Sátoraljaújhely burst in on a meeting called by local communist-party leaders and took several hostages. However, they released their prisoners on November 7, and on the 10th, they laid down their arms and returned to the town. People fled to the woods from several villages as well, mainly because they had experienced ill-treatment in the Second World War and they heard news of the Soviets rounding up young people and sending them to Siberia. The local national guard and national committee <revolutionary councils and committees> in Dunapentele armed civilian volunteers as well, to make the defence of the town as effective as possible. Their radio station, named the Rákóczi Transmitter after the leader of the 1703–11 war of independence, broadcast news and appeals for assistance in Hungarian and German. Meanwhile they tried to convince the Soviets of the justice of their cause by distributing leaflets in Russian. On November 7, the Soviets attacked the steel town that had been named after Stalin, as the pride of Hungarian socialist construction. It was bombarded from the air and by heavy artillery. The resistance was overcome by vastly superior forces in about two hours, and by the afternoon the defence had collapsed. o

The armed resistance in several university towns was led by students. Members of the students’ federation Mefesz in the border town of Sopron acquired some heavy artillery. They decided to resist on the morning of November 4, and large numbers of national-guard members arrived from neighbouring villages to support them. However, in the afternoon, the university students abandoned the struggle and fled to Austria instead. There was serious fighting in Veszprém, where the Soviets had trouble occupying rebel positions in the castle district. The defenders continued to resist in other parts of the town the next day.

In Pécs, one of the university battalions, commanded by army officers and reinforced by groups of national guards and miners, blocked the roads from the city into the Mecsek Hills and prevented the Soviets from reaching them for two days. On November 6, they retreated to Vágotpuszta, an isolated hamlet to the east of Orfű, where Géza Horváth organized several hundred men into a rebel guerrilla force known as the ‘Mecsek Invisibles’. On November 9, they managed to knock out the Soviet commander’s car, killing Major Kornushin, the military commander of Pécs city. The force suffered badly from several attacks backed by heavy artillery. On November 19, the remaining men decided to abandon the struggle. After travelling for several days on foot, they reached Yugoslavia on November 22.

The other, equally important Soviet objective was to abolish the controlling bodies that had arisen during the revolution and to isolate those directing them. KGB officers were sent to Hungary, charged with removing the heads of the government and armed forces in Budapest and even arresting local leaders in provincial towns. The workers’ councils were given special treatment from the outset. For some time (and with some justification), they were equated with the soviets that had formed during the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. In other words, they were treated as organizations of proletarian power, which might cooperate with the puppet authorities. However, officials of workers’ councils unwilling to cooperate in the consolidation and return to work, as the Soviets required, were also arrested. That happened, for instance, to the members of the county workers’ council who met on November 5 in Miskolc to negotiate with the Soviet command and local HSWP leaders.

In the early days of the intervention, the Soviets trusted nobody except a few politicians and some ÁVH men and party functionaries prepared to serve alongside the Soviet army. So those arrested were sent off to prisons across the Soviet border, in the Ukraine. The deportees included some politicians, but the vast majority were young people who had taken up arms on the rebel side. By November 15, 846 Hungarians were recorded as having been deported as prisoners to the Soviet Union, including 68 youths and nine young girls.

Although the arrests helped to restore order and crush the armed resistance to the intervention, they also stiffened the passive resistance of the public. There was no return to work anywhere after the Soviet attack. Strikes that were called were in most cases intended to further the release of leaders who had been arrested and deported. The rail strike threatened to cripple the whole transport system, because rebels in several places damaged the track. (A bomb went off in December, severely damaging the line between Pásztó and Szurdokpüspöki.) For this reason, Kádár and Ferenc Münnich, the second-in-command in the government, had to persuade the Soviets in mid-November to halt the deportations and release some prisoners.

Four factors prevented the revolution being crushed immediately after November 4. One was the armed resistance, and the second the political opposition, which became stronger after the armed resistance ended. Then there was the consistent struggle by the revolutionary councils that had been formed during the revolution, more especially by the workers’ councils. Finally, there was the Imre Nagy group inside the Yugoslav Embassy.

In areas where there was little or no fighting, national or revolutionary councils formed during the revolution carried on administering after November 4, or stepped aside in favour of workers’ councils. The former were more typical of smaller places and the latter of towns. The national guard in most villages dissolved after the second Soviet intervention (although it was often revived to keep order a few days later) and some leaders fled. The revolutionary council, on the other hand, usually remained, perhaps augmented by one or two members of the earlier council executive committee. There were no signs in the villages of the new Kádárite communist party, and the Soviet army did no more than pass through, without helping to restore the old council system of local government by maintaining a presence. So the old functionaries also bided their time, well aware, after the events of October, how weak was their position and how strong the popular anger against them.

The arrest or flight of the leading figures in the revolutionary councils and committees left the workers’ councils as the main revolutionary institutions in the towns. They negotiated with the Soviets, because they had the most effective weapon that remained: strike action. The Soviet attack had cemented national unity. Everywhere the same conditions were laid down for a return to work: an immediate ceasefire, the withdrawal of Soviet troops, a total amnesty, the return of the Imre Nagy government, and securing of the gains made in the revolution. Oddly enough, negotiating with the Soviet authorities strengthened the position of the workers’ councils. The functionaries returning to the administration had to acknowledge that the occupiers had accepted the workers’ councils as negotiating parties. The prestige of the workers’ councils with the public increased in places where releases were obtained, so that in several towns, they managed to take over or gain control of the local administration after November 4.

Meanwhile the Yugoslav Embassy sheltered Imre Nagy and all the members of the HSWP Executive Committee elected on October 31, except for Kádár, and for Sándor Kopácsi, who was under Soviet arrest by then.

The Yugoslav Embassy, opposite Hősök tere (6th District), guarded by Soviet tanks in November 1956 (photo by Jenő Virág)

The Soviet-Yugoslav agreement and settlement had only been a partial success. The Yugoslavs had managed to neutralize Imre Nagy early in the morning of November 4, but they had not persuaded him to resign. On the afternoon of November 7, the Kádár government moved under armoured guard from Szolnok to Budapest and took an oath of office before István Dobi, president of the Presidential Council. However, the Nagy government would have to be eliminated before the Kádár government could gain real legitimacy or recognition. It was not just Nagy who was trapped by his presence in the Yugoslav Embassy, but all the other participants in the crisis. Nagy would not resign and recognize the Kádár government. The Yugoslavs, who could not withdraw asylum from him without a grave loss of face, failed to persuade Nagy to resign or Kádár (or more precisely the Soviets) to reach a political agreement with Nagy. Moscow could not afford to place its promising relations with Tito in jeopardy by kidnapping Nagy. No solution was found until November 22. Until then, the presence of Nagy and his team in the Yugoslav Embassy presented Kádár with the constant spectre of dual power.

These were among the reasons for the relatively long provisional period, in which the regime, having taken a few immediate tough measures, seemed to be seeking agreement with individual groups. Promises of concessions and reforms featured prominently in government statements at this stage.

However, Kádár’s position was even more complex than that. He had to cope, in obtaining and consolidating his power, not only with Imre Nagy (and public opinion), but with the hard-liners ranged behind the new government and party. Furthermore, the Soviets initially gave little more than nominal support to the politician they had set up as Hungary’s head of government, while actually taking decisions on his behalf, often without consulting or even informing him. Kádár had to prove his aptitude, but before that, he had to establish, almost from scratch, the institutions needed to exercise power. At the same time, he had to persuade the country to return to work.

Work began in Szolnok on November 5 to organize the military and Interior Ministry special forces and establish the Military Council of the Hungarian People’s Army. One of the first government orders issued forbade the operation of the revolutionary military councils. Without stabilizing the shaken army and establishing a special force capable of breaking the resistance, it would be impossible to secure the withdrawal of the Soviet army. This was essential for Kádár. He needed to gain some elbow room alongside those aiding him, to demonstrate abroad, before the UN, that Hungary retained a measure of sovereignty, and to show the public some specific results, not just promises. Establishing such a force was not easy. Although the army did not oppose the Soviet attack, it did not submit to the Kádár government. The officers were turned against the Soviets and the new government not by the general situation and by some specific aspects of the intervention. They were alienated by the indignities they had suffered, by the disarming of the army, and the dispersal of the rank and file. The police were pleased that the ÁVH had been disbanded and wanted no part in establishing a successor organization that might become a rival. In any case, most police officers supported the revolution and did not want to assist in undoing its achievements. So in the early period, members of the police and the professional army gave lukewarm support to government ideas for establishing a new security force. The Soviets were able to supply the arms, but the only volunteers came from groups from which the government was still trying to dissociate itself (former ÁVH men and party functionaries).

Kádár’s other urgent task was to organize a party alongside his government. The members of an HSWP Executive Committee were nominated when the government moved to Budapest, but for a long time, the list was not made public. Kádár and his associates still hoped to win over some of the group in the Yugoslav Embassy, which might give a shred of public credibility to the ‘revolutionary’ epithet in the puppet government’s name. Recruitment was impeded because the Kádár group kept the name of the party that Imre Nagy’s group had founded, which caused general confusion. Furthermore, it failed for a while to publish a clear programme, to some extent intentionally. That meant they could not expect support from the reformers <radicals and reformers>, while the new leaders themselves shied away initially from the returning Stalinist cadres, whom they saw as a threat to their power. Most members of the team that took over on November 4 were vulnerable because of their earlier conduct. Prime Minister Kádár, as a member of Imre Nagy’s last government, had voted in favour of neutrality on November 1. On the other hand, he, Antal Apró, Károly Kiss and Ferenc Münnich had taken part in dissolving the Social Democratic Party in 1948. In the first half of November, the leadership was still dissociating itself more strongly from the Rákosi group than from Imre Nagy and his followers. At the November 11 meeting of the HSWP Provisional Central Committee, political objectives and self-defence alike prompted the leadership to put forward a list of Rákosi-ite politicians ‘who may not play any leading part in the life of the party or of the country.’

The new county party committees were advised to draw up similar blacklists, but this tended to foment serious internal conflicts and personal antagonisms. There were sharp struggles for power between the old leaders (who had fled or been ousted in October), the reformers <radicals and reformers> (who had taken over the party during the revolution) and those ready to support any leadership, regardless of convictions, to retain their position and power. Building up the party was also difficult because the Kádár group did not even have the strength to defend its own people. Workplace and workers’ councils continued to operate, with reluctant recognition from the Revolutionary Workers’ and Peasants’ Government <Kádár government>. These dismissed local cadres known to have served the Rákosi regime, banned the new party from organizing at work places, or rejected its applications to establish work-place party offices. Many people hesitated to risk their present livelihood for the future advantages of party membership.

The Kádár group had even less success in taking control of the public administration and restoring the communist system of local government. There was no way of implementing the order issued on November 7 restoring the legal and personnel position in the state administration that had prevailed on October 23. Only after November 10, when a further order threatened with dismissal those who failed to reoccupy their offices did members of the old administrative apparatus start trickling back. Even then, they found they still had to share local authority with the workers’ councils and revolutionary councils. The same applied in many national public offices and ministries, where the direction of affairs remained in the hands of committees formed during the revolution, or there was a workers’ council with strong influence. (That applied, for instance, in the Ministry of Metallurgy and Engineering, which ran the country’s heavy industry.)

Only in two county seats, Salgótarján and Miskolc, did groups loyal to Kádár take power locally before November 11. Even there, the revolutionary camp regained strength later, forcing the local ‘workers’ and peasants’ power’ into retreat.

The workers’ councils head the resistance

By November 11, the Soviets had broken the armed resistance. However, it was obvious that the victory was only a military one. They were not masters of the situation politically. A ceasefire was needed not least because the UN had had the Hungarian question on its agenda since November 4. Britain and France were vehement in pressing for a debate on Hungary, because they hoped it would draw attention away from Suez. The second intervention also left the United States with no option but to support its allies’ initiative, for one thing because it needed to restore some of the prestige it had lost by taking a lenient stance on Hungary before November 4. The situation was complicated by the fact that the question came before the General Assembly. This did not have such a wide mandate as the Security Council, but it meant that the Soviet Union did not have a veto. The General Assembly passed a succession of resolutions critical of Moscow, while taking note in a demeaning way of the Kádár regime’s existence. For the Kremlin, which had been trying to build up a new image on the international political stage, it was uncomfortable to have the ‘peace-loving Soviet Union’ repeatedly branded as an aggressor in the widest international forum of all. On the other hand, the Soviet leaders had good reason to hope the diplomatic pressure would lessen once the fighting ended.

However, only the armed resistance ceased in mid-November, for the political struggle widened. Some members of the fragmented groups of resistance fighters had fled abroad, from where they tried to continue the struggle by other means. (Former armed rebels established the Hungarian Revolutionary Council in Vienna on November 30.) Those who remained in Hungary went into hiding, continuing the struggle by political means and flooding Budapest with leaflets and pamphlets repeating their demands. One of their centres was the hospital in Péterfy Sándor utca (7th District), which had already played a big part during the revolution. An illegal paper called Élünk (We Are Alive) was edited and distributed there by István Angyal, Ottó Szirmai and Miklós Gyöngyösi.

On November 12, the Hungarian Writers’ Union issued a protest against the Soviet intervention and the terror by the authorities. Among other bodies to endorse it were the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the Hungarian News Agency MTI, the University Revolutionary Students’ Committee and the Revolutionary Committee of the Hungarian Intelligentsia. On the same day, the provisional executive committee of the students’ association Mefesz was formed, headed by István Pozsár. Next day, on November 13, the Hungarian Democratic Independence Movement, headed by György Ádám and Miklós Gimes, was established on the initiative of several former members of the party opposition, to coordinate all democratic, national forces. Its paper, Október Huszonharmadika (October 23) began to appear on November 15 illegally, as had a paper called Igazság (Justice), aimed at the revolutionary youth and the army, since November 5. After the collapse of the armed resistance, there was increased activity mainly from groups and organizations that had played a part in preparing for the revolution, before temporarily losing ground to more dynamic groups after October 23.

People in many villages would not allow the old council leaders to return. In several places, villagers obtained official permission from a district or county authority to dismiss them from employment. A start was made in late October to dissolving the agricultural cooperatives <collectivization> in places that had postponed the decision earlier. The revolutionary councils managed to conduct community affairs in a professional manner. Inventories were taken of property belonging to those who had left the village, and their houses were placed under seal. Decisions were made turning the party headquarters into housing again; in many cases it was returned to its original owner. Remedies were sought for blatant grievances, most of which concerned the consolidation of land holdings <collectivization>. Donations of food to the capital ceased—transport was not safe and it was not sure the food would reach those for whom it was intended—but many places offered convalescence to the wounded and new homes to orphaned children. Rural Hungary continued to show solidarity with the cities and support the revolution.

The biggest challenge to the Kádár government came from the working class. Power in the big industrial areas and cities (Miskolc, Pécs, Győr, Debrecen etc.) was clearly exercised by the workers’ councils. These were extending their power beyond their factories and local communities, so that they began to control and speak for wider regions. The factory guards formed during the revolution survived the defeat of the armed resistance. So the workers’ councils had armed forces at their disposal, besides deciding on the employment or dismissal of former cadres and ÁVH men. They negotiated with the Soviets. Delegations arrived in Budapest to enjoin rather than negotiate, making the resumption of work dependent on the fulfilment of demands, set out in points that had been reformulated since November 4. The workers’ councils tried to extend their influence over the police, so that they could check on the lawfulness and justice of arrests, free those held for political reasons, and prevent the infiltration of former ÁVH officers. They published newspapers in several places—Rába and Szabad Ózd (Free Ózd), for instance. They took part in organizing public supplies, which panic buying after the November 4 attack had brought to the point of collapse. They helped to set and impose market prices and to resolve housing problems (squatting, real estate belonging to those who had fled abroad, etc.) It was often the workers’ councils that managed to restore power supplies. So, apart from managing work places and defending the gains of the revolution politically, they tackled by default other tasks that nobody else could undertake, which made them indispensable to their communities.

By mid-November, the situation in the two main provincial centres of the revolution, Miskolc and Győr, was more or less what it had been before the Soviet attack. The local party leadership and the Soviets in the former were obliged to recruit Rudolf Földvári, one of the leaders of the Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén County workers’ council during the revolution. Földvári agreed to head the new county workers’ council in the hope of arriving at a compromise that would gain as much as possible of the revolution’s aims. He still saw a chance of organizing the HSWP from below, ensuring internal democracy and preventing the return of Rákosi-ite ideas. On the other hand, he thought that to insist on complete fulfilment of the revolution’s demands could bring a further intervention by the Soviet army, bloodier than the one on November 4, and cause the economy to collapse. He managed to bring back the other members of the workers’ council, who had been imprisoned, and include them in the leadership, but the price paid was a return to work.

The workers’ council at the waggon works in Győr took over control of the city and the county. It obtained the release of prisoners and delegated members to the executive committee of the county council. A waggon-factory worker became chairman of the city council. In other words, it obtained a decisive say in local power, so that the reinstatement of the city and county councils did not mean that the communist council system was restored. No attempt was made to exploit these positions for the benefit of the factory work force. The workers’ council helped the peasantry to organize and sought to include them in the county administration. It was supported by Attila Szigethy, whom the authorities tried to recruit, like Földvári, as a way of reducing discontent, but unsuccessfully, because Szigethy refused the positions he was offered. Holding no office or position, Szigethy put the weight of his personal prestige behind the local revolutionary forces, and took part in the discussions of the opposition intelligentsia (especially the writers) in Budapest. An independent daily paper, Hazánk (Our Country), appeared with a Soviet permit, giving regular, impartial accounts of events in the region and the country. In fact, this was the most important of the legally authorized journals that kept the revolutionary demands alive in the period after November 4.

The danger of a dual system of power developing increased with the formation of the Greater Budapest Central Workers’ Council (KMT) on November 14. Its influence was enhanced because several provincial workers’ councils (such as the Dorog and Tatabánya miners) sent permanent representatives to the inaugural meeting, which was also addressed by Tibor Déry, on behalf of the writers. Agreement in principle (based on the November 6 draft proposal of István Bibó) brought close cooperation with various organizations and groups among the intelligentsia and the former opposition within the party. Contributions from rural delegates turned the KMT, in its early days, into a forum and centre capable of coordinating nationwide resistance.

The Kádár government was obliged to receive a delegation from the KMT <Greater Budapest Central Workers’ Council>, headed by Sándor Rácz and Sándor Bali, but the gap was impossible to bridge, X although a return to work was important to both sides. This was how the KMT could best have shown that it had the country behind it, that it was the real representative of the people. It was also clear that the strike could not continue forever. The public was tiring and the country was drifting towards economic catastrophe. It was also possible that the Soviets might intervene to end the strike, even more firmly than they had on November 4. Kádár, on the other hand, needed to show results before the Soviets tired of his impotence and set him aside. It was vital to him that the country should return to work. Unless production was resumed, he had only the assistance arriving from the ‘fraternal’ parties in the Soviet bloc with which to appease the public—a situation that left him increasingly at the donors’ mercy. So Kádár had to press for a resumption of work, though he knew this would concentrate in the factories those who supported the workers’ councils, making the political struggle harder still.

Meanwhile Imre Nagy was still in the Yugoslav Embassy. His government’s dismissal by the Presidential Council on November 12 meant nothing. On November 11, the HSWP Executive Committee that had been formed on October 31 held a meeting at the embassy. There it concluded, ‘The Nagy government is lawful; it must not resign, because that would vindicate the treachery of Kádár. Kádár’s behaviour must be branded in particular and the question of his personal responsibility raised ... We will not negotiate with the Kádár government.’ At its meeting on November 14, it declared, ‘The central governmental authority of the Hungarian People’s Republic has to rely primarily on the workers’ councils and the organizations created in recent weeks by the peasantry, the intelligentsia and other strata. The government should adopt and meet the demands of the workers’ councils.’

There was a danger that the two political factors most threatening to the legitimacy of the Kádár government might reach an agreement in principle. Cooperation based on agreement between the KMT <Greater Budapest Central Workers’ Council> and the Imre Nagy group (the Nagy government and the HSWP Executive Committee formed on October 31), between a central workers’ organization and a communist party leadership, would create a factor against which a communist, labour-movement policy could not be directed. It would make it impossible for Kádár to govern (or lead a party). However, the Kádár group gained some hope of improving their bargaining position from developments on November 16. The KMT (while retaining the right to strike) called for a return to work, in view of the economic crisis facing the country and the weariness of the public. However, it called a meeting in the National Sports Hall on November 21, of representatives of all the workers’ councils in the country, with the intention of establishing a National Workers’ Council.

Although Kádár himself was aware of his incapacity and the dangers that threatened him, these were underlined by ‘fraternal’ party delegations and by the Soviets. In the middle of the month, the Chinese lectured him on what was needed: not democracy, but dictatorship and ruthlessness. The East Germans recommended reprisals, even before the struggle was won. Kádár may also have learnt that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union representatives in Hungary considered him soft-hearted and indecisive. Clearly he had to show strength if he wanted to retain power.

Kádár had to revise his position. It had become apparent that his power was threatened mainly from the right, not the left wing. The party branches forming in the county seats were fighting for survival and recognition. It often seemed an achievement if the workers’ council was prepared to sit down and negotiate with the party at all, or allow it into the factory. Successive setbacks convinced the central leadership of the party that it could not fight on two fronts at once. It had to strike a bargain with the lesser of the two dangers, by easing the restrictions and opening up towards what had been the Rákosi-ite left wing of the HWP. That, of course, pushed the party leadership in the direction of tougher, more radical solutions.

This shift is apparent in the fact that the special forces eventually had to be recruited from former party functionaries, expelled cadres and former members of the ÁVH. It was decided on November 21 that the ÁVH should not resume operations, but jobs had to be found for its former employees. The first brigades of the special forces were formed in Budapest in November, but Kádár still had to rely on the Soviets to stabilize his power.

The Kádár government takes over

The KMT <Greater Budapest Central Workers’ Council> had agreed with the Soviets in advance about its national assembly and invited both the Soviets and the Kádár government to send representatives to the discussions. However, when delegates arrived on November 21, the National Sports Hall (14th District) was surrounded by Soviet tanks, which prevented the assembly from being held there. It had to be transferred to the KMT headquarters in Akácfa utca (7th District), to which only a fraction of the provincial delegates found their way. A formal decision to establish the National Workers’ Council was taken, but it was also agreed that the KMT, as an organization already known to the Kádár government, should represent the provincial workers’ councils, rather than exacerbating an already tense situation. (Next day, the Kádár government, in a decree regulating the legal position of the workers’ councils, consistently ignored the proposals agreed with the KMT.)

November 21 also saw an agreement with the Yugoslavs, reached after lengthy negotiations. The Kádár government would give Yugoslavia a written guarantee that Imre Nagy and his associates would not be prosecuted. The asylum granted would then cease and the Nagy group leave the embassy. A Soviet bus was waiting when they came out of the building in the late afternoon of November 22. Instead of returning them to their homes, it took them to the Soviet base at Mátyásföld (16th District). From there, they were flown the next day to Snagov, near Bucharest in Romania. That manoeuvre irrevocably ruled out any inclusion of the Imre Nagy group in the new HSWP.

The Kádár leadership had much to thank the Soviets for after the advances made on November 21 and 22. In the space of 48 hours, they had rid him of two forces, either of which might have presented itself as a government based on constitutional or revolutionary legitimacy.

Kádár’s behaviour underwent a marked change at this time. The Soviet representatives in Hungary noticed with satisfaction that ‘Comrade Kádár has made up his mind.’ At the end of November, Kádár told party and enterprise leaders engaged in negotiations with the workers’ councils, ‘We are not going to stop the arrests. They will continue. If need be, they will be stricter still ... We cannot be soft, we cannot be lenient, because the counter-revolution cannot be disabled or halted by making concessions—we have tried that recipe once already.’ Kádár’s remarks seem to confirm that the decision to begin tough measures and reprisals was motivated as much by past experience as by present circumstances. Kádár saw the party leadership’s behaviour at the end of October, in trying to halt the ‘counter-revolution’ by making concessions, as something alarming that had to be avoided in future. He was encouraged not only by the prompt Soviet aid he received, but by the advice of a Romanian delegation visiting Budapest. At a meeting of the HSWP Provisional Central Committee on November 24, Gheorghe Gheorgiu-Dej, general secretary of the Romanian Communist Party, read a demeaning lesson to the Hungarian party leaders: ‘You have to hit hard! The working class and the party have to hit with all their force! If the strength of the working class is not felt now, if all those who organized the events are not called to account now, there will be no kind of guarantee that reaction will not rise again ... It is absolutely essential, under such extraordinary circumstances, to establish special courts; special measures have to be taken.’ The Hungarian party leaders had heard similar, if not stronger criticisms before, but they had come from the CPSU <Communist Party of the Soviet Union>, not the Romanians, who counted as equals.

The estimation of the Kádár government could sink no further. There had to be urgent action, because even the successes of November 21–2 were followed by further attacks and setbacks. Although the formation of the National Workers’ Council had been prevented, a county network of workers’ councils (in Győr-Sopron, Baranya and other counties) rapidly developed. These supported the KMT <Greater Budapest Central Workers’ Council> in their demands and sent permanent delegates to Budapest. Meanwhile KMT leaders visited provincial workers’ councils to join in their deliberations and county workers’ councils began to build relations with each other. (Nógrád County workers’ council announced on November 23 that it was establishing ties with the KMT and with the workers’ councils in Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén and Heves counties. The Pécs miners contacted their counterparts in Tatabánya and Oroszlány, to agree their demands.) In Budapest, the Revolutionary Committee of the Hungarian Intelligentsia gave way to the Revolutionary Council of the Hungarian Intelligentsia (MÉFT), chaired by the composer Zoltán Kodály. To protest against the obstruction of the national workers’ council meeting, the KMT called a 48-hour strike, which underlined the organization’s strength again. The protest strike was widely observed, just as its appeal to return to work on November 16 had been widely heeded. November 22 also brought spontaneous protests and demonstrations in Budapest. On the following day, MÉFT initiated a silent demonstration to mark the first month since the outbreak of the revolution. Traffic stopped and the streets emptied between two and three in the afternoon. The newspaper Magyar Honvéd (Hungarian Guardsman) recalled in a leading article ‘the glorious revolution, the Hungarian October of dear, unforgettable memory.’ (The paper was banned the next day.) On November 23–4, there was a strike at Népszabadság, the central daily of the HSWP, after the party leadership had forbidden it to publish a written response to Soviet comments on the speech Tito had made at Pula on November 11.

There was also a crisis by the end of the November at official trade union movement Szot, which had still supported Kádár at the beginning of the month. The success of the workers’ councils had left it no influence at work places, where former shop stewards were often locked out altogether. The government had hoped to place the workers’ councils under union control, but in the event, the opposite was happening. Factories were holding democratic union elections (under the auspices of the workers’ council), and former shop stewards were losing in favour of those who supported the revolutionary demands. The printers’ and textile workers’ unions went their own way. The situation prompted the Szot leadership to move towards cooperating with the KMT. A statement in the trade-union newspaper Népakarat <Népszava> announced that the Szot leaders wished to act independently of the government and recognized the workers’ right to strike.

At the end of November, Kádár resolved to take firm action, for which the conditions were provided to some extent. The formation of special units in the army had been followed, in a growing number of places, by the establishment of special forces under Interior Ministry control. These were manned by former ÁVH men, along with a large number of former party and local-government functionaries who had lost their jobs, and some dismissed executives from the economic sphere. The members of these units, known to the public as ‘Kádár’s hussars’ or the ‘quilt jackets’, were keen to retaliate and dependent on the authorities for their livelihood. They hoped to further their careers and efface earlier errors by helping to restore order, so that they needed little encouragement from above. Indeed the problem after a time (in the spring of 1957, when the country had been pacified) was to control their excessive zeal.

In late November and early December, security-force units began to appear on the streets, which had been the public’s domain since October 23. Any sign of opposition to them, even verbal, was brutally suppressed. Often people were attacked, beaten and left crippled for no reason at all. Since they only dared to move about in larger formations, their actions were directed against groups rather than individuals. Students’ and workers’ hostels were occupied, often with Soviet army protection.

The first full meeting of the HSWP Provisional Central Committee began on December 2. Although there were some criticisms of the draft resolution submitted, it was eventually passed by a large majority. The events of October were clearly classified as a counter-revolution. Four reasons for the outburst on October 23 were given. First place still went to the mistakes and crimes of the ‘Rákosi-Gerő clique’. These were followed immediately by the activities of the Imre Nagy-Losonczy opposition wing of the party. In third place came the counter-revolutionary activities at home (‘Horthy-fascist and Hungarian capitalist-landowner counter-revolution’), and in fourth place the role of ‘international imperialism’. The resolution dispelled the uncertainty. If the events had been a counter-revolution, those active in them, especially those who had led them, were counter-revolutionaries, who had to be persecuted and excluded from public life, for the sake of socialism and people’s salvation. So the resolution gave the green light for reprisals. Suitable people were chosen to head the law-enforcement and judicial organizations that would conduct them, although purges of the administrative apparatus did not begin until the early months of 1957.

Mass arrests began early in December. Hundreds of those who had run and organized the opposition and enjoyed public confidence were sent to jail. Most of those held were brutally treated. Dependants who enquired after them received no information at all.

Meanwhile government commissioners appeared at key factories, after a government order to that effect had been issued on November 24. It seemed as if the regime would use every means at its disposal to break any further strikes.

At the end of November, it was decided, in consultation with the Soviets, to set up special courts. Negotiations began about whom to include in the first round of prosecutions. It was agreed with General Ivan Serov, head of the KGB, to pick out József Dudás, head of the Hungarian National Revolutionary Committee, and János Szabó, commander of the Széna tér group of armed rebels, and try them before a military court immediately.

On December 5, the first of the government’s self-vindicating ‘white books’ appeared, entitled Counter-revolutionary Forces in the Hungarian Events of October. This defamed, in the style of the Rákosi period, the events popularly considered to be a glorious revolution and struggle for independence, along with those who had taken part in them. It was a sign of the regime’s weakness that no one dared take responsibility for the work: no names of authors, editors or publishers appeared. The title stopped short of describing the events in general as a counter-revolution, but the process of discrediting the revolution and the revolutionaries had begun. Photographs of the lynchings in Köztársaság tér and Mosonmagyaróvár were prominent, along with distorted or imaginary accounts of other atrocities. Cardinal József Mindszenty was cast in the role of chief offender.

The final burst of resistance

Society reacted with bitter resistance. There were successive demonstrations and protests all over the country, against the arbitrary acts of the special forces and against the arrests. The KMT’s <Greater Budapest Central Workers’ Council> call on December 1 for a boycott of the press can be said to have ushered in the last stage in the struggle. The KMT urged the public to boycott the newspapers because the government still refused to permit the paper of the workers’ councils to appear. Following the call, bales of unread copies of the Népszabadság were burnt at newspaper stands all over the country. On December 4, a women’s protest was organized by the KMT and the group of intellectuals associated with the paper Élünk (We Are Alive): István Eörsi, Gyula Obersovszky and others. When the protesters reached Hősök tere (14th District), Soviet soldiers and special forces were waiting for them. Their intervention was prevented only by the arrival of the Indian ambassador, K.P.S. Menon (accompanied by Árpád Göncz), so that the protesters were able to lay wreaths on the Memorial to the Unknown Soldier.

The women’s protest on December 4, 1956, seen at Kálvin tér (5th and 8th districts)

The government’s response was to organize a sympathy demonstration for itself on December 6. The handful of marchers carrying red flags was attacked by bystanders, despite a strong guard of Soviet soldiers and special forces. Shots were fired in several places, killing six people and injuring many others.

Kádár had dared to leave the capital on November 30, for the first time since November 7 (for fruitless discussions with the Tatabánya workers’ council). Nonetheless, feelings were rising in the provinces. There were demonstrations in many parts of the country, including Tatabánya and Pécs, and Nógrád and Hajdú-Bihar counties. The special forces had to resort to their weapons to contain several of them.

One of the centres of the rearguard actions in early December was Békés County. Demonstrators swarmed into the streets of towns and villages. The revolutionary committee and the national guard were revived, and on several occasions put up resistance to the special forces deployed. On December 6, there was a silent protest and wreath-laying in Békéscsaba, attended by soldiers of the local garrison, most of whom had been sent there after becoming separated from their units during the revolution. A group of these went to Sarkad, where they joined local demonstrators in occupying the police station, the auxiliary command and the party building, and disarming those in them. They revived the national guard and arrested several former members of the ÁVH. Finally, special forces sent out from Békéscsaba succeeded in disarming the national guard, with Soviet military support, and several arrests were made. When the Soviets left the town next day, the demonstrators took to the streets again, calling for the release of those arrested. The special forces resisted, but the crowd again occupied the police station, severely ill-treating several policemen (former ÁVH men) who tried to flee. That evening the Soviets returned and finally crushed the disturbances. The rebels held onto the nearby village of Doboz from December 7 to 10. There they greeted the advancing special forces with gunfire, wounding one man, which put the rest to flight. A Soviet unit captured the village that evening, but it was the middle of the month before the authorities managed to quell the uprising in Békés. There were mass arrests. Both prisoners and those who came to enquire after them received brutal treatment. A curfew was imposed from the late afternoon onwards. On December 12, shots were fired to disperse a crowd in Gyoma calling for prisoners to be freed.

Miskolc became the focus of attention again on December 9–10. At the end of November, Rudolf Földvári had tried to prevent former ÁVH members from infiltrating the new special forces, which he wanted to place under the control of the county workers’ council. That brought him into conflict with the vested interests of people who felt strong enough to retaliate. When it became clear at the beginning of December that Földvári’s plans could not be implemented, they began to attack him personally at an activists’ meeting on the 9th. The response was the first women’s demonstration. By the evening, most of the population was out on the streets. The special forces and the Soviets did not dare to fire on them, because the police and workers’ militia (the latter drawn from former national guards) took the side of the demonstrators, announcing that they would use their weapons to defend the crowd in the event of an attack. The disturbances continued the next day. When the Soviets finally used their weapons, the police supporting the crowd returned the fire. Several lives were lost on both sides in the ensuing gun battle. The casualty figure rose further when the bridge over the Szinva Brook collapsed under the fleeing crowd. Several people died of injuries received in the accident. The demonstrators tried to capture the special forces’ barracks, to obtain more weapons, but the Soviets managed to prevent this by sending in tanks.

There were successive volleys of fire in early December, not just in Gyoma and Miskolc, but in many other places, from Eger to Zalaegerszeg. The greatest number of lives were lost in Salgótarján on December 8. A crowd advanced on Nógrád County Police Headquarters at eight in the morning, calling for the release of some miners who had been arrested. A police officer tried to persuade people to disperse, later proposing that they elect a delegation to negotiate, but they were suspicious and rejected the idea. The crowd continued to grow. By eleven o’clock, there were about 4000 protesters. They were not just calling for the release of the prisoners, but demonstrating against the Kádár government, demanding the withdrawal of Soviet troops, and levelling abuse at the special forces deployed to defend the police station. In this tense situation, one or more members of the special forces opened fire, whereupon one of the demonstrators dropped a practice grenade among them, in an attempt to prevent further bloodshed. The effect was the opposite. The other special-forces men joined in the firing, along with the police guarding the area and the Soviet soldiers. The documents found so far suggest that almost 50 people were killed and over 100 wounded.

The KMT <Greater Budapest Central Workers’ Council> met on December 8 to review the period since its inception. It concluded that its attempts to negotiate had failed. The authorities had frustrated the attempt to establish the National Workers’ Council. Former ÁVH members in ever greater numbers were joining the armed services, especially the special forces, but also the army (as officers). The workers’ councils were decreasingly successful in opposing the arrests. In fact, growing numbers of leaders of workers’ councils had been among those detained in the last few days. The KMT had not managed to gain media access. The government consistently prevented it from starting its own newspaper, and the radio either misreported or failed to report what the KMT was doing. Terrorization of the public was increasing. It was steadily becoming impossible for the workers’ councils to operate. Most of the delegates at the meeting saw as the only chance a longer, general protest strike designed to force the government to negotiate in earnest. A delegate from the Budapest 10th District Workers’ Council put it like this: ‘We recommend a protest strike lasting a maximum of two or three days. It should be one that extends over all areas of life, expressing a discipline and commitment that makes the Kádár government think, and the Soviet power as well, which stands over the Kádár government. Let the electricity go out, let there be no gas, let there be nothing. We will not be offending against humanity, because the hospitals have accumulator batteries, so that they can last the two days.’ The decision had already been taken when news arrived of the carnage in Salgótarján, which confirmed the KMT in its resolve. A general strike was called for December 11–12, but, ‘The energy supplies required to maintain the mines and the water supplies in the towns should operate. The ambulance service, fire brigade, hospitals and doctors should do their work.’

By this time, the government was preparing for the final reckoning. The 48-hour strike could not be prevented, but every street demonstration met with brutal retaliation. Shots were fired in Eger, Kecskemét, Zalaegerszeg and elsewhere. On December 9, the strike call was made an excuse to outlaw the KMT <Greater Budapest Central Workers’ Council> and all regional workers’ councils. (They still did not dare touch the factory workers’ councils for the time being.) On December 11, the KMT leaders, Sándor Rácz and Sándor Bali, were lured to Parliament on the pretext of negotiations and arrested.

Thereafter came a string of decrees threatening drastic reprisals against all expressions of opinion. Summary justice was introduced on December 12, when summary courts were given jurisdiction in cases of murder, robbery, various acts of sabotage, and concealing of weapons and ammunition. This was supplemented on December 13 by a third paragraph on sentencing. If any such charge were proved, the sentence was to be death. The court could commute this, but only minors could be given less than ten years’ imprisonment. The first death sentence was passed in Miskolc on December 15 and immediately carried out. Other summary sentences followed in rapid succession.

On December 11, the workers’ councils were deprived of the armed bodies supporting them, the factory workers’ militias, on the grounds of infiltration by ‘criminal and counter-revolutionary elements’. A ban on public assemblies was introduced the next day. This provided for prison sentences of up to five years for those who organized an unauthorized meeting or march, and up to one year for those who even took part. On December 13 came an order for the internment of those who ‘endangered’ public order and public security. Internment camps were established again, the one at Kistarcsa, outside Budapest, being the most important at this time. The maximum internment period was six months, but this could be extended twice for further six-month periods. On December 11, the Revolutionary Council of Hungarian Intellectuals was dissolved.

Deterred by the volleys of fire and tormented by the special forces, the country could no longer retaliate. There were only sporadic, bitter protests against the tyranny of the special forces after December 12. On December 17, young rebels in Gyula disarmed the border guards at Gyulavári, to obtain weapons to defend themselves from the local special forces, who had seriously wounded one of their number. The chairman of the former revolutionary committee persuaded them to take all the weapons back, but 16 young men were taken before a summary court <summary justice>, of whom two were sentenced to death and executed. On December 22, a surviving group of armed rebels from Budapest was captured in the Bakony Hills. They were also taken before summary courts. Their commander, István Horváth, was sentenced to death and executed. However, that belongs to another chapter, the account of the reprisals that followed the defeat of the revolution.