On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, László Borhi, Associate Professor and the Peter A. Kadas Chair in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies, wrote this reflection on the events and their lasting meaning. On Oct. 23, 1956, an uprising against the communist government began, lasting for nearly three weeks before Soviet forces prevailed.
On Monday, Oct. 17, the Indiana University Hungarian Cultural Association remembered the revolution with a program and reception at the Indiana Memorial Union. Prof. Borhi delivered these remarks during the program.
Borhi’s latest book is “Dealing with Dictators: the United States, Hungary, and East Central Europe, 1942-1989.” In addition to his IU role, Borhi is Scientific Counsellor of the Institute of History Center for Humanities of the Hungarian Academy. He is the author of „Hungary in the Cold War, 1945–1956: Between the United States and the Soviet Union” (2004) and the co-author and co-editor of „Soviet Occupation of Romania, Hungary and Austria, 1944–1948” (forthcoming). He is the recipient of the Gold Cross of Merit of the Hungarian Republic (2006), the Zoltán Bezerédj Prize of the Ministry of National Cultural Heritage of Hungary (2006), and the György Ránki Prize of the Hungarian Historical Association (1995).
1956 and its Legacy: László Borhi
Historians endeavor to preserve and pass on traditions and values. It is for this reason I am writing about the revolution of 1956. Despite commemorations of it, the memory of the only armed uprising against Soviet domination is slowly fading. Conspiracy theories questioning the authenticity of this genuine struggle have cropped up at a time when Russian expansionism is making a comeback. Nothing could be more demeaning of the men and women who risked their lives for freedom than claims suggesting their fight was concocted by the CIA or a plot cooked up by the KGB.
Hungarian students during the 1956 revolution.It is an eternal question why revolutions happen when and where they do. It is particularly puzzling what led to an armed uprising against an oppressive Stalinist regime which enjoyed the support of the most powerful military machine in the world. All over the lands behind the iron curtain people felt that the political system in which they lived was so bad that they wanted to be liberated even at the price of another war. This in countries that had just been devastated in the struggle against Hitler.
The revolution and war of independence of 1956 was a spontaneous movement, one that was sparked by a popular demonstration and blossomed into a full blown revolt through gradual and incremental steps. When students and workers, in a rare moment of national unity took to the street on October 23 they did so in the hope that their demands would be heard and peaceful change would be possible. Rapidly the movement engulfed the whole country. Almost miraculously people rose up against repression and foreign domination. They were encouraged by the example of Poznan, the loosening grip of state terror, the illusion that Austria’s neutrality could be an option for Hungary. The movement of discontents was met by an utterly inadequate response from the part of the authorities, a usual yeast for revolutions. Imre Nagy, the would be leader of the revolution called the crowd ’comrades’ in a much anticipated but disappointing speech that failed to calm the waters. Stalinist leader Gerő called the demonstrators ’fascists’ in a radio broadcast. All this enraged some of the demonstrators, who rallied in front of the state owned radio building in the hope their demands, which included the removal of Soviet troops, would be aired. Instead they were shot at by the state security police. This in turn propelled the revolution into a new stage, armed struggle. At night the Kremlin decided to intervene. Rather than restoring law and order the military response and the senseless shooting of unarmed protesters in front of the parliament on the 25th led to further escalation.
This was now a war of independence that became a story of heroism and betrayal. Briefly, it looked as though the revolution would succeed. The feared state security police called ÁVH collapsed local councils were replaced by genuine self-governments and workers councils, political parties of all persuasions began to emerge in a show of democratic pluralism and tolerance. Ultimately, however there was little if any chance of success. Events began to spiral out of the control of the communist leadership. On the last day of the month following a skirmish the defenders, members of the state security services, of the Budapest communist party headquarters were lynched by the mob. In addition, a Hungarian tank summoned to defend the building ended up firing at it. Sometimes accidents play an important role. This one convinced the Kremlin that even the Hungarian army was no longer reliable in addition to the fact that communists were being killed in Budapest.
In fact the key to victory was held in Moscow. It was hard to exaggerate the significance of Eastern Europe to the Soviets. It was a war trophy for one of the greatest military victories in Russian history. More importantly, it extended the Kremlin’s power to the heart of Europe. For the first time in history Russia became a global player. Eastern Europe, all the way to Berlin, Warsaw, Prague and Budapest was now Soviet military space. The cordon sanitaire was more than enough to cater for security.
If Hungary were lost, the other satellites may also fall like dominoes. Moscow’s position as the leader of the world communist movement would be damaged. As the first intervention failed, the Soviet Presidium deliberated the further course of action. The crisis in Warsaw was just subsiding but not yet settled. A crackdown on Poland had been postponed but not yet dropped. Still, a military solution may not have been the preferred option of at least some of the Soviet leaders. On October 30 Nikita Khrushchev decided to hold out for a political solution to the crisis in Budapest. In less than 24 hours he and the party presidium would reverse itself. Aside from the Soviet perspective degeneration of the situation in Hungary, the international context had changed as well. Shortly after the Soviets’ conciliatory decision, Britain and France began to bomb Egypt. Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin declared that Moscow could not afford to lose both Hungary and Egypt to the ‘imperialists.’ On November 1 Khrushchev confided to Yugoslav leader Iosip Broz Tito that he would go to any length to keep Hungary. At a reception in the Kremlin defense minister Zhukov talking about Poland but referring to Hungary told a group of ambassadors that we could “crush them like flies.” The same day the newly appointed prime minister, János Kádár, who had just pledged allegiance to the revolution, was spirited to Moscow. There he was appointed as the head of the new, Soviet installed leadership. Now only a western intervention could save the freedom struggle.
In 1952 the Eisenhower-Dulles ticket won the election on a strident campaign of liberation and rollback, a policy clandestinely pursued by the Truman administration since 1948 to destabilize the communist regimes thereby enhancing western security. But the Eisenhower administration quietly dropped the policy of liberation after the failed uprising in the GDR, Radio Free Europe still kept telling the people behind the iron curtain that there could be no lasting peace until their independence was restored. These messages fueled the hope that liberation would happen in some form. There was a widespread feeling behind the iron curtain that communist system so repressive, liberation expected even at price of war.
The revolutionary events in Budapest caught the U.S. by surprise. This was a pleasant one: rolling back the Soviets from the heart of Europe was America’s priority in foreign policy. Secretary of state John Foster Dulles understood that unarmed men, no matter how heroic did not stand a chance against Soviet tanks. Therefore Washington’s aim was to minimize bloodshed. The strategy was simple: reassure the Soviets that NATO would not take advantage of the situation so that there was no need to suppress the revolution by force in the hope that the status of Eastern Europe could be negotiated. This was the thought behind a speech given by John Foster Dulles which expressed that Hungary was not a potential ally. Although historians interpreted this as an American expression of disinterest, the speech was designed to buy time. Dulles was later criticized for not making his meaning sufficiently clear.
The U. S. had few options. Military intervention was ruled out. ‘We don’t want to destroy the people we want to save,’ as the president put it. Given Moscow’s determination to prevail, sending weapons to the insurgents would have led to catastrophe. Therefore a Spanish proposal to do so was firmly rejected. There are some indications that CIA agents were infiltrated into Hungary but due to the lack of records we know little about clandestine activities. One author called Western inaction in 1956 and 1968 a strategic and moral failure. Politically, the West had little leverage on the Kremlin or even their Hungarian puppet government. In their deliberations the Soviet leaders did not discuss the U.S. It was clear that the inferior Soviet nuclear arsenal would deter them. One of the unlearned lessons of 1956 was that deterrence worked even in the absence of nuclear parity.
On the other hand Radio Free Europe aired a series of reckless broadcasts encouraging the Hungarians to fight in the hope of success. These were never banned in Washington even though in 1953 and later, in 1968, the State Department instructed propaganda stations not to encourage the Germans and the Czechoslovaks to fight. The lesson policymakers in Washington learned that people should not be incited to rise against their domestic or foreign masters if there was no prospect of helping them.
Moscow won a short term victory, as it became apparent that no earthly power could wrest the client states from its hold. Nevertheless, it became apparent that Moscow needed to transform its relationship with the ‘fraternal’ states and tolerate domestic reform if communism was to survive. These were precisely the reforms, mainly economic in nature that were designed to strengthen the communist system but ended up undermining it by 1989. Washington made an even more pronounced reform, as 1956 dealt a death blow to the hope of liberation. Rollback was finally dropped as was the ideal of continental reunification. Economic and cultural contacts were constructed in view of gradual transformation of communism states although no longer to wean them away from Moscow.
The legacy and memory of 1956 was one the intangibles without which the miracle year of 1989 could not have happened. Péter Mansfeld, who was only sixteen years old in 1956, was executed when he reached the age of 18. He did not give his life in vain. The suppression of freedom, the regimentation of the press could not suppress the yearning for freedom. Almost three thousand Hungarians died for it. In 1956, Albert Camus wrote, the Hungarians ‘bequeathed us a regal legacy, one that we need to become worthy of: the freedom which they did not win but returned to us in a single day.”
Freedom becomes precious in the absence of it. Let 1956 be a reminder.