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Annual commemoration of fight for freedom

Soviets put brutal end to Hungary’s defiance

‘October 23, 1956, is a day that will live forever in the annals of free men and nations. It was a day of courage, conscience and triumph. No other day since history began has shown more clearly the eternal unquenchability of man’s desire to be free, whatever the odds against success, whatever the sacrifice required.’ - President of the United States John F. Kennedy, October 23, 1957, the first anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising

The spark that lit the torch paper of revolution in Hungary was the re-burial of a man who had been instrumental in the oppression of Hungarians. Communist regimes are notoriously adept at destroying their most ardent puppets, and Hungary’s László Rajk is one such example. As head of the feared AVH secret police, he oversaw a number of show trials, and, working under Matyas Rakosi, leader of the Hungarian communist party from 1945 to 1956, had thousands arrested. But Rakosi feared Rajk and in 1949 had his AVH chief arrested and severely tortured.

Subjected to his own show trial, Rajk ‘confessed’ to various ludicrous charges, such as plotting to overthrow the ‘democratically’ elected government, of being an agent of Western imperialists, and behind a plot to kill Rakosi. The outcome was never in doubt – Rajk was found guilty and, aged 40, executed on 15 October 1949, his body dumped in an unmarked grave. Rajk’s widow, Julia, was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.

But then, in 1956, as Rakosi’s star began to fade, László Rajk was rehabilitated. On 27 June 1956, Julia Rajk, recently released from prison, spoke to a meeting of Hungarian writers and intellectuals in Budapest. She told her audience that Horthy’s jails were much better than Rakosi’s. ‘They killed my husband, and tore my little baby from me … These criminals have trampled all sentiment and honesty underfoot.’

On 6 October 1956, three months after Rakosi’s forced resignation, Rajk and three executed colleagues were re-buried and laid to rest in Budapest’s Kerepesi Cemetery. It was a lavish, five-hour ceremony – black flags hung from buildings, shops and businesses closed for the day and 100,000 people lined the streets and attended the funeral. Guests of honour were Julia Rajk and her seven-year-old son who had been a baby at the time of his father’s execution.

Noted by his absence was Rakosi’s replacement, Erno Gero. One orator savaged the ‘sadistic criminals’ that had murdered Rajk, men who had ‘crawled into the sun from the stinking swamp of a cult of personality’. No one mentioned that Rajk himself, as head of the AVH, had been responsible for the rounding-up, arrest, torture, imprisonment and execution of thousands of Hungarian civilians.


For many, László Rajk’s funeral on 6 October 1956 marked the end of Stalinism in Hungary. Workers and students across the nation met and discussed the political situation. Students formed democratic unions which would never have been tolerated during Rakosi’s time. But, on the whole, good intentions and fine words were not matched by action. A meeting on 22 October attended by 5,000 students in Budapest’s Technical College, however, was different. Here, they drew-up a sixteen-point manifesto.

Their demands were, within themselves, revolutionary and daring in the extreme. They demanded, amongst other things, immediate removal of all Soviet troops from Hungarian soil; election by secret ballot of all Party members; a new government under the direction of Imre Nagy and dismissal of ‘all criminal leaders of the Stalin-Rákosi era’; the return of Mátyás Rákosi to face trial before a people’s tribunal; national-wide, multi-party elections by universal, secret ballot; noninterference in the internal affairs of one state by another; a minimum living wage for workers; the release and rehabilitation of political prisoners; freedom of opinion and of expression, freedom of the press and of radio; the removal of Stalin’s statue in Budapest; the removal of Soviet emblems (to be replaced by the traditional Hungarian arms of Kossuth); and new uniforms for the army which conformed to national traditions.

Satisfied with their evening’s work, they agreed to march the following day in support of the Poles, culminating in the laying of wreaths at the statue of Jozef Bem, a Polish general who was one of the leaders of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution and fondly remembered in Hungary. Ahead of the march, the students began the day of Tuesday 23 October by posting-up stencilled copies of their 16-point manifesto on every available lamppost, tree or shop front. The newspapers had refused to publish them but the students had had access to a sympathetic printing shop. In the afternoon, thousands of students, having gathered at the university, began their march towards General Bem’s statue, carrying banners and placards bearing anti-government and anti-Soviet slogans and chanting Imre Nagy’s name. Others charged around in vans, using loudspeakers to spread the message.

Thousands joined them – shop assistants, office workers, factory workers and even soldiers; people from nearby towns and cities rushed to the capital to join the march. Members of a large literary group, the Petofi Circle, formed a second demonstration and congregated at the statue of their inspiration, the poet Sandor Petofi, who had died fighting for Hungarian independence in 1848, where they recited his most famous poem, Rise, Magyar. The demonstrators headed for Parliament Square and, along the way, tore down Soviet flags and Red Stars from public buildings. Shouting ‘Russians go home!’, they flew the Hungarian flag with its central Soviet emblem torn out.

Panicked, the Minister of the Interior tried to ban the demonstrations but, realising he was impotent against such vast numbers, quickly rescinded the order. Gathering in Parliament Square, the demonstrators, now numbering some 200,000, called for Nagy, who duly appeared on a balcony. His first word, ‘comrades’, was greeted by hoots of derision – ‘We are no longer “comrades”,’ came the response, loud and clear. Nagy’s speech proved a disappointment – he called for calm and told the demonstrators to go home – not what they wanted to hear.

At 8 p.m., broadcasting on the radio, Gero condemned the ‘bourgeois reactionaries’ who dared to criticise the glorious communist party and its workings: ‘We shall defend the achievements of the people’s democracy under all circumstances from whichever quarter they may be threatened.

Today the chief aim of the enemies of our people is to shake the power of the working class, to loosen the peasant-worker alliance, to undermine the leadership of the working class in our country and to upset their faith in its party, in the Hungarian Workers’ Party.’ His words were akin to pouring petrol on a fire. Meanwhile, demonstrators in Heroes’ Square attacked the massive statue of Stalin, the statue the students had mentioned in their manifesto.

The ‘Stalin Monument’, to give it its official name, had been erected as a ‘monumental gift’ to the Hungarian people on the occasion of Stalin’s seventieth birthday, 21 December 1949. It was built on the site of a church that had been demolished specifically to accommodate the statue. It was certainly an imposing sight: made of bronze, the statue stood 26 foot tall on a 13 foot-high limestone pedestal on top of a 20-foot high tribune. So, altogether the work measured 59 feet (18 metres) in height – the equivalent roughly of a six-storey building.

The tribune featured depictions of happy Hungarian citizens, soldiers, workers and mothers bearing children, extending the hand of friendship towards the Soviet leader. A newspaper report declared that Stalin: ‘will be with us even more. He will watch over our work, and his smile will show us the way. I have been told that in Moscow it is customary to pay a visit to Comrade Lenin (the Lenin Mausoleum) in Red Square before beginning, or after finishing, an important task, either to report or to ask his advice.

Undoubtedly the same will occur here with the statue of Comrade Stalin’. The sculptor was Sándor Mikus, who had entered a competition and, as a result, had won the commission, which made him, according to the Hungarian press, the ‘happiest Hungarian sculptor’. It must have been a difficult time for Mikus. He had to get it right. The price of failure would have been high – very high. Mikus knew this and as a result suffered from repeated nightmares in which Stalin appeared to him.

People, on the whole, rather liked the statue as a work of art but despised what it symbolised. Not only did it represent the nation’s suppression, it was rumoured that the bronze had been melted down from several former statues of men still highly-regarded by the people but reviled by the regime. Mikus portrayed Stalin as a man of destiny, with his right arm outstretched, and was praised for having depicted Stalin as ‘great in his simplicity and simple in his greatness’.

The head of Budapest’s police, Sandor Kopacsi, described how demonstrators managed to bring the

statue toppling to the ground: ‘The demonstrators placed a thick steel rope around the neck of the 25-metre tall Stalin’s statue while other people, arriving in trucks with oxygen cylinders and metal cutting blowpipes, were setting to work on the statue’s bronze shoes … An hour later, at precisely 9.37 p.m., the statue fell down from its pedestal’. All that remained of the statue were Stalin’s boots on the plinth. People hammered at the statue, decapitating its head, and hacked at the bronze for souvenirs. (Sandor Kopacsi was one of many senior figures who defected to the side of the insurgents. The most senior army officer to defect was Colonel Pal Maleter, a tall, imposing figure, who, based in the Kilian Barracks in central Budapest, co-ordinated teams of insurgents).

Meanwhile, still on the evening of the 23rd, a delegation of protestors tried to broadcast their demands on national radio, arguing that the radio should belong to the people. Rumours spread that those inside the Radio Building had been pinned down by the AVH, and demonstrators gathered to demand their release. The AVH officers responded by throwing tear gas from the windows but it wasn’t enough to dislodge the protestors. Instead, they opened fire and killed several civilians. One demonstrator, having been shot dead, was wrapped in the Hungarian flag and held aloft above the crowd. Fighting continued throughout the night. By the following morning, the insurgents had control of the radio building but at the cost of 16 lives.

At 2 a.m., at Gero’s request and on Khrushchev’s authorisation, two divisions of Soviet tank units stationed nearby began arriving in the capital. Directing manoeuvres from Moscow was Georgi Zhukov, the Soviet hero of the Great Patriotic War (as the Second World War is known in Russia) and now Khrushchev’s defence minister. Martial law was imposed. What had begun as a peaceful demonstration had turned very quickly into a full-scale revolution. Fighting took place throughout Budapest and soon spread to other cities in Hungary.

In the early hours of Wednesday 24 October, the Kremlin put Imre Nagy back in charge, believing that ‘limited concessions’ were necessary to satisfy the Hungarian people. Nagy promised his people reform in return for an end to the violence. The tanks, when they came, mainly the Russian T-54, lacked mobility and without infantry support were liable to attack. Many Hungarian soldiers, ripping the Soviet insignia from their uniforms, sided with the protestors and armed the insurgents with guns and rifles, while the makeshift Molotov cocktails proved highly effective against the lumbering Soviet tanks trapped in Budapest’s narrow side streets. Insurgents smeared the roads with oil and grease in order to make the tanks skid. They hung saucepans from telegraph wires which, from the inside of a tank, looked like anti-tank devices.

The T-54s had the word ‘petrol’ helpfully written on the petrol caps – perfect for twisting open and dropping-in a Molotov cocktail. The citizens of Budapest, having taken control of the radio, renamed it Radio Free Kossuth. The state broadcasters were happy to cede control and even confessed to having been instruments of the state: ‘We lied by night, we lied by day, we lied on all wavelengths. We, who are before the microphones, are now new men’.

On the morning of the Thursday 25th, thousands gathered in front of the Parliament Building in Budapest’s Kossuth Square. Things started off peacefully; indeed there was almost a carnival atmosphere. The demonstrators, having been obliged to learn Russian from an early age, were able to converse and joke with the Soviet tank crews, swapping cigarettes and small gifts. Hungarians climbed aboard the tanks and decked them with the national flag. But then, in an instant, everything changed. Gunshots were heard. AVH men were firing from the rooftops. People stampeded, others were crushed or exposed to gunfire. By the time it was over, there were so many dead, perhaps up to a thousand, their bodies had to be piled-high in undignified heaps in the corners of the square.

Knowing his personal safety could no longer be guaranteed, Gero fled to Moscow. Nagy again appealed for calm and acknowledged the people’s despair and anger, expressed sorrow for the Kossuth Square massacre, and vaguely promised reform.

But it wasn’t enough. Insurgents rampaged through the city, searching for AVH officers. When found, the secret policemen and women suffered a tortuous death, lynched upside down and burnt, their bodies spat upon; punishment for their years of torture and oppression of the Hungarian people. Many of the AVH dead had Stalin and Rakosi postcards pinned to their corpses. A reporter from the New York Times recorded the following scene: ‘Among those watching this demonstration was a furtive figure clad in a leather coat. Suddenly someone identified him rightly or wrongly as a member of the hated AVH, the Hungarian political police. Like tigers, the crowd turned on him, began to beat him and hustled him into a courtyard. A few minutes later they emerged rubbing their hands with satisfaction. The leather-coated figure was seen no more.’

Insurgents opened the gates of the city’s prisons and released and armed the prisoners. They broke into Rakosi’s former home and were appalled to find such luxury and opulence. Barricades consisting of ripped-up paving stones, burnt-out vehicles and whatever was at hand were quickly erected on all the main entry points into the city to prevent Soviet reinforcements from entering.

The weapons from a deserted munitions factory were seized; petrol was taken from abandoned petrol stations for the Molotov cocktails. Russian street signs were torn down, shops daubed with ‘Russians out’ slogans, portraits of Stalin and Rakosi torn down and stamped upon. People broke into the AVH offices and burnt files and piles of paper.

In one of the most notorious massacres outside the capital, over 50 insurgents were gunned down by the AVH on Friday 26 October in the small town of Mosonmagyaróvár, near the Austrian border. Some of the soldiers, unwilling to kill unarmed civilians, aimed low, shooting people in the legs. The following day, a group of Western journalists crossed the border from Austria and were taken to Mosonmagyaróvár where they saw for themselves the scores of wounded men and women and children, and the fifty or so bodies laid out in the town’s mortuary. Photographs of the scene were published in newspapers throughout the West. The day after that, armed insurgents from the nearby town of Gyor arrived to seek out those responsible. The attack on the AVH headquarters in Mosonmagyaróvár was equally as brutal and savage.

Meanwhile, in Budapest, fighting continued. The city lay in ruins – buildings badly damaged by Soviet tanks, tramlines buckled, telegraph wires sagging, trees uprooted, pavement stones ripped up, burnt-out cars and lorries – and Soviet tanks, many of the latter having had the Kossuth coat of arms painted onto them. People everywhere looked like militia – even young children were wearing bullet belts and carrying rifles around. Everywhere, the Hungarian tricolour with the hole in the middle. Bodies of AVH men and women hung from trees; dead civilians and Russian soldiers lay on the ground, their corpses covered with coats and blankets and sprinkled with lime to hide the smell. But people still had to eat. Queues formed. Sympathetic farmers sent truckloads of food into the cities as gifts for their brave comrades.

The international football match between Hungary and Sweden, due to be played on Sunday 28th, had to be cancelled. Soviet soldiers dared not leave their tanks. Supplies fell low and their morale plummeted. Holed-up for days on end, the claustrophobic interiors soon stunk of petrol, sweat and excrement. Some T-54s dragged dead Hungarians behind them as a warning to the insurgents.

Imre Nagy was the pivotal figure at this point – being the only state representative the people were prepared to listen to. On Sunday 28 October, Nagy, riding the wave of optimism, called for a ceasefire, promising amnesty for those who took part in the uprising, and promised to negotiate with the uprising’s leaders. Again, he acknowledged the people’s anger and, most importantly, acknowledged that the unrest was not a counter-revolutionary act, as the Soviets called it, but a legitimate, democratic uprising. He then pledged lots of things – wage increases, the disbanding of the AVH to be replaced by a ‘democratic’ police force; the immediate removal of Soviet troops from Hungary and even dropping the compulsory greeting of ‘comrade’.

Fighting stopped and the ceasefire held while people waited for the tanks to withdraw. Hungarians sensed victory. Political parties, long since banned, reformed; new newspapers sprung up, most only a side long, plastered up on shop fronts, trees and street lamps. Soviet war memorials were vandalised, and Russian bookshops destroyed. The scenes in Budapest were repeated elsewhere across the country, not just in the cities but in every town and village – Soviet stars, statues and monuments pulled down, representatives of the government confronted and challenged, demonstrators chanting their demands for democracy and freedom.

Soviet representatives in Budapest endorsed Nagy’s proposals. On 29 October, Pal Maleter, the army colonel who had defected to the insurgents’ cause, was promoted to general and, more importantly, appointed Defence Minister. This was a significant development – it meant that the rebels had a place and a voice within the cabinet.

Nagy returned to the microphone and promised even more – an immediate coalition government to include representatives from parties long since banned, and even Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, and called on the United Nations to guarantee Hungary’s neutrality. This latter point, the intended neutrality, implied that Nagy was not planning on suddenly swapping sides and joining the Western powers. Indeed, he had no intention of being disloyal to Moscow but he did desire greater autonomy for Hungary.

That same day, Cardinal Mindszenty was released: ‘the measures depriving Cardinal Primate Joseph Mindszenty of his rights are invalid. The Cardinal is free to exercise without restriction all his civil and ecclesiastical rights’.

On Tuesday 30 October, Khrushchev withdrew his troops from Hungary – but, unknown to the insurgents, only as far as the border. The people of Budapest began clearing away the worst of the debris, and taking the lime-covered corpses to the cemeteries.

Meanwhile, on 31 October, Khrushchev announced the Soviet government’s intention to hold discussions with the Hungarian government on the subject of Soviet troops on Hungarian territory. He even invited Nagy to send over a delegation to Moscow to start the negotiations. The people of Hungary rejoiced – they had done it; they had cowed the Soviet monster; they had forced the Soviet tanks back out of the country.

The following day, 1 November, without informing the Hungarians, Khrushchev changed his mind. Nagy, he concluded, had gone too far; this went much further than Poland. China’s Chairman Mao, who had been heckling Khrushchev for being weak, encouraged him to take a firmer line. As Mao pointed out, if Nagy delivered on these reforms, what sort of message would it send to other members of the Eastern Bloc? Its very foundation would be at risk. The Soviet leader decided to fight back after all. On 1 November, receiving reports that Soviet tanks were back on Hungarian soil, Nagy confronted the Soviet Union’s ambassador in Hungary, Yuri Andropov. Andropov, who would become USSR’s premier from 12 November 1982 to his death, aged 69, on 9 February 1984, assured Nagy that the reports were false – there were no Soviet tanks on Hungarian soil. Indeed, two days’ later, the Soviet military command invited a Hungarian government delegation to attend a meeting to discuss the Soviet Union’s complete withdrawal from Hungary. The delegation, headed by Pal Maleter, arrived for the meeting. The meeting was nothing more than a ruse – Maleter and his delegation were immediately placed under arrest.

Friday 2 November was All Souls’ Day, the day people remember the dead. Church bells rang sombre tones, people lit candles and black flags hung everywhere.

At 9.30 p.m. on 3 November, in an operation codenamed ‘Whirlwind’, Soviet troops re-entered Hungary and approached the capital. In the early hours of Sunday 4th, the Soviets seized all the vital points of communication. By the time the insurgents had mustered, it was already too late.

Together with the Hungarian army, they fought back but this time the Soviets were prepared – infantry, artillery, tanks and even air strikes decimated the city. The tanks reduced to rubble every building from which a single shot was fired.

As the city fell about him, Nagy appeared on Radio Budapest at 5.20 on the morning of 4 November: ‘This is Imre Nagy speaking. Today at daybreak Soviet forces started an attack against our capital, obviously with the intention to overthrow the legal Hungarian democratic government. Our troops are still fighting; the Government is still in its place. I notify the people of our country and the entire world of this fact.’

And that was it. Nagy’s voice disappeared – no one ever heard it again. Seconds later, the National Anthem played, not the communist version but the anthem that brought tears to patriotic hearts. A couple of hours later, at 8.10, Radio Budapest broadcast its last appeal, ‘Help Hungary… help, help, help,’ before being taken off air.

The ‘entire world’ that Nagy had appealed to, ignored him. Western powers spoke loud words; the US condemned the attack as a ‘monstrous crime’; John Foster Dulles, the US Secretary of State, said, ‘To all those suffering under communist slavery, let us say you can count on us’. In the event, the US did nothing – the risks of venturing into an Eastern European conflict, and the potential for escalation, were too great. Great Britain and France were distracted by the emerging crisis over the Suez Canal and the US by presidential elections. The aid never materialised.

Imre Nagy was replaced by Janos Kadar, a former Interior Minister, who, loyal to Moscow, welcomed the return of Soviet forces to crush the ‘counter-revolutionary threat’: ‘We must put an end to the excesses of the counter-revolutionary elements. The hour for action has sounded. We are going to defend the interest of the workers and peasants and the achievements of the people’s democracy’. The insurgents had no longer taken part in a ‘legitimate, democratic uprising’ but had become ‘counter-revolutionaries’ again.

Kadar’s Soviet-talk was certainly inflammatory. A former communist, now resistance fighter, George Paloczi-Horvath, wrote: ‘After our brief span of liberty and democracy, Kadar’s hideous slogans and stupid lies, couched in the hated Stalinite terminology, made everyone’s blood boil. Although ten million witnesses knew the contrary, the puppet government brought forward the ludicrous lie that our war of liberty was a counter-revolutionary uprising inspired by a handful of fascists’. (Paloczi-Horvath, who had survived five years of torture and solitary confinement in one of Rakosi’s jails, managed to escape Hungary at this point and settled in London where he wrote of his Hungarian experiences in an excellent memoir called “The Undefeated”).

This time, with brutal efficiency, the uprising was crushed. Hungarian ‘patriots’, to use the Soviet phrase, had, with Soviet ‘assistance’, defeated the ‘fascist, Hitlerite, counter-revolutionary hooligans’ who, financed and encouraged by the ‘imperialist west’ had tried to seize power from the ‘honest, socialist’ Hungarians. Just after 1 pm, Moscow radio announced: ‘The Hungarian counterrevolution has been crushed’.

Pockets of resistance continued for a few days’ longer. Rebels in the town of Stalintown (now called Dunaújváros) in central Hungary held on until a week later, 11 November. Over 200,000 Hungarians fled across the border into Austria and the West until that escape route was sealed off.

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