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The Hungarian Uprising was put down by Russian tanks

Posted in Communism, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Invasions, Revolution on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

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This edited article about the Hungarian Uprising first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 597 published on 23 June 1973.

Hungarian Uprising,  picture, image, illustration

Soviet tanks and troops rolled into Budapest and the heroic but futile street fighting began by Graham Coton

Two young men climbed to the top of the massive metal statue and dragged up a heavy cable which they attached to its head. The crowd below roared its approval. Many hundreds of hands hauled on the rope but the statue did not budge. Then the three workers came with acetylene torches and began to cut into the statue’s knees. The crowd stood hushed as it began to topple. Then cheering broke out as Joseph Stalin pitched forward from his plinth and lay face-downwards in the square. The place was Budapest and the date the 23rd of October, 1956 – the Hungarian revolution had begun.

What had brought it about? Hungary had emerged from the war in moral and political confusion. She had officially been an ally of Germany but had bred a spirited resistance movement as well. In 1947 the communists seized power and eventually the country was governed by Matyas Rakosi. Rakosi reproduced in Hungary the tyranny which Stalin imposed on Russia and the country underwent a long period of privation and terror. The death of Stalin and his subsequent denunciation by the Russian leader, Krushchev, encouraged the Hungarians to overthrow Rakosi in July 1956. But there was little change under his successors. Nevertheless, the spirit of rebellion was abroad.

Students, dissatisfied with conditions in the universities, and factory workers, demanding high wages, joined forces; they were in turn joined by all those who resented the repressive system by which the country was governed. A series of strikes and rallies reached its climax in the destruction of the towering statue of Stalin which symbolised for the rebels the oppression and the exploitation which their country had suffered.

Their triumph swiftly turned to tragedy. The A.V.O., the Hungarian security police opened fire on the crowds and many were killed. But the police could not quell the defiant citizens for long, and more and more people flocked to demonstrate in the streets of Budapest.

Hungary turned for help to Russia. In the small hours of the following morning Russian tanks began to arrive in the city, but even they could not drive the people home. The Russian soldiers were, in fact, reluctant to attack the crowd at all; some wept when they saw the destruction which the A.V.O. meted out to its fellow-citizens.

The revolution gathered momentum and spread across the whole country. The government had to decide whether it should go on fighting the rebels or whether it should try to quieten them by giving in to their demands for a new leadership. In the end it decided on the latter course and Imre Nagy, a liberal politician who had been disgraced in the days of Stalin, was allowed to form a new government. Janos Kadar, who had also suffered under the Rakosi regime, joined the new government too.

Soon Nagy was able to announce that the Russians had withdrawn their troops from Budapest. But the withdrawal was really a clever piece of stage-management; as the tanks fell back, fresh Russian troops were moved towards eastern Hungary.

At this point the revolution grew out of control. The Hungarians, joyful at what they considered was a victory over the Russians and over the old repressive regime, revelled in their new found political freedom. New parties and peoples’ organisations were founded. Nagy and Kadar were ever conscious of the menacing Russian troops in the East. Ultimately they had to choose between allowing the revolution to continue freely or aligning themselves with the Russians. Nagy chose the revolution, Kadar the Soviet armies.

Nagy announced that one-party rule in Hungary had ended and that a coalition government of communist and non-communists had been formed. Hungary had no effective force at its disposal to defend her new-won freedom, so he sent a telegram to the United Nations asking them to preserve Hungary’s neutrality. But the Western powers and most of the Asian countries were preoccupied with the Suez crisis. The United Nations debated the appeal from Hungary but could do nothing to enforce its decision. Thus, just when Hungary needed help most, the world could not give it.

The Russians knew this: the cards were all in their favour. They now had in Janos Kadar a Hungarian communist whom they could put in power and who would re-establish communist rule with their help. And the west, by its involvement in Suez affair (see last week’s Look and Learn) had left itself little ground for criticising any action the Russians might take. On the 4th November Soviet troops again entered Budapest. Unlike their earlier intervention, this time they acted forcefully and ruthlessly.

They were met with tragic heroism by the Hungarians. The battle in the narrow streets of the historic city was one of the most bitter in history. Jet bombers obliterated blocks of shops and offices. Tanks pulverised houses. And soldiers with flame-throwers incinerated men, women and children. But despite all this Hungarians of all ages fought for their freedom.

On Castle Hill, for example, a column of heavy Russian tanks rolled towards a group of young freedom fighters who had entrenched themselves there. The Hungarians coolly faced certain death. Suddenly, one of them, a twelve-year-old boy, hung grenades on his belt and filled his arms with more. Then he ran into the track of the leading tank in the column. The tank was blown to pieces. So was the boy. But he had stopped the column’s advance and allowed his comrades to fight on. This was the stuff of which the Hungarian freedom fighters were made.

Streams of refugees fled into the western world, bringing with them news of the struggle. The people of the West were tormented by their powerlessness to help. Before their eyes the revolution was brutally crushed and Janos Kadar was put in power. Imre Nagy was tried and executed the following year.

The revolt and its savage suppression destroyed Hungary. It also froze the gradually-thawing relations between East and West. And it shattered the peace of mind of many people who, since the war, had lived in the West in comfort and security. It brought home to them the brutal facts of Soviet power. They could not forget the cry of an unknown freedom fighter operating a secret radio station in Hungary:

“Civilised people of the world, in the name of liberty and solidarity we are asking you to help. Our ship is sinking, the light vanishes. The shadows grow darker from hour to hour. Listen to our cry. People of the world save us. S.O.S. HELP, HELP, HELP.”

They could not forget that help never came.

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