A movement to free Hungary from Moscow’s influence ended in tragedy as Khrushchev’s patience gave in and the Red Army descended on Budapest.
The Cold War belied its name on this day in 1956 as Soviet tanks rolled into the Hungarian capital to crush “the forces of reactionary conspiracy”.
As the video above recalls, Moscow’s bloody “counter offensive” stamped out an uprising that sprang from student-led protests and grew into a popular revolt that saw Budapest’s pro-Soviet regime buckle and fall.
Keen to distance himself from the excesses of his predecessor Joseph Stalin, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had initially dismissed Hungarian temerity as an inert riposte to the process of “de-Stalinisation” that had ushered him into power.
He didn’t flinch at the elevation of reformist Imre Nagy to Prime Minister, even though the former premier had been dismissed from the Hungarian Working People’s Party for falling out with the Soviet Politburo. And he even agreed to withdraw Soviet troops from Budapest as its inhabitants began to cut the Communist coat of arms from the Hungarian flag.
The Kremlin’s apparent lassitude emboldened the rebellious Hungarians, as did overtures from US leaders which spoke of support for the “captive peoples” of eastern Europe.
With the wind of change at his back, Nagy sought the abolition of one-party rule and announced that Hungary was withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact.
Moscow finally responded. The Kremlin had heard enough. Khrushchev’s velvet glove fell away to reveal the iron fist of old.
Operation Whirlwind began in the wee hours of November 4, 1956. With the light of dawn still hours away, Soviet fighters began to bombard Budapest from the air as artillery units pounded the capital from the surrounding hills.
Nagy took to the airwaves at 4.20am local time as Soviet tanks began to rumble through the city. Speaking in English, he sought to “notify the people of our country and the entire world” of his country’s predicament.
His broadcast on Radio Budapest was followed by a repeated SOS signal which fell silent at 7.25am. When transmission resumed at 8.15pm it was in the hands of the Red Army. Hungary’s tilt at freedom had met its end.
Do you recall Hungary’s transient rise and fall? Share your memories in the Comments section below.
The Hungarian Revolution – Did you know?
- The abortive revolution claimed the lives of around 3,000 civilians and some 200,000 more were forced to flee the country. A further 22,000 Hungarians were sentenced for crimes such as treason, 13,000 imprisoned, and several hundred executed. Moscow quickly abandoned “de-stalinisation” and ratcheted up repression across the Eastern Bloc.
- The final broadcast from Hungary’s last rebel-held radio station hit the airwaves on the afternoon of November 4. An unidentified woman’s voice intones: “Civilized people of the world: On the watch tower of 1,000-year-old Hungary the last flames begin to go out. Soviet tanks and guns are roaring over Hungarian soil. Our women – mothers and daughters – are sitting in dread. They still have terrible memories of the army’s entry in 1945. Save our souls! This word may be the last from the last Hungarian freedom station. Listen to our call. Help us – not with advice, not with words, but with action, with soldiers and arms. Help Hungary. Help, help, help.”
- Despite an apparent promise of help, western governments failed to come to the aid of Hungary in her hour of need. Confrontation with the USSR could have sparked nuclear war, but Richard Nixon, then US Vice-President, would later put US reticence down to the concurrent Suez Crisis. He said: “We couldn’t on one hand, complain about the Soviets intervening in Hungary and, on the other hand, approve of the British and the French picking that particular time to intervene against Nasser”.
- The revolution saw Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, the leader of the Catholic Church in Hungary, sprung from the jail where he had served eight years of a life sentence for opposing communist rule. Following the Soviet assault on Budapest, he was granted political asylum at the city’s US embassy, and the next 15 years of his life were spent within the building. He was finally granted permission to leave the country in 1971. He died in exile in 1975 in Vienna, Austria.
- Imre Nagy and others involved in the revolution were secretly tried and executed in June 1958. Nagy’s trial and execution were made public only after the sentence had been carried out. A source within the Kremlin allegedly reported that Nikita Khrushchev had Nagy executed “as a lesson to all other leaders in socialist countries”.
- On July 6, 1989, Hungary’s Supreme Court acquitted Nagy of the charges of high treason for which he had been executed. Janos Kadar, the Soviet puppet who took over from Nagy and ruled the country for the following 30 years, died in hospital on the very same day.
- Nagy’s remains were reinterred during a formal public funeral on the 31st anniversary of his execution. There were over 100,000 mourners in attendance.
- Just two months after Nagy’s reburial, his country played an important part in accelerating the collapse of Communism when it opened its border with Austria, allowing thousands of East Germans to escape to the West. Soviet troops finally withdrew from Hungary in 1991.