New findings on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

Bulletin, Cold War International History Project, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington D.C., Fall 1992, pp.1-3.

The greatest part of the archival sources on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which for so many years were closed from historians, from 1989, and especially after the 1990 free elections in Hungary, gradually are becoming accesible for scholars. The aim of the foundation of the Institution for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution in the same year, was to establish a research center which could concentrate on actually all aspects of the revolution and as a first step, try to locate the documents pertaining to 1956.

As a fortunate coincidence, most Western sources on the revolution have been declassified during the second half of the '80-s, which made it possible to study the reactions of the Western great powers to the events in Hungary just like the relationship between the Suez crisis and the Hungarian Revolution.

In the meantime Polish and Czechoslovak archives have been opened for sholars and Yugoslav documents became known on their role in 1956. Although the Soviet sources, which of course are of utmost importance, seem to be still practically unavailable, some important data and information have been published during the last few months.

So the research, now based on arhival sources on the Hungarian Revolution, carried out in the last 2-3 years by scholars in Hungary and abroad, has already produced much result: many hitherto unknown data, important evidence and new interpretations have been published up to date. In my article I try to summarize the most important results of this research concentrating on the new findings on 1956, so naturally my account is not a full survey of the history of the Hungarian Revolution.

Internal aspects

Many books and papers have been published on 1956 during the last decades and most authors tried to define the character of the revolt. On this topic the most important developement is György Litván's now recogning four basic political trends in the revolution: 1. the conception of a reformed socialism, represented first of all by Imre Nagy and his followers, but shared by many intellectuals, students, and workers as well. 2. a national democratic tendency represented by the non-communist politicians of the 1945-48 coalition period (including István Bibó) which participated in the last government of Imre Nagy and most of whom seemed to be committed to some kind of a reformed socialist system. 3. the Christian-Conservative line led by Cardinal Mindszenty (standing on the basis of private property), which was hardly represented among the politicians, but which was stronger among the insurgents, 4. an extreme right-wing political trend, which was present mostly on the streets among the fighters.

One of the most neglected aspects of the revolution is the history of the 1956 events in the countryside. To make up arrears on this field, an extensive research project was launched last year with the participation of archivists from all county archives, and although the work is at its beginning, even now a quite clear picture of the revolution of the countryside can be drawn. First of all, it became known that on October 23 the first demonstration of students took place in Debrecen, several hours before the well-known demonstration in Budapest and there were victims too, in Debrecen, owing to a volley in front of the building of the local secret police, before the fighting in the capital began. In general it was found that the revolutionary events were much more extensive then commonly believed up to date, at least in part due to the Kádárist propaganda which emphasised that the cuontryside and the villages were quiet in 1956. It is true, that exept in some larger towns, there was hardly any fighting in the country, and accordingly, there were few victims, but it turned out that actually in all towns and villages a peaceful revolutionary takeover took place during the days following the October 23 events in the capital. After local demonstrations, the symbols of the Stalinist regime were generally removed, the political and administrative leaders of the locality were replaced usually without any substantial resistance, and new revolutionary bodies were set up with the participation of uncompromised and reliable local personalities. After that, during the days of the revolution in most cases the new "revolutionary" or "national" councils organised and directed the life of the locality without any bloodshed, in a normal, peaceful way. Another important feature of the events in the country is that in many cases the local revolutionary leaders established agreements of non-intervention with the commanders of the Soviet troops, which accordingly, unlike in Budapest, did not intervene in the events in the countryside before November 4.

We still do not have exact data on the number of active participants in the revolution but now we know that there were 2100 workers councils in the country with 28000 members and the estimated number of the members of the local revolutionary committees goes up to several ten thousands. People taking part in demonstrations during and after the revolution counted several hundred thousands (M.J.Rainer).

One of the blank spots of the history of the revolution is the activity of the rebel groups fighting against the Soviet troops and Hungarian police armed force units. The research on theis field which began just a year ago needs delicate approach of the topic since both major groups of sources (memoirs of the fighters on the one hand and police and court proceedings on the other) contain much distortion. What is clear even now is that the sociological examination of the records proves that the fighters were not at all criminals as claimed by Kádárist historians but most of them were young unskilled workers, while, in much smaller number, students, soldiers and army officiers took part in the fighting as well. However strange it sounds, it is pointed out that the fighters' direct political motivation was rather weak and only the unanimous rejection of the Stalinist regime was a common standpoint, while their rising in arms was due to many kinds of special personal motivations (G.Kresalek).

International aspects

A Czechoslovak document, recently discovered by T.Hajdu in the archives of the ex-Communist Party in Prague reveals that the role of E.Gerô, first secretary of the Hungarian Workers Party and J.Andropov, then Soviet Ambassador in Budapest was decisive concerning the invitation of the Soviet troops to intervene in the capital on October 23, while Krushchev first was reluctant to give armed support. The record is a minute taken by Jan Svoboda, secretary of A.Novotny, leader of the CCP, at the meeting of the leaders of Communist Bloc countries in Moscow on October 24, where Krushchev gave account of the situation in Poland and, as an unplanned item of the agenda, on the events in Budapest on the previous day, including his telephone conversation with Gerô, Zhukov and others.

As the Soviet party leader in his message to Tito stated that Moscow will use all means to keep order in Hungary, as early as in June 1956 (T.Hajdu), P.Gosztonyi's assumption seems reliable that new Soviet troops entered Hungary in the morning of October 23 not because of the forthcoming events in the country but to place reinforcements in Eastern Europe for strategic reasons in case of a possible crisis in the Middle East

Up to date it was uncertain, when Mikojan and Suslov, representatives of the Soviet party came to Budapest; now it is sure that they arrived right after the outbreak of the revolution, on October 24 and left the country on October 31 (T.Hajdu, V.Musatov). The Central Committee of the CPSU made two important decisions at its meeting on October 30-31; they adopted the declaration concerning new-type relations between the Soviet Union and the socialist countries while at the same time the C.C. instructed Zhukov, minister of defence to work out a plan for the settling of the Hungarian situation (Musatov). As far as the declaration is concerned, British sources make it very likely that the declaration was in preparation as early as in the middle of October, and it was only "updated" after the events in Poland and in Hungary (Cs. Békés).

"Operation Whirlwind", the plan for the invasion of Hungary, was launched by its commamder-in-chief, Koniev on November 1 by starting the redeployment of the Soviet troops. While between October 23-30 only 5 Soviet divisions were stationed in the country, in the campaign beginning on November 4, althogether 3 army corps with some 60 thousand Soviet soldiers and officiers took part. According to Soviet sources 669 Soviet soldiers and officiers were killed in the fighting, 1450 were injured and 51 disappeared. Same sources state that on the Hungarian side there were cc.4000 victims, which number is somewhat higher than the one earlier estimated by Hungarian scholars ( V.Musatov).

The role of the Yugoslav leaders concerning the revolution, for a long time considered ambiguous, now seems to be cleared up and it is proved that cooperating with the Soviets, they took on the task of eliminating Imre Nagy and his colleagues from the Hungarian political life by inviting them to seek asylum in the Yugoslav Embassy in Budapest (L.Varga, P.Maurer).

Recently opened Polish sources reveal that the Political Committee of the Polish United Workers Party on its November 1 meeting first condemned the use of Soviet troops in Hungary, and they changed their position only during the subsequent days, presumably mostly because of the Hungarian government's quitting the Warsaw Pact and declaring the country's neutrality (J.Tischler).

Concerning Western reaction to the revolution it is presented that according to a July 1956 meeting of the National Security Council the United States had no intention of political or military intervention in the Satellites, and this position was not changed during the events in Poland and in Hungary in October-November of the same year (J.C.Campbell).

It is also proved that neither the US, nor Great-Britain or France or the NATO as a body had nothing to do with the preparation of the Hungarian Revolution as repeated all the time on the Communist side for decades. On the contrary, the Western powers were very much surprised at the news of the revolt in Budapest, and from then on persued a cautious policy of non-intervention trying to avoid any steps which could be interpreted as Western intervention by the Soviets. The analysis of the interrelationship between the Hungarian revolt and the Suez Crisis on the basis of recently opened or published sources on Suez shows that the events in Hungary, in contradiction to scholars earlier assuming such connection, in fact did not have an effect on the Anglo-French-Israeli timing of their planned attack on Egypt at the secret talks in Sévres. New light is shed on the debates over Hungary in the United Nations as well. It is pointed out that the genuine conflict concerning Hungary was not between the Western powers and the Soviet Union, as commonly believed even today, but between the United States on the one hand and Great-Britain and France on the other. The documents pertaining to the tripartite discussions among the three Western states prove that after the beginning of the Suez campaign the British and the French made every effort to divert attantion from their action in the Middle East by trying to transfer the Hungarian issue from the agenda of the Security Council to the Emergency Session of the General Assembly convened to discuss the Suez Crisis. However, the Americans, concentrating on the cessation of the fighting in Egypt, crossed this plan by holding back the process of resolution-making on Hungary in the UN up to November 4.(Cs.Békés).

The reprisals following the revolution

It was known that the retaliation after the uprising was massive and brutal, but reliable data were presented only by recent research. Between 1956-1959 35.000 people were summoned for their activities during the revolution, 26.000 were brought to trial and 22.000 were sentenced. From 1957 to 1960 13.000 people were interned. Between December 1956 and the Summer of 1961 althogether 350-400 death sentences were carryied out in Hungary, of which 280-300 persons were executed by all means for their involvement in the revolution. The retaliation was directed basically against three major groups: 1. the armed isurgents, 2. members of the revolutionary and workers councils, and 3. the representatives of the pre-1956 party opposition and intellectuals, including many writers (M.J.Rainer).

The exact role of the Soviets concerning the repraisals is becoming clearer only gradually and rather slowly; the only factual information published recently is that the Soviet security organs operating in Hungary arrested and handed over 1326 persons to the Hungarian authorities by the middle of November 1956 (V.Musatov). Recent research makes it more likely that the responsibility of the Hungarian leaders on this field, and especially in connection with the fate of Imre Nagy, was greater than it was previously assumed. The decision to bring the revolutionary prime minister to court was made by the Central Committe of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party at its session on December 21 1957, which shows that Kádár and his collaborators wanted to share the responsibility with a larger group of the party leadership over the forthcoming trials. Not much later, on Februar 14 1958 at the next meeting of the Central Committee of the party it was brought up that the trial on Imre Nagy would be inconvenient for the Soviets in the near future because of a scheduled summit meeting. Kádár offered two alternatives: either to have the trial then, and pass light sentences there, or to postpone the trial, and later pass severe sentences as originally planned. The Central Committee eventually voted, on Kádár's suggestion, for the the latter option (Ch.Gáti, Gy.Litván, M.J.Rainer).


Since it would have been very complicated to produce exact bibliographical references to every and each piece of information in the text, I marked only the name of the scholar(s) to whom the particular information in the paragraph is owing to. (However, the 1992 Yearbook of the Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, to be published this September, besides containing several papers on the above mentioned topics, will include a selected bibliography of publications on 1956 in the last three years.) Of course, many more names could be mentioned who also contributed, in some extent, to the general picture presented in the article, especially on the field of the research concerning the events in the countryside. However, the alphabetical list below contains only the names mentioned in the text; in the case of the scholars living outside Hungary, their resident country's name is added: Csaba Békés, John C.Campbell (USA), Charles Gáti (USA), Péter Gosztonyi (Switzerland), Tibor Hajdu, Gábor Kresalek, György Litván, Pierre Maurer (Switzerland), Miklós Molnár (Switzerland), V.Musatov (Russia), M. J. Rainer, János Tischler, László Varga.