Hungarian Crisis

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the Soviet Communist Party’s Twentieth Congress in February 1956 precipitated a number of crises in eastern Europe. The most serious of these occurred in Poland and Hungary, two countries where ruling Communist parties had very limited popular support and where the Catholic Church provided a bulwark of opposition. In June 1956, workers in the Polish city of Poznan demonstrated against cuts in wages and the insensitivity of local authorities to their grievances. The demonstrations were suppressed but they did afford reformist Communists the opportunity to advance an agenda that included significant concessions to workers. After tense negotiations with Soviet leaders who flew uninvited to Warsaw, the Polish Communists rallied around the reformist, Wladyslaw Gomulka, who was appointed first secretary. Gomulka succeeded in containing popular discontent and thereby avoided the fate that befell Hungary.

Economic hardship and political repression were characteristic of the years of Matyas Rakosi’s leadership of the Hungarian Communist Party. When he was forced to resign in 1953 a more liberal New Course was advanced by the prime minister of the Hungarian government, Imre Nagy. However, in 1955 Nagy was outmaneuvered and stripped of his position by supporters of the Rakosi line. Grievances among Hungarians simmered until late October 1956. Having closely followed events in Poland, university students congregated in Budapest’s center to commemorate the poet Sandor Petofi, sing nationalist songs, and demand greater freedom of expression. Their demonstration turned militant. The printing plant of the party’s newspaper was sacked, and shots were fired in the streets. Reappointed as prime minister on October 24, Nagy failed to stem the disorders. With army units joining the insurgency, Soviet troops entered the fray but could not disperse the insurgents who by now were well armed and determined. Workers throughout the country formed councils to take control of factories and organize militia units. Nagy thereupon reconstituted the government to include non-Communists and sought to meet the insurgents’ demands. Meanwhile, Soviet troops withdrew to the outskirts of Budapest.

At this point, having received alarming reports from the Soviet ambassador, Yuri Andropov (later to become head of the KGB and eventually party leader), Khrushchev resolved to intervene by sending additional troops. They began crossing into Hungary on October 31. In a desperate attempt to put himself at the head of national resistance, Nagy declared Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact alliance. But the new party chief, Janos Kadar, defected to the Soviet side and announced the formation of a new government, headed by himself. Nagy, denounced for having succumbed to the “counter-revolutionaries,” took refuge in the Yugoslav embassy. On November 4 Soviet troops launched a massive offensive against Budapest, overwhelming its defenders. Lured out of the embassy, Nagy was arrested, secretly tried, and in June 1958 executed along with several other leaders of the insurgency. As many as 200,000 Hungarians fled across the Austrian border to the West. The Hungarian uprising –dubbed a counter-revolution in Soviet accounts but widely regarded elsewhere and in Hungary as a revolution — constituted the greatest crisis within the Soviet bloc before the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

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