The first shots of the Hungarian revolution were fired 50 years ago on this day, October 23, 1956.
An estimated 250,000 people had gathered in Budapest in front of the Parliament, protesting against foreign rule and totalitarianism and demanding the withdrawal of Soviet forces. Within days, millions of Hungarians were in the streets or actively supporting the revolt. They stormed their nation’s radio stations and put the forbidden music of Beethoven and Mozart on the air.
The Soviets responded by sending tanks.
“The fighting escalated,” writes Csaba Teglas in his first-hand account of the insurgency. “Many young people, mostly in their teens and twenties, joined the few ill-equipped Hungarian soldiers stationed in the city. With Molotov cocktails and other primitive weapons they fought tanks from one of the best-equipped armies in the world.”
Teglas describes the heroism of ill-armed Hungarians, the destroyed buildings in the heart of Budapest, the disabled Soviet tanks, and the bodies of Russian invaders in the streets.
“By the end of October, the revolution’s first phase ended in jubilation,” he writes. “The Russians withdrew their defeated forces from Budapest. Freedom fighters tore down the large bronze statue of Stalin. Imre Nagy, as prime minister, formed a new Hungarian government and pledged to have free elections and establish a democratic system in the country.”
The jubilation was short-lived. “On Sunday morning, November 4, 1956, Budapest awoke to the sounds of invasion: Soviet tanks rolling on every major artery of the city’s inner area,” reports Teglas. “Their orders were clear: keep firing and terrorizing the city’s population. Even after the Russian tanks stopped shooting continuously, they fired at anyone appearing on the streets or looking out the windows.”
The rebellion was long brewing, an expression of anger against the Russians who came to liberate Hungary from the Nazis and never left, a demonstration of rage against a brutal Soviet-installed communist government.
The price of the uprising was high. “For a few weeks, violent death was part of everyday life for the Hungarians,” reports Czech historian Karel Bartosek. “Nearly 3,000 people died in the fighting, two-thirds of them in Budapest; and nearly 15,000 people were wounded.”
What followed the crushing of the October revolution was increased repression by the Soviets. “Tens of thousands were interned in camps that were officially created on 12 December; 35,000 people were prosecuted and around 25,000 jailed,” writes Bartosek. “Several thousand Hungarians were deported to the U.S.S.R., 229 rebels were condemned to death and executed, and 200,000 people emigrated.”
The message was that no country would be allowed to leave the sphere of Soviet hegemony, no nation under Soviet domination would be permitted to challenge the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.
Over a decade later, on November 13, 1968, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev publicly acknowledged the doctrine of Soviet supremacy in a speech at the Fifth Congress of the Polish United Workers’ Party: “When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries.”
Brezhnev was declaring that communism was a one-way street. Hungary or Czechoslovakia or Poland could fall into communism but never be allowed out. Being a communist was like falling into a well.
Three months before Brezhnev’s speech, on August 21, 1968, moving to crush a reform movement that demanded political and economic liberalization, greater pluralism and increased democratization, the Soviet army had invaded Czechoslovakia along with troops from four other Warsaw Pact nations.
“October 23, 1956 is a day that will live forever in the annals of free men and nations,” said Senator John F. Kennedy on the first anniversary of the Hungarian revolution. “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.”
Those hopes for freedom have now come true, writes David Pryce-Jones, senior editor at National Review: “A day came in 1989 when the Hungarian authorities simply opened the Iron Curtain; everyone and anybody could escape into the West; the Soviet bloc was no more. The revolution of 1956 had preserved the nation’s sense of itself and kept alive everywhere the memory of freedom. Victory was posthumous, to be sure, but the human face nonetheless had survived the jackboot.”