President Gorbachev had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, but gave his acceptance speech in Oslo on 5 June 1991, twenty-five years ago. In it he warned that, if perestroika fails, the prospect of entering a new peaceful period of history will vanish, at least for the foreseeable future. The message was received, but not acted upon. Gorbachev had embarked on perestroika; it was up to him and his ministers to see that it did not fail. Outside the Soviet Union, his Peace Prize was acclaimed, and the consequences of his constructive actions were apparent everywhere. In June 1991 Soviet troops completed their withdrawal from Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The Czechs and Hungarians cheered as the last Soviet tanks left. At the same time, both Comecon, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance and the Warsaw Pact were formally dissolved.
Two sets of arms negotiations remained as unfinished business between Presidents Bush and Gorbachev: START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks) and CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe). The CFE agreement set limits to the number of conventional arms – tanks, artillery, aircraft – allowed between the Atlantic and the Urals. It effectively ended the military division of the continent. It had been signed in Paris the previous November, 1990, but the following summer some CFE points of interpretation were still giving trouble. The Soviets sought to exclude naval units from the count, insisting that they might need them for internal purposes in the Baltic and Black seas. The United States argued that everything should be counted, and it was not until June 1991 in Vienna that the final text was installed, the culmination of two years of negotiation. Below are some of the thousands of tanks which were put up for sale as the CFE agreement came into force. These armaments had helped keep the peace, but in the end only the junkyard awaited them.
START’s broad objective was also quite clear: the reduction of long-range strategic weapons. Achieving this was complicated. Should the two sides reduce the number of warheads or the number of missile types carrying the warheads? The Soviets had two new missile types in development, so they wanted to download warheads instead. The US was against this, and the Soviets were negotiating against a clock that was ticking away the continued existence of the USSR. Eventually, just minutes before Bush and Gorbachev were due to meet in London, on 17 July, minor concessions produced a text acceptable to both sides of the table. A fortnight later, on 31 July, the two presidents signed START 1 in Moscow. The two superpowers had agreed to reduce their nuclear warheads and bombs to below nine thousand, including 1,500 delivery vehicles. Thus began a new sequence of strategic arms reduction agreements.
Meanwhile, within the new Russian Republic, Boris Yeltsin had become its President on 12 June, elected by a landslide. He received 57% of the eighty million voted cast, becoming Russia’s first ever democratically elected leader. However, the Soviet Union, including Russia, was desperate to receive American economic aid; it was no longer its strength as a nuclear superpower which posed a threat to world peace, but its economic weakness. Gorbachev calculated that the US would recognise this and, in a ‘Grand Bargain’ offer massive dollar aid – say, twenty billion a year over five years – to do for the Soviet Union what the Marshall Plan had done for Western Europe after the Second World War. A group of Soviet and American academics tried to sell this plan to the two governments. Some of Gorbachev’s colleagues denounced this ‘Grand Bargain’ as a Western conspiracy, but, in any case the US was not interested – the USSR was a poor credit risk and President Bush had no backing in Washington for bailing out the rival system.
The climax of Gorbachev’s attempts to get American aid in propping up the ruble and in stocking Soviet shelves with consumer goods came in London on 17 July at the Group of Seven (G7) meeting, the world’s financial top table. His problem remained that of convincing the US that he was serious about moving directly to a free market economy, as Boris Yeltsin had sought to do when he had proclaimed himself a free marketeer on a visit to Washington. At the G7 meeting, Gorbachev was unconvincing, and left empty-handed.
After the START 1 summit in Moscow on 31 July, George Bush kept his promise to visit Ukraine, and went on to Kiev. The Ukrainians were looking for US support in their attempt to break away from Moscow and declare independence. Bush perceived how perilous Gorbachev’s position really was. In June the ‘old guard’ Communists had been foiled in their attempt to oust him by passing resolutions in the Congress of People’s Deputies, the so-called ‘constitutional coup’. The CIA was now warning of a hard-line coup to dislodge him from power, this time using force. The warning was passed on to Gorbachev, who ignored it. Bush didn’t want to do anything to make matters worse. In Kiev he denounced the grim consequences of “suicidal nationalism.” Croatia and Slovenia, having left the Yugoslav federation, were already at war. The Ukrainians were disappointed. Bush’s speech went down even less well in the United States, where the president’s own right-wing critics picked up a journalist’s verdict and damned it as Bush’s “Chicken Kiev” speech.
Source: Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), The Cold War. London: Bantham Press.
Bloody Thursday, 25 October, in Budapest
Alex von Tunzelmann, speaking about her book on the twin crises of the autumn of 1956, states that ‘Bloody Thursday’, 25 October, is still a very significant date in Hungarian history. It’s still very hard, she claims, to know precise details of what happened, and there are still very many contradictory reports, but effectively thousands of people were gathered in a large and peaceful protest in the main square in Budapest when somebody started shooting. The previous day, as the Hungarian historian Sándor Kiss has pointed out, there were armed conflicts throughout Hungary, so that it was completely natural that the authorities wanted to protect their headquarters. That morning, at dawn, the thirty thousand Soviet troops from barracks in the countryside and border patrol units entered Budapest, and sealed off the capital city. Although the First Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party, Gérő had made the request for military assistance by telephone to Khrushchev the day before, it was not until the 26th that the outgoing PM, Hegedus, signed the order, antedating it to the 23rd in order to give it a semblance of legality.
Tom Leimdorfer, a fourteen-year-old schoolboy at the time, recalls hearing the announcement that ‘there will be no school today’. This was no surprise to him, as there had been no school the day before either. The radio also spoke reassuringly of peace returning apart from ‘isolated snipers’ and dispersed ‘counter-revolutionary’ elements. People were advised to stay indoors and there was to be a curfew every evening, as there had been overnight. Later that morning of 25th, less than forty-eight hours after the initial demonstrations on the first day of the uprising, it seemed to some that it might soon be all over, since the impossible seemed to be happening. As the overnight curfew ended and people began going out to work or to look for food. On the streets of the capital Soviet troops continued to fraternise with the Hungarian people.
There is no real consensus about what happened in Kossúth Square on ‘Bloody Thursday’, though there is general agreement on how the events of the day began. In the morning American journalist Leslie Bain was on the streets, near the Astoria Hotel, when he saw three Soviet tanks draped with Hungarian flags and flowers. Girls were kissing Soviet soldiers who were reacting in a friendly manner. Many eye-witnesses have recorded similar scenes. Leaflets in Russian had been distributed asking the soldiers not to fire on Hungarians, who were not ‘fascist counter-revolutionaries’ as the soldiers had been told by their commanders. Bain wrote that it was the most joyous fraternisation between a populace and foreign troops I had ever seen, including the reception received by American liberating troops in Paris.
Apparently, throughout the morning a false rumour spread around the capital that Imre Nagy would be making a speech from the balcony of the Parliament building later that day. People joined together in groups for safety which meant that even larger crowds than two days earlier began marching to Kossúth Square again. Tom Leimdorfer watched many of them streaming past their apartment block (their flat was on second floor of the five-storey block). The demonstration was quite spontaneous, with the crowd, accompanied by Soviet tanks, heading for Parliament. The cries were ‘Down with Gerő!’, ‘We are not fascists!’ and ‘We want Imre Nagy!’ The demonstrators were unarmed, but this time there was no question of Tom joining them.
On reaching the square, now numbering several thousand, they found other Soviet tanks and armoured cars guarding parliament. According to Sándor Kiss, in order for them to have the square under control, the tanks needed between four and six points at which army units could be gathered, ready to intervene if necessary. So, before any firing occurred, the square had been secured under weapons cover by the Soviet and Hungarian troops. While the crowds arrived fraternisation continued, as the picture below of a captured Soviet tank in front of the parliament building shows. This was not one of the tanks guarding parliament, but had been captured earlier in the morning near the Astoria Hotel. This time, the rebels were waving the flag of the usurped post-war democratic Hungarian Republic from the tank.
Throughout the square the crowd, several thousand strong, waited patiently for the Prime Minister’s speech. Some reports say that a delegation from the demonstration entered the parliament building looking for Imre Nagy, though at the time he was still at the Party HQ in nearby Akadémia utca, negotiating with the Soviets and his Party colleagues, not expecting to make a speech to the crowds. A technician from the Plastics Research Institute, twenty-seven-year-old George Jalics was on the streets with his sister Zsófi that morning. They had joined the demonstration and found themselves towards the head of it. Jalics later recalled:
When we got to the square in front of the parliament, we were practically in the first row… Defending the building were five T-34 Russian tanks in a semi-circle. The crowd stopped about a hundred yards from the tanks. Somebody even said that it was not worth getting shot just for a few yards. But then, a strange thing happened. A dialogue began between the throng and the crew of one of the tanks. Suddenly eight or ten people ran up to the tank, climbed up on it, and stood there, signifying the accord between the demonstrators and the tank crews… since there was no reason to fear the tanks any more, we all continued on our way to the parliament. Zsófi and I had been in the first row, so we ended up at the top of the steps, on the left side. By this time the square was packed with demonstrators.
We all sang the National Anthem and waited. For a while there was no reaction from the building. Then a huge Hungarian flag, without the hated communist emblem, was hoisted up on the building. Then we chanted, ‘We want Imre Nagy!’
Suddenly, around midday, the carnival mood had changed completely, as Tom describes:
Soon we could hear shouting and then sound of machine-gun fire, cries, shouts, people running, complete mayhem. We kept back from the window, but from where we were, we would not have seen the broken bodies of over a hundred massacred demonstrators, mowed down by the AVO with many others injured. We only heard the details later, but were fully aware that something dreadful happened just a stone-throw away from our door.
George Jalics recalled that the guns opened fire when the demonstrators began demanding the removal of the Party First Secretary:
After a few minutes had passed, we began to shout ‘Down with Gerő!’ …At that, there was plenty of reply from the ÁVÓ submachine guns located on the rooftops. We only learned about this several years later. As the volleys hit, the crowd scattered in all directions. We were swept along with the crowd down the steps, and then in a big ‘U’ ended up next to the south side of the building, under the roof of one of the side entrances.
The shooting came, most probably, from ÁVH units hidden on nearby rooftops, and killed almost a hundred of the demonstrators. In the confusion, some of the Soviet tanks returned fire on the ÁVH units on the rooftops. Jalics related how…
As we stopped, tightly hemmed in, we noticed that two or three steps from us, in the direction of the square was a Russian armoured car, with a mounted heavy machine gun, firing at the roof of the Agricultural Ministry building across the square. It was so close that the empty shell cases almost fell on us. During breaks the Russian gunner would assure us that everything would be fine. It was obvious that he was not going to harm us.
Sándor Kopácsi, Budapest’s chief of police who later defied the occupying Soviets, had a view over the square from his office in the central police HQ when the events unfurled below him. His account, written in French in 1979, differs in some important details, but confirms the overall narrative given by Jalics:
If we weren’t having much influence on the course of events, at least we had front-row seats. For quite a while we had been hearing a noise, like that of a storm, punctuated by ringing cries. Suddenly, from the upper windows, we saw an immense crowd arrive on the adjacent street. They had come from the municipal park, and were carrying flags and banners and chanting ‘Russians go home!’ and ‘Down with Gerő!’
Men, women, young people – there must have been at least ten thousand of them. From where we were, we saw, as the crowd could not, the three large Soviet Joseph Stalin tanks coming from the opposite direction, straight toward the crowd.
It was like a nightmare. How would the crowd react? Would the Russians panic? We were petrified, powerless to do anything but pray. The tanks arrived on the street. The tank soldiers saw the crowd and the crowd saw the tanks. They were nose to nose.
The tanks stopped and stayed in place, motors idling. The crowd couldn’t stop; it kept coming, swarming around the tanks… Any second, the automatic weapons in the tanks could trigger a bloody slaughter. Instead of that, something else happened.
A boy, undoubtedly a student – the scene took place just below us – pushed his way through the crowd to the first tank and passed something through the loophole. It wasn’t a grenade but a sheet of paper. It was followed by others. These sheets, many of which my men would later collect, were tracts in Russian composed by students in the faculty of oriental languages. They reminded the Soviet soldiers of the wishes of the Hungarian nation and the unfortunate role of policemen in which they had been cast. The tracts started with a citation from Marx: ‘A People that oppresses another cannot itself be free.’
Then the top of the turret of the lead tank opened a little, and the commander… emerged slowly into the view of the apparently unarmed crowd. Then he flung the turret open and perched himself on the top of his tank. Immediately hands reached out to him. Young people leapt up on the tank. A young girl climbed up and kissed him. Someone handed the commander the Hungarian tricolour, and instantly the flag was affixed to the tank. The crowd erupted in a frantic ovation. In this jubilant atmosphere, the commander’s cap was thrown into the middle of the crowd. In exchange, someone plunked a Hungarian Army ‘kepi’ on his head. The crowd sang ‘Kossúth’s Song’ and then the Hungarian National Anthem. And, at the top of their voices, they cried, ‘Long live the Soviet Army’. Yet these were the same people who, fifteen minutes before, had determinedly chanted ‘Russians go home!’
Half an hour later, Kopácsi received a telephone call, however, received a frantic call from the female police captain who had reported to him the previous day informing him of the ÁVH platoon which had armed itself with heavy machine guns on the roof of the Parliament building. The lieutenant commanding the platoon came down to get water for his men. When he saw the crowd he hurried back up yelling, “This can’t happen. We’ve got our orders.” Kopácsi passed the news to his senior officers, but none of them could believe that the ÁVH would fire on an unarmed crowd accompanied by Soviet tanks. To make sure, he called the Ministry of Interior to explain the peaceful nature of the crowd, to be assured that the ministry knew what was going on. Three minutes later, his captain called him again with the dreadful news that the ÁVH had opened fire ‘from every roof’, and that the Soviet tanks had returned fire in defence of the crowds. The ‘butchery’ ended with the intervention of the twenty Soviet tanks surrounding parliament. Their captain fired his guns at the security forces, forcing them to abandon their positions. Eventually, in the meantime, the police chief managed to get through to Imre Nagy:
“There’s a crowd in front of the Parliament demanding Gerő’s dismissal. They’re being slaughtered”
“The comrades from the Soviet Politburo have just left. Gerő has been dismissed and replaced by Kádár at the head of the party. I am prime minister. What else does the crowd want?”
“Comrade Nagy, perhaps you haven’t yet been informed of what is happening. The ÁVH is slaughtering unarmed people. There are three hundred dead in front of parliament. Your new government is drenched in the blood of innocent people. I can’t find the words to tell you…”
Nagy understood. In a voice suddenly changed, he said, “I’ll do what is necessary right away. This is horryfying, it’s a disgrace.”
The massacre released new passions, especially as news of similar events were arriving from some of the provincial towns. A hunt for the ÁVH agents started, resulting in their lynchings and torture. Under these circumstances, Gérő’s replacement by János Kádár went almost unnoticed. Like Nagy, Kádár was another of those who had been purged in the early 1950s. He was also brought back into government and appointed First Secretary of the party, replacing Gérő, as well as Foreign Secretary. This was an initiative of the Soviet advisors, Mikoyan and Suslov, who had arrived on 24th. Gérő disappeared, suddenly and permanently. The radio announced the fall of the First Secretary, and Kádár made the following broadcast:
The politburo of our Party has entrusted me with the post of First Secretary of the Central Committee in a grave and difficult situation… The Government should conduct negotiations with the Soviet Government in a spirit of complete equality between Hungary and the Soviet Union.
Not a word was broadcast about the butchery in front of parliament. The official statement, released much later, had it that the perpetrators were not the ÁVH, but insurgent provocateurs. A few hours earlier, the announcement of Gerő’s departure might well have quelled the discontent. Now, the massacre in the square had turned the atmosphere too ugly for such a compromise. The horrible news of the massacre spread rapidly throughout the city and the hunt was on for those responsible. Toward 3 p.m., ten thousand people surrounded the national police headquarters, which was thought, mistakenly, to house the ÁVH. Fighting continued, while the party organisation and the local administration started to collapse, their role being taken over by spontaneously appointed local revolutionary committees and councils; workers’ councils were created in factories. Nagy assured Moscow of Hungary’s loyalty, but the Kremlin was split between those who wanted to accommodate the new government and those advocating a further show of strength. Nagy had to decide between crushing the uprising by resorting to Soviet arms, and trying to solve the crisis with the revolutionaries. Meanwhile, those revolutionaries were busy removing all the red stars they could find from government buildings.
There are no official documents to confirm Kopácsi’s account of how the first shot came to be fired. It was widely held at the time, by eye-witnesses, that the shooting had come from the roof of the Ministry of Agriculture (above), directly across from parliament, and that the perpetrators were indeed the state security authority (ÁVH or ÁVO). Their immediate motive was almost certainly to put an end to the fraternisation, but had perhaps received previous orders to open fire if they feared an attack on parliament, as Kopácsi suggested. Historian Sándor Kiss has pointed out that,
The massacre had a retributive purpose. The crowd demonstrating was not armed, and they arrived with peaceful intentions. They wanted to demonstrate their support for Imre Nagy, and this demonstration was dispersed not once, but on two occasions. If we look at… (recent) research,… we find that they shot at the people trying to escape… If you just wanted to clear the square, then you only shoot at those that are there, to scare them away, by shooting in the air. No, not here, they shot directly (at the people), and that’s the point.
The ‘innocence’ of the crowds themselves is also confirmed by the absence of legal documentation. At the reprisal trials conducted after the defeat of the Uprising, where the Kádár régime’s prosecutors could pin some act of violence on the insurgents they immediately began court proceedings. In the case of the Kossúth tér shootings, they did not do so. Even the ‘official’ versions of the early Kádár era tended to accept that the first shots had been fired from the roof of the ministry building. For instance, the report of the Hungarian parliamentary guard, published in the third volume of the White Books concurred with the view of Jalics and Kopácsi given above. Nevertheless, as late as 1986 the view that the firing into the crowd was a provocation by the insurgents was still being repeated. Other Eye-witness accounts contained the following observations:
At first it sounded like a single or a short series of shots, later it was continuous shooting.
We threw ourselves to the ground and began to crawl over under the arcade (at the entrance to the Ministry building).
I was standing in the doorway (of the Ministry… wondering) where I should go, should I follow the children? I didn’t dare to step out, and then people were running from the Ministry of Agriculture. I saw one man had pieces of brain on his trench coat. Then I began to cry, and I didn’t know what was going to happen or what was happening. Then there was quiet, the circus was over and I ran to the square… My little daughter was lying right there by the Rákóczi statue. I held her in my arms. I didn’t know she wasn’t alive. My daughter had long hair and it was covered with blood. She must have been shot in the throat. I didn’t dare to take the personal identification to the 5th District city council for a long time…
Perhaps the most credible view of how the events of ‘Bloody Thursday’ developed comes from John MacCormac’s account in the New York Times of 27 October in which he wrote that the political police opened fire on the demonstrators and panicked the Soviet tank crews into the belief that they were being attacked. Yet even he gives contradictory accounts of the actions of the Soviet tank crews, claiming that one of them also opened fire on demonstrators, and admitted that the whole episode took place in mysterious circumstances for which no explanation has been forthcoming. The historian Miklós Horváth concludes:
Uncontrolled shooting begins, there are many different armed units, from government guards to border control, to soldiers, the area is filled with those from the ministry of the interior and the secret police.
They (a Russian unit) came up to the square, and an armoured vehicle arrives at Báthory Street, today the corner of ‘Martyrs’ Square, and they have no idea how the fire fight broke out, and they’re shooting at everyone. This armoured vehicle… also shot fragmentation grenades in the direction of the Rákóczi Statue (in the centre-left of the square facing parliament). This caused the greatest slaughter.
I can’t rule out that they shot from the Ministry of Agriculture building, though in the square the shots echoed. It’s not known if these were the rounds hitting the building’s walls, or the sound of the shots coming from the square which they thought were coming from the roof of the building, but the injuries of the dead and their location indicates that most victims, a significant number, were the victims of Soviet weapons.
The two views are not mutually exclusive, of course. The UN Report of 1957 agreed that the firing directed at the crowds came from both the rooftops and some of the Soviet tanks. This is the position followed by the latest memorial to the victims (below), which takes the form of a display of memorabilia and re-enacted video/ photographic images.
Overlapping Occurrences – Poland & Hungary:
In my first post on this theme, I commented on a new book by Alex von Tunzelmann on the two key global events of 1956, the Suez Crisis and the Soviet Invasion of Hungary to put down its popular Uprising. In this post I will consider the relationships between the events in Poland of June-October 1956, and what happened consequentially in Hungary on 23rd-24th October. In connection with the Uprising in Budapest, I rely on eye-witness evidence from Tamás (Tom Leimdorfer), published here for the first time.
Above: Black Thursday, 28 June 1956. Polish strikers carried a banner reading “We are Hungry”.
Troops and tanks of the Polish army opened fire on the demonstrators;
dozens were killed and hundreds wounded
When the events of 23rd – 25th October unfolded in Hungary, they were as much a surprise to Washington and the world as were the subsequent events in the Middle East, but perhaps not such a surprise in Moscow, where Khrushchev’s politburo was already very suspicion of US involvement in both regional ‘theatres’. Although there were home-grown causes of Hungarian discontent, the sudden revolutionary ‘milieu’ in the country really grew out of parallel developments in Poland, where it had been clear that the situation was unstable after 28 June that year when workers in Poznan, one of the main industrial centres, had gone on strike against government-imposed wage-cuts and harsh working conditions. These soon snowballed into protests against the Polish government and, on what became known as Black Thursday, it sent two divisions of its Army, with three hundred tanks, to put down the protests, bloodily. Seventy-four strikers were killed and about three hundred wounded. Order was restored, for the time being at least. However, it was clear to Soviet Premier Bulganin and Marshal Zhukov, both strong supporters of Khrushchev supporters on the Central Committee, that things in Warsaw needed sorting out. When they arrived there, they proclaimed that the strikes had been provoked by ‘imperialist agitators’ from the West.
The Polish Communist Party reformers wanted to restore its popular former General Secretary, Wladyslaw Gomulka to power. He was one of those East European Communists who, like Imre Nagy in Hungary, sincerely believed that there could and should be different versions of socialism after 1945, and had spoken in favour of Tito’s independent policies in 1948. When Stalin had imposed his hard line on Eastern Europe in 1951, Gomulka had been expelled from the party and imprisoned. He had been released just two months before the strikes erupted in Poznan, and was something of a national hero. At first the Soviets resisted his return to leadership, but slowly a compromise was reached by which Gomulka would be readmitted to power, but orthodox hard-liners would also be left in charge alongside him. The Soviets were torn between taking a hard line themselves, as Stalin would have done, and allowing their satellites some degree of independence, as Khrushchev himself had signalled would be the case following his denunciation of Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress in February. Predictably, the compromise arrangements they worked out in Warsaw soon failed to work, leading to further discontent. Hopes for change had been raised, and now had to be met or directly confronted. The Polish leaders were invited to Moscow but refused to go. Khrushchev flew to Warsaw himself on 19 October, but because no warning had been given of his arrival, his aircraft was ‘bounced’ by Polish war planes as it approached the city. Shaking his fists as he emerged onto the tarmac, he spoke loudly of the ‘treachery’ of the Polish leaders. On the same day, Russian troops across Poland left their garrisons. In Warsaw, Soviet units took up ‘secret’ positions as the party leaders met, demonstrating that the Soviet leaders were prepared for military intervention in Poland and/or elsewhere in Eastern Europe. During the heated exchanges, Gomulka was informed that Soviet tanks were advancing on Warsaw, and immediately demanded that these forces be pulled back. After some hesitation, Khrushchev called a halt to the troop movement.
Khrushchev realised that he had miscalculated badly. Across Poland, people came out onto the streets to demonstrate against the Soviet presence. He conceded that Gomulka could become first secretary of the Polish Communist Party. For his part, Gomulka agreed to preserve the party organisation, and, crucially, that Poland would remain a loyal member of the newly-formed Warsaw Pact. The Kremlin was willing to allow its satellites a degree of national self-determination, but only if their leaderships showed loyalty to Moscow in matters of collective security. After the showdown in Warsaw, tensions died down, since the Poles now had a more popular leader who was able to make some welcome economic concessions.
By then, however, the Polish demonstrators had lit a touchpaper in Hungary, where, on 23 October, students in Budapest, following the lead of their colleagues in Szeged, had already begun demonstrations in sympathy with their Polish counterparts. What began as student demonstrations soon developed into the most serious challenge yet to Soviet rule in Eastern Europe. Approximately twenty thousand protesters convened around the statue of József Bem, a national hero of both Hungary and Poland. They issued their ‘Sixteen Points’ which included personal freedom, more food, the removal of the Hungarian secret police and of Russian Army control. After the students read their proclamation, the crowd chanted the ‘National Song’ composed by the national poet Sándor Petöfi, standing at his statue. By this, they ‘swore no longer to be slaves’. Spontaneously, the crowds began cutting out and taking down the symbols of Soviet Communism from their flags and buildings. The crowd quickly grew as the demonstrators marched through the centre of the city to the Parliament House. Tom Leimdorfer, aged fourteen, had just begun attending a grammar school in central Budapest and could see the demonstrators from his apartment’s windows:
On my way home, it was obvious that the city was in turmoil. The student demonstration was far greater than anyone had expected. Their demands for total freedom of speech, free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops had been read out near the symbolic statue of the poet Sándor Petőfi whose rousing poem marked the start of the 1848 revolution against Habsburg rule and the statue of the Polish General Bem, who sided with that revolution. It was a banned demonstration, but the police did not intervene. As the day wore on, office and factory workers joined the crowd, which surged past our house as we were having our meal. Home from work, my mother told me what she heard in her office. To my amazement, she raised no objection to my demands to join the crowd on Parliament Square, which was less than 100 metres from our house. She wanted to stay by the radio to hear what the politicians were saying.
Some demonstrators decided to carry out one of their demands, the removal of Stalin’s thirty foot high statue, which had been erected in 1951 on the site of the Marianum church, demolished to make room for it. By mid-evening, the statue had been toppled, though its boots were impossible to shift from their concrete plinth. Meanwhile, a student delegation, entering the radio building to try to broadcast their demands, was detained by the ÁVH (secret police). When the delegation’s release was demanded by the demonstrators outside, they were shot at through the windows of the building. One student died and was wrapped in the national flag and born over the heads of the crowd. As an eye-witness in the crowds, Tom recalled these events as follows:
The next few hours were spent with the crowd filling the vast square and demanding the resignation of the government. Twice I ran back home to hear if any of the demands had been met. Far from it, the government statement only angered the crowd. Hungarian flags appeared with the communist emblem cut out.
At the same time, as in Poland, the search was now on for a new leader of the Communist Party who could restore confidence in the nation’s leadership. The man who looked most likely to play the part of a Hungarian Gomulka was Imre Nagy, who had been Prime Minister until purged in 1955. He had only been readmitted to the party two weeks beforehand, but soon became the rebels’ chosen figurehead, though, according to a Daily Express writer, the vast majority of the crowds were as anti-Communist as they were anti-Soviet, as Tom Leimdorfer also testifies:
We demanded to hear Imre Nagy, the moderate communist who had been deposed by hardliners. He appeared late in the evening on the balcony of the Parliament and started by addressing the crowd as ‘comrades’, but responded to hostile shouts by calling us ‘citizens’. It was not a rousing speech and few would have guessed the courageous role he was to play in the revolution, which led to his execution two years later. Eventually, as the night drew on, I went home unaware that the first shots of the revolution had already been fired at the Radio building.
On 24 October, just as Gomulka was telling a mass meeting in Warsaw that the Soviet troops were returning to barracks, the ÁVH continued to fire at the demonstrators in Budapest. Tom Leimdorfer recalls how he was prevented from going to school by the all-too-real danger on the streets:
Next day, I was up at the crack of dawn for my 7 am extra Latin lesson. As I rushed down the stairs, Mami yelled to call me back. Jenő bácsi (father of András) phoned to tell us not to go out if we don’t want to be shot. Minutes later the noise of sporadic gunfire was all too clear. For the next few days we were right in the centre of the storm.
Tom describes how that first full day of the revolution was also one of total confusion:
We were constantly on the phone to family and friends, sharing news, reacting to what we were hearing on the radio. Anyone who managed to get news via the BBC World Service or Radio Free Europe (both of which were often jammed and barely audible) would quickly ring round. It was clear that there were Soviet tanks on the streets and some military jets overhead. Occasional sounds of explosions could be heard, but also periods of eerie silence. We just stayed in our flat.
On the radio, the government announcement came that the Politburo had appointed Imre Nagy to be Prime Minister. However, Gerő stayed as Party First Secretary, the man with the real power. The new Politburo was mixture of old style Stalinists and moderates of the Nagy era. At the same time, martial law was declared and it was stated that the Soviet troops were on the street ‘at the request of the government’. Disorder and violence spread throughout both the capital and the provincial towns throughout the day. Thousands organised themselves into people’s militias, battling both the ÁVH and the Soviet troops. Tom’s family and friends wondered where the revolutionary fighters got their weapons. Later they heard that it was from the units of the Hungarian Army. Already on that first day, some Russian tanks were immobilised using improvised ‘Molotov cocktails’.
What was especially disturbing for both governments was that some of the Soviet troops, having been stationed in Hungary for more than a decade, were openly fraternising with the workers on the streets. in addition, many Hungarian army units seemed shaky in their support for the régime. Nagy called for an immediate end to the fighting, offering an amnesty for all those participating in the uprising, also promising political and economic reform. Meanwhile, Érnö Gérő called on Yuri Andropov, the Soviet Ambassador to Hungary, to help restore order. Andropov relayed the message to Moscow, and Khrushchev spoke directly to Gérő by phone, agreeing to send in more troops the following day.
(to be continued…)