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…)