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.