The Twin Crises of Autumn 1956: Suez & Hungary, part four.   Leave a comment

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26-30 October: Days of Victory in Hungary

Half an hour after the radio announced the fall of Gerő on 25 October, ten thousand demonstrators  gathered around Sándor Kopácsi’s police headquarters. In unison, the young people shouted ‘take down the star!’ Kopácsi commented:

The roof of our building, like that of every public building, bore a large, five-pronged star in red metal, studded with a hundred red electric bulbs. Ours was at least five or six metres high. I listened to the crowd and watched it, surrounded by my officers and the two Soviet counsellors… This was a delicate situation: the red star was the symbol that had always guided my path. It was my identity, the distinctive symbol of the ‘great family’. The crowd was getting impatient: ‘Down with the star, down with the star!’

‘Better go up and take it down, guys’.

The secretary of the party organisation at police headquarters, a former Resistance fighter who had fought in Tito’s underground, looked at me unhappily…

My deputy sent a commando up to the roof, equipped with tools. When the crowd saw the policemen taking down the star, they shouted with glee. The hostility they had demonstrated since the massacre to everything and everyone associated with the red star dissipated a bit.  

The ÁVH were a different matter, however. They were so panic-stricken that they even opened fire, mistakenly, on their own comrades sent to relieve them. More than a hundred of those who had not been involved in unjust trials, torture, or in commanding the troops that had committed atrocities over the past three days were given refuge in the police headquarters by Kopácsi, whom they trusted to defend them against the crowd. They included his friends from the Partisans’ Union and Bartos, the AVH’s quartermaster, whom Kopácsi knew had never been involved in anything other than the supply corps. He let them have several offices where they played cards or used the phone to talk to look for a more private hide-out. Several dozen officers and men gave themselves up as prisoners, while others were hauled in to the headquarters by the new National Guard. They were fed as normal and lived in open cells until the day of the second coming of the Soviet Army.

Tom Leimdorfer remembers that on the Friday, 26 October, there were rumours that the revolution had spread to other towns, and that the Hungarian Army (or part of it) had joined the revolution. There was also much speculation about the role of the government and the response of the Soviet leadership. More immediate problems came in the form of privations resulting from the state of emergency:

Family and friends were ringing to check if we were alright. We were running out of food and so were other families in the block. Then we heard that the shop on the ground floor would open as there appeared to be a lull in the fighting. We went to join the queue. To my surprise, a Russian soldier came along the line and entered the shop, asking for bread and milk. There was no animosity towards the individual soldier, but everyone pretended not to understand what he was saying. Then someone asked me to translate, saying that I should know from my school lessons.

The next two days continued for Tom, as for many others forced to stay at home, as a blur of boredom, uncertainty, rumours and counter-rumours of political developments. Meanwhile, Nagy had quietly chosen his course of action. On Saturday 27th, he reshuffled his cabinet to include some relatively credible communists like Lukács, and two former Smallholder Party leaders, Tildy and Béla Kovács. He was siding with the revolutionaries.

Then on Sunday, 28 October, everything changed. ‘Free’ Radio Kossuth stopped referring to the ‘counter-revolution’ and started talking about an uprising against the crimes of the former régime. Indeed, Nagy started to talk about a ‘national democratic movement’, also announcing a cease-fire and even the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Budapest. He acknowledged the revolutionary bodies created during the previous days, promised an amnesty and the disbanding of the AVH. On the economy, he promised agrarian reform. There was also an official announcement by the Central Committee of the Party approving the Government’s declaration promising the end of one-party rule. It added:

In view of the exceptional situation, the Central Committee has passed on its mandate to lead the Party to a new Party Presidium of six members. Its chairman is János Kádár. 

Throughout Hungary the mood of anger following Bloody Thursday had turned to one of expectation on Sunday. Open elections were held in towns and villages. Imre Nagy requested that Khrushchev honour the cease-fire and order the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops. He agreed to their withdrawal from the capital, but at the same time deployed more divisions along the Ukrainian border with Hungary. Nevertheless, the population of the city were convinced of victory:

Suddenly, people felt free to leave their homes and joyful crowds filled the streets of the capital. Next morning we saw lines of Soviet tanks crunching their way out of city.

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As Nagy had announced on the radio the previous day, an agreement had been reached over their movement out of the capital. Beginning on 29th, by noon on the 31st there were few tanks and armoured vehicles to be seen on the streets of Budapest. This gave rise to a kind of (as it turned out, false) euphoria, adding to the idea that the revolution was victorious.  On the Monday morning, 29 October, Imre Nagy moved his main office and base from the Party’s headquarters in Akadémia utca, where he had been since being recalled to government, to Parliament. Together with his entourage of associates, and his new government colleagues, Nagy was bombarded with requests and demands presented by visiting delegations from all over the country. One of the earliest delegations to have discussions with Nagy was composed of representatives of armed groups of insurgents from different parts of the city. They offered conditional recognition of his government, demanded the complete withdrawal of Soviet troops by the end of the year and immediate dissolution of the AVH. Nagy was more interested in their laying down of arms, since a general cease-fire had already been ordered, and the Soviet troops were already leaving Budapest. The delegates agreed that they would hand over their arms to Hungarian forces once the Soviet forces had left the country completely. There was also some discussion about the formation of a National Guard, during which Nagy is reported to have asked the delegates, “Lads, do you really believe that I am not as Hungarian as you are?” One of the leaders replied, “Maybe, but there’s a revolution going on, and what counts is who is the greater revolutionary, not what kind of Hungarian you are.”

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There were constant streams of workers’ representatives, sent by the newly formed workers’ councils. New councils were also formed in several government departments, challenging the centralised power of the state. Most importantly, several thousand members of the Hungarian Army defected to the workers’ cause, taking their weapons with them. The Uprising was successful, and the Revolution all but complete. Tom Leimdorfer confirms this atmosphere in a capital which emerged battered but liberated:

On Monday, it seemed that everyone was on the streets. Budapest looked war-torn. There were smouldering fires, some houses in ruins others with gaping shell holes. Our block of flats and the one opposite were both pot-marked with machine gun fire. The overhead cables of the trams were twisted and torn, many roads blocked by the debris of battle including burnt out tanks, cars and buses. Some people were burning publications of communist propaganda and works of writers who supported the regime. We were busy checking how relatives fared and buying provisions from shops which were beginning to open. The next day we were hearing totally different voices on the radio and heard that the leading communist members of staff had been dismissed. The first free newspapers appeared on the streets. They were thin publications, but everyone wanted to read them.

Meanwhile, Radio Free Europe, the CIA-backed station that broadcast into Eastern Europe, was talking up the situation in typically dramatic fashion, to the annoyance of the Soviets and the concern of their Hungarian comrades. It proclaimed the West’s backing for what it called Hungary’s “freedom fighters”. World opinion supported the Hungarian uprising. It seemed that Imre Nagy had the confidence of the people and the Soviet leaders (Khrushchev, Mikoyan, Suslov and their envoy Andropov) were prepared to give the new government a chance, trusting that the moderate communists (Nagy, Kádár and Munnich) would keep Hungary within the Warsaw Pact. Carried along by the momentum of events he could barely control, Nagy made a further radio announcement on 30 October that he was abolishing the one-party system forthwith and forming a new coalition government:

The constantly widening scope of the revolutionary movement in our country, the tremendous force of the democratic movement has brought our country to a cross-road. The National Government, in full agreement with the Presidium of the Hungarian Workers’  Party  (Communist Party), has decided to take a step vital for the future of the whole nation, and of which I want to inform the Hungarian working people…

The Cabinet abolishes the one-party system and places the country’s Government on the basis of democratic co-operation between coalition parties as they existed in 1945…

We wish to inform the people of Hungary that we are going to request the Government of the Soviet Union to withdraw Soviet troops completely from the entire territory of the Hungarian Republic. 

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Nagy’s  ‘National Government’ included several ministers from other parties, prominent among them being the iconic figure of the veteran Social Democrat leader Anna Kétly. Kéthly had opposed the fusion of the Social Democratic Party, which she had led before the war, with the Communist Party, which formed the Hungarian Workers’ Party. She was therefore purged from the political scene in the Rákósi era, spending a number of years in prison on trumped-up spying charges. British journalist Basil Davidson interviewed her in Parliament a few days before her appointment. She told him that her party’s participation in the Nagy government would depend on a number of conditions being met, including the return of its newspaper, Népszava (‘People’s Voice’). In addition,

“she said that there were dangers, even now, of a right-wing putsch. ‘Among the revolutionaries’ she told me, ‘there are right-wing Fascist extremists who would clearly love to capture our national revolution so as to impose another kind of dictatorship’. These were dangers against which Hungarians should remain on their guard, which is very different from saying that Fascists had succeeded in capturing the revolution.”

Immediately following her appointment, several suppressed Hungarian political parties began to reconstitute themselves, including the Social Democrats and the National Peasant Party. Nagy also agreed to recognise the revolutionary councils that had been created, including the one in the army which was established the same day. Its leader was immediately appointed to the new government. As Tom Leimdorfer remarked:

Suddenly, incredibly and briefly, it all seemed possible…  Perhaps that was the high point. That Tuesday, we heard that Cardinal Mindszenty was released from prison. This was also good news and we awaited eagerly what he would say on the radio. This was when I saw a very worried frown come over my mother’s face. This was not a speech to help reconciliation. Then in the afternoon a group of AVO  men were shot at point-blank range and some of their bodies were hung from the lamp posts of one of the main boulevards. There were other reports of violence and revenge killings. The revolution was showing its ugly side and we were beginning to have some doubts and fears. My mother met up with some colleagues who said that the border was open and many people were crossing to the West. She asked me if I thought we should try to get to England. I was horrified that we should even think of leaving at that time and she dropped the idea.  

Despite the speed of the changes carried through by Nagy, and the doubts and fears about the violent excesses being carried out in the name of the Revolution on the streets of Budapest, it looked as though the Soviets would give in to this massive display of people power opposing the apparatus of the state. A declaration was issued outlining the relationship between the Soviet Union and the socialist states. In it the Kremlin acknowledged that Hungarian workers were “justified” in pointing out the “serious mistakes” of the previous régime. The news agency TASS announced that the Soviet Union “deeply regrets” the bloodshed in Hungary, and agreed with the removal of Soviet soldiers from Hungarian soil. The statement was published in Pravda the following day, the 31st, at the same time as it was reported in the Hungarian press. The CIA Director, Allen Dulles, called it “one of the most important statements to come out of the USSR in the past decade”. The notes taken at the Soviet Party Presidium meeting also suggest that the wording of the statement was genuine for the point at which it was issued:

The communiqué represented a genuine initiative by the more ‘liberal’ wing of the Soviet leadership to create a more even balance in relations between the USSR and its satellites, and they managed, at least very briefly, to get their hard-line colleagues to agree. 

What may have played a role in changing the change of mind and heart in the Soviet Politburo was the last report from Budapest of Mikoyan and Suslov, made on 30 October. In it they relate the worsening situation referred to by Tom Leimdorfer, highlighting the strengthening role of what they call “hooligan elements”, the weakening of the HWP’s position and the “wait and see” position of the Hungarian army. The report was “one-sided”, tending “to accentuate the anti-Communist sentiments of the population, and grossly exaggerating the atrocities that were being committed.” An account was kept of all the Soviet war memorials overturned and war graves desecrated, “corroborating this bleak picture with reports of the lynchings at Köztársaság tér”. Nevertheless, it is evident from Tom Leimdorfer’s remarks that these brutal hangings of suspected AVH men did make a profound impact beyond simple numbers on the people of Budapest, as of course, their perpetrators meant them to. Moreover, Khrushchev is reported to have used the phrase “they are murdering communists in Budapest” more than once in the hearing of the Yugoslav Ambassador to Moscow.

It was at this moment that the world went mad, or at least the Israeli-British-French ‘triumvirate’ did. Their dead-of-night intervention to in Egypt to prevent Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal made the outcome of the Hungarian revolution dependent on superpower bargaining. Neither the USSR nor the USA were interested in military confrontation, but both were concerned to defend their strategic interests; the Soviets were willing to remain passive in the Middle East if they received assurances that there would be no Western intervention in Hungary. This was also agreed by the end of Tuesday 30 October. This tacit agreement meant that the promise which had been expressly given by Radio Free Europe on Eisenhower’s behalf, which played no small role in the resolve of the Hungarian insurgents, was thus broken, while the Soviet leaders sought and obtained the agreement of Tito to their planned alternative of intervention.

Alex von Tunzelmann believes that, in return, the situation in Hungary helped to push an already volatile situation between the superpowers closer to the brink. Khrushchev had to think very carefully about Suez when he was dealing with Hungary, just as Eisenhower had to think carefully about Hungary when he was dealing with Suez:

Both crises were referred to the UN, which was awkward because normally Britain would have stood by the US and condemned Soviet aggression – but since it was doing exactly the same thing, the UN was hamstrung. The US went against Britain and France at the UN for the first time, so this was the real danger to that alliance.

However, before either crisis was discussed in New York, it was a decision made by Imre Nagy which may well have sealed the fate of Hungary’s Revolution.

dsc09364(to be continued…)

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