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

‘About Turn’ to Turning Point:

31st October – 1st November

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For five days between 28th and 1st November a sense of normality began to return to Hungary. Following the ‘About Turn’ of the ceasefire and the Soviet withdrawal, The new Hungarian government introduced democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Cardinal Mindszenty, the leader of the Catholic Church was freed and returned to Buda on 31st. Pravda published the statement approved by the Kremlin the previous day implying respect for the independence and sovereignty of Hungary. This, however, was reversed the same day. After announcing a willingness to withdraw its forces completely from Hungarian territory, the Soviet Union changed its mind and moved to crush the revolution. The withdrawal of Soviet forces was all but completed on 31st, but almost immediately reports arrived of incursions by new forces across the eastern borders.

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Above: British paratroopers in the Suez Canal Zone, October 1956. The Anglo-French-Israeli invasion divided the West at a critical moment of the Hungarian Uprising.

The turning point for the Soviets came on 31st October with the news that British and French forces had attacked Egypt. The Israelis, in league with the British and French had launched an invasion of Egypt across the Sinai desert, which had been nationalised by General Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian President earlier in the year. The Suez crisis proved a disastrous venture for the prestige of Britain and France in the Middle East. The military intervention was universally denounced, seen as the dying act of the imperialist powers. The US government was furious; it had not been consulted on the military operation and was opposed to it. With the presidential elections only a week away, Washington was now presented with two international crises simultaneously. This was, potentially, an even more disastrous situation for Hungary. Tom Leimdorfer remembers the flurry of worried phone conversations:

Everyone agreed that this was the worst possible news. The UN and the West would be preoccupied with Suez and leave Hungary to its fate. Still it seemed that the streets which were not the scenes of the worst battles were returning to some semblance of normality. Some trams and buses started to run, the railways were running, many people walked or cycled to their places of work, but still no school of course. There were food shortages, but some lorry loads arrived from the provinces and shops sold what they could. Over the next two days life started to have a faint semblance of normality. At the same time there were daily political bulletins with mixed news. The most sinister of these were reports of increasing Soviet troop movements.

The Suez affair did indeed distract attention from events in Hungary, just as they entered their most critical phase, with Nagy having restored order and set to consolidate the revolutionary gains of the previous eight days. It split the western camp and offered Moscow, with all eyes temporarily on Suez, a perfect cover for moving back into Budapest. At first, however, it had the opposite effect, delaying Moscow’s intervention in Hungary, for Khrushchev himself did not want to be compared to the “imperialist aggressors” in Egypt. After all, he had withdrawn Soviet troops from Poland when confronted by Gomulka; perhaps now he would rely on the Hungarian Prime Minister to keep Hungary in line.

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Meanwhile, the US found itself in an extraordinarily difficult  position, as Alex von Tunzelmann has recently reiterated in her book, Blood and Sand: Suez, Hungary and the Crisis that Shook the World:

… they were trapped between a lot of competing alliances. Britain and France had lied to them, and were continuing to lie, when it was perfectly obvious what was going on. It was also complicated because, although the US and Israel didn’t have quite as solid a relationship as they do now, it was still a pretty solid relationship.

It had therefore been widely expected in Britain, France and Israel that the US would not go against Israel in public, but in fact they did – extremely strongly. This was all happening in the week leading up to Dwight D Eisenhower’s second presidential election, too, and it was assumed that he wouldn’t stamp down on Israel because he would lose the election if he lost Jewish votes in the US. But actually Eisenhower was very clear that he didn’t mind about losing the election, he just wanted to do the right thing.

Back in Budapest, on 1 November, Nagy still felt the initiative was with him. He protested about the Soviet troop movements, declared Hungary’s neutrality, repudiated the Warsaw Pact, and cabled Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, to ask that the question of Hungarian neutrality be put on the agenda of the General Assembly. This had no immediate result. The US had already gone against Britain and France at the UN, so the western alliance was under real danger of breaking up, just at the time when Hungary needed it to hold firm against Soviet aggression. The British and French had already been dubbed the obvious aggressors in Egypt, so any case against the Soviets would inevitably look weak and hypocritical. Besides, despite Nagy’s continued reassurances to the Soviet leadership stressing the desire for harmonious relations with the Soviet Union, the Hungarian government was seen to be going much further than the Poles had dared in their revolt: it effectively confronted the Soviets with an ultimatum to withdraw completely from Hungary, as it had from Austria the year before, so that the country would no longer be regarded as falling under its ‘sphere of influence’. To make matters more difficult for Khrushchev, Deng Xiaoping was visiting Moscow at the time as an official delegate of the Chinese Communist Party. He told Khrushchev that the Hungarian rebels were not only anti-Soviet but anti-Communist, and should not be tolerated. Under this competitive pressure, the politburo members urged a change of strategy on Khrushchev.

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Were the freedom fighters anti-Communist? In the early hours of 31 October, yet another, broader body, the Revolutionary Council of National Defence was formed at the defence ministry.  The Köztársaság Square lynchings of the AVH men had taken place on 30 October, and Imre Nagy clearly needed to assert the government’s control over the street-fighters. General Béla Király, aged forty-four, was elected to the Council and designated Military Commander of Budapest, taking over the organisation of a National Guard from the Budapest police chief, Colonel Sándor Kopácsi. His appointment was initially opposed by Gyula Varadi, who had been one of the judges who had passed a death sentence on Király in 1952, when he had been ‘found guilty’ of spying for the Americans, a charge which he continued to vehemently deny to Varadi’s face. Király’s task was to integrate and thereby gain control over the street-level civilian armed fighters.  The first formal, full meeting of the Revolutionary Armed Forces Committee, or new National Guard, took place on the 31 October at the Kilián Barracks, although its operations were based at Deák Square in the city centre. By all accounts, the meeting was a stormy one. Király later wrote that:

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Above all, the freedom fighters were highly suspicious of anyone whom they did not know personally or who had not fought on their side. They feared having the fruits of victory snatched from them by political machinations… The freedom fighters were easy prey to rumours of saboteurs in hiding, Stalinist counter-revolutionary activity, and so forth… (they) didn’t consider the Ministry of Defence entirely trustworthy… they weren’t prepared to put the strategic and military leadership of the freedom-fighting forces into the hands of the Defence Ministry.

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Pál Maleter, famous for his role at the Kilián barracks the week before, was also made Deputy Defence Minister on 31 October, but at the meeting at the barracks that day, some of the rebel leaders had serious criticisms and doubts about both him and Béla Király. On 1 November, Gergely Pongrátz, leader of the ‘Corvin Passage’ group of freedom fighters emerged from the Corvin Cinema building, where mass had been celebrated, to find units of the Hungarian Army taking away the destroyed Soviet tanks, armoured vehicles and other equipment  which the insurgents had been using as barricades. Surprised and angry, he gave the order for this to stop. Around midday Király phoned him, asking why Pongrátz had countermanded his orders, justifying them by arguing that the Soviets would not finally withdraw from the country unless they could take all of their military equipment with them, including that which had been damaged or destroyed. He ordered Pongrátz to permit their removal, but Pongrátz answered that, in view of the reports which were reaching him that the Soviets were re-entering rather than leaving the country, the barricades would have to stay. Apparently, he told Király:

I am not prepared to accept any order from anyone which endangers the success of the revolution in any way.

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Of course, the propagandists and ‘historians’ of the post-’56 Kádár era were at pains to smear the “Corvin gang” as consisting of “riff-raff” and “criminals and prostitutes” who were “under the leadership of Horthyite officers and fascists”. However, Béla Király, himself becoming a noted historian in the USA, continued to assert that the Hungarian Uprising was “not an anti-Communist revolution” well into the current century (he died in 2009, aged 97). As he pointed out in an exchange with an American magazine in 1983,

Imre Nagy was a Communist. Imre Nagy remained a member of the Central Committee of the ‘renewed’ Communist Party (HSWP). They were fighting against ‘men of blood’, against the secret police – but not against the Communist Party. It was for democracy, yes. It was against totalitarianism, yes. 

Nevertheless, there were still elements outside the control of the central government. József Dudás, a freelance revolutionary, formed a private army on 1 November. He had risen to prominence late in the revolution, when he had addressed a crowd of several hundred in Széna Square on 28 October. The following day, Dudás and his supporters took over the Szabad Nép (Free People) newspaper building, headquarters of the main public mouthpiece of the ruling party, the ‘central paper of the Hungarian Workers’ Party’, as it proclaimed on its masthead. The freedom fighters gave themselves the title of Hungarian National Revolutionary Committee and started to issue their own paper, Fuggetlenség (Independence) from the 30th. The party journalists were not, however, prevented from producing its paper, the newly-named Népszabadság (People’s Freedom), from 1 November onwards, another clear sign that the HNRC did not regard itself as anti-Communist.

What disturbed many people was that the first editions of Fuggetlenség carried headlines indicating that there should be no acceptance or recognition of the Nagy coalition government. This came on 30th, two days after the turnaround, when fighting had all but ceased throughout the city and when many people were hopeful that the government had started on a new course.  Despite these differences, splits and tensions, the documentary sources also reveal that the Communist Party leadership remained solid in its support for the revolution. On the 31st, the previously ruling Hungarian Workers’ Party was dissolved and the formation of a new party, The Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party was announced. At the same time, other political parties from the 1945-1946 era were revived, and free trade unions began to be formed.

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Early in the morning on 1 November, the Soviet retrenchment began with the surrounding of Ferihegy airport and other airfields in the country. This came even before Nagy’s declaration of Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and the declaration of neutrality. What soured the general optimism still further was that not only were the Soviet troops not leaving the country, but that more were actually entering the country and heading for Budapest. At first the government wanted to prevent this information from leaking out, presumably to avoid creating panic and to leave time for diplomatic contacts. The Soviet explanation, when it came, was rather strange. Yuri Andropov, Moscow’s Ambassador in Budapest, maintained that whatever Soviet troop movements were taking place in Hungary were to assist in the overall withdrawal of Soviet forces. Andropov was called to Parliament in the late afternoon to receive the news of the country’s new status of neutrality. It was on this occasion that János Kádár, as Foreign Minister, joined Nagy in severely criticising the Soviet troop manoeuvres, threatening Yuri Andropov, that, if they resorted to any further use of arms, he would fight the Russian tanks with his ‘bare hands’ if necessary. The same day, the radio broadcast an announcement by the newly-formed HSWP:

We demand that János Kádár, as temporary chief of the Party, should publicly, immediately and without delay, call upon the leadership of the Soviet Union and the Communist Parties of the Soviet Union and the fraternal People’s Democracies, to make them see that the Hungarian Communist Party is now fighting for its life and survival, that it can only survive in the new situation if it serves solely the interest of the Hungarian people.

Kádár’s response came in a speech, broadcast later that day, praising the glorious uprising of our people in which they have achieved freedom… and independence for the country. He went on:

Without this there can be no socialism. We can safely say that the ideological and organisational leaders who prepared this uprising were recruited from your ranks. Hungarian Communist writers, journalists, university students, the youth of the Petöfi Circle, thousands and thousands of workers and peasants, and veteran fighters who had been imprisoned on false charges, fought in the front line against Rákosite despotism and political hooliganism…

Either the Hungarian democratic parties will have enough strength to stabilise our achievements or we must face an open counter-revolution.

By the time this was broadcast, however, Kádár had disappeared, only to return three days later in the wake of the second Soviet intervention. Perhaps, by this stage, Kádár was already conflicted, not simply over Nagy’s declarations of independence, but also due to the shooting of one of his closest friends, Imre Mező,  by street rebels two days earlier. Historian Tibor Huszár says that the news about Mező certainly affected Kádár:

Mező wasn’t simply a tried and tested comrade-in-arms, he was possibly his only friend. In the evening of the previous day they had met each other at the Köztársaság tér Party Headquarters.

Kádár didn’t reveal this openly at the time, and it wasn’t until one of his last interviews that he affirmed that it was because of the events in that square of 30th that he decided to abandon the Nagy government. More clues as to his thinking on 1 November come from an interview with an Italian journalist, conducted on the same day, in which he gave details of what he described as his Third Line. Asked what kind of Communism he represented, he answered:

The new type, which emerged from the Revolution and which does not want to have anything in common with the Communism of the Rákosi-Hegedüs-Gerö group.

Asked if this new Communism was of the Yugoslav or Polish type, he answered:

Our Communism is Hungarian. It is a sort of “third line”, with no connection to Titoism nor to Gomulka’s Communism… It is Marxism-Leninism, adapted to the particular requirements of our country, to our difficulties and to our national problem. It is not inspired either by the USSR nor by any other types of Communism… it is Hungarian National Communism. This “third line” originated from our Revolution during the course of which… numerous Communists fought at the side of students, workers and the people.  

Asked whether his Communism would be developed along democratic lines, he answered:

That’s a good question. There will be an opposition and no dictatorship. This opposition will be heard because it will have the national interests of Hungary at heart and not those of international Communism.

Despite the ambivalence of some of his answers, there is still nothing explicit in them about why his ‘third line’ might be considered closer to Moscow’s than that of Warsaw or Belgrade. If anything, the reverse would seem to be the case, unless by national problem he was referring to the difficulties in containing ‘nationalist’ forces and tendencies within the revolution. We do not know exactly when the interview was given, but neither does it contain any implied criticism of Nagy’s declarations of independence. So, what happened to Kádár on the evening of 1 November, when he was last seen approaching the Soviet Embassy? That Kádár changed sides during these days is not in dispute, but exactly how, when and why have never been fully clarified. According to Tibor Huszár’s 2001 biography of him it seems likely that Ferenc Münnich, on the initiative of Yuri Andropov, suggested that they go to the Soviet embassy for talks. Kádár was in parliament, discussing Hungary’s declaration of neutrality with the Chinese ambassador. He then left the building without telling anyone there, including his wife. The two men did not enter the embassy, however, but were taken away to the Soviet air base at Tököl, just south of the city. From there, they were flown to Moscow. What we do not know is whether he had already changed his mind about the way things were going in Budapest, or whether he was persuaded to do so in Moscow. There is no real documentary evidence.

Despite the claims of some that he had already changed his mind after the bloodbath of 30th, others have implied that Kádár’s defection was not perhaps so premeditated, pointing to the fact that he took no winter coat with him when he left the parliament building. Who would go to Moscow at that time of year with just a light jacket? Perhaps he was, after all, only expecting to go for talks at the Soviet Embassy. If he was already set on the course of denouncing the revolution as having become a counter-revolution, his speech in parliament and his radio broadcast would seem to be astounding in their level of deception. Then there is the matter of his support for the move to neutrality and withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. According to György Lukács, of the members of the Party central committee, only Zoltán Szántó and himself opposed withdrawal from the Pact. Despite later assertions that Kádár did or did not support withdrawal, it seems that, at the time, few people, if any, suspected that Kádár had changed sides, or was about to do so. Why else would Imre Nagy continue to include him in his government after the cabinet reshuffle of 3 November, two days after his disappearance? That might rather suggest that Nagy knew of Kádár’s secret negotiations in Moscow, perhaps even approved of them, regarding Kádár, his Foreign Minister, as acting on his behalf.

Just before 8 p.m. on 1 November, Nagy himself went on the radio to announce to the public the momentous news of neutrality:

The Hungarian National Government… giving expression to the undivided will of the Hungarian millions declares the neutrality of the Hungarian People’s Republic. The Hungarian people, on the basis of independence and equality and in accordance with the spirit of the UN Charter, wishes to live in true friendship with its neighbours, the Soviet Union, and all the peoples of the world. The Hungarian  people desire the consolidation and further development of its national revolution without joining any power blocs. The century-old dream of the Hungarian people is thus being fulfilled.

At the same time, the government forbade military forces from resisting the Soviet troops at Ferihegy airport and all the other Hungarian airfields.

It has been argued that the 1 November declaration of neutrality was the trigger which set off the Soviet invasion three days later. From the Soviet perspective, this may well have been the case, but the Nagy government saw it as a reaction to Soviet troop movements already underway, a means of undermining their legitimacy, and a form of deterrence by calling on the defensive support of the United Nations for a small, independent nation. As we now know, however, the decision to invade had already been taken in the Kremlin the day before, 31 October, the same day that the ‘liberal’ Soviet declaration of 30th was published in Pravda. Notes taken at the Soviet Party Presidium on 31 October indicate that the about-turn was initiated by Khrushchev himself, on the grounds of international prestige against the back-drop of the Suez Crisis. No doubt under pressure from hard-liners in the politburo, he had exchanged his early view of occupying higher moral ground for a conviction that, as he is quoted as saying:

If we depart from Hungary, it will give a great boost to the Americans, English and French – the imperialists. They will perceive it as weakness on our part…  

There may have been some discussion and debate to bring about such a rapid change of hearts and minds, even given the interests of Soviet Communism in the world. Khrushchev claimed in his memoirs that we changed our minds back and forth. It is highly unlikely, however, that they had, at the forefronts of their minds, the well-being of the Hungarian working class and future of the Hungarian people. More influential were the reports of hooligan elements in the lynchings and shootings of 30 October. Certainly, Nagy’s declaration of neutrality had no deterrent  impact on the planned invasion. On 1 November, the decision taken, Khrushchev travelled to Brest, where he met Polish leaders and told them of the imminent intervention in Hungary.

(to be continued… )

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