5-14 November: Repression, Resistance and Refuge.
By Monday 5th November, the rising had been all but crushed by the sudden invasion and occupation of the country and its capital, but it took several months for the new régime under János Kádár to re-impose the hard-line centralised control the Soviets wanted. For the first week of this, bitter and intense fighting scarred the streets of Budapest. The 200,000-strong Soviet forces easily disarmed most of the Hungarian military. The Molotov cocktail was the street fighters’ only effective weapon against tanks. Nearly seven hundred Soviet soldiers and officers were killed and over 1,500 were wounded. George Mikes, a Hungarian exile in London, reporting for the BBC, joined the street fighters:
We have almost no weapons. People are running up to the tanks, throwing in hand-grenades and closing the windows. The Hungarian people are not afraid of death. We have just heard a rumour that American troops will get here within an hour or two.
Desperate radio appeals continued to be broadcast intermittently from ‘pirate’ radio stations:
Civilised peoples of the world! Our ship is sinking. Light is fading. The shadows grow darker over the soil of Hungary. Extend us your aid.
But no aid came, only expressions of sympathy. US officials met several times to consider their response. President Eisenhower sent a message to Soviet Premier Marshal Nikolai Bulganin, urging the withdrawal of Soviet troops and stating that the Soviet Union should allow the Hungarian people to enjoy the right to a government of their choice. Bulganin replied that the situation was not a matter which should concern the USA. The US restricted American travel to Hungary, and Radio Free Europe continued to broadcast appeals to the Soviet troops. Despite the appeals for American intervention, US action was primarily limited to speeches, pressure for UN action, public diplomacy (through the issue of a ‘White Book’), radio appeals and distribution of newsreels of the the bloodshed. Aside from their preoccupation with the Suez Crisis and the elections, US officials were unwilling to give up even the small improvements in superpower relations that had occurred since the death of Stalin by pressing the Soviet leadership too hard. Part of the US reaction to the crisis was designed to play down the role it had played in inciting the rebellion, so it looked less like it had abandoned it.
Tom Leimdorfer recalls the fear and terror engendered by the occupation of Budapest by the Soviet tanks on the third day, 6 November:
On Tuesday there was an eerie quiet on the street outside. Then the shop opened and a few people went down to get bread. I said to Mami that I would get some too and ran down to join the queue. A couple of minutes later a Soviet tank turned into the street from Kossuth Square (outside the Parliament), its turret pointing straight towards us. It then raised the turret and fired a shell right above our heads at the building behind us. I rushed inside as fast as my legs could carry me to meet Mami rushing down the stairs towards me, embracing me. This was enough for her. After a phone call to Gyuri Schustek, we packed a couple of suitcases and waited till all was quiet at dusk. Then we went downstairs and surveyed the road anxiously from the Parliament Square end to Margit (Margaret) Bridge, walked slowly towards the bridge, rushed across the main boulevard and then kept close to the walls of houses till we got to the safety of our friends’ flat in Szent István (Saint Stephen) Park. There we stayed till the 7th December, the day before we took the train to the border.
On the following day, 7th, János Kádár entered Budapest in a Soviet armoured car with an entourage of tanks. Meanwhile, Tom and his mother settled into their new abode, which was to provide them with relative safety for the next month:
The Schustek family’s flat on the top floor of a tenement in Szent István Park was a relative haven of calm. It was only one kilometer away from our home and the shelling could be clearly heard, but it was as safe as anywhere in Budapest. It was tucked away from the main road leading to the bridge and the boulevard, in the corner of the five storey tenements bordering a small square leading to the bank of the Danube. No tanks would go down there, no freedom fighters. The flat was on the top floor; a dangerous location in places where the fighting was intense.
Our friends welcomed us with open arms and immediately re-arranged the flat to make us comfortable. Six of us lived there for the next five weeks: Gyuri Schustek, his two children Ferkó and Marika, their grandmother Sári, my mother and I. Ferkó was 16 at the time, two years older than me, and we shared a room, which was also the main living room. Marika was three months short of her twelfth birthday and she slept in the small room with her grandmother, but spent the day with Ferkó and me. Mami went to share the main bedroom with Gyuri bácsi and somehow it seemed just natural. Their room opened to the large balcony which looked across the park and the Danube to the central section of Margaret Island (Margitsziget).
We were all totally traumatised for the first few days. Fresh from the euphoria of what briefly seemed like a victorious revolution, we knew the country was facing the horrors of repression and dictatorship again. We were desperate for news. The state radio station soon reverted to the old propaganda phrases, referring to a ‘counter-revolution’ instigated by fascist elements. What first confused us, was that the newly proclaimed head of the government was János Kádár, who few days before had been a loyal member of the revolutionary government formed by Imre Nagy. He had also been a victim of Rákosi’s worst years as a dictator, spending years in prison. We could not make out how he could have betrayed Nagy and the country by forming a new government backed by a brutal Soviet invasion… There were news and rumours of summary executions of some revolutionary leaders.
We could hear sound of shelling for some days, distant sound of gunfire on the Buda side for a few days more. As these died out, an eerie calm descended on the city. No traffic, no buses or trams, few people venturing out anywhere. We heard from the Hungarian service of the BBC that there was a general strike. The state radio was urging people to return to work, but this was largely ignored. The phones were working and friends and family were pleased to know that we were safe. We heard that my grandparents had to evacuate their flat in a hurry when freedom fighters placed themselves on the roof of their block. Soon after, a shell demolished the top floor and they found refuge with their daughter’s (my aunt Juci’s) family, who lived in a quiet street. My second cousins Kati, Marika and their parents lived near the Buda Castle where there had been intense fighting, but they were alright. Nobody knew what the future would bring.
As fighting between the Soviet troops and the Hungarian resistance continued, President Eisenhower announced that the United States would take up to nine thousand refugees. On 9 November, the UN General Assembly, which had continued to meet in special session since the 4th, adopted an additional series of resolutions on the situation in Hungary. The first, sponsored by Cuba, Ireland, Italy, Pakistan and Peru, called for the Soviet withdrawal from the country, for free elections there and a UN investigation of the situation. The second, sponsored by the United States, focused on the short-term needs of the Hungarians, including the refugees. It called on the Soviet and Hungarian authorities to cooperate with agencies providing humanitarian aid, and requested that the Secretary-General direct the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to consult with governments and international agencies on emergency aid. On 10 November, the General Assembly agreed to place the Hungarian question on the agenda of its eleventh regular session. The US provided a million dollars to the UNHCR.
Nevertheless, news of the Suez Crisis, coinciding with American elections, helped bring home the hopelessness of Hungary’s situation to the citizens of Budapest. The West continued to be preoccupied; Hungary did not matter so much. Moreover, Britain and France had given the Soviets the perfect excuse for re-occupying the country in order to ensure that it stayed within the Soviet sphere of influence. Eventually, UN peacekeepers arrived in Suez, but no UN peacekeepers came to the streets of Budapest. The city became one vast prison camp in which the internees spent long hours listening to the radio and playing cards:
In order to get relief from the news, or often the lack of it, we started to play endless card games. Ferkó and I played a good deal of chess too, but most of the time we had family games of rummy or canasta. The latter was a favourite of Sári néni and she taught it to us with all the patience of a grandmother. Even young Marika soon played her own hand, but then she was a very bright and lively eleven year old. Mami and Gyuri bácsi went about getting us food from the shops when they opened and making contact with their friends and colleagues to try to gauge what was really happening. Although the mood was often sombre, we did notice that they also started to joke and smile more. It was partly to lift our spirits, but something else was happening too. They were finding happiness in each other’s arms at this time of crisis.
Of course, the two families were always close. My father and Gyuri were students together, the two couples kept going out together while courting, they got married within weeks of each other (both going to Venice for honeymoon) in 1938. Gyuri and Lonci lived in Romania (Transylvania) during the early years of the war and Ferkó was born there, but Marika was born in Budapest after the war. Then Gyuri was in prison for eighteen months during the dark years of communism and soon after he was released, his wife Lonci (Ilona) néni died of cancer in 1954. So there we were, two war torn, residual families sheltering from the latest storm and gradually beginning to feel like one family.
When the curfew was lifted and eventually we ventured out, we saw a drab eerie almost dead city. People walking the streets kept eyes down, did not look at each other. The contrast with the euphoria of those few days of apparent freedom could not have been be greater. There were wrecked vehicles, bombed out buildings everywhere. Many workers (including the steel works of ‘Red’ Csepel) were still on strike in spite of government instructions of return to work.
Fighting continued until around 12th November in Budapest. On 4 November, a delegation from the district’s Revolutionary Committee had made an unusual agreement with the invading Soviet forces whereby the Committee and the National Guard would be responsible for maintaining order. The agreement held for three days, during which time the Soviets didn’t advance into the district. On the 8th, however, the Soviets took control after heavy fighting. But although the insurgents had lost control of the streets, the factories were still in the hands of workers’ councils. In addition, the Revolutionary Committee continued to exist, and on 12th November there was a meeting between some of its members and the re-emerging Stalinist district authority apparatus, at which the conditions for resuming normal life were discussed. The uneasy ‘partnership’ did not last long, however, as on the same day the Committee members were arrested. Two years later, their leader, Pál Kósa, and six others were condemned to death and executed.
Armed resistance in Hungary outside Budapest ended on the 14th when Soviet forces recaptured Csepel Island. Also on that day, The Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest was formed at the United Electric Factory in the Újpest district of Budapest. It was founded as a body which aimed to represent all the workers’ councils across the city. This endeavour reveals that, for a time, not only was there continued nonviolent resistance in the form of the ‘general strike’, but also that a state of dual power continued to exist for some time after the Soviet reoccupation of the city. The meeting called to set up the Council could not, however, take place at the Town Hall as planned, due to the arrest of the members of the Újpest Revolutionary Committee, which had continued to meet there. The Town Hall was surrounded by Soviet tanks when the workers’ delegates arrived, so it had to be transferred to United Electric, where it took place on 14 November. It decided to set up a Council and to send a delegation to negotiate with Kádár, though it withheld formal recognition of his legitimacy and that of his government.
Sándor Bali, a tool fitter and thirteenth child of a peasant family, became a leading figure in the discussions. He had had six years of schooling before working in a Telecommunications factory after the war, becoming Chairman of its Trade Union Committee. Since the end of October he had chaired the XIth District Workers’ Council. He had been a member of the Communist Party since 1946. At the meeting, Bali argued that, while not accepting the legitimacy of the Kádár government in principle, they must build an organisation, backed by the general strike, capable of confronting Kádár’s government. This plan was backed by the other delegates, and so a Central Workers’ Council was established. The main aim was to make the factories truly collective, under workers’ control. It sent negotiators to talk with Kádár, but abandoned the idea of continuing the strike, which had, in effect, been general and continuing since 4 November. Bali argued that, in order to consolidate the factory councils, the workers needed to return to the shop floors. The founding resolution of the Council proclaimed:
We declare our firm commitment to the principles of socialism. We consider the means of production to be social property and we are ready at any time to fight to defend them.
The delegates also demanded the reinstatement of Imre Nagy as Premier; that the newly formed security services should be recruited from young revolutionaries and members of the army and police, rather than from ÁVH members; that detained freedom fighters be released; that Soviet troops be withdrawn from the country as soon as possible; that all political parties withdraw from the factories and that those arrested over the past ten days would be released.
Kádár’s response over several issues was conciliatory, though he was intransigent about the continuation of the work stoppage. Bali and the other members of the envisaged three sorts of workers’ organisations: councils, controlling the country’s economic life, trade unions defending workers’ interests; and political parties, which would be socialist. Bali commented:
We don’t want to commit the same mistake as the Party made in the past, when it was at one and the same time master of the country and of the factories, and the only organisation representing the interests of the workers. If we make the same mistake then we’ll be back where we started.
Of course, if the Council attempted to seize power from the Kádár government and the Soviet forces behind it, it could quickly find itself in serious conflict, but it did not call for ‘all power to the workers’ councils’, echoing the call in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. However, neither Kádár nor the Soviet officials attempted to destroy the Council, nor the factory councils in the way they had the Revolutionary Committee of the street fighters. From 15 November onwards the Central Workers’ Council had regular contact both with the Soviet officials on the ground and negotiated with the Kádár government in parliament. It moved from United Electric in Újpest to the city-centre building of the the Municipal Tramway Authority.
The hope of the Workers’ Council leaders was that the strength of the workers’ councils in the factories would be enough to get certain demands accepted. In the end that turned out to be an illusion, but at the start there appeared to be positive signs. One was the fact that Kádár was willing to negotiate, or at least discuss matters, with the KMT (Greater Budapest Central Workers’ Council). He appeared to be prepared to consider any and all of the Council’s demands, and an upbeat report of the first meeting appeared in Népszabadság the following day, 15 November, though the bulk of the article was given over to Kádár’s views, with little or no attention paid to those of the delegates. The sticking point was the continuation of the work stoppage, which Kádár insisted must stop before progress could be made on the other issues. It was clearly the top priority of the government to get the workers back to work. For the workers themselves, the ‘strike’ represented a dilemma since it was seriously harming the economy which they were in favour of keeping it in public hands, albeit under a more democratic form of socialism. It was therefore in danger of destroying what they called ‘the public good’. Workers ‘on strike’ could still pick up their wages at the factories, a paradoxical situation which could clearly not continue. There was also a belief that if they could demonstrate that normal production was resuming, the government and the Soviets would be less inclined to resist certain demands.
By 14 November, the fighting was over. The picture below was taken towards the end of the Battle for Budapest. It shows the ruined streets near to the Kilián barracks, and the remains of a tank, just before the rising was finally crushed.
Time Magazine reported:
The steel-shod Russian jackboot heeled down on Hungary this week, stamping and grinding out the young democracy.
Approximately 2,500 Hungarians had been killed in the conflict in Budapest, with a further nineteen thousand wounded, and at least three thousand had been killed across the country as a whole. On the 15th, the Austrian Government was reporting that, already, more than twenty-five thousand refugees had entered Austria in the course of the previous week, and asked for help in relocating these people to third countries, as well as for financial and practical assistance.
By this time, as the historian László Kontler has recently written, János Kádár had become the most hated man in Hungary. His betrayal might well have been grounded upon a realistic appraisal of the international situation and the options they held for Hungary, deciding to intervene in order to spare it from still worse to come. Yet no-one, not even the members of the Workers’ Council, saw this as a legitimate argument at the time, though they recognised his authority de facto in order to negotiate with him. Otherwise, the new government was completely isolated in a hostile country conquered by foreign arms. Although the pockets of armed resistance had been mopped up by 10-11 November, the workers’ councils started to make an impact only after 4 November, and their success in organising in the capital was swiftly followed by an attempt to set up a nationwide network. Added to this, the intellectuals completely rejected the Kádár government, angrily demanding the restoration of the country’s sovereignty and representative government. The Pope, acting on the initiative of Cardinal Mindszenty, who had taken refuge in the American embassy, forbade the clergy to have any contact with the puppet government. After all, the true government, in the form of Imre Nagy and some of his ministers, was still taking refuge in the Yugoslav embassy, while mass arrests and deportations to the Soviet Union were well underway.
(to be continued…)