Turning the World Upside Down
In her interview for September’s BBC History Magazine, Alex von Tunzelmann was asked why she thought the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt was so badly bungled. She pointed out that the military plans from the time show that they were full of gaps, and that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were clearly opposed to the whole operation. Indeed, they themselves had advised the British Prime Minister that consequences of the action could be terrible, but he had chosen to ignore their advice. They were proved right, but partly because of the weight of world opinion was so heavily against them that, by the time the British and French forces got a third of the way down the canal, they had to stop. Israel achieved its objective of taking Sinai, but soon lost it again. Neither Britain nor France achieved their objectives, and all that they succeeded in doing was strengthening Nasser’s control in the Middle East while his ally, the Soviet Union, reasserted its control over its satellite states. In addition, people no longer talked about Britain as a major world power. From this point on, there were just two ‘superpowers’, the United States and the Soviet Union. In the following years and decades, Britain was reduced to playing the junior partner in its ‘special relationship’ with the USA.
Eisenhower was not in favour of an immediate withdrawal of British, French and Israeli troops until the US ambassador to the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. pushed for it. Eden’s predecessor Sir Winston Churchill commented on 22 November, “I cannot understand why our troops were halted. To go so far and not go on was madness.” Churchill further added that while he might not have dared to begin the military operation, nevertheless once having ordered it he would certainly not have dared to stop it before it had achieved its objective. Without further guarantee, the Anglo-French Task Force had to finish withdrawing by 22 December 1956, to be replaced by Danish and Colombian units of the UNEF. Britain and France agreed to withdraw from Egypt within a week; Israel did not. A rare example of support for the Anglo-French actions against Egypt came from West Germany; though the Cabinet was divided, the Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was furious with the United States for its “chumminess with the Russians” as Adenauer called the U.S. refusal to intervene in Hungary and voting with the Soviet Union at the UN Security Council, and the traditionally Francophile Adenauer drew closer to Paris as a result.
Still from a 1957 newsreel on the aftermath of the crisis
Reading the newspaper accounts of the Autumn of 1956, von Tunzelmann was struck by the speed of the events both in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and the way in which both sets seemed simultaneously to be upsetting the existing order of the world. In the climate of world opinion against Britain and France, the Soviet Union was able to avoid large-scale diplomatic repercussions from its violent suppression of the rebellion in Hungary, and even to present an image at the United Nations as a defender of small nations against imperialism. In addition, the Soviet Union made major gains with regards to influence in the Middle East. The American historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote about the aftermath of the crisis:
When the British-French-Israeli invasion forced them to choose, Eisenhower and Dulles came down, with instant decisiveness, on the side of the Egyptians. They preferred alignment with Arab nationalism, even if it meant alienating pro-Israeli constituencies on the eve of a presidential election in the United States, even if it meant throwing the NATO alliance into its most divisive crisis yet, even if it meant risking whatever was left of the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’, even if it meant voting with the Soviet Union in the United Nations Security Council at a time when the Russians, themselves, were invading Hungary and crushing—far more brutally than anything that happened in Egypt—a rebellion against their own authority there. The fact that the Eisenhower administration itself applied crushing economic pressure to the British and French to disengage from Suez, and that it subsequently forced an Israeli pull-back from the Sinai as well—all of this, one might thought, would won the United States the lasting gratitude of Nasser, the Egyptians and the Arab world. Instead, the Americans lost influence in the Middle East as a result of Suez, while the Russians gained it.
In Hungary, by the middle of November, the rebellion had been completely crushed. The Soviet invasion had rolled back its small, nascent reforms and life became much more unpleasant for many people living in the Soviet bloc. Yet, initially, Kádár had no real idea as to how to cope with the situation he faced, no clear set of policies to implement. The government programme which he had drafted in Moscow at the beginning of November, included promises of welfare measures, amnesty, workers’ self-management, indulgent policies towards the peasantry and small-scale private enterprise in general, and even a transition to a multi-party system and a re-negotiation of the presence of Soviet troops (once order was restored).
Last days in Budapest
Tom recalls continuing to listen to the radio in their shared flat during the second fortnight in November:
One bizarre event was the holding of the International Liszt Piano Competition. Of course, it was boycotted by everyone outside the Warsaw pact countries. Still we listened to it on the radio as the two top prizes were awarded to Russian pianists playing Liszt’s piano concertos. The third prize went to a Hungarian who played the less known ’Mephisto Waltz’ in the final round. The dance of the devil – a touch of artistic resistance rewarded by the jury? We could hope so. Then the Olympic Games started in Melbourne towards the end of November, so we started to take an interest in the exploits of the Hungarian team. How were they feeling competing against Soviet athletes? Every medal still gave us a sense of national pride.
On 16 November, one of the major centres of underground resistance, Péterfy utca Hospital, was raided and a number of leaders arrested. Since 23 October, this had been one of the main hospitals in the capital where those injured in the fighting, including some ÁVH and Soviet soldiers, were brought for emergency treatment. It was not far from the Eastern Railway Station, where a number of armed groups had their base, and close to Köztársaság Square, so that it received those injured on 30 October. On 4 November, the day of the Soviet reoccupation of the city, more people had turned to the hospital for shelter from the storm of tank fire raging outside, including the armed insurgents. An illegal press had been established under the hospital, with groups of young people delivering leaflets around the city encouraging resistance. This work was inspired and led by István Angyal, who set up a base in the same basement. On the 16th, armed security forces surrounded the hospital complex and entered the grounds. The whole building, including its underground passageways was combed and the publishing equipment seized. There was no armed resistance from inside, and Angyal was arrested and taken away, to be executed later for his part in the uprising. Others among the resistance spent years in prison.
On the same day, Sándor Rácz, the outspoken twenty-three-year-old toolmaker from the Beloiannisz (Standard Electric) factory in Buda, was elected President of the KMT (Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest). Following his delegation’s meeting with the Kádár government the previous day, his first act was to go on the radio to appeal for a return to work. The appeal was printed in the following day’s Népszabadság:
Fellow workers! Regardless of any outside call, we feel that the immediate resumption of productive work has now become essential. We are saying this in full awareness of our profound responsibility towards the national economy and the people of our country. We have all suffered enough; in the present critical situation sober judgement, conscience and solidarity dictate us to call upon you, while maintaining the right to strike, to return to work on 17 November… Negotiations are continuing. We are convinced that all questions left open can and will be satisfactorily resolved by our joint effort.
Rácz, interviewed in 1983, recalled further reasons why the call for the return to work was made:
We couldn’t allow Kádár’s lot to be the ones who gave work and bread to the workers. , because then they would manipulate them. If the Central Workers’ Council could bring the men back to work, back into the factories, then it would be strengthening its own position as well – that was the idea. The workers’ councils also had to be re-elected. Kádár’s lot were always going on about the workers’ councils not being valid, because the workers weren’t there in the factories – as if they, on the other hand, had been elected by public acclaim.
Despite these justifications, the Associated Press correspondent, Endre Marton, remembered the KMT as a haphazard organisation, whose leaders were manual workers, and not professional trade union men. They had no written statutes and did not care about parliamentary procedures. Nevertheless, he added, they knew their strength and knew that Kádár desperately needed their help to reopen the country’s idle industrial plants. Before the revolution, Kádár had been a popular and respected figure among the workers. Even after 4 November, Marton recalled, while remaining loyal to Imre Nagy, several council members grudgingly acknowledged that they still trusted Kádár despite his betrayal of the revolution.
In addition to the strike issue, the KMT was determined that the workers’ councils should cooperate on both a regional and national basis. While Kádár was willing to accept the idea of councils at a factory level, concerned with questions of production, and had issued a decree to this effect on 13 November, he was firmly opposed to them establishing networks which might pursue demands of a more political nature. If these were to materialise into a national body, this might constitute a situation of dual power. Although there was no such intention on the part of the KMT, its leaders certainly wanted to establish a National Workers’ Council to represent workers across the country. They issued a call for a conference to establish this, to be held on Wednesday 21 November at the National Sports Hall in Budapest. However, when the delegates arrived they were confronted by Soviet tanks blocking the streets around the hall, and had to make their way back to the KMT’s headquarters at Akácfa utca. There, an angry meeting passed a resolution calling on the government to recognise a democratically elected national workers’ council as the sole body empowered to carry out negotiations in the name of the working class. They also agreed to the call for a forty-eight hour general strike throughout the capital, excepting food workers, in protest against the banning of the proposed earlier meeting.
While Kádár negotiated with the leaders of the Budapest Workers’ Council on 22 November, he also ordered hundreds of arrests. While the uncertainty as to his real goals remained, he had busied himself in organising special police squads for the purposes of retaliation and maintaining order. This was also the day which saw the abduction of Nagy and his associates, who left the Yugoslav Embassy on assurances of safe passages home given by Kádár himself, but found themselves being taken by Soviet forces to Romania, where they were placed under house arrest. The developments at the Yugoslav Embassy had, as their international background, a speech by Tito to a group of Communist Party activists on the Istrian peninsula on 11 November, the contents of which did not become known in Budapest and Moscow until a week later. In it, he argued that while the Hungarian uprising had been a justified response to the failure of the Soviets to make a clean break with Stalinism, it had been taken over by counter-revolutionaries. Therefore, in his view, the second Soviet intervention was also justified, as was the setting up of, and his support for, Kádár’s government. The Yugoslav deputy foreign minister was sent to Budapest to negotiate a written agreement between Kádár and himself to the effect that the Hungarian ministers, their families and fellows, would be free to go home without fear of prosecution.
So it happened that, late in the day on Thursday 22 November, a bus arrived at the embassy allegedly to take the Hungarians home. The ‘refugees’ were already nervous, as Mária Haraszti recalled:
At the time I was very pessimistic, but I can’t explain why… I turned to ‘Uncle Imre’ and asked ‘Is it definite we are going home?’ He said, ‘Of course, Marika, it’s definite’.
As they got on the bus, the first members of the group soon realised that their driver was Russian and some returned to the embassy building to warn the others. Eye-witnesses report that this was followed by a lively exchange between Nagy and the Yugoslav ambassador, who stressed that if they had any doubts about the situation, they should not leave. The belief that there was a formal written agreement seems to have decided the issue, so that the whole group boarded the bus. They had little alternative, since they could not go home on their own due to the curfew. As they pulled away, the Yugoslav embassy cars were prevented from following the bus by two Soviet armoured vehicles. When the bus failed to turn to stop at the first address, the general alarm of its occupants was echoed by one of their children, six-year-old Juli, who cried out, “Oh, no! The Russians are taking us away!” The remaining Yugoslavs on the bus were then ordered off. They were then taken to the Rácóczi Barracks, then used as the KGB base, on the perimeter of Pest. From there they were flown to Romania and placed under house arrest in a villa in Snagov, thirty kilometres north of Bucharest.
While the revolutionary committees were also being dissolved, almost simultaneously, the ideological justification for the ‘retaliation’ campaign was being drawn up at a Party conference which blamed the October events on:
- the mistakes of the Rákosi-Gerő faction;
- the formation of a circle around Nagy which undermined the party;
- a capitalist-feudal counter-revolution of the Horthyite fascists;
- the intervention of international imperialists.
Despite its obvious absurdity to post-communist readers, at the time this was a clever ‘two-front’ strategy of struggle by a virtuous centre against Stalinism on the one hand and revisionism on the other, emphasising both the enemies within and outside the country. The Suez Crisis served its purpose in respect of reminding people of the latter, and Kádár’s other, internal justifications served as the basis for bans, arrests and prosecutions which began under the introduction of summary justice. Mass arrests and denunciations continued for months afterwards. Eventually 35,000 people were brought before the Hungarian courts; 22,000 were sentenced and 13,000 imprisoned. Around 350 people were executed (229 were sentenced to death). Thirteen thousand were sent to internment camps without trial, many of these eventually being deported to the Soviet Union without any evidence being brought against them. Some sources have estimated the deportations to have been as high as twenty thousand. The UN General Assembly, meeting in plenary session, adopted a series of resolutions urging the Soviet Union to stop deporting Hungarian citizens from their homes and calling on the Hungarian Government to admit UN observers to assess the situation, also urging member states to assist refugees. Some two hundred thousand Hungarians fled their country as refugees, including the current and future intelligentsia, among them Tom Leimdorfer and his family, as well as many famous writers, poets, artists musicians and athletes. President Eisenhower announced that the United States would offer asylum to 21,500 Hungarian refugees, and that these would be brought to the US with the utmost practicable speed.
When the news of the abduction of Nagy and his ministers began to trickle through to the ordinary citizens of Budapest, no doubt it added to the anger and determination which resulted in the silent ‘shut down’ of the city in the afternoon of 23 November. Exactly a month after the uprising began, the streets of the capital fell silent as a planned protest against the continued Soviet occupation. Word had spread that between 2 pm and 3 pm there would be a silent protest, that the city centre would be deserted and that no-one would set foot on the streets. Endre Marton, the AP correspondent drove his Volkswagen towards Blaha Lujza tér, one of the busiest squares in the capital and parked it near the National Theatre. Then minutes before two o’ clock the normally crowded square rapidly emptied, people in doorways motioning to those still on the streets to join them. When the church clocks chimed two, the whole city centre came to a standstill. Marton commented that there was more life… on those streets during the hours of air raids in 1945 than there was during that hour. The only vehicle he saw moving was an armoured car packed with Soviet soldiers shouldering rifles, wearing combat fatigues and steel helmets, and when they slowly passed our car I could see the tension on the young faces looking around in disbelief. After comparing notes with other journalists, Marton reported that the situation had been the same everywhere, even in the residential districts and industrial suburbs – deserted streets and complete silence.
Though there were few other acts or events to follow that Friday in the capital during the last week of November, passive resistance throughout the country continued to take place over the following early weeks of December, with strikes and marches being met by police rounds, killing hundreds of demonstrating workers in northern towns of Salgótarján, Miskolc and Eger.
Preparing to leave
For Tom Leimdorfer, that last week of November brought the dawning yet still dismal realisation that his prospects would now, indeed, involve leaving his beloved Budapest:
As that sad, depressing November drew to its close, we started to talk about the future. Somehow, those four weeks created a break with everything we had regarded as our normal pattern of life. We heard that the border was still open and tens of thousands had already fled. Some were escaping from certain retribution, having played a prominent part in the revolution. Most others were leaving because they could not face a return to repression after hopes for freedom were crushed. Mami started to talk about London again, but this time it was not just for me or the two of us. Gyuri seemed to take to idea and gradually Ferkó and Marika warmed to the thought of a new life in England. Yet it must have been a frightening prospect for them. They had a really lovely flat, their childhood home, which they would leave for an uncertain future. None them spoke even the little English I had. Ferkó spoke quite good German and schoolboy Russian and his father was fluent in German and French but knew no English. Sári néni must have been devastated at the prospect of being left alone by her family, having only lost her daughter two years before. Yet she was supportive of the idea that we should try to leave.
Once the decision was made, my mother swung into action. She went back to her workplace and sought an interview with a senior manager. Somehow, she persuaded him to write an official document entitling her and her family (including her new partner’s two children!) to a week’s holiday at one of the hostels at the disposal of the worker’s union – which just happened to be close to the Austrian border. This was in case we were challenged on the train journey. Then she went to see her friend and colleague who desperately needed a small flat, having lived with her parents all her life. She told her in confidence what our plans were, gave her our duplicate keys and instructions about what to do and say to the authorities if we were successful and also if we were arrested. Some money for our furniture was to go to our family, which eventually was turned into a single lens reflex Praktica camera I was to use for over 25 years.
The next episodes in Tom’s tale, mirroring those of the bitter winter which followed for many of his compatriots, is one of exodus and exile, which I aim to tell in my next series of posts. They are more concerned with the personal and familial experiences of fleeing the homeland, arriving as a refugee in England, and the struggles associated with settling into the host country. That is why they need to be told separately from the events of the autumn of 1956 in Budapest and elsewhere, though they are no less a seminal part of modern European history, especially given the more recent troubles and turmoil to affect both the continent, and the ‘Middle East’.
Main Secondary Sources:
Bob Dent (2006), Budapest: Locations of Drama. Budapest: Europa Könyvkiadó.
Marc J Susser (ed.) (2007), The United States and Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy, 1848-2006. Washington: US Department of State.
László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz kiadó.
Primary Sources as given in the texts.