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Beginnings of the Cold War in Central/Eastern Europe, 1946-56: Territory, Tyranny and Terror.   1 comment

019Eastern Europe in 1949. Source: András Bereznay (2002), The Times History of Europe.

Following the defeat of the Third Reich, the map of the European continent was radically transformed. The most striking transformation was the shrinking of Germany, with Poland the principal beneficiary, and the division of what remained of the two countries. But Poland lost vast territories on its eastern border to the Soviet Union. West Germany (from 1949, ‘the Federal Republic’) was formed from the American, French and British areas of occupied Germany; East Germany (‘the Democratic Republic’ from 1949) was formed from the Soviet-occupied zone (see the maps below). The former German capital followed this pattern in miniature. Czechoslovakia was revived, largely along the lines it had been in 1919, and Hungary was restored to the borders established by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. Yugoslavia was also restored in the form it had been before the war. The Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – together with the Ukraine and Bessarabia, were all incorporated into the Soviet Union. Austria was detached from Germany and restored to independence, initially under a Soviet-sponsored government reluctantly recognised by the western powers. It gradually moved away from Soviet influence over the following ten years.

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It rapidly became clear that Stalin’s intentions were wholly at variance with the West’s goals for western Germany. The two zones of Germany followed wholly divergent paths: while denazification in the west followed the Austrian model, with the first free elections taking place in January 1946. However, in the east the Soviets moved quickly to eradicate all pre-war political parties other than the communists, sponsoring the German Communist Party, which became the Socialist Unity Party in April 1946. All other political organisations were suppressed by November 1947. As it became clear that the western and eastern halves of the country were destined for separate futures, so relations between the former Allies deteriorated. Simultaneously, the Soviet Army stripped the country of industrial plunder for war reparations. Germany rapidly became one of the major theatres of the Great Power Conflict of the next forty years. Berlin became the focal point within this conflict from the winter of 1948/49, as Stalin strove to force the Western Allies out of the city altogether. In September 1949, the Western Allies, abandoning for good any hopes they had of reaching a rapprochement with Stalin, announced the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany. This was followed, the next month, by the creation of the Soviet-sponsored GDR. More broadly, it was clear by the end of 1949, that Stalin had created what was in effect a massive extension of the Soviet Empire, as well as a substantial buffer zone between the USSR proper and the West. Western-Soviet relations were plunged into a deep freeze from which they would not emerge for decades: the Cold War. In escaping Nazi occupation, much of Central/Eastern Europe had simply exchanged one form of tyranny for another.  

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In July 1947, the USA had issued invitations to twenty-two European countries to attend a conference in Paris, scheduled for 12th July, to frame Europe’s response to the Marshall Plan, the proposal put forward by President Truman’s Secretary of State to provide an economic lifeline to the countries of Europe struggling to recover from the devastation caused by the World War. Stalin and his Foreign Minister, Molotov, had already given their reaction. Stalin saw the issue not only in economic but also political terms, his suspicious nature detecting an American plot. He thought that once the Americans got their fingers into the Soviet economy, they would never take them out. Moreover, going cap-in-hand to capitalists was, in his view, the ultimate sign of failure for the Communist system. The socialist countries would have to work out their own economic salvation. Nevertheless, Molotov succeeded in persuading Stalin to allow him to go to Paris to assess the American offer.

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The ‘big four’ – Britain, France, the USA and the USSR – met first at the end of June in Paris. Molotov agreed to back limited American involvement in the economies of Europe with no strings attached. However, Soviet intelligence soon revealed that both Britain and France saw Marshall’s offer as a plan for aiding in the full-scale reconstruction of Europe. Not only that, but Molotov was informed that the American under-secretary, Will Clayton, was having bilateral talks with British ministers in which they had already agreed that the Plan would not be an extension of the wartime Lend-Lease Agreement which had almost bankrupted Britain in the immediate post-war years. The British and the Americans also saw the reconstruction of Germany as the key factor in reviving the continent’s economy. This was anathema to the Soviets, who were keen to keep Germany weak and to extract reparations from it. The Soviet Union was always anxious about what it saw as attempts by the Western allies to downplay its status as the chief victor in the war. Molotov cabled Stalin that all hope of effecting Soviet restrictions on Marshall aid now seemed dead. On 3rd July, Molotov, accusing the Western powers of seeking to divide Europe into two hostile camps, gathered up his papers and returned to Moscow that same evening.

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With the Soviets out-of-the-way, invitations went out to all the states of Western Europe except Spain. They also went to Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Albania, Finland, Yugoslavia, Poland and Czechoslovakia. After initial hesitation, Moscow instructed its ‘satellites’ to reject the invitation. On 7th July, messages informed party bosses in the Eastern European capitals that…

…under the guise of drafting plans for the revival of Europe, the sponsors of the conference in fact are planning to set up a Western bloc which includes West Germany. In view of those facts … we suggest refusing to participate in the conference.

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Most of the Communist parties in the Central-Eastern European countries did just as they were told, eager to display their loyalty to Stalin. But the Polish and Czech governments found the offer of US dollars too appealing since this was exactly what their economies needed. In Czechoslovakia, about a third of the ministers in the coalition government were Communists, reflecting the share of the vote won by the party in the 1946 elections. Discussions within the government about the Marshall aid offer, however, produced a unanimous decision to attend the Paris conference. Stalin was furious and summoned Gottwald, the Communist Prime Minister, to Moscow immediately. Jan Masaryk, the foreign minister, an independent non-Communist member of the Prague Government. Stalin kept them waiting until the early hours and then angrily told them to cancel their decision to go to Paris. He said that the decision was a betrayal of the Soviet Union and would also undermine the efforts of the Communist parties in Western Europe to discredit the Marshall Plan as part of a Western plot to isolate the Soviet Union. He brushed aside their protests, and they returned to Prague, where the Czechoslovak Government, after an all-day meeting, unanimously cancelled its original decision. Masaryk, distraught, told his friends:

I went to Moscow as the foreign minister of an independent sovereign state; I returned as a Soviet slave.

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Above: Conflicting cartoon images of the Marshall Plan and the Cold War. Fitzpatrick, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, shows the Kremlin’s noose tightening around Czechoslovakia. Krokodil has the Europeans on their knees before their US paymaster. 

The Poles forced them into line as well, and their government made a similar announcement. Stalin had his way; the Eastern Bloc now voted as one and from now on each state took its orders from the Kremlin. Europe was divided and the Cold War was irreparably underway. From Washington’s perspective, the Marshall Plan was designed to shore up the European economies, ensure the future stability of the continent by avoiding economic catastrophe, thereby preventing the spread of communism, which was already thriving amidst the economic chaos of Western Europe. But from the Kremlin’s point of view, the plan appeared to be an act of economic aggression. Stalin had felt his own power threatened by the lure of the almighty ‘greenback’. In Washington, Stalin’s opposition to the plan was seen as an aggressive act in itself. The US ambassador in Moscow described it as nothing less than a declaration of war by the Soviet Union. Both sides were now locked in mutual suspicion and distrust and the effects of the Marshall Plan was to make the Iron Curtain a more permanent feature of postwar Europe.

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The same day as the Conference on European Economic Cooperation (CEEC) opened in Paris, 12th July 1947, the first meeting of Cominform, the short form of the Communist Information Bureau took place in the village of Szkliarska Poremba in Poland. A revival of the old Communist alliance, or Comintern, established by Lenin, this was a direct response to the Marshall Plan, and an attempt to consolidate Stalin’s control over the Soviet satellites and to bring unanimity in Eastern Bloc strategy. Andrei Zhdanov, the Soviet ideologue, Stalin’s representative at the meeting, denounced the Truman Doctrine as aggressive and, playing on Eastern European fears of resurgent Nazism, accused the Marshall Plan of trying to revive German industry under the control of American financiers. Along with the representatives of the Communist parties of France and Italy, which had been encouraged to operate through left-wing coalitions in a Popular Front, the Czechoslovak Communist delegates were ordered to move away from their coalition and to seize the initiative.

The coalition government in Czechoslovakia had previously operated on the principle that Czechoslovak interests were best served by looking both to the West and to the East, an idea dear to the hearts of both President Benes and Foreign Minister Masaryk. But as relations between the two power blocs worsened, the position of Czechoslovakia, straddling East and West, became ever more untenable. Masaryk, though not a Communist, felt increasingly cut off by the West after Prague’s failure to participate in the Marshall Plan. Washington regarded the capitulation to Stalin over the Paris conference as signifying that Czechoslovakia was now part of the Soviet bloc. The harvest of 1947 was especially bad in Czechoslovakia, with the yield of grain just two-thirds of that expected and the potato crop only half. The need for outside help was desperate, and Masaryk appealed to Washington, but the US made it clear that there would be no aid and no loans until Prague’s political stance changed. Although Masaryk tried to convince the US government that the Soviet line had been forced on them, he failed to change the American position. Then the Soviets promised Czechoslovakia 600,000 tons of grain, which helped prevent starvation and won wide support for Stalin among the Czechoslovak people. Foreign trade Minister Hubert Ripka said…

Those idiots in Washington have driven us straight into the Stalinist camp.

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When the Soviet deputy foreign minister arrived in Prague, supposedly to oversee the delivery of the promised grain, the non-Communist ministers took a gamble. On 20th February, they resigned from office, hoping to force an early election. But President Benes, who was seriously ill, wavered. Following orders from the Cominform, the Communists took to the streets, organising giant rallies and whipping up popular support. They used the police to arrest and intimidate opponents and formed workers’ assemblies at factories. On 25th February, fearing civil war, Benes allowed Gottwald to form a new Communist-led government. In the picture on the left above, Klement Gottwald is seen calling for the formation of a new Communist government, while President Benes stands to his left. In the picture on the right, units of armed factory workers march to a mass gathering in support of the takeover in the capital.

In five days, the Communists had taken power in Prague and Czechoslovakia was sentenced to membership of the Soviet camp for more than forty years. Masaryk remained as foreign minister but was now a broken man, his attempt to bridge East and West having failed. A fortnight later, he mysteriously fell to his death from the window of his apartment in the Foreign Ministry. Thousands of mourners lined the streets for his funeral, which marked the end of the free Republic of Czechoslovakia which had been founded by his father, Tomás Masaryk thirty years earlier. News of the Communist takeover in Prague sent shock waves through Washington, where the Marshall Plan was still making its way through Congress. Now the case had been made by events: without US intervention, Europe would fall to the Communists, both East and West. Had Washington not written off Czechoslovakia as an Eastern bloc state, refusing to help the non-Communists, the outcome of those events might have been different. This was a harsh but salient lesson for the US administration, but it made matters worse by talk of possible immediate conflict. The Navy secretary began steps to prepare the American people for war and the Joint Chiefs of Staff drew up an emergency war plan to meet a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. On 17th March, Truman addressed a joint session of Congress with a fighting speech:

The Soviet Union and its agents have destroyed the independence and democratic character of a whole series of nations in Eastern and Central Europe. … It is this ruthless course of action, and the clear design to extend it to the remaining free nations of Europe, that have brought about the critical situation in Europe today. The tragic death of the Republic of Czechoslovakia has sent a shock wave through the civilized world. … There are times in world history when it is far wiser to act than to hesitate. There is some risk involved in action – there always is. But there is far more risk involved in failure to act.

Truman asked for the approval of the Marshall Plan and for the enactment of universal military training and selective service. On 3rd April, Congress approved $5.3 billion in Marshall aid. Two weeks later, the sixteen European nations who had met in Paris the previous year, signed the agreement which established the OEEC, the body which the US Administration to formalise requests for aid, recommend each country’s share, and help in its distribution. Within weeks the first shipments of food aid were arriving in Europe. Next came fertilisers and tractors, to increase agricultural productivity. Then came machines for industry. The tap of Marshall aid had been turned on, but too late as far as Poland and Czechoslovakia were concerned. The plan was political as well as economic. It grew out of the desire to prevent the spread of communism into Western Europe. No longer could European nations sit on the fence. Each country had to choose whether it belonged to the Western or the Soviet bloc. In the immediate post-war years the situation had been fluid, but the Marshall Plan helped to accelerate the division of Europe. Forced to reject Marshall aid, Czechoslovakia became part of the Soviet sphere of influence, albeit abandoned to this fate by Washington, sacrificed once more by the Western powers. On the other hand, France and Italy were now firmly in the Western camp.

Paranoia permeated the Soviet system and Communist Central/GeorgeEastern Europe in the late forties and early fifties, just as it had done during Stalin’s reign of terror in the thirties. Hundreds of thousands of people were sent to labour camps and many thousands, loyal party members, were executed. In Hungary, as many as one in three families had a member in jail during the Stalinist period. As one Hungarian once told me, recalling his childhood forty years earlier, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1948 but only recently (in 1988) available to Hungarians to read, was 1948 in Hungary. In the Soviet Union and throughout the Soviet bloc, conformity was everything and no dissent was allowed. Independent thought was fiercely tracked down, rooted out, and repressed.

In the first phase of the Soviet takeover of Central/ Eastern Europe, Communist parties, with the backing of the Kremlin, had taken control of the central apparatus of each state.  Sometimes there were tensions between the local Communists, who had been part of the underground resistance to the Nazis, and those who had been exiled in Moscow and who had been appointed at the behest of Stalin to senior positions in the local parties. Initially, they were devoted to condemning their political opponents as class enemies. In 1948 a new phase began in the Sovietisation of the ‘satellite’ states, in which each nation was to be politically controlled by its Communist Party, and each local party was to be subject to absolute control from Moscow.

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In Hungary, the arrests had begun at Advent in 1946, with the seizure of lawyer and politician, György Donáth by the ÁVO, the state security police, on a charge of conspiracy against the Republic. Prior to his arrest, Donáth had left Budapest for a pre-Christmas vacation near the Hungarian border, so the ÁVO, who had had him under surveillance for some time, feared that he might attempt to flee the country and wasted no time in arresting him there, using the secret military police, KATPOL. Following this, a number of his associates were also arrested. In order to save these fellow leaders of the secret Hungarian Fraternal Community (MTK), which he had reactivated in the spring of 1946, he took all responsibility upon himself. He was condemned to death by a People’s Tribunal on 1st April 1947, and executed on 23rd October the same year. Cardinal Mindszenty, the representative of the religious majority in the country, was arrested soon after and put on trial on 3rd February 1949.

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(Following his release from prison a week before, in 1956)

In Czechoslovakia, where the Party had seized control in February 1948, a series of ‘show trials’ highlighted different stages in the imposition of Communist authority. Between 1948 and 1952 death sentences were passed against 233 political prisoners – intellectuals, independent thinkers, socialists, Christians. The execution of Zavis Kalandra, an associate of the Surrealists and a Marxist who had split with the prewar Communist Party, shocked Prague. Nearly 150,000 people were made political prisoners in Czechoslovakia, seven thousand Socialist Party members among them.

The crisis that prompted this strengthening of control was the split with Tito in 1948. The war-time partisan leader of Yugoslavia headed the only Communist country in Eastern Europe where power was not imposed by Moscow but came through his own popularity and strength. Although Stalin’s favourite for a while, Tito was soon out of favour with him for resisting the Soviet control of both Yugoslavia’s economy and its Communist Party.  In June 1948, Yugoslavia was expelled from Cominform for having placed itself outside the family of the fraternal Communist parties. Stalin even prepared plans for a military intervention, but later decided against it. The ‘mutiny’ in Yugoslavia now gave Stalin the opportunity he sought to reinforce his power. He could now point not just to an external ‘imperialist’ enemy, but to an ‘enemy within’. ‘Titoism’ became the Kremlin’s excuse for establishing a tighter grip on the Communist parties of Eastern Europe. Between 1948 and 1953 all the parties were forced through a crash programme of Stalinisation – five-year plans, forced collectivisation, the development of heavy industry, together with tighter Party control over the army and the bureaucratisation of the Party itself. To maintain discipline the satellites were made to employ a vast technology of repression.

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‘Show trials’ were used were used to reinforce terror; “justice” became an instrument of state tyranny in order to procure both public obedience and the total subservience of the local party to Soviet control. The accused were forced, by torture and deprivation, to ‘confess’ to crimes against the state. Communist Party members who showed any sign of independence or ‘Titoism’ were ruthlessly purged. The most significant of these trials was that of László Rajk in Hungary. Rajk had fought in the Spanish Civil War and had spent three years in France before joining the resistance in Hungary. After the war, he became the most popular member of the Communist leadership. Although he had led the Communist liquidation of the Catholic Church, he was now himself about to become a victim of Stalinist repression. He was Rákosi’s great opponent and so had to be eliminated by him. Under the supervision of Soviet adviser General Fyodor Byelkin, confessions were concocted to do with a Western imperialist and pro-Tito plot within the Hungarian Communist Party. Rajk was put under immense pressure, including torture, being told he must sacrifice himself for the sake of the Party. János Kádár, an old party friend and godfather to Rajk’s son, told him that he must confess to being a Titoist spy and that he and his family would be able to start a new life in Russia. Rajk agreed, but on 24th September 1949, he and two other defendants were sentenced to death and executed a month later. In the picture below, Rajk is pictured on the left, appearing at his trial.

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The Rajk confession and trial became a model for show trials across Eastern Europe. But in Hungary itself, the trial and execution of Rajk, Szebeny and General Pálffy-Oesterreicher were to ‘fatally’ undermine the Rákosi régime. Rákosi and Gerő were typical of the Communists who had lived in exile in Moscow during the war. Compared with Rajk, and the later Premier Imre Nagy, they were never popular within the Party itself, never mind the wider population. Yet, with Stalin’s support, they were enabled to remain in power until 1953, and were even, briefly, restored to power by the Kremlin in 1955. A recent publication in translation of the memoirs of the Hungarian diplomat, Domokos Szent-Iványi, has revealed how, prior to his arrest and imprisonment in 1946, he had made plans to replace them with General Pálffi-Oesterreicher, the head of the dreaded military police, who had had him arrested and placed him in ‘a very small and very dirty hole of a dungeon’ under the police headquarters:

During our conversations I did my best to convince ‘Pálfi’ that the greatest evil to the Hungarian people, to the country, and even to the Communists and the Soviet Union consisted in the policy and machinations of Rákosi and of his gang, and seemingly I succeeded in my efforts in this respect. The execution of Rajk, Szebeny and Pálffy-Oesterreicher seemingly strengthened Rákosi’s position. This, however, was not so. The ruthless liquidation of old Communist Party members was one of the main acts which some years later led to Rákosi’s downfall.

The light-mindedness of Pálffy-Oesterreicher contributed to his own downfall and put my life in peril also. It happened once that Pálffi, sending one of his collaborators, … made the grave error of instructing this man to tell me that “the pact between Pálffi and Szent-Iványi is still effective”.    

In the course of the Rajk trial, my name and that of the “conspirators” were brought up by the prosecution, and Szebeny, Rajk’s Secretary of State, made a statement to the effect that the Rajk-Pálffi group sympathised with the so-called conspirators with whom they intended to co-operate “as soon as the Rákosi gang are out of power”. Rózsa, a young man (whom Pálffy had used as a go-between with Szent-Iványi in prison) … then reported this affair to Rákosi and the consequences as we know were very grave for all parties involved.

Right after the arrest of Rajk, Szebeny, Pálffy-Oesterreicher and many of their followers, I was locked up in a single cell in the so-called “Death Section” of Gyüjtő Prison where those prisoners were kept who were to be executed. … an old Communist Party member whispered to me in the silence … that I was there due to the Rajk case. Among the many indictments brought up against Rajk and Pálfi, their contacts with me and “the conspirators” had particular weight.

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Szent-Iványi argued that the reaction to the Rajk trial, among others, demonstrated that the Hungarian people were sharply opposed to any Soviet policy which was carried out by  Rákosi, Gérő and others in the pro-Moscow leadership. Yet, until Rajk’s rehabilitation in 1955 and especially his re-burial on 6th October, which amounted to the first open demonstration against the Rákosi régime, there was little that could effectively be done to bring it down, either from inside prison or on the outside. He later reflected on the reasons for this:

This was a most distressing time, dominated by man at his most vengeful, envious and cruel.

Revenge and hatred was harboured by all kinds, prisoners and guards alike. Ex-soldiers who had endured the cruelties and horrors of battles, hated those who had lived peacefully in their own homes. … Jewish guards and Jewish prisoners hated their Gentile neighbours for their past suffering. Ex-Arrow-Cross members (fascists) were hated by Communists and Jews. It is strange that the common criminals in general hated nobody; they wanted money and ultimately did not hate their victims … but I could believe that they themselves had some kind of sympathy for their victims, like Tyrrell in Richard III.

Hatred was born of emotions and passion, and emotions had too many times intruded into Hungarian political life also, leading the country and its people to tragedy.

During my detention and prison years I had time to think and ponder over the political blunders, emotions and in particular the passions, of bygone years. Szálasi (the ‘Arrow Cross’ Premier in 1944-45) and Rákosi can be considered as typical examples of authors of such blunders. Both men felt that they were not popular in the country and that they had just a small fraction of the population behind them. In consequence they needed support from abroad. Szalási found his support in Hitlerite Germany, and in consequence adopted Nazi political principles and methods. These include Anti-Semitism and a “foreign policy” against the Allied Powers. Rákosi got the necessary support in Stalin-Beria run Soviet Russia and based his interior policy on revenge and jealousy. His vanity could not tolerate differences of opinion, whether outside the Communist Party … or inside the Party … Wherever he found opposition to his policy or to his person he set out to liquidate real or imaginary opponents.

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Above: Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria (1899-1953). When he began to think of himself as Stalin’s successor, the other members of the Politburo were alarmed that he might attempt to seize power following Stalin’s death. He was arrested, tried in his absence, and shot some time before December 1953, when his death was announced.

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The lack of popular support for Rákosi and his dependence on Stalin and Beria was clearly demonstrated by the establishment of the first Imre Nagy government following Stalin’s death in 1953. Although Moscow then replaced the initial Nagy government by one headed by Gérő and Rákosi, the latter was finally ousted by them in July 1956. Although the subsequent Uprising was put down by the invasion of the Soviet Union under Khrushchev, Szent-Iványi was at pains to point out in his memoirs that the Soviet Union finally dropped the Stalinist leadership of Hungary and that the Kádár régime (János Kádár, left) which it installed was one which was able to win the confidence of both the Hungarian people and of the Soviet Union, bringing peace to the country and its inhabitants.

Szent-Iványi reflected on how the life of the prisoners he had witnessed and experienced under the Rákosi régime, including health conditions, food, and fresh air had steadily worsened until it was impacted by these events:

The fact that some of the prisoners were able to survive was down to two causes; firstly, the honest among the jailers, in the majority of Hungarian peasant stock, did their best to alleviate the sufferings of the prisoners as well as to improve upon the harsh and very often cruel conditions imposed by Rákosi’s régime upon political prisoners; secondly, the death of Stalin and the elimination of Beria in 1953 … The most important “innovation” was that after more than a full year or so, the daily walks for prisoners as prescribed by law were resumed. Under the more humane régime of Premier Imre Nagy further improvements took place. And two years later prisoners were released in increasing numbers. By 1956 … many of the political prisoners were already outside the prison walls or were preparing to be released.Without these two factors, few prisoners would have survived the prison system after ten or twelve years of endless suffering.

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Szent-Iványi was himself released in mid-September, five weeks before what he called ‘the October Revolution’. But, contrary to the claims of the pro-Rákosi faction’s claims, neither he nor the ex-political-prisoners played a major role in the events, which I have covered in great detail elsewhere. Even the hated ÁVO, the Secret Police, admitted that none of the “Conspirators” of 1946-48 had actively participated in the Revolution and that…

… the blame has remained firmly on the shoulders of the provocateurs, the Rákosi-Hegedüs-Gerő gang which, of course, greatly contributed to the stability and success of the Kádár regime. … The dictatorship of Rákosi and his gang had no other support than the bayonets of the Red Army or rather the power of the Russian Communist Party and of the Red Army.

With real and imaginary political opponents exterminated, the next phase of Stalinisation in Czechoslovakia was a purge of the Communist Party itself. One out of every four Czechoslovak party members was removed. Stalin wanted to make an example of one highly placed ‘comrade’, Rudolf Slánsky, the general secretary of the Czech Communist Party, who was then leading a security purge within it. Stalin personally ordered Klement Gottwald, who had replaced Eduard Benes as President of the country, to arrest Slánsky. When Gottwald hesitated, Stalin sent General Alexei Beschastnov and two ‘assistants’ to Prague. Gottwald gave in. On 21 November 1951, Slánsky was arrested. In this case, there was a new ingredient in the Moscow mix: Slánsky and ten of the other high-ranking Czechoslovak party members arrested at that time were Jews.

The case against Slánsky was based on Stalin’s fear of an imagined Zionist, pro-Western conspiracy. Stalin appeared to believe that there was a conspiracy led by American Jewish capitalists and the Israeli government to dominate the world and to wage a new war against communism. This represented a complete turnaround by Stalin on Israel. The Soviet Union had supported the struggle of the Zionists against the Palestinian Arabs and had supplied them, through Czechoslovakia, with essential weapons in 1947 and 1948. The Soviet Union was the first state to recognise de jure the state of Israel, within minutes of its birth in May 1948. Two years later, perhaps fearful of Israel’s appeal to the hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews, and suspicious of its close ties to the United States, Stalin became convinced that Israel was in the vanguard of an international Jewish conspiracy against him.

011Slánsky was, in fact, a loyal Stalinist. But he was forced to confess that, due to his bourgeois and Jewish origins, he had never been a true Communist and that he was now an American spy. Slánsky and his co-accused were told that their sacrifice was for the party’s good. Their confessions were written out in detail by Soviet advisers in Prague, and each of the accused was carefully rehearsed for his “performance” at the trial to come. They had time to learn their “confessions” by heart, for preparations took a year. In November 1952, the show trial began. One by one, Slánsky and the others confessed to the most absurd charges made against them by their former associates.

Public prosecutor Josef Urvalek read out the indictment, condemning the gang of traitors and criminals who had infiltrated the Communist Party on behalf of an evil pro-Zionist, Western conspiracy. It was now time, he said, for the people’s vengeance. The accused wondered how Urvalek could fein such conviction. The ‘defence’ lawyers admitted that the evidence against their clients confirmed their guilt. In his last statement, Slánsky said, “I deserve no other end to my criminal life but that proposed by the Public Prosecutor.” Others stated, “I realise that however harsh the penalty – and whatever it is, it will be just – I will never be able to make up for the damage I have caused”; “I beg the state tribunal to appreciate and condemn my treachery with the maximum severity and firmness.” Eleven were condemned to death; three were sentenced to life imprisonment. When the sentences were announced, the court was silent. No one could be proud of what had been done. A week later, Slánsky and the other ten were executed.

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Absolute rule demanded absolute obedience, but it helped if people loved their leader rather than feared him. In the Soviet Union, the cult of Stalin was omnipresent. In the picture on the left above, Stalin appears as the ‘Father of His People’ during the Great Patriotic War, and on the right, world Communist leaders gathered in the Bolshoi Theatre to celebrate Stalin’s seventieth birthday on 21st December 1949. Stalin treated the whole of Central/Eastern Europe as his domain, with the leaders of the Communist parties as his ‘vassals’, obliged to carry out his instructions without question. When he died on March 1953, the new spirit which emerged from the Kremlin caused nervousness among the various ‘mini-Stalins’ who held power, largely due to his support. In the Soviet zone of Germany, control was in the hands of Walter Ulbricht, a hard-line Stalinist of the old school who had spent most of the era of the Third Reich in Moscow. One of Stalin’s most loyal lieutenants, he had begun, in the summer of 1952, the accelerated construction of socialism in East Germany, aimed at building a strict command economy. A huge programme of farm collectivisation was started, along with a rush towards Soviet-style industrialisation, with great emphasis on heavy industry at the expense of consumer goods. Stalin had intended to force the East German economy to complement that of the Soviet Union, to supply the USSR with iron and steel, of which it was in desperate need. Ulbricht allowed no opposition inside East Germany. His secret police, the ‘Stasi’, were everywhere, urging friends to inform on friends, workers on fellow-workers.

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Ulbricht was therefore uneasy with the changes taking place in Moscow. In May 1953, the collective leadership in the Kremlin summoned him to Moscow. For some time, the Kremlin had been considering a review of its German policy, supporting the idea of a re-unified but neutral Germany. The Soviets had no hope of controlling all of Germany, but a neutral Germany would at least prevent the western half, with its huge industrial base, from becoming a permanent part of the Western bloc. The Kremlin encouraged Ulbricht to follow a new course of liberalisation and to ease the pace of enforced industrialisation. But Ulbricht ignored the advice, and in June imposed new work quotas on industrial workers, demanding higher productivity without any increase in pay. Angry at their expectations being dashed, East German workers erupted in protests calling for a lifting of the new quotas. As their employer was the state, industrial protest over work norms soon became a political demand for free elections and a call for a general strike. The American radio station in West Berlin, RIAS, publicised the demands and reported that there would be major demonstrations the following day. On 17 June protests took place in East Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, Magdeburg, and all the major towns of East Germany.

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Over the next four days, more than 400,000 German workers took to the streets. Ulbricht and his unpopular government were terrified by this vast, spontaneous display of worker power. But the demonstrations lacked any central direction or coherent organisation. Beria called on the Soviet tank units stationed all over East Germany to confront the strikers, to prevent the Ulbricht régime from collapsing. He told the Soviet high command “not to spare bullets” in suppressing the rising, and forty workers were killed, more than four hundred wounded. When thousands of strike leaders were arrested, the demonstrations ended as suddenly as they had begun. Ulbricht had learned a lesson and in time acceded to many of the workers’ economic demands. There were also anti-government riots in Czechoslovakia, and strikes in Hungary and Romania. There was even a prisoners’ strike in Siberia.

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The Soviets saw behind these events a well-orchestrated campaign to undermine the Soviet Union and its allies, part of the “rollback” policy of the new Eisenhower administration, which had replaced the Truman Doctrine of 1947. The United States ‘suggested’ openly that it would now take the initiative in ‘rolling back’ communism wherever possible. The architect of this new, more ‘aggressive’ policy in support of ‘freedom’ movements in Eastern Europe was the new Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who proclaimed a new era of liberty, not enslavement. He added that…

… the Eisenhower era begins as the Stalin era ends. … For ten years the world has been dominated by the malignant power of Stalin. Now Stalin is dead. He cannot bequeath to anyone his prestige. 

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The British prime minister, Winston Churchill, had written to Eisenhower suggesting a meeting with Malenkov in case both of us together or separately be called to account if no attempt were made to turn over a new leaf. But for the moment Eisenhower had ruled out any direct meeting with the new Soviet leadership. In reality, it was never clear how this new policy could be put into practice, especially in Europe, without provoking a direct confrontation. On 16 April 1953, Eisenhower had made a speech in which he called on the Kremlin to demonstrate that it had broken with Stalin’s legacy by offering “concrete evidence” of a concern for peace. He had appeared to be holding out an olive branch, hoping the Kremlin would grab it. His ‘Chance for Peace’ speech had been widely reported in the Soviet Union and throughout Central/Eastern Europe, raising hopes of ‘a thaw’ in the Cold War.

Only two days later, however, Dulles spoke in much harsher terms, declaring we are not dancing to any Russian tune. A secret report for the National Security Council had also concluded that the Soviet interest in peace was illusory, but at the same time that any military confrontation would be long drawn out. But Radio Free Europe continued to promise American assistance for resistance to Soviet control in its broadcasts into the satellite countries. In doing so, it was promising more than the West was willing or able to deliver. In Hungary in 1956, these ‘mixed messages’ were to have tragic consequences.

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The power struggle in the Kremlin now reached a new intensity. Molotov continued to see the Cold War as an ideological conflict in which the capitalist system would ultimately destroy itself, and his diplomacy exploited the differences he perceived between the United States and its Western European allies. However, for Malenkov and Beria, the conflict was viewed in strictly practical terms.

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First of all, the Cold War was an arms race. Stalin had quickly realized how important it was to break the US atomic monopoly and in 1945 had put Beria in charge of the Soviet atom bomb project. In the summer of 1949, several years ahead of the West’s predictions, the first Soviet bomb had been successfully tested. After Stalin’s death, Beria took more direct control of the Soviet nuclear project, ordering scientists to race ahead with developing a hydrogen bomb to rival America’s thermonuclear weapons. If Soviet strength rested on ever more powerful nuclear weapons and he was in charge of developing them, Beria calculated, then he would control the mainsprings of Soviet power. But this sort of arrogance was no longer acceptable inside the Kremlin. Within days of the quelling of the rising in East Germany, Khrushchev became convinced that Beria was preparing to make a grab for absolute power. Malenkov denounced Beria at a meeting of the Presidium. Forever tainted from heading Stalin’s terror apparatus, Beria was arrested on trumped-up charges of being a Western agent. In what to many seemed a just reversal of fate, the man who had sent hundreds to their deaths was not even allowed to attend his own trial. He was found guilty and shot. His removal marked a huge shift in the power balance within the Kremlin, but he was the only Soviet leader at this juncture whose fate was settled by a bullet.

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During the next two years, Khrushchev simply out-manoeuvred his remaining rivals to become the new leader. In September 1954 he visited Beijing to repair the damage to Sino-Soviet relations resulting from the Korean War, agreeing to new trade terms that were far more beneficial to the Chinese than they had been under Stalin. In Europe, Khrushchev negotiated a farsighted agreement with Austria. Soviet troops, occupying part of the country since the end of the war, were withdrawn in return for an Austrian commitment to neutrality. In May 1955 a state treaty was signed in Vienna by the four occupying powers, and Austria remained neutral throughout the Cold War. In the same month, he also made a dramatic visit to Yugoslavia to try to “bury the hatchet” with Tito. However, he was not so pleased when, also in May, the Western Allies formally ended their occupation of West Germany, and the Federal Republic was admitted to NATO. The response of Moscow to this setback was the creation of the Warsaw Pact, a formal military alliance of all the ‘satellite’ states with the Soviet Union and each other. The Pact was really no more than a codification of the existing military dominance of the USSR over Central/Eastern Europe, but it did signify the completion of the division of Europe into two rival camps.

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The rejection of Stalinism and the widespread acceptance of the new process of reform culminated in the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow in February 1956. This was not merely a Soviet Russian affair, as delegates from throughout the Communist world, and from non-aligned movements involved in “liberation struggles” with colonial powers were invited to Moscow. In his set-piece speech, Khrushchev challenged the conventional Marxist/Leninist view that war between communism and capitalism was inevitable. Then, on the last day of the Congress, Khrushchev called all the Soviet delegates together in a closed session. For six hours, he denounced Stalin’s ‘reign of terror’ and its crimes, going back to the purges of the 1930s. The speech was never intended to remain secret; copies were immediately made available to party officials and to foreign Communist parties. News of the speech spread by word of mouth to millions of citizens within the Soviet bloc. Washington also acquired a copy of the text through the CIA and Mossad, Israeli intelligence. It was passed on to the press and appeared in Western newspapers in June 1956. The Eisenhower administration was convinced that genuine change was taking place in the Soviet Union; the Chinese, on the other hand, were deeply offended. In Eastern Europe, many Communist party leaders, gravely upset by the impact, were concerned for the continued stability of their authoritarian régimes.

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Two months after the Party Congress, the Kremlin dissolved the Cominform, the organisation that Stalin had created in 1947 to impose his orthodoxy over the satellites. Molotov was dismissed as foreign minister and banished to Mongolia as Soviet ambassador. A loyal supporter of Stalin throughout his career, Molotov had been firmly opposed to any reconciliation with Tito, but now the door was open again. Tito made a state visit to Moscow in June 1956, amidst much pomp. Nothing could have been more symbolic of the new Soviet attitude towards Eastern Europe. But how far would the Soviets be prepared to go in relaxing its influence there?  In both Poland and Hungary, now released from the yoke of Stalinist rule after almost a decade down at heel, people wanted more control than ever over their own individual lives and their national identities and destinies.

 

Sources:

Jeremy Isaacs (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press (Transworld Publishers).

Mark Almond, Jeremy Black, et.al. (2003), The Times History of Europe. London: Times Books (Harper Collins Publishers).

Gyula Kodolányi & Nóra Szekér (eds.) (2013), Domokos Szent-Iványi: The Hungarian Independence Movement, 1939-46. Budapest: Hungarian Review Books.

 

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The Twin Crises of Autumn 1956 – Suez & Hungary – part seven   1 comment

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…)

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The Twin Crises Autumn of 1956: Suez and Hungary (part two).   1 comment

Overlapping Occurrences – Poland & Hungary:

In my first post on this theme, I commented on a new book by Alex von Tunzelmann on the two key global events of 1956, the Suez Crisis and the Soviet Invasion of Hungary to put down its popular Uprising. In this post I will consider the relationships between the events in Poland of June-October 1956, and what happened consequentially in Hungary on 23rd-24th October. In connection with the Uprising in Budapest, I rely on eye-witness evidence from Tamás (Tom Leimdorfer), published here for the first time.

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Above: Black Thursday, 28 June 1956. Polish strikers carried a banner reading “We are Hungry”.
Troops and tanks of the Polish army opened fire on the demonstrators;
dozens were killed and hundreds wounded

When the events of 23rd – 25th October unfolded in Hungary, they were as much a surprise to Washington and the world as were the subsequent events in the Middle East, but perhaps not such a surprise in Moscow, where Khrushchev’s politburo was already very suspicion of US involvement in both regional ‘theatres’. Although there were home-grown causes of Hungarian discontent, the sudden revolutionary ‘milieu’ in the country really grew out of parallel developments in Poland, where it had been clear that the situation was unstable after 28 June that year when workers in Poznan, one of the main industrial centres, had gone on strike against government-imposed wage-cuts and harsh working conditions. These soon snowballed into protests against the Polish government  and, on what became known as Black Thursday, it sent two divisions of its Army, with three hundred tanks, to put down the protests, bloodily. Seventy-four strikers were killed and about three hundred wounded. Order was restored, for the time being at least. However, it was clear to Soviet Premier Bulganin and Marshal Zhukov, both strong supporters of Khrushchev supporters on the Central Committee, that things in Warsaw needed sorting out. When they arrived there, they proclaimed that the strikes had been provoked by ‘imperialist agitators’ from the West.

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The Polish Communist Party reformers wanted to restore its popular former General Secretary, Wladyslaw Gomulka to power. He was one of those East European Communists who, like Imre Nagy in Hungary, sincerely believed that there could and should be different versions of socialism after 1945, and had spoken in favour of Tito’s independent policies in 1948. When Stalin had imposed his hard line on Eastern Europe in 1951, Gomulka had been expelled from the party and imprisoned. He had been released just two months before the strikes erupted in Poznan, and was something of a national hero. At first the Soviets resisted his return to leadership, but slowly a compromise was reached by which Gomulka would be readmitted to power, but orthodox hard-liners would also be left in charge alongside him. The Soviets were torn between taking a hard line themselves, as Stalin would have done, and allowing their satellites some degree of independence, as Khrushchev himself had signalled would be the case following his denunciation of Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress in February. Predictably, the compromise arrangements they worked out in Warsaw soon failed to work, leading to further discontent. Hopes for change had been raised, and now had to be met or directly confronted. The Polish leaders were invited to Moscow but refused to go. Khrushchev flew to Warsaw himself on 19 October, but because no warning had been given of his arrival, his aircraft was ‘bounced’ by Polish war planes as it approached the city. Shaking his fists as he emerged onto the tarmac, he spoke loudly of the ‘treachery’ of the Polish leaders. On the same day, Russian troops across Poland left their garrisons. In Warsaw, Soviet units took up ‘secret’ positions as the party leaders met, demonstrating that the Soviet leaders were prepared for military intervention in Poland and/or elsewhere in Eastern Europe. During the heated exchanges, Gomulka was informed that Soviet tanks were advancing on Warsaw, and immediately demanded that these forces be pulled back. After some hesitation, Khrushchev called a halt to the troop movement.

Khrushchev realised that he had miscalculated badly. Across Poland, people came out onto the streets to demonstrate against the Soviet presence.  He conceded that Gomulka could become first secretary of the Polish Communist Party. For his part, Gomulka agreed to preserve the party organisation, and, crucially, that Poland would remain a loyal member of the newly-formed Warsaw Pact. The Kremlin was willing to allow its satellites a degree of national self-determination, but only if their leaderships showed loyalty to Moscow in matters of collective security. After the showdown in Warsaw, tensions died down, since the Poles now had a more popular leader who was able to make some welcome economic concessions.

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By then, however, the Polish demonstrators had lit a touchpaper in Hungary, where, on 23 October, students in Budapest, following the lead of their colleagues in Szeged, had already begun demonstrations in sympathy with their Polish counterparts. What began as student demonstrations soon developed into the most serious challenge yet to Soviet rule in Eastern Europe. Approximately twenty thousand protesters convened around the statue of József Bem, a national hero of both Hungary and Poland. They issued their ‘Sixteen Points’ which included personal freedom, more food, the removal of the Hungarian secret police and of Russian Army control. After the students read their proclamation, the crowd chanted the ‘National Song’ composed by the national poet Sándor Petöfi, standing at his statue. By this, they ‘swore no longer to be slaves’. Spontaneously, the crowds began cutting out and taking down the symbols of Soviet Communism from their flags and buildings. The crowd quickly grew as the demonstrators marched through the centre of the city to the Parliament House. Tom Leimdorfer, aged fourteen, had just begun attending a grammar school in central Budapest and could see the demonstrators from his apartment’s windows:

On my way home, it was obvious that the city was in turmoil. The student demonstration was far greater than anyone had expected. Their demands for total freedom of speech, free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops had been read out near the symbolic statue of the poet Sándor Petőfi whose rousing poem marked the start of the 1848 revolution against Habsburg rule and the statue of the Polish General Bem, who sided with that revolution. It was a banned demonstration, but the police did not intervene. As the day wore on, office and factory workers joined the crowd, which surged past our house as we were having our meal. Home from work, my mother told me what she heard in her office. To my amazement, she raised no objection to my demands to join the crowd on Parliament Square, which was less than 100 metres from our house. She wanted to stay by the radio to hear what the politicians were saying.

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Some demonstrators decided to carry out one of their demands, the removal of Stalin’s thirty foot high statue, which had been erected in 1951 on the site of the Marianum church, demolished to make room for it. By mid-evening, the statue had been toppled, though its boots were impossible to shift from their concrete plinth. Meanwhile, a student delegation, entering the radio building to try to broadcast their demands, was detained by the ÁVH (secret police). When the delegation’s release was demanded by the demonstrators outside, they were shot at through the windows of the building. One student died and was wrapped in the national flag and born over the heads of the crowd. As an eye-witness in the crowds, Tom recalled these events as follows:

The next few hours were spent with the crowd filling the vast square and demanding the resignation of the government. Twice I ran back home to hear if any of the demands had been met. Far from it, the government statement only angered the crowd. Hungarian flags appeared with the communist emblem cut out. 

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At the same time, as in Poland, the search was now on for a new leader of the Communist Party who could restore confidence in the nation’s leadership. The man who looked most likely to play the part of a Hungarian Gomulka was Imre Nagy, who had been Prime Minister until purged in 1955. He had only been readmitted to the party two weeks beforehand, but soon became the rebels’ chosen figurehead, though, according to a Daily Express writer, the vast majority of the crowds were as anti-Communist as they were anti-Soviet, as Tom Leimdorfer also testifies:

We demanded to hear Imre Nagy, the moderate communist who had been deposed by hardliners. He appeared late in the evening on the balcony of the Parliament and started by addressing the crowd as ‘comrades’, but responded to hostile shouts by calling us ‘citizens’. It was not a rousing speech and few would have guessed the courageous role he was to play in the revolution, which led to his execution two years later. Eventually, as the night drew on, I went home unaware that the first shots of the revolution had already been fired at the Radio building.

On 24 October, just as Gomulka was telling a mass meeting in Warsaw that the Soviet troops were returning to barracks, the ÁVH continued to fire at the demonstrators in Budapest. Tom Leimdorfer recalls how he was prevented from going to school by the all-too-real danger on the streets:

Next day, I was up at the crack of dawn for my 7 am extra Latin lesson. As I rushed down the stairs, Mami yelled to call me back. Jenő bácsi (father of András) phoned to tell us not to go out if we don’t want to be shot. Minutes later the noise of sporadic gunfire was all too clear. For the next few days we were right in the centre of the storm.

Tom describes how that first full day of the revolution was also one of total confusion:

We were constantly on the phone to family and friends, sharing news, reacting to what we were hearing on the radio. Anyone who managed to get news via the BBC World Service or Radio Free Europe (both of which were often jammed and barely audible) would quickly ring round. It was clear that there were Soviet tanks on the streets and some military jets overhead. Occasional sounds of explosions could be heard, but also periods of eerie silence. We just stayed in our flat.

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On the radio, the government announcement came that the Politburo had appointed Imre Nagy to be Prime Minister. However, Gerő stayed as Party First Secretary, the man with the real power. The new Politburo was mixture of old style Stalinists and moderates of the Nagy era. At the same time, martial law was declared and it was stated that the Soviet troops were on the street ‘at the request of the government’. Disorder and violence spread throughout both the capital and the provincial towns throughout the day. Thousands organised themselves into people’s militias, battling both the ÁVH and the Soviet troops. Tom’s family and friends wondered where the revolutionary fighters got their weapons. Later they heard that it was from the units of the Hungarian Army. Already on that first day, some Russian tanks were immobilised using improvised ‘Molotov cocktails’.

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What was especially disturbing for both governments was that some of the Soviet troops, having been stationed in Hungary for more than a decade, were openly fraternising with the workers on the streets. in addition, many Hungarian army units seemed shaky in their support for the régime. Nagy called for an immediate end to the fighting, offering an amnesty for all those participating in the uprising, also promising political and economic reform. Meanwhile, Érnö Gérő called on Yuri Andropov, the Soviet Ambassador to Hungary, to help restore order. Andropov relayed the message to Moscow, and Khrushchev spoke directly to Gérő by phone, agreeing to send in more troops the following day.

(to be continued…)

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