A Protest that Spawned a National Revolution

The protests of October 23, 1956 that grew into the revolution were launched by the university and college students. When the students had finalized their 16 points demanding democratic changes the previous evening, they decided that they would hold a protest in solidarity with the reforms occurring in Poland. The Ministry of the Interior at first banned the march, but after some hesitation let it go ahead, by which time a massive crowd had already gathered on the streets anyway. Most of the students on the Pest side came from Eötvos Loránd University’s (ELTE) Faculty of the Arts and Humanities, while in Buda the students who gathered along the embankment were from the Budapest University of Technology and Economics (BME).

Two marches took place at first. On the Pest side the students marched to the statue of Sándor Pétőfi, the poet and revolutionary from 1848, where one of the country’s most popular actors Imre Sinkovits recited Petőfi’s call-to-action poem Nemzeti Dal (National Song). The 16 Points were also read, while the Writer’s Union also made their standpoint known, which was for all intents and purposes identical to the students’.

Meanwhile the students from BME, together with the junior officers from the army, marched together to the statue of Józef Bem, a Polish general who had fought alongside and led Hungarian troops during the 1848-1849 Revolution and Failed War of Independence. At Bem Square another famous actor by the name of Ferenc Bessenyei recited the poem Szózat, which is like an alternative national anthem in Hungary. By this time people on their way home from work had joined the crowd, which had swollen into the tens of thousands, who all sang the national anthem and other revolutionary songs from 1848, as well as the musical version of the Szózat. Some consider this the starting point of the revolution, for the national flag appeared not only on the streets, but in windows throughout the city, and it was at Bem Square that the communist coat of arms was first cut from the middle of the flag. The flag with a hole in the middle would go on to become the revolution’s symbol.

The crowd, however, did not remain at Bem Square for long, but marched across the river to the square in front of Parliament, demanding that the recently politically rehabilitated Imre Nagy address them. By this time increasingly radical slogans could be heard demanding the resignation of the party leadership and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. It was precisely for this reason that the crowd was disappointed when the reform communist Imre Nagy addressed the crowd as “comrades”, before correcting himself following the whistling and starting again with “dear friends”. Nonetheless, Nagy’s speech about reforms was not what the crowd wanted to hear. The crowd, which by this time numbered 200 thousand, left the square peacefully but disappointed, with some leaving for the Stalin Statue and others for the Radio Building, where they wished to read the 16 Points over the air. The authorities would not allow this, and after the crowd refused to disperse, the first shots were fired in Budapest, and with those shots, the first victim also lost his life. Thus, the protest had turned into a revolution, and it would soon spread across the entire country.

Bence Csatári