The Road to Revolution
How did Hungary reach that point, October 23, 1956, the day people took to the streets in protest, a popular manifestation that resulted in one less Stalin statue in the Eastern Bloc, bullet holes in the Hungarian Radio building, unarmed protesters dead and an armed uprising underway? To understand this, we first have to go back to the end of World War II.
As the Eastern Front swept westward through Central Europe, the Red Army pushed the last units of the Wehrmacht out of Hungary on April 4th, 1945 and with that they liberated Hungary from the Nazis. Unfortunately for Hungary, however, these liberators were not in any hurry to leave and would end up staying in the country for another 46 years.
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had yet to decide by the end of the war what he was going to do with Hungary, so for the time being the new government was to be democratically elected, if for no other reason than to keep up appearances with the Allied Powers. Free elections were held in the fall of 1945, with the center-right Independent Smallholders Party winning 57 percent. The Communists, who had high hopes, came in third with 16.9 percent of the vote. Despite this, the presence of the Red Army meant that the communists were included in the new coalition government. Hungarian Communist Party chief Mátyás Rákosi then began his “salami tactics” to remove his enemies one by one. The lucky went into exile abroad, the less fortunate found themselves in shackles or worse.
In 1947, after the Smallholders’ Party had been broken up into smaller parties, a new election was held. Communist activists with blue ballots were allowed to vote in any jurisdiction, therefore understandably they voted early and often. Nonetheless, the Communists only managed to win 22.2 percent of the vote, with the democratic parties together still winning a majority. Consequently, another coalition government was formed, with Rákosi left to continue liquidating his enemies.
In the summer of 1948, the Hungarian Workers’ Party was formed when the Communist Party merged with the Social Democratic Party, afterwhich everyone in the Social Democratic Party opposed to this union was either kicked out of the party or arrested. This new Workers’ Party then led the Hungarian Independence Popular Front in a new election in May 1949, where there was only a single list. Official figures reported a 96 percent turnout, and with no opposition on the ballot, Rákosi finally won an election with 96 percent of the vote. There is plenty of reason, however, to question the accuracy of these figures. A few months later in August, the Republic of Hungary became the People’s Republic of Hungary with a new constitution based on the Soviet Constitution of 1936, and with that Rákosi’s takeover was complete. The darkest period of communism was now set to commence.
But what does that mean? Rákosi styled himself as Stalin’s best student, and consequently made life in Hungary miserable for most. Rákosi’s approach to things was “he who is not with us is against us.” Informants would keep tabs on members of society and report them to the secret police, who might pay someone a visit in the middle of the night, asking them to come in for some questioning. This person could be back by the morning or it could be days, weeks or in some cases even years before they would be heard from or seen again. People with the wrong backgrounds were exiled internally to the countryside, or having been somewhat better off financially prior to the war now made them class enemies. Rákosi wanted to make Hungary a country of iron and steel, despite Hungary being traditionally an agricultural country without much heavy industry. Farmers in turn had their lands taken away as agriculture was collectivized. Consumer goods were also not as readily available as before, since the command economy prioritized this industrialization over everything else. The system was totalitarian in every respect as terror became institutionalized.
Stalin’s death in 1953 brought about a thaw as Nikita Khrushchev and Georgy Malenkov vied for power in Moscow. Following the East German Uprising, Moscow realized that some changes were necessary, and Rákosi was forced to resign as prime minister (although remaining party chief), with Imre Nagy, an agrarian specialist taking over.
Although both Rákosi and Nagy had spent much of the interwar period in Moscow, the two were quite different. Rákosi with his bald head and demeanor appeared the part of the school bully, while Nagy came across like an uncle or grandfather type. It was also said that of the communists returning from Moscow after the war that Nagy was the most Hungarian. As the new prime minister, Nagy brought in reforms such as slowing down industrialization as well as farm collectivization (even allowing for its disbanding in some cases), all the while placing greater emphasis on consumer goods. The secret police were also reined in. While it would be absurd to say that Hungary became overnight a better place to live, comparatively it was a vast improvement. This did not last for long, however, for in 1955 with Malenkov’s downfall in Moscow, Rákosi managed to oust Nagy and had him replaced with the pliant András Hegedüs, meaning that Rákosi was back in power, and ready to resume things his way. But that would in fact be one of the things that would directly lead to the revolution.
While Rákosi had the support of many communist intellectuals during his reign of terror from 1949-1953, having witnessed the changes under Nagy and realizing that they were a great improvement and that alternative roads to socialism existed, the communist intellectual elite no longer supported Rákosi and became increasingly critical (as was possible at the time). Additionally, the people had also seen how Nagy’s brand of communism was different, so that even those who perhaps supported communism could no longer support Rákosi. Rákosi nonetheless tried to continue as if things were 1953 again, refocusing the economy on industrialization as well as taking the reins off the secret police.
In February 1956, Khrushchev delivered his “secret speech” (which was anything but secret) at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in which he denounced Stalin and the excesses of Stalin’s cult of personality. The speech quickly made news around the world and people in Hungary also wondered, if Stalin’s policies were now to be condemned, why did Rákosi insist on continuing them? The Petőfi Circle, consisting of Rákosi-critical intellectuals held meetings that drew increasingly larger crowds in early 1956 until the authorities put a stop to them.
In June 1956, workers in Poznań, Poland began to demonstrate against their rising production quotas and low wages. The protests soon spread around the city before being violently put down. The Soviet leadership recognized that Hungary could be next, and consequently Rákosi was dismissed again, this time being replaced as party chief by his equally hated deputy Ernő Gerő. It was said at the time that the only difference between the two men was that Gerő was less feared.
The rehabilitation and reburial of László Rajk, a communist executed in a 1949 show trial October 6 also showed that reformist winds were blowing. Rajk, a committed communist and former Minister of the Interior, had been a victim of one of Rákosi’s purges.
Events in Poland would offer the final nudge in Hungary. Władysław Gomułka, a Polish communist who had been imprisoned for a time was readmitted into the Polish communist party in August 1956. Gomułka was a reformer who advocated a Polish road to socialism that did not go through Moscow. His rise to power in Poland October 21 (despite Moscow’s wishes) raised hopes elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc for change.
One of the responses to the changes in Poland was that the students of the Budapest University of Technology and Economics (Budapesti Műszaki és Gazdaságtudományi Egyetem – BME) held a meeting on October 22nd. At this meeting they voted to join The Association of Hungarian University and College Unions (Magyar Egyetemisták és Főiskolai Egyesületek Szövetsége – MEFESZ), which had been formed a week earlier in Szeged and was an alternative to the government-run student association. The BME students also drafted a list of 16 Points demanding change in Hungary. As the meeting carried on into the late hours, they agreed to regroup the following day, October 23, 1956, to march in protest.