Analysis of the 1956 Soviet Intervention in Hungary

In the 1950’s, the Soviet Union and her leader Nikita Khrushchev faced upheaval in the European states of Poland, Germany and Hungary. For example, the workers took to the streets to protest the Communist government in Poznan, Berlin, and Budapest. The Soviet Union decided to stamp out these protests by using their swift military force. While this was successful in Poznan and Berlin, the Soviets decided not to immediately stamp out the political unrest in Budapest, Hungary. At first, the Soviets waited to see the impact and scale of the uprising using only existing Soviet forces. Even when a new political party took charge they evaded taking full engaged military action. On November 4, 1956 the Soviet Union finally announced their intent to forcefully intervene in Hungary by launching a dual attack on Budapest from the North and South and splitting the city in two. The reasons the Soviet Union acted in this way are due to Hungary’s attempt to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact agreement. This would affect the Soviet Union and their political power versus the NATO Agreement. The Soviets also had a fear of losing the buffer zone between themselves and the west. The Soviets still felt the western world was planning to launch a full attack to end Communism. The Soviet Union also feared that a successful Hungarian revolution would show a weakness in the Soviet Union that the west could exploit.

On October 23, 1956 thousands of students marched on the parliament building in Budapest to protest the Communist regime and their soviet-imposed policies. The policies, many of which were created during the time Matyas Rakosi, the authoritarian leader of Hungary, left Hungary in a crippled economic status. The Hungarians were especially angered by the huge war reparations paid to the Soviet Union, the large number of Soviet forces based in Hungary and the repressive controls that charged thousands of people as western agents. These included independent educational leaders and church leaders. The protests turned violent when students were detained trying to break into the Radio Budapest building to broadcast their demands for change. The State Security Police, Allamvedelmi Hatosag (AVH) began to fire on the protestors in an effort to break it up. The opposite occurred as news and rumors spread that students in the Radio Budapest building had been executed. This led to violence and disorder breaking out across the city. Communist symbols were vandalized or torn down throughout Budapest. The statue of ex-Communist leader, Josef Stalin was dismantled and in a show of nationalism Hungarian flags were hung from his boots. The violence soon escalated across Hungary as thousands of Hungarians joined or formed militia groups. The Communist government was ousted from power and many of the high profile leaders were executed by hanging. This drastic action made the lack of early Soviet action more surprising.

The new government formed in Hungary was under the leadership of Imre Nagy. Nagy had been Prime Minister previously but his new course on socialism was unfavorable to the Soviet Politburo and he was stripped of the position. He was selected by public opinion to run the new Hungarian government. By the end of October the fighting had mostly stopped as Soviet forces had been instructed to pull back rather than launch a full offensive into Budapest. The Soviets thought that they could negotiate an agreement with Imre Nagy that would keep Hungary in the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR). This agreement focused mainly on the removal of Soviet troops and would be satisfactory to the Hungarians while still beneficial to Moscow. Nagy possessed limited political skills and the new government was generally disorganized. They took the steps to disband the AVH and abolish the one-party system as they saw their future as a neutral, multiparty social democracy.

During the first ten days of his leadership, Imre Nagy made a fatal mistake that would guarantee military action from the Soviet Union. Nagy announced his intention to formally remove Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. The Warsaw Pact established in 1955, was an alliance between Central and Eastern European Communist states that would balance against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) developed by the west. The Soviets believed there was a high risk that the NATO states would launch a full scale attack or a devastating first strike on the Soviets in an attempt to end Communism and the Cold War. By turning their back on the Warsaw Pact Alliance Hungary would be in essence enabling the west to take an advantage over the Soviets. Once the Politburo and Nikita Khrushchev were made aware of Nagy’s plan they decided to use military force to crush the Hungarians and their new government based on social democracy. Khrushchev announced that the neutrality of Hungary would be beneficial to the imperialists in the same Egypt had.

On November 1, 1956 Soviet tanks began to make a move towards Budapest. Imre Nagy was fearful of a full Soviet invasion but received assurances from Soviet ambassador Yuri Andropov that they would not attack. It is believed that Andropov knew all along that the withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact would force the USSR to take military action. Nagy declared Hungary a neutral nation and in a move distasteful to Moscow requested peacekeeping assistance from the UN Secretary General. Nagy’s plan of become a neutral nation was based on the same action Austria had taken in 1955 . This plan involved evoking national neutrality by an act of parliament and constitutional change. Yuri Andropov was not the only Soviet diplomat to deceive the Hungarians. General Ivan Serov, Chief of the Soviet Security Police (NKVD) assembled a delegation to discuss the removal of Soviet forces from Hungary. This move was seen as a positive by the Hungarians and Nagy’s plan of neutrality seemed to be working. This would prove to be false however, as Serov used this private meeting to arrest the delegation party.

At 3am on November 4, 1956 seventeen Soviet tank divisions, many based in central Asia to avoid any European sympathizers launched “Operation Whirlwind” on Budapest. The divisions penetrated the city from north and south and before a shot was fired had split the city in two. This gave the Soviets a great position to start a successful ground campaign. The resistance from the Hungarians was sporadic and uncoordinated. The civilians of the city were left to do the majority of the fighting. Imre Nagy attempted to gain support and intervention from other nations via a radio broadcast. He felt he could do this as he had already stated Hungary’s neutral status, and hoped that the threat of an American led counter invasion would slow the Soviet forces. This failed. The Soviet tank divisions rolled through Budapest and took over the parliament building. Hungarian groups in Budapest, especially in the industrial area put up decent resistance but were ultimately defeated by the more strategic and powerful Soviets. Janos Kadar of the Hungarian Revolutionary Worker-Peasant Government attempted to regroup many of the deserting troops and fleeing civilians with a cry of Hungarian nationalism and democracy but this also was to no avail. By November 10th the main resistance had ended, over 2,500 Hungarians were killed and 200,000 had fled the country to avoid the subsequent fallout. Imre Nagy fled to the Yugoslav embassy as the Soviets entered Budapest.

The decision by Imre Nagy’s Hungary to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact would also decrease the buffer zone the Soviet Union had created after World War Two. Several European nations were kept under the influence of the Soviet Union to create a barrier of nations between Russia and the western capitalist world. The buffer zone was to prevent a likely American led attack from surprising the Soviets. They would instead be bogged down in fighting Soviet led Eastern European forces long before they ever reached Russian soil. This prevented a sneak attack and would also severely weaken any invading force. If Nagy, as he threatened ended this alliance it would place a hole in the buffer zone. Western forces would have a route to attack Russian via the Ukraine area. The buffer zone was known in the west as the “Iron Curtain”, a phrase made famous by Winston Churchill during a visit to the United States to see Harry Truman. The Iron Curtain stretched from Poland in the north to Albania in the south. The Soviets saw any breach of that barrier as a threat to the Communist system.

Nikita Khrushchev’s initial decision to work to find middle ground in Hungary was seen as a positive step to a less authoritarian rule in the Eastern Bloc nations. Any middle ground however, would require loyalty to Soviet Communist party. Once Hungary had announced their desire to split from the Soviet Union, action had to be taken to avoid looking weak to the international world. The Soviet Union and especially the Russians considered themselves a powerful nation due to their World War Two victories over the seemingly unbeatable Nazis. This is increasingly true regarding the battle of Stalingrad. Had Khrushchev taken no action against a considerably weaker nation world opinion would have swung against the Soviets. The communist peoples of the Soviet Union would also question why no military action was taken. This could have led the international world to believe the Soviets were in a weakened state and a well timed military campaign would have ended the Cold War with a decisive United States victory. The Soviet Union would also be under pressure from within. Anti-Communists could claim this weakness was proof that the Communist regime was unstable, unwilling to take action and ready for change. Khrushchev could also have faced competition inside the Communist party for failure to act. He had heavily criticized Stalin and his period of Soviet rule in a secret address. This would have angered Stalin supporters. Non-action in Hungary could have given the Stalinists a platform to replace Khrushchev as head of the Communist party and a possible return to Stalin-like “Red Terror”. Given these possible outcomes it has been argued that the Soviet Union planned to retake Hungary by force regardless of Imre Nagy’s decision to leave the Warsaw Pact .

Taking Hungary back by force was not straightforward. By declaring themselves a neutral nation the Soviet Union forces may face more opposition than just the Hungarians. The United Nations could put diplomatic pressure on the Soviets to assist Hungary. On November 5th, one day after Operation Whirlwind the United Nations met to discuss the events in Hungary. The Soviet delegation claimed that the Hungarian workers had reached out to Moscow to have Imre Nagy and the illegitimate government. This explanation was rejected by United Nations who with a vote of fifty to eight voted for Hungarian rights to form their own democratic elections and against the action the Soviet Union was taking . However, the United Nations has no offense military force. The UN Peacekeeping forces were not able to enter Hungary and drive out the Soviet tank divisions. There was also a chance that the United States of America would send forces to prevent the Soviet Union from retaking Hungary. This would lead to the first “hot” conflict between the world’s two superpowers. This was the course of action the Hungarian citizens were hoping for. Due to broadcasts from the Radio Free Europe station the Hungarians believed that this was going to happen. Broadcasters urged the Hungarian freedom fighters to hold out just a few more days as the Americans were on the way. The Soviet Union had many reasons to launch military action in Hungary. At the same time the United States had many reasons not to. The United States did not want a conflict with the Soviet Union that could have likely turned into a full scale nuclear war. The United States had also recently ended a three year conflict in Korea. This had been a costly war in terms of economic and manpower measures. As such the Hungarians fought the 150,000 Soviet troops and 6000 tanks by themselves.

Once the resistance had been wiped out the Soviet Union successfully returned Hungary to a socialist nation under communist rule. Janos Kadar was made head of the Hungarian Communist party in an effort to calm the passions of the Hungarian people. This was moderately successful, although membership in his Revolutionary Worker-People Government party fell dramatically after 1956. Kadar was heavily monitored and controlled by the Soviets. The Hungarian military forces were purged and a strong Soviet presence remained. Kadar’s government further endeared themselves to the Soviet central government by executing or imprisoning many of the political activists involved in the uprising. This included Imre Nagy who was promised safe passage out of Hungary, but was arrested leaving the Yugoslav embassy. He was secretly charged and executed. There were still small pockets of resistance around Hungary. In May 1957 the Soviets further increased their military forces in Hungary. They also made Hungary sign a treaty to accept the Soviet forces presence on a permanent basis.

By 1956 the people of Hungary had endured economic hardships due to war reparations and lived under the strictest authoritarian regime in Europe. Once students of the university had taken to the streets in protest and defiance, Hungary was swept into a revolution against the Soviet Communist control. The Communist government was overthrown in a wave of nationalism. Imre Nagy was voted into power for his second try at Prime Minister. This was all done without the Soviet Union taking any major action in response. The Soviet troops involved in the first round of fighting in Hungary were the troops already stationed there, not reinforcements. The Soviets decided to deal directly with Nagy and the new social democracy in a manner similar to how they had dealt with political uprisings in Poland. Imre Nagy wanted to lead Hungary to a neutral role recognized by the United Nations, domestic and international law. This would mean Hungary would officially leave the Warsaw Pact alliance and weaken the Soviet Union’s position in the Cold War. This announcement by Nagy caused Nikita Khrushchev to re-evaluate his decision to attempt a peaceful solution to the Hungarian uprising. The Politburo agreed that a resolution to retake Hungary and return it to USSR rule would be the best course of action. By returning Hungary to Communist rule the Soviet Union would avoid looking weak in the eyes of the world. Khrushchev would also avoid looking weak to the Soviet peoples and his domestic opponents. Most importantly in the Soviet perspective was the possible change of Hungary from a Warsaw Pact ally to a neutral nation that would put a large hole in the buffer zone created by the allies after World War Two. The buffer zone separated the Communists from the imperial capitalists; its design would repel an attack by the United States of America and its western NATO allies on Moscow. The “Iron Curtain” stretching across Europe was a vital part of Soviet security that Imre Nagy was threatening to negatively affect. Should Hungary become an available route for a western attack, the forces could penetrate the highly industrial Soviet south before the major Soviet forces could mobilize against them. Although it has been claimed that Khrushchev had already decided to reclaim Hungary by force it could be argued that the relative success in Poland would have tempted him to at least try a peaceful, diplomatic avenue first. Imre Nagy’s decision to announce his political intentions of neutrality to the United Nations directly led to Soviet military intervention that took over Budapest in one morning. This swift military operation split Budapest in two and overcame the unorganized Hungarian resistance. Khrushchev’s decision to reinvade Hungary was a successful one. He was able to re-establish the Communist regime in Hungary and stamp out this armed uprising and prevent any further anti-communist uprisings.

Primary sources for research:

Lomax, Bill. Hungary 1956. Allison and Busby Limited. 1976. 65

Bekes, Csaba. 1956 Hungarian Revolution. A History in Documents. Central European University Press. 2003.

Gyorkei, Jeno & Horvath, Miklos. Soviet Military Intervention in Hungary, 1956. Central European University Press. 1996 (1999 in English). 162

CNN Broadcast. Cold War 1953-1956. 1998