1956: The Hungarian Revolution
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■ ■'<: rcpattjlions sJill d io in Kd-S hicctnisc Ihr.y fenred an uprising
1956: The Hungarian Revolution
The history of the Hungarian workers' revolution against the Communist
dictatorship. A general strike was declared, and workers' councils sprung up
across the country.
In cities the workers armed themselves and fraternised with the troops, but
were eventually crushed by Soviet tanks.
It is not out of love for nostalgia that we are commemorating the 1956
Hungarian uprising: Hungary '56 was a prime example of the working class itself
reaching for power. Doubly significant, it took place in one of the mythical
It showed for many, throughout the world, a new alternative to capitalism and
Soviet communism - read state capitalism - and it galvanised movements
towards genuine revolutionary politics.
When the Soviet Army swept into Eastern Europe towards the end of the Second
World War, they did not in fact liberate workers and peasants. The same system
as before continued to exist, with Stalin giving backing to reactionary
Between 1919 and the end of the Second World War Hungarians suffered the
fascist regime of Admiral Horthy, which murdered thousands and deported over
400,000 Jews to the Nazi concentration camps. In 1944 the country was
'liberated' by the Soviet army and a new Hungarian government installed, headed
by Commander-in-Chief of the Hungarian Army, Bela Miklos - a man decorated
with the Iron Cross by Adolf Hitler. This new government again supported
Horthy as ruler of Hungary.
The Communist Party soon began to infiltrate the government, taking with it the
Ministry of the Interior and control of Hungary's secret police, the AVO. The
AVO was feared and hated by the Hungarian working class because of their
record of torture and murder and because of the privileged position they held in
Hungarian society, receiving between three and twelve times the average
In the meantime the Soviet Army took an immense amount of plunder back with
them from Hungary and requisitioned huge amounts of grain, meat, vegetables
and dairy products. They loaded an immense reparations demand on Hungary
which meant the Hungarian working class had to pay, in food shortages and low
wages. The Kremlin ended up cancelling half of the reparations still due in 1948
because they feared an uprising.
Moscow continued to exploit Hungary in other ways: they sold to Hungary at
above world prices and bought its exports at well below world prices. By 1950,
Hungary was thoroughly integrated into the political and economic system of the
USSR, with the state-decreed collectivisation of agriculture and nationalisation
But ill feeling and unrest was beginning to grow: workers reacted to the newly
introduced system with go-slows, poor quality work and absenteeism.
Disaffection spread rapidly.
Dissent within the Communist Party also grew, and purges began. In Hungary,
483,000 Party members were expelled and hundreds executed.
Joseph Stalin died on March 6, 1953. The hopes of workers rose: they thought
there was a chance of ending the dictatorship over the proletariat. Later that year,
there were risings in Czechoslovakia and East Germany, which were quickly
suppressed. In the USSR a strike movement began on July 20 involving 250,000
slaves in the forced labour camps. The Stalinists responded by executing 120.
This upsurge among the workers of the Iron Curtain countries forced the Party
bosses to take a softer line. At the 20th Congress of the Russian Communist
Party in February 1956, Khruschev began to denounce Stalin. This was followed
almost immediately by the Poznan revolt in Poland. Polish tanks crushed the
Similar events began to unfold in Hungary. The Petofi Circle was formed in
April 1956 by Young Communists: it was named after Sander Petofi, the famous
national poet who had fought for Hungarian freedom in 1848 against the
Austrian Empire, and was backed by the Writers Union. Soon thousands were
attending meetings of the Circle, and the articles that they wrote for their literary
gazette began to circulate among workers. By July, discussions on conditions in
Hungary and in particular the AVO had multiplied. Some speakers at Circle
meetings even demanded the resignation of Imre Nagy, the Party head.
This critical spirit spread to the workers, who began to demand more control
factories. They wanted trade union democracy, workers participation and
consultation of management with the union committee on wages and welfare.
The Petofi Circle supported these demands. They were put to the government in
a request to hand over the factory administration to the workers.
While Gero, First Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party, was meeting
Tito in Belgrade, the Petofi Circle decided to call for a demonstration in
solidarity with Polish workers who were on trial as a result of the Poznan revolt.
The authorities, who wanted to avoid confrontation, allowed the protest. The
Petofi Circle and other discussion groups met, as well as dissident student
organisations including the official Communist Party youth group and decided to
march on October 23 to the statue of Josef Bern in Budapest, a Pole who had
fought with the Hungarians against the Austrian monarchy in the 1848-9
The ruling party panicked. Their Minister of the Interior banned the march, but
because it was already forming in parts of the city, they lifted the ban. The
demonstration was mostly young people, with a small number of workers
downing tools to join in. Outside the Parliament buildings they called for Imre
Nagy, who had been expelled from the party for
'deviationism'. Nagy had faithfully carried out all of Stalin's policies. When,
however, he was replaced by arch-Stalinist Rakosi, he had won much misplaced
sympathy. By now, Gero was broadcasting over the radio and denouncing the
demonstrators as counter-revolutionary.
As the day turned to evening, 100,000 people gathered. The crowd decided to
march on the radio station to request their demands be broadcast, tearing down a
giant statue of Stalin as they went. The radio building was heavily guarded by
AVO, but eventually a delegation was
let into the building. But two hours passed and still no sign of the delegation.
The crowd grew extremely restless and began to demand that the delegation be
released. Suddenly the crowd leapt forward. The AVO men opened fire with
machine-guns on the unarmed mass. Many fell but the crowd continued to
advance and overwhelmed the policemen, taking their weapons to fire at the
News of the events in Sandor Street spread fast. Workers returned to arms
factories where they worked and with the night shift workers loaded lorries with
arms. These were taken to Sandor Street and distributed. In the surrounding
streets workers and students began to set up road blocks.
Various manoeuvres were meanwhile taking place inside the Government and
the Party. Gero arranged that Nagy should replace the colourless Hegedus as
Premier. At 8am Wednesday morning it was announced that the Government had
asked for Russian Army units stationed in Hungary to help 'restore order'.
Workers and Students in Budapest set up a revolutionary council - not seen since
Revolution - early on Wednesday morning. A pitched battle swarmed around the
radio building, while manoeuvring continued inside the Communist Party. Gero
was replaced as First Secretary by Janos Kadar. Kadar came from the working
class. He had been a 'Titoist'
and had been imprisoned and tortured horribly. The bureaucrats thought this a
fine move - a perfect sop to the rising discontent. Nagy broadcast at 9am calling
for the laying down of arms and promising widespread democratisation.
In response the Revolutionary Council of Workers and Students issued leaflets
demanding a general strike. Russian tanks rolled into the city the same day and
fierce fighting broke out.
Barricades were built from barrels. Later these were strengthened with railway
coaches and weapons from a goods yard. The workers and students used
Molotov cocktails, arms they had captured, and even a small field gun with
which they bombarded the tanks.
The strike called by the Revolutionary Council of Workers and Students spread
through the whole of Budapest and out into the main industrial towns - Miskolc,
Gyor, Szolnoc, Pecs, Debrecen. Revolutionary committees and councils were set
up throughout Hungary.
Everywhere workers armed themselves and in some towns, radio stations
broadcast messages against the Stalinists, telling the people not to be fooled by
the Government into surrendering their arms.
Many councils quickly issued programmes calling for political and civil liberty,
the withdrawal of Russian troops, workers management of the workplace and of
industry, the banning of the AVO and freedom for trade unionists and parties.
Some of the programmes wanted the return of 'parliamentary democracy' while
others gave support to Nagy.
Peasants and farm workers organised deliveries of food to the workers in the
cities. They drove out the kolkhoz (State farm) managers. In some areas they
redistributed land, while in others they kept the collectives going under their
The Observer said: 'Although the general strike is in being and there is no
centrally organised industry, the workers are nevertheless taking it upon
themselves to keep essential services going for purposes which they determine
and support. Workers councils in industrial districts have undertaken the
distribution of essential goods and food to the population, in order to keep them
alive... It is self help in a setting of Anarchy. "
Fighting between the insurgents and the Russian Army increased in intensity. On
night, Budapest prison was captured and all the political prisoners were released.
The people soon heard all the stories of terrible conditions, of torture and
beatings that had been inflicted.
Budapest Radio continued to call for a ceasefire, promising immediate wage
increases, negotiations for Russian-Hungarian political and economic equality.
Nagy attempted to calm the situation down. He promised that the AVO would be
disbanded, and that the Government would be re-organised. Though several
groups of insurgents had surrendered due to lack of ammo, the fighting
continued around Szena Square and the Killian Barracks.
A meeting of Council delegates at Gyor reaffirmed their demands to Nagy. On
Tuesday morning, Budapest Radio announced the withdrawal of the Russian
troops. Nagy asked for calm from the people while this withdrawal took place,
and for a return to work. The Red Army began to withdraw from Budapest that
afternoon. The workers in Budapest and in other parts of the country remained
armed and ready.
It was fortunate they maintained their vigilance because the Russians had only
withdrawn to surround the capital with a ring of tanks. From the north east,
Russian reinforcements entered the country. Local councils sent news, and Nagy
was warned that unless Red Army troops withdrew, the Councils would attempt
to stop them. The strike throughout industry would not end until troops were
withdrawn. By November 3rd, the Red Army detachments had occupied most
strategic points in the country, apart from the cities controlled by insurgents.
Members of the Nagy government assured the people that Russia would not
attack again. The working class did not believe their assurances - with good
reason. The Russians opened fire with tanks and artillery on all major cities the
next morning. Russian tanks trundled into Budapest, firing conventional and
Janos Kadar, a member of the Nagy government, now formed a 'Workers and
Peasants Government.' Nagy had already sought refuge in the Yugoslav Embassy
with fifteen other officials and their families. This new government asked the
Russian government to help them in liquidating the ‘counter-revolutionary’
The fighting went on for over a week. Over the radio Moscow had announced
the complete crushing of the 'counter-revolution' by midday of November 4.
Organised resistance of the Hungarian working class nevertheless continued
until November 14th.
As the war ended the AVO came out the holes they had been hiding in. They
began to hang insurgents in groups on the bridges over the Danube and in the
Fighting continued in country areas into 1957, but it was sporadic and isolated.
Although many began to return to work, striking continued in most industries.
Kadar worked to undermine the power of the Worker's Councils. He arrested a
few members of the Council's Action Committees. This failed to intimidate.
Next he promised the abolition of the AVO, the withdrawal of Russian troops,
and a purge of Stalinists from the Party. Some workers believed this and returned
to work. But the strike continued in many areas and in many industries. On
November 16, Kadar was forced to start talks with delegates from the Councils.
They demanded that a National Worker's Council be set up, which Kadar
rejected, saying there was already a "workers government."
However, he was forced to agree to the recognition of individual councils and
the setting up of a factory militia. Kadar said that if work resumed, he would
negotiate for a withdrawal of the Russian Army. The delegates asked that he put
this in writing, which he refused. Kadar tried other methods. He used the Red
Army to stop food deliveries to the towns by peasants.
He started issuing ration cards - but only to workers who reported for work. Still
continued. Kadar and his Russian masters were getting impatient. Already
disaffection was spreading inside the Red Army. A few joined the guerillas,
whilst many more had to be disarmed and sent back home because they refused
to carry out orders. In response, the Hungarian government tried yet another
tactic. Arrests of workers' delegates began.
Many council delegates were rounded up, as well as delegates of student bodies.
Many came forward to take their place. When the State realised this, they began
imprisoning the rank and file as well. Over the next few months, resistance
continued against the onslaught of the
'Workers Government'. Mass demonstrations continued, and workers fought the
AVO and the soldiers when they came to arrest their delegates. Through 1957,
the arrests, imprisonments and executions continued. Those Council members
not arrested began to resign, with the last Council remnants being quashed by
November 17th that year.
There are no official figures for how many people died in Hungary in 56-57.
Between 20 and 50,000 Hungarians and 3 to 7,000 Russians is the estimate. The
number of wounded was much higher, and over 100,000 fled across the border.
Strikes and demonstrations continued into 1959, and the struggle for workers’
power continues to this day.
Adapted from A Special Supplement of Anarchist Worker, November 1976:
Hungary 56 by Nick Heath
Edited by Rob Ray and John S