The 1956 Revolution
by Emily Morry
The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was one of the most shocking jolts to the Soviet system in the post-Stalin era. Although the revolution was spontaneous, the massive discontent that resulted in the uprising had been brewing for some time. Hungarians were stifled under the repressive regime of Matyas Rakosi of 1947-1953 and were disappointed when the more enlightened leadership of his successor Imre Nagy, was brought to a halt in 1955. The events in the Soviet Union of 1956 had an impact on Hungary and served to fuel the intra-party strife, intellectual protest and massive social unrest that set the wheels of revolutionary action in motion. Thus, an understanding of the event is not complete without an analysis of the preconditions and causes of the event. A true understanding of the event is also incomplete if one simply analyzes the chronology of the events themselves without obtaining insight into the psychology of both those who were involved in the events and those whom such events affected. Eyewitness memoirs of both revolutionaries and ordinary Hungarians alike are thus invaluable. This paper seeks to create a balanced description of the causes, events and aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution by utilizing both factual sources and eyewitness accounts. It is hoped that by focussing on the personal experiences of average Hungarians, a fuller understanding of the event is reached.
The first seeds of the revolution were planted the very moment the Communists took over in Hungary in 1947. The rigged election that brought Matyas Rakosi to power represented the beginning of the Soviet domination that was to characterize Hungary until 1956. Because the new government had no national basis and because Rakosi was a devout follower of Stalin, Hungary’s Communist Party was especially dependent on the Soviet Union. This is evidenced by the extent to which Soviet-style institutions and policies infiltrated Hungarian society. The Hungarian secret police, the AVO, was developed under Soviet tutelage and its top leaders were exiles returned from the USSR. Essentially, it was a Soviet institution guided solely by their interests. The army experienced a similar takeover. With the introduction of Soviet advisers in 1948, the Hungarian National Army became a People’s Army. In addition to receiving anti-Titoist indoctrination, Hungarian soldiers were armed with Soviet military supplies and followed Soviet regulations. Most devastating to Hungarians was the fact that the Kossuth Crest, a nationalist symbol dating back to the 1848 revolution, was replaced with the red star on all uniforms. A Soviet special corps force was also installed in Hungary after World War II. These changes served to emphasize the alien nature of the current regime.
Matyas Rakosi’s government not only religiously followed the Soviet model in its institutions, but also in its repressive treatment of the population. After 1948, Hungary, like other bloc countries, established show trials to purge the government of Titoist elements. In Hungary, this had the effect of eliminating ‘home’ communists and consolidating the power of the Muscovites, who were Communists that had been in exile in the Soviet Union. The alien, imposed nature of the regime was again highlighted by these actions. While the Communists’ level of power insulted the Hungarians’ sense of nationalism, the purges the regime instituted had a more devastating, direct impact on the population. After the government was cleansed, ordinary Hungarian citizens became victims of the purges as they were accused of being ‘kulaks’, ‘class enemies’ and ‘Zionist agents’. Between 1948-1956, approximately 350,000 people were involved in the purges. In this period, 200,000 people became political prisoners and 2,000 Hungarians were executed. An additional 100,000 urban, middle-class Hungarians endured compulsory resettlement into the countryside in 1950-51. One tenth of the Hungarian population was somehow affected by police terror. One victim of the Rakosi terror was the father of Katalin Morrison (nee Jozsef). An Auschwitz survivor herself, she recalled:
“My father was put to jail and later we found out that he was accused of a conspiracy to kill Wallenberg. My father did nothing all his life but help poor students… [he was] working in a Jewish institution to help set up nursery schools and sponsor university students who came from concentration camps…he was taken away one night and for six months we knew nothing about where he was. We know he was tortured. He could never walk properly after that and our faith in the world changed and it will never recover. Our life was in terror. We never talked about what happened to our family. We never told our friends because that wasn’t the kind of thing people talked about. We were afraid and we didn’t know who we could trust.”
Andras Jozsef’s sentence when compared to his religious background and occupation demonstrates the absolute irrationality of the purges. The lack of trust Morrison emphasized was perhaps the most pertinent characteristic of the regime. Given the Communists’ extensive recruitment of informers, it became impossible for one to determine who could be trusted with any information that could be deemed remotely incriminating. In its search for informants, the secret police sought out adults and children alike. One of Hubert Rechnitzer’s classmates was picked up by an AVO car one day and the agents inside gave him chocolates in their attempts to recruit him. Children were indoctrinated at an early age that even their parents could not be trusted. It was common practice for school teachers to ask students to spy on their parents. Even those who had no contact with the AVO were indirectly affected by the culture of fear the regime produced. Hubert Rechnitzer recalled, “when a car went by on the street at night, you woke up,” adding, “it was a pressure-cooker at that time.”