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25 January 2017

Voice in the Wilderness: Imre Nagy and the Hungarian Revolution – Excerpt, Part II

The Soviet Union attacked Hungary in the early hours of 4 November. Its leaders probably committed themselves to that attack on the night of 30–31 October. It was carried to a militarily successful conclusion by 11 November. At the time and afterwards, the Soviet leaders had every interest in representing the operation as assistance to the more deserving side in a civil war. Kádár did his best to contribute to the thesis. But there was no fighting in Hungary between 31 October and 2 November. The Soviet invasion which started on 1 November, the armed attack on 4 November, the crushing of opposition between 4 and 11 November, these were military actions by one sovereign state against another. No Hungarian forces supported the Soviet attack. This was the only war between sovereign states in Europe in the last forty-five years.

1956 was a traumatic year for the Soviet leadership. Throughout it Soviet policy was hammered out in bitter argument among the leaders in the Kremlin. Many of them were opposed to Khrushchev’s condemnation of Stalinism in the “secret speech”. There was disagreement over policy towards the West and towards the satellites. Most of the leaders were convinced that a hostile capitalist world was poised to take advantage of Communist weakness. The appearance of monolithic unanimity which the leadership presented was even more skin-deep in 1956 than in easier years.

For most of the year, Soviet policy towards Hungary reflected the views of the reformers in the Kremlin. Their influence can be seen in Soviet contacts with Nagy in the spring and early summer. They triumphed in the decision to remove Rákosi from Hungary once and for all. They held Gerő back from decisive action against the Petőfi Circle in the summer. It was they who encouraged him to rebury László Rajk and readmit Nagy to the Party. As we have seen Mikoyan supported Nagy consistently through the difficult and dangerous last week of October. And in the Moscow Declaration of 30 October the views of the reformers on relationships with the socialist countries seemed to prevail.

At any time things could have turned out otherwise; and finally, with the decision to attack Hungary, they did. We know that when Khrushchev went to Warsaw in October he was determined to force the Poles to submit. It was only the unity of the Polish leadership and their readiness to use the army to resist Moscow if necessary which persuaded him to back down.

But Moscow viewed dissent by Communists anywhere and in Eastern Europe in particular, as a treacherous affront. “The Russians”, Mićunović, the Yugoslav Ambassador, noted shortly after he arrived in Moscow in the spring of 1956, “regard Eastern Europe as their own internal affair and … they will not need anybody’s approval … for any solutions they may decide on.” To a Soviet leadership which thought about Eastern Europe in this way, events in Hungary must have seemed at times a heaven-sent opportunity to reassert Moscow’s authority after the Warsaw rebuff. The fact that when the troops went in on 24 October a whiff of grapeshot was not enough to blow trouble away could only add to the Kremlin’s anger.

 

CHAPTER 10
 

WAR

 

The Soviet Union attacked Hungary in the early hours of 4 November. Its leaders probably committed themselves to that attack on the night of 30–31 October. It was carried to a militarily successful conclusion by 11 November. At the time and afterwards, the Soviet leaders had every interest in representing the operation as assistance to the more deserving side in a civil war. Kádár did his best to contribute to the thesis. But there was no fighting in Hungary between 31 October and 2 November. The Soviet invasion which started on 1 November, the armed attack on 4 November, the crushing of opposition between 4 and 11 November, these were military actions by one sovereign state against another. No Hungarian forces supported the Soviet attack. This was the only war between sovereign states in Europe in the last forty-five years.

1956 was a traumatic year for the Soviet leadership. Throughout it Soviet policy was hammered out in bitter argument among the leaders in the Kremlin. Many of them were opposed to Khrushchev’s condemnation of Stalinism in the “secret speech”. There was disagreement over policy towards the West and towards the satellites. Most of the leaders were convinced that a hostile capitalist world was poised to take advantage of Communist weakness. The appearance of monolithic unanimity which the leadership presented was even more skin-deep in 1956 than in easier years.

For most of the year, Soviet policy towards Hungary reflected the views of the reformers in the Kremlin. Their influence can be seen in Soviet contacts with Nagy in the spring and early summer. They triumphed in the decision to remove Rákosi from Hungary once and for all. They held Gerő back from decisive action against the Petőfi Circle in the summer. It was they who encouraged him to rebury László Rajk and readmit Nagy to the Party. As we have seen Mikoyan supported Nagy consistently through the difficult and dangerous last week of October. And in the Moscow Declaration of 30 October the views of the reformers on relationships with the socialist countries seemed to prevail.

At any time things could have turned out otherwise; and finally, with the decision to attack Hungary, they did. We know that when Khrushchev went to Warsaw in October he was determined to force the Poles to submit. It was only the unity of the Polish leadership and their readiness to use the army to resist Moscow if necessary which persuaded him to back down.

But Moscow viewed dissent by Communists anywhere and in Eastern Europe in particular, as a treacherous affront. “The Russians”, Mićunović, the Yugoslav Ambassador, noted shortly after he arrived in Moscow in the spring of 1956, “regard Eastern Europe as their own internal affair and … they will not need anybody’s approval … for any solutions they may decide on.”1 To a Soviet leadership which thought about Eastern Europe in this way, events in Hungary must have seemed at times a heaven-sent opportunity to reassert Moscow’s authority after the Warsaw rebuff. The fact that when the troops went in on 24 October a whiff of grapeshot was not enough to blow trouble away could only add to the Kremlin’s anger.

But there were arguments for caution too, and Mikoyan’s reports from Budapest recommended accommodation. So for seven days from 23 October, disagreement raged in the Kremlin. The leaders were in constant touch with their Ambassador in Budapest, Yuri Andropov. Mikoyan and Suslov shuttled back and forth. The Chinese and the satellite leaders contributed some reassurance and more alarm. The events on the streets of Budapest were reported, misrepresented, analysed. Still the liberals prevailed in the Kremlin. Finally, Moscow’s position was codified in the 30 October Declaration.

There were those at the time who suggested that the Declaration was mere deception, while Moscow prepared the blow that finally destroyed the Revolution. It is hard to accept this. The Declaration ranged much wider than such a deception would have required, dealing with abstract and general questions of relations with all the satellites, not just with the immediate problem of Hungary. In it Moscow gave hostages to fortune – so much so that when the Reform Communist leadership in Hungary thirty years later started to argue for greater foreign policy independence their spokesman, Mátyás Szűrös, quoted the Declaration tongue- in-cheek as if it had never been superseded by tanks. It gave the West gratuitous propaganda material which it used to the full when Moscow changed course. No, the 30 October Declaration was seriously intended. For a day after its publication the view prevailed in the Kremlin that the right way forward was the creation of a Communist Commonwealth of Nations in Central and Eastern Europe.

On the night of 30–31 October, that view was reversed. It was decided that the Hungarian Revolution must be destroyed by force. It may have been assumed that Nagy could be detached from the revolutionary leaders and perhaps even put in charge of an administration obedient to Soviet orders. If not he would be swept aside. Mikoyan and Suslov were not present. Even if they had been it is unlikely that their expertise would have prevailed. When the weight of opinion on a major issue in any government starts to shift, detailed pros and cons go out of the window. The stampede to join the majority is even greater when the government is an absolute one, facing a crisis and working against the clock.

The Russians changed course essentially for domestic reasons. The army was resentful of the less than effective role it had been required to play in Budapest. According to Khrushchev, it was the main factor in the decision to intervene. Others exploited the situation. The Stalinists were able to point to the situation in Hungary as the latest disaster to flow from Khrushchev’s reforms. Outside pressures were strong also. Moscow needed to reassert itself after yielding to the Poles. Khrushchev records that the Soviet leadership spent a whole night discussing with a Chinese delegation how to deal with what he repeatedly and revealingly calls the Hungarian “mutiny”.2 As the Russians talked, the balance of opinion repeatedly shifted; each time the Chinese consulted Mao by telephone; each time he agreed with Soviet inclinations. But the weight of Chinese influence clearly favoured intervention. So did the satellite leaders: heresy had to be dealt with before it spread and undermined their own positions. Even Tito let Moscow know of his anxiety.

To the Communist leaders it was of course profoundly shocking that a people should rise up against Communist rule. Nothing in their theory or practice provided for such an event. The Hungarian people had been liberated by Communism and the Red Army from their oppressors. They could not in logic rebel against the people’s power. Class enemies, fascist elements and Western agents must be involved, engaged in counter-revolution. Khrushchev’s memoirs graphically illustrate the Soviet leadership’s assumptions. Even though they were written with the benefit of hindsight, there is little attempt at objectivity. The passages on Eastern European dissenters amount to nothing more than bad-tempered, generalised and frequently contradictory assertions. They leave the impression that Khrushchev, and no doubt his colleagues, was angered, baffled and frightened by events.

In these circumstances, the Russians probably looked to events to illustrate the propositions which they wanted to see adopted as policy. The killings in Republic Square on 30 October, for example, could be represented as evidence that White Terror was taking charge and that “honest Communists” were at risk throughout the country. The failure to get relief to Budapest Party headquarters before that massacre took place has been interpreted since, and may have been interpreted at the time, as proof that Nagy was aligning himself with reaction. The Franco- British Suez ultimatum in fact gave Moscow valuable distraction from events in Hungary, but it may have been represented in the Kremlin as evidence of capitalism’s aggressive intentions. The argument from contagion had force: if events in Poland could so quickly infect Hungary, how quickly could unchecked violence in Hungary affect the rest of the satellites? The Red Army could not be seen to be defeated by a fascist rabble.

How did the Kremlin protagonists see the role of Imre Nagy in the events of the last seven days of the Revolution? His long-term reputation in Moscow must have been that of a reliable, somewhat unimaginative functionary, with a troublesome streak of stubbornness when it came to questions of agricultural theory and national standing. For twenty months he had done what Moscow needed during the New Course, deftly reconciling Moscow’s requirements with Hungarian hopes. He had shown himself dangerously headstrong at the last meeting in the Kremlin in January 1955; but out of office, he had opposed Rákosi in a disciplined way, without taking the issue to the people. His essays, for those in Moscow who saw them, must have been evidence of doggedness and a certain impracticality. From first to last Rákosi certainly did his best to traduce him in the eyes of the Kremlin. But to the Russians Nagy had still seemed able and reliable enough to justify Mikoyan’s decision to advance and back him during the first week of the Revolution.

During the week 23–30 October, he kept moving his ground as he tried to come to terms with the insurgents. He did his best to carry the Russians with him at every stage, but even as Mikoyan and Suslov approved of what he did, suspicions in the Kremlin were increasing. The admission of other parties to his government looked dangerous. So did talk of eventual elections. It was improvident but perhaps unavoidable to call for Soviet withdrawal from Budapest and to disband the security police. Talk of Soviet withdrawal from Hungary as a whole was even more alarming; but the Soviet Declaration, just as much as Imre Nagy, envisaged such a withdrawal. Nothing Imre Nagy did between 23 and 30 October provides a reason for Moscow to abandon him. His argument that every step he took had been agreed by Moscow or its representatives is well founded. And as we shall see, the assertion that he sealed his fate by withdrawing Hungary from the Warsaw Pact reverses cause and effect.

Yet events in Hungary could not fail to strengthen the hand of the hard men in the Kremlin. And when Mikoyan and Suslov got back to Moscow, they found that the balance of opinion among the Soviet leadership had shifted. Policy on Eastern Europe must be reversed and the 30 October Declaration abandoned. They accepted the decision. Preparations for the attack on Hungary were beginning. They were both political and military.

It was necessary to tell the allies in general terms what had been decided. According to Khrushchev, the Chinese delegation had got as far as Moscow airport on their way back to Peking when the Russians told them that they had after all decided to strike Hungary down. They acquiesced. On 1 November, Khrushchev, Malenkov and Molotov flew to Brest-Litovsk to brief Gomulka; the Poles, fresh from their own successful showdown with the Russians, did not press their objections to the point of rupture. Khrushchev and Malenkov flew on to Bucharest to meet the Rumanians and Czechs, then to Sofia to talk to the Bulgarians. All three accepted the decision to attack. Khrushchev and Malenkov set off for the most sensitive meeting of all, that with Tito.

Tito was at his retreat on the island of Brioni. Exhausted, frightened by a nightmare flight and an appalling sea crossing to Brioni, the Soviet emissaries spent ten hours with him through the night of 2–3 November. Khrushchev said they wanted to “consult or rather inform” the Yugoslavs about events in Hungary. He stressed the urgency and secrecy of the visit. No notes were taken. “It was as though”, wrote Mićunović in his diary, “we were all trying to make sure that no trace should remain of the summit meeting between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.” He was clearly haunted by the cynicism of the occasion. “It is all very strange”, he noted, “… there is in fact a war going on … and it is being waged by the armed forces of the ‘first and biggest country of socialism’ against the people of a ‘fraternal socialist country’ and a member of the ‘socialist camp’.”3

Khrushchev told the Yugoslavs of the Soviet contacts with the other East Europeans. They, like the Chinese, had agreed that counter-revolution stalked in Budapest. Nagy might or might not be an imperialist agent, but the restoration of capitalism was the likely outcome of his actions. “If we let things take their course the West would say we are either stupid or weak, and that’s one and the same thing”, Khrushchev said. “We cannot possibly permit it, either as Communists and internationalists or as the Soviet state. We would have capitalists on the frontiers of the Soviet Union.”4

Soviet troops, Khrushchev said, would take a further day or two to get into position. He also told the Yugoslavs that Kádár and Münnich had defected to the Russians. There was no question but that Hungary was doomed. The Yugoslavs raised no effective objections. The talk turned to who should take Nagy’s place and, warily and vaguely, to what Yugoslavia could do to smooth the coming transition of power in Budapest. Weary but successful, Khrushchev and Malenkov flew back to Moscow.

*

Meanwhile, the military preparations were going ahead. The first intervention in Budapest had been carried out by units stationed in Hungary, reinforced from southern Russia and Rumania. Most of these troops were being withdrawn from Hungary. New troops were moving in, mostly across the Soviet–Hungarian border at Záhony. The aim was to replace mauled and tainted units with fresh ones and assemble overwhelming force in Hungary. Completion of the preparations took four days.

These preparatory moves could not be concealed from the Hungarians. Our focus switches back to Moscow’s political preparation for the onslaught, this time in Budapest. The Russians needed as far as they could to lull the Hungarian government and the insurgents into a false sense of security. They needed also to use the days before the army struck to make contact with Hungarian Communists loyal to Moscow and ready when the time came to take the legitimate government’s place.

By the morning of 1 November, Nagy and the government were convinced that the Soviet Union was preparing an attack on Hungary. The physical evidence for this was already overwhelming. But until late on 3 November they went on hoping that the worst could be averted. Andropov played effectively on these last hopes with hollow repetition of Soviet good intentions. The interaction between hopes and fears, between private negotiation and public statement, between argument with Andropov and reassurance to the insurgents, give an impression of confusion and ineffectuality, even duplicity. Eyewitnesses talk of Nagy’s irritability under pressure at times, but the general sense is that he remained a commanding figure until the end. He was attempting the impossible; though some stayed loyal, others betrayed him; staff-work was poor; but Nagy was an effective prime minister in those three days.

Nagy spent 1 November locked in argument with Yuri Andropov. He summoned him first at 9 a.m., to protest that Soviet troop movements breached both the Warsaw Pact and the agreement that Soviet troops should start to withdraw from Hungary. Two hours later, Andropov came back, to assure the Hungarians that the troops entering Hungary were merely reliefs and would be withdrawn in due course. At noon he telephoned to report that Moscow still stood by the 30 October Declaration.

But telephone reports from all over Hungary reported the Soviet advance. Tanks and troops were pouring across the frontier at Záhony. In western Hungary the Russians were screening off the Austrian border. They were seizing Hungarian air bases. Already, individual officers were begging for orders to fire. At 2 p.m. Nagy telephoned Andropov. He threatened that if the Soviet advance was not stopped he would announce Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. At 4 the Cabinet endorsed this threat. At 5 Andropov appeared, and was confronted by the entire cabinet. Nagy told him that Hungary was no longer bound by the Warsaw Pact. He proposed to protest to the United Nations. Others, notably Kádár with his threat to fight Soviet tanks with his bare hands, supported him. Andropov could only repeat his promise that Soviet troops would be withdrawn and beg the Hungarians not to take the matter to the United Nations.

Just before 8 p.m., Nagy broadcast to the nation. He announced that Hungary was withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact. Even now he did not tell the public why. Communications to the United Nations and to embassies in Budapest were more explicit. But Nagy still seems to have been looking for a way to induce the Russians to draw back. To arouse the country against them, to authorise the army to resist, would be to abandon hope.

Andropov played on this hope. Late on 1 November, he came yet again to parliament, urging Nagy to cancel his appeal to the United Nations. He still promised a Soviet withdrawal. The appeal was not cancelled, though it initially went almost unnoticed in a United Nations preoccupied with Suez. In a last effort to appease the Russians, however, the government issued a specific order to Hungarian troops not to engage the invaders.

It has been argued that it was denouncing the Warsaw Pact which sealed Hungary’s fate, that Andropov was telling the truth when he repeatedly asserted that the Soviet troop movements were part of the withdrawal process, and that the Kremlin decided to attack only when Nagy refused to rescind his appeal to the United Nations. It is a hollow argument that stands chronology on its head and challenges all the evidence to the contrary. But as it lays the blame for the disaster that befell his country directly at Nagy’s door it deserves analysis here.

Khrushchev himself makes it clear that the Soviet decision to attack Hungary was taken before the Chinese had left Moscow and that Marshal Konev then said that he would need three days to get his forces into position.5 By 1 November Khrushchev and Malenkov were in Brest-Litovsk telling the Poles what Moscow had in mind. Yet Nagy only announced withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact on the afternoon of 1 November, by which time the Russian delegation was on the way to its next rendezvous in Bucharest. Of course Moscow very likely had earlier warning of Hungarian intentions from human or technical sources in the government offices in parliament. But the balance of diplomatic evidence suggests that the Soviet decision to attack was taken well before Nagy’s decision to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact.

The military evidence is equally suggestive. By 3 November the Soviet Union had 2,500 tanks in Hungary. By dawn on 4 November it had deployed decisive force in the capital. The introduction of such massive forces took several days. It cannot be convincingly portrayed as having originally been intended merely to cover a peaceful withdrawal, which was abandoned only after Nagy’s announcement. The worst that can be said about Nagy’s denunciation of the Warsaw Pact is that it made Soviet attack even more certain; that it was ineffectual; and that it did nothing to save Hungary.

After his broadcast on 1 November, Nagy went on doing what he could to avert the inevitable. He was to spend two more days locked in negotiation with Andropov, in discussion with his colleagues, and in efforts to ensure that nothing was done that could add to Moscow’s determination to go through with the attack.

Kádár drew different conclusions. He had supported withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. He had threatened to fight Soviet tanks with his bare hands. On the morning of 1 November he recorded a radio broadcast describing his new Communist Party. It was transmitted that evening. Kádár accepted manfully that the Party would be one among many, with past faults to live down and no assurance of power. His audience assumed that he remained committed to the Nagy government. But on the evening of 1 November Kádár disappeared. Like Nagy, he knew that a Soviet attack was inevitable. He may even have concluded that it was to be welcomed: without Soviet tanks there was no future for his Party or his ideas. Russian friends almost certainly established contact with him. With Münnich he left Parliament. Münnich seems to have persuaded him to go to the Soviet Embassy.6 From the Soviet Embassy they were flown together to Uzhgorod in the Ukraine. They had split an already beleaguered Communist Party.

Nagy and his colleagues struggled on. Andropov came to Parliament again on the morning of 2 November. He reported that the Soviet government took note of Hungary’s abrogation of the Warsaw Pact. The implication was that they accepted Hungary’s decision, for they proposed political and military talks. It was clear that these might be no more than distractions. But for the Hungarians in their desperation the proposal represented hope regained, however tenuous. They responded in three diplomatic notes. They agreed to the proposal for political talks on the assumption that the Soviet Union would recognise the principles of equality, sovereignty and non-interference. They named Maléter to represent them in the military talks. And they protested yet again at Soviet troop movements into Hungary.

Still the Soviet advance continued. The discovery that Kádár and his allies had disappeared gradually added to the certainty that the trap was closing. Yet on 3 November, the last day of freedom, Andropov visited Nagy again. He said once again that the Soviet Union was willing to discuss the withdrawal of Soviet forces and proposed military talks. At noon General Malinin, the Soviet Army commander, arrived in Parliament. He and Maléter started the discussions. At three it was announced that they were going well. Malinin had promised that no new forces would move into Hungary.

Nagy announced his last government, with balanced representation from Communists, Smallholders, Social Democrats and National Peasants. Kádár had been gone for thirty-six hours but his name was included in the list. Maléter was promoted to Minister of Defence. The Social Democrats took the seats reserved for them at the last reshuffle. It was as much a game of shadows as Nagy’s political activities in the twenties, but there was little else to do while the soldiers negotiated and the tanks advanced. At some point during the day Nagy dashed off a note to the Rumanian leader, Gheorghiu-Dej, a move which Khrushchev later described to Mićunović as “proof of the isolation and despair of a man whom events had brought to the top and then overtaken, and who now didn’t know what to do and was begging Dej for help, almost for salvation”.7

Kádár and Münnich had by now returned to Hungary. They based themselves under Soviet protection in a barracks in Szolnok, sixty miles from Budapest. Others, most of them old Rákosists, joined them. In the evening they went out to talk to Communist activists in the local Party secretariat. Like Nagy, they were waiting on events.

*

In New York, the attention of the United Nations was focused on the Suez crisis. The Israeli attack on Egypt had started on 29 October, at the time that Nagy had first begun to get abreast of events in Hungary. The Anglo-French ultimatum had been issued on 30 October, as order started to return to the streets of Budapest. The Allies started to bomb Egypt on 31 October, in preparation for the first landings, planned for 4 November. Preoccupied with their need to destroy Nasser, the British and French were set on providing a distraction, what some would see as a justification, for Soviet action in Hungary.

The Third World cared about Egypt as it did not about Hungary. Eisenhower, on the eve of the presidential election, preferred to confront allies whom he could confound rather than enemies he could not. The Security Council record shows how little attention the United Nations gave to Hungary. At 4 p.m. On 30 October it convened to discuss the Middle East situation. The United States tabled a resolution. Britain and France vetoed it. On 1 November Nagy made his first appeal to the United Nations. But the next Security Council meeting, on 2 November, was again exclusively concerned with the Suez crisis. An American resolution was carried in the General Assembly by sixty-four votes to five (Britain, France, Israel, Australia and New Zealand), with six abstentions.

Only on 4 November did the Security Council turn its attention to Hungary, with nine votes in favour of a resolution condemning the Soviet attack, with the Soviet Union alone voting against and Yugoslavia abstaining. By that time Soviet tanks were prowling the streets of Budapest and the remains of the legitimate government of Hungary had taken refuge in the Yugoslav Embassy. So Nagy miscalculated if he believed on 1 November that the United Nations could do anything to save Hungary.

At home there was a glimmer of hope almost to the end. Maléter’s talks with Malinin in Parliament on 3 November about a Soviet withdrawal from Hungary seemed to go well. The Russians suggested that they should be resumed at ten in the evening, this time at Soviet headquarters at Tököl, on Csepel Island in the Danube ten miles south of Budapest. Suspicious, but determined to the end not to provoke the Russians, the Hungarians agreed.

The talks at Tököl started well enough. Two hours were spent discussing things like protection for Soviet war memorials after Soviet troops had left. For three days Maléter had been receiving reports of a Soviet advance; at best he can have hoped for a miraculous change of heart. Like Maléter, Malinin played out his role in the farce until the end. At midnight Serov, the Soviet security chief, burst into the conference room and announced that he had orders to arrest the Hungarian delegation. Malinin reacted with perhaps feigned surprise and indignation; but he took his own delegation from the room and left Maléter in Serov’s hands.

So by midnight on 3 November, Hungary had no Minister of Defence. Nagy had been anxious from the start about Maléter’s safety. When his telephoned reports from Tököl ceased the Hungarians sent out patrols. They also failed to report back. Reports of the Soviet advance continued to come in. Individual commanders asked for permission to engage the invaders. Nagy forbade them to do so. According to witnesses to the United Nations committee, he received with “astonishment and even disbelief a report that Kádár had established a renegade government at Szolnok”.8 It was manifest that the Soviet attack on Hungary, which for three days Nagy had continually tried to avert, was beginning.

Nagy called a meeting of those few members of his cabinet who were immediately available in the Parliament. At this eleventh hour they authorised the army to resist the invaders and decided to tell the nation and the world what was happening.

At 5.20 a.m. on 4 November Nagy made a five-sentence broadcast on Radio Free Kossuth: “This is Imre Nagy speaking, the President of the Council of Ministers of the Hungarian People’s Republic. Today at daybreak Soviet troops attacked our capital with the obvious intention of overthrowing the legal Hungarian democratic government. Our troops are in combat. The government is at its post. I notify the people of our country and the entire world of this fact.”9

Half an hour later, Nagy broadcast again, calling on Maléter and his delegation to return. It was a pointless gesture; the delegation had been out of contact with the government for six hours, and Nagy must have assumed that they were prisoners; and if, as he may have feared, they had gone over to the Russians as Kádár had done, no appeal would have wooed them back to the national cause as it went down into defeat. So the five-sentence broadcast stands as Nagy’s last statement to the nation and the world as a free man.

At the time, and on many anniversaries afterwards, the statement had a chilling political and psychological effect. In phrasing it, Nagy rejected the national taste for drama and hyperbole. He made it crystal clear that this was an attack by a foreign power on a sovereign state and its legal government. He omitted all reference to politics, ideology and Communism. There was nothing in the statement on which the Russians or Kádár could hang the propositions with which they later made so much play: that reaction stalked the streets of Budapest, that honest Hungarians had sought Soviet intervention. But like so much of what Nagy said and did in his stormy lifetime, the statement is inadequate and incomplete. People who were with Nagy stress how quickly he formulated what he wanted to say, as if to excuse its inadequacy to the occasion.

Besides one great truth, the five sentences contain two damagingly misleading statements. Nagy recorded that the Hungarian army was in action; but the army had no chance to fight except in small units isolated from one another. He said that the government was at its post; but within hours he and his Communist colleagues had accepted an invitation to take sanctuary in the Yugoslav Embassy. He knew that Kádár claimed to have founded a rival government; he may even have heard Kádár’s open letter to the nation, which had been broadcast fifteen minutes before he spoke; but he made no attempt to denounce or discredit this treachery. He must have known that the world was listening, but he had no message for it beyond the bleak notification of a foreign attack on the legal government of a sovereign state.

The United Nations report carries the text of a further statement which a witness alleged that Nagy dictated immediately after his broadcast. It is an angry, incoherent condemnation of the Russian attack. It talks of the Russians “kidnapping the prime minister of a country which is a member of the United Nations”. It ends histrionically with a warning that “today it is Hungary and tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, it will be the turn of other countries because the imperialism of Moscow does not know borders …”10

This text has all the marks of a fabrication. An angry émigré giving evidence to the committee may have put some of his own emotion into Nagy’s mouth. Or he may have felt that Nagy’s reputation required something stronger than his last broadcast. The statement’s call for a memorandum has a touch of Nagy. But in all his adult lifetime, Nagy never called his Soviet comrades Russians. It would have taken second sight to talk of kidnapping on 4 November. And the angry hopelessness of the last sentence is completely at odds with Nagy’s style. The United Nations committee could not omit what would, if genuine, be a key document of the Hungarian Revolution, but there is no need for us, with hindsight, to take it seriously.

Every account suggests that circumstances in Parliament in the early hours of 4 November were chaotic. Members of the government, political and literary figures, Cardinal Mindszenty, individual officers seeking instructions or bringing information, drifted in and out. Firing could be heard from the suburbs. The Cardinal wandered off with a secretary to the United States legation. The government organised the broadcasting of an appeal to the advancing Soviet troops. At 8 a.m. Gyula Háy broadcast an appeal to the world from the Hungarian Writers’ Union. In English, German and Russian it begged for help for Hungary. Then, at seven minutes past eight in the morning, Radio Free Kossuth went off the air.

*

By this time, Nagy and most of his Communist colleagues had left Parliament. Several of them, with their families, responded to an invitation to take refuge in the Yugoslav Embassy. Tildy, Szabó and Bibó, representatives of the other parties in Nagy’s last government, remained in Parliament. Soviet tanks arrived and ringed the building, Soviet officers moved through the corridors. What little centralised authority had been exercised from government headquarters ceased. Bibó, an unsung hero of the Revolution, sat undisturbed in his office composing a memorandum on the political future of Hungary.

Elsewhere in the city, freedom fighters and army units engaged the Russians. This time there were no military hesitations while Soviet delegates wrestled with the intricacies of Hungarian politics. Soviet tanks ranged the boulevards, destroying any building from which a shot was fired. The old units which, in the complications of the first intervention, had found themselves talking with insurgents, half-persuaded by them, were gone. The new ones had come to make war, some of them allegedly believing that the Danube was the Suez Canal and the men who fought them imperialists. The Russians posted artillery on the Gellért Hill in Buda to dominate the centre of the city. Later they used aircraft against the industrial suburbs. The war that came to Budapest in November 1956 was as real as the one that laid the city waste in the winter of 1944–45.

Behind the Russians came Hungarian Stalinists and political policemen. But on 4 November Hungary was essentially united against the invaders. No Hungarian units fought in support of the Russians. And in the early days of the invasion it was Russians who made the arrests as well as doing the fighting. Here too restraint was cast aside. Prisoners were shot out of hand. Deportations to the Soviet Union started. Kádár himself did not return to Budapest until 7 November, three full days after the onslaught began. Even then he came in a Soviet armoured car, to take control of a nation united in continuing resistance to the Russians.

It was an uneven battle. On the one hand the Russians deployed tanks, aircraft, artillery and armoured troop carriers. They used them without inhibition. On the other, small groups of Hungarian troops and freedom fighters fought tenaciously where they stood. The outcome was certain. Some groups were quickly overwhelmed or dispersed. Others held on for days. The Russians claimed that they were fighting capitalists and fascists, but it was the old Communist strongholds of Csepel and Sztálinváros that fought the longest. “Iron worker, do not give in”, had rallied strikers against the employers in the old days. Now it rallied freedom fighters against the Russians. But by 11 November resistance had been overcome. The Soviet–Hungarian war of 1956 was over.

 

(Peter Unwin, Voice in the Wilderness. Imre Nagy and the Hungarian Revolution. Macdonald & Co Ltd., London & Sidney, 1991, pp. 153-170.)

 

 

NOTES

1 Veljko Mićunović: Moscow Diary, New York, 1986, p. 32.

2 N. S. Khrushchev: Khrushchev Remembers, Boston, 1970, p. 418.

3 Mićunović, op. cit., p. 132.

4 Ibid., p. 133.

5 Khrushchev, op. cit., p. 418.

6 William Shawcross: Crime and Compromise, London, 1974, p. 85.

7 Mićunović, op. cit., p. 152.

8Report of the Special Committee on the Problem of Hungary”, New York, 1957, para. 287.

9 Ibid., para. 291.

10 Ibid., para. 291.




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