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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.

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