19 July 2017

Revising Recent History and Constructing Counter-Revolution

The new Kádár-led regime beginning with earl-mid November 1956 was faced with a pre-eminent political task connected with a defining historiographical one. The need for the new government to establish its legitimacy and authority was intricately tied to the interpretation of what they had replaced. Both tasks began as soon as the second and decisive Soviet intervention did.

The Soviets, having since 1 November maintained the charade of negotiating withdrawal while their forces accumulated in the country from the Soviet Union and Romania, launched their assault in the early hours of Sunday the 4th. As Nagy and his government found refuge at the Yugoslav Embassy by Heroes Square, János Kádár was flown into the central Hungarian town of Szolnok, which the Soviets had made their command centre. Kádár’s pre-recorded declaration was broadcast to the people of Hungary. In it, Kádár, along with Ferenc Münnich, implausibly presented himself as the initiator of a new government even as nineteen Red Army divisions fought against lingering resistance.1  Nevertheless, the nuances of his Soviet-approved words at this dawn were significant. In keeping with his arguments to the Politburo the day before, Kádár blamed the Nagy government only for inaction and inability – “impotent under the pressure of the reaction”. Despite Khrushchev’s statement to Kádár that counter-revolution had begun in Hungary, Kádár still spoke less distinctly of “counter-revolutionary danger” and “the excesses of the counter-revolutionary elements”.2 In a fascinating twist, he also made a brief addition to the approved text, condemning “the clique of Rákosi and Gerő” (much to Molotov’s chagrin).3 Already and once again, Kádár was positioning himself as a practical alternative to both Stalinism and Nagy, laying the first stone in what he hoped would be his political authority. But credibly and legitimately defining the uprising, sharply alive in everyone’s minds and memories, would prove troublesome and complex.

In the construction of a new official narrative of the Hungarian uprising, there were three main stages of development. The first stage of only a few weeks – coinciding with the initial quelling of resistance – was characterised by both confusion and a gradual hardening. Then between early 1957 and the execution of Imre Nagy in June 1958, blame and responsibility increasingly shifted to Nagy, alongside an attempt to establish counter-revolutionary continuity and Communist martyrdom. Thirdly, after 1958, and particularly after 1962, the idea of 1956 as a counter-revolution was increasingly shrouded in vague references alongside official and unofficial reticence. In all cases, the task was the same. If the Soviets had intervened because of counter-revolution, then: when had it emerged, how had that happened, and who had been complicit and responsible for it?

As the Soviet military laid the foundation of a return to one-party rule in the weeks after 4 November, both authority and policy were unclear. The power of the central government and the MSZMP4 (Kádár retained the new Party identity formed during the uprising) was, to begin with, nominal only. While revolutionary committees were quickly disbanded, the workers’ councils that had seized control of factories during the uprising retained and even briefly expanded their power. As these influential bodies continued to negotiate for reform – and the possibility of coming to some accommodation with Nagy (still holed up in the Yugoslav Embassy) remained – Kádár was more worried about his left flank. Therefore, “in the first half of November”, István Rév indicates, “the leadership was still dissociating itself more strongly from the Rákosi group than from Imre Nagy and his followers”.5

In this political context, emphasising a limited scope to actual counter-revolutionary activity in the uprising was advantageous to Kádár. He continued to talk of the “justified grievances” that had inspired demonstrators and determined that although “from the outset the counter-revolution was there”, it was only “after the ceasefire on 30 October6 [that] it was open counter-revolution”. As his biographer concludes, “a harsher interpretation would also narrow his base and vindicate those who hankered after a Rákosi-ite restoration”.7 It was unsurprising, therefore, that “the new party leadership was characterised by uncertainty concerning the actual interpretation of the ‘counterrevolution’”.8 Julia Sonneveld – who has investigated how the Party’s official daily, Népszabadság, described the so-called counter-revolution – found that even “until February 1957 the coverage was inchoate”.9 Kádár even made a point of stressing to the Provisional MSZMP Central Committee on 11 November that he was “personally convinced” that Imre Nagy “had no intention whatsoever to support the counter-revolution”. At the same meeting, György Aczél declared that it was “essential” that the new leaders enter into discussions with Imre Nagy and his allies. “I am convinced that at the core these are honest people”, Aczél summarised, “and we must negotiate with them.”10

But at the end of November and beginning of December, the official interpretation noticeably hardened along with a general tightening of repression against the opponents of the Soviet intervention and the new regime. Any hope that the most popular elements of the uprising could be co-opted by the Kádár regime, and thereby excluded from any of the blame for “counter-revolutionary” activity in the uprising, dissipated. The power of the workers’ councils was an ongoing threat to Kádár, with general strikes effectively shutting down the country once more. A campaign of repression against the new regime’s opponents now seemed unavoidable to its leaders.11 Nagy refused to resign, which was especially awkward for Kádár; how could he be the Prime Minister if Nagy had not vacated the position? Therefore, when Nagy left the Yugoslav Embassy on 22 November, he was detained by Soviet agents and taken to “house” arrest in Romania. Moreover, the Soviets put pressure on Kádár to more clearly condemn the uprising. In this way, as a broader official definition of the “counter-revolution” emerged, so too did arbitrary arrests and executions. The lingering power of the uprising was extinguished along with a limited interpretation of “counter-revolution”.12

The new interpretation, still complex and nuanced but more sweeping, was formed at the next meeting of the provisional MSZMP Central Committee13 on 2 and 3 December. Four causes of the counter-revolution were identified. First, still, was the mistakes of the Rákosi clique, which had exposed the Party to such a groundswell of frustration. Secondly, came Nagy and his group; but their faults still lay mostly in tactics and inaction. The reforming group “took its criticism outside the party and into the streets, where reactionary elements were able to join in”, further weakening the Party. It “failed to provide a positive programme for correcting the mistakes, one-sidedly attacked only the party, and did not distance itself from reactionary forces”. The last cause was a familiar one: the nefarious plotting of foreign imperialists. But the third cause the Party leaders advanced was the “Horthy fascist and Hungarian capitalist landowner counter- revolution”. It is important to note here the beginning of a narrative in which the events of 1956 were a literal continuation of pre-1945 struggles. The usefulness of such a picture to Kádár was clear. While the Party’s critics might point to both Stalinism and the Soviet intervention to discredit Communist Party rule, the regime reached further back in history to discredit its opponents throughout the post-war era as persistently reactionary conservatives.14

This covered who and how, but what about the when and what? At first glance, one might think that the official idea of when the counter-revolution began had not changed. Kádár had already in November stressed 30 October as the key date when a situation in which “counter-revolutionary forces” were already present turned into actual counter-revolution. On this day a crowd had attempted to seize the headquarters of the Budapest branch of the MDP15 in Köztársaság Square (now called II. János Pál pápa Square). Both defenders and attackers died in the fighting, but when Hungarian tanks sent to the scene sided with the latter, those inside gave up. Then, as they came out, a number of ÁVH (State Security Authority) and Party officials were killed in cold blood (pictures of the incident were captured by a LIFE photographer and seen around the world).16

But now this incident, in particular, became more than merely the point at which

a transition allegedly occurred and a force supposedly emerged. “The counter- revolution that had masked itself before 30 October had openly organised the massacre at the party building”, concludes Péter Apor in summarising the new position. “Thereby the attack lost its unintended character and became the malicious act of well-prepared counter-revolutionary troops”.17 Counter- revolutionary forces, in this narrative, had been planning counter-revolution not only throughout the uprising but ever since they had lost power in 1945, culminating in this assault. The first volume of the White Books that the regime would publish over the next two years to publically make its case was released on 5 December, prominently featuring gory pictures of 30 October. And, in this context, “the fundamental character of the whole thing”, according to the regime’s interpretation, became “counter-revolution”.18

There were, naturally, a number of weaknesses in this construction. Firstly, it did not help resolve the ongoing problem of distinguishing between people in the uprising who were consciously participating in, and plotting, the “counter- revolution” and those who were merely (in this schema) pawns in their game. There were millions of Hungarians who had just weeks earlier actively participated in or passively supported the uprising – reinterpreting this event touched almost everyone. The Party daily, Népszabadság, tried to address the problem with a 18 January editorial: Who is a counter-revolutionary? “We regard as counter- revolutionary those who consciously fought for the restoration of the capitalist system and participated in the fights for this purpose”, the MSZMP organ stated. “But we do not regard as counter-revolutionary those who participated in the events not with the intent to restore the capitalist system, but to fight against the mistakes of the past and for the independent socialist Hungary.”19 But intentionality would be a more reassuring and stable criterion if people could have confidence that they would be the ones to define their own intentions; a luxury that would not of course be afforded them.

Secondly and critically, as confusingly compromised as anyone in the new construction was the new leader, Kádár himself. If 30 October at Köztársaság Square was the moment in which counter-revolutionary reactionaries had slipped out from behind the curtain and manifested the plan they had been developing all along, then it was also surely the point at which any true Communist revolutionary should have taken up arms against them. Yet in the forty-eight hours or so after this supposedly seminal incident, Kádár had (as both the Party General Secretary and cabinet-member) voted in favour of Hungarian neutrality and withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, dissolved the Communist Party,20 and publically lionised the events of the previous days as “our people’s glorious uprising”.21 This entanglement constrained and guided the developments in the ongoing revision of history. Kádár would always need the foil of the Rákosi era, but the spectre of the danger averted on the right was necessary as well.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that in the second stage of development of the so-called counter-revolution’s official narrative, Nagy went from being a compromised failure to a villain. Again, this also coincided with a further intensification of reprisals against those publically opposing the regime. The first summary execution had taken place in Miskolc on 15 December and, in early January, the death penalty was extended to a number of new forms of resistance, including striking. As this summary “justice” caused “open defiance of the regime to come to an end”,22 the new regime also made the decision to put the leaders they held accountable for the “counter-revolution” on trial. And as the rhetoric of Kádár and others made clear, this would include Nagy. A 6 January government statement declared that “the treason of the Imre Nagy government opened the way for the counter-revolution”.23 Kádár told party workers in Salgótarján on 2 February that Nagy was a traitor who had incited a “counter-revolutionary uprising”.24 At the (still provisional) Central Committee meeting of 26 February, Nagy was accused “of organising an independent faction and of consciously preparing the counter- revolution”.25

In Romania, Nagy understood full well what was going on and appreciated the importance, as he had during it, of defining the uprising. “They have created a new conception [of counter-revolution] regarding the October/November events”, Nagy wrote, “… that means they have to create facts as opposed to the truth.”26

He vigorously disputed the new regime’s emerging interpretation, insisting that “the story of the Hungarian ‘counter-revolution’ was concocted to serve as an excuse for the Soviet invasion of Hungary. There was no counter-revolution in Hungary.” He maintained the view he had advocated in the last days of the uprising. “The struggle of a people to build the main conditions of their national existence, to protect their national ideals, to fight under the flag of independence, freedom and equality … can never be a counter-revolution. This fight is a national revolutionary uprising.”27 These two views of Hungary’s 1956 could not coexist.

For Kádár, Nagy’s trial and execution was about condemning and discrediting the concept of the uprising that Nagy represented as much as it was about removing the man. After discussing Nagy with the Soviets, Kádár told at a 2 April gathering of the Central Committee that “we must say to the Hungarian people’s enemies and to the world that it is not possible to organise counter-revolution in a socialist system with impunity”.28 A fortnight later, Nagy and his associates were brought back to Budapest and preparations for a trial commenced. The MSZMP Politburo had prepared an indictment by August – accusing Nagy of “initiating and leading” a subversive campaign – but it was not until June 1958 that Nagy was convicted in camera and hanged (along with Pál Maléter and Miklós Gimes).29

Despite the widespread assumption at the time that the decision to execute Nagy was forced on Kádár from Moscow, it was in fact Kádár’s preference. “Kádár was convinced that if Nagy remained alive, not only would it threaten him personally,” Rainer explains, “but it would also endanger the ‘system’. If the prime minister of the revolution were treated with leniency, that would be the living evidence of Kádár’s lack of legitimacy.”30 But Nagy’s execution was not a message that stood alone; it was part of an intricate web of historical revisionism.

A few weeks after Nagy’s death, the Hungarian regime released the final volume of the White Books, entitled The Counter-revolutionary Conspiracy of Imre Nagy and His Accomplices.31 In its pages an extraordinary official conception of the uprising was elucidated. Instead of attempting a tortuous justification of Communist continuity from Rákosi through the uprising and Kádár, the regime emphasised “the alleged continuity, throughout the 20th century, of the counter-revolutionary forces, against which the Communists had to wage relentless war”.32 As Péter Apor has demonstrated in his study, Fabricating Authenticity in Soviet Hungary, the new Hungarian regime justified its interpretation of 1956 by closely associating it with the demise of the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, as well as with the entire subsequent Horthy era (1920–1944).33 In this way, the previously ignored events of the Soviet Republic, which briefly ruled shrunken Hungary in 1919, became the bookend that both paralleled the events of 1956 and authenticated them as counter-revolutionary through contrived analogies. In the same way that the “white terror” and Horthy’s regime had suppressed the forces of “revolutionary liberty” in 1919 and after, went the argument, the counter-revolutionaries had once more attempted to extinguish Communists in 1956. As the White Books claimed: “Hungary experienced a bloody counter-revolution for the second time in 1956.”34

Again and still, it was the events of 30 October in Köztársaság Square that comprised almost all the concrete evidence for this case. The White Books featured pictures from that incident alongside images of executions during the “white terror” reprisals against Communists and suspected fellow-travellers in 1919. “The continuity and likeness of action was explained through a representation of the actors as agents of the constantly identical historical force of fascism.”35

Likewise, Népszabadság constructed Köztársaság Square as “the iconic place of the counter-revolution”, while “the bodies of the martyrs were presented as powerful iconic objects”.36 Nagy, therefore, was assigned meaning by the Kádár regime as a typological villain in an ongoing and cyclical story of revolution and counter-revolutionary reaction in which fascists, reactionaries, and their knowing revisionist collaborators inevitably unleashed brutal violence against the forces of revolution. In intricately revising the official view of the last forty years of Hungarian history into an unbroken continuum, while assigning post-war Hungarian Communism’s most popular leader the role of traitor and deceiver, the Party had once again grounded its rule on a risky historiographical gamble. In fact, “the history of the Kádár era”, Apor judges, “is the history of a constant historiographical project, focused on the documentation of the counter-revolution and its transformation into an intelligible narrative”.37

But it is a general feature of Communist regimes’ historiography that, once a revision and new interpretation has been articulated and imposed, it is then mainly stated and rarely explained further. It becomes just another projection of power – not open to discussion. This was especially the case with this conception of a violent counter-revolution, aided and abetted by a “treacherous” Imre Nagy. As many historians have noted, “the evaluation of 1956 and the attitude to the legitimacy of the Kádár regime became inseparable”.38 To challenge one was to challenge the other. To acquiesce in the former was to acquiesce in the latter. Acquiescence based on an exchange of outward political conformity for economic reform and a state security apparatus that was relatively reticent to intervene; this became the hallmark of the Kádár regime from the early sixties until its eventual demise a quarter-century later. This new atmosphere, which marked the transition from an era of reprisals and executions of people associated with the “counter-revolution”, was heralded by Kádár’s embrace in late 1961 of a phrase that became his political epitaph: “those who are not against us are with us”.39 In relation to the events of 1956, not being publicly against the regime – despite the dangerous opinions and memories people retained in private – meant not bringing it up. It illustrates the incongruities, inconsistencies and vulnerability of the regime’s conceptions of the recent past that, despite their central importance, they could only survive in an absence of scrutiny. As Rév summarises, “the silence that surrounded certain events shows that the so-called post-1956 compromise, between the regime and Hungarian society, rested on complicit nontalk”.40

Nothing illustrates the psychological and epistemological fragility of this situation more than the fact that Kádár would not even use Imre Nagy’s name after 1958. When his former comrade came up, Kádár referred to Nagy simply as the dead man.41 In the words of Kádár’s biographer, “the history of 1956 was rewritten, not only by his official historians, but also in his own mind”.42 Meanwhile, in the pages of Népszabadság, coverage of the “counter-revolution” became limited to perfunctory references to the “martyrs” of Köztársaság Square.43 As with the portrayal of the allegedly villainous Nagy, it was also necessary for these heroes of the story to play two-dimensional roles in the official narrative. The chief Communist killed that day had been the head of the Budapest branch of the MDP, Imre Mező – a supporter of Nagy.

The reticence that the regime preferred, from the sixties, to maintain on the topic of the uprising was also aided by those who disagreed with the regime’s portrayal. For example, even though secondary school textbooks from 1961 included coverage of the uprising – labelling it as “the counter-revolutionary riot” – many history teachers avoided any dissonance between their own memories and the textbook by simply ending their courses at the conclusion of the Second World War.44 This was in some ways the classic Hungarian compromise of the Kádár era. Recent history, alive in the living memory of the people, had been revised and re-constructed. But the popular legitimacy of the official conception of 1956 was only robust enough to survive when it was not discussed.




History, therefore, seemed enduringly pivotal to the Hungarian Communist regime’s authority and vulnerability. Just as the gradual revision of the history of the recent Communist past had undermined the party-state’s authority to the point where it teetered on the edge of collapse, that authority was violently restored through Soviet intervention in parallel with another historiographical re-conceptualisation. The consequences of this were profound for the Hungarian body politic not only until 1989, but to this day. However, the consequences were also not limited to Hungary. The post-war history of Central Europe not only demonstrates the intended consequences of the Soviet stranglehold on its “sphere”, but the unintended ones too.

For his Soviet successors as much as for Stalin, political conditions in Central and Eastern Europe were manipulated in order to buttress and maintain Soviet power; not the other way around.45 This often created a hard-to-sustain inverse relationship in satellite states between popular legitimacy (dependent on domestic demands and circumstances) and ultimate power (dependent on Soviet sponsorship and approval). Consistently, Soviet leaders felt threatened by perceived infidelities to their political parameters, ideological essentials, and foreign policy alignment. This could make relatively small adjustments within the satellites a cause of significant Soviet alarm and attention. Therefore, despite the acceptable differences between the states, the Soviets attempted to maintain a degree of uniformity within their sphere, even after Stalinism. That uniformity was not just a matter of bilateral relations between the Soviet Union and individual satellites, but was also a multilateral one. The Communist states of Europe were woven together by their Soviet sponsors in both economic and political dependence. Just as, economically, each was forced to rely on the production of the others, so too, politically, were the regimes supposed to provide mutual pragmatic justification and ideological legitimacy. This made Soviet-dominated Europe more akin to a chain of weak-links than a conventional empire.

In tying the fate of these disparate states together for the sake of its own direction of the whole, the Soviet Union created another level of vulnerability. Just as the Warsaw Pact actually exposed its constituent members (except the Soviet Union) to constant military threat, the “fraternal” relationship between European Communist states made the leaders of each state dependent on the others for political stability. As the role that reform in Poland played in igniting the Hungarian uprising demonstrates, change in one satellite state affected the others in ways that both Soviet and satellite leaders could not control.

After 1953, the leaders of Communist satellites were politically absorbed with the attempt to both restore their legitimacy and keep power for the Party, while selectively exposing the ways in which it had attained, sustained and used it. This was the knot that the Hungarian Communists had proven ultimately unable to tie before and in 1956.46 It was a process that was significantly complicated by the shifting Soviet demands which the satellite leaders had to, at every turn, adjust to. But particularly after 1956, this conundrum was further complicated by the need for Communist leaders to also respond to (and protect themselves against) the ways in which their fellow satellite leaders dealt with it. Outside of Hungary, therefore, de-Stalinisation meant not just forgetting and remembering the recent national past in a way that worked, but doing so in a way that integrated the lessons, as they were perceived, of Hungary’s 1956.


(The present chapter edited by Hungarian Review is from David A. J. Reynolds, Revising History, Constructing Counter-revolution: The Meaning of Hungary’s 1956 and the Definition of the Prague Spring, March 2016, unpublished manuscript.)



1 Grzegorz Ekiert, The State against Society: Political Crises and Their Aftermath in East Central Europe, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996, 66.

2 Károly Nagy, “Teaching a Fraudulent History of the Revolution During the Kádár Dictatorship”, Hungarian Studies Review, Vol. XXXV, Nos. 1–2, 2008, 27.

3Working Notes from the Session of the CPSU CC Presidium on 4 November 1956”, Wilson Center Digital Archive: http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/111887.

4 MSZMP: Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt [Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party].

5Occupation and Resistance”, National Széchényi Library 1956 Institute and Oral History Archive: http://www.rev.hu/history_of_56/ora4/index.htm.

6 Nagy had actually first announced a ceasefire on 28 October.

7 Roger Gough, A Good Comrade: János Kádár, Communism, and Hungary, London: I. B. Tauris, 2006, 108.

8 Péter Apor, Fabricating Authenticity in Soviet Hungary: The Afterlife of the First Hungarian Soviet Republic in the Age of State Socialism, London: Anthem, 2015, 63.

9 Julia Sonneveld, “Counterrevolutionary Icons”, Journalism Studies, 14:3, 2013, 337.

10Document No. 95: Minutes of the HSWP Provisional Central Committee meeting, 11 November 1956 (Excerpts)”, in Csaba Békés, Malcolm Byrne, János M. Rainer, eds., The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents, Budapest: CEU Press, 2002, 408, 415.

11 Apor, 66.

12 Ibid.; Gough, 108.

13 In a Communist Party, a Party Congress is necessary in order to elect an official Central Committee.

14 István Rév, Retroactive Justice: Prehistory of Post-Communism, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005, 123; Apor, 77; Gough, 108.

15 MDP: Magyar Dolgozók Pártja [Hungarian Workers’ Party].

16The Days of Freedom”, National Széchényi Library 1956 Institute and Oral History Archive: http:// www.rev.hu/history_of_56/ora3/index.htm.

17 Apor, 66. (Italics added.)

18 Gough, 108.

19 Julia Sonneveld, “Counterrevolutionary Icons”, Journalism Studies, 14:3, 2013, 342.

20 It was actually the second time he had done so. During the Second World War he had been forced to dissolve the tiny Party. The MSZMP was actually the fifth iteration of a Communist Party for Hungary in the last dozen years.

21 Rév, 193.

22 Ekiert, 76; Békés, Byrne, and Rainer, xxxiii–xlix.

23 Apor, 74.

24 Békés, Byrne, and Rainer, xxxiii–xlix.

25 Apor, 74.

26 Karl P. Benziger, Imre Nagy, Martyr of the Nation: Contested History, Legitimacy, and Popular Memory in Hungary, Lanham: Lexington, 2008, 69.

27Imre Nagy Prime Minister”, Imre Nagy Memorial House: http://www.nagyimreemlekhaz.hu/en/imre-nagy.html.

28 Gough, 110.

29Document No. 116: Letter from Yuri Andropov to the CPSU CC regarding the Trial of Imre Nagy, 26 August 1957”, in Békés, Byrne, and Rainer, 539; Benziger, 69.

30 János M. Rainer, Imre Nagy: A Biography, transl. Lyman H. Letgers, London: IB Tauris, 2009, 150.

31Occupation and Resistance”, National Széchényi Library 1956 Institute and Oral History Archive: http://www.rev.hu/history_of_56/ora4/index.htm.

32 Rév, 125.

33 Apor, 100.

34 Ibid., 96.

35 Apor, 84.

36 Sonneveld, 337–8.

37 Apor, 77.

38 Rainer, 188.

39 Gough, 135.

40 Rév, 33.

41 Ibid, 32–3.

42 Gough, 118.

43 Sonneveld, 338, 347.

44 Benziger, 88–9.

45 It is important to emphasise what this does not mean. It does not presume or necessitate a lack of ideological sincerity in Soviet leadership. Nor does it mitigate the role that ideological constructions played in prompting Soviet leaders to act when and how they did.

46 The reformers in Hungary failed to adequately account for the fact that the power they were attempting to partially re-apportion was, practically speaking, not ultimately theirs to give. Although Nagy advocated for reform from 1953 to 1955 and again in 1956, his ascension to power was as dependent on Soviet approval as Rákosi’s had been. Just as the poisoned legacy of Stalinism meant that Hungarian popular legitimacy could not be gained through the retention of one-party domination, Communist domination in Hungary could not be maintained without Soviet support. Kádár’s regime was an attempt, ultimately, to circumvent this dilemma by establishing a new, non- political source of legitimacy.

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