VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS: IMRE NAGY AND THE HUNGARIAN REVOLUTION – EXCERPT

IMRE NAGY AND THE HUNGARIAN REVOLUTION1

Excerpt

CHAPTER 9

REVOLUTION

When Mikoyan deposed Rákosi on 17 July and sent him into exile in the Soviet Union, he was removing from the scene the strongest personality in Hungarian political life. Rákosi was hated, discredited. His judgement had failed, he was on the run. But there was no one else in the Party with anything like his experience of power and office. Even in 1953–55, he had never been eclipsed by Nagy. Only Nagy had any prospect of replacing him successfully. But although by July Nagy was once again becoming a figure of influence, he was still out of office, out of the Party. Having deposed Rákosi, Mikoyan appointed not Nagy but Ernő Gerő in Rákosi’s place.

In retrospect it is clear that in doing so Mikoyan made revolution inevitable. He missed the chance of making a clean break with Rákosi’s hated regime. Gerő was an experienced, compulsively hard-working apparatchik. He had been close to Rákosi since the liberation. He was less hated than Rákosi, but only marginally less discredited. He lacked Rákosi’s flexibility and skill. If Mikoyan had chosen Nagy in July he would have given him the chance to create a position like Gomulka’s, strong enough to resist both popular and Soviet pressure and so to save his country. But we have seen how suspicious the Kremlin was of the Polish Party’s efforts to come to terms with the people. Mikoyan did not want to replicate those circumstances in Hungary.

So Nagy’s return to power was postponed for three vital months in the late summer and early autumn of 1956, which Gerő wasted.

Many Hungarians concluded from Mikoyan’s choice of Gerő that nothing of real importance had changed. They even feared a reappearance of Rákosi from the wings.
 

In those summer months it was still unthinkable that anyone other than a Communist should become prime minister. But by now all the old regime’s critics were convinced that if real change was to be achieved Nagy would once again have to take charge.

But Rákosi had been so dominant, so widely hated, that Mikoyan can be forgiven for hoping that the very fact of his removal would restore the situation. Gerő was a tested subordinate. If he could establish his authority by firmness and some concessions, well and good. Nagy, by contrast, had shown himself insubordinate in 1955 and unrepentant ever since. And Mikoyan kept in touch with Nagy, visiting him on his return from Yugoslavia. He calculated that if Gerő failed he could still turn to Nagy.

Of course, Mikoyan misjudged the strength of Hungarian feeling. For this Nagy is partly to blame. Throughout 1955 and 1956 he had stubbornly insisted on the rightness of his views. But he had done so privately, in his essays and in letters to the Central Committee. He had refused to join openly with the writers and journalists in their campaign for reform. He declined to take his views to the people. He still insisted on respecting the discipline he had learned in the Party from which he had been expelled. He may have given the Russians the impression that he saw the public expressions of dissatisfaction which convulsed Budapest in the summer months as emotional and insubstantial. If this were so, firmness on essentials and a show of concession on peripheral matters would restore the situation.

This was the policy Gerő doggedly pursued through August and September. Power was as closely held as ever. But the rehabilitation of political prisoners continued. Economic concessions were promised. Mass outings to Vienna were organised, the first opportunity for people to go to the West since the Communists seized power. There was no attempt to silence the rebels as they clamoured for liberalisation, freedom of the press and reform.

The success of this policy depended on the leaders of the reform movement being able to keep it within bounds, winning informal popular control of peripheral spheres of national life but stopping short of any attempt on the central issue of political power. If the reformist leaders or their followers chose to press for political guarantees of their new peripheral freedoms, conflict was inevitable.

This was why Gerő was so reluctant to readmit Nagy to the Party and give him a forum for renewed political activity. Throughout the second half of the summer, Nagy’s status remained unchanged: private citizen, former Party member, without any formal links with the Party, yet a Bolshevik of nearly forty years’ standing, a former prime minister and the one individual to whom the nation and most of the Party looked for a lead. Gerő took no action when it was rumoured that Nagy’s associates planned to launch a magazine in the autumn. He did nothing when Géza Losonczy published what everyone took to be an authoritative statement of Nagy’s views. He was silent when he heard that Nagy had sent an associate to investigate peasant complaints. He turned a deaf ear to tumultuous applause for Nagy at the Writers’ Association General Meeting. He even ignored rumours that Nagy’s friends were talking to old Social Democratic leaders.

But on 4 October Nagy applied in writing for readmission to the Party. His language was much more moderate than in his essays. He argued that his expulsion had violated Party statutes, but reaffirmed his agreement with the main stream of Party thinking. He specifically accepted “democratic centralism” and a socialist economy. And he recognised as binding on him if he returned to the Party the July 1956 Central Committee Resolution, in which Gerő had summarised his intentions when he took over from Rákosi. This moderation incensed Nagy’s friends, who felt he should at last assert his strength.

Even so, Gerő took nine days to respond to the application. Nagy’s friends thought the delay a deliberate insult. He took it calmly, once more demonstrating loyalty to the Party, caution bordering on timidity, and a conviction that events were going his way. Gerő and Kádár summoned Nagy to discuss his readmission. They urged him to dissociate himself from his circle of advisers, and he half-heartedly agreed. Finally, after discussing the matter with Moscow, Gerő agreed that Nagy should be readmitted to the Communist Party.

But while Gerő weighed his response to Nagy, popular exploitation of an earlier concession snatched the initiative from his hands. In September he had agreed to the official reburial and rehabilitation of László Rajk. He had seen this less as a concession to Júlia Rajk and her supporters than as a way to please the Yugoslavs. The execution had been Rákosi’s contribution to the Soviet campaign against Tito; rehabilitation would win Yugoslav favour and dissociate Gerő from Rákosi. He did not reckon with the emotion which the reburial released and which engulfed the nation.

Júlia Rajk planned her husband’s reburial just as carefully as Erzsébet Nagy planned her father’s thirty-three years later. She chose 6 October for the occasion, the anniversary of the day on which the thirteen generals of Arad were executed by the Austrians in 1849. She arranged for the remains, recovered from an unmarked pit beside a country road, to rest all day under the mausoleum of Kossuth, the greatest of Hungarian heroes. Like Nagy’s, they were watched by a guard of honour, flanked by candelabra. The reburial was to take place in the line of graves of heroes of the Workers’ Movement, superimposed on Kerepesi cemetery when the Communists came to power.

Júlia Rajk, a gaunt figure, her face lined by suffering, went to the grave with her eight-year-old son, born just before her own arrest and taken from her before her husband’s execution. The ceremony was the culmination of a long campaign to honour her husband’s memory. She had turned down an offer of compensation. She wanted revenge. “Murderers should not be criticised”, she had said, “they should be punished.”2

Gerő was still in Moscow when the reburial took place. Kádár, Rajk’s friend and betrayer, was on his way back from Peking. Two perdurable Communists, Münnich and Apró, represented the official world. Neither was the sort of man who could appeal to the emotions of those who had suffered so much under Rákosi. Münnich did his best, speaking of Rajk’s murderers as “sadistic criminals who had crawled into the sunlight from the stinking swamps of the ‘cult of the personality’”.3

The invited guests were mostly Communists and comrades-in-arms of the victims, motivated by respect for their memory and hatred for their murderers. There was also shame for the part many of those present had played in their condemnation. As the poet Benjámin put it: “It is my crime to have believed in yours.”4 Nagy and his wife were quiet and withdrawn figures by the graveside. He was content to leave the speeches to Münnich and Apró and the attention to Júlia Rajk. At the end of the ceremony she turned and momentarily embraced him: the only moment of tenderness in her bitter day of triumph. And as the official party dispersed, the ordinary people poured past the new graves.

The reburial was followed by a quickening of events. On 13 October a second reburial took place, this time of military victims of the purges of 1949. On the following day the newspapers carried the Political Committee’s decision to readmit Nagy to the Party. Later his Chair at the university and his membership of the Academy of Sciences were restored to him. There was no word of Party or government office.

Demands for reform continued to spread. Local and specialist Petőfi Clubs inspired by the Budapest Petőfi Circle debates of the early summer were established. The country was ablaze with debating societies, discussion groups and local “parliaments”. But the Communist leadership seemed unaware of the turmoil around them. On 14 October Gerő and Hegedűs left on an eight-day visit to Tito in Belgrade. They stayed there while in Budapest demands for reform proliferated. They did not even cut the visit short when Khrushchev flew to Warsaw on 19 October for a showdown with Gomulka and then, backing away from confrontation, accepted the Polish reform programme. It was as if they believed that to recover Tito’s favour was enough to still the storm that was gathering at home.

In his own way, Nagy seemed as complacent. He had admittedly no formal responsibility in government or Party. But events were shaping as he had said they would, and the nation faced crisis. He was close to power. The British Minister in Budapest reported on 18 October that “Nagy’s star appears firmly in the ascendant and I am reliably informed that it is only a question of time before he obtains high office.”5

Yet on 20 October Nagy set off for the Balaton. There he remained till the morning of 23 October. He stayed with the owner of a small vineyard, visiting a wine festival and soaking up the autumn sunshine. Photographs show us a portly middle-aged man relaxing on holiday without a care in the world. One might conclude that Nagy was woefully out of touch in these last days of peace. Perhaps to a degree he was; but in that complex and ambivalent personality there was also iron self-discipline and a remarkable capacity to wait upon events.

Elsewhere there was tumult. In Budapest, Miskolc, Szeged, Pécs and Sopron students were calling for marches and demonstrations. The Petőfi Circle demanded a special meeting of the Party leadership, with Nagy included. But until a minute before midnight Nagy persisted in his policy of seeking neither to control nor openly to encourage unrest. When his friends urged him to cut short his holiday and return to Budapest he refused. As the storm broke he still believed that he need only wait for power to fall into his lap.

The news of the Polish success in the showdown with Khrushchev on 19 October had intoxicated the Hungarians. Poland was not just a friend but a precedent. The reformers believed that what had been ceded to her must surely be ceded to Hungary. And the fact that Khrushchev had backed away from confrontation in Warsaw undermined the Hungarian authorities’ self-confidence as much as it encouraged the reformers. Excited mass meetings on 21 and 22 October began by passing resolutions of support for Poland and ended by formulating demands for reform in Hungary.

While Nagy remained quietly at Lake Balaton, his friends were actively involved at these meetings. The most significant was that at the Technical University on 22 October which formulated the reformers’ demands most clearly. Word of them was relayed to Nagy by telephone.

To a Reform Communist like Nagy, these demands were reasonable and impossible at the same time. The students said they wanted a new Central Committee; Nagy as prime minister; friendship on a basis of equality with the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia; elections; a new economic policy; lower industrial norms and workers’ autonomy; a new deal in agriculture; an amnesty and a review of past trials; specific concessions to patriotic feelings; and freedom of the press. All these would have been sensible things to ask for in a new and better Hungary. They reflected many of the changes Nagy had started to make in 1953. But at a time of crisis they seemed dangerously out of touch with political reality.

Nagy may have hesitated because of the content of these demands. He was even more doubtful about the way they were put forward. They were publicised as widely as carbon paper and duplicator would spread them. They were thrown down as a clear challenge to the Party. Demonstrations to back them were threatened for the following day. Within days the course of events validated this approach, but on 22 October it was shocking to a Communist for whom loyalty was a central tenet and who believed that the Party’s job was to lead, not follow. Nagy disagreed with his associates who wanted him to commit himself to support the reformers. He still put his faith in private argument within the Party leadership.

He may too have feared a counter-stroke by Gerő. Some time earlier he had been warned that Gerő hoped to provoke him into action and then destroy his influence for good. We do not know whether there was anything in this rumour: but it is a fact that in the week of 15 October many Hungarian army units were temporarily deprived of all except their small arms, in a way that suggests that the authorities may have decided to provoke trouble.

On 22 October Nagy again rebuffed friends who urged him to come back to Budapest and put himself at the head of the students. He would return as planned on the following day. On 23 October he set off for Budapest by car. On the way he passed through Székesfehérvár, one of the main Soviet bases in Hungary, where troops were already preparing to move to Budapest if required.

Nagy arrived in Budapest in the morning of 23 October and went straight into a meeting with his associates. We have seen that since his fall from power a group of Reform Communists had gradually gathered around him. All were young men, most in their thirties, generally more radical than Nagy in their approach to the problems with which Party and country were faced. Most had learned their radicalism in prison under Rákosi. The most prominent was Géza Losonczy, who eventually died in prison while the Nagy trial was being prepared. At forty-six, Ferenc Donáth, sentenced to twelve years imprisonment at the trial, bridged the gap between Nagy and the others. József Szilágyi became Nagy’s secretary during the Revolution and was executed afterwards. Miklós Gimes, who died with Nagy, was a journalist who had been close to him for some years. So was Miklós Vásárhelyi, who became his press spokesman during the Revolution, went to prison with him and eventually formed the Committee for Historical Justice which, thirty years later, secured Nagy’s rehabilitation. Other members of the group were Nagy’s son-in-law, Ferenc Jánosi, and Szilárd Újhelyi.

The group was far from being a band of brothers. Nagy as we shall see was about to cut himself off from them for three crucial days. There were personal tensions and differences about policy between them. Nevertheless, when he would let them Nagy’s friends gave him invaluable service. During the Revolution they formed the nucleus of his political staff. They helped him in his dealings with representatives of all the other forces who crowded in on him in those days. And as we have seen most of them went into exile and prison with him.

Now they brought him up to date on developments in Budapest that morning. The university students were committed to a mass demonstration that afternoon, starting in Pest at the statue of Petőfi, the Hungarian hero of 1848, and moving on to that of Bem, the Polish hero of the same era, in Buda. The march would manifest sympathy for Poland; it would stake a claim for the same liberties for Hungary.

At Party headquarters, Nagy’s friends reported, the atmosphere was tense, the leaders aggressive yet indecisive. Gerő had returned from Belgrade only that morning. He seemed by turns frightened of the malcontents and sardonically satisfied that they had exposed themselves to retribution. But he was probably uncertain on the key point: did Moscow want him to accommodate dissent or to crush it? Meanwhile the Minister of the Interior had been sending contradictory messages to the student leaders all morning.

Nagy’s meeting with his associates on the afternoon of 23 October was acrimonious. They saw an opportunity for Nagy to exploit unrest, perhaps put himself at its head; he saw danger from the leadership and demonstrators alike. They had been convinced by the passion of Nagy’s essays; he continued to distinguish between private persuasion within the Party and public demands for change. He wanted to wait for the Party to call him back to office. When it did he intended to pick up his programme where he had been interrupted in 1955. His friends reminded him in vain of the urgent radicalism of the essays he had written when Rákosi drove him into the political wilderness.

Losonczy in particular pressed Nagy to commit himself. Nagy rebuffed him. Eventually the meeting broke up. No one was satisfied. The group dispersed, to the university, Party headquarters, newspaper offices. Jánosi stayed with Nagy in the villa in Buda, a good three miles from the centre of the city.

Through the afternoon and early evening of 23 October, Nagy and Jánosi could follow a fast-developing situation only at second hand. They did not hear the speeches and poems at the Petőfi statue. They missed the heady sensation of national unity that accompanied the march across the centre of the city. They were far away when workers, coming off the day shift in Újpest, decided to see what was happening in the city centre, encountered the demonstrators there and joined them. They heard only belatedly that the crowds had moved on from the Bem statue to gather outside parliament and the radio building and at the Stalin statue.

At eight in the evening, Gerő broadcast to the nation. The broadcast was as ill-judged as everything else he did in the course of the crisis. With the nation demanding instant action, he vaguely offered a review of grievances and eventual redress. And he called the demonstrators’ motives in question, succeeding only in provoking them to insist that the radio should broadcast a statement of their demands. At the time it was thought that he had deliberately set out to provoke an outbreak which he could crush. Knowing what we do of Soviet hesitancy it seems unlikely that he would have taken such a risk. Misjudgement and lack of political imagination seems a more likely explanation of a broadcast which led directly to the first bloodshed of the Revolution.

But even if Gerő had shown greater understanding, it is unlikely that he could have brought the situation under control. The people wanted more than his grey, discredited kind of Communism. For some time, the crowds in Kossuth Square in front of parliament had been demanding that Nagy should speak to them. Losonczy came to his house, finally persuaded him to go to parliament. They piled into a little car and drove down into the city and across the river to parliament. Nagy expressed amazement when he saw that the Communist symbol had been cut out of the national flag. Like Gerő, he had been left behind by the day’s events.

Inside parliament there was fear and confusion. Nagy was received coldly by Communists who wanted him to calm the demonstrators and yet feared that he had come to take command of them. Finally he allowed himself to be pushed out onto a balcony to address the crowd. It was nine on a dark October evening. For a while he was not noticed. Then someone saw him and called for silence. Slowly he got the crowd’s attention.

Nagy started to speak to the crowd. He spoke without proper preparation, without any real understanding of the emotions of the last few hours. He tried to calm the demonstrators, ask them to disperse. The microphone was poor and few could hear him. Those who could responded badly. Quite misjudging their mood, he called them “comrades”. “There are no comrades here”, they shouted back. He asked them to go home, promised a Party review of their grievances. Few paid attention. He scrambled back into the building.

It was an unheroic, inadequate start to Nagy’s last great adventure. Gerő could have done as much. But a journalist who was beside Nagy, relaying his words to the radio as he spoke, believes that this was the decisive moment in his political development, that on the evening of 23 October he cast off Communism forever and became a simple and stubborn patriot.6 This view surely misjudges and over- simplifies Nagy’s development in the last days of his active political life. But it is clear that this rejection by the crowd shook Nagy. He may then have understood that his waiting game had exacted a price, and realised that he could no longer satisfy demands for reform merely by resuming the policies of the New Course.

From the parliament building Nagy went to Party headquarters in a side street three hundred yards away. At the door he dismissed his companions, some say brusquely. It was a crucial, almost fatal moment. Only his son-in-law went inside with him. Nagy seemed to be going to join his enemies.

The situation at Party headquarters was as chaotic as in parliament. Gerő and Hegedűs were huddled with a small group of confidants, still resisting those who urged them to turn to Nagy for help. Eventually the Central Committee went into formal session. Nagy was not a member. He and Jánosi were kept waiting in an ante-room.

Meanwhile, away from Party headquarters the situation was fast deteriorating. The Stalin statue had been cut off at the knees, leaving only his great metal boots: the fallen statue became a source of souvenirs, like the Berlin Wall thirty-three years later. At the radio building, tempers had risen when the demonstrators tried to get their demands broadcast. The security police had opened fire. Army units had given their arms to the demonstrators, who were firing back. Demonstration was turning into insurrection, and Hungarian forces – army, security police and ordinary police – were proving themselves too weak and divided to contain it.

The frightened members of the Central Committee turned to the question of Soviet military support. Sometime in the late evening of 23 October they decided, or acquiesced in a decision taken elsewhere, to bring Soviet troops into Budapest.

The first Soviet armoured forces arrived in the city between one and two in the morning of 24 October. The Soviet objective was probably no more than to display potentially overwhelming strength, with no thought yet of engaging the insurgents. Certain Soviet military preparations had been noted as early as 20 October, but they do not prove that any political decisions had been taken then. They were probably no more than precautionary moves at a time of rising tension. Similarly a Soviet decision to move forces towards Budapest was probably taken before noon on 23 October. But the order actually committing them to the streets could have been issued in response to the Central Committee invitation only an hour or so before they appeared.

Nagy himself was not present when the Central Committee endorsed the Soviet intervention. But at some point in the early hours of 24 October the Committee acknowledged that the Party needed him if it were to have any chance of controlling the situation. At 8.13 am on 24 October Budapest Radio announced the formation earlier that day of a new Political Committee; and the appointment of Nagy as Prime Minister. At 8.45 am it carried a declaration of martial law. And at 9 am it announced that the government had asked for Soviet help.

On the morning of 24 October, the leaders gathered in Party headquarters were divided on how to respond to the insurgency which had grown out of the previous day’s demonstrations. There were two options: to crush the insurrection by force, promising redress of grievance when order was restored, or to seek to appease the demonstrators, using force only in response to insurgent force. Gerő instinctively advocated the former course, Nagy the latter. The word from Moscow supported Nagy. It made it clear that the commitment of Soviet forces to the streets of Budapest did not mean that the Kremlin had decided that repression was the right answer to Hungary’s problem.

But if appeasement was the chosen course, the question of how far to take it remained open. On the previous day Gerő had talked of concessions in the most perfunctory of ways. As we have seen, Nagy had rejected his friends’ advocacy of far-reaching change. Now, appointed prime minister, he started to talk in terms which envisaged a return to the New Course. Mikoyan and Suslov returned to Budapest on 25 October and seem to have accepted Nagy’s belief that this would be enough to get the people off the streets. With their backing, Nagy set out to restore the government’s authority, his essential concession to the demonstrators being no more than the promise that this time, as in 1953, Communism would not forget man.

As Nagy, Mikoyan and Suslov sought a political solution, however, events on the streets were multiplying their problems. On the night of 23–24 October the people had found unity outside parliament, triumphed at Stalin’s statue, and fought it out at the radio building with the security police. But fighting between insurgents and security police continued on 24 October. The presence of Soviet forces further angered the insurgents. It gradually became clear that no effective Hungarian force was available to the government: the army and the ordinary police stood by or helped the insurgents, the security police were running scared.

It was manifest that only the all-out use of Soviet force would break the insurgents, but this the Russians still wanted to avoid. Mikoyan and Suslov decided on a further move. Gerő and Hegedűs must follow Rákosi into exile. Nagy would be left to come to terms with the insurgents in his own way, though within a Communist-dominated frame of reference. Kádár, appointed First Secretary in Gerő’s place, would set about restoring the Party’s reputation. At noon on 25 October the radio announced these changes. Nagy and Kádár would broadcast that afternoon.

Within hours came the massacre in Kossuth Square in front of parliament, where Nagy had made his inadequate speech two nights before. Soviet tanks confronted a vast crowd of demonstrators. The situation was tense but peaceful. Then Hungarian security police fired into the square. The tanks returned the fire. Many died. It was uncertain how the shooting started, but it was clear that in the absence of Russians and security police there would have been no massacre.

Immediately the political changes of the morning seemed valueless. Just as the killings at the radio building on 23 October had devalued Nagy’s appointment as prime minister a few hours later, so the killings outside parliament drained away any political value which Gerő’s resignation might otherwise have had. “Nagy to power” had been a good slogan on 23 October. Now the demonstrators blamed their grief on the security police and the Russians. Once the Russians were gone the security police would be impotent. On 25 October the slogan to unite the nation was “Russians go home”.

In face of these difficulties, Mikoyan, Suslov, Nagy and Kádár set about scratching together a new policy. Nagy would be allowed to go further in coming to terms with the insurgents. He could promise redress of grievances with a continuing socialist system and the withdrawal of Soviet troops to their barracks as soon as the fighting stopped.

To Nagy this meant a significant military concession to the insurgents now, to be followed once order had been restored by the New Course programme in which he put so much faith. To Kádár it promised a reformed Party with a continuing monopoly of power. To the Russians it offered adequate stability in Hungary and the prospect of getting their forces out of the fighting. But it fell far short of what the revolutionaries now wanted. Embittered by the events of the last forty-eight hours, they looked for the end of Communism and the immediate expulsion of the Russians. They were already beginning to formulate demands for a Soviet withdrawal from Hungary, not just Budapest; and for free elections which would inevitably destroy the Communist Party.

In retrospect there is a tragic inevitability about the events of the Hungarian Revolution, insurgents’ demands always in advance of authority’s response. Yet few detected it at the time, and until the last terrible days there is no sense of fatalism to be identified in Nagy’s efforts to master the situation. There is no doubt that he started badly, that on 23 October he misread the balance of forces, and that he was slow thereafter to adjust to an unimagined new situation. But by 26 October he seemed to have found his feet. That day he moved out of his isolation in Party headquarters and into the prime minister’s office in parliament. The move reunited him with his old associates and gave him a chance to make a new start. He received a stream of visitors: Reform Communists, non- Communists, insurgents. They gave him the opportunity to start building bridges to new centres of power in what was a changed Hungary.

The meetings also gave him and his associates the chance to try to clear him of responsibility for the more unpopular of the government’s actions since 23 October. Much was made of this issue at the time and immediately after the Revolution, primarily for political and propagandist reasons. There is a danger of the argument distracting us from what really happened in October 1956. But it is worth pursuing even now, if only for its place in Imre Nagy’s record.

Essentially, Nagy’s apologists at the time suggested that he was a prisoner of the Party from the time he went to Party headquarters on 23 October until he moved to parliament three days later. Specifically, they rightly denied that he was involved in the decision to bring in Soviet troops on 23 October. They tried, less justly, to dissociate him from the declaration of martial law on the following day. They contrasted the human tone of his radio broadcasts with the harshness of others, particularly Gerő. To justify the inadequacy of the policies Nagy put to the nation they suggested that he broadcast at the time more or less with a gun at his head. They claimed that Gerő and Hegedűs had consciously devised a plot to saddle Nagy with responsibility for repressive measures, undermine his position and prepare the way for reaction.

The United Nations special committee on the Problem of Hungary attempted to get to grips with this argument in their report: “The evidence establishes that Mr Nagy was in no sense in a position to act in accordance with his own judgement from 24 October to 28 October. But it would doubtless be equally mistaken to conclude that Mr Nagy was prevented from identifying himself with the uprising from the start solely by the pressures to which he was subjected. There is little reason to believe that, at the outset, Mr Nagy was aware of the manner in which the situation would develop or that he foresaw that he was destined to become a leading figure. He was restored to the office of prime minister not as a result of any personal initiative on his part, but because his appointment suited the immediate purposes of Mr Gerő, aware as he was that, in the tense circumstances of the morning of 24 October, the Communist regime needed to be adorned with the façade of a leader acceptable to popular opinion. From that moment, Mr Nagy tended to become, seemingly against his expectation, the symbol for the Hungarian people of their unity. Nevertheless, in the days immediately after 24 October, he appeared to be hesitating between loyalty to his Marxist training, backed by an apparatus of force, on the one hand, and association with the cause of his countrymen, on the other. His predicament between 24 and 28 October is by no means wholly explained by force majeure. From his Marxist and Communist anchorage, he was carried along by events beyond his control, gradually aware of the intensity of the passions which the uprising had evoked and the reality of the grievances which it expressed, and gradually convinced that he must accept the responsibilities thrust upon him by circumstances.”7

In retrospect this analysis reads like a rather shrewd attempt by the committee to cobble together evidence from émigré sources intended to exculpate Nagy with their own more objective assessment of the pressures upon him. They note the evidence that Nagy was cut off from his friends and from forces outside the Party in the days he spent at Party headquarters, but play down suggestions that he was prevented by physical pressure from doing what he would otherwise have done. They rightly imply that he was a prisoner of his own Communist preconceptions and sense of Party loyalty. And they are right in suggesting that in these early days of the Revolution Nagy could not imagine a need to go outside the assumptions of his Party to find common ground with the people fighting in the streets.

In short, in these first days of the Revolution Nagy showed himself lacking in political imagination. We have seen that he was not party to the decision to call in the Russians; but we may surmise that he would have supported it if he had been admitted to the Central Committee by the time it was taken. He was responsible for the declaration of martial law. He was even slow to see that even his kind of Communism was no longer adequate to the situation. He voluntarily put to the people in his broadcasts policies which they found inadequate. One of his associates at the time summarises the position well: “Imre Nagy was not a prisoner of the secret police in those days. He was a prisoner of himself.”8

But events did not stand still as Nagy and his apologists tried to put the record straight. Nagy had eight more days of freedom. The use he made of them did more than explanations to restore trust between him and the people. In those days he faced a headlong rush of events. Advised by one government after another, he did his best to steer a course between hazards. In these eight days, his political convictions moved further than they had moved in forty years.

On 26 October, Nagy went to parliament committed to the restoration of order and the re-establishment of Communist authority through a predominantly Communist government. When he left it for the Yugoslav Embassy on 4 November he was at the head of a truly representative coalition government. He was committed to free elections within months, which would inevitably have destroyed his Party. He had declared neutrality, withdrawn from the Warsaw Pact, denounced Soviet aggression and called for the protection of the United Nations and the four Great Powers. He was driven by events. He had no great master plan. But although he learned as he went along, there was a constancy and conviction that flowed from the beliefs formed in Moscow and Budapest, advanced as theories in the essays, and now put to work in practice.

In these days Nagy for once in his life made quick decisions. He had to: the situation on the streets was changing hourly. In the past he had dealt with carefully calculating and self-disciplined Party members and with a cowed population. Now he was dealing with a free Hungary. He came face to face with a passionate and resurgent patriotism, suspicious of Communism, critical of talk of reaching an accommodation with the Russians, snapping up each concession and asking for more. Retrospect is coloured by the tragedy that ended it all, but these were good, free days for Hungary. For Nagy they were the culmination of his political career.

On 27 October he announced the formation of a new government. It was still dominated by Communists, many of them unreformed. From outside the Party, Tildy and Kovács were included. Eight years before they had been Smallholder figures of stature. In the next week Tildy was to show great strength. But now, to the insurgents, he seemed old and weak. He had served as President of the Republic while Rákosi destroyed democracy: he was a suspect fellow-traveller. Kovács had spent years in Soviet captivity: he took office reluctantly. The composition of the new government did nothing to persuade the insurgents that those in power understood the new realities. It suggested that Nagy had still not caught up with events.

Having announced his new government, Nagy spent the rest of 27 October coming to terms with realities. He could deal with the insurgents’ high expectations by the use of Soviet force or by concession. He wanted to avoid force. So did the Russians, with an eagerness that was forgotten when, later, they changed course. They now agreed to back Nagy in making concessions going wider than the reform under clear Communist leadership which he had sought so far. Very early on 28 October, he went to the Soviet Embassy. Through the Ambassador he consulted Moscow. He came away convinced that the Kremlin was behind him and endorsed the concessions he was preparing to make.

On 27 October, while Nagy was still considering how far he could go, the government had announced that negotiations would start at once for the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Budapest. But on the following day, perhaps at the Soviet Embassy, Nagy learned of a plan to attack one of the main insurgent positions, that in the Corvin Cinema. The plan had been concocted by a group of Hungarian hardliners, probably encouraged by Soviet contacts. It offered the chance both to destroy the rebels and compromise Nagy. He and his Russian supporters put a stop to it, Nagy threatening resignation if it went ahead.

In the afternoon of that day, 28 October, Nagy made the most significant of his broadcasts so far. He announced a ceasefire; immediate Soviet withdrawal from Budapest; negotiations about Soviet withdrawal from Hungary; and the abolition of the security police as soon as order was restored. On 29 October he went further and disbanded the security police with immediate effect. With these commitments he at last won attention, closed the gap between leadership and insurgents. He sensed his success: visitors noted his new confidence that he was succeeding in bringing people, colleagues and Russians together.

The following day, 30 October, was a good one, with the following day the best of the Revolution. The ceasefire became fully effective. Soviet forces started to withdraw from Budapest. Nagy’s allies established a revolutionary council at army headquarters, giving him the beginnings of a unified armed force at his command. He took another step which bound the insurgents closer to him, announcing the end of the one-party system and the formation of yet another new government. The Smallholders and Peasants now had full rather than token representation. A seat was reserved for the Social Democrats. Nagy also announced that negotiations were starting at once for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary entirely. He was as convinced as ever that he had Soviet agreement.

The news from Moscow confirmed this. On 30 October Mikoyan and Suslov came to Budapest again, bringing with them the text of the Kremlin’s declaration on relations with the socialist states. It was by any standards a remarkable document which, had it been allowed to stand, might have provided an enduring basis for friendship between the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies. Essentially it called for exactly the kind of relationship which Nagy had envisaged in his essay nine months earlier, one of equality based on independence, sovereignty and non-interference. It confirmed that orders had been given to withdraw Soviet forces from Budapest and that Moscow was ready for negotiations about their presence elsewhere in Hungary.9

To Nagy and to the world the declaration looked like a Soviet vote of confidence in his ability to master the situation. There were worrying passages: one recorded that reaction had exploited the Hungarian people’s legitimate discontent, another prejudged the Hungarians’ wishes by saying that it was up to them to guard their own socialist gains. But taken as a whole the declaration was straightforward, even generous, and enormously encouraging. It was a clear vote of confidence in Nagy and a confirmation of the success of his cooperation with Mikoyan and Suslov.

There were shadows that day too, however. A distant one was the British and French ultimatum to Israel and Egypt. It demanded that the combatants withdraw and threatened military intervention to keep the two armies apart and safeguard the Suez Canal. Nearer home was the massacre in Republic Square, where insurgents attacked the security police garrison in the Budapest Party headquarters and, when they surrendered, lynched them and a party activist named Imre Mező who had been close to Nagy. The ultimatum might provide a distraction if Soviet policy were to go into reverse and abandon the declaration on relations with the socialist countries; the massacre a pretext for renewing Soviet intervention in Hungary.

But there was no clear sign of these dangers in Nagy’s talks with Mikoyan and Suslov, with whom he spent much of 30 October. He had moved a long way in response to insurgent pressure in the last four days, but he believed that the Kremlin still trusted him. The Soviet declaration, despite its ambiguities, seemed to bear this out. So did his discussions with the Soviet emissaries. They seem to have rebuffed those Hungarian Stalinists who were still clamouring for Soviet military intervention and to have convinced Nagy that he still had their support.

Nagy and his Soviet partners were playing for high stakes, and they were agreeing on propositions unthinkable within the Soviet bloc only days before. They must have feared that they were opening a Pandora’s box and there were clearly anxieties on both sides. Sándor Kopácsi, the Budapest police chief who rallied to Nagy and was tried with him, claims that as Mikoyan and Suslov left Nagy for the last time, Mikoyan said: “Comrade Nagy, save what can be saved.” According to Kopácsi his eyes were filled with tears. This was a man who knew how near to the brink they were. Yet Nagy still believed that he had Mikoyan’s backing. So did Kádár. When he returned from seeing Mikoyan and Suslov out, Kopácsi reports, Kádár said to Nagy: “Imre, have we done it?” and Nagy replied, “We’ve done it, János.”10

There is room in all this for dissimulation by the Soviet emissaries, for wishful thinking, for misreporting by Kopácsi. But the balance of the evidence suggests that when they left Budapest, Mikoyan and Suslov remained committed to support for Nagy’s government and its decision to concede a multi-party system. It also suggests that Nagy and Kádár rejoiced in that confidence in their policy, believing that if they held to it they would be able to unite the country. It is not clear whether they yet realised that a multi-party system and free elections would sweep their own party aside.

So Nagy came successfully through the period from 26 to 30 October. He had brought the country from bloodshed to a precarious kind of order. The freedom fighters were forming peacefully into disciplined National Guards. There had been atrocities, some of them perpetrated by individual groups of insurgents, but there was no White Terror. Different groups were advocating different policies, and the pace of events had been bewildering, but there was no triumph of reaction. On 30 and 31 October the nation was united and at peace.

Nagy had been faced with pressures which he had no military power to resist: as he told a visitor, his power stopped at his desk.11 His victories were moral ones, won by argument and example. As we have seen, he yielded ground in these days. But it is clear that he found many of the pressures with which he was faced intellectually irresistible. He gradually awoke to the fact that the insurgents were mostly socialists like him. They wanted socialism voluntarily arrived at, just as he did. Like him they wanted socialism without Stalinist distortion. Their arguments were essentially those he had used in his essays a year before.

With the Soviet Declaration of 30 October putting an end to the last vestiges of Stalinism, there was no longer any need for the successful Revolution to oppose the Soviet Union. Moscow now seemed prepared to allow the Hungarians to chart their own future. If Nagy and the revolutionaries wanted to steer towards socialism, they must do as Nagy had argued and carry the people with them. The best way to do that, to seek organic rather than arbitrary socialism, was free elections. The revolutionaries’ demands might be dangerous in diplomatic terms. Militarily they risked provoking a Soviet return. But in political terms, Nagy agreed with them. Between 27 and 30 October, he gradually built a national agreement on what the Revolution was about. By 31 October the nation was united and the Revolution apparently successful.

Notes:

1 Peter Unwin, Voice in the Wilderness. Imre Nagy and the Hungarian Revolution. Macdonald & Co Ltd, London & Sidney, 1991, pp. 130–152.

2 Tamás Aczél and Tibor Méray: The Revolt of the Mind, London, 1960; p. 402.

3 Ibid.; p. 438.

4 Ibid.; p. 268.

5 L.A.C. Fry to Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, 18 October, 1956.

6 Conversation with Áron Tóbiás.

7 “Report of the Special Committee on the Problem of Hungary”, New York, 1957; para. 258.

8 Conversation with Sándor Fekete.

9 Published in Pravda, Moscow, 31 October, 1956.

10 Sándor Kopácsi: In the Name of the Working Class, Toronto, 1986; p. 152.

11 Conversation with Mihály Simai.

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