PROVOCATION? THE OUTBREAK OF THE REVOLUTION OF 1956

My recently published book, The 1956 Revolution and Freedom Fight which reports on the 20,000 victims of the post-revolution reprisals, has received extensive and positive reviews in many forums of the press.

In my book, I examine the events that took place on 23 October 1956 at the headquarters of Hungarian Radio and express my doubts about the prevailing historiography on this subject.1 I have continued my research, consulting mostly non-Hungarian source material, on the events of that day. As a result – having compared multiple credible sources – I believe it can be reliably concluded that the outbreak of the revolution was jointly provoked by Hungarian and Soviet authorities. Unfortunately, the story of 23 October remains to a large extent unrecorded – especially with regard to discovering interconnections among the disparate events. Moreover, in the prevailing literature, very little reference is made to foreign sources.

I have sought to discover correlations among three aspects of the revolutionary events:

– The movements of Soviet troops on 23 October 1956;

– The siege of the Hungarian Radio headquarters;

– The deliberate provision of arms to the demonstrators.

Soviet troop movements on 23 October 1956

According to Russian historians, in part corroborated by Hungarian sources, the Soviet leadership decided on 20 July 1956 to set up an armed division to carry out a special military plan. The plan was code-named “Wave”, to be launched with the password “Kompas”. Its purpose: to “restore public order” on Hungarian “territory” by occupying the country and Budapest key installations within 3–6 hours.2 As part of the implementation of this plan, a large number of armed KGB agents arrived in Hungary on 23 October 1956. On the morning of the following day, Serov, the head of the KGB, also arrived in Budapest, along with seven KGB generals and a number of KGB officers, according to Russian historians.3 Until now, this fact has not been reported by Hungarian sources. Yet the presence of the armed KGB units – including Serov and the seven KGB generals – during the revolutionary events points to their active participation in these events, given that they arrived in the country according to the “Wave” plan that had been developed months earlier.

First of all, we know from Russian sources that the KGB and its predecessors played a crucial role within the Soviet armed forces, during wartime and peacetime alike. They did not participate directly in combat assignments – that was the army’s task – but they did participate in many punitive actions.

Assuming, then, that the armed KGB units played an active role in the revolutionary events, let us take a look at several events which up to now have never been explained, but which now appear in their proper light.

It seems very likely, and conceivable, that KGB units participated in the internal defence of military installations in Hungary, especially those connected with Soviet interests.

As an example, we can point to the events on 25 October at the Central Party Headquarters on Akadémia Street in Budapest. On that day Mikoyan, Suslov and Serov were conducting negotiations there with Hungarian Party leaders. Evidently, the building had its own internal security provided by the ÁVH (the Hungarian State Security Authority). Nevertheless, a Hungarian border guard armoured company was ordered to this location to provide external defence.

The border guards arrived at the front of the building under a Hungarian flag, whereupon they were fired on from inside the building. The shots killed at least fourteen soldiers. In examining this event, we should note that it is inconceivable that the building’s own ÁVH security unit had not been informed of the arrival of the border guard unit to defend them. Yet it is possible that the Soviet units were not informed, and misinterpreted the arrival of the border guard company under the Hungarian flag.4 (Or perhaps they were informed, yet began to shoot, together with the Hungarian units?)

It should be noted that this event was not unique. The same thing played out at the Party Headquarters on Köztársaság Square, where the Hungarian tanks (with Hungarian flags), arriving under orders to defend the Party building, were fired upon from the windows.

The Hungarian tanks, in total confusion, returned fire – the soldiers believed that the demonstrators had occupied the building – and left the scene ten minutes later, not knowing what to do. In my opinion, these events played a crucial role in the fall of the Party Headquarters. It is out of the question that the tanks firing at the Headquarters building had joined the side of the revolutionaries, as proved by the fact that after the revolution these soldiers received only light punishment.

During the revolution and its aftermath, there were 65–70 events which involved fusillades unleashed upon unarmed protesters, who were “herded” into the locations (such as Kossuth Square on 25 October, the Ministry of National Defence on 24 October, etc.) I have referred to these events as fusillades of intimidation or provocation.5 To this day, the identity of those who fired the shots remains unknown.

On some of these occasions, “only” the Soviet units (and not the Hungarian ÁVH) shot at protestors; in other cases, unknown persons shot from Party buildings.6

It should be noted that the American chargé d’affaires reported on 23 October that “Russian-speaking people dressed in ÁVH uniforms are shooting at the crowd, because the Hungarian units defied orders”.

To this day, Hungarian public opinion is not aware that General Grebenik, the Soviet commandant of the city of Budapest, imposed martial law on 6 November, and Soviet military courts ordered subsequently an unknown number of executions. We may be almost entirely certain that these executions were carried out by KGB units.7

Given the accounts by Russian historians about the armed KGB units and the presence of chief KGB officers during the revolutionary days and their aftermath, it is quite certain that the KGB played an active role in many of these events. It is very unfortunate that this aspect of the events has escaped the attention of “official” Hungarian historians of 1956, the more so since Russian historians have amply explored the KGB’s activities in the Soviet armed forces: the sources, it seems, are available.

Moreover, there are ample data available on the role of the KGB (formerly NKVD) in the Soviet armed forces during the Second World War. Beria’s NKVD provided the main source of support undergirding Stalin’s regime; the NKVD “represented the Party’s authority over the army”. According to some opinions, in 1941–42, “994 thousand soldiers were convicted and 157 thousand shot” [by the NKVD]. In 1944, Serov arrived in Grozny with 100,000 NKVD soldiers. “…On 23 February, they [the NKVD] ordered the locals” to gather in the city squares, then summarily arrested them and loaded them onto trains heading East. On 7 March, Beria reported to Stalin “that 500,000 innocent persons are already on their way”. Yet, when one of the generals suggested that 20,000 NKVD soldiers also be sent to the front, Beria “launched into an awful tirade of abuse …”8

On 21 October 1956 the Hungarian armed forces were placed on full alert. The same order was carried out among the Soviet forces between 19 and 21st October. Beginning at 7 p.m. on 23 October, First Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party Ernõ Gerõ repeatedly telephoned Soviet Ambassador to Hungary Andropov and Soviet Party General Secretary Khrushchev asking for Soviet troops to intervene against the demonstrators. This request seems inexplicable, because according to Hungarian documents, there were 4,945 policemen, 1,569 militiamen, and 7,125 Hungarian soldiers in Budapest at the time – more than enough to handle a demonstration by unarmed protesters.

We should note that, according to Hungarian sources, a plan had been drawn up since 18 January 1954, for the use of armed forces. Already in July 1956 the Soviet Ambassador to Budapest reported to Moscow that the Hungarian leadership might request military intervention.

Before fulfilling Gerõ’s request, Khrushchev summoned Mátyás Rákosi, who at the time was in Moscow, to the Kremlin. Rákosi too urged rapid Soviet intervention. Khrushchev then informed Gerõ that the intervention should be requested by the Hungarian government, to which Gerõ replied that there was no time. (It should be emphasized that, at this time, the demonstrators were not yet armed!) In the end, the Hungarian government request for armed Soviet intervention was signed by former Prime Minister András Hegedûs on 28 October, but backdated to 24 October. However – according to another Russian source, the so-called “Malin memorandum” on the meeting of the Soviet Party Presidium – by the time of the telephone conversation between Khrushchev and Gerõ, the decision to intervene had already been made (that is, before 7 p.m.).9

Meanwhile, further to the Kremlin decision, at 9 p.m. on 23 October the Soviet troops were given the “Kompas” password, the signal to initiate operation “Wave”. (At this point, no “siege” of the Radio building had yet taken place in Budapest.) The command was issued by Sokolovsky, Chief of the General Staff of the Soviet Armed Forces. As a result, not only army corps under the command of Laschenko and Malachenko moved toward Budapest, but several divisions from Carpatho-Ukraine and Romania also crossed the Hungarian border. (In total, according to a Hungarian source based on Soviet documents, 31,500 soldiers, 1,130 tanks and self-propelled artillery vehicles, 380 armoured personnel carriers, and 616 artillery units and mortars lined up for battle.)10

Kyrow and Zselicky provide an hour by hour breakdown of the Soviet troop movements during the course of the revolution and freedom fight. According to their analysis, after the “Kompas” password to initiate operation “Wave” was given at 9 p.m. on 23 October, four large formations crossed the Hungarian border from Carpatho-Ukraine at 9.45 p.m. At 12.35 a.m. on 24 October units arriving from Romania also crossed the border. A special army corps commanded by Laschenko embarked in the direction of Budapest at 10 p.m. According to the report of the British ambassador to Hungary, on 22 October a Soviet armed column was advancing from its base in Szombathely (Western Hungary) in the direction of Székesfehérvár on the road to Budapest. In this case, “the Soviet leadership knew well in advance that a demonstration would take place on or around 23 October”. “And if the Russians knew about this event, then Gerõ must have known too, and that was why he gave his belligerent speech at 8 p.m. on 23 October because he had received word that Soviet armed forces were already on their way to defend him”.11

The siege of the headquarters of Hungarian Radio, 23 October 1956

With respect to the events at Hungarian Radio on 23 October 1956, for decades we have been told that the ÁVH security forces inside the building endured with patience to be shot at for long hours, responding only with warning shots. Over the last 20 years, several historians have refined this contention and substituted the more palatable, “it cannot be determined who started the shooting”.12

But eyewitness accounts and reports from the hospitals and embassies clearly tell a different story.

On 23 October, according to unanimous accounts, a peaceful crowd began to gather in front of the Radio building, later demanding that the students’ 16 Points (a list of demands composed earlier by student protesters at the Technical University) be broadcast. At 8 p.m. Ernõ Gerõ held a provocative and belligerent radio speech, which was heard by the protesters, because several residents of the neighbouring Bródy Sándor Street put their radios onto their windowsills. That speech, and the continued failure of the Radio to broadcast the students’ demands, further irritated the crowd, and then the first shots were fired by the ÁVH.

Ottó Szirmai, the Party secretary in charge of Hungarian Radio, was the person who examined, at 8.30 p.m. the identity papers of János Mois, the first of the demonstrators to be killed.13

After this, the hospitals in the vicinity began filling up with the injured and the dead. On 23 October, the No. 2 Surgical Clinic recorded 6 dead and 36 injured; the date of the records of the 6 dead was later changed to 24 October. In the trial of Ottó Szirmai, István Angyal,14 and József Teuchert, the accused unequivocally stated that the siege of the Radio building was preceded by a fusillade from the ÁVH. Writer László Gyurkó and historians Péter Gosztonyi and Miklós Kovács15 all made statements to this effect. It is important to emphasize that according to all these testimonies the shots were fired at an unarmed crowd.

Until now, the contents of the 23 October telegram sent to the State Department by Spencer N. Barnes, US chargé d’affaires in Budapest, have been entirely unknown. According to Barnes, “the Hungarian troops refused to shoot at the unarmed crowds; Russian-speaking men wearing ÁVH uniforms opened fire”. According to the diplomat’s information, there were between 30 and 60 dead, and Hungarian civilians were asking the US Embassy to intervene with the government to halt the killing.16

Interestingly, Barnes’ information concurs with the trial testimony of Ottó Szirmai, the Party secretary in charge of Hungarian Radio who was sentenced to death by Kádár’s court. (Szirmai returned to the Radio building at 10.30 p.m.)

“The soldiers informed me of the military commanders’ decision, according to which the commanders presented the demonstrators with an ultimatum: if they did not leave the area around the building within 30 minutes, they would be dispersed by gunfire.” According to Szirmai, by this time the ÁVH soldiers would rather have fled, but a high-ranking police officer declared to the ÁVH troops lined up in the courtyard: “You’re a bunch of cowards. I will personally shoot those among you who don’t obey orders.”

After this, Szirmai emerged in front of the building, ten minutes before the ultimatum was to expire, calling on the crowd to “leave the vicinity of the Radio building, because once the shooting begins, you will have no escape”. Similarly, László Gyurkó wrote: “The soldiers did not want to fight.” Prior to this moment, no one inside the Radio headquarters had been killed, and Ottó Szirmai, following Valéria Benke’s instructions, led the women out of the building. According to István Angyal – who at this point was on the street outside the Radio building – “the first volley of shots, which came from the weapons of the ÁVH inside the building, was fired at about 1.15 a.m. At this point, the firefight began, and it lasted until the Radio building was surrendered. Among the civilian demonstrators, no one had weapons of their own. They grabbed the weapons, or requested them from the soldiers who just stood by and watched while the shots were fired from the windows at the unarmed demonstrators”. In other words, according to Ottó Szirmai and István Angyal, the fusillade from the Radio building – following upon the earlier single-shot sniper fire – began at 1 a.m. on 24 October, and it was after this that the siege of the Radio started.17

And then the fighting began. According to a United Nations report, it began at 10.30 p.m., though Ottó Szirmai and István Angyal later concurred, during their trial, that the siege of the Radio began after volleys were fired from the building, at 1 a.m. on 24 October.18

Based on the concurring reports from multiple sources, we can thus state that shots were continuously fired from the building at the protesters over an extended period of time, culminating in volleys – causing uncounted deaths and injuries among the unarmed demonstrators. After this, the protesters began their siege of the building.19

The deliberate provision of arms to the demonstrators

A basic question regarding the outbreak of the revolution has not yet been asked: how did several thousand demonstrators gain access to weapons, late at night on 23 October and early in the morning of 24 October?

According to eyewitness accounts, the police and soldiers on the street – seeing the killings carried out by the ÁVH – voluntarily gave up their weapons to the protesters. Other sources have stated that the demonstrators drove trucks to the weapons factory and to military warehouses, where in most cases they got hold of a large number of weapons without difficulty. In my book, I cited an eyewitness, who said that at 9.30 p.m. at the corner of the Museum garden (near the Hungarian Radio headquarters) three trucks approached full of ÁVH troops, who then got off the vehicles and without a word surrendered their weapons to the protesters. In this scenario, then, the protesters would have been shooting at the ÁVH troops with weapons obtained, in part, from the ÁVH itself!20

A similar mention is found in the diary of the writer Gyula Fekete, who entitled his entry of 23 October “Provocation”. According to Fekete, a completely reliable friend of his was in the vicinity of 60 Andrássy Street (ÁVH headquarters) around 6 or 7 p.m. on 23 October. He went to a phone booth to make a call and was shocked when, opening the door of the booth, a large stash of weapons fell out. Then he went to another booth, which he didn’t even open, since he could see that it too was full of weapons.21

How could this be? Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of how the military works knows that firearm magazines and storerooms are the most strictly guarded locations at every military installation, and that a policeman or soldier who gives away his weapon is subject to the most severe punishment. A soldier is obligated to avoid being disarmed even at the cost of his life! And how did the demonstrators get hold of a truck on 23 October? Unauthorized use of a military truck is also a criminal act, yet we know of no criminal proceedings in the aftermath of the revolution which involved the giving up of weapons or trucks.

We must conclude that all of this was possible only if the military, police and ÁVH units followed orders coming from the top when they proceeded to the distribution of weapons.

Sir Leslie Fry, ambassador of Britain to Hungary, noted that “Russian troops were dispatched well before the protests in Budapest began, and they went into action as soon as seven hours after the demonstrators got hold of their first firearms.”22

To summarize, one can make the following statements in support of the conclusion that the outbreak of the revolution on 23 October 1956 was provoked by the Hungarian and Soviet authorities and armed units:

– Months prior to the revolution, a plan was prepared for Soviet military intervention – an intervention which Ernõ Gerõ and Mátyás Rákosi were demanding from Soviet leaders when the demonstrations started in the streets off. Consequently, the Soviet troops went into action well before the armed conflict broke out;

– The siege of the Radio building and the beginning of the uprising were made possible by the fact that, prior to the siege, a large number of demonstrators got unhindered access to weapons;

– The siege of the Radio building was preceded by shots fired into the (as yet unarmed) crowd, causing many deaths and injuries.

What could lie behind this provocation? At present, we can only suggest some probable motives:

– According to the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947, the Soviet Union was obliged to withdraw its troops from Hungary following the conclusion of the Austrian State Treaty (signed in 1955). The Soviets, then, had to find a pretext to retain their troops in Hungary;

– Following Khrushchev’s February 1956 “secret” speech at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Party, in which he partly exposed the crimes of Stalinism, the “Stalinist” camp was on the defensive and wanted to prove that even limited reforms in the Soviet Union would lead to a scenario like that of 1956 Hungary;

– It is possible that the Stalinists Gerõ and Rákosi wanted to exploit the provocation as an excuse to crack down on the growing number of “reformists” rallying around Imre Nagy;

– It can be assumed that Gerõ and Rákosi planned to make Imre Nagy the scapegoat in this scenario. Imre Nagy himself saw this clearly: “Imre Nagy… reminded us of a warning by Imre Mezõ ten days earlier that Gerõ was planning a large-scale provocation against him, and would allow things to develop into a Poznan-style uprising, so he could then crack down on the whole opposition wing of the Party”23;

– It is conceivable that the Soviet Union would have used an eventual armed intervention of the West as a pretext to invade Western Europe. As we know, at this time the Soviet armed forces were many times larger than those of Western Europe, and Soviet military plans for such an invasion were prepared until 1989.

But we cannot know with certainty the motives of the Soviet leadership.

What is certain, however, is that the provocation failed to achieve its objective. In the final analysis, the heroic Hungarian revolution and freedom fight was a complete victory. Within a few days, the world’s largest army, together with the KGB, departed from Budapest in defeat. The machinery of the Communist dictatorship collapsed within a week, and the spontaneously organized Workers Councils seized power. Fifteen Hungarian state and Party leaders, together with their families, fled to Moscow; 39 more fled to Munkács, a city in Carpatho-Ukraine. (A Russian source has published the names of these “dignitaries” – another source not known in Hungary.) An unknown number departed for Czechoslovakia and Romania. After 4 November 1956, the victorious revolution could be defeated only by a brutal military attack and years of reprisals.

In the end, the “boys of Pest”, the workers and university students, achieved a moral victory over Communist terror of global significance.

Western historians consider Hungary 1956 to be the most significant historical event in the second half of the 20th century: “Eleven days which shook the Kremlin” – and they are right. For their part, Rákosi and Gerõ have vanished from history.

It is regrettable that “official” Hungarian historians of 1956 have yet to uncover a significant part of these facts and their ramifications.

Translated by Katica Avvakumovits

NOTES:

1 Jobbágyi, Gábor: “Szevasztok, én meghalok!” Az 1956-os Forradalom és Szabadságharc és a megtorlás húszezer halottjáról (“Hi guys, I’m going to die!” The 1956 Revolution and Freedom Fight, and the 20,000 Victims of the Reprisals). Kairosz, 2010, pp. 41–43.

2 Vengerskie sabitia 1956 goda gzlazami KGB i MVD SSSR. Moscow, 2009; Horváth, Miklós – Tulipán, Éva: In memoriam 1956. Zrínyi Kiadó, 2006, pp. 7–12; Kyrow, Alexandr – Zselicky, Béla: Das internationale Krisenjahr 1956. Munich, Oldenbourg Verlag, 1999, pp. 99–100.

3 Vengerskie…, pp. 40–41.

4 Horváth – Tulipán, pp. 71, 81; Jobbágyi, p. 81.

5 Jobbágyi, p. 49.

6 Horváth – Tulipán, p. 41 and p. 47.

7 Jobbágyi, pp. 67–68.

8 Sebag Montefiore, Simon: Sztálin. A Vörös Cár udvara (Hungarian translation of Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar). Alexandra, 2007, pp. 394, 425–426, 473–474.

9 Kyrow – Zselicky, pp. 100–103; Horváth – Tulipán, p. 11.

10 Kyrow – Zselicky, pp. 131–132.

11 Sub clausula 1956. Budapest, 2006. The summary report of 3 January 1957 of Leslie A. Ch. Fry, Britain’s ambassador to Hungary.

12 See, for example, Vol. II, p. 11 of the so-called “White Book” published after the crushing of the revolution; Hollós, Ervin: Kik voltak és mit akartak (“Who they were and what they wanted”). Kossuth, 1987, p. 26; Gyurkó, László: 1956. Magvetõ, 1987, p. 72.

13 Jobbágyi, Gábor: Ez itt a vértanúk vére (“This is the blood of the martyrs”). Kairosz, 1998, p. 155.

14 Dubecz, Sándor: Sebészeti Klinika a tûzvonalban (“Surgical Clinic in the Line of Fire”). Budapest, 1996, p. 30; Horváth – Tulipán, pp. 208 (on Sándor Puskás, who was dead on arrival at 9.30 p m, but his records show the date of death as 24 October); p. 179 (on András Marton); Gyurkó, László: Bakancsos forradalom (“Revolution in Hiking Boots”). Kossuth, 2006, p. 78. On 23 October 1956, 40 injured people were brought to the Rókus hospital. Héjjas, Pál, ed.: 1956 Pest megyében (“1956 in Pest County”). 1996, vol. II, p. 50 For conditions in nearby hospitals, see Jobbágyi: “Szevasztok…”, pp. 30–131.

15 See Vengerskie…, pp. 11, 40.

16 See Sub clausula…, pp. 500–502.

17 Sub clausula…, pp. 500–502; Kastner, Georg: Ungarn 1956 vor der UNO. StudienVerlag, Innsbruck – Wien – Bozen, p. 94.

18 Jobbágyi: Ez itt…, p. 155; Kastner: p. 94.

19 Jobbágyi: Ez itt…, p. 156.

20 Jobbágyi: “Szevasztok…”, pp. 49-50.

21 Fekete, Gyula: Napló a történelemnek (“A Diary for History”). Entry for 23 October 1956.

22 Ez itt a vértanúk vére, pp. 749-751.

23 Tóbiás, Áron: In memoriam Nagy Imre. Szabad Tér Kiadó, 1989. Recollections by Alíz Gimes, p. 179.

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