Budapest's Betrayal - The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and Its Legacy

Focus By Mark Duncan*

Focus

The Soviet invasion of Hungary was the first instance of inter-state war in Europe since 1945. The Charter of the United Nations (UN) had committed that organisation “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. Yet whilst the UN played a prominent role in defusing the simultaneous Suez Crisis by instituting the first international peace-keeping operation in history, it failed to take any substantive action on Hungary. Its only response was a special investigative committee, whose report – delivered five months later – was as predictable as the subsequent Soviet denunciation. Even the United States, whose statesmen had preached the liberation of Eastern Europe, were prepared only to defend the frontiers of the free world, not advance them. France, Germany and the United Kingdom would not act without US leadership, especially after the debacle of Suez.

On a quiet afternoon on 23 October, tens of thousands of Hungarians – lead mostly by students and writers – converged on Bem Square in Budapest to demonstrate in solidarity with striking workers in Poland. Few would have conceived that this initially peaceful protest would rapidly escalate into civil war, revolution and resistance against Soviet invasion, leaving over 2,000 Hungarians dead and a futher 200,000 displaced as refugees. The Hungarian Revolution would ignite and fizzle within only 12 days, yet it had seismic consequences for Europe as well as the world.

When the uprising began, Hungary’s Communist regime had only held undisputed power for seven years. Starting from a position of relative weakness, the Communists employed the so-called “salami” strategy to gradually slice up their opposition. The General Secretary of the Hungarian Working People’s Party (MDP), Mátyás Rákosi, remained paranoid about potential dissent; the State Protection Authority (ÁVH) kept tabs on over one million Hungarians, and several former stars of the Party (including the ÁVH’s founder, László Rajk) were condemned to death at show trials. Meanwhile, the Hungarian economy groaned under the weight of post-war reparations to the Soviet bloc, whilst the prioritisation of heavy industry under the Stalinist development model lead to a scarcity of consumer goods and foodstuffs.

Instead of offering political stability, the Communists’ consolidation of power soon descended into a high-stakes game of musical chairs. After the death of Soviet premier Josef Stalin in 1953, Moscow curbed Rákosi’s power by forcing him to resign as general secretary in favour of Imre Nagy. The latter embarked upon a reformist agenda that proved intolerable to MDP hard-liners, who engineered Rákosi’s return to full power in 1955. But year later, the eventual victor in the Soviet power struggle, Nikita Khrushchev, denounced Stalin in his infamous ‘Secret Speech’, providing the pretext for Nagy to once more replace Rákosi (who self-described as “Stalin’s best pupil”). By October, Hungary had the perfect conditions for civil conflict: a disunited elite, a troubled economy and a heavy-handed police state.

As is so often the case when confronted by rebellion, the Government veered wildly between concession and coercion. The ÁVH attempted to disperse the protests, only to end up besieged by them. When Hungarian troops were called out to relieve the police, they promptly defected. Rákosi’s replacement, Ernő Gerő, first condemned the protesters, then called in Soviet forces to suppress them, before finally fleeing the country as the protesters descended on the Parliament. The supreme confusion in the government allowed the country to descend into a three-way brawl between the rebels, loyalists and Soviet troops. The latter withdrew as a new government formed under Nagy, who vowed to remove all Soviet troops from Hungary and withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. Yet success proved fleeting. On 4 November, the Soviet Army occupied Hungary, and by 9 November, the revolution was over.

The Soviet invasion of Hungary was the first instance of inter-state war in Europe since 1945. The Charter of the United Nations (UN) had committed that organisation “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. Yet whilst the UN played a prominent role in defusing the simultaneous Suez Crisis by instituting the first international peace-keeping operation in history, it failed to take any substantive action on Hungary. Its only response was a special investigative committee, whose report – delivered five months later – was as predictable as the subsequent Soviet denunciation. Even the United States, whose statesmen had preached the liberation of Eastern Europe, were prepared only to defend the frontiers of the free world, not advance them. France, Germany and the United Kingdom would not act without US leadership, especially after the debacle of Suez. The delimitation of Europe into distinct spheres of influence was accepted as a fait accompli.

Yet for the Soviets, the episode proved a Pyrrhic victory. The suppression of the Hungarian uprising shattered the unity and solidarity of the worldwide socialist movement. European communist parties suffered schisms over the matter, with defectors denouncing supporters of the Soviet action as ‘tankies’. As the correspondent for the British communist party’s official newspaper noted, “I was heart-sick to see the army of a Socialist State make war on a proud and indomitable people.” In retrospect, Hungary was the first crack in the veneer of the Eastern European monolith, which widened with the later Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and culminated in the total collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989.

Over six decades since the Revolution, the underlying patterns in European security remain disturbingly relevant. Just as the brutal intervention in Hungary destroyed the dream of a peaceful post-war world, the crisis in Ukraine since 2014 has shattered the pretensions of a new world order after the Cold War. Appropriately enough, the agreements guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity were signed in Budapest; this Budapest Memorandum proved no more effective in preventing Russian aggression against Ukraine than the Warsaw Treaty did in preventing Soviet aggression against Hungary. Realists such as John Mearsheimer have accused the US and Western Europe of unrealistically encouraging Ukraine to politically and economically distance itself from Russia only to shirk from taking responsibility once this inevitably prompted retaliation. For its part, Russia has once again found itself relying on brute force to prevent the perceived secession of a friendly state into the enemy camp, having failed to do so by its powers of persuasion and attraction. 1956 shook the socialist world; 2014 drove a wedge between the Orthodox Slavic community of Russia and Ukraine, and sent a shiver throughout the post-Soviet region that Russia has sought to consolidate under its leadership. Above all, the logic of spheres of influence remains prevalent: a zero-sum contest in which any gain for one side means an irretrievable loss for the other.

The Hungarian Revolution therefore remains of great relevance to considerations of contemporary international relations. Its tragic lessons appear unheeded even by those states which were parties or bystanders to the original conflict. First, rhetoric without responsibility can inflame and prolong crises by raising unrealistic expectations of imminent action and assistance. Second, ideological frameworks of foreign policy can blind decision-makers to the realities of a situation. The Hungarian uprising was ultimately not about the Cold War but domestic factors of discontent emerging from a fundamentally unsustainable socio-political system. The Soviets suppressed the symptoms of this malaise without addressing the cause, to their ultimate undoing. Third, polarisation and international rivalry can magnify disputes beyond their actual significance. The fate of a small country of less than 10 million people was elevated to a threat to the strategic interests of its superpower neighbour, justifying military action.

It was not so much Hungary’s secession from the Warsaw Pact but its potential realignment towards the Euro-Atlantic community which drove the Soviet response. Wherever competing regional orders come into conflict, front-line states will be subject to intense external pressures which traduce their sovereignty, autonomy and freedom of action. As we witness the emergence of a new multipolar order, the rise of multiple power centres must not become the catalyst for a grand carve-up of regional states into captive spheres. Otherwise, the next Hungary might not be in Europe.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.

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