Hungary and the Soviet Empire
In 1956 the Soviet Union shocked the world by sending troops to overthrow the government of Hungary. A similar invasion of Czechoslovakia took place in 1968.
The Hungarians were a proud nation with a strong sense of identity. Before 1918 they played a key part in the running of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hungarian nationalists did not like being part of a Soviet Empire after the Second World War.
Stalin's actions increased anti-Soviet feelings in Hungary. Free elections were held in November 1945. The communists got less than 20 percent of the vote. Stalin ignored the decision of the Hungarian people and imposed a government on the country in which communists had many of the most important posts.
In August 1947 another election was held in Hungary. This time the Soviet Union made sure that the election was rigged so that the communists won. Between 1949 and 1953 Hungary was badly treated by Stalin. Opponents of Soviet power were dealt with ruthlessly.
In 1949 the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Hungary, Cardinal Mindszenty was sentenced to life imprisonment. Even Hungarian communists were attacked if they showed any signs of disagreeing with Stalin. The leading communist. Laszlo Radk, was put on trial and hanged in 1949 because he was too independent-minded.
The death of Stalin in 1953 created a new uncertain situation in Eastern Europe. During the Stalinist years, Hungary had been ruled with considerable brutality by Matyas Rakosi. Rakosi managed to hang on to power after 1953, but he was forced to invite a reformer called Imre Nagy to join his government. The two men got on badly and in 1955 Rakosi got the upper hand and threw Nagy out of the government and the party.
Hungarians were not sure how far the new Soviet leadership would allow Hungary to operate as an independent country. For a number of reasons Hungarians hoped that they might be able to have greater independence:
• The new Soviet leadership was friendly to Tito's Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia had successfully broken away from Soviet control in 1948. People in Hungary thought that other countries could now follow the Yugoslav path.
• Stalin was criticized by the new Soviet leader, Khrushchev, in a famous speech in February 1956. Hungarians hoped that Khrushchev would be very different from Stalin and would be happy with a new, independent Hungary.
• In June 1956 there were anti-Soviet demonstrations in Poland. Khrushchev looked for a compromise. He allowed reforms and he appointed Gomulka, a man who had been imprisoned by Stalin, as the new leader of the Polish Communist Party.
The news from Poland seemed like further proof that the bad old days of Soviet control were over. In fact this was a mistake: the new Soviet leaders still wanted to control the countries of the Warsaw Pact. Hungarians listened to radio broadcasts from the West that criticized communism. Some felt that if Hungary challenged Soviet power they could expect help from the USA.
Back in 1948 the Truman Doctrine had stated that the USA would help any people fighting against communism. In practice, the US theory of containment meant that America would only threaten force to stop the spread of communism: countries that were already communist could expect sympathy but no help.
Alarm in Moscow
There was an air of excitement in Hungary in the summer of 1956. People heard the news from Poland. They wanted even more change in Hungary. They talked about Hungary breaking away from the Soviet bloc and becoming a neutral country. This was to much for Khrushchev. He could accept some changes but not Hungarian neutrality. If Hungary left the Warsaw Pact, other countries might follow. The protective buffer of friendly countries built up by Stalin might fall apart.
The Soviet leaders tried to stop the disturbances in Hungary by changing the leadership of the Hungarian communists. Realising that Rakosi was extremely unpopular, the Soviet leadership forced him to resign in July 1956. The new ruler was Erno Gero. However Gero was seen as a Stalinist by many Hungarians and the change of leader made little difference.
On 6 October 1956, Laszlo Radk, the leading victim of Stalinist terror, was re-buried with a state funeral. A huge crowd turned to show their support for the memory of Radk and the idea of reform. Further demonstrations called for the removal of Gero an the reinstatement of the popular reformer Nagy. On 24 October
Nagy became Prime Minister. Khrushchev had hoped that this would end the disturbances. It did not. Across the country, workers set up revolutionary councils. They demanded a complete end to Soviet system in Hungary. They called for free multi-party elections, a free Press and for Hungary to leave the Warsaw Pact. Nagy agreed to accept these reforms. At this point Khrushchev decided to invade.
The Soviet invasion
The Soviet forces reached Budapest on 4 November 1956. The Red Army forces comprised 200,000 soldiers and 2,500 tanks. The Hungarians fought against the invaders. At least 3,000 Hungarians were killed (some estimates are much higher). Despite Nagy's desperate appeal neither the United Nations nor the USA did anything to help. The powerful Soviet forces took control of Hungary and imposed a new pro-Soviet government.
After the rising
• The new communist government of Hungary was led by a man called Janos Kadar. Under Kadar economic conditions in Hungary gradually improved.
• The supporters of the Rising were severely punished. Imre Nagy was executed in 1958.
• The Hungarian Uprising showed East Europeans that they could expect no help from the USA if they rose up against Soviet control. The US policy of 'containment' meant that the Americans would fight to stop the spread of communism but would not interfere if a country was already communist.
• There was a period of uneasy peace in Eastern Europe for the next 10 years. It was not until the mid-1960s that people in the satellite states once again challenged Soviet control. In 1968 the government of Czechoslovakia decided to develop a new form of communism that was much more liberal than Soviet communism.
• Communists around the world were dismayed by the way the Soviet Union used force against the Hungarian people. In Western Europe many communists were disillusioned. In China the leaders became more wary of Moscow.
• The invasion was a blow to the reputation of the United Nations. It did nothing to stop an act of aggression by one member state on another member state.