An uneasy relationship: Soviet control over Central and Eastern Europe – Hungary 1956

Our first ‘case study’ in this unit exploring the dynamics, pressures and specific nuances of key events in the development – and ultimately the demise – of ‘Communist Europe’ focused on the dramatic shifting of the sands of power in Hungary in 1956.

Notwithstanding the East Berlin uprising of 1953, the events of October/November 1956 were the first real strike against the bow of Soviet political dominance and repression of the states and peoples of Mitteleuropa which was to endure at various levels for the best part of half a century.

In scenes that the Soviets regarded as tantamount to pure anarchy, the Hungarian people’s calls for reform and political freedoms over the course of the year reached a crescendo of violence and fury which seemed set to result in the ‘independence’ of Hungary from the Soviet Bloc and afford it freedom to plot its down destiny. However, despite his image as a man ‘the West could do business with’ – in contrast to his predecessor – Khrushchev was a man of his time and not willing to cede such concessions ….

To understand the cataclysmic events of Autumn 1956 in Budapest, some background context must be offered firstly. Hungary – and the Hungarian people – is something of an idiosyncratic anomaly in Central Europe. Neither Slavic nor Germanic, the Hungarians (or Magyars) stand isolated in terms of not having shared culture or language with their neighbours. For centuries they had been their own kingdom then latterly entered into a ‘dual-monarchy’ with neighbouring Austria. Thus after 1945 they definitely didn’t share in the ideals of a pan-slavic communist brotherhood (which was a selling point of the new ‘Soviet Empire’ promoted to most the newly ‘freed’ peoples of the region), and this feeling of being a square part in a round hole was exacerbated further through the systemic exploitation and asset-stripping of the (relatively advanced for Central/Eastern Europe) Hungarian agricultural and industrial sectors by their new Soviet overlords.

Despite the obvious ethnic, linguistic and cultural differences with much of their fellow members of the ‘Soviet co-prosperity sphere’ behind the Iron Curtain, for the first half of the 1950s the Hungarians were seen as the flagship communist nation, epitomised by their (almost!) all-conquering ‘Magical Magyars’ football team which swept aside all before them playing a futuristic and captivating brand of football. For many in Western Europe, Hungary epitomised all there was to admire (and fear) from behind the curtain…

In what acts as the harbinger for all good revolutions and revolts – poor harvests, rising prices for basic essentials and lack of communication from those on high – the Hungarian people’s calls for basic needs and equality soon morphed into a complete disavowal of the Soviet system and anarchy reigned on the streets as the popular uprising took over and the vestiges/apparatus of the hated Soviet system were hastily torn down. Hungary’s reformist leader Imre Nagy felt ennobled enough by the optimism and nationalist fervour enveloping the streets to withdraw Hungary from the Warsaw Pact and call for free and democratic elections, effectively terminating its relationship with the Communist world.

The government should be reconstituted … all criminal leaders of the Stalinist-Rakosi era should be relieved of their posts at once… …

We demand complete freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of the Press and a free Radio, as well as a new daily newspaper of large circulation…

We demand that statues of Stalin, the symbol of Stalinist tyranny and political oppression, should be removed as quickly as possible…”

Selection of some of the demands outlined by Hungarian students, 1956

Naturally, ‘the West’ were delighted at this – an organic, self-driven and self-sustaining popular revolution from within the Soviet system against the Soviet Union – and offered moral support to the Hungarian revolutionaries and Nagy. However, moral support and kind words don’t fare too well against tanks, planes and artillery shells and the might of the Soviet Army was turned on the Hungarian people, with the level of destruction and bloodshed as one might expect. Ironically – given the aims of the Soviet Union in spreading communism to unite the ‘workers of the world’ – the strongest resistance to the re-enforcement of Soviet control was in the working class districts of Budapest, thus the very people the Soviet Union would have as the supposed beneficiaries of their system were the ones who had the strongest hatred for it!

I feel with the Hungarian people

Dwight Eisenhower, US President, 1956

The Hungarian Uprising was over as quickly as it had begun in a show of massive military might and consequent repression. 3000 Hungarians lost their lives in a conflict where according to the United Nations “a well-equipped foreign army crushed by overwhelming force a national movement and eliminating the Government” – so much for ‘freedom’ and workers rights!

Please find associated resources and relevant media links below!

BBC ‘History File’ document-drama on the events of 1956 in Hungary. Particularly useful in bringing it life and giving events some visual (colourful) context
An excellent video from an excellent channel overall. Great to add depth and nuance to your understanding and analysis

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