(Editor’s Note: This post received a Red Star by the Editorial Team)
In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev totally denounced Stalin (following his death in 1953) at the Soviet Communist Party’s Twentieth Congress in February. This condemnation led to multiple crises in Europe, particularly in Hungary and Poland. In particular, Poland and Hungary had communist parties with little footing and strong Catholic church roots, which provided plenty of dissent to the weaker communist parties. Therefore, they were the more obvious targets for the Eastern European crises.
In Poland, there were demonstrations held in 1956 to protest against wage cuts and other problems felt by local workers, but those actions were dealt with rather quickly, leaving Poland considerably better off than Hungary.
For several years, Hungarians had suffered “economic hardship and political repression” (Siegelbaum) under Matyas Rakosi, the leader of the Hungarian Communist Party. He was forced to resign in 1953, but a mere two years later, supporters of his lineage took claim of the position once again after forcing his successor, the more liberal Imre Nagy, out of business. The actual protests and revolts in Hungary were started when university students saw what happened in Poland. They gathered in Budapest with the intent to commemorate the poet Sandor Petofi and voice their nationalist opinions about their ongoing adversities and hardships. The protesters also desired a greater freedom of expression. However, these demonstrations soon turned violent and riotous, particularly after the Soviet army came onto the scene. In fact, Nagy was even reappointed to serve as Prime Minister to try to quell protesters. Nothing seemed to work. Khrushchev sent in more troops to Hungary in late October, and as a result, Nagy declared that Hungary was withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact. However, the new Communist party chief, Janos Kadar, sided with the Soviets and said Hungary was forming a new government, with him as leader. Nagy was seen as a counter-revolutionary since he did not side with Kadar, and took refuge in the Yugoslav embassy. On November 4, on top of the Russian invasion into Hungary, Nagy was lured out of the Yugoslav embassy, arrested, and secretly tried. He was executed in 1958. Ultimately, around 200,000 Hungarians fled to the West. According to Siegelbaum, “The Hungarian uprising–dubbed a counter-revolution in Soviet accounts but widely regarded elsewhere and in Hungary as a revolution–constituted the greatest crisis within the Soviet bloc before the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968” (Siegelbaum).
Something else I found interesting surrounding this topic came from The Current Digest of the Russian Press, published on November 28, 1956. There was a quote from the newspaper Szabad Nep, published on the same day, that stated: “Toiling peasantry! The capital needs food. Budapest children, babies, mothers, hospitals and the people of Budapest need bread, milk, vegetables and potatoes. In accordance with the desire of the people the new national government, relying on the people, has actively started to solve the country’s problems. Let us show confidence in our government in the implementation of its programs. Deliver to the capital bread, milk, vegetables and potatoes as quickly as possible.” This is similar to what Russian peasants experienced before and during their own revolution, and sadly but truly proves that there were people going hungry in Hungary.
It is pretty terrible to think that modern societies still had to deal with problems of food shortages and starvation. The Soviet Union’s collectivization and poor handling of food deliverance was a big part in revolutions and protests throughout the Soviet bloc. It is interesting to note the bottom up reform that was desired, in Hungary specifically, that led to the eventual demise of the Soviet Union in the 1990’s from other states acting similarly.
It is pretty terrible to think that modern societies still had to deal with problems of food shortages and starvation. The Soviet Union’s collectivization and poor handling of food deliverance was a big part in revolutions and protests throughout the Soviet bloc. It is interesting to note the bottom up reform that was desired, in Hungary specifically, that led to the eventual demise of the Soviet Union in the 1990′s from other states acting similarly.
This is a great post. I wrote a paper on Hungarian history, one of the sections being about the 1956 Hungarian revolution. This post did a great job of summarizing the events that took place during the revolution in a very succinct way.
I sometimes forget the fact that Soviet actions not only affect Russia but other countries as well. I liked how this post went into how the Soviet stagnation in Russia had affected other countries such as Poland and Hungary.
Something I’ve noticed in my readings of various food shortages… what about meat? People always talk about bread and water (and milk and potatoes in this case), but was there also a shortage of beef, chicken, etc.? I almost never hear about meat shortages mentioned at the same time as other food shortages.
I think that is because meat is sort of considered a delicacy and not necessary in everyday life. Milk and bread on the other hand or probably more important in the daily diet. Also, I love hearing about dictators denouncing each other. It reminds me of kids arguing about who’s got a better toy or something.
I just had to read a chapter for another class that talked about this Hungarian uprising and it discussed an interesting tactic the Soviets used during the revolts in Budapest. Part of their police drove in ambulances with red crosses, were disguised as doctors and opened fire on the protestors. I wonder why they did this when they also had police opening fires on the crowd in uniform as well.
Good insights in this post, and the quote from the Current Digest is excellent. On the military police disguised as medical personnel, my guess is that the Soviets wanted to confuse the Hungarians about the level of domestic dissatisfaction with the rebellion.