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On November 4, 1963, the Soviets launched an attack to quell the Hungarian Revolution, which began on October 23. A Radio Budapest correspondent reads a statement delivered earlier by Hungarian Premier Imre Nagy charging the Soviets with attempting to overthrow Hungary's "lawful democratic government."
Budapest is Burning: The Hungarian Revolt That Shook the Soviet Empire
The 1956 uprising ultimately failed, but delivered a serious shock to the Soviet system.
It was sixty years ago when teenagers hurling Molotov cocktails breached a crack in the Iron Curtain.
In the autumn of 1956, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and the rest of eastern Europe seemed firmly in the grip of the Soviet Empire. Not that the empire’s subjects liked it that way. Anticommunist guerrillas plagued Soviet rule in Ukraine and the Baltic states throughout the 1950s. Hundreds of striking East German workers were killed in 1953 by Soviet troops and East German Volkspolizei, while dozens more Polish strikers were killed by Polish security forces in June 1956.
But all of this was mere rumblings, inconvenient but hardly fatal, for an empire digesting its post–World War II conquests. Meanwhile, the Soviets pressed on with their plans for the communization of eastern Europe. Intellectuals were purged, private farms were collectivized with predictably disastrous results and eastern Europeans learned to stand in line for food rations in time-honored Communist tradition. In 1955, the Warsaw Pact bound together the Soviet Union and its satellite states even closer in a military alliance.
Like the Mafia, you could join the Warsaw Pact, but you couldn’t leave.
Not until the afternoon of October 23, 1956, when two hundred thousand demonstrators took to the streets to demand political freedom for Hungarians and international neutrality for Hungary. Just a few years before, those demands would have been immediately met by tank divisions and firing squads. But Stalin had died three years earlier, leading to a softening of the Gulag state. Khrushchev had acknowledged Stalinist crimes in his “secret speech” of February 1956 (which was then broadcast by Radio Free Europe, which had obtained a copy). The Polish protests of 1956 led to the appointment of Polish reformist Wladyslaw Gomulka as that nation’s leader. And, Hungary’s neighbor Austria had declared its neutrality toward East and West. Perhaps Hungary could do the same? There are times in history when all things seem possible.
That night, Hungarian Working People’s Party secretary Erno Gero requested Soviet intervention. The Red Army sent tanks into Budapest the next day, but kept a low profile while protestors with looted weapons battled Hungarian AVH secret police. Why should Moscow antagonize the locals with foreign troops if local security forces could quash the violence?
The Kremlin’s hopes were disappointed. Violence quickly spread into the countryside. Rebels now attacked Soviet troops in Budapest as well as the AVH, murdering captured Communist officials and secret policemen. Hungarian army units defected with their arms to the opposition. Political prisoners were freed, and local councils set up to replace Communist officialdom.
These were not domestic grumblings. This was open rebellion against Communist rule and Soviet control.
Party Secretary Gero fled to the Soviet Union, and reformist Imre Nagy became prime minister. On November 1, Nagy declared Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. Noncommunist political parties were allowed to join the government. By November 4, the violence began to subside. Perhaps Hungary would achieve freedom after all.
It was not to be. Now, Moscow decided to intervene again, but this time much, much more forcefully. Despite concerns that the world would perceive the Soviet Union as an aggressor, the Kremlin felt it had to act. China, which had become increasingly assertive in the Communist bloc, pushed for intervention. Hungarian withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact threatened to unravel the alliance. Soviet leaders also knew that if multiparty rule were allowed in Hungary, demands for democracy would spread across eastern Europe. And the party least likely party to win a free election would have been the Communists.
Also in 1956, the Soviet Union was ruled by men who had experienced how close Hitler’s invasion of Russia had come to victory. Eastern Europe was supposed to be the buffer zone that would protect Russia from another assault by the Western imperialists. Look at how Russia views an independent Ukraine and NATO, and history repeats itself.
The Soviet crackdown in Hungary followed a familiar pattern. After promising Nagy that it would not invade, Moscow invited Hungarian leaders, including Minister of Defense Pal Maleter, to meet a Soviet delegation. The Hungarians were then arrested.
Then the Red Army attacked Budapest in “Operation Whirlwind.” In brutal urban combat, rebels with Molotov cocktails and submachine guns faced fifty-ton Soviet tanks. The pictures of burned-out Soviet armor are striking. The photos of teenage Hungarian girls cradling their weapons in a hopeless fight are haunting.
By mid-November, the Hungarian revolt was crushed. Perhaps 2,500 Hungarians died, and seven hundred Soviet soldiers. Yet once the Red Army unleashed its armored fist, there could only be one outcome. The only hope for the rebels was for Western intervention. But how many Americans, Britons and French would die for Hungary just a decade after a devastating global war? Against a nuclear-armed Russia, how far could Moscow be pushed?
However, there is a deeper question that still resonates today. To what extent did the United States instigate the Hungarian revolt? Some believe Radio Free Europe exhorted the Hungarian people to revolt, and promised U.S. troops would come to the rescue. Others claim the CIA supplied weapons to the rebels, which the agency denies.
But as with so much Cold War mythology, it turns out the CIA was more incompetent than omnipotent. In fact, the agency was completely taken by surprise. The CIA had only one Hungarian-speaking case officer in Hungary from 1950 to 1957, and he was so mired with administrative duties that he didn’t have enough time to be an agent provocateur.
Regardless of whether the U.S. encouraged the Hungarian revolt, the Hungarians were counting on American help. Just as in 1991, when the United States urged Iraqis to revolt against Saddam Hussein. When the Marsh Arabs of Iraq did revolt, and called for U.S. troops to support them in taking Baghdad, they were rebuffed by America and crushed by Saddam.
Naturally, the Soviets blamed the Hungarian revolt on the Americans, because it is much easier to blame “foreign spies” (Stalin always did) than the justifiable hatred of people who never asked to live under Communism. But the Soviets weren’t any more competent than the Americans. As the National Security Archive organization notes, “the availability of an abundance of intelligence assets does not necessarily provide all the answers. Moscow was also taken by surprise by the Revolution despite the thousands of Soviet soldiers, KGB officers, and Party informants present in Hungary. Rather than understanding the sources of the discontent, it was easier for Soviet operatives and even the leadership to cast woefully misdirected blame on the CIA for the unrest.”
The bloody demise of the Hungarian revolt proved that eastern Europe would remain a Soviet satellite, and that the West could or would do nothing to change that. Hungary would have to wait thirty-three years for liberation. But in 1989, freedom would come.
Michael Peck is a frequent contributor to the National Interest and is a regular writer for many outlets like WarIsBoring. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.
Image: Soviet tank in Budapest with Hungarian flag. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/@Takkk
RFE And The Hungarian Revolution -- Original Broadcasts, Reporter’s Diary Now Online
RFE’s role during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution has been the subject of debate by researchers and Hungarian exiles. A. Ross Johnson, a former Director of RFE, has concluded on the basis of extensive research that RFE "did not" foment revolution or urge Hungarians to wage a hopeless fight against the Soviet Army, but many listeners believed from the tone of some RFE commentaries and the very existence of RFE Hungarian broadcasts that Western powers would intervene on their behalf.
WASHINGTON – Hungarians around the world marked this month the 60th anniversary of their country’s exhilarating, yet ultimately tragic effort to free itself from Soviet domination in October 1956. The Hungarian Revolution was a milestone of the Cold War, showing the lengths to which Moscow was willing to go to maintain control over its Warsaw Pact allies, and signaling to Western governments the longevity of communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe.
Radio Free Europe (RFE, later RFE/RL) and its Hungarian language service are widely credited with helping the Hungarian people endure four decades of Soviet rule, but the role they played during the Hungarian Revolution has been debated by researchers and Hungarian exiles in the years since 1956. A. Ross Johnson, a former Director of RFE who wasn't with the organization in 1956, reviewed RFE/RL archives now at the Hoover Institution and the Open Society Archives, examined declassified State Department and German Foreign Office records, and scoured memoirs of, and interviews with, participants in those events. Johnson's conclusion: while RFE "did not" foment revolution or urge Hungarians to wage a hopeless fight against the Soviet Army, "many" Hungarian listeners "did" conclude, "from the tone of some RFE commentaries and the very existence of RFE Hungarian broadcasts that Western powers would intervene on their behalf.”
In order to shed more light on RFE’s role during the revolution, Hungary’s National Szechenyi Library has posted online a unique database of all RFE Hungarian broadcasts from October 22 to November 12, 1956. The project, a collaboration with the Hoover Institution Library and Archives and RFE/RL, combines written transcriptions of each program with digitized audio files of the original broadcasts, recovered from low-quality, slow speed transmitter “log” recordings – the so-called “Koblenz” files. The NSL website Magyar Oktober also includes a wealth of other audiovisual material that documents the history of the revolution for a new generation of Hungarians.
Given RFE's mission and the nature of communist rule in postwar Central and Eastern Europe, RFE journalists generally were not able to report from the countries of the Warsaw Pact. In late October 1956, however, RFE allowed at least 14 Munich-based RFE reporters to cross the border into western Hungary to provide on-the-scene coverage. The diary of one of these reporters, Frederick ("Fritz") Hier, has now been posted in full to the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive.
Hier’s diary chronicles his arrival in Vienna on October 27 (with RFE colleagues Gabor Tormay and Jerzy Ponikiewicz, and a journalist from South German Radio), his reporting activities from the Austria-Hungary border, as well as his entry into Hungary on October 31 to report from the city of Gyor. Soviet soldiers kept the team from leaving Hungary on November 2 two days later, on November 4, Hier became an eyewitness to the Soviet occupation. State Department pressure was needed to secure the release of the reporters from Hungary on November 11. Thirty three years would pass before RFE reporters would again be able to cross the Iron Curtain and report directly from Hungary.
Additional items related to the Hungarian Revolution from RFE/RL’s vast archives, including collections of Western media coverage of the revolution, RFE Research Background Reports on this situation in Hungary, and special RFE reporting on audience opinion concerning Hungarian broadcasting activity in the 1950s, can be found at the website of the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives.
Soviet Statement On Hungary
Original Source: Moscow Radio, 30 October 1956.
The principles of peaceful coexistence, friendship, and cooperation among all states have always been and still form the unshakable foundation of the foreign relations of the USSR. This policy finds its most profound and consistent expression in the relationship with socialist countries. United by the common ideal of building a socialist society and the principles of proletarian internationalism, the countries of the great commonwealth of socialist nations can build their relations only on the principle of full equality, respect of territorial integrity, state independence and sovereignty, and noninterference in one another’s domestic affairs…
In the process of the establishment of the new regime and the deep revolutionary transformation in social relations there were not a few difficulties, unsolved problems, and out-and-out mistakes, including some in the relations between the socialist states-violations and mistakes which infringed the principles of equality in relations between socialist states.
The 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union resolutely condemned these mistakes and violations and demanded that the Soviet Union apply Lenin’s principles of the equality of nations in its relations with other socialist states. This statement took complete cognizance of the historical past and the peculiarities of each country which has taken the road of building a new life…
As recent events have shown, the need has arisen for an appropriate declaration to be made on the position of the Soviet Union in the mutual relations between the USSR and other socialist countries, primarily in the economic and military spheres. The Soviet Government is ready to discuss with the governments of other socialist states measures insuring the further development and strengthening of economic ties between socialist countries, in order to remove any possibilities of violating the principle of national sovereignty, mutual advantage, and equality in economic relations.
This principle should extend also to advisers. It is common knowledge that during the first period of the formation of the new socialist order, at the request of the governments of the people’s democracies, the Soviet Union sent to these countries a certain number of specialists-engineers, agronomists, scientific workers, and military advisers. During the latter period the Soviet Government on many occasions asked the socialist states about the recall of its advisers.
In view of the fact that by now the people’s democracies have formed their own qualified national cadres in all spheres of economic and military construction, the Soviet Government considers it as urgent to examine, together with other socialist states, the question whether a further stay of USSR advisers in these countries is expedient…
With a view to insuring the mutual security of the socialist countries, the Soviet government is ready to examine with other socialist countries that are parties to the Warsaw Pact the question of Soviet troops stationed on the territory of these countries. In this the Soviet Government proceeds from the general principle that the stationing of troops of one state that is a party to the Warsaw Pact on the territory of another state that is a party to the Warsaw Pact should take place on the basis of an agreement among all its participants and not only with the agreement of the state on whose territory these troops are stationed or are planned to be stationed at its request…
The Soviet government regards it as indispensable to make a statement in connection with the events in Hungary.
The course of the events has shown that the working people of Hungary, who have achieved great progress on the basis of their people’s democratic order, correctly raise the question of the necessity of eliminating serious shortcomings in the field of economic building, the further raising of the material well-being of the population, and the struggle against bureaucratic excesses in the state apparatus.
However, this just and progressive movement of the working people was soon joined by forces of black reaction and counterrevolution, which are trying to take advantage of the discontent of part of the working people to undermine the foundations of the people’s democratic order in Hungary and to restore the old landlord and capitalist order.
The Soviet government and all the Soviet people deeply regret that the development of events in Hungary has led to bloodshed. On the request of the Hungarian People’s Government the Soviet Government consented to the entry into Budapest of the Soviet Army units to assist the Hungarian People’s Army and the Hungarian authorities to establish order in the town. Believing that the further presence of Soviet Army units in Hungary can serve as a cause for even greater deterioration of the situation, the Soviet Government has given instructions to its military command to withdraw the Soviet army units from Budapest as soon as this is recognized as necessary by the Hungarian Government.
At the same time, the Soviet government is ready to enter in relevant negotiations with the Government of the Hungarian People’s Republic and other participants of the Warsaw Pact on the question of the presence of Soviet troops on the territory of Hungary.
The defense of socialist achievements by the people’s democracy of Hungary is at the present moment the chief and sacred duty of workers, peasants, and intelligentsia, and of all the Hungarian working people.
The Soviet Government expresses confidence that the peoples of the socialist countries will not permit foreign and internal reactionary forces to undermine the basis of the people’s democratic regimes, won and consolidated by the heroic struggle and toil of the workers, peasants, and intelligentsia of each country.
They will make all efforts to remove all obstacles that lie in the path of further strengthening the democratic basis of the independence and sovereignty of their countries, to develop further the socialist basis of each country, its economy and culture, for the sake of the constant growth of the material welfare and the cultural level of all the peoples. They will consolidate the fraternal unity and mutual assistance of the socialist countries for the strengthening of the great cause of peace and socialism.
Source: Department of State Bulletin. Vol. 35, no. 907 (12 November 1956), pp. 745-746.
Siege of Budapest
The siege of Budapest or Battle of Budapest was the 50-day-long encirclement by Soviet and Romanian forces of the Hungarian capital of Budapest, near the end of World War II. Part of the broader Budapest Offensive, the siege began when Budapest, defended by Hungarian and German troops, was first encircled on 26 December 1944 by the Red Army and the Romanian Army. During the siege, about 38,000 civilians died through starvation or military action. The city unconditionally surrendered on 13 February 1945. It was a strategic victory for the Allies in their push towards Berlin. 
3 November–15 February: 137,000 men 
24 December–15 February: 114,000 men 
3 November–11 February: 280,000 men 
The Hungarian Revolution of 1956
The early 1950s witnessed a thaw in the Communist monolith. Stalin’s death in 1953 led to Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956 which condemned excesses of the past. The U.S. and USSR agreed to a treaty in 1955 establishing Austria as a neutral and demilitarized country, which encouraged hopes in Hungary of a similar arrangement. July 1956 saw the resignation of hardliner Mátyás Rákosi, “Stalin’s Best Hungarian Disciple”, as General Secretary of the Party. Just a few months later, in October, the USSR gave in to reformist demands in Poland, which further spurred hopes for concessions in Budapest. All these changes encouraged students, journalists, and writers to openly criticize the form of government and call for reforms.
Soon, student groups across the nations had banded together. On October 23, 1956, several thousand protesters marched through central Budapest to the Parliament building. Some students tore down a monument erected to Stalin and put Hungarian flags in the boots which remained on the pedestal. Someone in the crowd cut out the Communist coat of arms from the Hungarian flag, leaving a distinctive hole and others quickly followed suit. A student delegation entering the radio building to try to broadcast the students’ demands was detained. When the delegation’s release was demanded by the demonstrators outside, they were fired upon by the State Security Police (ÁVH) from within the building. As the news spread, disorder and violence erupted throughout the capital.
The revolt spread quickly across Hungary and the government collapsed. Thousands organized into militias, battling the ÁVH and Soviet troops. Pro-Soviet communists and ÁVH members were often executed or imprisoned and former prisoners were released and armed. Radical impromptu workers’ councils wrested municipal control from the ruling Hungarian Working People’s Party and demanded political changes. A new government formally disbanded the ÁVH, declared its intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact and pledged to re-establish free elections. By the end of October, fighting had almost stopped and a sense of normality began to return.
After announcing a willingness to negotiate a withdrawal of Soviet forces, the Politburo changed its mind and moved to crush the revolution. On 4 November, a large Soviet force invaded Budapest and other regions of the country.
The Hungarian resistance continued until November 10. Over 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed in the conflict, and 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. Mass arrests and denunciations continued for months thereafter. Public discussion about this revolution was suppressed in Hungary for more than 30 years. With the fall of the Communist bloc in 1989, October 23 was declared a national holiday.
Jordan Rogers was an Economic and Political Officer at the Budapest Legation at the time and discusses the national mood, the evacuation by American families at the Legation, his frustrations with U.S. policy, and his impressions of Cardinal Mindszenty, who was a refugee in Embassy Budapest for more than 15 years. He was interviewed by Thomas Dunnigan in 2006.
“Hungarian soldiers were unwilling to fire on their own people”
ROGERS: [T]he growing dissatisfaction and…demands being expressed by a broader and broader group of Hungarian people, so that the second year, including the period in 1956 when the uprising occurred, were about the most emotional and exciting period of my entire career…
We sensed that trouble was coming. We described it by saying the Russians were on a slippery slope. We saw that the Hungarians were making more and more demands and were getting beyond the sort of usual limits and the Russians were not reacting in the sense that we had become accustomed to. They were not arresting people, they were not as vociferous in their condemnations. So we saw that things were happening.
People ask, “Did you forecast the revolution?” No, we did not. I think it’s safe to say that no one did. Clearly, the Russians had not expected it. Clearly, the Hungarians had not expected it. Clearly the newspaper world, the media had not expected it. The closest claim that I know of now was one made by the Yugoslav Ambassador a number of years later that he advised Belgrade shortly before the uprising that a revolt was likely. I have also seen claims recently that the Soviet military in the summer of 1956 were concerned that things might get out of hand. One of our closest Hungarian friends was then a newspaper reporter for the United Press. She was in London when the uprising broke out.
But we saw that something was happening and I think this illustrates a tremendous shortfall or dereliction on the part of the administration at State, because Ravndal was transferred out, in July, I believe…I’m not sure when a minister was named but no minister had arrived when the revolution broke out…Spencer Barnes [was] in charge. A new minister, Tom Wailes, who I cannot praise highly enough, was sent in. He came in on November 2 nd …
Well, on October 23 rd and for several days preceding, there were parades and public meetings, speeches, etc., and I went along to several of those, whenever I could. My Hungarian was good enough to pick up something, but not everything. So I went along with Legation officers Anton Nyerges and sometimes Geza Katona, who spoke perfect Hungarian. So we were fully aware of the increasing demands, the attitude and three, to some extent, the reaction. I remember walking in front of the Foreign Office along with a big crowd and seeing somebody I knew peering out the window of the Foreign Office. I put up my thumb and he raised this to me. That didn’t last very long.
Q: The speeches all had an anti-Soviet tone, I suppose.
ROGERS: Oh, absolutely. Increasing demands. The thing came to a crux when the crowd went to the Hungarian radio station to ask that these demands be broadcast. And a group…of students, …went in to make these demands and did not reappear. But before this, on Oct. 23, after a certain point the parades and speeches seemed to be ending, so I went home. We’d been invited to dinner by a Hungarian newspaperman, who had John McCormick of The New York Times with him and he had also invited a Hungarian writer whose comments I very much I wanted very much to hear. So I left the speeches, went home.
When I got home my wife said she’d just got a call from a friend of hers saying things are happening at that radio station, “you’d better get down there.” So she and I turned right around, went down to the radio station and saw what I think was really one of the first critical moments of the revolution. The radio station was on a narrow street which was packed with people shouting at the radio station, making their demands when a group of four or five army trucks, filled with infantry, came into the street — Hungarian infantry.
The Russians had not played any role in this, yet. And the appearance of the trucks electrified the Hungarians. They were yelling and shouting and trying to push the trucks back. The trucks moved forward but then all of a sudden they stopped and couldn’t go any further and after a few minutes began to back out. That really electrified the crowd and they jumped up on the trucks and waved flags and the atmosphere changed immediately. I think it was the first occasion when the Hungarian Army had attempted to use force and had found their own soldiers unwilling to fire on their own people.
Well, we left then. We thought that was over. So we left and went on to the dinner but had been there only a little while when both our host and I got calls, I from the legation, saying that somebody had been killed in front of the radio station. So that set off rioting all over town that night… They pulled down…the major, biggest statue of Stalin. Barnes assembled many of the staff at the Legation and we fanned out over town to get impressions of what was going on, then reassembled at the Legation after a couple of hours to put together a telegram for Washington. We got home about three o’clock and at five o’clock I was wakened by Soviet tanks coming into town….
These troops came in, we thought then, from Székesfehévar, which is a town about forty miles away, southwest of Budapest. I believe it was the closest point at which Soviet troops were normally based. Later the Soviets brought in troops from outside of Hungary. One military wife who lived on a main street made a record of tank and personnel carrier license numbers from her window, which provided the necessary identification….
I took the Marton family, he was the AP and she the UP correspondent [They were arrested in 1955 and charged with passing state secrets to the U.S. ambassador their daughter Kati later married ABC news anchor Peter Jennings and then renowned U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke]… I took them and their two daughters to Vienna…they all had Hungarian nationality, but they also had passports. This was in January, after the revolution.
When the question arises, as to why were they given exit permits, I don’t know. I don’t know why he was released from prison during the summer of 1956, either. You can say that the release fit in with the growing sense of freedom which was beginning to be felt, as well as challenge to the Soviets. I presume that they were given exit permits because if they were refused there would be a lot of badgering from AP and UP and anyway they were good reporters who knew and understood what was going on so why not just get rid of them and have it all shut up? They left and they had legal permission and so I took them. That’s not the same as, later, my wife particularly worked with another couple who had both suffered from polio in their childhood or as teenagers. They emigrated legally but Sarah was able to get him a job in her hometown of Columbia, South Carolina….
We were constantly being appealed to for help by Hungarians, sort of a generic term but I think most of them were hoping that somebody like [UN Secretary General Dag] Hammarskjöld would suddenly appear in Budapest. We were hoping the same thing and we made the great mistake of supposing that this sort of action was under serious consideration in the UN. I don’t think it was. But the Hungarians were always looking to us for help but without being very specific as to what that help really would constitute.
A group, maybe it was two-three people, came to my house and spoke to my wife once and read her a long statement she then read over the telephone to a secretary, in which they were appealing to the UN to engineer some sort of truce, is my recollection. But I’m sure most people were not in a position to think through what the West was able to do, whether it was able physically to send in military troops, which would have been a very difficult, complicated and dangerous action, even if they were readily available. I have met military persons since then who were stationed in Germany and were placed on alert, but I think any military action on our part to assist the Hungarians would have run a direct risk of war with the Soviet Union. Furthermore, Austria was a neutralized country and to have attempted to ignore that would have opened up a whole array of other problems.
Giving the USSR a free pass to do what they wished in Hungary?
Now what also did, which has drawn down a good bit of criticism, was to assure the USSR that the U.S. had no desire to make Hungary a member of NATO or to become a military ally of the US. Many have thought that this in effect gave the USSR a free pass to do what they wished in Hungary….
Q: A lot of people say that the U.S. sent the wrong signals to the Hungarian people, through our broadcasts over Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America and left the impression that we were going to do more than we actually did. Did you in the legation have that feeling, too, or not?
ROGERS: I don’t know that I can speak for the legation. I felt that way but on the other hand I also tend to think that the main driving force which was exercised by the West and by the United States was the fact that we existed as a free society and without our having to broadcast that. I believe Secretary Dulles, when he was talking about… a rollback that would involve some physical action, went too far.
Certainly, he did not intend to imply that if an uprising should occur that the U.S. would support it militarily. But clearly, many Hungarians inferred that much more support would be forthcoming than in fact materialized. But…no one anticipated what would develop. I don’t believe the legation ever, I don’t remember us ever going to Washington and saying, “Cool it!”, I don’t think we were ever asked in advance to comment on Secretary Dulles’ speeches. It’s not often a minister will take it upon himself to cable the Secretary and say, “Bud, you did the wrong thing…!”
Getting Americans Out
Q: Oh, the rollback, that went back to the early part of his administration. Now at one point, I gather, the Soviets prevented the U.S. diplomatic dependents from leaving. Did that affect you at all…?
ROGERS: Yes, of course it did, because my family was involved in that…The day before [Tom Wailes] came in, we had made the decision ourselves, I guess through Spencer Barnes, that all the families would leave. This was based on the widespread and increasing reports that Soviet forces were reentering Hungary. A convoy was made up. One or maybe two men with them. I believe a finance officer and maybe Dan Sprecher, who was then the economic officer, went with them. They had their families there, too.
But then the convoy reached the border and was turned back by Russian soldiers. That was quite an unnerving experience for them, because it was in a heavy snowstorm and they had driven up to the border and then they had to drive back. But at that time, that same day, the new minister had come in from Vienna. We had sent Brice Meeker up in the minister’s car, the limousine, to pick him up and bring him back. The convoy arrived back at the legation around eleven o’clock. The minister had come in I think in the late afternoon. He had passed the convoy en route and someone said to me he’d gotten out and spoken to them.
They arrived at eleven o’clock, as I believe is described in Bob Clark’s memorandum, the minister called a meeting for midnight and decided then that the convoy would leave again the next morning, early, with husbands. The husbands would go to the border with their families and send them across and then they would come back. In the meantime, we had gone to the Russian embassy in Budapest and gotten assurances…from the Russian embassy that they could go through….
[T]he next morning they went back, with husbands. I went with my family. We got to the border. I had the document in Russian, My memory says it was a Russian document, prepared by the Russian embassy. I’m not sure. It may have been a document that we prepared. How we were able to type it in Russian I’m not sure. But I had a document in Russian with red seals on it and when we got to the border there was a Soviet soldier with a machine gun out there in front of us.
So I get out, waving this document and he squats down beside the machine gun. I waved the document at him and he waves me back. And I walk on towards him and he kneels down beside his machine gun. I accept that argument and go back to the car!
In the meantime, Dan Sprecher, who had been in the first convoy, had been in contact with a school there. I don’t know exactly how that happened…[T]hey were willing to put us up. So we went, this was a substantial number, not only of Americans but of some people from other legations and some Red Cross people and newspaper people and a goodly crowd of probably 70 people and they were able to put us up. Not only that, but they fed us! But we came under Russian guard, with Russian soldiers around the school, for a while….
The dispatch does not report, since it happened later, that sometime in the spring of 1957 several Legation representatives (I participated, but I don’t remember who else) visited the school to thank them for their assistance and to make a financial donation. I don’t remember whether the money was raised locally or included official funds.
Little Help from the UN
Q: What was the UN doing during all this period that gave any aid and comfort to the Hungarians?
ROGERS: I think very little. For one thing, it was the eve of a presidential election. Secretary Dulles was in the hospital for a cancer operation. And most important, the Suez crisis had just erupted. So I think what happened in the UN was, action was being postponed because the U.S. had the impression, and certainly wanted to believe, that they were still negotiating with the Russians. I remember being pretty critical of Lodge, who was I think our ambassador at the UN, because he was willing to let the matter not go forward. Now I blame the Legation and I blame myself for my role in this because we did not make a concerted, strong pitch to get Hammarskjöld in there.
If you look back at the Russian reinvasion, the second time, on November 4 th , one of the few things that had any chance of stopping that would have been had Hammarskjöld come into Budapest at the right moment and been there physically. But this is complicated by the fact that we were not aware until Nov. 1 that Soviet troops were reentering Hungary, and so it is hard to see how a high-level UN representative could have gotten to Hungary before Nov. 3, when the Soviets were on the verge of their second onslaught.
But we had thought about that a great deal. In fact, there had been rumors that Hammarskjöld had gone as far as Prague and was waiting to come in. We didn’t know whether that was true or not. But we never made a flat, specific recommendation that he come to Budapest. The reason we didn’t was because we could not imagine that that was not under serious consideration in Washington and New York….It was not….
The Hungarians sent a team under Pal Maléter, the most successful military commander against the Soviets during Stage One, to negotiate with the Russians over the withdrawal of Soviet troops. During those negotiations they were suddenly arrested. This was only a short time, a matter of a few hours, before the second Russian invasion began, which was early on the morning of November 4 th . When that invasion began, then Nagy took refuge in the Yugoslav Embassy….
The destruction of Budapest took place on two separate occasions. I’m not sure which was worse. Probably the second. In the first invasion, the Hungarians really stood the Russians off with use of Molotov cocktails. You can argue that on October 24 th , when the first Russian tanks came in, (a) suppose they had used tear gas instead of bullets, (b) suppose they had used infantry to support the tanks, (c) suppose they had had a heavy rainstorm. Any of those could have changed history.
Well it didn’t rain. They didn’t use infantry. They didn’t use tear gas. But I’m told that the destruction of downtown Budapest by the middle of November was about as bad as it was during World War II….
I think what the revolution was is well known and well accepted. Probably it was the most unifying event that has taken place in Hungarian history, in unifying practically all the Hungarian population in one anti-Soviet and pro-liberty effort. It was not successful immediately but I’m sure it contributed to the weakening and eventual downfall of the Soviet system.
As to what the big issue probably is, what the West or the United States could and should have done, I can only say I remember feeling very strongly that there no realistic possibility of bringing in, trying to use military force.
We did believe that some sort of solution, a neutral state copied after Austria, or some leftist type of government similar to Yugoslavia, was worth striving for. But also it was clear that to go very far to the right would sharply reduce any chances of acceptance by the Soviets, and also would not have reflected the general political views of the Hungarian people. Here, I believe we differed from the Department, including Secretary Dulles, who at one point raised the possibility of Cardinal Mindszenty providing a focal point.
Dealing with the New Hungarian Government
Q: Would the new Kadar government see you or would they talk to you? Did we want to see them?
ROGERS: Wailes came in and at that point he came in with instructions not to present credentials immediately. The next day (by then our communications capabilities were back to normal) Washington finally said, “Go ahead and present credentials to Imre Nagy.” By then it was too late. He couldn’t possibly have gotten to Nagy. That night the Soviets came back in. And so, there he was. When Kadar was put in place, Washington again said, “Don’t present credentials. Just wait and see.” So he sat there for a month. He came in in early November. He sat there until early February, sometime.
Q: Of course, the Hungarians would not deal with him if he hadn’t presented credentials.
ROGERS: No, the Hungarians wouldn’t deal with him and that left, where we were before, Spencer Barnes. Wailes was very good for the mission, internally and he was a very good leader, a strong leader and he was welcomed by everybody and I think did the legation a lot of good. But that wasn’t why he was sent there. And so finally, in February, the Hungarians said either fish or cut bait. Either present your credentials or go home.
And so he went home. I think it was a mistake. I’m not sure I thought so then. But because over a period of time I think the Kadar government gradually modified itself. And, besides, I tend to think it’s foolish to refuse to have diplomatic relations with some country because you don’t like them. If they’re in charge, they’re in charge and they’re the people you have to deal with. I think the same thing is true today with respect to Iran. And Cuba and North Korea for that matter. The people you really need to negotiate with the most are your enemies. Anyway, Wailes left. Then Gary Ackerson was sent in as chargé, to replace Spencer Barnes….
Vice-President Nixon came to Vienna fairly early in 1957, and the Military Attache, Col. Pittman, and I were sent out to Vienna to brief him. We met him at the Ambassador’s residence, and waited several hours for him to return from a visit to the border, and finally saw him about ten p.m. I was quite surprised: he asked almost no questions about the uprising, whether the U.S. could have done anything more than it did, what persuaded the Soviets to destroy the new government after they had apparently accepted it, etc. His almost sole interest was in the flow of refugees, and whether the U.S. should seek to encourage more people to leave, etc. I suppose we volunteered comments on the revolution, but that was certainly not Nixon’s prime interest. Later, in Pakistan, I participated again in briefing him when he visited there, and was impressed by the scope of his questions and how much homework he had done.
A Long-time Guest of the the U.S. Legation
Q: Now when did Cardinal Mindszenty come to the legation?
ROGERS: He came early on Nov. 4 th … The bad day, when, after midnight, the Russians began to come back in and when Nagy and others took refuge. We think we had our problem. The Yugoslavs, they had a crowd. They had wives and children, some 30-40 people crowded into three rooms. We had a crowd, too, for a while I guess but nothing like they did. So Mindszenty came on the early morning of November 4 th .
Q: This is the man who came to dinner and stayed for a number of years.
ROGERS: Fifteen years, close to that…[S]hortly after the Kadar government was set up, it told us we had too many people and requested us to cut the staff by…about a third….I believe we let all or most of the Marine guards go, which meant that the balance of the staff undertook the job of duty officer fairly regularly. One duty of that position was to “walk the Cardinal.”
On one side of the Legation was a closed-in courtyard, with other buildings on three of the four sides, perhaps 150’ x 120’, with barbed wire put up on all except the Legation side. Well, we couldn’t take the Cardinal outside, so the duty officer would walk around and around that courtyard, twice daily. So over a period of about a year, I spent a good bit of time “walking the Cardinal.”
He spoke German as well as Hungarian, so between the two we could communicate. He was quite talkative and since he had been in prison for many years, not well-informed. The Legation provided him with a lot of newspapers, I suppose all the local Hungarian press plus Austrian papers, and he was always asking questions. I remember particularly discussing with him several topics current at the time: the issue of using public funds to transport children to U.S. Catholic schools and the newly-formed Israeli kibbutz, which he took as strong indications of communist tendencies in Israel.
I liked the old man (he was at least 15 years younger than I am now!), but kept saying to myself how glad I was that no Hungarian government was formed with him at its head. He was a Catholic cardinal to the core, and did not seem to have a clear concept of how political power could be shared outside the church.
Sarah and I paid a brief visit to Budapest, with our son and youngest daughter, in 1967, and called on the Cardinal. To my surprise, he had learned English, and in fact, gave the homily at a mass that we attended in English.
Yuri Andropov forwards this letter from Hungarian Prime Minister Andras Hegedus to the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Socialist Republics. The letter requests Soviet troops to quell the riots in Budapest.
Andropov Telegram forwarding a letter from Prime Minister Hegedus of Hungary asking for assistance from Soviet troops in putting down Budapest riots
Report from Politburo members Mikoyan and Suslov on the crisis in Hungary
Mikoyan-Suslov Report on the deterioration of the political situation in Hungary. the report states that popular forces are taking over the radio station and the post office and that the Imre Nagy government does not want to use force against the uprising. Fearful of a strong reaction from the UN Security Council, Mikoyan and Suslov suggest that the Soviet leadership stop the inlux of Red Army units in Hungary for the time being.
Andropov Report, 1 November 1956
Andropov reports that Imre Nagy has threatened a scandal and the resignation of the government if the Soviet Union continues to send troops into Hungary. In his meeting with Nagy, Andropov is told that Hungary is withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact and will further request a UN guarantee of Hungarian neutrality if Soviet troop movements into Hungary do not stop. The report notes that after the meeting the Hungarian government informed the Embassy of its decision to leave the Warsaw Pact.
Iu. Andropov to the Central Committee of the CPSU, 'On the Struggle with Local Nationalism in China'
Iu. Andropov of the Liaison Department of the Central Committee of the CPSU describes Chinese Communist Party meetings in Xinjiang and "local nationalism" in China's far northwest.
Journal of Soviet Ambassador to the DPRK A.M. Puzanov for 16 February 1958
Ri Dong-yong informs Puzanov of the Plenum of the Pyongyang City Party Committee and the report from the DPRK Ambassador in Moscow.
Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Report on the Delegates to the 21st Party Congress
There is a mention of the several different secretaries of different communist countries—Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Korea. The need to improve economic situations and living standards in all countries is addressed, including the rebuilding of areas destroyed in the Korean war.
Report by Yuri Andropov, 'On the Situation in Tibet'
Report on Tibet, detailing the history of PRC-Tibetan relations since 1949 and the social and economic work of the PRC in Tibet. Discusses the activity of the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, and the political unrest in the region. Notes the relations of China, Tibet, and India.
Secret Telegram from Jaszczuk (Moscow) to Rapacki (Warsaw) [Ciphergram No. 2019]
Memorandum of a conversation with Yuri Andropov. He and Boleslaw Jaszczuk discuss Chinese influence military and economic influence in Vietnam, as well as Vietnam's opinion on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Finally he notes the poor communications technology in place in Southeast Asia.
Memorandum of Conversation between Yuri Andropov and the Central Committee of the Romanian Worker’s Party
Soviet politburo member Yuri Andropov and Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej discuss issues concerning the cooperation between the CPSU and the Romanian Worker's party and the two governments. The discussion ranges between economic integration issues, to the Sino-Soviet split, Soviet-Albanian relations, and politico-military cooperation between Warsaw Pact states.
Note of Polish-Soviet Talks in Moscow on 13-15 April 1964
Exceprts from a Polish-Soviet talk in Moscow in April 1964 that are about the Cuban issue. Specifically, they are about each country's sugar trade values with Cuba.
Transcript of Conversations Between Delegations of the Romanian Workers Party Central Committee and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Central Committee in Moscow (Excerpts)
Transcript of meetings in Moscow between Romanian and Soviet officials. They discuss disagreements and divergences that have developed between the two parties.
Transcript of Discussions with Representatives of the Chinese People’s Republic and The Communist Party of the Soviet Union on the Return of the Romanian Delegation from Vietnam (Moscow)
This document is a transcript of a conversation between A. N. Kosygin and I. Gh. Maurer regarding the visit of the Romanian delegation to Vietnam and then China that discusses the suggestion that the Democratic Republic of Vietnam begin negotiations simultaneously while fighting, which both the Chinese and Vietnamese rejected, and the proposal that the socialist countries of the world communicate their policies toward Vietnam with each other, which the Vietnamese favored, but the Chinese rejected.
Letter from the Chairman of the KGB Andropov to the Minister of Internal Affairs of the CSSR Kudrna
Appointment of Soviet officials for discussion of the procedure for joint border monitoring of trains and passengers crossing the Soviet-Czechoslovak border.
Memorandum, Chairman of the State Security Committee Andropov, Four American Servicemen Deserters from US Intrepid
Four American servicemen who deserted in Japan from the US Intrepid as protest against US involvement in the Vietnam War. Andropov recommends that the Soviet Union help the four men come to Europe as part of a propaganda campaign.
The KGB’s 1967 Annual Report
Yearly report by KGB Chief Andropov to the CPSU leadership on the actions taken by the KGB in the field of espionage, counter-espionage, and counter-propaganda.
Notes by Gen. M. Spasov on a Statement by Y. Andropov during a Bulgarian State Security Visit to Moscow
Yurii Andropov, Nikolai Shchelokov, and Mikhail Malyarov to the CPSU CC
This memorandum, signed by Yurii Andropov, the chairman of the Soviet Committee of State Security (KGB) Nikolai Shchelokov, the Minister of Public Order (whose ministry was renamed the Ministry of Internal Affairs in late November 1968) and Mikhail Molyarov, the Procurator of the USSR, was sent to the ruling Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) eleven days after the demonstration in Red Square against the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. The document lays out the basic facts of the case as viewed by the KGB and the CPSU. The document mentions the names of the eight activists who were in Red Square as well as two who helped with planning but were not actually in Red Square, Inna Korkhova and Maiya Rusakovskaya. Natal’ya Gorbanevskaya, one of the eight, was detained but released because she had recently given birth. However, a year later she was arrested in connection with her involvement and sentenced to a harsh term in a psychiatric prison.
Yu. Andropov to the CPSU CC
This memorandum from KGB Chairman Andropov to the CPSU Politburo follows up on the initial report from Andropov, Shchelokov, and Malyarov. The document highlights the “malevolent views” of the group that held an unauthorized demonstration in Red Square on 25 August 1968, singling out Pavel Litvinov, Larisa Bogoraz, Viktor Fainberg, and Vadim Delaunay for particular opprobrium. Andropov stresses that the KGB will intensify its crackdown on opposition figures who try to “spread defamatory information about Soviet reality.”
Report Relayed by Andropov to the CPSU Central Committee, 'Students and the Events in Czechoslovakia'
KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov presents a secret, 33-page report to the CPSU Central Committee about the mood of Soviet college students. The report had been completed sometime before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and had been circulating within the KGB. It is not clear precisely who drafted the report, but Andropov’s cover memorandum and the report itself indicate that the author was a college student in Odessa who had recently finished his degree.
Radio Budapest Reports on the Soviet Invasion of Hungary - HISTORY
By Todd Avery Raffensperger
“To the Great Stalin, from the grateful Hungarian People,” read the inscription on a 24-foot-high bronze statue of Joseph Stalin on the grounds of Budapest City Park, erected in 1951 to honor the tyrant of the Soviet Union. Now, on the evening of October 23, 1956, some 5,000 students threw ropes around the statue’s neck, melted the knees with welding torches, and tore down the structure amid a thunderous chorus of “Russians go home, Russians go home!”
The symbolic act was tantamount to the first shots fired at Lexington or the storming of the Bastille: an expression of open, courageous defiance against injustice and oppression. Such a protest was not unforeseen by Communist authorities. Three years earlier, the Soviet bloc had found itself racked by unrest and discord across Eastern Europe, with riots in East Germany in 1953 and in Poland in the summer of 1956. While the leaders of the Kremlin, the heirs to Stalin’s empire, were grappling with the Polish crisis, they also cast wary eyes on the increasingly precarious situation in the Hungarian People’s Republic.
Hungary’s “Little Stalin”
Of all the Central and Eastern European countries under the Soviet boot, Hungary had the reputation of being ruled by the regime that most closely emulated the tactics and philosophy of Stalinism. Since the Communists seized power in 1947, Hungary’s prime minister and secretary of the Communist Hungarian Workers’ Party (HWP) had been Matyos Rakosi, a man who—not for nothing—had earned the nickname of “Little Stalin.” Like his Soviet idol, Rakosi had instituted a series of austere and crude economic programs that emphasized heavy industrialization and agricultural collectivization. His policies predictably led to low wages, high prices, and a meager standard of living for his people. In his methodical brutality, Rakosi emulated his Soviet master as well, creating the Allamvelmi Hatosag, or AVH, the Hungarian political police, referred to by the people as “Avos.” Numbering up to 50,000 dedicated, ideologically driven men and women, the AVH quickly developed a reputation for cruelty and ruthlessness that rivaled even that of its Soviet counterpart, the KGB. It had an extensive network of informants throughout the country, invading every area of society, from university classrooms to factory floors and farmyards in the countryside. Its mission was simple: to root out any and all supposed “enemies of the people,” whoever and however they were defined by the party.
Farmers who complained about collectives, writers who criticized the lack of creative freedom, even fellow Communists who expressed admiration for Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia (who had broken with Stalin in the 1940s and refused to join the Warsaw Pact) were just a few of the many groups that the Rakosi regime ordered the AVH to arrest. Such unfortunate victims usually found themselves sent to a labor camp in the Hungarian countryside or the Soviet Union, or else sent to the infamous address of AVH headquarters in Budapest, Andrassy Ut 60. People sent to this address for questioning were rarely seen again. On average, nearly 300,000 Hungarians were arrested each year. For Rakosi and other Stalinist-style dictators in Eastern Europe, everything began to change after Stalin’s death in 1953. The leadership that followed in his wake tried to embark upon a more moderate course, a policy summarized by the euphonious phrase, “Socialism with a Smiling Face.”
Three years later, on February 25, 1956, the secretary for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, gave a speech to the Twentieth Party Congress in which he formally denounced Stalin, his policies, tactics, and excesses. In what is remembered as Khrushchev’s famous “secret speech,” he condemned Stalin for using what he regarded as “extreme methods.” The new leader flatly stated that Stalin “showed in a whole series of cases his intolerance, his brutality, and his abuse of power.” Khrushchev excoriated Stalin for choosing “the path of repression and physical annihilation, not only against actual enemies, but also against individuals who had not committed any crimes against the Party and the Soviet government.” In condemning Stalin’s methods, the newly emerging leader of the Soviet Union was giving Rakosi and the other “little Stalins” of Eastern Europe open notice that the old days were over.
The First Shot of the Hungarian Uprising
Two female Hungarian patriots take aim with their submachine guns in the window of a house.
Five months later, Central Committee member Anastos Mikoyan traveled to Budapest to meet with Rakosi and the leaders of the HWP and assess the political situation in Hungary. He did not like what he found. Instead of intimidating his critics, Rakosi’s Stalinist-style rule had only managed to stimulate growing opposition to his regime, to the point where even members of his own party were openly criticizing him in newspapers and on the radio. On the streets, the Hungarian people were becoming less and less afraid to speak their minds about the deplorable economic conditions in which they lived. Among the country’s intelligentsia, writers, university students, and intellectuals were forming discussion groups, the most famous being the Petolfi Circle, which held regular meetings where speakers, before audiences of thousands of people, delivered diatribes against Rakosi, the AVH, and the Soviets.
Mikoyan reported back to Khrushchev and the Central Committee that the growing discontent was the result of three things—political agitation by the United States and other Western powers, the influence of “Titoist” propaganda from Yugoslavia, and lack of confidence in Rakosi’s leadership. To the Soviets, the first step to remedy the situation was obvious. Rakosi was forced to resign his posts and was succeeded by committee member Erno Gero, who was, in terms of policy, no different from his hard-line predecessor.
But the Soviets also made a major concession to the party’s reformers by calling for the reinstatement of Imre Nagy. Nagy had been Hungary’s minister for agriculture, but he had been removed from office and expelled from the party because of his opposition to Rakosi’s collectivist policy. He was a Moscow-trained Communist through and through, but his lack of popularity with the party hierarchy made him a hero to growing numbers of opponents to the government. If the Hungarians and Soviets had hoped that Nagy’s “rehabilitation” would help to calm the rough political seas in Budapest, they were sorely mistaken.
On the evening of October 23, a large gathering of demonstrators, most of whom were college students, converged on the broadcasting building for Radio Kossuth, the state-run radio station in Budapest. They had come with a list of demands, 16 to be exact, that they wished to read on the air. Among the demands were the installation of Nagy to the premiership, the holding of free elections, and the withdrawal of Soviet occupation forces from Hungary. Greeting them were representatives of the radio station, along with 300 well-armed AVH troops. The students were admitted into the building—and promptly arrested. Realizing this, demonstrators began chanting for the release of their representatives. As the evening wore on, tension, rhetoric, and emotions on both sides escalated. Suddenly, a shot rang out. Exactly who fired the first shot will never be known. What is known, however, is what happened next.
The Idle Hungarian People’s Army
Units of the Hungarian 8th Tank Regiment quickly arrived on the scene, ordered by the government to help quell the growing chaos. But instead of interceding on behalf of the besieged AVH contingent inside the building, the troops simply sat in their trucks and watched the unfolding chain of events. Meanwhile, throughout the city, all hell was collectively breaking loose. Demonstrators began arming themselves, some grabbing their old hunting rifles or taking weapons from the soldiers who were standing aside. Others broke into government-owned weapons factories and arsenals. By the early hours of October 24, demonstrators had seized the lower level of the radio building, while the AVH held the upper level. What had started out as a civil, disciplined expression of mass discontent had quickly turned into an armed uprising.
Soviet tankers are forced at gunpoint to disable their vehicle. The freedom fighters disabled the tanks by throwing stones and steel bars into their wheel treads.
One key factor in the revolt would be the action—or inaction—by units of the Hungarian People’s Army. First established in 1945, the army numbered approximately 140,000 men organized into 12 divisions, two of them armored. In doctrine, training, organization, and equipment, the Hungarian Army was a Soviet creation, with many of its officer corps trained in the USSR, while the bulk of the enlisted men came from the rural population, conscripted for two years of duty. Now the army was caught in the middle, trapped between the orders of the government and the soldiers’ proletarian sympathy for the demonstrators.
It did not take long for the uprising to spread to the other parts of the country. In the city of Magyarovar, located in the northwestern part of the country close to the Austrian border, demonstrators converged on the local headquarters of the AVH, demanding the removal of Soviet symbols from the headquarters building. The AVH defending the area did not wait for orders they simply opened fire. Eighty-five people were killed, among them several women and children. The demonstrators did not hesitate to retaliate for the atrocity, and with the help of Hungarian troops they captured or killed many of the AVH personnel responsible. One AVH officer tried to escape from custody and was subsequently beaten to death by the infuriated crowd. Like other towns and cities throughout Hungary, Magyarovar came under control of a local citizens’ council, which promptly seized power from local government and party officials.
As the outbreak continued to grow throughout Hungary, the HWP Central Committee held an emergency meeting. By the end of the emergency session, two critical decisions were made that would shape the course of events to come. First, Nagy was appointed to the premiership, as the throngs of demonstrators had been demanding. Second, as a condition for his acceptance, Nagy had to agree to outgoing premier Gero’s standing request for Soviet assistance. Such a request went through the office of the Soviet ambassador, Yuri Andropov, and reached the Soviet minister of defense, the legendary World War II hero, General Georgi Zhukov. By the time the order was given, at approximately 2 am on the morning of the 24th, Soviet tanks were already deploying in Budapest.
At that time, the Soviet military presence in Hungary comprised two mechanized divisions, the 2nd Guards stationed at Cegled, 50 miles southeast of Budapest, and the 17th Guards, 43 miles southwest. Their combined strength was 20,000 combat troops, supplemented by 600 tanks and other armored vehicles. But only 700 soldiers and 50 tanks were initially deployed at key locations around the capital. It was hoped that the token show of force would be enough to intimidate the demonstrators and restore order. Beyond this act, Soviet commanders were at a loss as to what to do next. They had received no rules of engagement or orders to attack any rebel strongpoints, and they were totally unprepared for the reception they were about to receive.
Maleter and “Wooden Leg Johnny”
As the Hungarian Army sat on the sidelines and the government was paralyzed with inaction, the defense of the ancient cultural center of Eastern Europe fell to a motley collection of citizens that the Soviets in their field reports were describing as “bandits.” In reality, they were factory workers, apprentices, and students, the same people the regime had always declared it was serving. There also were Hungarian soldiers who had deserted their units, troublemakers looking to take advantage of the chaos, and even some AVH personnel who saw it as prudent to switch sides at the most propitious time. Young and old, men and women, all became part of what was beginning to look like a true “people’s army.” This army started to concentrate around several regions throughout Budapest. Of varying size and strength, most the groups often took on the names of the city streets where they were located, such as the Prater Street, Kisfaludy Street, and Vajdahunyad Street groups. Far and away the largest concentration of forces in the city centered on the Corvin Cinema, ultimately reaching the approximate strength of 1,200 insurgents. It would constitute the most formidable resistance faced by Soviet and police forces.
Several spontaneous leaders started to come forward. One of the leaders of the Corvin Group was Janos Mesz, nicknamed “Wooden Leg Johnny,” who had lost his left leg in an accident years before. The tall, lanky factory worker was easily distinguishable as he hobbled around the streets of Budapest, a Mosin-Nagant rifle slung over his shoulder, his jaw bandaged from a wound he had received, and his head adorned with a jaunty fedora hat. The most prominent rebel leader to emerge at this time was a tank officer from the Hungarian Army, Colonel Pal Maleter. Ordered by the government to secure the Killian Barracks and keep it from becoming a base for insurgents, Maleter instead added his tanks to the insurgents and managed to decimate a Soviet column of nearly 80 soldiers and a dozen tanks.
A Two-Faced Battle
Throughout the city, the situation varied from neighborhood to neighborhood. Some areas were completely peaceful, with the city’s residents going about their daily routines, while in other areas resistance fighters fraternized with Soviet soldiers, at least those of Ukrainian or non-Russian origin who were in sympathy with the resistance. There were even instances of Soviet soldiers going over to the insurgents.
AVH secret policemen, hands raised to protect themselves, are gunned down by Hungarian rebels.
But in other parts of the city, the fighting was vicious and without quarter. In many instances AVH personnel, surrounded and out of ammunition, would surrender, only to be shot down by resistance forces as they stepped out from their strongholds, one by one. On several occasions, the bodies of AVH officers were hung upside down from trees to be spat upon and beaten by crowds of Hungarians who had come to fear and hate the very mention of the AVH. There were also many instances of Soviet tank crews, frustrated with the course of the fighting, turning the 85mm guns of their T-34 tanks onto residential neighborhoods and blindly firing round after round into apartment buildings, killing untold numbers of people, most of whom merely wished to stay out of the way of the bullets. One of the worst excesses perpetrated by either side occurred in front of the Parliament building at Kossuth Square on the morning of the 25th, when Soviet tank crews opened fire on a mass of people congregating in the square. Seventy-five civilians were killed and hundreds more were injured.
The bodies of security policemen line the rubble-strewn sidewalks.
While fighting raged in the streets, indecision swept the corridors of power in Budapest and Moscow. In the Hungarian capital, Prime Minister Nagy found himself in an increasingly difficult situation. A self-styled reformer in the Communist hierarchy, Nagy did not consider himself a rebel and certainly did not wish to destroy the socialist system that he fully supported. But coming to power as he did on the heels of his predecessor’s request for Soviet intervention, Nagy found himself associated with an act of which he personally did not approve. On his first full day as premier, Nagy went on Radio Kossuth to beseech the insurgents to lay down their arms and cease fighting, while he equally urged Soviet representatives Anastas Mikoyan and Mikhail Suslov to give him permission to openly disassociate himself with the intervention. Both pleas fell on deaf ears.
In the days that followed, a steadier, more confident Nagy set about to solidify the government’s position. On October 27, he announced the formation of a government that, while comprising mostly Communists, also included representatives of the newly formed National Peasant and Shareholders Parties. For the first time since 1947, the government was not controlled entirely by one party. On October 28, the Soviet forces withdrew from Budapest.
The impetus for the unexpected development arose from the increasingly nervous attitude in the Kremlin. In spite of the rosy reports coming from Mikoyan about Soviet forces dealing with only a few groups of “bandits,” it was becoming clear to the world that the situation was far from under control and that insurgents controlled most of the countryside. Meanwhile, international condemnation was increasing, not only from the usual quarters of Washington, London, and other Western capitals, but also from Third World countries, and pressure was mounting for the United Nations to get involved. It was being duly noted by the world’s press that, barely one year before, the Warsaw Pact agreement had stipulated, among other things, respect for the internal affairs of all the member nations. When Nagy beseeched Khrushchev to pull his forces back so that the government could restore order, Khrushchev was forced to agree.
An Attempt at Reestablishing Order
A husband and wife patrol the streets after the freedom fighters’ short-lived victory in October 1956.
By the end of October, Budapest was peaceful for the first time in over a week. Soviet soldiers who were seen on the streets appeared to be withdrawing. For a brief moment, it looked as if the protesters had achieved the impossible. The Soviets had been beaten. Hungary was free. For Nagy and his government, it now seemed only to be a matter of stabilizing the situation. They started to meet with representatives of the provisional revolutionary committees to coordinate their activities and restore public services.
On the military side, Nagy created a new command apparatus called the Revolutionary National Defense Committee (RNDC) to centralize the activities of the Ministry of Defense with the activities of the hodgepodge of insurgent forces. The elected head of the RNDC was the former chief of military training, General Bela Kiraly, and one of Kiraly’s first steps was to clean out any leaders whose loyalty was in question, including the deputy and first deputy ministers of defense, the Army chief of staff, and the chiefs of the political department. Kiraly also took the symbolic step of reinstating the army’s original name, the Honved, and restored all traditional ranks, symbols, and epaulets of the Hungarian military.
Before leaving his post, the outgoing Army chief of staff (and staunch Stalinist), General Lajos Toth, had one last card to play. Without informing Nagy or Kiraly, Toth issued a flurry of orders to the Honved units stationed in and around Budapest to redeploy from their current positions. Kiraly believed that the original positions had been ideal for defending the capital, and he immediately issued orders to countermand Toth’s moves. Unfortunately for Kiraly, Nagy, and the people of Hungary, the confusing orders and counterorders would not be resolved in time to prevent a catastrophe.
Soviets Across the Border
Meanwhile, Soviet representatives Suslov and Mikoyan continued to meet with representatives of the new government to discuss future relations between Hungary and the Soviet Union. Among the government’s representatives was newly promoted Maj. Gen. Maleter, who also was now Nagy’s minister of defense. Nagy got a hopeful sign on October 30, when the Soviet newspaper Pravda ran a declaration from the Central Committee in Moscow stating, among other things, that “the Soviet Government is prepared to enter into the appropriate negotiations with the Government of the Hungarian People’s Republic and other members of the Warsaw Pact on the question of the presence of Soviet troops on the territory of Hungary.” The statement seemed to Hungarians to presage a future for their country that was separate from the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet model of Communism. One day after the Pravda declaration, Nagy and his minister of state, Zoltan Tildy, broached to Suslov and Mikoyan the subject of a complete troop withdrawal. Meanwhile, Kiraly started to get strange reports from railroad stations throughout the country that the Soviet forces were indeed getting ready to leave Hungary. Other reports came in of Soviet units crossing the border from Romania and Ukraine and occupying the airfields of the Hungarian Air Force. When confronted with these reports, future Soviet premier Yuri Andropov explained that the new units were simply relieving units that had borne the brunt of the fighting. But by November 3, a force of approximately 15 divisions, some of which were equipped with new T-54 battle tanks, had entered Hungarian territory and formed a defensive semicircle around Budapest. What had changed?
Sealing Hungary’s Fate
A series of events far beyond Hungary’s borders was changing the overall dynamics of the situation in a way that ultimately spelled Nagy’s downfall. On October 27, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had made an offer of economic aid to the countries of Eastern Europe, regardless of their form of government. To the Soviets, this was far from an act of selflessness, but rather a blatant effort by Washington to exploit the ongoing crisis by encouraging dissent within the Eastern bloc. Several members of the Central Committee were already of the opinion that the Hungarian uprising had been instigated by Western intelligence operatives, reinforcing the growing fear that Hungary could become a democratic foothold in Eastern Europe.
This fear was further heightened by reports of student demonstrations in Romania, which forced the Romanian government to close its borders with Hungary. Concern grew that unrest would spread to Czechoslovakia and even East Germany. The Communist leaders of these countries increasingly urged Moscow to do something about Hungary—and fast.
The last straw apparently came on October 31, when Minister of State Tildy met with Mikoyan and Suslov, suggesting the idea that Hungary withdraw from the Warsaw Pact and declare a state of neutrality, along the lines of Yugoslavia’s status. The surviving minutes from Nagy’s cabinet meetings show that it was indeed their intention to withdraw from the pact and establish a non-aligned socialist republic based on the model of Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia. But to the Kremlin, the idea of Hungary leaving the alliance would set into motion the unraveling of the entire Warsaw Pact alliance, a nightmare scenario for Moscow.
Khrushchev was later to reflect that the Budapest situation was “like a nail in my head.” He could not sleep, and he constantly fretted about the options open to him. He knew that a full-scale invasion of Hungary by Soviet forces would fly in the face of everything he had been trying to do to reform the Soviet Union’s image before the world, and it would be a page right out of the book of Stalinism. But by the beginning of November, he had made his decision.
For his part, Nagy was not totally unaware of what was going on. At a November 1 cabinet meeting, he and his military advisers were duly apprised of the growing number of Soviet formations coming into the country from Romania and Czechoslovakia. Nagy demanded an explanation from Ambassador Andropov. The very model of composure, Andropov reassured the cabinet that it was all part of a careful, phased withdrawal.
A Plan of InvasionA long, ominous line of Soviet tanks rumbles through an intersection in downtown Budapest during the height of the rebellion.
While Andropov assured Nagy and his cabinet of his government’s good intentions, the secretary of the HWP, Janos Kadar, left the Parliament building to go to dinner, or so he told his colleagues. But in truth, Kadar had been engaged in secret negotiations with Moscow. Kadar had been a Nagy ally, but he realized that the Russians would not tolerate the government’s intention of withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact. On the eve of the coming storm, Kadar crossed the border into Romania, where he made plans to declare the creation of a new government, one more in line with the Soviet agenda.
As Kadar, with the assistance of Suslov and Mikoyan, lay the groundwork for a new government, the Soviet Army made its final preparations. The operation, codenamed Vichr (Whirlwind), would have the Soviets invade Hungary with such force and speed that there would be almost no time to resist. The Soviet forces already inside Hungary were organized into two armies. The Eighth Army was deployed around the eastern city of Debrecen and numbered six divisions, including the 31st Tank Division. The Thirty-Eighth Guards Army, stationed around the western city of Szekesfehrvar, comprised another seven divisions.
The heart of the operation was a separate formation stationed in Romania. It was known simply as “Special Corps,” originally formed in 1955 by the Soviet high command, with dual missions of defending the Hungarian border with Austria in the event of an invasion by NATO and of restoring order in Hungary in the event of an uprising. It comprised two mechanized divisions, one infantry division, a fighter air division, one bomber air division, and a pontoon bridge regiment. They were all Guards divisions, the elite of the Soviet Army. This force was further beefed up by the allocation of four Guards tank divisions and two Guards mechanized divisions. They were directed to seize the Hungarian capital quickly and brutally.
The UN’s Divided Attention
As the clock was running out for his government, Nagy placed his hope for a peaceful resolution to the crisis on two possibilities—one, that the United Nations would intervene, and, two, that his ongoing negotiations with the Soviets would produce an acceptable settlement. But before the United Nations could focus on the Hungarian situation, the world’s attention was diverted by a new crisis in the Middle East, where Israel had invaded the Sinai Peninsula while British and French troops landed in Port Said to seize the Suez Canal from the Egyptians. The Suez crisis immediately became the principal issue confronting the UN, and Hungary got pushed aside. On November 3, a Hungarian delegation led by General Maleter met with a Soviet delegation led by General Mikhail Malinin, deputy chief of the General Staff, at Soviet headquarters at Tokol, a village located on a small Danube island just south of Budapest. By 5:30 that evening, it seemed to the Hungarians that an agreement had finally been hammered out setting a timetable for total Soviet withdrawal from Hungary. The deadline was January 15, 1957. In the meantime, the Hungarian government was to provide food and shelter for Soviet troops, and all Soviet memorials within the country were to be restored and preserved. The agreement was to be signed at 10 pm that very night.
As the charade at Tokol went on, Nagy and his cabinet got the first report of the existence of Kadar’s new pro-Soviet government. At 5 am on November 4, Kadar’s de facto foreign minister went on the radio announcing the creation of the “Hungarian Revolutionary Worker Peasant Government,” operating out of Szolnok. He denounced Nagy as being weak and unable to control the forces of “fascism” and “counter-revolution,” and promised that his new government would restore order to the capital. Nagy tried to contact the delegation in Tokol, but all communications had been cut off. By this time, KGB forces, led by KGB head General Ivan Serov, had stormed the meeting room and arrested Maleter and the rest of the Hungarian delegation. Nagy and his advisers now realized that they had been deceived. Kiraly strongly urged the prime minister to issue a formal declaration of war with Russia. But by now it far too late for that. In the morning gloom of November 4, Operation Whirlwind began, to the din and thunder of tank engines and artillery fire. The Special Corps raced across the Hungarian border and moved into Budapest with hardly any resistance encountered. Other Soviet units seized Hungarian air bases, communications centers, and key bridges along their path of advance, and the Honved was caught unprepared.
Upon reaching the capital, Soviet mechanized columns raced down the main thoroughfares and descended on the key Hungarian strongpoints. The 128th Guards Infantry and the 2nd and 33rd Guards Mechanized Divisions, supported by more than 350 combat aircraft, proceeded to attack strongpoints in the classic Soviet Army style, working in combat groups of around 150 men supported by a dozen tanks, pulverizing every Hungarian position with air strikes and artillery bombardments and following up with tanks and supporting infantry. The Soviets were shooting at anything that moved. Even as the first explosions could be heard at Parliament Square, Kiraly was on the phone with Nagy, still pleading with prime minister to order Hungarian forces to fight back and to declare war. “No, no,” Nagy replied. “Calm down. The Russian ambassador is here in my office. He is calling Moscow right now. There is some misunderstanding.You must not open fire.” It was the last time that Kiraly would get to talk with Nagy. When he finally did come to grips with reality, Nagy went on Radio Kossuth and denounced the attack as an attempt to “overthrow the legal Hungarian democratic government.” It was the last time his fellow Hungarians would hear from their prime minister.
By the evening of November 4, Soviet Special Corps had occupied most of the key points in Budapest, including the railroad stations, most of the Danube River bridges, and the Parliament building. The 33rd Guards stormed the southeastern and central areas of the city, while the 2nd Guards captured the northeastern and central area that included the government district, and the 128th Guards occupied the west side. Throughout the rest of the country, the Soviet Eighth and Thirty-Eighth armies fanned out to seize important positions, towns, and cities, usually doing so with little or no resistance.
Without any warning or orders from Budapest, the Honved was caught almost entirely flat-footed. Most Hungarian units surrendered their weapons to the oncoming Soviet formations, sometimes without firing a shot. It was much the same for the Hungarian Army in Budapest, with the Special Corps sweeping in with such speed that they quickly overran the positions of the Hungarian 7th Mechanized and 27th Infantry Divisions and captured most of their equipment, including 105 tanks.
End of the Uprising
More Russian tanks stand ready for action in Budapest on October 30, 1956. Citizens look on warily.
It had been hoped by many on the streets of Budapest that the West would come to their aid. There had even been rumors of American soldiers marching toward the city. But that faint hope quickly proved to be a vain one. Washington was focused on the Suez crisis and knew full well that any direct involvement with Hungary might trigger World War III. That left only the insurgents themselves. Some of them turned themselves in, believing that continued resistance would only cause more carnage and destruction in a war whose outcome was now a foregone conclusion. But many fought on with whatever weapons they had, alongside a few Hungarian Army units still able to resist. As the day drew to a close, the two remaining bastions of resistance in Budapest, the Corvin Cinema and the Killian Barracks, had fallen, pounded into rubble by Soviet guns. Those insurgents who were still left formed mobile guerrilla groups, launching forlorn hit-and-run attacks on Soviet patrols and columns. The Soviets answered the attacks by leveling entire neighborhoods—any place where even a semblance of resistance remained.
After November 4, the fighting slowly ebbed away. Those of the Nagy government and the insurgency who had not been captured or killed crossed the border into Austria. In all, a total of 200,000 dislocated persons fled to the West. Nagy would not be among them. The legitimate leader of the Hungarian Peoples Republic fled to the Yugoslavian embassy to seek asylum. There he stayed for 18 days until, on November 22, he reemerged with a written promise by Kadar that he could return home with immunity. No sooner had Nagy left embassy grounds than he was arrested by Soviet agents and held in prison until his eventual execution on June 16, 1958. General Maleter shared the same fate, on the same day.
Remembering the Uprising
The Hungarian uprising had cost the lives of an estimated 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops. In its wake, the Kadar regime hoped to attain the trust of the Hungarian people by maintaining most of the economic reforms of his predecessor, while repealing the political ones. But the Hungarians never forgot those days in 1956, and any effort to repress the memory of what the uprising had attempted would ultimately fail.
Thirty years later, in 1989, the remains of Nagy, Maleter, and two other leaders of the 1956 uprising were reburied with full honors at Heroes Square in Budapest. More than 200,000 Hungarians attended the funeral. Not long after this symbolic reconciliation with its past, the Hungarian government became the first Warsaw Pact nation to dismantle the heavily guarded fences along its border with the West. It marked the beginning of a rapid series of events that would spell the end of Communist rule in Eastern Europe and, ultimately, the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.
It may not have pleased Nagy to know that his memory would help end a system of socialism he devoted his life to supporting. Naïve as he was, Nagy wanted to believe in a socialist world without the need for oppression and fear, socialism without Stalinism, a true “people’s democracy.” It was never to be. Only when the Cold War finally ended did Stalin’s shadow fall, the same way his statue had fallen in Budapest City Park on October 23, 1956.
Brief History of Hungary
It was founded in 895 and became a Christian kingdom in 1000 by the crowning of St. Stephan, recognized by the pope.
Medieval HungaryOne of the biggest challenges of Stephan and his descendants was the stabilization of Christianity and to Europeanize the previously nomadic Hungarian people. During the Arpad and from 1301, the Anjou dynasties medieval Hungary was flourishing (except for the devastating two years of the Mongol invasion). Mathias Corvinus made Hungary a Central European renaissance cultural hub, an idol for other countries. But besides all the development and blaze, a new power was threatening Europe from the Balkan, the Ottoman Turkish Empire, against which Hungary served as a bulwark for the continent.
The Turkish occupationAfter the death of Mathias, royal power weakened and eventually in 1526 the country could not resist Turkish attacks anymore and the country fell into 3 parts – the area of Ottoman occupation, Transylvania, and the considerably smaller Kingdom of Hungary. For more than 150 years Turks continued their expansion through numerous battles. Royal Hungary became part of the Habsburg Empire, while Transylvania operated as an independent entity. At the beginning of the 18th century finally Habsburgs were ready to strike back with Hungarians to reunite the country and push Turks back to the Balkan. In 1718 finally Hungary became reunited within the Habsburg Empire.
The HabsburgsIn the 18th century Hungary was desperate to recover from Turkish devastation. Habsburgs repopulated the uninhabited areas of the country with Romanians and Slovaks, artificially creating large blocks of minorities. The advancing theories of nationalism and liberalism reached Hungary in the early 19th century and the Habsburg rule became disagreeable. The development of civil society led to the 1848-49 revolution and uprising against Habsburgs, that broke out in today’s Budapest, the 15th of March 1848.
The Austro-Hungarian empireThe revolution didn’t provoke positive results and Austria imposed strict and oppressing regulations towards the country. Later on they realized that they can only cooperate with Hungarians if they give them some sort of autonomy. This consolidation process led to the Austro-Hungarian compromise of 1867, creating the new leading power of central Europe, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This pact was really favorable for Hungarians and Hungarian economy started to boost and till the early 1900s Hungarian GDP grew at a very fast pace. The country became a semi-developed agro-industrial economy, and Budapest emerged to the leading European metropolises with a brand new, unique cityscape and novelties such as the first underground on the continent.
The world warsBut after the flourishing years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the 20th century brought much harder times to Hungary. As a part of the empire during World War I. Hungary didn’t have a choice and had to fight by the Germans that has led to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the national tragedy of the 1920 Trianon Treaty in which Hungary lost 72% of its territory and 3,5 million ethnic Hungarians were closed out by the new borders, mostly to Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia. This treaty had a shocking effect on Hungarian society that desperately tried to regain its territories (or at least those inhabited by Hungarians). For this reason Hungary took the Nazis’ part during World War II and gained back most of its territories where Hungarians were in majority. The situation seemed relatively good as the country didn’t suffer that much till 1944. But in the last year of the war the country became a battlefield and Nazis started to deport the Hungarian Jewish community, concentrated mostly in Budapest. From 1944 400 thousand Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Later it became clear that Germany will lose the war. Hungary tried to avoid the situation and switch to the other side, but it didn’t manage to do so and lost the war with the Germans. Finally Hungary fell under Soviet, Communist rule as well as most of Central and Eastern Europe.
The communist eraFrom then on Hungarians had to suffer under a communist dictatorship. The economy collapsed during the 1950s and the standard of living was falling dramatically. Social dissatisfaction led to an uprising and an announced withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact in October 1956. This attempt met a massive military intervention by Moscow. Later on, under the leadership of Janos Kadar a slow consolidation started. In 1968, Hungary began liberalizing its economy, introducing the so-called "Goulash Communism." The standard of living started to rise, travel restrictions became less strict and Hungary became an idol and a prosperous nation within the Eastern bloc.
The system changeAt the end of the 1980s changes accelerated. Kádár retired in 1987, in 1988 the communist party abolished all travel restrictions to the West and in 1989 they authorized a multi party system. In May, 1989 Hungary tore down the barbed wire fence towards Austria and opened up its borders. This was the first tear on the iron curtain, where East-German citizens were allowed to quit the Eastern Bloc freely. On the 23rd of October, 1989 the Hungarian Republic was proclaimed and in March 1990 the first democratic, general elections were held. At last Hungary became a free, democratic, European republic. In 1999 it joined NATO and from 2004 it is a member of the EU.
The Beast of Budapest
O n the evening of Oct. 23, 1956, rapidly escalating political tensions in Budapest, the capital of Soviet- occupied Hungary, touched off like a powder keg outside the Radio Budapest building. A delegation of pro-reform demonstrators had gone to the station to broadcast to the nation its demands for free elections and the immediate removal of Soviet troops. The Hungarian people had suffered years of brutal repression under Soviet-backed dictator Mátyás Rákosi, his purges having claimed tens of thousands of Hungarian officials and intellectuals. Moscow’s recent removal of Rákosi from power, as well as a spreading reform movement in Poland, led many Hungarian students and workers to believe liberalization and freedom was finally within their grasp. Cheered on by tens of thousands of protesters, men with tow cables and blowtorches pulled down a statue of the loathed Joseph Stalin looming over the central park. Others toppled red stars from various communist buildings and monuments. In their place Hungarian tricolor flags—the central Soviet coat of arms crudely cut out—rose over a city ripe for rebellion.
Communist officials had activated Hungarian army units to quell the street demonstrations, but guarding the headquarters of Radio Budapest
Maléter (Ullstein Bild/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)
were officers of the AVH, the secret police, which had no intention of turning over the airwaves to dissenters. As the reformist delegation entered the building, the secret police detained them. That only drew more protesters, which the AVH tried in vain to disperse with tear gas. When the growing crowd moved to force its way into the building, the AVH—dogmatic, well armed and cornered like rats—opened fire, wounding several protesters and killing an army officer who’d been trying to defuse the standoff. An ambulance soon arrived, its nervous driver insisting he had orders to tend to wounded inside the building. Suspicious protesters threw open the vehicle doors, only to discover a cache of arms intended to resupply the besieged AVH officers. Enraged, the crowd tore the driver to pieces. His death gave protesters their first weapons and the resolve there was no going back.
The spark at Radio Budapest ignited a revolutionary fervor citywide. Demonstrators raided military arsenals for weapons, and arms factory workers brought more. Many Hungarian soldiers tore the red stars from their uniform caps and joined the uprising. As the unrest spread, Colonel Pál Maléter, the highest-ranking officer to change sides, assumed a de facto leadership role. After moving civilians and defectors within the massive stone walls of the Kilian Barracks, Maléter awaited the Soviet reaction he knew would come fast and hard.
As word of the uprising reached Moscow, it became clear the limited number of Soviet troops on hand would not be able to deal with the massive unrest. That night five divisions, comprising some 31,500 troops and 1,130 tanks and self-propelled guns, were put on alert and ordered into Budapest. The Soviet army had recently equipped several of the divisions with the latest version of its advanced T-54 tank. A product of lessons the Soviets had learned battling superb German armor during World War II, the T-54A included technical innovations covertly copied from U.S. tanks captured by communist Chinese forces during the Korean War. Lighter, better armored and harder hitting than any tank the West had at the time, the T-54A was about to make its combat debut.
Perhaps it was just a fortunate coincidence, but as the Soviet Union rolled its battle tanks toward Budapest, Brit ain had a knowledgeable and experienced tank man on scene. Lieutenant Colonel James Noel Cowley, the mili tary attaché recently assigned to the British Embassy in Budapest, was watching with growing interest the events unfolding in the city. Cowley was a far cry from the typical administrative soldier in diplomatic postings. In the British army since 1931, Cowley had led a squadron of Sherman tanks ashore at Normandy on D-Day. Four days later he’d re ceived a near-fatal head wound. Hospitalized for several months, he was eventually declared medically unfit for combat service. On recovery he’d per formed occupation duty in Germany, after which he’d been handed the seemingly benign posting in Hungary.
Cowley soon demonstrated that whatever his instruc tions from London actually were, he would not be play ing the part of a paper-pushing diplomatic functionary. On the evening of October 23, when word of the clash at the radio station reached him, Cowley had been attend ing a dinner function in full dress uniform. He calmly returned home, changed clothes, collected a pistol and disappeared into the Budapest night.
As the sun rose the next morning on the beleaguered city, Cowley reappeared at the embassy (likely worse for wear after his nocturnal sojourn) and watched with inter est as a column of T-54s ground its way into Budapest. At his side was László Regéczy-Nagy, a young and re sourceful Hungarian who worked as an embassy driver. Regéczy-Nagy had been a tanker in the Royal Hungarian Army before being captured by the British in 1945, and the opportunity presenting itself, even in the midst of crisis, was certainly not lost on him. As he recently reflected, “Sixty years ago Colonel Cowley must have been the only NATO officer who could put hands on such Soviet secrets.” Cowley would not let such a golden opportunity pass him by, and Regéczy- Nagy proved an able accomplice.
Demonstrators march through Budapest carrying a Hungarian flag from which the Soviet coat of arms has been cut. (Interfoto Hongrie/Sipa/Newscom)
The Red Army that had crushed Berlin so effectively in 1945 seemed to have forgotten even the most basic rules of urban combat. Tall buildings lining narrow streets proved ideal fighting positions for Hun garian revolutionaries—and death traps for the Soviet armored vehicles below. Though perhaps the best main battle tank in the world at the time, the T-54A suffered the same Achilles’ heel as all unsupported armor caught on tight streets in a hostile city. The Hungarian fighters—despite their tender age, dearth of anti-tank weapons and lack of combat experience—nevertheless took a heavy toll on the Russian tanks.
By hanging saucepans from telephone wires, which looked worryingly like anti-tank mines to a Soviet tanker viewing the world through a narrow vision port, the Hungarians were able to divert and corral the T-54s on narrow side streets pre-slicked with oil or grease. Spin ning their tracks uselessly with no room to maneuver, the tanks were left vulnerable to bombardment with Molotov cocktails crafted from lemonade bottles and pilfered pet rol. The bold Hungarian fighters dashed from cover and aimed for auxiliary fuel tanks on the T-54s’ rear hulls—helpfully labeled gasoline in Russian. Many insurgents laid down their lives in such near-suicidal attacks, but the increasingly common sight of burned-out T-54s clogging Budapest roads proved the hard cost was worth the gain.
On October 25 several thousand unarmed civilians, including women and children, gathered outside the Hungarian parliament to protest the Soviet invasion. Enraged by their recent losses, the invaders were in no mood to tolerate even a nonviolent demonstration and opened fire on the crowd with machine guns, killing scores of civil ians. While the AVH took initial blame, Cowley had wit nessed the event firsthand and later claimed “Russian tanks took the larger part” in the massacre. The colonel estimated the num ber of casualties at around 600. “The horror and carnage of the scene,” he recalled, “would appall the most hardened of imagi nations.” If the violence hadn’t been per sonal before, it was now.
Driving around the war-torn city in his embassy-issued Land Rover, Regéczy-Nagy realized the Soviet T-54s, which till re cently had been a closely guarded military secret, were available for inspection to any individual bold enough to try. Hungarian rebels had helpfully immobilized several examples. Passing the Kilian Barracks—the site of what came to be known as the Battle of the Corvin Passage—Regéczy- Nagy spotted two such knocked-out T-54s. “I at once stepped on the accelerator to report the finding to the colonel,” he re called. Amid the devolving urban combat Regéczy-Nagy and Cowley each continued to patrol, observe and report. At one point the colonel wound up trapped between a Hungarian defensive position and a Soviet flanking attack. Engaging in a dangerous game of cat and mouse with Soviet armor through a maze of side streets, he managed to get away.
After a week of fighting and severe casualties on both sides, the Soviets had little to show for their efforts but rubble and blood. “They had counted on their presence, accompanied by some threatening bursts of machine-gun fire, frightening the population into a submission of their exuberance,” Cowley observed. “Nothing could have been further from reality the intervention of the Russians only seemed to make the people more angry and more deter mined to pursue the fight.” Like some of their counterparts in the Hungarian forces, Soviet soldiers—appalled at the sight of suffering innocents—lost the will to fight. There were even reports of rogue Soviet tankers turning their guns on AVH policemen as the latter fired on civilians.
A leader of the uprising addresses supporters. (Bettmann/Getty Images)
On October 28 the interim Hungarian government led by communist reformer Imre Nagy announced a cease-fire, and battered Soviet units began withdrawing from Buda pest. Meanwhile, Nagy ordered the dissolution of the AVH and declared a general amnesty for the insurgents.
The November 2 edition of the Hungarian army newspaper reported on a meeting between Maléter—erstwhile defector and Hungary’s newly minted Minister of De fense—and “a thin and tall colonel who was the military attaché of the United Kingdom.” During their meeting Colonel Cowley con gratulated Maléter on his determined defense of the Kilian Barracks and offered military advice on how to “hold on to the results achieved.” In exchange for Cowley’s sage counsel, and perhaps in hopes of obtaining British support for Hungarian independence, Maléter in turn shared intelligence regarding the strength and movements of Soviet units. According to Maléter aide Péter Gosztonyi, the defense minister also granted Cowley per mission to inspect a captured T-54A. Maléter himself later boasted to associates his co operation with Cowley had been “complete.”
For their part, the Soviets later claimed Cowley had “taken part in the direction of the counterrevolution.” They cited supposed eyewitnesses who’d watched as agents in cars with license plates from “foreign capitalist countries” distributed British- and American-made weaponry to rebels. Whatever covert deals Maléter and Cowley may have been struck remain shrouded in the still-classified nature of Cold War clandestine activity. We do know that at some point the captured T-54A did make its way inside the British Embassy compound. Before dutifully returning it to the Soviets, the British pored over the tank. Their findings were troubling, to say the least. Though smaller than its Western counterparts the Brit ish Centurion and American M48 Patton, the T-54A’s armor could defeat the penetrative power of both the British 20-pounder and American 90 mm tank guns, essentially rendering both obsolete.
While Cowley was covertly tinkering with his armored windfall, the situation in Hungary took an ominous turn. On November 1, in response to reports of continued Soviet troop movements into Hungarian territory, an enraged Nagy informed Moscow that Budapest was withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact, effective immediately. While the Soviets might have tolerated moderate reform, they would not accept Hungary’s secession from their sphere of influ ence. Their reaction was swift and overpowering.
To mislead and distract the Hungarian government, Moscow initiated talks concerning the wholesale withdrawal of Soviet forces. On November 3 Maléter, invited to Red Army headquarters ostensibly to open negotia tions, was instead promptly arrested. All the while the Soviets were preparing 17 divisions and massing some 60,000 men for the aptly named Operation Whirlwind.
Cowley was asleep early on the morning of November 4 when explosions shattered the calm. Advancing rapidly in force, the Soviets encircled Budapest and opened fire with artillery and large-caliber mortars. Some 2,500 So viet tanks then split the city down the middle and fanned out, quickly seizing government buildings and key strategic positions.
Though sympathetic to the plight of the Hungarians, the British government was unwilling to risk turning the Cold War hot, especially given its controversial participation in the ongoing Suez Crisis, sparked by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s unilateral decision to nationalize the canal. The Crown’s reticence left Cow ley and the rest of the British legation in a difficult posi tion. Hungarian fighters choked the embassy switchboard with desperate calls for assistance. One resistance leader, about to be overrun by Soviet tanks, shouted into Cow ley’s receiver, “For God’s sake, do something to save Hungary!” Nothing would be done. The fighting spread to the very perimeter of the embassy, shattering assur ances of diplomatic immunity and leaving embassy staff ers with little option than to hug the floor or hunker in the cellar and wait for the storm to pass.
The fighting devastated whole sections of the city. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbs via Getty Images)
In short order the Soviets brutally subdued the main pockets of resistance and installed a new puppet government. Reprisals were widespread and harsh. Communist officials tried both Nagy and Maléter as conspirators, executing them and ultimately killing, imprisoning or forcing into exile many thousands of others for their roles in the revolution. Sentenced to 15 years in prison, Regéczy-Nagy was released early in 1963.
In January 1957 the puppet government got around to Colonel Cowley. Citing among other transgressions “intensive intelligence-gathering about Russian tanks and equipment,” it declared him persona non grata and ordered him out of Hungary within 48 hours. Though the British government responded with a strongly worded rebuttal, Cowley was expelled. As part of that year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours, Elizabeth II awarded him the Order of the British Empire.
Perhaps tellingly, the recommendation for the colonel’s award initiated with Brigadier Charles H. Tarver, the deputy director of British military intelligence and a man for whom Cowley had never officially worked. In the OBE citation Tarver commended Cowley for being “indefatigable in pursuit of information,” noting that “he ran risks which a less conscientious officer might have considered unnecessary. He produced excellent results.”
Excellent results, indeed. Engineers at Britain’s newly created Armament Research and Development Establish ment used the valuable data Cowley had gleaned from the captured T-54A to create a gun capable of defeating the Soviet tank. By 1959 the British army was fielding a new model Centurion fitted with the fruits of that labor—the Royal Ordnance L7 105 mm main gun. The new American M60 Patton also employed the L7, as would the first gen eration of its replacement, the M1 Abrams. All told, nearly two-dozen Western tank models were ultimately armed with the L7.
Reliable and versatile, the gun excelled at its designed purpose—cracking open the armor of Soviet-built tanks—as proven on numer ous battlefields. A pair of Israeli Centurions (renamed the Sho’t—Hebrew for “whip”) attained legendary status during the 1973 Yom Kippur War when they employed their L7s to destroy more than 60 attacking Syrian T-55s and T-62s in the Battle of the Valley of Tears. On Feb. 27, 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, a battalion of U.S. Marine Corps M60A1s armed with the L7 ravaged a far larger Iraqi armored force near Kuwait In ternational Airport, knocking out 100 tanks and armored personnel carriers, including 50 top-of-the-line Soviet-built T-72s. None of the American tanks were lost to enemy action.
Following his exploits in Budapest, Cowley went on to serve at the British embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel. He retired from military service in 1961 and died in 2010 at age 97, never having publicly acknowledged the role he played in taming the “Beasts of Budapest.”