Some years ago, at a used-book store, I found a book that got my immediate attention. It was Cry Hungary! Uprising 1956, a pictorial history of the Hungarian Revolution, and included a day-by-day summary of events. The pictures showed the death and detritus of battle along with closeups of the Freedom Fighters, often young men and women shouldering weapons, some grim, some smiling. There were pictures showing clusters of citizens riding the streets of Budapest on captured tanks they had decorated with fall flowers or painted with the Arms of Kossuth. And yes, there were pictures of AVO men, the hated Hungarian secret police, being shot down in the street, or hanging from trees.
The book’s author was British writer Reg Gadney. Its publication date in 1986 was the 30th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. This past October 23 was the 60th anniversary of the first shooting and killing. I was a junior in college when it all began. While I was absorbing chemistry and English letters, Hungarians my age were setting Soviet tanks afire and shooting their escaping crews. And while thus engaged, many of the rebels died.
The image of one young girl, Erika Szelez, became a symbol of the Revolution. Her picture has often accompanied articles and books on the uprising: a 15-year-old girl carrying a submachine gun with its straps across her shoulders. Alas, her story is a sad one. The picture was first published on the cover of a Danish magazine, Billet Bladet, on November 13, 1956. By that time Erika was already dead, shot five days earlier on a Budapest street by a Russian soldier.
While I was absorbing chemistry and English letters, Hungarians my age were setting Soviet tanks afire and shooting their escaping crews.
The events leading up to the Revolution, and the characters involved, all read like Tolstoy inventions. The key event was the Soviet “liberation” of Hungary in 1945. Russian soldiers raped and looted their way across the country, making enemies instead of friends. Under the Horthy Regency, Hungary had allied itself with Germany. It did so not so much from shared convictions as from a desire to recover territories lost in the previous world war. Stalin’s chosen leader for Hungary was Matayas Rakosi, who proceeded to move Hungary step by step toward a Stalinist dictatorship, a regime of murder and exceptional cruelty. Under Rakosi, collectivization of agriculture and attempts at industrialization impoverished the broad citizenry. Hungarian uranium went exclusively to the Soviet Union. Added to this, the Soviets had taken Hungary’s industrial machinery and part of its precious-metal reserves as spoils of war.
Rakosi, “Stalin’s best pupil,” hardened by 15 years in Horthy jails, mimicked his master’s purges. Party members were tortured to gain bogus confessions and then put on trial, where the confessions were repeated for the edification of the masses. Then the offenders were punished with imprisonment or hanging. One of the victims of the purges was Laszlo Rajk, whose elegance, perhaps, Rakosi found annoying. Rajk himself was a devoted Stalinist, who claimed the Soviet Union as his cynosure. He was, in fact, hoist with his own petard, having set up the very agency that accomplished his arrest and torture. On October 15, 1949, he was hanged for his imagined sins — being a “Titoist spy” and an “agent of Western imperialism.” Another victim of the Rakosi terror was man-of-destiny Janos Kadar, who, ironically, had cosigned Rajk’s execution order. Kadar spent two years in prison, where he endured torture, reportedly involving his genitals.
But in February 1953, Joseph Stalin died. Nikita Khrushchev came to power, and with him came the first hints of de-Stalinization. Rakosi was summoned to Moscow and informed that Imre Nagy was to serve as Prime Minister. Rakosi was to remain as First Secretary of the Communist Party. Nagy had experienced battle in the Hungarian armies, a conversion to Communism, further military service with the Red Army in the Russian Civil War, and imprisonment in the Horthy era. Victor Sebestyen’s useful book, Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, describes Nagy as a loyal Communist and Party man, having survived for 15 years in the Soviet Union. And yet, avuncular, food-and-football-loving Nagy hadn’t reached the level of cruelty shown by fellow “Muscovite” Rakosi. Perhaps this was why he fell out of favor in Moscow and why, in 1955, Rakosi seized power once again, installing his own man, Andras Hegedus, as Prime Minister. But the Stalinist Rakosi couldn’t throttle Hungary or Hungarians as he had once done — especially after a famous Khrushchev speech.
By that time Erika was already dead, shot five days earlier on a Budapest street by a Russian soldier.
On February 26, 1956, Nikita Khruschev gave a six-hour speech before the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. In it, he denounced Stalin and his “Cult of Personality” and detailed his enormities. The speech was given in secret, but its contents became widely known and sent an unintended signal to the Soviet-satellite nations. Rakosi was suddenly given to speeches denouncing the “Cult of Personality” — one more irony in the Communist world of kaleidoscopic truth.
Students and intellectuals were showing greater freedom in expressing their discontents. Soviet Ambassador Yuri Andropov informed the Kremlin of “destabilizing influences” among the Hungarian populace. One such influence was the Petofi Circle, a group of students and intellectuals who discussed and debated such issues as “Socialist Realism” (a state-sponsored art style) and the theft of Hungary’s uranium deposits. Particularly significant was the speech given before the group by Julia Rajk, the widow of Lazlo Rajk.
October 6 is an important date in Hungarian history. On that day in 1849, the 13 generals who had led the Revolution of 1848 were hanged by the Austrian Empire. And on that day in 1956, the remains of Laszlo Rajk were reinterred in Budapest. Julia Rajk, Imre Nagy, and perhaps 100,000 other Hungarian citizens witnessed the ceremony. The late Rajk, a dogmatic Stalinist, had become a symbolic victim of Stalinist lies and brutality.
Nagy hadn’t reached the level of cruelty shown by fellow “Muscovite” Rakosi. Perhaps this was why he fell out of favor in Moscow.
At last, Budapest’s militant students met and agreed on a list of 16 demands. They hoped to get radio time to publicize them, but chose instead to publish them as pamphlets and post them all over town. The list included demands for the removal of Soviet troops, foreign insignias, and Stalin’s statue, and for free elections, free speech, a better run economy, and international marketing of Hungarian uranium. And there was one truly fateful demand — the restoration to power of Imre Nagy.
Thus, on the morning of October 23, 1956, the student demands were everywhere and easily read by the public. That afternoon, crowds gathered for demonstrations preplanned by those same dissident students. Perhaps 200,000 people eventually joined in a procession that marched to the statue of poet Sandor Petofi. There, they heard a reading of his famous call to arms, written in 1848. The Gadney book provides this translation:
Magyars, rise, your country calls you!
Meet this hour, whate’er befalls you!
Shall we free men be, or slaves?
Choose the lot your spirit craves!
Then the crowds marched to the statue of Josef Bem, a Polish general who fought for Hungary in the Revolution of 1848. Someone placed a Hungarian flag — the tricolor, without any Communist emblem — in the arms of the statue.
Pictures of the demonstration show participants smiling, apparently in a festive mood. The march across the Margaret Bridge involved a huge procession, though ahead of it was a small advance guard carrying rifles. Later, at the Parliament Building, Imre Nagy was brought in to address the demonstrators. On his way, Nagy reportedly noticed a Hungarian flag with a donut-like hole in the center — the superimposed Soviet red star had been cut out. By that time, many Hungarian flags bore a similar vacuity. Nagy’s words to the crowd have escaped preservation, but it’s known that he asked them to sing the national anthem.
Someone placed a Hungarian flag — the tricolor, without any Communist emblem — in the arms of the statue.
Erno Gero, the reptilian Stalinist who replaced Rakosi as Party First Secretary, had made an earlier radio broadcast that merely compounded the hatred people felt for him. Part of the crowd ended up at the radio station. They demanded a microphone, and when it was refused, some of them tried to break into the building. The AVO members defending the building threw tear gas and finally opened fire, wounding and killing some among the crowd. The unarmed demonstrators quickly acquired weapons, perhaps from local policemen or Hungarian soldiers, many of whom were in sympathy with the protesting crowd. More weapons arrived, brought by workers from Csepel, the industrial district. The armed demonstrators, now blooded Freedom Fighters, occupied the Radio Building, hunted down the sequestered AVO men, and shot them.
That same evening, another group arrived at the huge bronze statue of Joseph Stalin, intent on removing it. Obtaining metal-cutting equipment, they brought the statue down and carved it up for souvenirs. Only the boots remained, affixed to the marble plinth. Someone stood a Hungarian flag in one of them.
At midnight or soon thereafter, Imre Nagy learned that he was, once again, the Hungarian Prime Minister. By that time there was fighting in the streets. Soviet armor arrived in the very early morning of October 24. In his memoirs, A.I. Malashenko, then a colonel and acting Soviet Special Corps Chief of Staff, wrote that his formations were greeted with “stones and bullets.” Although Nagy eventually became a hero of the Revolution, his early statements urging a ceasefire weren’t in keeping with the mood of many Hungarians. Indeed, pictures show Freedom Fighters pulling a red star off one building, removing a portrait of Lenin from another, and, most startling of all, summarily shooting members of the AVO or jeering at their hanging corpses or those of their paid informants. Peter Fryer, a reporter for the British Daily Worker and himself a Communist, described “scores of Secret Police hung by their feet from trees” in Budapest. He tells of people spitting or stubbing their cigarettes on the bodies.
The unarmed demonstrators quickly acquired weapons, perhaps from local policemen or Hungarian soldiers, many of whom were in sympathy with the protesting crowd.
Other pictures show streets torn up and trolley cars capsized, their tracks pulled from the ground, to impede Soviet armor. Seen more than once is Pal Maleter’s tank, a T-34 stuck in the door of the Kilian Barracks. Maleter was a tragic hero of the Revolution. A colonel in the Hungarian Army, once decorated by the Soviets, he was in command at the barracks when, encountering the Freedom Fighters, he decided to join them rather than fight them. He later became a general and the Defense Minister in the Nagy government. On the night of November 3, while attending sham negotiations with the Soviets, he was arrested by the KGB head, General Ivan Serov, accompanied by the Soviet police. Maleter was later tried and, like Imre Nagy, executed by the new, Soviet-endorsed government.
There were two more mass shootings of unarmed demonstrators. One occurred at the Parliament Building on October 25. It began with the AVO opening fire, apparently responding to insults from the crowd. Soviet armor joined in with its firepower. The other shooting happened in Magyarovar, a small town in northwestern Hungary, close to both the Austrian and the Czech borders. A demonstrating crowd — men, women, and children — arrived at the AVO headquarters. The AVO was ready with grenades and machine guns and used both on the crowd, killing a reported 82 people and wounding and maiming many more. Peter Fryer described the aftermath at the town’s cemetery: the bodies in rows, including women, a young boy, and an infant. The surviving demonstrators obtained weapons, found some of the AVO men, and killed them.
Considering the eight-year ordeal of the Hungarian people, it’s tempting for a Westerner to ask why they endured tyranny for so long. One reason is that during those years Hungary was an efficient police state. A secret army of paid AVO informants lived and worked as ordinary citizens. Any attempt to communicate dissatisfactions or to plan a rebellious act or organize a dissident group could easily come to the attention of the secret police. Even those marginally associated with suspicious words or deeds could face arrest, exile, jail without trial, or even torture and execution. As Lenin maintained, individual rights are incompatible with equality, and equality was his ultimate value.
Added to the police-state terror was the authoritarian tradition of Hungary and Eastern Europe. Before the Soviets seized Hungary, the country was ruled by the Horthy Regency, and Admiral Miklos Horthy maintained his own oppressive system — referred to as the White Terror. Perhaps a tradition of overbearing government blinded Hungarians to the importance of individual freedom, and its logical companion, free-market capitalism. Indeed, the Freedom Fighters maintained their loyalty to socialism. The heroic Pal Maleter could be arrogant in its defense.
Even those marginally associated with suspicious words or deeds could face arrest, exile, jail without trial, or even torture and execution.
Still, from October 29 to November 4 the Freedom Fighters believed they had won their battle, they had achieved their immediate ends. An agreed-upon Soviet withdrawal had begun on the 29th. Tanks and trucks were leaving Budapest with dead Soviet soldiers upon them. In a radio broadcast Imre Nagy proclaimed, “Long live free, democratic, and independent Hungary.” There were more shootings and lynchings of AVO men.
But then, the Soviet withdrawal began to slow. As early as the night of October 30, Nagy realized that the Soviet forces were returning. It’s likely that Pal Maleter was the first to so inform him.
Khrushchev had changed his mind — a free, democratic, and independent Hungary meant its possible Westernization and a capitalist country on the doorstep of the Soviet Union. The Revolution had to be crushed. Nagy and his associates faced a crisis reborn, though the smooth-talking Ambassador Yuri Andropov, later General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, continued to reassure them that the withdrawal would proceed. And yet, on the night of November 1, 1956, Janos Kadar, a member of the ruling Committee, fled the scene, after pledging to fight Russian armor with his bare hands and broadcasting his support for the Nagy government. His statements were a smokescreen, behind which he vanished, ending up in the Soviet Union with two fellow defectors. One of them was Ferenc Munnich, who would eventually join Kadar as his deputy in the new Soviet-approved government. Victor Sebestyen described Kadar’s reluctant climb into that final Soviet automobile, goaded by Munnich — and perhaps by the thought that if he stayed, he was a dead man.
Malashenko described meeting Kadar at the Tokol Airport and providing him with quarters there. When Kadar finally enplaned and flew away, it was with KGB head General Serov. Once installed as leader, Kadar, like the good Communist he was, set about eliminating his rivals. He was impatient to see Nagy hang, along with others. He ruled Hungary for the next 32 years, eventually creating a mixed economy and a measure of prosperity. Khrushchev referred to the Kadar system as “goulash Communism.”
Peter Fryer wrote of the final moments of the Hungarian Revolution:
In public buildings and private homes, in hotels and ruined shops, the people fought the invaders street by street, step by step, inch by inch. The blazing energy of those eight days of freedom burned itself out in one glorious flame. Hungry, sleepless, hopeless, the freedom fighters battled with pitifully feeble equipment against a crushingly superior weight of Soviet arms. From windows and from open streets, they fought with rifles, home-made grenades, and Molotov cocktails against T-54 tanks.
Much has been made of the West’s, and especially America’s, reluctance to intervene in Hungary, despite pleas for help broadcast over Hungary’s Radio Kossuth. Often blamed is our preoccupation with the Suez crisis, precipitated by Egyptian President Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal. Forgotten is the prevailing 1950s fear of nuclear war. The Eisenhower administration kept bombers in the air, prepared to administer a “second strike,” should the Soviets or Red China drop The Bomb first. A direct confrontation with the Soviets was to be avoided, and “containment” became the chosen policy toward the Evil Empire. Thus, we maintained troops and missiles in Western Europe, and fought limited wars in the world’s backwaters. Our government’s preoccupation was with America’s interests and security — as it should have been.
Khrushchev had changed his mind. The Revolution had to be crushed.
Did Radio Free Europe, by advocating the Western version of freedom, actually encourage the crushing of the Revolution? Perhaps it did, at that moment in history. But as James Q. Wilson wrote in The Moral Sense, westerners consider their version of freedom an ultimate good. He quoted a superb passage composed by Professor Orlando Patterson, which begins with these words: “At its best, the valorization of personal liberty is the noblest achievement of Western civilization.” A greater problem for the Hungarian dissidents was their own faith in socialism. They remained willing to submit to a system that Hilaire Belloc warned must lead to the Servile State — that is, to slavery. As he said, “The control of the production of wealth is the control of human life itself.”
And as Ludwig von Mises pointed out, under socialism there is no organic pricing system, no marvelous supercomputer that, under capitalism, signals production and distribution. Socialism can only exist by making plans and enforcing them with punitive regulations. Of course, its inevitable failures must lead to stiffer regulations and punishments and new theories that predict but never achieve abundance.
Still, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 hangs heavy on the mind — with its images of men, women, and even children battling the Soviet tanks and, implicitly, the worst enemies of human freedom. Perhaps they were seeking a kind of freedom they couldn’t quite define. Finding it nowhere else, neither in the everyday world nor as a promise in their political tradition, they found it, at last, in mortal combat.
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Belloc, Hilaire. The Servile State. London: T.N. Foulis, 1912. www.archive.org/stream/servilestate00belluoft/servilestate00belluoft_djvu.txt
“Cry Hungary! By Reg Gadney.” Kirkus Reviews. http://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/reg-gadney-3/cry-hungary/
Douglass, Brian. “On the Road to the Servile State.” Mises Institute: Mises Daily Articles. 3 Dec. 2009.
“Erika Szeles.” The Female Soldier, 21 April 2015. www.thefemalesoldier.com/blog/erika-szeles
Flynn, John T. The Road Ahead: America’s Creeping Revolution. New York: Devon- Adair, 1949.
Fryer, Peter. Hungarian Tragedy. London: New Park Publications Ltd., 1986.
Gadney, Reg. Cry Hungary! Uprising 1956. Introd. Georges Mikes. New York: Athenum, 1986.
Garrett, Garet. “Belloc’s Puzzling Manifesto.” Mises Institute: Mises Daily Articles, 13 Jan. 2003.
Gessmer, Peter K. “General Josef Bem: Polish and Hungarian Leader.” Info Poland: Poland in the Classroom, 8 June 1958. www.info-poland.buffalo.edu/classroom/bem.html
Gyorki, Jeno, and Miklos Horvath, eds. Soviet Military Intervention in Hungary 1956. Budapest: Central European Univ. Press, 1999.
Hayek, F.A. The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents. Ed. Bruce Caldwell. London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007.
Lenin, V.I. State and Revolution. New York: International Publishers, 1943.
Mises, Ludwig von. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. Third Revised Ed. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1966.
“Sandor Petofi.” Encyclopedia.com. www.encyclopedia.com/people/literature-and-arts/russian-and-eastern-european-literature-biographies/sandor-petofi
Saxon, Wolfgang. “Janos Kadar of Hungary Is Dead at 77.” Obituaries. The New York Times, 7 July 1989. www.nytimes.com/1989/07/07/obituaries/janos-kadar-of-hungary-is-dead-at-77.html
Sebestyen, Victor. Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.
“This Hungarian Woman Was Already Dead When her Photo Became Symbol of the Revolution.” Hungary Today, 12 Oct. 2016. www.hungarytoday.hu/young-hungarian-woman-already-dead-photo-became-symbol-revolution
Wilson, James Q. The Moral Sense. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997.