What began as a writers’ and students’ demonstration in the afternoon of October 23rd, 1956 rapidly escalated into a full-blown revolution, the overthrow of Hungary’s communist government and eventually a hopeless fight against the might of the Soviet Red Army.
Today, Hungarians remember the revolution and its fallen heroes.
The day is central to Hungary’s identity and is now commemorated as an important national holiday. The revolutionaries demanded reforms, which they wrote out as a list of 16 points. Among these 16 demands, they called for the end of the one-party state and the holding of free and democratic parliamentary elections as well as a demand to join the United Nations and leave the recently established Warsaw Pact.
On November 1st, Soviet forces stormed Hungary from the north and on November 4th, the five Soviet divisions stationed in Hungary plus another freshly arrived 17 divisions moved to quash the revolution.
The poorly equipped revolutionary army and civilian street fighters were no match for the Soviet troops. By November 10th, the revolution had been crushed. The Hungarian casualties amounted to 2,500 dead and some 20,000 wounded. In the aftermath, 22,000 Hungarians were sentenced to prison, often by ad-hoc court-martials. Another 13,000 were interned in labor camps and 229 executed, including Prime Minister Imre Nagy. The brutal Soviet response led to some 200,000 Hungarians fleeing the country.
“What if” is a largely irrelevant question in history that doesn’t change anything. But many Hungarians ponder the outcome of the revolution if its timing hadn’t been so unfavorable, beginning just one day after the Suez Crisis broke out. That crisis diverted vital international attention and left the United States and the rest of the Western world largely indifferent and perhaps powerless to stop the Soviet intervention.
“We couldn’t on one hand complain about the Soviets intervening in Hungary and, on the other hand, approve of the British and the French picking that particular time to intervene against (Gamel Abdel) Nasser,” said then US Vice President Richard Nixon at a later date.
Moscow installed János Kádár as the new leader of Hungary, who subsequently ran the country until 1988. The freshly installed regime, afraid that Imre Nagy’s grave could become a rallying point for later resistance, buried him in a corner of the prison yard where he was executed before moving his body body years later to a distant corner of Budapest’s New Public Cemetery where he was buried face-down, with his hands and feet tied with barbed wire.
He finally received a proper burial in 1989, when he was rehabilitated by the then still communist regime in a reburial organized by the democratic opposition. The reburial was marked by a commemoration 31 years after his death on June 16th, 1989, and attended by a crowd of some 200,000. One of the speakers was a young opposition politician, Viktor Orbán, who rose to prominence on that day by demanding democratic elections and the departure from Hungary of the occupying Soviet troops.
He is now serving his ninth consecutive year, and 13th year in total, as Hungarian prime minister.