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Hungarian Revolution 1956

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History

How did a student protest evolve into a full-blown revolution, only to be quelled by Soviet tanks and result in the execution of a former Prime Minister? The Hungarian Uprising of 1956 was a national revolution against the Soviet Union’s control of Hungary.

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956: a summary

In 1956, Hungarians took to the streets to protest the repressive communist regime and Soviet influence in the country. Prime Minister Erno Gero was ousted as a result of the demonstrations and more liberal reformer Imre Nagy was put as the Prime Minister. Imre attempted a number of reforms, such as free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. However, his decision to leave the Warsaw Pact sparked fear in the Soviet Union.

On 4 November, 12 days after unrest had begun, Soviet tanks surrounded Budapest and cracked down on Hungary. Nagy was replaced by Janos Kadar and later executed. During the Hungarian Revolution, thousands of protestors were killed and many more were arrested or fled the country. The Soviet Union's reaction to the Revolution demonstrated their hardline approach to dissent and deterred future protests in other Eastern Bloc countries.

Timeline of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

Hungarian Revolution 1956 Protestors in Budapest StudySmarterProtestors in Budapest, 1956, Wikimedia Commons.

23 October 1956: university students were joined by ordinary citizens and the Hungarian army in protesting the long-held Soviet hegemony over Hungary, the country’s Stalinist government, and the harsh domestic policies that the USSR enforced. The students came up with a list of 16 points for reform, which included freedom of speech, a national minimum wage, the readjustment of production quotas, and the withdrawal of Soviet troops.

Prime Minister Gero rejected the petition and ordered the police to disperse the demonstration, who reacted by firing on the crowd. The protestors fought back and then attacked the AVH (Hungarian secret police) as well as Russian soldiers. In turn, the AVH and Russian soldiers killed numerous protestors and intense fighting ensued.

Hegemony

Dominance or leadership of one state (here the USSR) or group over others.

24 October 1956: riots spread across the country, leading the Soviet Union to agree to a new government. Imre Nagy, a liberal and popular communist leader who had openly criticized Stalin, replaced Erno Gero as Prime Minister.

25 October 1956: Soviet troops shoot at unarmed protestors outside parliament and tanks were deployed to the streets, killing hundreds of demonstrators. Protestors urged a general strike and destroyed symbols of the Soviet occupation. Janos Kadar, who had previously been imprisoned for opposing Stalinism, was made Nagy's deputy.

28 October 1956: Nagy and Khrushchev complete negotiations to remove the Red Army from Hungary. From 28 October onwards, Russian troops were to move out of Budapest. Nagy declared the establishment of political and economic reforms such as instituting democratically elected governments, impartial legal systems, freedom of religion, the permanent withdrawal of Soviet troops in the nation, and, most significantly, the disengagement from the Warsaw Pact which would ensure Hungarian neutrality in the Cold War. Nagy looked for support from Western countries and the United Nations.

Warsaw Pact

A mutual defence treaty signed by Eastern European states and the USSR.

1 November 1956: Nagy made a formal declaration that he would leave the Warsaw Pact, which was a critical blow to the international standing of the Soviet Union. In Moscow, this caused a stir within the Communist Party, as they became increasingly concerned about being perceived as weak and about the potential for other countries in the Warsaw Pact to follow suit.

4 November 1956: Khrushchev and the Communist Party decided that it was unacceptable for Hungary to leave the Warsaw Pact. International security was a high priority, and Khrushchev could not allow the new government led by Nagy to proceed.

At dawn, Soviet tanks encircled Budapest, and fighting ensued. The Red Army crushed the Hungarian Army and over 2500 people were killed. Nagy made a world broadcast calling for Western aid, but no intervention came. Janos Kadar, deserted Nagy and formed a new government supported by the Soviets. 200,000 people fled the country in fear of persecution. In June 1958, the USSR executed Nagy for his role in the uprising.

Causes of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

The main causes of the 1956 Uprising were Khrushchev’s policy of de-Stalinisation, belief in American intervention, and years of political repression and economic difficulty.

The death of Stalin

Following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, Khrushchev emerged as the new leader of the Soviet Union. In the Twentieth Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which took place in February 1956, Khrushchev denounced the oppressive regime that had developed and criticised Stalin. The process of de-Stalinisation, which granted ordinary citizens more civil rights than they had in decades, was encouraging to many revolutionaries. This quickly spread throughout the Soviet bloc and led many in Hungary to believe that their own country could also be de-Stalinised. Khrushchev was perceived as sympathetic to this because he forced the pro-Stalin Hungarian Prime Minister Matyas Rakosi to resign.

Western intervention

When Dwight D Eisenhower was elected president in 1953, he made sweeping claims about embarking on a new foreign policy that would replace the policy of containment because it was immoral, futile, and effectively abandoned countless people to despotism. The Republican administration promised that it would lessen Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe and would aid ‘captive peoples’ in their struggle against communism.

This led many in Hungary, including Nagy, to believe that the United States would support their challenge against the Soviet Union. However, once the Republicans took office, they were forced to soften the belligerent rhetoric of their campaign because of political realities. Often they could not intervene in other countries because of the threat of nuclear war.

Policy of containment

A US policy after the Second World War that aimed to stop the expansion of communism abroad by ‘containing’ it.

Political repression and economic hardship

Russian hegemony and communist rule meant that there was very little freedom of speech or civil liberties. Moscow dictated what was censored, what was taught at schools, and banned religion. The latter was particularly problematic for the largely Catholic Hungarian population, and many were outraged that many religious leaders were imprisoned.

Moreover, the USSR set strict production quotas with harsh punishments for falling short of them in Hungary. Much of the food and industrial goods produced in the country were then sent to Russia instead of being utilised to further Hungary’s economic development. The revolution was therefore a response to the poverty and oppression that the Hungarian people faced.

What were the US and the USSR’s reactions to the Hungarian Revolution?

In 1956, the US and the USSR were in a phase of ‘peaceful coexistence’, which neither Eisenhower nor Khrushchev was willing to disrupt so easily. Eisenhower recognised that intervention in Hungary would have led to war with Russia. Thus, the US did not intervene or provide Hungary with any assistance and Khrushchev was free to roll in thousands of tanks into Budapest.

The United States' reaction to the Hungarian Uprising

The Eisenhower administration felt that Imre Nagy was still closely linked to the Kremlin, and even as events changed, this view was never shaken. Charles Bohlen, who was the American Ambassador to the USSR during this time, reported back to the US that

there are not on the surface at least, any open differences between the Hungarian and Soviet Governments.

The fact that Nagy was communist but believed in the ousting of Stalinist politicians and sided with the students who drove the Revolution was probably not enough to change how the US saw him. Despite this, and the clear choice to not intervene in Hungary, American sympathy for the Hungarian revolutionaries was made clear. On 27 October 1956, secretary of state John Foster Dulles proclaimed that

the United States has no ulterior purpose in desiring the independence of the satellite countries. Our unadulterated wish is that these peoples, from whom so much of our national life derives, should have sovereignty restored to them and that they should have governments of their own free choice. We do not look upon these nations as potential military allies. We see them as friends and as a part of [...], a no longer divided Europe.

Moreover, the United States was preoccupied with the Suez Crisis, which they deemed more important.

The USSR reaction to the Hungarian Uprising

The USSR did not suffer any significant international consequences for its actions during the Hungarian Uprising, but the event had a lasting impact on Russia’s satellite states and on Russian internal affairs. The Hungarian Revolution essentially exposed the cracks in Eastern Europe and displayed that the USSR’s communist foothold in the region was perhaps not as solid as it once was.

In fact, the uprising can be seen as the failure of the government, the USSR, and communism itself to provide for its citizens. If the citizens of the Eastern bloc had had a higher standard of living, the likelihood of any rebellion would have greatly decreased. Khrushchev carried this lesson forward, implementing economic and social reforms in the winter of 1956 and in early 1957.

However, the event also proved that Khrushchev’s policy of liberalisation would have consequences and weakened his support from hard-line communists in his own country. Khrushchev faced additional pressure from China following the uprising to defend communism abroad.

Consequences of the Hungarian Uprising

The Hungarian Revolution was one of the first events that punctuated a period of very high tension between the US and the USSR. Undoubtedly, it set the tone for US interactions with Khrushchev moving forward.

In 1956, before the Hungarian Uprising had occurred, the US was beginning to think that with the death of Stalin and Khrushchev’s promises of de-Stalinisation and ‘peaceful coexistence,’ tensions between the two countries would fade. But, the USSR’s brutal quelling of the uprising proved that despite Khrushchev’s desire for cooperation and peaceful co-existence he would not be a docile leader.

Hungarian Revolution 1956 Group of men marching with a banner that says Help Hungary in Dutch StudySmarterMarch in Eindhoven, the Netherlands in support of the Hungarian Revolution, Rossem, Wim van, CC-BY-SA-3.0-NL, Wikimedia Commons.

Across the world, people were horrified by the actions taken to quell the uprising in Hungary, and the event led to people leaving the communist parties of various nations. To the US, the Revolution further highlighted the need for containment.

Hungarian Revolution 1956 - Key takeaways

  • The Hungarian Uprising of 1956 began on 23 October and was a national revolution against the Soviet Union’s control of Hungary.
  • Riots spread across the country and Imre Nagy, a liberal communist leader, replaced Erno Gero as Prime Minister. Nagy then promised a series of reforms that would increase freedom for the Hungarian people.
  • After Hungary declared its departure from the Warsaw Pact, Khrushchev sent in the troops to quell the uprising.
  • The US did not intervene because it was preoccupied with the Suez Crisis and it did not want to start a nuclear war with the USSR.
  • The uprising did pose a significant challenge to Khrushchev and the stability of the Eastern bloc.

Hungarian Revolution 1956

Initially, Khrushchev allowed the uprising to continue. However, when Nagy threatened to leave the Warsaw Pact, Khrushchev faced immense pressure from conservatives within the Communist Party and China to quell the rebellion. Eventually, Khrushchev sent in the Red Army troops to regain control of Hungary.

In short, no. The Hungarian Revolution looked like it would be successful in the beginning, expanding civil liberties to the Hungarian people. However, the Soviet Union sent in troops to quell the uprising, and thus the revolution was unsuccessful.

The Hungarian Revolution was caused by Khrushchev’s attempt to reform communism, the renewed aggression on the part of the US to free nations from communism as well as the political repression and economic hardship that Hungary faced under soviet rule.


One significant impact of the Hungarian Revolution was to show that despite Khrushchev’s doctrine of peaceful coexistence, he would not be passive in maintaining hegemony over the Eastern Bloc.

In 1956, Hungarians took to the streets to protest the repressive communist regime and Soviet influence in the country. Prime Minister Erno Gero was ousted as a result of the demonstrations and more liberal reformer Imre Nagy was put as the Prime Minister. Imre attempted a number of reforms, such as free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. However, his decision to leave the Warsaw Pact sparked fear in the Soviet Union. 


On 4 November, 12 days after unrest had begun, Soviet tanks surrounded Budapest and cracked down on Hungary. During the Hungarian Revolution, thousands of protestors were killed and many more were arrested or fled the country.

Final Hungarian Revolution 1956 Quiz

Question

When did Khrushchev send in troops to quell the uprising?

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Answer

4 November 1956

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Question

When did Eisenhower come into power?

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Answer

1952

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Question

Which politician became Prime Minister in October during the Hungarian Revolution?


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Answer

Imre Nagy

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Question

America provided economic aid to Hungary.


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Answer

False

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Question

China pressured the USSR into intervening during the Revolution.


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Answer

True

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Question

Who was Secretary of State during Eisenhower’s presidency?


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Answer

John Foster Dulles

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Question

Why was Nagy confident in the aid from the US?

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Answer

When Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president in 1953, he made sweeping claims about embarking on a foreign policy that would fight against the policy of containment (which aimed to stop the expansion of communism abroad) because it was immoral, futile, and effectively abandoned countless people to despotism. 


The Republican administration promised that it would lessen Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe and would aid ‘captive peoples’ in their struggle against communism. This led many in Hungary, including Nagy, to believe that the United States would support their challenge against the Soviet Union. 

Show question

Question

Why did people in Hungary believe that Khrushchev would allow radical change?

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Answer

Khrushchev advocated for de-Stalinisation. The process of de-Stalinisation, which granted ordinary citizens more civil rights than they had in decades, was encouraging to many revolutionaries. This quickly spread throughout the Soviet bloc and led many in Hungary to believe that their own country could also be de-Stalinised.

Show question

Question

What were the three main causes for the Hungarian Revolution?

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Answer

1. Khrushchev’s policy of de-Stalinisation

2. Belief in American intervention

3. Years of political repression and economic difficulty

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Question

The USSR did not face international consequences for its actions during the Hungarian Uprising.

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Answer

True

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Question

What was one consequence of the Hungarian Revolution in the USSR?

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Answer

Khrushchev implemented economic and social reforms in the winter of 1956 and in early 1957. However, the event also proved that Khrushchev’s policy of liberalisation would have consequences and weakened his support from hard-line communists in his own country. Khrushchev faced additional pressure from China following the Uprising to defend communism abroad.

Show question

Question

Why did the US fail to intervene in Hungary?

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Answer

Firstly, the Eisenhower administration felt that Imre Nagy was still closely linked to the Kremlin. Moreover, the United States was preoccupied with the Suez Crisis, which they deemed more important. The US and the USSR were also in a phase of ‘peaceful coexistence,’ which neither Eisenhower nor Khrushchev was willing to disrupt so easily.

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