Hungarian Conservative

1956: A National Revolution

The 1956 Hungarian Revolution. A destroyed Russian tank and other vehicles in front of the Soviet Kilian Barracks at Francis Boulevard Budapest.
Carl von Clausewitz advised that “According to our idea of a people’s war, it should, like a kind of nebulous vapoury essence, never condense into a solid body; [...]. Still, however, on the other hand, it is necessary that this mist should collect at some points into denser masses, and form threatening clouds from which now and again a formidable flash of lightning may burst forth.

In 1956, the Hungarian people matched space with time, destiny with opportunity, and myth with reality. In what has been called the purest revolution in world history—one which was just as much an ‘anti-totalitarian revolution’ (Hannah Arendt) as a ‘proletarian uprising’ (Claude Lefort, Bill Lomax)—Hungarians re-established themselves as a European nation, vindicating their needs on the various levels of regional, popular, and national traditions, local specificity, and employment. The two weeks of freedom won by the revolution saw the implementation of long-standing demands concerning the nation, society, economy, and politics. For all these reasons, 1956 must be regarded as a sort of distillation of the nation’s ambitions. The spiritual and mental gold reserves of 1956 not only sustained the country until the eventual democratic turn, but continue to this day to nourish our collective dreams about freedom and independence. The Revolution of 1956 was clearly the national revolution of Hungarians.1

The Revolution and War of Independence

On the last day of armed conflict, on 11 November 1956, Gyula Illyés wrote that ‘This revolution was, first and foremost, anational revolution. The miners were far less interested in recovering their former wages than in restoring the honour of the Hungarian shield. What was on their mind was putting an end to the country’s subjugation, rather than breaking free of their own financial servitude.’2 This thought is key to understanding 1956. What distinguished Hungary’s ’56 from the local insurrections that had plagued the Soviet Bloc since 1945, such as the events in East Berlin and Poznań, was that the Hungarian revolution proved itself to be politically motivated from its inception to its demise. While ‘in those two places the spark was ignited by economic fiasco […], the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was something different. The youths and their supporters marching in the streets on 23 October did not clamour for economic reform. What they demanded was freedom, national independence, and free elections. From the first moment to the last, it was a political struggle.’3

The mock freedom of the coalition period, followed by five years of terror and dictatorship under Rákosi, the ambivalent cabinet under Imre Nagy, and the subsequent re-Stalinization of the regime imposed on the country a cycle of alternating repression and relief. As László Németh put it vividly, ‘revolutions are responses triggered not so much by oppressed peoples as by repressed ones’. This is an apt description of the downturn experienced by Hungarians after the war, when a nation that had known freedom was crushed by main force. What temporary respite there was only made the situation worse because, as Németh noted, ‘an overheated furnace will blow up even when some of the pressure is relieved.’4

The fury that had accumulated over foreign occupation and political oppression since 1945 reached boiling point in the autumn of 1956. Winning national independence and political freedom formed equal parts of the same struggle. The tightly knit mutual dependence between Soviet occupation and the Hungarian regime instated by it meant that the armed fight for political freedom and national independence had to coincide. Without Soviet occupation there could have been no totalitarian rule, and without dictatorship there would not have been a Soviet occupation. In short, Hungarians had to take up arms against both with equal commitment. The revolution against the regime and the push for national independence presupposed each other. This is why we prefer to call 1956 a revolution and war of independence, and this is why it could not possibly have had an actor able to separate the cause of national sovereignty from that of political self-determination. For instance, the resolution adopted by the workers’ council of the Ferencváros district in Budapest on 31 October listed the following among its demands, which were clearly levelled, at least in part, against the ruling government: general, multi-party elections by secret ballot; the immediate relief of sitting ministers from duty; instant secession from the Warsaw Pact; and the withdrawal of Soviet troops.5

The revolution against the regime and the push for national independence  presupposed each other

As Hannah Arendt explains, ‘What had started as a student demonstration had become an armed uprising in less than twenty- four hours. […] [W]hat carried the revolution was the sheer momentum of acting together of the whole people.’6 It quickly became obvious that the demands formulated by the students demonstrating for reform on 23 October went beyond their special interests to advocate political goals for the entire nation, which could not possibly have been satisfied within the system. Everyone realized—if no sooner than certainly by the time Imre Nagy delivered his disappointing address at Parliament, when the lights were cut in the square, and torches made from copies of Szabad Nép were lit in response—that it had come down to upholding either the demands or the regime. The toppling of Stalin’s statue that followed was not just a symbolic act heralding the revolution, which broke out in earnest when the demonstrators committed themselves to armed engagement after rounds had been fired into the crowd at the RadioBuilding. In 1957, Raymond Aron assessed the Hungarian revolution as a popular revolution against a totalitarian state unprecedented in the twentieth century, which began as an uprising and ended in the overthrow of the state.7 By the eve of 4 November, the second Soviet invasion, Hungarians had not just reclaimed the state but had taken their destiny in their own hands.

During the week of armed conflict, from the night of 23/24 October to the armistice announced in the early afternoon of 28 October (which curiously applied to the Hungarian troops only, with the Soviet forces not following suit until the following evening) the Hungarian freedom-fighters not only managed to displace the oppressive state apparatus and eliminate domestic resistance, but to persuade the Soviet Union to withdraw its forces from Budapest, despite the latter having increased the number of its troops and arsenal by sending in new contingents in several steps. These two achievements actually accomplished the declared manifesto of the revolution. It was for a reason that Gyula Obersovszky wrote, for the first paper hot off the free press, that ‘The people will want to have a say in politics, with arms in hand if needed. It is the admittedly radical politics of a people that can no longer ask because all its petitions have been in vain.’8

Winning national independence and political freedom in unison had made all the more sense in light of the fact that ’56 could not have been crushed without destroying both ambitions at the same time. The intervention spearheaded by Kádár’s faction, Hungary’s communist Quisling, in collaboration with what was then the largest land army in the world, targeted forces infringing both upon the Soviet Union’s territorial interests and upon sheer totalitarian rule. Less than two months after the revolution had been crushed, the victors wound up its political achievements, grassroots organizations (including their stronghold, the Greater Budapest Workers’Council), and the right to hold general strikes. Just as the revolution could not have prevailed so long as the occupying forces were in place, so it was impossible to vanquish it without occupation.

A Self-Sufficient Nation

István Angyal, the left-leaning commander of the Tűzoltó Street revolutionaries, perfectly summed up the political dynamics of the revolution when he wrote that ‘the cabinets, Parliament, and all the politicians were left behind by the events. While the legislature negotiated, argued, and mulled over the next steps to take, the people took to the streets and made revolution in the real world. […] Parliament was relegated to acknowledging these events without ever taking charge of the revolution.’9 Indeed, as many commentators observed at the time, the revolution had no leader, nor did the armed fight have a general commander. It was a time when the polarity between the intelligentsia and the people was upended. As László Németh realized, this time it was not about the people following a poet, but the other way round.10 Precisely for this reason, Imre Nagy was not so much the prime minister of the revolution as the prime minister under the revolution. As to who should be prime minister of Hungary, Illyés answered the question wittily: ‘Whoever has the guts to walk down the boulevard.’ The spontaneous uprising of the people, which fulfilled the demands of a nation’s revolution, both unwritten and set forth in the agenda, acted first against the government, then in lieu of it, and finally in its absence.

Instead of a haphazard insurrection, 1956 was about spontaneous order and revolutionary discipline, as demonstrated by its various achievements, from the institution of new armed forces and administrative bodies (revolutionary centres, national guard, workers’ councils, revolutionary committees) to the efforts to preserve law and order (think of the negligible number of mob-rule executions, the meticulously maintained cash-registers, and the exemplary protection of public assets) to the voluntary organization of public services and administration. Of course, none of this is unrelated to the fact that industrial workers claimed a leading role in the armed fight,11 which naturally paved the way for the emergence of workers’ self-governing bodies. As Hannah Arendt wrote two years after the revolution had been crushed, ‘At any event, the Revolutionary and the Workers’ Councils, though they emerged together, are better kept apart, because the former were primarily the answer to political tyranny, whereas the latter in the case of the Hungarian revolution were the reaction against trade unions that did not represent the workers but the party’s control over them’.12 What transpired in 1956 was genuine popular representation—an act of a people representing itself.

Concurrently with the armed uprising— or, to be more exact, because of it—several self-governing bodies were set up that operated independently of the state party, its government and all communist bodies such as district and workplace party organizations, councils, the Alliance of Working Youths, the Popular Front, and the National Trade Union Council. For the most part, these new bodies consisted of workers’ councils monitoring production and revolutionary committees organizing public administration. The creation of these district and workplace revolutionary committees, local and county-level national councils, and the workers’ councils meant the instant liquidation of the single-party system, not just by shattering the shackles of tyranny, but by winding up the bureaucracy that had supported it.

No sooner had the dictatorship collapsed, together with the defeat of the occupying forces, than the nation’s autonomy began to unfold in its own natural manner. The rebels quickly took control of the streets, while the revolutionary committees and workers’ councils wasted no time in seizing political power. Claude Lefort described the emerging situation in these words: ‘The workers’ council took control of the action everywhere, arming the fighters, organizing public kitchens, and formulating political and economic demands. In those days [at the end of October] the government in Budapest no longer represented anyone, its actions obviously panic-stricken as it churned out contradictory announcements in great haste […] the government had lost the last modicum of authority.’13

‘It would be a fatal mistake to allow a return of the former spirit by resurrecting the ghost of the old parties’

The protagonists of the 1956 Revolution were the armed insurgents and the workers’ councils, the former committed to armed the organizations of local revolutionary administration and workers’ councils. These not only ran circles around the Hungarian Workers’ Party (MDP) and the Imre Nagy cabinet, but easily trumped party leaders, who declined to participate in the armed conflict and sought to run for office in the newly emerged self-governing bodies. László Németh’s views, penned on 1 November, must have resonated with many at the time: ‘It would be a fatal mistake to allow a return of the former spirit by resurrecting the ghost of the old parties.’ Indeed, Németh suggested that ‘we ought to gradually make place for the young ones who made the revolution happen, because they were purged by fire in that ordeal’.14 István Angyal refused to allocate a vehicle from the depot controlled by his group except to workers’ councils, food supply services, and ambulance outfits. ‘As we have made it absolutely clear, we are not party politicians but revolutionaries. The revolution has no time now to deal with party politics.’15

The first personnel change in the government, which had manoeuvred and made its decisions in strict obedience to the Communist Party and its Soviet masters till the end, occurred on the morning of 24 October, when Imre Nagy was appointed prime minister with the approval of the Soviet Union and the Hungarian Communist Party, although actual political power remained in the hands of First Secretary Ernő Gerő, who was not removed until the following day. Until 28 October, the new prime minister’s actions focused on deploying armed police and maintaining the curfew and martial law—in short, on defending the single-party state. According to Soviet reports, on the afternoon that culminated in the Kossuth Square massacre, ‘Comrade Imre Nagy appealed to us to increase the number of our troops in Budapest, particularly of infantry’.16 This caused the Revolutionary Youth Alliance of Csepel to distribute flyers the following day, calling on ‘the new government under Imre Nagy to clarify its role in the bloodshed victimizing Hungarian youths […] and to state, by means of a radio address, why the Soviet troops were not withdrawn following the bloodshed the previous day’.17 On October 27, the Nagy cabinet was reshuffled by removing András Hegedűs, who had called in the Soviet troops on the evening of the 23rd, then, still in his capacity as President of the Council of Ministers, appointing Zoltán Tildy, and replacing József Darvas by György Lukács. Further personnel changes included bringing in Ferenc Münnich as Interior Minister (replacing László Piros) and the appointment of Károly Janza replacing István Bata as Minister of Defence, who instantly ordered the military ‘to continue eliminating the armed groups without respite’. In essence, this cabinet remained loyal to Stalinismwithout having a single self-declared Stalinist in its ranks.

The prime minister’s radio address on 28 October, scripted with the approval of hard-line communists and the Soviets, amounted to an attempt at pacifying the revolution. It meant no more than a partial recognition of the demands voiced on the 23rd, and came at a time when the revolution itself had already advanced far beyond that first stage. The compromises that Imre Nagy announced would, if accepted, still allow the state to remain in control of events. In this way, 28 October was not ‘the day the tide turned’, as some have suggested, but the day the government made a series of insincere steps under pressure, intended to avert a course that would have been even more detrimental to the Communist Party and the Soviet occupiers. What happened was simply that Moscow realized that the party’s grip on power could only be retained by opening a few release valves, with the help of Imre Nagy. The only reason Moscow decided to intervene again on 30 and 31 October was because the prime minister had failed to achieve what had been hoped of him as a man of compromise.

The official decisions, then, were invariably made by the central body of the party (of which the prime minister was of course a member) after the green light had been given by Moscow. It was far too late in the process, coming on the heels of the collapse of the MDP (the Hungarian Working People’s Party), when the cabinet headed by Nagy wrenched itself free from the Communist Party, and even then it did not do so voluntarily, but because the communist ‘superego’ had ceased to exist. Yet the MSZMP (Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party) which superseded the MDP, had no choice but to make certain concessions. One of these was to revamp the cabinet by replacing Gerő and his cohorts with János Kádár and Géza Losonczy, two politicians imprisoned under Rákosi. (It merely reflected the peculiar logic of communist systems that the latter would perish in prison with Kádár at the helm.) Events gathered pace between late October and early November. The disintegration of the single-party state and the autonomous progress of the revolution forced the government to make further concessions by authorizing the National Guard, recognizing the workers’ councils, acknowledging the emerging multi-party system, and announcing Hungary’s secession from the Warsaw Pact.

Sending a sign of who was really in charge, a parliament comprising the workers’ councils in Budapest was convened, which culminated in the declaration of a concrete political manifesto. The agenda included the following resolutions: ‘The factory belongs to the workers; the director is appointed by a council elected by the workers and is in charge of supervising the company, making decisions on planning, wages, foreign orders, employment contracts, and profits.’18 The following day, the paper of the young revolutionaries carried a declaration: ‘The people will not stop half-way. We will not make a deal on independence. Our young workers are determined to keep up the general strike until the last Soviet troops have left the country.’19

On 3 November, the formation of the third Nagy cabinet, by then in coalition, did hold out the promise of non-dictatorial governance, but these hopes were quickly stifled by the Soviets. Under the circumstances, the self-administration of the country in uprising was organized without the government, and in fact in spite of it. By then, the people had taken charge. Administration under the revolution meant popular self-governance free of the party or the government from the start. In fact, 3 November witnessed a juncture of destiny, when the separate wings forged by the armed uprising and social self-governance connected.

An Urban Popular Uprising

Carl von Clausewitz advised that ‘According to our idea of a people’s war, it should, like a kind of nebulous vapoury essence, never condense into a solid body; […]. Still, however, on the other hand, it is necessary that this mist should collect at some points into denser masses, and form threatening clouds from which now and again a formidable flash of lightning may burst forth.’20 The Prussian military expert, who laid down the principles of guerrilla warfare based on partisan experiences during the Napoleonic Wars, recommended a tactic under uneven combat conditions whereby the party under siege exploits its situational advantage and local knowledge which is unavailable to the far better equipped conquerors. Informing guerrilla tactics are the mobility of small, lightly armed units, various ruses, familiarity with the terrain, camouflage, ambush, continuous harassment of the enemy, and the ability to vanish speedily into thin air. The deployment of such an invisible army makes the conqueror feel uneasy about a ‘battlefront which [is] nowhere and everywhere’ (see Nguyên Giáp).

In Eastern Europe, guerrilla wars had been largely confined to the mountains and forests for 150 years until the partisans moved from the countryside into the cities, starting around the middle of the twentieth century. The first asymmetrical battles fought in a big city were the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and the 1956 Revolution in Budapest, where armed conflict against power became concentrated. The revolutionary fighting, which conformed to the classic rules of guerrilla warfare, remained defensive in nature from start to finish. As István Angyal noted, ‘There was no question about ceding ground. Most of us belonged here, in the 9th district. We were defending our own homes, our own loved ones.’21

The Soviet tanks rolling into the city on the night of 23 October were greeted by barricades and Molotov cocktails. At the dawn of the 24th, the first revolutionary centres were formed at strategic, defensible points of the city that were ideally suited for observing traffic. Each of them relied on a landmark building doubling as a stronghold: for the fighters in Baross Square, it was house No. 19 across from the railway station; for those in Széna Square it was the multi-story concrete building over the new metro tunnel then being built, which served as a workers’ dormitory; for those in Móricz Circle the structure affectionately known as ‘The Mushroom’ on top of which a machine gun nest was installed; and for those in the Corvin district, it was the massive motion picture theatre and the surrounding maze of pedestrian streets flanked by multi-story residential buildings. Named Kisfaludy Alley at the time, what is today the Corvin Alley naturally suggested itself as the home base of urban guerrilla warfare with its arcades, neighbouring smaller streets (Nap, Práter, Vajdahunyad, Viola) and the Kilián Barracks across Üllői Road. The revolutionaries readily exploited the conditions of this built environment, which proved conducive to quick strikes, ambush attacks, and retreat at lightning speed.

As most of the fighters in each revolutionary node were local residents of the district, they knew the area like the back of their hand. János Szabó, the commander of the Széna Square outfit, lived in a nearby street and owed his appointment to his intimate familiarity with the neighbourhood. ‘Uncle Szabó had been an unmistakable figure around here. He made his living driving a delivery truck or taking temporary jobs. […] He was often seen playing soccer with the kids. […] He was friends with everyone. People around here all knew him and liked him’, recalls one of his comrades in arms.22 The group in Práter Street on the Pest side had similarly strong local roots. Most of the fighters here lived in that street or in nearby József Boulevard, with a few hailing from the poorer inner district.

The fighters armed themselves with weapons seized from the enemy. As Gergely Pongrácz, the last commander of the Corvin Alley detachment, relates, they went by the rule that ‘if you don’t have a gun, the enemy will bring one to you’. During engagement, members of this group employed all imaginable tactics of guerrilla warfare, hurling Molotov cocktails at the tanks they had lured into narrow streets, turning plates upside down to resemble mines, spreading soap on the pavement, rolling up bundles of hand grenades powerful enough to blow the tracks off heavy caterpillar vehicles, building barricades from train wagons in Széna Square and from cobblestones around Móricz Circle, and fortifying tenement buildings in Tűzoltó Street. István Angyal remembers this latter operation as follows: ‘It would occur to me that we were organizing our defence in much the same way the workers in Stalingrad had against the Germans. […] The tanks reduced all the houses to rubble but failed to take any one of them.’23

Given that the revolutionaries were outnumbered by the invading forces beyond compare, they had no choice but to prepare for defence according to the rules of guerrilla warfare. However, strategic defence went hand in hand with tactical strikes on the enemy, the mobile equipment, tanks, gun carriers, and armoured vehicles of the Soviets being the primary targets. In the absence of anti-tank artillery, the revolutionaries had to resort to ingenious tricks as their best weapon. ‘We had the people on our side’, said János Bárány, the captain of the Tompa Street group, adding that ‘There was no flat we called on where they refused to help. They gave us food and clothing, The women mixed the Molotov cocktails themselves before handing them to us through the window.’24 There was a joke going around based on the daily reality of the revolution, about a few lads ringing the doorbell on the third floor of a tenement building, asking if they could enter and shoot from the window. ‘Certainly’, said the lady who answered the door. ‘On condition that you wipe your boots first.’

The freedom fighters of Budapest were backed by the entire nation. No sooner had the armed revolutionaries and the workers’ councils of the capital got down to business than the revolution began to unfold across the country, dismantling communist structures, eliminating the state bureaucracy, giving local administration back to the locals, forming workers’ councils and National Guard units everywhere. Concurrently, another vital act was performed that literally made the fighting in Budapest possible in the first place: from the first days, the farmers in rural Hungary were sending supplies of food in quantities that Budapest had not seen in a long time. This legendary munificence, motivated by a crystal-clear recognition of the country’s destiny and nationwide solidarity, was described by a journalist at the very end of October as ‘a vast convoy of puffing trucks and tractors with trailers, loaded stock full with trunks, sacks and packages […] the cargo spaces inside jam-packed with cabbage in hills, fruit crates, cans of milk, sacks of onions and potatoes, throngs of poultry in cages—all benevolent gifts from the altruistic farmers from Pócsmegyer’.25 During the days of the revolution over three hundred wagons of fruits and vegetables awaited unloading at various railway stations in Budapest, and there was such an abundance of donated bread that the shops were unable to sell what was left over. Let us bear in mind that these shipments were dispatched to the city from the provinces at a time during the autumn season when such supplies are normally stored in barns, lofts, and pantries for the approaching winter. All this was proffered to the embattled capital, without a single order of requisition or central directive of any kind.

Devictus Vincit

After 4 November, armed resistance continued for about a week, but the revolution itself did not end there, as was attested by ongoing workplace strikes, underground assemblies, passive resistance, silent demonstrations, regime-denouncing graffiti, and reports printed in illegally distributed papers and pamphlets. Once again, the most potent weapon rested in the hands of the workers, who organized a strike. ‘The strike, lasting for well over a month, was in its very essence a political strike, employed as a weapon against both the Soviet military occupation and the new Kádár regime.’26 On 12 November the workers’ council of Csepel put out an appeal declaring that ‘the further path of the revolution cannot be staked out by anyone other than the Hungarian people and, perhaps, the workers of Budapest in the first place. This constitutes not just their prerogative but their patriotic duty.’27 However, in mid-January 1957, when the workers of Csepel occupying the factories there had been vanquished, the country was once again shrouded in the silence of tyranny.

The strike, lasting for well over a month, was in its very essence a political strike, employed as a weapon against both the Soviet military occupation and the new Kádár regime

In the course of the subsequent retribution campaign that lasted until 1961, 229 people were tried and executed, 860 deported to the Soviet Union, and 26,000 received various sentences, including 25,000 who were either imprisoned or interned (forcefully relocated). At least 80 fell victim to the firing squads on the command of the authorities between December 1956 and January 1957. All of this amounted to the most grievous political retaliation in Hungarian history. For comparison, in 1849 Haynau had ordered the execution of 120 revolutionaries and the imprisonment of 1,200—in a country three times the size of what it was in 1956!

Between 23 October and 11 November, the Soviet Army sustained extremely severe losses in Hungary, especially in Budapest. In just two weeks, 700 Soviet soldiers fell, 1,500 were wounded, and 50 were declared missing in action.28 The worst hit were the guard units assigned to the districts south of Kerepesi Road, where the official Soviet reports record the loss of 14 tanks and gun carriers, nine armoured vehicles, 13 canons, four rocket launchers, and six anti-aircraft missiles. The greatest toll on the invaders— some 80 per cent of the total damage to Soviet troops in the capital—were inflicted by the ‘Lads [and Gals] of Pest’ in districts 8 and 9.29 These two districts, particularly the streets on either side of Üllői Road near downtown, were the epicentre of the fighting. Between 24 October and 5 November, more than 20 tanks, gun carriers, and armoured personnel vehicles were destroyed in Corvin Alley alone. This was where half of all the Soviet tanks destroyed by the revolution were lost.

According to contemporary data posted by the KSH, the Central Statistical Office, the revolution and war of independence claimed a total of 2,700 lives, 78 per cent of whom (1,945 people) died in the capital. During and after the revolution, some 200,000 Hungarians fled the country. Nearly half of the casualties in Budapest died on the Pest side of the Danube, with the Józsefváros district claiming the heaviest losses, accounting for more than one fifth of the total of those killed in violent action (including at the hands of the firing squads) in all of greater Budapest from October 23 to the last day of the year 1956.30 It is therefore not an exaggeration to say that District 8 served as the stronghold of armed engagement during the Revolution of 1956.

Led by Budapest, the country made its wishes known to everyone in what turned out to be a dramatic and heroic struggle. The revolution was not the work of an inner circle of intellectuals but of broad-based popular ambition. As György Pálóczy Horváth put it in an article for the emblematic issue of the paper Irodalmi Újság, the popular uprising was a visceral outburst without any direction from the repositories of power and without any groundwork performed by the intelligentsia. ‘Our fight was spontaneous and pure. The decisions were not made in crowded meetings, and nobody waited for instructions from above. When the hour came, Budapest turned into a battlefield. A major metropolis rose up, and it quickly became the arena of a fight for life and death.’31

The Revolution and war of independence had three cardinal demands: 1) the withdrawal of occupying forces; 2) the abolition of totalitarian rule, in a close association with the call that emerged during the armed fights, namely for 3) self-governance, which manifested itself simultaneously in new bodies of self-defence, at the workplace, within the ranks of the armed forces, and in local public administration. The prompt response from the oppressors makes it difficult to ascertain the specific political goals of a revolution and war of independence that took place in the guise of a popular uprising. Nevertheless, the outline of those political goals can be glimpsed in the fact that 40 per cent of the respondents in a survey of emigrants conducted directly in the wake of 1956 ‘came down on the side of one kind of syndicalism or another’ and voiced their desire for a society marked by justice, freedom from exploitation, and self-governance.32 Sweeping away cautious reformism along with the regime that nourished it, the Revolution of 1956 had the energy to destroy prevailing structures of power instantly and without compromise, and to bring about a new world based on autonomous self-organization and a higher standard of morality independent of the old order.

Devictus vincit—‘Winning by being vanquished’—was the pet phrase of Cardinal Prince Primate József Mindszenty, who stood by the revolution until the end. This motto has a very special application to the national revolution of Hungarians and was echoed by Raymond Aron, when he averred that— from the point of view of practical wisdom—a successful reform may have served the nation better than a crushed revolution, but the righteous self-sacrifice, the refusal to bow to subjugation, and the willing acceptance of death embodied a justice whose subdued power would in the long term silence the din of arms and the dubious victory of the conquerors.33

Translated by Péter Balikó Lengyel

Originally published in Hungarian in Kommentár, 5–6 (2018), 54–63.


1 In writing this essay, I have drawn on my own findings previously published in Márton Békés, Gerillaháború.
A fegyveres felkelés elmélete és gyakorlata 
(Guerrilla War: The Theory and Practice of Armed Uprising) (Budapest: Közép- és Kelet-európai Történelem és Társadalom Kutatásáért Közalapítvány, 2017), 110–271.

2 Gyula Illyés, Naplójegyzetek 1956–1957. Atlantisz sorsára jutottunk (Diary Entries 1956–1957. We Have Succcumbed to the Fate of Atlantis), edited by Mária Illyés and István Horváth (Budapest: MMA–Magyar Szemle, 2016), 60. (My emphasis.)

3 Address by Mária Schmidt at the Friends of Hungary Conference, Budapest, 7 May 2016. (My emphasis.)

4 László Németh, A magyar forradalomról (On the Hungarian Revolution) (Budapest: Nap, 2011), 72, 85.

5 In: Magyar munkástanácsok 1956-ban. Dokumentumok (Workers’ Councils in Hungary in 1956. Documents), prepared for press by István Kemény and Bill Lomax (Paris: Magyar Füzetek kiadása, 1986), 42.

6 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Cleveland: World Publishing Company [Meridian Books], 1962), 496.

7 Raymond Aron, ‘Egy antitotalitárius forradalom’ (An Anti-totalitarian Revolution [1957]), in ’56 és a franciák. Francia gondolkodók a magyar forradalomról (’56 and France. French Thinkers on the Hungarian Revolution). Sel. Philippe Capellaere, trans. András Imreh et al. (Budapest: Font, 1993), 47. (My emphasis.) Our translation.

8 ‘A Nép nevében!’ (In the Name of the People!), Igazság (25 October 1956 [reprint]), in 1956 sajtója (1956 in the Press), edited by Ernő Nagy (Budapest: Tudósítások, 1989), n.p.

Angyal István saját kezű vallomása [1956] (The Deposition of István Angyal in His Own Hand [1956]), edited by László Eörsi (Budapest: Pesti Szalon, 1991), 114. (My emphasis.)

10 László Németh, ‘Nemzet és író’ (Nation and Writer), Igazság (3.1 November 1956), in 1956 sajtója.

11 At least 60 per cent of the victims executed by trial during the retribution under Kádár had been workers prior to the revolution. More than half of those who lost their lives in Budapest in 1956 belonged to the working class. Moreover, 80 to 90 per cent of the revolutionaries wounded in the fights were workers or young industry trainees.

12 Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 498.

13 Claude Lefort, ‘A magyar fölkelés [1957]’ (The Hungarian Uprising [1957]), in ’56 és a franciák, 162.

14 László Németh, ‘Pártok és egység’ (Parties and Unity), Új Magyarország (2.1 November 1956), in 1956 sajtója.

15 Angyal István saját kezű vallomása, 50.

16 Report by Mikoyan and Suslov to the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party Budapest, 25 October 1956, in ‘A Jelcin-dosszié’ – Szovjet dokumentumok 1956-ról’ (The Yeltsin Dossier. Soviet Documents about 1956), ed. and trans. Éva Gál et al. (Budapest: Századvég–1956-os Intézet, 1993), 51.

17 1956 plakátjai és röplapjai. Október 22–november 5. (Posters and Flyers of 1956: 22 October–5 November), compiled and edited by Lajos Izsák et al. (Budapest: Zrínyi, 1991), 72.

18 Magyar munkástanácsok 1956-ban (Workers’ Councils in Hungary 1956), 42–43.

19 ‘Igaz népi hatalom – függetlenül, szabadon’ (True Popular Power – Independence and Freedom), Magyar Ifjúság (1 November 1956, 1), in 1956 sajtója.

20 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. J. J. Graham (London: 1873).

21 Angyal István saját kezű vallomása, 95.

22 Czájlik Péter interjúja: A forradalom emlékezete. Személyes történelem (Inteview with Péter Czájlik: Memories of the Revolution. Personal Histories), compiledby Adrienne Molnár, Zsuzsanna Kőrösi and Márkus Keller (Budapest: 1956-os Intézet, 2006), 113.

23 Angyal István saját kezű vallomása, 96–97.

24 ‘A bordósapkás Jancsi’ (Purple Beret Jancsi),
Magyar Ifjúság (3 November 1956, 2], in 1956 sajtója.

25 Jenő Gárdonyi, ‘A falu népe a hős Budapest népének’ (The Village People to the Heroes of Budapest),
Magyar Nemzet (31 October 1956, 4), in 1956 sajtója.

26 Bill Lomax, Hungary 1956 (London: Allison and Busby, 1976).

27 ‘Az újpesti munkástanács felhívása’ (An Appeal by the Workers’ Council of Újpest), Budapest, 12 November 1956, in Magyar munkástanácsok 1956-ban, 61.

28 Hiányzó lapok 1956 történetéből. Dokumentumok a volt SZKP KB levéltárából (Missing Pages from the History of 1956. Documents from the Former Archives of the Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee), compiled with notes by Viacheslav Sereda and Alexander Stikalin, Hungarian trans. Tibor Bazsó et al. (Budapest: Móra, 1993), 142.

29 Miklós Horváth, 1956 hadikrónikája (A Military Chronicle of 1956) (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 2003), 441–443; J. I. Malasenko: ‘A Különleges Hadtest Budapest tüzében. Egy szemtanú visszaemlékezései’ [1995] (The Special Army Corps in the Fire of Budapest. Memories of an Eyewitness), Hungarian trans. Júlia Láng and Miklós Horváth, in Szovjet katonai intervenció 1956 (Soviet Military Invention, 1956), edited and introduction by Jenő Györkei and Miklós Horváth (second revised edition, Budapest: H&T, 2001), 276.

30 1956 kézikönyve, III (A Handbook of 1956, III). Editor-in- chief András B. Hegedűs, ed. Péter Kende (Budapest: 1956-os Intézet, 1996), 304; Fontosabb adatok az 1956. október– decemberi időszakból (Major Data from October
to December 1956) (Budapest: KSH, 1957), 46–47.

31 György Pálóczy Horváth, ‘Lábhoz tett fegyverrel’ (With Arms Laid Down), Irodalmi Újság (2 November 1956, 1), in 1956 sajtója.

32 Béla Kovrig, Nemzeti kommunizmus és Magyarország. Egy eszme története (National Communism and Hungary: The History of an Idea) [1962], trans. Gábor Berényi et al., edited with notes and introduction by Éva Petrás (Budapest: Gondolat, 2016) 159.

33 Aron, ‘Egy antitotalitárius forradalom’, 60.

Carl von Clausewitz advised that “According to our idea of a people’s war, it should, like a kind of nebulous vapoury essence, never condense into a solid body; [...]. Still, however, on the other hand, it is necessary that this mist should collect at some points into denser masses, and form threatening clouds from which now and again a formidable flash of lightning may burst forth.