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Hungary, 1956

In October, 1956, the Soviet Union ordered its troops to crush a nascent rebellion in Budapest, the capital of the Soviet satellite state of Hungary. Undertaken while the West was preoccupied by developments in the Middle East, the conflict demonstrated emerging political dissent in the Eastern Bloc.

The death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1953 served as a catalyst for bringing divisions within the international communist party to light. A brief power struggle followed, which led to the rise of Nikita Khrushchev to power. In February, 1956, Khrushchev addressed the Twentieth Party Congress, a meeting of representatives from communist parties around the world, and denounced the policies of his predecessor, calling for the "de-Stalinization" of Soviet policy. In the wake of this pronouncement from Moscow, protests broke out in the communist states of Poland and Hungary demanding social and economic reforms.

In Hungary, the existing government found that it could not complete reforms as quickly as the students and intellectuals leading the protests demanded. In the hopes of averting popular rebellion against communist rule in Hugary, Khrushchev facilitated the replacement of hard-line communist Matyas Rákosi with the more moderate Ernő Gerő. Once in power, Gerő attempted to placate the Hungarian public, which now demanded reform, by allowing the body of Lázló Rajk, a communist reformer who had been executed in the 1949 Stalinist purges, to be buried in Budapest. His burial on October 6, 1956, brought to the surface anger over the Stalinist injustices that had been visited upon Hungary over the years, and the funeral march quickly transformed into a mass demonstration. Although the movement demanding change began with urban intellectuals, it soon spread across the country to capture the support of workers and peasants.

In October, a group of students put forward a series of demands, including the withdrawal of Soviet troops, democratization, a government more independent from Soviet control, and the replacement of Gerő with former premier Imre Nagy as leader of the Communist Party of Hungary. On October 23, they staged a large protest march. Gerő, who determined that the protests had spiraled out of control, ordered troops to quell the demonstrations. Hungarian soldiers resisted cracking down on their fellow citizens, and as the popular movement spread, the Hungarian Communist Party held an emergency meeting to return Nagy to power in an attempt to placate the demonstrators. The following day, Gerő requested Soviet assistance, and Soviet troops arrived early on October 24. Despite the arrival of Soviet forces, protests continued into the next day, resulting in the loss of hundreds of lives and significant injuries. Finally, Gerő was removed altogether, and Nagy began the task of liberalizing government rule in the country.

Once in power, Nagy, pressured by continuing protests, called for free elections, greater independence from Soviet control, and a withdrawal of Soviet troops. The Soviets responded by sending reinforcements, so on November 1, Nagy announced Hungary's withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. The following day, the United Nations Security Council met to discuss the situation in Hungary, and the U.S. Representative, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, introduced a draft resolution calling on the Soviet Union to refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of Hungary. The Soviets responded by accusing Nagy of inciting a counterrevolution, and on the night of November 3, approximately 60,000 Soviet troops entered Hungary and surrounded the capital. In an overnight session, Lodge urged the members of the Security Council to pass his resolution. Nine did, but the Soviets exercised their veto power. Late that day, however, a similar resolution also introduced by the United States, passed the General Assembly.

On the morning of November 4, Soviet troops moved against Budapest with great force and crushed the remainder of the rebellion. Over the course of the next several days, thousands of Hungarians were killed by Red Army troops. Hundreds of thousands more fled to the West, seeking asylum. On November 22, Soviet authorities apprehended Nagy. He was replaced by a puppet government more willing to adhere to the party line.

Although the United States condemned the crackdown as soon as it learned of it, and took steps to introduce United Nations resolutions and to provide aid, neither it nor any other power intervened directly. One reason for this was the fact that the entire situation played out on the streets of Budapest when international attention was focused on the emerging crisis in the Suez Canal. The United States was also reluctant to send reinforcements to the democratic rebellion in Hungary as neither troops nor nuclear weapons could be deployed to the Eastern bloc without the possibility of extending the conflict far beyond its original scope. In the end, the Eisenhower Administration chose to focus on finding a quick resolution to the Suez Crisis, in the hope that doing so would prevent the Soviet Union from turning its attention and aid to Egypt after cleaning up the protests in Hungary. Beyond leading UN calls to condemn the Soviet actions in both Hungary and Poland, the United States did create a special immigration quota in 1956 for refugees from the communist crackdown, and by May 1957, more than 30,000 Hungarians had resettled in the United States through that program.

Although the Soviet Union did not suffer severe international consequences for the crackdown on the Hungarian Uprising, the event did have important effects on the Eastern Bloc and Soviet internal affairs. Most importantly, the rebellion in Hungary exposed the weaknesses of Eastern European communism. If Hungary or the other countries of the East Bloc enjoyed a higher standard of living, there might not have been an uprising at all; the emergence of the protests could be interpreted as a result of the failure of the government to provide for the people. Khrushchev attempted to address this lesson by implementing social and economic reforms in the Soviet Union during the winter of 1956-1957.


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