___Revolution sweeps the country [„Az egész ország forradalma”.]___Back
Attila Szakolczai

Lecture at Rutgers University
by the organization of the Hungarian Alumni Association
23 October 1998

Budapest is undoubtedly the political, economic and cultural capital of modern Hungary. Antecedent to the 1956 revolution, the reform movement of the opposition within the communist party started to emerge in Budapest. Likewise, the social discontent finally culminated in an armed uprising in the capital. Having said that, even though Budapest has an obvious prevalence, it is worth noting that the Hungarian countryside also played a vital role in the events.

The direct and immediate precedent of the revolution was a student convention at the Budapest Technical University (and also at the Humanities Faculty), where the participants decided to hold a mass demonstration on 23 October — which turned into an armed uprising by that evening, moreover, it developed into a national war of independence by the next morning, due to the intervention of Soviet troops. The 16-point ultimatum that was worded at this meeting would later become the widely acknowledged program of the revolution. All the same, students entered the political scene well before 22nd October 1956 and outside Budapest: a week earlier in Szeged. On 16 October, a student convention was held in the southern Hungarian town, where a new student organisation was formed, which had nothing to do with the party: this was the MEFESZ (Association of Hungarian University and College Unions). Within a few days their manifesto came out, in which they went further than the specific problems that concerned students only, and brought up political claims of national importance. Through its mere existence, MEFESZ posed a threat to the prevailing political system. First of all, because a social group, in this particular case a group of students, could form an organisation on their own accord, truly and entirely independent from the communist party. All this happened under a regime where even sports clubs were organised by the party, where no organisation could exist unless it was founded, directed and controlled by the party. The significance of their deed is further enhanced by the fact that the students of Szeged had tried from the beginning to broaden the scope of their activities countrywide. Their representatives contacted all the universities in the country and invited delegates to the first general assembly of MEFESZ, presented their program and prompted the students of other universities to form their own MEFESZ organisation.

MEFESZ had political claims everywhere in the country. More than that, they had political claims in a system where political decisions were the unparalleled privilege of a relatively small party elite. The claims of the Szeged assembly meant a serious challenge as well: among other things, students asked for public reprimand of political leaders for the crimes they had committed and the terror they had caused. They demanded that the existing regime take a democratic direction through the vehicle of multi-party elections. Moreover, on the MEFESZ assembly of 20th October — where student delegates of several Hungarian universities were present — the withdrawal of Soviet troops was on the agenda.

The leader of Szeged students, Tamás Kiss, was sentenced to 5 years of imprisonment later in the retribution campaign.

Even though the capital had an apparent catalytic role, the country proved to be initiative in many instants. On the morning of 23rd October, university students organised protest in Debrecen, the largest city of East-Hungary. Local party leaders, who were personally heading the march on that morning, reluctantly supported the students’ claims. None the less, the first casualties also happened at that meeting: alarmed by the mass scale the demonstration developed when workers started to join the students, party leaders, who initially took part in the protest, gave order to fire at the protesters. Three people died that afternoon.

Student initiatives resulted in demonstrations even before 23rd October in the city of Miskolc. MEFESZ delegates from Szeged arrived at the important industrial town of the north around 20th October. Following their announcement, students of the Miskolc Technical University also organised a general assembly on 22nd October. Preparing for the meeting, study groups worded their own claims, which were roughly as radical as the 16-point demands that students of the Budapest Technical University put together the very same day: they demanded a new, independent government; Hungary’s disengagement from the Warsaw Pact; the announcement of the state’s neutral status; the withdrawal of Soviet troops; and that the new government initiate negotiations with the neighbouring countries along the river Danube to form a confederacy. (It is worth noting that visions of the Danube Confederacy had been on the agenda since the middle of the 19th century with a double purpose: as a possible way of self-defence against the expansion of great powers in the area on the one hand, and as a solution for ethnic problems on the other hand.) Towards the end of the meeting, the university’s representative of DISZ (Union of Working Youth) arrived from Budapest and brought news that the leaders of DISZ planned to summon a nation-wide student parliament on 27th October. The general assembly decided that they would appoint delegates from each year, yet at the same breath they promptly dismissed the local DISZ leaders. Delegates elected the following day, on 23rd October, formed the Student Parliament, one of the most important revolutionary institution in Miskolc.

Student disquietude in Miskolc very soon had its effect outside the campus walls. Prompted by the news of the student assembly, Rudolf Földvári, first secretary of the MDP’s (Hungarian Workers’ Party) county branch, standing member of the Central Directorate and ex-member of the Political Committee, decided to publish a letter of critical attitude, which was written a few days earlier in the name of the county party committee and addressed to the Political Committee. It indicates that student initiatives encouraged, propelled and also compelled party leaders of the county to express their inclination for reforms.

While the country was smothered in an increasingly anxious atmosphere, some politically motivated workers of DIMÁVAG (Hungarian State Rolling Stock and Machine Factory, Diósgyõr), the industrial giant of Diósgyõr and Miskolc, decided to initiate an open party day, where they could negotiate urgent social problems and find possible solutions. Workers loyal to the party had their colleagues sign the petition on 22nd October. Their initiative proved to be so successful that the signature sheets ran out in no time and new ones had to be handed out.

Organisers compiled the workers’ petition in 17 points on 23rd October. It was intended as a basis of negotiations for the open party day on 25th October. Their program was mainly concerned with social and labour conditions, wages, and other aspects of production. They presented the petition to party leaders of the factory. Representatives of the municipal and county party committee also turned up for the negotiations. Adhering to the suggestion of a factory worker, four further points were taken over from the students’ petition — the withdrawal of Soviet troops, disengagement from the Warsaw pact, neutrality and new government — which made the list into a truly radical political claim of a national scale. The party leaders present approved the document, and according to the original plans, the open party day was scheduled on 25th October. The initiators of the petition campaign formed a Labour Organisation Committee.

The following day, on 24th October, however, local party leaders received news of the Budapest events with much anxiety. Bringing up the general curfew on spontaneous gatherings as an excuse, suddenly they wanted to pull back and breach the previous day’s agreement. The Labour Organisation Committee, on the other hand, firmly stood their ground and finally they agreed that the workers’ claims would be announced on immediate party branch meetings. This can be taken for a compromise, as labour organisers gave their consent to the — perhaps merely temporary — cancellation of the general assembly, in return for which they were given the go-ahead to propagate their claims among the workers, what is more, their delegation was allowed to spread the 21 points in other factories of Diósgyõr (Miskolc) as well. At that moment — just as the previous day concerning their claims — once again students helped the workers’ movement shift into a higher gear. Delegates of the Student Parliament visited the factories in Miskolc, promoting their program to the workers. Something of a mass meeting started to form at DIMÁVAG near the main gate, for the reception of student representatives. Gyula Turbók, member of the Labour Organisation Committee, announced claims of their own. People who came to the meeting decided that the petition had to be telegraphed to the government immediately, and should they fail to receive a positive answer by noon, they would march into town and demonstrate. A functionary of the county party committee tried to calm the anxious crowd, but nobody listened to him, and after much booing he had to be rescued from the factory by members of the Labour Organisation Committee. Trouble was brewing, so members of the Labour Organisation Committee went to the county party committee, trying to secure that armed forces would avoid violence if the workers had marched out on the streets in protest. Rudolf Földvári, first secretary of the county, did not give credit to their report and rather went to the factory, escorted by the delegates, to see for himself what was going on. Földvári, who had been in favour of reforms for a while, impressed by the meeting’s atmosphere, announced that he personally supported the claims of DIMÁVAG’s workers, and at the same time suggested that a delegation would present the government with the 21 points of the petition. The assembly accepted his idea and decided that the delegation of Miskolc workers, supported by Földvári — i.e. by the county party committee — should leave immediately for Budapest. At the same time, the Labour Organisation Committee reformed as a Labour Council. Apart from the new name, it meant that they were to take over the management of the factory. The labour council ordered a stay-in strike until the delegation’s return. The following day, when labour delegates set off for Budapest, there was not only a factory labour council in Miskolc but the first county labour council had formed, with the purpose of controlling the whole county. The fact that Ernõ Rozgonyi, secretary of the county council, became president of Hungary’s first county labour council, proves more than anything that the power shift was a peaceful process and that those who wanted to change the regime were willing to make the effort and able to exercise self-discipline.

The delegates of Borsod County had a lion’s share in making Imre Nagy understand the actual situation. Imre Nagy, who hardly left the party headquarters in those days, became Prime Minister of Hungary on early down of 24th October 1956. He had to fall back on a staple diet of information provided by the party news agency, more or less isolated from reality. He could never know what social groups stood behind the demands that he deemed far-fetched and radical, and treated with distrust as to their goals and means; he could never guess their actual social importance. He could as well give credit to the information he was given by the party’s propaganda machine: that some of the demands and claims were simply mouthed by hooligans, class-aliens, and ardent enemies of the system and law and order. He could never guess which telegram that he received at the party headquarters truly expressed the demands of the masses and which had been written under pressure from the existing and functioning local party organisations, who had rather more than less control over certain regions. On 25th October, however, delegates from one of the giants of socialist Hungarian industry — headed by the first secretary of the county party council — presented him with the same demands. Imre Nagy personally met Földvári and the other delegates, who were not only workers but also most of them party members as well, and promised that he would soon meet their claims and go even further.

Later, at the time of the retribution campaign Földvári was sentenced to life imprisonment on a single trial, without the right to appeal.

The students and workers of Miskolc very soon gained considerable significance both on a local and national scale. Elsewhere the events took a somewhat slower turn but basically similar things happened. From 22nd and 23rd October student assemblies formed all over the country, and often terminated in protests and demonstrations. The claims of university students prove that the goals for which the armed conflict had been going on in Budapest since October were not so much the farfetched program of a small group but indeed demands of national importance.

News broadcast on the radio were corrected and amended by railway workers — the National Rail’s news service worked perfectly well during the revolution, and on the whole it was the most reliable source of information. As news spread, work started to stall on 25th October, and finally production came to a complete halt and the whole country stopped working on 26th. It was not the beginning of an organised national strike ordered by the authorities; people stopped working spontaneously. Workers went to work as usual but they rather sat around the radio in the workshops and warehouses, listening to the latest news — among others western broadcasters, such as BBC, the Voice of America and Free Europe — discussing the information spread by railway workers or listening to the stories of those who had been in Budapest on 23rd October and gave account — with more accuracy than the official newscasters — of what really happened in the capital. More active movement of the wide public and increasing mass demonstrations after the spontaneous strike of 25th and 26th October were prompted by news of the Budapest events and seriously motivated by word of mouth spread about students being arrested. From 20th October on scores of students from all the universities scattered in the country, promulgating their claims, getting and spreading news and information. Many of them were arrested for a shorter or longer time, the news of which usually attracted a crowd protesting in front of the police station where they were held captive. In this atmosphere, mass demonstrations gathered in Gyõr and Miskolc on 26th October, which finally resulted in the fall of local authorities.

The situation at that time was still determined by the duality that started on 23rd October. On the one hand, national and — reflecting national tendencies — local authorities showed an inclination towards making concessions to the public. On the other hand, they have not given up on the possibility of restoring law and order by force if need be. One of the main compromises was that giving in to public demand, early on 24th October, Imre Nagy was appointed Prime Minister, despite a discreetly voiced Soviet disapproval. Another concession was that on 25th October, under pressure from the Soviet Union, János Kádár took over the helm from Ernõ Gerõ at the top of the party hierarchy. Kádár himself was far from being an adherent of reforms and the policy of Imre Nagy, yet he did not belong to the circle of Rákosi either. So much so that he also had suffered and paid his debt to the in-party purging campaign earlier on.

Apart from these fundamental changes, the strict regulations issued early on 24th October (summary justice and curfew) were still in force, although the former one was hardly practised — not in the least in Budapest — and the latter one was suspended now and then. In the meantime, Soviet troops were fighting on, supported by the State Security Authorities.

On 26th October, when the general strike and mass demonstrations that swept the towns of Hungary wrecking the symbols of the old regime, made it apparent that the country joined the revolutionary effort, local authorities tried to regain control and resorted to fervent violence — lacking the relevant sources, one can only assume that it was all prompted by a central order. In Szeged as well as other towns, where local party leaders had conducted encouraging negotiations with representatives of the revolutionists the previous day, volleys were fired at the demonstrators. Armed violence resulted in casualties everywhere to a lesser or larger extent. The most brutal bloodbath happened in Esztergom (15 dead), Mosonmagyaróvár (52 dead) and Miskolc (38 dead) that day.

The authorities, however, achieved exactly the opposite of what they had intended with the fatal volleys of fire. Country garrisons weakened considerably over the previous days, as scores of troops were transferred to Budapest. As a result, there were not enough troops in the country to keep at bay public rage that had been lashed up by the massacres. It is beyond the subject of the present essay to explain why but it must be noted that the national army at that time was apparently not supporting the State Security Authorities in defence of the old regime but rather sympathised with the circles of Imre Nagy and János Kádár, who represented a markedly different line of policy, due to political reasons and — as much as one can risk such a remark — out of personal conviction. In Miskolc for instance, when the State Security Authorities fired into the crowd demonstrating in front of the county headquarters, the commander in charge asked the chief officer of the army quarters just opposite the street for help. Lieutenant-colonel Sándor Zombori, however, turned him down with a warning that should the State Security corps fail to cease fire and surrender, he would open heavy artillery fire on their headquarters.

Lacking the support of army troops, State Security corps could not but surrender all over the country. They could not defend the system and often their own life either. On 26th October, following the deadly volleys of border guard State Security corps in Mosonmagyaróvár, the enraged crowd managed to disarm the police as running from the square where the massacre happened, and finally blockaded their quarters. The commander, having asked for the help of local army troops in vain, eventually fled to Czechoslovakia, leaving his subordinates behind. The police corps left behind in Mosonmagyaróvár called the city of Gyõr and asked for their help. The same afternoon army troops and armed civilians arrived, sent by the just formed Gyõr National Council, to hinder further casualties and disarm the State Security corps. Following their orders, the State Security troops surrendered and border guards on national service flooded out of their barracks, when the crowd swarmed into the headquarters and started to assault the officers whom they held responsible for what had happened. Members of the Gyõr delegation, headed by Gábor Földes, tried to prevent mob law by risking their own life even. It can be put down to their effort that only one officer became the victim of mob rage that day (it must be noted, though, that later two other border guard officers were killed in the riot, once the Gyõr delegates were gone). On the other hand, during the retribution campaign of the Kádár regime the case of the Mosonmagyaróvár mob law came on for trial, where four people were sentenced to death penalty and executed for their participation — proven by scanty evidences — in the mobbing of State Security officers, and further three were sentenced to death, who obviously tried to save the officers — Gábor Földes and a Protestant minister among them.

The old regime was incapable of putting a leash on crowd temper, neither in Mosonmagyaróvár nor in Miskolc, where strangely similar events happened that day, or indeed in any other town. Only the newly formed revolutionary bodies had enough sense of responsibility and courage to exercise control. They took control over armed forces, ordering national guards or revolutionary commissaries to protect them and prove that they were considered to be the armed police and border guard authorities of the revolution.

Local leaders willingly handed over or shared their power and responsibility with the newly formed revolutionary bodies because the early stage of the revolution was represented by a strong and articulate trend, which did not aim at changing the regime but rather wanted to maintain and preserve the existing order by correcting its mistakes. Even the most radical claims, which had formed a basis of their program from the beginning on — such as the withdrawal of Soviet troops, disengagement from the Warsaw Pact, the declaration of international neutrality, and the restoration of a multi-party system — did not jeopardise the future of the socialist regime in the eye of those who compiled the program. That is, the early revolutionary leaders were not against socialism by nature. Finding a common denominator and sharing the power with them ensured the chance of maintaining the socialist system, yet at the same time it rendered a glimmer of hope that with them and through them the already apparent restoration forces and tendencies could be disarmed and the unleashed social rage constrained.

Within or rather beyond the often and duly mentioned national unity there was deepening discord among revolutionaries even at that time, and not only after 28th October. Antagonism often resulted in separation: the Zrínyi Circle of Kaposvár announced that they would dissolve as the group of moderate reformers and the others in favour of radical changes could not find a consensus. Between 27th and 29th October there were two separate county labour councils in Miskolc: one of them accused the other with preparing a communist coup, while the other questioned the former’s legitimacy and competence. In Gyõr the labour council of the largest local factory, the carriage and wagon works, sent their representatives to the National Council on 26th October, as they had heard rumour that in the City Hall a bourgeois restoration was in the making.

All in all, local party and council leaders, some of whom were more or less committed adherents of reforms, had to realise that they were unable to maintain law and order, lacking the necessary armed forces and political power. The only chance to preserve something of their power (and with it the existing regime) was by sharing the power with, or handing it over entirely to the reformer groups. This solution was also promoted by organisations which had been totally dependent on the party formerly but started forming an independent policy of their own during the days of revolution, such as the National Council of Trade Unions or the Patriotic People’s Front. On 26th October trade unionists asked workers to form labour councils, through which they could control local events. The People’s Front urged their local branches to take the wheel in the current affairs and consolidate the situation on the platform of moderate claims. The People’s Front of Somogy County announced a program in 16 points on 26th October, which would become the model of small community manifestos in the county.

In many cases the local party or council leadership only took the initiative hoping that they could exercise control over future events. They launched revolutionary bodies themselves, often only to be overthrown by the protesting crowd at the first meeting. Merely those could retain their power in the leadership of small communities who had gained confidence and trust with their behaviour earlier.

On 26th October — while the Central Directorate had heated debates about reinterpreting of the events, namely about the changing policy of party leadership — the system started to collapse rapidly in the country. In Gyõr, one of the most important cities of the west, the National Council gained power that day, headed by Attila Szigethy. Due to the massacre and the ensuing mob law, all armed corps were dissolved, except for army troops. Revolutionary organisations gained power in other cities as well that day. Students and workers gave passes for leave to members of the State Security Authorities’ forces who had not fled by that time, at the same time taking over their arsenal.

By 28th October, even before Imre Nagy announced the cease-fire and disarmament of the State Security, there was no region of Hungary without some kind of national or revolutionary council, which controlled the events independently or at least together with authorities of the old system. More than anything, State Security is a point in case. They were still fighting in Budapest, while their members in the country had fled abroad, asked the Soviet troops for asylum, or tried to hide from public rage somewhere else.

The only exception was Kecskemét and its vicinity, where the third army corps was garrisoned under the command of Lajos Gyurkó, supported by considerable Soviet forces. Gyurkó called together his officers on 24th October, and ordered them to protect the regime by force if need be. He threatened dissenters who would oppose or not sufficiently carry out his orders to be lynched. He organised his troops into shock-brigades, and in many cases he even used aeroplanes against revolutionists. On 27th October he air-raided and ran-sacked protesters singing the national anthem in Tiszakécske (17 dead). The following day, on 28th October, after street fights in Kecskemét, he had the part of town where rebel forces retreated blistered from an aeroplane. Even though it is not yet proven by documents, one can assume that it was only him, Lajos Gyurkó, who exercised summary justice before 4th November, and the sentences were executed right on the spot. On 31st October he fled to the Soviet troops, together with his deputy officer and Soviet adviser. After 4th November he made a spectacular career in a very short time. He was appointed military assessor in the retribution campaign and soon became such an infamous character that the revolutionary defendants of the Békéscsaba trial, a massive case with several life sentences, having heard that Gyurkó would be one of the assessors at the appeal court, rather pulled back and unanimously withdrew their submitted appeal. (The consolidation of the Kádár era, however, broke his career and he was dismissed from the corps in 1960, at the age of 48. He became director of a pig-farm, then worked as a petrol station attendant until his death in 1979.)

After what happened in urban areas, the council system basically collapsed in the villages as well over the weekend, on 27th and 28th October. The events of Saturday 27th, having started mainly from village pubs, proved to be somewhat noisier than the events of Sunday 28th, when protests mainly started from village churches. Otherwise there was not much difference. Most often workers who had just returned from the neighbouring town started the demonstration, waving the national flag, then removing the symbols of the old regime from the streets and public buildings, destroying Soviet memorial statues of the second world war, which reminded the people not so much of their victory over fascism but of Soviet troops occupying the country.

Usually the demonstration was followed by a general assembly where the national committee of the village was elected, who immediately resumed power and was symbolically presented by the former council president with the keys of the village council. Villages had no armed forces by then, and the reduced police outposts (often a single district commissary) were asked to continue to serve, this time the national council. This was made easier by the fact that in order to ensure the continuity of administration, among the founding members of the new political body often there was someone from the old administration, usually someone with serious professional training and the least political function, such as the council secretary. To secure public law and order, national guards were serving together with the police, armed with weaponry reclaimed from functionaries or provided by the army.

Where the public faced no resistance, the power shift usually happened peacefully. More sober members of the village community pacified those who hastened — or even started — immediate justice and reckoning. Elsewhere, the most hated local leaders were rescued to safeguard, in order to save them from public rage, thus preserve the chastity of the revolution and make them available for court hearing later, where they could be held responsible. In most cases, though, rescue operations were unnecessary, as news of a national breakdown and the menacing lack of armed support drove many leaders out of their villages on their own accord, well before the revolutionary events commenced. When demonstrations started in a small village of West Hungary, the local vicar invited the hated party secretary into the parsonage, offered him refuge and warned him not to go out in the street until the anxiety subsided. While waiting for the local commotion to pass, they had a lengthy conversation, and the vicar warned the functionary against trying to confront the mass demonstration or else he will come off badly. None the less, after the revolution the protected party secretary testified at the court hearings against the vicar, saying that the vicar prevented him from defending proletarian dictatorship against the rage of the villagers, and he was taken hostage in the parsonage and intimidated not to do anything in defence of socialism. The vicar was sentenced to two years of imprisonment.

Where council leaders were reluctant to hand over the power to the newly elected national council, demonstrators besieged the council house, and once inside the offices, they destroyed some of the documents — first and foremost the tax sheets, as it usually happens in times of mass disturbances.

Once having regained power over the village, locals decided to wait and see. Usually some gross injustice was promptly corrected, such as the publican was given back his pub that had been confiscated, or the local soda-maker could resume his business, but the co-operatives were left untouched. In this respect they largely made general decisions, namely that those who had been forced into the co-operative could leave and regain their confiscated lands — later. For the time being, however, nothing was to change, as the crop year had not been over yet, and it is not worthy of farmers anyhow to seek their own individual good while people in the capital risked their lives in the national freedom fight and were in serious distress. On 27th and 28th October, horse carriages and lorries laden with food set off for the nearby cities, where armed revolutionary corps, national committees, labour councils or hospitals were trusted with the goods. In return for the provisions, they often took weapons with them to their village, to reinforce the local National Guard.

As most villagers at the time were devout believers, anti-religious measures of the regime were promptly annulled, and not so much optional as obligatory religious education was reintroduced. The crucifix in schoolrooms replaced the crest of the people’s republic. A recurrent way of public disgrace was when villagers, dressed up in their Sunday best and marching under church banners singing religious songs, had the former party secretary carry the cross in the first row and take it back where it belonged.

As it holds true for urban revolutionaries that a significant part of them did not want to overthrow the regime but merely to correct it, this tendency was even more obvious in the villages, where the consolidation process received a vital thrust on 28th, what with the political change being announced by Imre Nagy, who had organised the repartition of land in 1945 as a minister. Villages refrained from going on strike, mostly because the Nagy government promptly answered the farmers’ specific demands (such as the abolishment of compulsory delivery to the state), and partly because the government reconsidered the revolutionary events parallel with the rural uprising, so after 28th October the opposition was not nearly as sharp as before. Finally, people were aware that work on the fields could not be postponed as easily as industrial production, and unsown lands will inevitably result in famine. From Monday 29th October they resumed work as usual, only keeping traditional (and reintroduced) holidays, such as Halloween’ and All-Saints’ day.

28th October is an important milestone in the history of the revolution. By that time the old regime had practically collapsed in the country, the party was functioning virtually through its central leadership, and the new system of institutions had started operating nation-wide. Imre Nagy announced that party leaders — sanctioned by delegates of the Soviet Communist Party — considered the events as a national democratic movement instead of a counter-revolution. He also announced general cease-fire, expressed the decision to abolish State Security Authorities, and promised to start negotiations concerning the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. Important as they are, these results did not by far signal that the major revolutionary claims would be answered. What they implied, though — a small but important fact — was that political negotiations would finally succeed armed confrontation. Imre Nagy received the task to consolidate the country, restore law and order, and convince workers to resume their duties. However, people were not willing to obey until their fundamental claims were not answered: multi-party free elections, Hungary’s disengagement from the Warsaw Pact, and the announcement of the country’s neutral status. Therefore the strike continued after 29th October, delegates kept beseeching the government, which all contributed to the fact that between 29th October and 1st November such government measures were taken that practically meant the absolute victory of the revolution. Neutrality having been announced, the only thing left was the withdrawal of Soviet troops, and according to news from Budapest promising negotiations in the subject were right under way on 3rd November.

In the time of these political struggles the situation got back to normal all over the country. The complete network system of revolutionary bodies started functioning. Even before central orders were given, the so-called triple guards — police, army troops and national guards together — were patrolling the streets to restore law and order. Apart from the vertical hierarchy of the system, several horizontal links were woven, mainly between labour councils.

On 30th October the Trans-Danubian National Council was formed in Gyõr, with the expressed purpose of exerting pressure on the government, making them answer the rest of the claims. Modelled on them, the National Council of Northern and East Hungary was formed on 2nd November, while efforts were made to establish a National Council, a political body that would play the role of parliament until the first free elections.

Traditional parties were reorganised and new ones formed all over the country. The fastest and more effective were the former coalition partners: the small-holders’ party, social democrats and the former Farmers’ Party, now renamed after the great 19th century poet as Petõfi Party. Relieved from the oppression of the Hungarian Labour Party, the press and radio were now serving the revolutionary effort.

The second military intervention of the Soviet Union on 4th November is a sharp landmark in the history of the revolution. Soviet tanks racketed through the country, occupying most cities, fervently opening fire at the slightest sign of resistance. Once again, Budapest became the centre of armed confrontation, although several other cities tried to face the heavy odds. The city of Dunaújváros (then Sztálinváros, mostly inhabited by workers) played a vital role in the fights after 4th November. Here the national committee organised the defence of “Stalin’s city”, co-operating with the local army troops. In addition to national guards, they armed everybody who was willing and able to fight. Soviet troops warned the defenders repeatedly to surrender, but they held out. Moreover, they operated a radio station called Rákóczi Adó — named after the leader of an 18th century Hungarian war of independence — broadcasting news and asking for help in Hungarian and German, while at the same time they printed flyers in Russian, trying to convince the Soviet troops about the just cause of the freedom fighters. After minor confrontations, the siege of the city started on 7th November, the day commemorating the Bolshevik revolution. The Soviet army deployed not only heavy artillery but launched a severe air raid as well, bombing the Hungarian defence lines and strafing them from fighter planes. Under fatal pressure from the heaviest of odds, the defence collapsed in a few hours and the city surrendered the same day. A strange consequence of the battle of Dunapentele was that retribution was quite moderate, as compared to the heat of combat: nobody was sentenced to death, even the president of the national committee, István Pados, and the chief commander of defence, captain Károly Nagyéri got away with life sentences in 1957.

Apart from Dunapentele, the most serious conflict happened in Veszprém, where students faced the Soviet troops, who otherwise managed to disarm Hungarian army barracks without resistance. University students and national guards built defence lines all over the city and waited for the enemy to strike. Even though Soviet troops occupied the barracks, the police headquarters and the university on 4th November, national guards were able to stop them at the Castle. The fight went on the following day, 5th November. In addition to infantry squads, now the aggressors deployed tanks and, similarly to the battle of Dunapentele, air forces — parts of the city were being bombed, other parts were ransacked from MIG fighters. Added to their technical and numerical superiority, Soviets showed exceptional cruelty when besieging the city: they captured civilians on 4th November — customs officers, according to sources — who were then tied to the tanks, as a protection against gunshots and mostly against Molotov cocktails. On 5th November, when the castle was under siege, a burnt-out Soviet tank blocked the main gate, for the benefit of the defenders. Eventually Soviets managed to occupy the castle by hiding behind the live shield of hostages: captured university students. There are no reliable sources about Soviet casualties. From the Hungarian part, the two-day confrontation had 21 civilian casualties. Later in the retribution campaign the legally valid life sentence was carried out on two people: a young participant of the battle, and the president of the county national committee, Árpád Brusznyai were hanged. The latter was originally sentenced to life imprisonment but leaders of the Hungarian Socialist Labour Party’s county branch objected against the outrageously moderate verdict, and the appeal court appreciated their intercession with a death penalty.

A middle course between armed resistance and surrender was that young people fled into the hills and forests near their habitat. Perhaps it was the most widespread form of resistance on 4th November, common practice wherever the terrain made it possible. Armed youth were often taking refuge in the open under the auspices of army officers; or else the local national committee ordered the exodus. These operations can be divided into two categories, as to their purpose and motivation. On the one hand, revolutionaries left behind their homes and took refuge in the wild with the purpose of fighting the enemy more successfully. This was the case in Pécs or Keszthely, under the supervision of army officers, and in Sátoraljaújhely, headed by the commander of national guards. From then on it was the matter of chance whether the young rebels engaged in armed conflict or returned to their homes in peace. The most severe confrontation happened in the Mecsek hills around Pécs. Revolutionary forces, who called themselves “the invisible”, held out successfully for days, preventing the Soviets from heading higher in the Mecsek hills. During a raid operation they even shot the Soviet city commissary of Pécs. Although the Soviets never admitted it and no document has been unearthed so far that could give evidence, the fact remains that revolutionaries shot dead a high-ranking Soviet officer, and the following day a new Soviet officer was appointed city commissary, while his predecessor was never mentioned again. In increasingly harsh conditions the invisible held out until the end of November, when after days on the march the remnants of the group crossed the Yugoslav border, still in arms. They were held captive in a camp during that winter and only let go west the following spring.

A formidable division of Soviet tanks on 9th November surrounded national guards of Sátoraljaújhely, who fled to the Zemplén hills. Their leader, Károly Kummer, after negotiating with the Soviet commander, realised the futility of resistance, and convinced his people to surrender. Kummer was arrested but released in a few days’ time, when he immediately left the country. In 1958 he was tried in court for personal charges, and eventually sentenced to death in the first instance and by the appeal court as well — in his absence.

In many cases leaving the habitat meant the protection of the Hungarian youth. People still had vivid memories of the Soviets’ behaviour in the world war: how they deported masses of young and able civilians. They felt the imminent danger once again, much fuelled by rumours of arrests.

Soviet invasion not at all or hardly concerned small towns and villages, so the revolution went on undisturbed after the shock treatment of the U-turn on 4th November. The Soviet attack brought partial results, after all. Armed resistance was subdued, most revolutionary bodies were dismissed, and many of the captives were transferred to Soviet prisons. None the less, it all resulted in such a high level of mass anxiety and resistance that by the middle of the month the Kádár regime had to appeal to the Soviet authorities so that the captives would be brought home. As far as we know, the prisoners returned to Hungary at the beginning of December.

By the repression of armed resistance, however, the Soviet army merely prepared the soil for the consolidation process. They could not break the strike and convince people to resume work. The discharge of revolutionary organisations meant that the country was bereft of any administrative system: revolutionary bodies were not allowed to function, while the party practically consisted of no more than a thin layer of leaders. Former council functionaries seemed reluctant to resume local power. The police would be out of function for a long time, and the army, whom the Soviets disarmed on 4th November, witnessed the restoration attempts with animosity.

In this power vacuum, only the labour councils represented an authority to count with (apart from the Soviet troops), all the more as the invaders considered them as successors to the soviets of the Russian revolution, which provided them with considerable elbow-room. Labour councils had the most important weapon of all: they had the power to decide whether production would start again in Hungarian factories. After 4th November their scope of activity widened significantly: they were asked to intercede on behalf of those in Soviet captivity, the energy supply of settlements depended on them, etc. During the first week of the occupation, they took over administrative functions in most places, and after 10th November they exercised their power in symbiosis with the reforming council apparatus.

For nearly a month, while the Kádár government was not strong enough politically and structurally, and until the new regime built up their police force, Hungary had a peculiar dual (or rather triple) power structure. Despite the support of the Soviet army, the government’s range of influence hardly exceeded the capital (so much so that its members did not dare leave Budapest for a long time), and local executive power was exercised by labour councils and other revolutionary bodies that reformed after 4th November (occasionally together with former councils) in most regions of Hungary.

Of course the most vital issues were decided in Budapest, but the power scheme of the countryside seriously impeded and influenced the process of consolidation, the actual take-over of the Kádár regime.

In Borsod county, for instance, the restored party leadership proved to be ineffective and unable to resume control over the county, so they had to intercede that the leaders of the county labour council would be released from Soviet captivity in Ungvár. As a result, Földvári and his colleagues were once again heading the county administration from the middle of November. In Gyõr County, the labour council of the carriage and wagon works took the wheel and delegated representatives into the newly forming county council, in this way exercising decisive influence in county affairs.

The Kádár administration gathered strength and waited until early December to launch their counter-attack and break resistance with force. Masses of people were suddenly arrested; centres of resistance and labour councils were banned. Controlled again by the powers that be, the press started an anti-revolution sleaze campaign. People responded with grim resistance to the government’s hostility. The Central Labour Council of Greater Budapest announced a 48-hour strike; demonstrations started everywhere, often terminating in armed confrontation. In this last phase of the revolution, the most serious atrocities happened in Békés County. Apart from the numerous demonstrations in many towns and villages of the region, often the newly functioning party headquarters were attacked and occupied, or the police forces disarmed and national guards put in their stead. Soviet troops were called out to restore law and order — many times only in an armed conflict. Once the Soviets were gone, though, everything started again.

This last burst of the revolutionary flame the government smothered with austere violence. The right of assembly was withdrawn, summary justice restored, detention camps, which had been out of use since 1953, were reopened. Volleys were fired at demonstrators all over the country, resulting in massacres, the most shocking one in Salgótarján on 8th December, killing 46 people on the spot. The newly formed police arrested hosts of revolutionaries on night raids, assaulting them brutally. In more than one case people were shot dead on site without being tried, such as the leaders of the National Guard in the Salgótarján steel works.

However, this is already the subject of a different chapter in the history of the revolution: that of the retribution campaign

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Copyright © 2000 National Széchényi Library 1956 Institute and Oral History Archive
Last updated:  Monday, 18-September-2006

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