Peter Fryer

Hungarian Tragedy

3. Background to October

However tragic the outcome of Hungary’s revolution of October 1956, it may well have an effect on the development of the international working-class movement no less profound and far-reaching than that other October Revolution of 1917, which gave birth to the Soviet Union and the Communist International. The whole labour movement has therefore a duty to understand why Hungary’s October Revolution took place. It would be wrong to dismiss the sudden upsurge of October 23 in Budapest as merely the result of years of effort by American imperialism to bring about the overthrow of Socialism in Hungary. Undoubtedly the Americans had been trying very hard; undoubtedly their reactionary friends inside Hungary, and those who were sent over the border to exploit the situation, tried harder still to gain control of the movement. This is undeniable. But who could be content with this shallow, one-dimensional explanation of a movement which clearly embraced over 90 per cent of the Hungarian people, which produced such dogged mass heroism, and which, as these lines are written, still continues in the form of obstinate strike action by the industrial workers in open defiance of a ‘Workers’ and Peasants’ Government’?

Certainly the Daily Worker could not and did not remain content for long with branding the movement as counter-revolution which had ‘staged an uprising in the hours of darkness’ (October 25). Four days later it was clear ‘that counter-revolutionary actions and just demands of the people were both factors in the situation’. On November 13 the Daily Worker’s own early estimate was called ‘fantastic’ and it was admitted that ‘large masses of honest workers came out against the Government’ and ‘fought for what they believed to be the independence of their country’. On November 16 János Kádár himself was quoted as referring to the ‘great people’s movement’. On November 19 an ordinary Csepel worker was quoted as saying:

The West should not believe that the workers fought to bring back Horthy or the landowners and counts. We shall not give back the land or the factories or the mines.

These estimates of the origin of the Hungarian revolution are in direct conflict with the opinion of Mr. V. Kuznetsov, the Soviet delegate, who told the United Nations on November 13 that the uprising was led by fascists and reactionaries and was a matter of ‘bloodthirsty orgies’ staged by counter-revolutionary forces. Indeed they are in conflict with the statement of Kádár himself on November 19 about ‘a wellprepared military campaign.

Clearly there is a deep difference of opinion. There is the view that, although by the eve of the second Soviet intervention reactionary forces had become active (whether that in fact justified the second intervention is a separate issue) the uprising was essentially a genuine popular movement, a spontaneous upsurge of pent-up feeling. And there is the view that the uprising was essentially a fascist plot, planned beforehand, which somehow or other managed to win the support of large masses of honest but deluded workers. Kádár cannot have it both ways. It was either ‘a great people’s movement’, in which the element of reactionary activity was secondary – or ‘a well-prepared military campaign’ by counter-revolutionary forces, in which the element of mass revolt was secondary.

The view that in origin and in essence the Hungarian revolution was an example of what Marx used to call a ‘real people’s revolution’ is the only view consistent with the facts of Hungarian history, let alone with the observations of eyewitnesses. The logic of Hungarian history since 1919, and especially since 1945, made such an uprising inevitable, just as the February and October revolutions of 1917 in Russia were inevitable. Hungary’s October had to happen, sooner or later, whether or not the Americans were doing their utmost to provoke trouble. The people could not go on living in the old way.

Hungary has never known democracy, except for four and a half quite abnormal months at the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919, under the bourgeois-democratic government of Károlyi. The Soviet Republic which followed, and which was crushed after three months by foreign intervention, made serious mistakes. Among them was its failure to win the land-hungry peasants as allies; it socialised the land instead of distributing it to the poor peasants and the agricultural workers. There followed the first fascist regime in Europe, the rule of Admiral Nicholas Horthy de Nagybánya, former commander-in-chief of the Austro-Hungarian Navy. Horthy’s regime began with White Terror: the torture and murder of thousands of Communists and Jews. It is said that when members of a British Labour delegation investigating atrocities complained to Horthy that officers responsible for the White Terror were not punished, he replied indignantly: ‘Why, they are my best men!’

Under Horthy forty rich families owned practically two-thirds of Hungary. One-third of the total arable land was in the hands of 980 big landowners; 1,130,000 peasants were landless out of a total population of nine million. Trade unions were repressed, and the tiny Communist Party carried out its work in deep illegality and made the kind of sectarian mistakes that are so easy to make under such conditions, with leaders in jail and murdered. The best known of those leaders was Mátyás Rákosi, People’s Vice-Commissar for Trade and Transport, and later People’s Commissar for Social Production, in the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Rákosi was in prison from 1925 to 1940 and was tried for his life in 1925, 1926 and 1935. In 1940 the Soviet Government negotiated his release from prison in exchange for some historic Hungarian flags, and he remained in the Soviet Union until the liberation of Hungary by the Soviet Army. Rákosi’s fortitude cannot be denied; but his record as dictator of Hungary from 1945 to 1956 makes it doubtful whether a man who had spent fifteen years in prison and then five years in Moscow, all the time remote from the lives of the ordinary people and ordinary Communist Party members, should have been entrusted with such immense responsibilities. He brought the Hungarian people to disaster and turned the widespread respect and admiration for himself into hatred ‘because he could never say “no” to Stalin’, a Budapest Communist told me last July, when Rákosi resigned, too late, from the office of first secretary of the Party.

It would be idle to deny the many positive achievements registered in Hungary after the liberation. An immense amount of reconstruction work was carried out, though even in 1956 the effects of the Second World War are still visible. The land reform broke up the great estates of the landowners and satisfied the land hunger of the peasants. Four and a half million acres were distributed among 400,000 peasant families. The great bulk of industry came under public ownership. Until 1949 the standard of living rose. Excellent advances were made in the fields of education, culture and public health. Recreation facilities were provided for workers and young people who had never had them before.

There were many achievements, thanks very largely to the self--sacrificing work of honest Communists, many of whom did two jobs, 14 or 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for months on end, because of the actute shortage of trained personnel. I know one Communist who, the week one big industry was nationalised, worked solidly through three days and nights without sleep. On May Day 1947 -the people of Budapest danced in the streets. Life, they felt, was becoming better.

But life did not get better. It began to get worse. Mistakes were made. Crimes were committed. The Communist Party leaders did not keep faith with the people. Instead of the method of taking the people into their confidence in the building of Socialism, the method of relying on the people’s own initiative, they chose the method of deceiving the people, of concealing from the people what was being done until some new measure was presented to them as a fait accompli. Fortunately, we have a frank description of how this was done – indeed a Stalinist theoretical substantiation of the entire process – in a speech delivered by Rákosi on February 29, 1952, at the Party Academy of the Hungarian Working People’s Party and printed in the February-March 1952 issue of Társadalmi Szemle (Social Review). [1] This was the famous ‘salami’ speech, which aroused misgivings in the Manchester Guardian at the time, and a defence by John Gollan. It is a remarkable study in how to make a revolution ‘from above’ before the people are ready for it, when you have no real mass support but only a foothold in the State machine, an infinite capacity for political duplicity and dishonesty, and Soviet tanks in the background. To read this speech and to see how the Hungarian people were tricked into squeezing twenty or thirty years of political development into five years is to understand the roots of the uprising of October 23, 1956.

Rákosi admits that in 1945 the Communist Party had not got majority support, even among the working class. The problems involved in achieving the dictatorship of the proletariat were raised only in narrow Party circles.

We did not bring them before the Party publicly because even the theoretical discussion of the dictatorship of the proletariat as an objective would have caused alarm among our companions in the coalition and would have made our endeavour to win over, not only the petitbourgeoisie, but the majority of the mass of the workers more difficult. (p. 8)

In other words, don’t take the workers into your confidence. Trick them, deceive them, conceal from them and from your allies your real aims. This was particularly important since, in the elections for the National Assembly held in November 1945, the Communist Party received 17 per cent of the votes, the Social-Democratic Party 17 per cent, and the Smallholders’ Party 56 per cent.

Our Party used the election results to strenghten its position. Therefore it demanded the post of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, which it received after some procrastination. (p. 19).

The possession of the Ministry of the Interior made possible the ‘unmasking’ and ‘removal’ of leaders of the Smallholders’ Party.

In those days this was called ‘salami tactics’, whereby we sliced off bit by bit reaction in the Smallholders’ Party ... We whittled away the strength of the enemy. (p. 22).

Indeed one of the ‘enemy’, Béla Kovács, was ‘whittled away’ to the Soviet Union for nine years, after being accused of conspiracy to restore the old regime. Rákosi describes the merger of the two workingclass parties in June 1948 as ‘the victory of the Communists and the complete defeat of the Social Democratic Party’ (p. 29). He goes on to give a revealing description of the capture by the Communist Party of the army, police and State security forces. This was achieved in ‘bitter battle ... the more so because our Party also had a strong foothold in those organisations ... When, in the autumn of 1948, our Party took over the Ministry of Defence, the vigorous development of the defence forces could start’ (p. 32). Then, in a passage of enormous interest in the light of later events, Rákosi turns to the security police:

There was a single position, the control of which was claimed by our Party from the first minute and where it was not inclined to consider any distribution of posts according to the strength of the parties in the coalition; and this was the State Security Authority ... We kept this organisation in our hands from the first day of its establishment. (p. 33)

Out of Rákosi’s own mouth, this is the picture of how the rule, not of the Communist Party, but of a tiny handful of Stalinists, was imposed on 9,500,000 Hungarians. This way of building Socialism could not but lead to the corruption of the Communist Party, in which honest Marxists and honest workers were swamped by an influx of careerists, swarming onto the bandwagon as soon as it became clear that was the way to obtain a lucrative job. But in order to maintain a dictatorship over the honest Communists, free discussion and criticism within the Party had to be stifled. Dissenters were victimised, and if they persisted in their dissent they soon found themselves the object of attentions from the AVH. One honest Communist who paid a heavy price for his honesty was László Rajk.

I attended the trial of Rajk for treason in 1949, and, in common with other Communist journalists there, I was convinced by the evidence and by the lengthy and detailed confessions of Rajk and his fellowaccused. It is all too obvious now that the trial had two purposes. First and foremost it was designed to provide ammunition for the attacks of the Soviet leaders on Tito and the Jugoslav Communist Party. It was on the basis of the Rajk trial that Tito was first called a fascist, and a fantastic plot was alleged, reaching right back to the Spanish Civil War and involving the Deuxiéme Bureau, British Intelligence and the US Secret Service. Largely basing himself on the Rajk trial James Klugmann wrote a book called From Trotsky to Tito (1951). The book was withdrawn, rather belatedly, last April, but Klugmann remains in charge of the education of British Communists. The second, internal purpose of the Rajk trial was to crush every vestige of opposition to Rákosi and his fellow Stalinists within the Hungarian Party. Rajk was in a leading position in the Party during the days of illegality. He was popular, hard-working and honest. He had doubts about the wisdom of Rákosi’s leadership. He had to be got rid of, as an awful example to dissenters.

While I was in Hungary last July and August I was told how Rajk was made to confess. First he was tortured by Farkas’ son. Then, when the softening-up process had made him suitably receptive, a Soviet Communist – ‘a Beria man’, I was told – put it to him that the Soviet Union needed his confession as a weapon against Tito. If he agreed to do this important political job he would (though officially dead) be well looked after in the Soviet Union for the rest of his life, and his child would be given a good education. He agreed. When they came to take him to the execution, which his wife Julia was made to witness, they put a gag – a piece of wood – in his mouth to prevent his revealing to the soldiers how he had been betrayed. His last words were: ‘What are you doing to me?’

A final turn of the screw was the removal of his child from the custody of its mother, and its rearing, by strangers, under another name.

When Rajk and three other Communists executed with him were reburied with full honours last September the ceremony was attended by 200,000 of Budapest’s citizens. It was a pity the Daily Worker carried no report of this not inconsiderable event. Its readers might then have been better prepared for the October 23 uprising.

The corruption within the Hungarian Working People’s Party was not confined to careerism and terror. The whole of Party education was based, not on the voluntary creative study of the critical, antidogmatic method of Marxism, but on the compulsory assimilation of texts. It turned workers into parrots and cliché-mongers. Members went to classes not because they wanted to, but because it was inadvisable not to be there, every Monday night, from 6.30 to 8.30 p.m. Education of children was just as bad. In August some long-needed revision of textbooks was being undertaken; the old ones were appalling. Not content With teaching the infallibility of Stalin, they told the children all about supposed Russian inventions and discoveries. And Russian was often the only foreign language taught in a school.

This insensate praise of everything Russian, this blind, mechanical copying of everything the Russians did, extended into every field. Writers and artists and composers were compelled to write and paint and compose in strict conformity with the principles of Socialist Realism, as laid down by the coryphaeus of art, Comrade Stalin. Scientists were required to study and popularise only the achievements of their Russian colleagues, and woe betide a biologist who found fault with Lysenko or a psychologist who found Pavlov inadequate to explain every aspect of human consciousness. And when the world’s greatest scientist, Comrade Stalin, pronounced on Marxism in Linguistics, it was not enough for the Hungarian philologists to hold a conference on this immortal contribution to Marxism-Leninism: the historians and economists and mathematicians and geologists had to meet as well to consider its application to their own fields of study. No wonder the revolutionaries tore down the red stars. Friendship with a Socialist country and gratitude for the blood it spilt in liberating you is one thing: bootlicking is quite another thing.

But by far the worst aspect of the mechanical transference of Soviet methods to Hungary was the atmosphere of suspicion and fear, and the whole destestable security apparatus. When the Soviet Union had a doctors’ plot and arrested Jewish doctors, Hungary had to follow suit with a doctors’ plot and the arrest of Jewish doctors. And the heart specialist who attended the Party theoretician József Révai was for weeks not allowed to communicate in any way with his family, lest the ‘enemy’ discover where Révai was staying and assassinate him. The specialist was in fear for his own life, since if Révai had suddenly collapsed and died it would have been the easiest thing in the world for the AVH men to have trumped up a charge of murder against him.

The AVH. The oppressors of a whole people, including the Communist Party. Moulded and trained on the approved Stalinist pattern, completely lacking in either political understanding or common humanity, guilty of the most unspeakable crimes. In the British Legation at Budapest I met an Austrian, a gaunt, hollowcheeked man, who sought sanctuary, was refused it since he was not British, and then collapsed in the entrance-hall with a heart attack. He was with us throughout the bombardment. He was not a bitter man, despite his years in the hands of the Soviet secret police and then of the AVH. He bore no special grudge against the fiends who had tortured him; he was too sick and too old in pain to have the energy for hatred. He showed us his body. The Russians had merely stuck cotton wool on his arm and set it alight. But the Hungarian AVH men, to whom they handed him over, had pinned his genitals to a table and flogged them.

The AVH. Do you wonder that working men and women not only shot them on sight in Budapest, not only strung them up by the score, but then spat in contempt and loathing at the bodies as they swung head downwards? Lynching is wrong, mob justice is wrong, terribly wrong, whatever the provocation. But as each political prisoner was released from the cells to add his story to the indictment, could the citizens of Budapest be expected to confine their anger to pious protest resolutions? And if some of them, in Budapest but not in the provinces, went further and sought out Communist Party officials to vent their hatred on, as some of them did, then who is responsible? It did not need American-trained émigrés, or Cardinal Mindszenty, to inflame the people. Rákosi, Farkas and Gerö had already inflamed them, and Rákosi, Farkas and Gerö are as guilty of the murder of Communist officials in the Budapest Party headquarters at the hands of a vengeful mob as they are guilty of the murder of Rajk. [2]

The AVH. There were Gestapo-like torture chambers with whips and gallows and instruments for crushing people’s limbs. There were tiny punishment cells. There were piles of letters from abroad, intercepted for censorship. There were batteries of tape recorders to take down telephone conversations. There were prostitutes retained as police spies and agents provocateurs. And the young brutes who made up this strong arm of the people’s democratic State were paid – according to documents found on their dead bodies – 3,000 to 4,000 forints a month as men, 9,000 to 12,000 as officers: three to twelve times the average wage. Plus luxurious flats while thousands in Budapest lived cramped in slums and cellars.

After the death of Stalin in March 1953 there were some signs of a change in Hungary. On July 5, 1953, Imre Nagy took over the premiership and certain concessions were made to the people’s wishes. Rákosi retired into the background. There was some correction of the blunders made in economic planning. There was more stress on the production of consumer goods, especially food, and less on heavy industry. People began to breathe a little more freely. But it was not to last. And the way the new course was abandoned, besides being a slap in the face to public opinion, was just one more proof that decisions of the most vital importance to the Hungarian people were taken, not in Budapest, but in Moscow. Malenkov resigned; Khrushchov took his place. Moscow took pepper; Budapest burst into an uncontrollable fit of sneezing. On April 18, 1955, Nagy was ousted from the premiership (by a unanimous vote of the National Assembly) and later expelled from the Party as an incorrigible Rightwing deviationist. Rákosi came back with a bang. The policy of satisfying the people’s needs was condemned in a wordy Central Committee resolution that showed every sign of having been both drafted in the Kremlin and imposed by big stick methods on an unwilling and uneasy Central Committee.

Uneasy it might well have been. Already there were stirrings among the writers, who had taken the instructions to model themselves on the Russians so literally as to copy the famous ‘thaw’. The Stalinists gave István Kovács the task of bringing the writers to heel, and he did so in November 1955 in a speech that Zhdanov would have been proud to call his own. The intellectuals were furious at this tirade.

Then, in February 1956, came the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party and the famous secret session report by Khrushchov denouncing Stalin’s crimes. It was not long before the substance of this report was common knowledge. The country seethed with discussion. But Rákosi remained, just as the bronze statue of Stalin remained at the edge of the City Park. The demand for Rákosi’s removal was put forward more and more openly. This, however, was not a question that could be settled in Budapest. And people gradually realised that the decision whether Rákosi fell or was confirmed in power was being delayed by a difference of opinion in the Political Bureau of the CPSU. There was speculation as to which prominent figure was on which side, but it could not be more than speculation. All that people knew for certain was that Rákosi’s 64th birthday, on March 9, had earned him a more than usually fulsome message of congratulation from the CPSU.

It was the intellectuals, and primarily the young intellectuals, who brought matters to a head. They held the now famous all-night meeting at the Petöfi circle, run by the youth organisation and named after the great revolutionary poet who fought in the Hungarian War of Independence in 1849. Attended by some 6,000 people, who spilled out into the street, this meeting consisted of a succession of vigorous demands for democratisation and for intellectual liberty. There were further meetings, at one of which Rajk’s widow made a moving speech. Her husband’s rehabilitation had been announced by Rákosi at the end of March; it was a passing reference made in a speech in the provinces. Mrs Rajk protested against this formal rehabilitation of a man who had been a good Communist, and demanded that he be given his rightful place in the Party’s history. (One of the jokes current in Budapest at that time was: ‘What is the difference between a Christian and a Marxist? The Christian believes in a hereafter; the Marxist believes in a rehabilitation hereafter.’)

The ferment among the intellectuals was first welcomed by Szabad Nép on June 24, then denounced in an angry Pravda article, upon which the Szabad Nép hastened to carry a Central Committee resolution, passed on June 30, denouncing ‘demagogic behaviour’, ‘anti-Party views’, ‘vacillating elements’, ‘articles with a provocative content’ and ‘attempts to spread confusion’. In the middle of July the Central Committee met, attended by Mikoyan. I arrived in Budapest on July 16, to be told by my friends: ‘You have arrived during a very delicate political situation. Big changes are expected. Stand by for a big story.’ Two days later the story broke. Rákosi had resigned and General Farkas, as the man mainly responsible for the ‘violations of Socialist legality’, was reduced to the rank of private and expelled from the Party. Two men who had spent periods in jail as ‘Titoites’ and had later been rehabilitated were put on the Political Bureau: Kádár and Marosán (a former Social-Democrat). It was big news indeed – so big that Neues Deutschland in Berlin did not believe its Budapest correspondent’s account, and rang Szabad Nép to check it. But that the change was essentially a compromise was shown by three facts: the new first secretary was Ernö Gerö, a Stalinist; Imre Nagy, whom the people and the honest Party merbers wanted back in the leadership, was not even readmitted to the Party; and Rákosi retained a good deal of power, as was proved within a day or two by the announcement side by side with the demotion of Farkas of the similar demotion of a relation by marriage of Nagy’s. Inquiries revealed that this sop to the Stalinists was given on Rákosi’s , orders, without the knowledge or consent of the Political Bureau.

Such a compromise could not solve the glaring contradiction between the wishes of the Hungarian people and the set-up which Moscow and the native Stalinists deemed good for them. From an outstandingly shrewd, well-informed and intelligent Hungarian Communist, long before removed from any position of influence because he insisted on thinking for himself and telling others what he thought, I had a brutally realistic assessment of the situation. By and large, he said, the Party leaders were hated. The Party itself was corrupt, and at least half of its 700,000 members were simply careerists. Communists who expressed dissenting views had either been put in positions where they could do no harm, or terrorised into silence, or imprisoned, or murdered. ‘I do not say killed,’ said my friend. ‘If a man is executed for crimes he did not commit then that is murder, and whoever is responsible must be punished. In other words, I am calling Rákosi as well as Farkas a murderer, and the people will not be content until he is publicly disowned and publicly brought to justice by the Party. Until it takes those steps the Party is discredited in the people’s eyes, and they just will not listen to us.’ My friend said that if next day there were genuinely free elections without the presence of foreign troops, and a guarantee that neither the West nor the Soviet Union would occupy Hungary whatever the result, then the Communist Party would be extremely lucky to poll its 1945 figure of 17 per cent of the votes – and he personally would estimate about 10 or 12 per cent.

’We have to face,’ he said, ‘a moral problem. How far is one justified in imposing on a country the rule of a Party against the will of the majority of its inhabitants? Even if, “objectively”, and from the standpoint of our beloved “historical necessity”, that Party represents the “best interests” of the country and of its people? Even if the interests – I would say the great power interests – of a neighbouring Socialist State are involved?’

’Well, what is your solution?’ I asked. ‘Must there be – or ought there to be – a return to capitalism?’

’No,’ he replied. ‘Nor would the majority of Hungarians want to see the clock put back in that way. But every front-rank leader of the Communist Party is mistrusted. Except one: Imre Nagy. He is at present outside the Party, and it is said that he will not come back without certain guarantees.

’The solution is to put Nagy at the head of a new People’s Front Government, to return to the new course of 1954 and try to rally people behind that. I mean a real People’s Front, not an association of stooge parties. For a long time our Party will have to take a back seat. Both the future of the Party and the future of Hungary itself depend on Nagy and a People’s Front government.

’Without them’ – and he spoke with great emphasis – ‘Hungary is facing disaster.’

This conversation took place on Sunday, August 5. When I returned to London I told my colleagues on the Daily Worker about it. The measure that could have prevented the disaster my friend warned about was taken. But it was taken too late, when the guns were already firing in Budapest. At every stage the Party lagged behind events. At every stage it failed to read the people’s mood in time.

The enormous crowds that attended the reinterment of Rajk should have been a warning. But the leaders were blind. The last two catastrophic acts of blindness were Gerö’s broadcast on the night of October 23, after the demonstrations had already started, and the calling in of Soviet troops in a request made officially by Imre Nagy, but in actual fact by Gerö and Hegedüs. They were Stalinist to the very end.


1. An English translation, The Road of Our People’s Democracy, was published by the Hungarian News and Information Service in June 1952. Page references are to this.

2. According to Charles Coutts, forty of those killed in the Budapest Party headquarters were AVH men. See p. 41.

Last updated on: 15.1.2012