We must never forget the heroes of 1956 – the students, the intellectuals, the workers, the farmers and the cross section of the entire Hungarian nation – who knew exactly what they wanted 60 years ago and were prepared to realize their dreams at great personal sacrifice. They fought and died for nothing that had not been promised them: freedom, a multi-party democracy and independence from the Soviet Union.
Hungary’s 1956 Revolution marked the first tear in the Iron Curtain. Hungary , the country at the heart of Europe, for 60 years ago underwent weeks of political turmoil that shook the region and exposed the ideological fissures behind the Iron Curtain. Hungarians from all walks of life rose up against the mighty Soviet Union in a desperate fight for freedom. Thousands died fighting, others tortured and executed, while 200,000 were forced to flee. 2016 marks the 60th Anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution.
How did the flag get the hole in 1956?
After the illegal communist takeover in 1948, the hated Rákosi regime established a new flag, replacing millennia-old Hungarian symbols with the Soviet-style communist red star and hammer. One of the first acts of defiance by Hungarian Freedom Fighters in 1956 was to tear out the communist symbols, leaving a ”Hole in the Flag.” Others used the Kossuth Arms which symbolized Hungarian democratic aspirations as seen in the earlier struggle in 1848. These Kossuth Arms would appear on the sides of tanks fighting on the side of a free Hungary.
The protesters managed to persuade the leader of Hungary, Imre Nagy, that their cause warranted his government’s consideration. A committed communist, Nagy declared that the Soviet troops occupying the country would withdraw from it, pledged to dissolve the state security forces, and endorsed the uprising as “a great national and democratic movement, embracing and unifying all our people.” But in the first week of November, the protesters suffered a bruising defeat. Soviet forces crushed the uprising, invading key areas of the country, including the capital, Budapest, which less than a century before had been the second city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, one of Europe’s great powers. As the Czech-born writer Milan Kundera recalled in a 1984 essay in The New York Review of Books, the director of the Hungarian News Agency, shortly before he was killed in the revolution, reminded the world of Hungary’s European identity, saying, “We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe.” The statement encapsulated the conviction of many Hungarians that their country belonged to Europe writes Foreignaffairs.com.
In 1955, the Austrian State Treaty and ensuing declaration of neutrality established Austria as a demilitarized and neutral country, raising Hungarian hopes of also becoming neutral. However, the Soviet Union never withdrew its forces claiming the Warsaw Pact Treaty, signed before the Peace Treaty of 1947, provided legal justification to the Soviet military presence.
Khrushchev’s ”secret speech” in February 1956, denouncing the crimes of Stalin and his cult of personality, led reformers across the Eastern bloc began to openly express their discontent.
In Hungary, Khrushchev recalled the brutal, hard-line ruler, Mátyás Rákosi. Rather than have the sedating effect of Gomulka’s appointment in Poland, Rákosi’s removal stimulated demands for greater freedom.
On October 6, 1956, at the funeral of the victims of a mock political trial – László Rajk and his comrades, is attended by 200,000 people.
On October 22, 1956, a group of Hungarian students at the Technical University, sympathizing greatly with their ancient allies, and compiled a list of sixteen points containing key national policy demands. They were read at the foot of the General Bem statue, a Polish hero of the 1848 War of Liberation, in solidarity with the anti-communist demonstrations in Poznan, Poland.
They announced a demonstration in front of General Bem and Petőfi statues in Budapest for October 23rd.
Tens of thousands marched to the foot of the General Bem statue in solidarity with the anti-communist demonstrations in Poznan.
Following an anti-Soviet protest march through the Hungarian capital of Budapest, the students attempted to enter the city’s main broadcasting station to read their demands on the air. The students were detained, and when people gathered outside the broadcasting station to call for their release, the state security police fired on the unarmed crowd, setting off the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Read the 16 points below:
“The following resolution was born on 22 October 1956, at the dawn of a new period in Hungarian history, in the Hall of the Building Industry Technological University as a result of the spontaneous movement of several thousand of the Hungarian youth who love their Fatherland:”
The 16 Points
- We demand the immediate evacuation of all Soviet troops, in conformity with the provisions of the Peace Treaty.
- We demand the election by secret ballot of all Party members from top to bottom, and of new officers for the lower, middle and upper echelons of the Hungarian Workers Party. These officers shall convene a Party Congress as early as possible in order to elect a Central Committee.
- A new Government must be constituted under the direction of Imre Nagy: all criminal leaders of the Stalin-Rákosi era must be immediately dismissed.
- We demand public enquiry into the criminal activities of Mihály Farkas and his accomplices. Mátyás Rákosi, who is the person most responsible for crimes of the recent past as well as for our country’s ruin, must be returned to Hungary for trial before a people’s tribunal.
- We demand general elections by universal, secret ballot are held throughout the country to elect a new National Assembly, with all political parties participating. We demand that the right of workers to strike be recognised.
- We demand revision and re-adjustment of Hungarian-Soviet and Hungarian-Yugoslav relations in the fields of politics, economics and cultural affairs, on a basis of complete political and economic equality, and of non-interference in the internal affairs of one by the other.
- We demand the complete reorganisation of Hungary’s economic life under the direction of specialists. The entire economic system, based on a system of planning, must be re-examined in the light of conditions in Hungary and in the vital interest of the Hungarian people.
- Our foreign trade agreements and the exact total of reparations that can never be paid must be made public. We demand to be precisely informed of the uranium deposits in our country, on their exploitation and on the concessions to the Russians in this area. We demand that Hungary have the right to sell her uranium freely at world market prices to obtain hard currency.
- We demand complete revision of the norms operating in industry and an immediate and radical adjustment of salaries in accordance with the just requirements of workers and intellectuals. We demand a minimum living wage for workers.
- We demand that the system of distribution be organised on a new basis and that agricultural products be utilised in rational manner. We demand equality of treatment for individual farms.
- We demand reviews by independent tribunals of all political and economic trials as well as the release and rehabilitation of the innocent. We demand the immediate repatriation of prisoners of war (World War II) and of civilian deportees to the Soviet Union, including prisoners sentenced outside Hungary.
- We demand complete recognition of freedom of opinion and of expression, of freedom of the press and of radio, as well as the creation of a daily newspaper for the MEFESZ Organisation (Hungarian Federation of University and College Students’ Associations)
- We demand that the statue of Stalin, symbol of Stalinist tyranny and political oppression, be removed as quickly as possible and be replaced by a monument in memory of the martyred freedom fighters of 1848-49.
- We demand the replacement of emblems foreign to the Hungarian people by the old Hungarian arms of Kossuth. We demand new uniforms for the Army which conform to our national traditions. We demand that March 15th be declared a national holiday and that the October 6th be a day of national mourning on which schools will be closed.
- The students of the Technological University of Budapest declare unanimously their solidarity with the workers and students of Warsaw and Poland in their movement towards national independence.
- The students of the Technological University of Budapest will organise as rapidly as possible local branches of MEFESZ, and they have decided to convene at Budapest, on Saturday October 27, a Youth Parliament at which all the nation’s youth shall be represented by their delegates.
Protesters at the Bem statue in Buda would soon be marching, carrying Hungarian and Polish flags, to Parliament Square in Pest as crowds swelled to hundreds of thousands.
Others would eventually reach government-controlled Hungarian Radio only to hear communist leader Ernő Gerő call the peaceful protesters “enemies of the people.”
Angry at Gerő’s comments, the crowd attempted to gain entry to the radio station to proclaim the 16 points. The protest soon turned into a bloodbath as Hungarian Secret Police opened fire on the crowd.
Again, on October 25th, Hungarian Secret Police (AVO) opened fire on protesters in front of parliament calling for the resignation of communist leader Gerő.
Hungarian Army units join the insurgents as the communist party disintegrates. There was now no turning back.
Under the angelic voice of Radio Free Europe, Hungarians bravely fought and, for 12 days, won their freedom, expelling Soviet Forces. Imre Nagy announced withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and declared neutrality on November 1st asking the United Nations for observers and protection.
On November 4th, 5000 Soviet tanks and 200,000 troops poured into Hungary to quash the rebellion. Fierce fighting takes place until November 15th – hopes for Western help are dashed.
Imre Nagy makes his final plea for Western help. As Soviet forces regained control, Nagy sought refuge in the Yugoslav Embassy, but was arrested, and executed in 1958 along with Gimes Miklós, journalist and Pál Maléter, head of Hungarian Defense Forces after being held in a secret location in Romania for 2 years.
A particularly tragic example of the brutality of the regime was that of Péter Mansfeld, a “Pesti Srác” or Young Boy from Pest who, at the age of 16, became a Freedom Fighter. He was held political prisoner in “Hell’s Highway”, tortured and repeatedly beaten until he finally found rest 1959, when he turned 18 – the age the communist police could legally hang him, a week after his birthday. The”Pest Srácok” were kids who took up arms against communist tyranny.
We honors those whose enormous sacrifice seemed futile 60 years ago, but that today is universally recognized as having contributed to the ultimate demise of Soviet domination of Central and Eastern Europe and the restoration of constitutional democracy and independence in Hungary and the region.
If one can characterize a nation, there can be no doubt that Hungarians not only give lip service to the vaunted principles of democracy and national independence, but also, as their history so eloquently and repeatedly demonstrates, sacrifice life and treasure to achieve them. Although unfamiliar with the details of this rich history and national character, a few today are quick to conclude (and have the international community believe) that the Hungarian people are less than committed to democracy when, in fact, Hungarians continue to be strong adherents of democratic values.
Consistent with its practice of 60 years, the world (Sweden as well) should committed to keep the memory of the heroes of 1956 alive. We also should recall the impact the massive Soviet invasion and the brutal crushing of the unequivocal expression of Hungarians to be free had on the Hungarian communities in states neighboring Hungary and how minority rights are denied some of those communities even today. As we contemplate the promise of Hungary 1956, we are reminded that that promise must never be forgotten or abandoned, as the heroes of 1956 deserve nothing less.
The role of Radio Free Europe (RFE) in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 From political perspective, RFE played its most important role during the Hungarian revolution of 1956. During the hectic days of the Revolution in 1956 the Hungarian RFE broadcast was operating as spontaneously as the Revolution itself. Although before the uprising broke out, the Hungarian RFE did not told the Hungarian people to start a freedom fight, later they encouraged them to hold on indeed, suggesting that Western support was imminent. It was not the case at all, because the United States did not risk to provide military support for the Hungarians in order to avoid an even bigger military conflict with the Soviet Union.
Many Hungarians have testified to the positive role played by Radio Free Europe (RFE) for over 40 years in helping Hungary return to the community of free nations. Prime Minister Antal wrote to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in June 1990: ”Radio Free Europe has … given us the gift of truth about our own country and the world at large, and has done so at a time when telling the truth was counted as a crime against the state.” President Göncz wrote to RFE/RL in 1991: ”one of the important possibilities of expression for those in Hungary who raised their voices for changes was Radio Free Europe.”
A slideshow by RFE – comparing the exact locations of many of the most iconic photographs of the uprising can be determined, revealing that while politics have changed, the historic streets of Budapest remain remarkably similar.