Hungary - the Budapest Uprising of 1956
The tragedy of 1956 Budapest at least pinpointed the true nature of the attitude of the Kremlin and its Politburo to its European satellite states. The truth could not be hidden.
This was the one direct threat and overt attack on Soviet hegemony in mainland Europe in the years 1945 to 1989 when the Russian supremo, Gorbachev, dismantled the Russian block in the east. The terrible subjugation through Eastern and Central Europe by Stalin, Kruschev, Andropov his foreign minister, and Gromyko with Breshnev, and then Andropov – again suffocated the old Hapsburg Empire pre-1918 European nations and countries. They had enjoyed a brief moment of self-determination from 1919 to 1940. Poland had been annexed and divided by Stalin and Hitler in 1939. Shortly later Hungary, under Admiral Horthy, declared for fascism as did Romania and Bulgaria. Austria had been forced in to Nazi Germany by the appalling Anschluss of 1938. Czechoslovakia was conquered by Germany soon after Poland. There was no freedom for any of these states when Hitler’s Germany was defeated in May 1945 by the Western Allies and the Red Army.
Stalin ordered his armies to hold on to all the ground they had “liberated” from Hitler and it soon became apparent these nations were to be under the “jackboot” once more of tyranny, but this time from Moscow not Berlin. Communism, whatever Churchill thought and said, was no better than fascism, but we could not have defeated Hitler’s dreadful Wehrmacht without Soviet Russia’s armed forces. We were landed out of the frying pan and in to the fire as the saying goes.
2. The Cold War from 1945 to 1956
A bitter period when espionage flourished and no one was prepared, on the Western side, to even operate brinkmanship let alone go to war. The Western Allies (Britain, USA and West Germany (Bundesrepublic) were not able to break the deadlock. Both the West and the Soviet East had powerful nuclear weapons that could be delivered by artillery (tactical) and long range bombers (American and British)(strategic) from British airfields. Russia also had a strategic nuclear arm. France would not join Nato and the Anglo-American stand against the Soviets. She had no forces on West Germany’s sovereign soil, unlike Britain and the USA, who had a very considerable presence on the Rhine and through democratic Germany. In particular Britain had powerful armoured units in West Germany as did the USA with fighter aircraft and bombers. Both the British and Americans had strong infantry, and West Germany who had a standing conscript Army through National Service and Reservists (Bundeswehr). The USA could draw on reinforcements amongst its reservists and serving men across the Atlantic. We in Britain had National Service throughout the 1950’s.
Hungary is a landlocked country within its post WWII boundaries even to this day. Stalin the arch-dictator and WWII survivor died on 5th March 1953. He was succeeded by Kruschev as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist party, another hardliner. The post-War Russian policy in Eastern and Central Europe was to install Marxist/ Socialist governments that were run by and composed of persons of those particular nationalities e.g. Poles in Poland (Jaruselski) and Hungarians in Hungary (Rakosi). The thinking in the Kremlin was that these virtually Communist governments could be relied upon not to cause trouble for the Russian Headquarters, and yet give the appearance of legitimacy. There was no denying the cunning Russian iron fist in the velvet glove, but it took the Budapest Uprising to reveal this sleight of hand. These were puppet regimes as Budapest 1956 showed beyond question.
4. The Uprising itself and 1989
The 2,500 lives lost by the Hungarian Budapest rebels and the 900 Soviet soldiers killed in the uprising showed there had been a real battle in 1956 for Budapest. This conflict was to be for the first and last time in Soviet controlled and occupied Europe between Moscow and a satellite state. Would Moscow tolerate liberty of the individual and national self-government? The answer was an emphatic NO – this really was war albeit brief, and Andropov and Kruschev sent in their Red Army tanks and troops under WWII “hero” General Zhukov to prove it. No one could be in doubt as to Russian Cold War policy anymore. It is the lives lost in conflict that may prove not only the valour and worth of the cause of that side, but also they reveal the true nature of their enemy. Krushev won but at the cost of being unmasked in Central and Eastern Europe as an unmitigated undemocratic ruler and autocrat.
The uprising has never been forgotten in Hungary nor amongst its neighbouring peoples, to such an extent its memory powered the collapse even of the Russian pack of cards in those countries in 1989 (thirty years on) and the restoration of a democratic Hungary and democracies elsewhere in that region. The spirit of 1956 Budapest will never be blotted out such was the fervour of the rebels, their bravery in the bloodshed, and brutal suppression of the uprising by Soviet Russia in a massively one-sided fight.
Should we play safe in life and keep the peace? You can make out a good case for that policy. Kruschev knew those thoughts dwelt in the minds of Foster Dulles (US Secretary of State) and Eisenhower his President in 1956. Dulles halted Eden’s ill fated Suez operation, which was happening simultaneously with the Budapest revolt in 1956 (October/November). Two conflicts at the same time were unsustainable for sure. Moreover, Eisenhower fought against the common enemy: Nazi Germany on Continental Europe (1944-45). Kruschev also knew President Eisenhower as Ike the US General had weakened in the closing stages of WWII, and he had done nothing in 1945 to fight for Poland, Prague or Budapest, or liberate Germans stuck in Eastern Germany. Kruschev knew he could get away with quelling the Budapest 1956 uprising for all these reasons. We could have intervened in Budapest with the USA and Germany’s support. (The latter to hold Germany.) A UN vote or resolution possibly to assist us but Russia and China would have vetoed it. There was no proper unity of purpose over Hungary in 1956. The UN is second to International justice I submit. The Soviets did not “own” Budapest as the uprising demonstrated. They were not there by consent.
The 1950’s were the dark days of Soviet repression in the KGB and the British defectors Burgess, Maclean and Philby as history has shown. Why was no ultimatum delivered to Kruschev to call back his Red Army or face an Allied invasion of Hungary from Austria and other military measures to support the uprising? We were lacking in originality and courage. Yes Kruschev did not have to be told of our deadly nuclear arm, he already knew of that. Would he have backed down as he did over the Cuban missiles and President Kennedy? Quite possibly yes. You have to be strong to fight your case. We, with the USA, had the means militarily but not the willpower. Our leadership in Britain and the USA in 1956 late autumn early winter was found wanting. Would it have been worth it? Without doubt yes – this was true, noble and historic Budapest with her people up in arms against the Russian Bear. We were not in the Crimea in the 1850’s or post 2000 but at the very heart of our continent of Europe. What was the point of the Cold War if not to support this rightful uprising?
What were the repercussions? A weakened stamina and moral backbone in the Western Alliance. Look at the vocal opposition to the Vietnam War. It had to be down to Britain and the USA supported by West Germany. You should not take your eye off the ball – it was the Cold War that mattered as Kennedy and Johnson realised in the Cuban Crisis and Vietnam (1960’s). We cravenly turned down the chance to take on Kruschev, and in doing that we had to wait another thirty years to face Russia down. Then it was collapse from within. Now the Russian Bear growls once more and the West should not make the Budapest 1956 error again. The message should be clear: repressive regimes will face proper responses, including military action by Britain and America to support those who rise up against these oppressors in ruling oligarchies and autocrats who enforce undemocratic and anti-libertarian policies upon their peoples. The goal should always be: - life is sacrosanct with freedom. Hundreds of Hungarians who took part in the 1956 uprising were put to death or exiled after it was suppressed and never traced. It was our shame not to support them with our armies in Germany. This was the greatest tragedy of post-War Modern Europe and remains so without any doubt.
Stalin claimed to have “liberated” Hungary come 1945. His successor made no attempt to achieve a bi-partisan consensus in the UN before he sent in his armoured units in 1956 to mow down the law abiding citizens of Budapest. He knew he had no case.