By Louis Archard

Pen & Sword Press. 128 pages. Ł14.99. ISBN 978-1-52670-802-1

Reviewed by Jim Burns

In November 1956 I was serving with the British Army in Germany. It wasn’t a large camp that I was stationed at, and occasionally I’d be detailed for guard duty. Sitting in the guard room in the early hours of the morning I’d fiddle with the high-powered short-wave radio, trying to find some jazz to listen to. One night I heard a voice coming faintly through the pops and crackles of the static, and asking for help in resisting the Russian forces that were then fighting in Budapest. According to Louis Archand, the last message broadcast was on the 4th November, and it was made in German, Russian and English. Was it what I heard, or had there been other broadcasts that I may have picked up? It’s over sixty years ago and my memory doesn’t run to remembering all that happened then.

The Hungarians never were going to be helped in any practical way in terms of armed intervention, and insofar as Britain was concerned, we were hardly in a position to criticise Russia as we conspired with France and Israel to invade Egypt. Radio Free Europe, based in Munich, had been pumping out propaganda designed to encourage Hungarians, and other nationalities in the Eastern bloc, to rise up against their Soviet oppressors, but no-one in the West was likely to take a chance on starting the Third World War. The Hungarians would learn that they were on their own.

Archard provides a useful short survey of the build-up to the events of 1956. Russian troops had “liberated” Budapest early in 1945, and free elections had been held that year in which the communists had failed to make a major impact. Later elections were more favourable to them, though there were allegations of ballot rigging and other examples of fraud. By 1948 the communists under the hard-line Mátyás Rákosi were firmly in control. A United Nations report said that Rákosi was “a communist trained in Moscow. Under his regime, Hungary was modelled more and more closely on the Soviet pattern. Free speech and individual liberty ceased to exist. Arbitrary imprisonment became common and purges were undertaken, both within and outside the ranks of the Party”.

By 1953 there were concerns in the communist world relating to signs of unrest among the general population. East German workers had taken to the streets to protest about pay, living conditions, and other matters, Polish workers had likewise expressed discontent with their lot, and there were stirrings of dissatisfaction in Hungary. The Russians practically controlled what was decided in Budapest and Rákosi was eventually forced to share power with Imre Nagy, a more-popular communist thanks to the land reforms he had instigated just after the war, breaking up large estates and distributing the land among the peasants.

Things did begin to get a little better, but in 1956 there were student demonstrations in Budapest, ostensibly about practical matters such as “the cost of text books and the quality of food and housing”. But other concerns were then added to the list, among them a demand for Soviet troops to be withdrawn from Hungary. Concessions might be made relating to the price of books and food, but the question of the continuing presence of the Russian army was likely to be more difficult to resolve. It was, in effect, a challenge to the whole system, which everyone knew could hardly exist without Soviet backing.

By late-October the demonstrations had taken on a more-serious tone, and crowds were besieging the radio station in Budapest, and demanding that the students’ 16 point manifesto be broadcast. By this time the demonstrators included many other people besides students. Units of the much-feared secret police (AVH) were stationed at the radio station, and at some point they fired into the crowd, causing deaths and injuries. When AVH reinforcements arrived they were attacked and their guns seized. Troops were then sent to assist the AVH, but sided with the people. The situation developed further: “Word of what was happening in the city centre had by now made its way out to the working class districts of Budapest like Csepel and Ujpest and workers began to make their way into the city centre by truck, carrying weapons that they picked up on the way from policemen or army barracks or munitions factories”.

Soviet troops entered the city on the 24th October, seizing bridges across the Danube and occupying strategic points. There hadn’t then been any direct confrontations between the Russians and the freedom fighters, as they became known, but there were reports of civilians being fired on. And accounts of Molotov Cocktails (glass bottles filled with inflammable liquid) being used against tanks. Official radio broadcasts talked of “counter revolutionary” elements attacking government buildings, and martial law was declared. It was clear that the uprising was spreading, and units of the Hungarian army were siding with the insurgents. Colonel Pál Maléter was sent with tanks to prevent the Kilián Barracks from falling into rebel hands, but decided to throw in his lot with them instead. There were indications, too that some Russian soldiers were reluctant to fight, and showed signs of sympathising with the demonstrators.

One of the worst incidents occurred in Parliament Square where a large crowd (around 20,000 people) had gathered to be addressed by Imre Nagy. It would appear that one or two Russian tank crews had sided with demonstrators, and on arrival in the square may have exchanged fire with other Russian tanks. Or AVH members may have fired into the crowd. A high-ranking KGB officer ordered the square to be cleared, and in the ensuing chaos around 800 people, including numerous women and children, were killed and wounded. More volunteers joined the insurgents, including many teenagers. And the fighting intensified in its viciousness. AVH personnel were likely to be executed on the spot if captured by the insurgents.

Imre Nagy was ordered by the Russians to form a new government, his relative popularity being something that might enable him to control the situation. At the same time Russian forces appeared to withdraw from Budapest. A ceasefire was agreed. But Nagy, while being assured of an eventual withdrawal of all Russian troops from Hungary, began to push for other concessions. He told the Russians that Hungary would leave the Warsaw Pact and declare neutrality. It was a step too far, and with evidence of unrest in Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia, the Soviet leadership decided that it was time to crack down hard on the Hungarians. Russian army units began to regroup and move back towards Budapest. Pál Maléter was arrested by the KGB when he accepted an invitation from the Soviet military to discuss the terms of the cease fire.

Another new government was formed, this time under the leadership of János Kádár, who was seen as more likely to co-operate with the Russians than Nagy had appeared to do. With Budapest surrounded by Russian forces on the 3rd November, around 150,000 troops with 2,500 tanks began to move back into the city. It was obvious that, no matter how determined and brave the insurgents were, they stood little chance of holding out for long. They had no unified control centre and individual groups, mostly lightly armed, operated under their own volition. They were no match for the Russians.

Most of the sustained fighting took place in the industrial outskirts of the city, with Csepel holding out until 9th November. Elsewhere, there was scattered resistance, and some insurgents did escape into the countryside and attempted to carry on a guerrilla campaign against the Soviets. But there was no doubt that the uprising had been defeated. And that there would be repercussions and reprisals to follow. Imre Nagy had been offered asylum in the Yugoslav embassy in Budapest, and was given a guarantee of safe conduct if he left to go to Austria, but he was arrested by the KGB once he moved out. He was eventually tried and executed in 1958, along with Pál Maléter. There were probably around 500 other executions of people who had, in one way or another, participated in the uprising.

Following the initial crackdown, there were efforts by the Kádár government to alleviate the general situation in Hungary. Realising that the presence of Soviet troops was always likely to arouse resentment their numbers were gradually reduced: “Soviet soldiers stationed near Budapest were confined to their barracks and those farther away from the capital kept a low profile and tried to attract less attention – their officers, for example, would wear civilian clothes when they went out”.

The Russians provided large loans to the Hungarian government to enable it to grant pay rises of 15 to 20 per cent in 1957. Kádár also tried to demonstrate that, unlike previous leaders, he was not completely controlled from Moscow. Amnesties were announced for some of the insurgents, with “a final, full amnesty in 1962”. But the uprising became a topic that was never discussed openly, and figures like Imre Nagy and Pál Maléter were effectively treated as non-persons.

One other interesting factor that was a result of the uprising was its effect on communist parties in the West. The French and Italian parties both had large memberships, but the Russian intervention in Hungary, combined with Kruschev’s revelations about Stalin, saw a decline in their numbers. The same was true of Britain, where a much smaller party found itself losing members. It never had been any kind of major force in British politics, apart from having some influence in certain unions, and became even less so after 1956.

Louis Archard has written a fast-moving account of events in Budapest during those fateful twelve days in 1956. It’s history now and a contemporary twenty year-old will perhaps struggle to understand what all the fuss was about. So much has happened since. But for a twenty year-old listening to the radio in the guardroom of an army camp in Germany in 1956, and hearing those desperate cries for help that was never going to arrive, it was a lesson in the realities of international politics that has stayed with him for over sixty years.