‘You’d better get out while you can’

Charles Wheeler remembers the Hungarian Revolution

It was in Poland that the ice had started to crack. Early in 1956, at the 20th Party Congress in Moscow, Nikita Khrushchev had coupled his denunciation of Stalin with a promise of reform. The speech split the Polish Politburo. Reformers challenged Stalinists. Quietly, political prisoners were released. Censorship was relaxed. In June, a brief workers’ revolt at Poznán, crushed with the loss of some seventy lives, led to the formation of independent workers’ councils in factories across the country, and to demands for the return to power of Wladislaw Gomulka, the Communist leader who had been imprisoned as a Titoist in 1949. By mid-October Gomulka was laying claim to the leadership of the Party.

His return set off alarm bells in Moscow. On 19 October, the first day of a meeting of the Polish Politburo, Khrushchev descended on Warsaw at the head of a powerful delegation of Soviet political and military leaders. Several Red Army units stationed in Poland moved towards Warsaw. Next day, in exchange for Gomulka’s assurance that Poland’s ties to the Soviet Union would not be disturbed, the Russians withdrew their threat of military intervention and agreed to Gomulka’s formal election as the Polish Party’s First Secretary.

In London I was badgering the Polish Embassy for a visa to take a Panorama film team to Warsaw. The press attaché was unhelpful – he wouldn’t say yes, or no, or even perhaps. It was difficult in those days to be quick off the mark: at Lime Grove the BBC had only two relatively portable, 35mm sound cameras, one of which belonged to Sportsview, the other to Panorama. Ours was in America, with Woodrow Wyatt, who was covering the Eisenhower-Stevenson election campaign. So, on the off-chance that our visas might come through, I booked four seats and cargo space for our cumbersome camera gear on a flight to Warsaw, via Vienna, for Monday 29 October.

Meanwhile, Khrushchev had flown home, only to find that the anti-Stalinist backlash had taken a distinctly more radical turn in Hungary. There, far from being contained within the Party leadership, as in Poland, the drive for reform was coming from the grassroots, notably from universities across the country, where student audiences numbering as many as seven thousand were passing resolutions threatening strikes and demonstrations if their demands for civil rights, parliamentary government and national independence were ignored. The crunch came on 23 October, when students from two Budapest universities marched to the statue of General Bem, the Polish revolutionary who had led Hungarian troops against the Habsburg and tsarist forces in 1849.

What began as a gesture of solidarity with Poland (expressed on banners reading ‘Poland Is Our Example – Follow the Hungarian Path!’) rapidly became a revolt. After listening to speeches at the Bem memorial, part of the crowd set off for the city park and demolished a gigantic bronze statue of Stalin, leaving only his boots embedded in a stone plinth. Others made for the radio station, insisting that a 16-point resolution drawn up by the students be broadcast to the country. When this was refused the crowd surged forward. Shots rang out from the roof. When the crowd did storm the building a machine-gun opened fire. Several people were killed: as many as a hundred, including women and children, according to rumours that quickly spread through the city. That night workers from an arms factory at Csepel, a few miles to the south, drove lorry-loads of rifles and light machine-guns to Budapest, where they were handed out to anybody who wanted a weapon. Next morning the radio announced that the Government had declared martial law, had imposed a curfew and had requested the commander of the Red Army garrison to restore order. The Russians answered the call with tanks and armoured cars. The rebels had small arms and Molotov cocktails. Street fighting raged for three days: an uprising against a Stalinist dictatorship had become a national fight for independence.

On 28 October, a new government headed by Imre Nagy, a former prime minister who had been expelled from the Communist Party in 1955, announced a ceasefire, the end of single-party rule, and the start of negotiations for the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Hungary. Within the next two days the fighting stopped and Russian troops did indeed pull out of Budapest.

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[*] The Hungarian Revolution of 1956, edited by György Litván (Longman, 221 pp., £12.99,11 April, 0 582 21504 8).