‘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.

In London I was at last getting our act together. Hungary, rather than Poland, was clearly the story to go for, but there were no flights to Budapest. We had reservations for Vienna, however. There was now a difficult encounter with the BBC’s Head of Current Affairs, who warned me that if I lost Panorama’s sound camera the programme would have to be taken off the air. ‘You can go as far as the Hungarian border and interview refugees,’ he ruled. ‘But the camera stays in Austria.’ ‘And who’s your reporter?’ ‘I’ve asked a Hungarian, George Mikes,’ I said. ‘But he writes funny books, like How to Be an Alien. Oh all right, if there’s nobody else ... ’

So off we went, A.A. Englander, ace cameraman and ex-war correspondent, Robin Green, custodian of the precious camera, and George Mikes, who was fretting about knowing even less about television than I did, but who was excited by the prospect of revisiting a free Hungary. In Vienna we hired a Volkswagen bus (on condition you don’t take it over the border, said Hertz) and drove it to the village of Nickelsdorf, where volunteers were loading a convoy of Budapest city buses with blood plasma, penicillin, bandages and dried milk. Abandoning the van we walked to the Hungarian checkpoint, where George was quick to notice that the guards had removed the red star from their caps. Not only that: they were flying the flag of the revolution – the red, white and green tricolour, with a jagged hole in the centre, where the Communist emblem, a hammer and wheat-sheaf, had been.

Mikes had been a regular broadcaster in the BBC’s Hungarian Service for many years and the guards were among his listeners. Nothing was said about visas. The driver of a three-ton lorry offered us a lift. The camera, wrapped in an overcoat, travelled in the cab; we perched on sacks of coal in the back. A mile down the road I nearly wrecked the trip. As we lurched round a bend I let go of the tripod, which fell overboard into the road, landing on its only delicate part, the head. We dumped it in a ditch: from now on Englander would have to handhold the camera, which, given its inordinate size, weight and shape turned out to be no mean feat.

Sopron, the nearest town, was an unforgettably grey and dismal place, all rutted roads and dilapidated shops with little for sale except bottled gherkins and rusting tins of peas. The houses looked as though they hadn’t seen a paintbrush since before the war. But the people were neatly dressed and welcoming. They took us to a college, where students armed with Russian tommy-guns explained how they had rounded up Party officials and locked them up in the local jail after the AVO, or security police, had fled. Everyone seemed sure that the Russians had bowed to the inevitable, had settled for Hungarian neutrality and had gone for good. A young woman, a teacher, was sure that the revolution would change her life: ‘We’ll be able to read Western books and newspapers; we’ll even be able to travel.’

At our next stop, Magyaróvár, the people were still in shock. They took us to a park surrounding a large, and now empty AVO barracks – the scene, they told us, of a massacre a week before. A delegation of students and factory workers had led a crowd of about two thousand people to the barracks, intending to ask the AVO to remove the red star from the face of the building. Guarding the entrance were twin machine-gun posts. When the crowd stopped, four men walked forward and assured the AVO that it was a peaceful demonstration. The officer in charge called to the crowd to come forward and, seconds later, gave the orderto open fire. According to eyewitnesses we spoke to – among them a woman who had worked in England as a nursemaid before the war –101 men and women were killed by machine-gun fire and hand-grenades that day, and about 250 wounded.

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956, based on research carried out by a team of Hungarian historians after the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989, suggests that the number of casualties at Magyaróvár was less than half that.[*] But it confirms what we were told at the time – that, following an attack on the barracks by armed freedom fighters later that day, three AVO men were caught, hung head downwards from trees and beaten to death.

In the provinces armed clashes with the security forces were rare. By 1 November, most of western Hungary was controlled by revolutionary committees, elected at assemblies of students and factory workers, and often composed largely of twenty to thirty-year-olds. As the apparatus of state power collapsed, heads of local Party and Government organisations either fled or tried to adjust to the new situation. In the city of Györ, now calling itself the capital of Free West Hungary, we sought out the Chairman of the Revolutionary Committee, Attila Szigethy. He told us that a general strike, called in order to put pressure on Moscow, would continue until the Russians agreed to leave Hungary, clearing the way for free, multi-party elections. ‘We hope,’ he added, ‘that the West will help us in our struggle.’

But the West was not about to intervene; it was otherwise engaged. In America a Presidential election was a week away. And in the Middle East, Britain and France, together with Israel, were involved in a war of their own. The simultaneous eruption of the Suez crisis, and the consequent discord among the Western powers, horrified our Hungarian hosts. As they saw it, London and Paris were throwing away the moral authority that might have deterred Moscow from committing aggression in Hungary. ‘You’d better get out while you can, before the Russians return and cut the Vienna road,’ they said. ‘And when you get home, remember to tell your people that you and the French have wrecked our revolution.’

Three decades later the writers and researchers of this new volume, while deploring the years of liberation propaganda aimed at Eastern Europe by American statesmen and radio stations, merely say that Suez made it less difficult for the Russians to crush the revolt. In their view the Red Army’s initial withdrawal from Budapest was tactical, its return in overwhelming strength in the early hours of 4 November inevitable.

We left Hungary for Vienna on 2 November and flew back to London the next day. That gave us all of Sunday to edit our film for Panorama on the Monday. Our story was about ten million Hungarians liberating themselves from foreign rule, paying for it with many lives, but rejoicing in a new life free from the AVO and a corrupt and dictatorial government. And then, as we started viewing our rushes, we heard the news that history had reversed itself. I shall never forget that miserable Sunday in the cutting room, putting together our distinctly upbeat film and breaking off to listen to those last few desperate radio appeals for help from the West as Russian divisions swept into Hungary.

Our film went out on Panorama next evening, Monday, 5 November. We had three stories: Woodrow Wyatt’s American election report, Hungary and the Anglo-French invasion of Suez. Covering Suez presented problems: not only were there no pictures, but we were constrained by a long-forgotten monstrosity called the Seventeen-Day Rule. Parliament had decreed that any subject due to be debated in the House of Commons within the next 17 days must not be debated beforehand on television. We would have to settle for a brief geography lesson by the BBC’s defence correspondent, an ex-admiral, over a map. Michael Peacock, our editor, had decided to lead the programme with George Mikes’s Hungarian report. The management – in the person of the formidable, unforgettable Grace Wyndam-Goldie, a kind of pre-incarnation of Margaret Thatcher – thought otherwise. ‘Our boys are dying in the Middle East,’ Grace declared. ‘You will lead with Suez.’ We did.

We went back to Vienna twice in November to talk to refugees, two hundred thousand of whom left Hungary before the border was closed at the end of that month. In 1957, Mikes published a book, The Hungarian Revolution, the first of many, chiefly second-hand, accounts. It was not until the late Eighties, when the Soviet Union’s hold on Eastern Europe was beginning to collapse, that Hungarian writers, historians, participants in the uprising and survivors of the repression that followed were able to launch a systematic examination, an exercise that has led to the publication of what is probably the first reliable, coherent account of the revolution, its origins and its aftermath.

According to the authors, 18 Red Army and Air Force divisions were directly involved in Moscow’s second intervention, crossing the Hungarian border from the Ukraine in the north and Romania in the east. On their march across the country Soviet troops disarmed Hungarian national forces, which offered little resistance, and arrested members of provincial revolutionary committees and workers’ councils. It seems that only in Budapest were the freedom fighters able to put up a serious fight; as Red Army units converged on the capital from several directions, so armed groups of Hungarian civilians, numbering from a few hundred to as many as two thousand, formed centres of resistance at a dozen points across the city. But the struggle against tanks and artillery lasted only a few days, and when Soviet troops took the Danube island of Csepel, together with the industrial city of Dunapentele on 11 November, the rising was effectively broken.

To this day the number of casualties is unknown. Quoting recently unclassified Soviet documents, the authors put Red Army losses at 720 dead and missing and 1450 wounded. A similar Hungarian report, compiled in 1957, gave a figure of 2700 Hungarians killed and ten times as many injured. Of the dead, 1330 were described as workers – mainly men and women in their twenties and early thirties – 44 were students and an astonishing 196 were children under the age of 14.

It took many more weeks to suppress the workers’ councils formed during and even after the rising. Strikes continued until January, when the Government announced that strike leaders would face the death penalty. Underground newspapers circulated for a while; when one of them, appearing under the title Élünk! (‘We Live!’), called for a silent memorial march on 4 December, a month after the Soviet invasion, hundreds of women and young girls wearing black and carrying flowers gathered at Budapest’s Heroes’ Square. The demonstration was broken up by Russian troops.

Reprisals began in December, with the first death sentence against a participant in the revolution. Two leading Budapest freedom fighters, both industrial workers, were hanged in January 1957. There were further executions in June – among the victims were a 23-year-old woman hospital worker from Budapest, a writer, a journalist and several men found guilty of the lynching of AVO men at Magyaróvár and Miscolc. But although more than twenty thousand people were arrested and brought to trial before People’s Courts, only about six thousand were actually sentenced, generally to terms of imprisonment ranging from three years to life.

The case of Imre Nagy, which dragged on until the summer of 1958, suggests that political leaders in Moscow as well as Budapest were aware of the need to moderate retribution, especially as Hungarian society had clearly capitulated in the face of overwhelming force. Nagy, together with eight of his closest colleagues, had fled to the Yugoslav Embassy on 4 November. Eighteen days later, armed with written guarantees of safe conduct, the group left the embassy for their homes, only to be abducted and interned in Romania. In April 1957 they were taken back to Budapest, and imprisoned while awaiting trial. Fourteen months later Nagy, his Defence Minister, Pál Máleter, and the journalist Miklos Gimes were sentenced to death, executed and buried in unmarked graves. The other five members of the group were imprisoned and released under the terms of amnesties in 1959 and 1963.

Early in 1957, a newly arrived Polish press attaché in London, Karol Malcuzynski, who was to become a highly independent member of the Polish Parliament during the Solidarity years, told me that my visa had been granted. With Christopher Chataway, then a Panorama reporter, I spent three weeks filming in Poland. Gomulka’s blend of firmness and restraint had paid off. His country was still part of the Soviet bloc. People shook their heads over the Hungarians; they’d behaved too much like Poles, they joked. But Poland was a spirited place; there was considerable cultural freedom, especially in publishing and cinema. What struck me most was the way Poles talked freely in restaurants, without obviously lowering their voices or looking over their shoulders.

The euphoria couldn’t last, of course. Later in 1957 Gomulka closed down the brilliantly independent literary magazine Po Prostu. Protests by students were suppressed by the police. Censorship became gradually more oppressive. In 1968 Gomulka, who had been the only Communist to oppose the execution of Nagy, willingly provided Polish troops for the Warsaw Pact force that occupied Czechoslovakia. And it was Gomulka who ordered the Polish Army to use force against the workers during the insurrection at Gdansk and Szczecin in December 1970.

In June 1953 I had marched through East Berlin with the Stalinallee building workers and had watched as Russian tanks put down what quickly became an uprising. After Hungary and Poland, and all the more after Czechoslovakia, I wondered what conclusions Soviet leaders, and especially Russian generals, must be drawing from these upheavals along the lines of military communication between the homeland and forward positions to the west. I believed then, and still do, that Moscow’s Warsaw Pact allies were never sufficiently reliable to allow the Soviet Union ever seriously to consider embarking on a land war in Europe. We shall never know for certain. But it seems probable that the people who took part in these Eastern European rebellions between the Fifties and Eighties acted as a powerful deterrent to a third world war. One day, perhaps, Western historians will acknowledge that debt.

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