220 The Hungarian Uprising

32.5.2: The Hungarian Uprising

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 occurred shortly after Khrushchev arranged the removal of Hungary’s Stalinist leader Mátyás Rákosi, but the new regime was soon crushed by the Soviet army.

Learning Objective

Examine the circumstances surrounding the Hungarian uprising

Key Points

  • The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 occurred shortly after Khrushchev arranged the removal of Hungary’s Stalinist leader Mátyás Rákosi.
  • In response to a popular uprising, the new regime formally disbanded the secret police, declared its intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, and pledged to re-establish free elections.
  • In response, the Soviet army invaded and crushed the revolution.
  • Thousands of Hungarians were arrested, imprisoned, and deported to the Soviet Union, and approximately 200,000 Hungarians fled Hungary in the chaos.
  • Hungarian leader Imre Nagy and others were executed following secret trials.

Key Terms

Mátyás Rákosi
A Jewish Hungarian communist politician, the leader of Hungary’s Communist Party from 1945 to 1956, and the de facto ruler of Communist Hungary from 1949 to 1956. An ardent Stalinist, his government was a satellite of the Soviet Union.
People who follow the policies and practices associated with Josip Broz Tito during the Cold War, characterized by an opposition to the Soviet Union.


The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 or the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 was a nationwide revolt against the government of the Hungarian People’s Republic and its Soviet-imposed policies, lasting from October 23 until November 10, 1956. Though initially leaderless, it was the first major threat to Soviet control since the USSR’s forces drove out Nazi Germany from its territory at the end of World War II and broke into Central and Eastern Europe.

The revolt began as a student demonstration, which attracted thousands marching through central Budapest to the Parliament building, calling out on the streets using a van with loudspeakers via Radio Free Europe. A student delegation that entered the radio building to try to broadcast the students’ demands was detained. When the delegation’s release was demanded by the demonstrators outside, they were fired upon by the State Security Police (ÁVH) from within the building. One student died and was wrapped in a flag and held above the crowd. This was the start of the revolution. As the news spread, disorder and violence erupted throughout the capital.

The revolt spread quickly across Hungary and the government collapsed. Thousands organized into militias, battling the ÁVH and Soviet troops. Pro-Soviet communists and ÁVH members were often executed or imprisoned and former political prisoners were released and armed. Radical impromptu workers’ councils wrested municipal control from the ruling Hungarian Working People’s Party and demanded political changes. A new government formally disbanded the ÁVH, declared its intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, and pledged to re-establish free elections. By the end of October, fighting had almost stopped and a sense of normality began to return.

After announcing a willingness to negotiate a withdrawal of Soviet forces, the Politburo changed its mind and moved to crush the revolution. On November 4, a large Soviet force invaded Budapest and other regions of the country. The Hungarian resistance continued until November 10. More than 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed in the conflict, and 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. Mass arrests and denunciations continued for months thereafter. By January 1957, the new Soviet-installed government had suppressed all public opposition. These Soviet actions, while strengthening control over the Eastern Bloc, alienated many Western Marxists, leading to splits and/or considerable losses of membership for Communist Parties in the West.

Public discussion about this revolution was suppressed in Hungary for more than 30 years. Since the thaw of the 1980s, it has been a subject of intense study and debate. At the inauguration of the Third Hungarian Republic in 1989, October 23 was declared a national holiday.

Image of the flag of Hungary, with the communist coat of arms cut out, hanging over a street.
Hungarian Uprising: Flag of Hungary, with the communist coat of arms cut out. The flag with a hole became the symbol of the revolution.


Hungary became a communist state under the severely authoritarian leadership of Mátyás Rákosi. Under Rákosi’s reign, the Security Police (ÁVH) began a series of purges, first within the Communist Party to end opposition to Rákosi’s reign. The victims were labeled as “Titoists,” “western agents,” or “Trotskyists” for as insignificant a crime as spending time in the West to participate in the Spanish Civil War. In total, about half of all the middle and lower level party officials—at least 7,000 people—were purged.

From 1950 to 1952, the Security Police forcibly relocated thousands of people to obtain property and housing for the Working People’s Party members and to remove the threat of the intellectual and “bourgeois” class. Thousands were arrested, tortured, tried, and imprisoned in concentration camps, deported to the east, or executed, including ÁVH founder László Rajk. In a single year, more than 26,000 people were forcibly relocated from Budapest. As a consequence, jobs and housing were very difficult to obtain. The deportees generally experienced terrible living conditions and were interned as slave labor on collective farms. Many died as a result of poor living conditions and malnutrition.

The Rákosi government thoroughly politicized Hungary’s educational system to supplant the educated classes with a “toiling intelligentsia.” Russian language study and Communist political instruction were made mandatory in schools and universities nationwide. Religious schools were nationalized and church leaders were replaced by those loyal to the government. In 1949 the leader of the Hungarian Catholic Church, Cardinal József Mindszenty, was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for treason. Under Rákosi, Hungary’s government was among the most repressive in Europe.

The Crushed Uprising

After Stalinist dictator Mátyás Rákosi was replaced by Imre Nagy following Stalin’s death and Polish reformist Władysław Gomułka was able to enact some reformist requests, large numbers of protesting Hungarians compiled a list of Demands of Hungarian Revolutionaries of 1956, including free secret-ballot elections, independent tribunals, and inquiries into Stalin and Rákosi Hungarian activities. Under the orders of Soviet defense minister Georgy Zhukov, Soviet tanks entered Budapest. Protester attacks at the Parliament forced the collapse of the government.

The new government that came to power during the revolution formally disbanded the Hungarian secret police, declared its intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, and pledged to re-establish free elections. The Soviet Politburo thereafter moved to crush the revolution with a large Soviet force invading Budapest and other regions of the country. Approximately 200,000 Hungarians fled Hungary, some 26,000 Hungarians were put on trial by the new Soviet-installed János Kádár government and, of those, 13,000 were imprisoned. Imre Nagy was executed along with Pál Maléter and Miklós Gimes after secret trials in June 1958. By January 1957, the Hungarian government had suppressed all public opposition. These Hungarian government’s violent oppressive actions alienated many Western Marxists, yet strengthened communist control in all the European communist states, cultivating the perception that communism was both irreversible and monolithic.



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