An Asian learns about the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

I walked past the Nybrohamnen area on the way to the Tunnelbana, it was autumn but it felt more like winter – rainy, dark cold and dull.

I hurried past a number of black and white photographs and then stopped. The picture in front of me captured my attention – a young, caucasian girl in military fatigues and with a gun.

I walked closer to read the description at the side.

Her name was Erika Szeles and she was a 15 year old who, who survived the Holocaust and then later joined the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 both as a soldier and a nurse.

What was this, I thought to myself. What was the Hungarian Revolution about?

So in spite of the cold, I walked back to the start to follow the pictures.


The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a student-led uprising against the communist Hungarian People’s Republic and the arduous policies it imposed on its people under the influence of the Soviet Union.

The end of world war 2 was followed almost (imperceptibly and) seamlessly by the cold war. A war of military and geographical power was replaced by one of political and ideological power. And the powerful Soviet Union, having liberated most of Europe from a Nazi invasion decided that it now had to protect its borders. But instead of directly controlling people, the cost of which would have been too high, the Soviet Union focused on building a sphere of influence around itself – a defensive ring of sorts.

Soviet Sphere of Influence in Eastern EuropeSoviet Sphere of Influence in Eastern Europe and the Baltic (Source)

Right at the end of the World War 2, an election was held in Communist-liberated Hungary and the party that won was not the communist party but the Independent Smallholders Party. But the power of the vote was not respected. Members of the ruling party were prevented from taking up government posts and communist nominees were appointed instead. The outspoken Catholic Cardinal of Budapest, József Mindszenty was put in jail in a sham trial in 1949 and kept in jail until 1956.

An election was not going to be enough to get rid of the communist , and eventually the Hungarian communist party, whittled away its enemies by capturing and imprisoning important political opponents. In a second election in 1947, the Communist party together with the influential Soviet Union next door, rigged the elections to obtain 22 % of the popular vote. It was not a popular option among the people, but the other major parties were in disarray and democracy allowed many new parties to contest.

With 22 % of the popular vote and 100 out of 411 seats, the Communist took control of the country. The majority of the country, while anti-communist, had to acquiesce to the might of the party and its allies. It began 43 years of rule by the communist in various forms.

However the political effect of communism was not glorious, people were suffering from food shortages and living a harsh life in the winter. Food that was produced and metals that were made were shipped to the USSR. Political power was maintained by harsh laws and the gun.

Hungary was a flammable tinder box.

Embittered students began to flout the rules. The set up student unions and collectively wrote up 16 policy demands to the government. Inspired by the Hungarian Writers Union who were organising a memorial for the father of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, Józef Zachariasz Bem, they decided to join in with a parallel demonstration.

The students amassed without a central leader the groundswell or anger and pent frustration was enough to see the crowds swell… Some 200,000 turned up. As the crowd grew to the thousands they became bolder and bolder and marched to parliament house to demand reforms.

Another group brought down the statue of Stalin, and left his head lying on the streets.

This was the same statue that barely a year back was used as part of mass propaganda in favour of the Soviet machine.

A delegation moved to the nearby Radio Free Europe to broadcast their demands. In panic the guards turned violent and students were killed in the ensuing gunshots and grenade attacks.

The peaceful protests turned into a revolution.

The flustered communist government called in the Soviet military to restore order (the best way of which would have been to ensure the people can live in hope of a continually better life, it eludes me why some government’s don’t realise that), and the a revolutionary war took place.

The Soviet leadership did not want to intervene at first among other reasons, the leadership team believed that the protest was not an ideological struggle but unrest over poor economic and social conditions. The Soviet government was prepared to recognise the new government and allow move their troops out of the hellhole Hungary had become. But then came a series of unfortunate incidents including the death of the head of the Communist party in Budapest as well as the new Hungarian governments hasty decision to depart from the Warsaw Pact.

Some historians argue that Mao Zedong, despite deteriorating ties between the two countires, added to the pressure on Nikita Khrushcev to suppress the revolution by force. The decision was supported by the leaders of the surrounding Soviet sphere states who feared similar uprisings in their countries.

Despite marching to the drum beat of liberating the people from the clutch of the Iron Curtain. The revolutionaries and the civilians who supported them who unfortunately were on their own.

No one dared to antagonise the Soviets into a full-scale war.

You don’t bring a molokov cocktail to a tank fight, but that was what the revolutionary forces had.

The Soviet military intervened on 4th November and the revolution was killed in 12 days. Casualties included 3000 civilians, 3000 revolutionary soldiers and 722 Soviet soldiers. Another 1540 Soviet soldiers and around 13,000 revolutionary fighters were wounded.

Hungary returned to its democratic state only in 1990. This was during the period when the communist world began to unravel, beginning with the Perestroika led by Mikhail Gorbachev, following with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the democratising of Hungary.

It has been 60 years since the Hungarian revolution.

Perhaps in a chilling reminder that complacence and forgetfulness is what separates peace from war, recent Russian movements (regional responses here and here) and passive-aggressive American response have led some to argue that the world is on the precipice of a new Cold War.

But while the ideological war and the current one for geopolitical influence may be plaything of politicians the hopes of the people may be a lot simpler.

Perhaps Khrushchev was right that the problem in 1956 was never ideological, but economic. One might argue, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist bloc was similarly that – a failure of a system to harness the collective talents of humans, reward them fairly and give people hope for the future. And that’s what people really want isn’t it: freedom to live their lives, to use their talents to live meaningful, to be rewarded fairly and to have hope that tomorrow will be better. Perhaps that’s all most people want from their governments.

Freedom to live their lives, to use their talents to live meaningful, to be rewarded fairly and to have hope that tomorrow will be better. Perhaps that’s all most people want from their governments.

Political ideologies are not as important as the bread and butter issues of the day. From the Occupy movement, to the Brexit vote; the rise of right-wing conservatism in Europe to the mind-boggling run of Donald Trump in the US. It seems, to me at least, that all these have to do with the harshness of economic reality and the desire to find something to pin their frustrations on (in Occupy it is the 1 %, in Brexit it is the EU, for right-wing conservatives it is the muslim immigrants/culture clash, for Donald Trump’s rise its the frustration with stalled government ironically caused by the Republicans themselves).

Political ideologies are not as important as the bread and butter issues of the day. It seems, to me at least, that all these have to do with the harshness of economic reality and the desire to find something to pin their frustrations on.

The story seems the same in Asia. It seems to be the same reason why Jokowi of Indonesia was seen to bring hope to a corrupt system that took hope away from the people, why Rodrigo Duterte’s harsh regime against drug pushers in the Philippines has won him popular support – he is bringing hope to more people that things are finally changing for the better.

Because that is perhaps all people want.

A better future.



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