From 'counterrevolution' to 'revolution' to collapse

The approval of the 1956 uprising and its effect on the transformation process in Hungary

Seminar Paper, 2005

13 Pages, Grade: Honors (Bestnote)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The faltering domino: Hungary’s way toward the 1956 uprising

3. The inside perspective: Minutes of the Meeting of the MSzMP CC Political Committee, 31 January 1989

4. Chain reaction unleashed: the factors leading to the demise of communism in Hungary

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

On 31 January 1989, the Political Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party Central Committee (MSzMP CC) convened to discuss the implications of a highly controversial and potentially regime-destabilizing statement made by one of its most prominent members, Imre Pozsgay, a few days earlier. Without informing the party leadership, Pozsgay had publicly revealed the results of a report assessing the historical developments of the last thirty years prepared by a specially mandated, MSzMP-appointed committee. The conclusions of the report as regards the events of 1956 came like a bombshell. Contrary to long lasting and carefully enforced official practice, the incident was no longer termed a “counterrevolution” but a people’s uprising. As one scholar notes, the events of 1956 “immediately raised the question whether they could be seen as a revolution.”[1] However, the official party line on the issue was clear from the very beginning and did not allow for deviations. Therefore the Pozsgay announcement was as a major surprise, effectively revoking the regime’s posture of the past decades and legitimizing a movement that without foreign intervention would have possibly caused the end of the Hungarian communist experiment. By acknowledging and formally sanctioning the hitherto suppressed public consensus on the character of the 1956 uprising, the announcement also paved the way for Hungarian society to finally come to terms with the single most formative and divisive event of its post-war history and focus on transition.

The public revelation of the Historical Subcommittee’s findings by Pozsgay really stood at the beginning of a chain of further critical events – especially the highly symbolic re-interment of former Prime Minister Imre Nagy − that eventually caused the peaceful collapse of the Hungarian “people’s democracy”. It can therefore rightly be called the root cause of the rapid disintegration of socialist rule in Hungary. The Politburo members’ different reactions to this unexpected and radical step are highly indicative of the deep fault lines that existed between the reformist and conservative wings of the party. But they also express a shared insight that a point of no return had been reached. Based on the minutes of the meeting of the MSzMP CC Political Committee, I will try to clarify the significance of the moment and its relevance for the further course of events. First, I present the historical background of the document, specifically its principle point of reference, the 1956 uprising. This is followed by an analysis of the document itself. What views are expressed? How stringent is the argumentation, i.e. what are the consistencies and contradictions? Finally, I will comment on the relevance of the document with regard to the ensuing historical developments in Hungary.

2. The faltering domino: Hungary’s way toward the 1956 uprising

There are certain instances in which the forces of history conglomerate. On the one hand, preceding events seem to converge inevitably to that critical point, while on the other hand all subsequent events refer back to it. The uprising of 1956 is one of these fulcrums around which Hungarian Cold War history has revolved. In order to grasp its significance, one has to put it in the wider historical context.

As Paul Lendvai, the great student of Magyar history and culture notes, Hungary was generally an “unfavourable breeding-ground for communists.”[2] Only by employing unfair practices did the Hungarian Communist Party (MKP) under General Secretary Mátyás Rákosi succeed in undermining the Republic and seizing power. On 20 August 1949, Hungary adopted a new constitution and officially became a “peoples’ democracy”, underscoring Rákosi’s reputation as “Stalin’s best pupil.”[3] As suggested by Moscow, the Hungarian leader pushed rapid collectivization of agriculture forward and initiated large-scale rearmament efforts. By 1952, this resulted in a major economic crisis. It is during that time that a man named Imre Nagy re-entered politics as a member of Cabinet after having been expelled from the Politburo in 1949, leading to the odd situation where “the former defendant of democratic agrarian policies became the faceless executioner of Rákosi’s most vicious offensive against the peasantry.”[4] After Stalin’s death, however, Rákosi’s devotion to the deceased became a liability. The new Soviet leadership promptly defrocked him from his post as Prime Minister and replaced him by Nagy. At this stage, the immediate preconditions for the 1956 uprising were created by an accumulation of partly conflicting factors.

On the day the Hungarian parliament elected him Prime Minister, 4 July 1953, Nagy held a crucial speech that initiated a veritable “new course”. Most notably, Nagy expressly condemned the deficiencies of the Stalinist system. Only four months after the Soviet leader’s death, the Hungarian government became the first to officially distance itself from Stalin. As a result, “in all sectors of Hungarian life, discussions addressed the further democratization of Hungarian political life.”[5] However, Nagy’s authority was inherently unstable due to strong divisions within the party. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that Beria and Malenkov lost the power struggle for Soviet leadership, thereby depriving Nagy of much needed support. Instead, Rákosi continued to pull the strings in the background as Secretary General. Nagy’s reform proposals were considered a threat to socialism in Hungary and international communism overall as they “could have served as a pattern in the other East European satellites.”[6] Consequently, Rákosi toppled Nagy in the spring of 1955 with Soviet help, only to be forced into retirement the next year. Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech at the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU had changed the Soviet Union’s stance on its satellites dramatically. The Polish “October” subsequently “provided the spark to ignite the Hungarian explosion.”[7]

Protests began on 23 October, the same day Nagy was re-appointed Prime Minister. The suddenness of events caught him “off-guard. He was forced to confront all his dilemmas at once, in very dramatic circumstances.”[8] Four days later, Nagy reshuffled the government and started negotiations with demonstrators, announcing the installation of a multiparty system and Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. It was these statements that incited Moscow’s decision to intervene by force. On 4 November Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest and beat down the uprising, killing 2700 people. A “workers’ and peasants’ government” was installed under János Kádár and Nagy deported to Romania. After a secret trial he was executed in 1958 on charges of “counterrevolutionary” conduct, a terminology which plays a crucial part in the findings of the Historical Committee thirty years later. Remarkably, the Kádár regime gained popularity, staying in power for 32 years. It managed to establish a sort of social contract with the population that traded improving economic and living conditions (“goulash communism”) for social peace. This tacit agreement was further helped by the unfinished nature of the revolution which was so suddenly cut short by outside intervention. Precisely because of its interrupted character, the uprising “never became a living, common national tradition around which Hungarians could unite.”[9] Despite his presentable track record, then, Kádár’s rule was stained throughout by his involvement in Nagy’s liquidation.


[1] T. Cox, “Reconsidering the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.” In Hungary 1956 – Forty Years On, ed. T. Cox, (London, Portland: Frank Cass, 1997), p. 2.

[2] P. Lendvai, The Hungarians. A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat (London: Hurst & Co., 2003), p. 429.

[3] Ibid., p. 430.

[4] J. M. Rainer, “The Life Course of Imre Nagy.” In Hungary 1956 – Forty Years On, ed. T. Cox, (London, Portland: Frank Cass, 1997), p. 145.

[5] M. J. Ouimet, The Rise and Fall of the Brezhnev Doctrine in Soviet Foreign Policy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), p. 10.

[6] Rainer, p. 147.

[7] Ouimet, p. 11.

[8] Rainer, p. 149.

[9] G. Litván, “A Forty-Year Perspective on 1956.” In Hungary 1956 – Forty Years On, ed. T. Cox, (London, Portland: Frank Cass, 1997), p. 25.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


From 'counterrevolution' to 'revolution' to collapse
The approval of the 1956 uprising and its effect on the transformation process in Hungary
Yale University
Honors (Bestnote)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
464 KB
Quote paper
M.A. Simon M. Ingold (Author), 2005, From 'counterrevolution' to 'revolution' to collapse, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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