Peter Fryer

Hungarian Tragedy

8. Revolution and counter-revolution

The question of the origin of the Hungarian revolution was discussed in Chapter Three. It was argued that the revolution was not a well-prepared plot by counter-revolutionary forces, but a genuine upsurge of the overwhelming majority of the Hungarian people, for whom life had become intolerable – an upsurge prepared for by the past thirty-seven years and called forth in particular by the blunders, crimes and trickery of the Stalinist leaders of the Communist Party. There are some who would accept this view, and who would deplore the initial Soviet intervention, but who would defend the second Soviet intervention as a regrettable, but bitter, necessity. Three arguments are advanced to support this defence. In the first place it is said that the Nagy government as reconstituted on Saturday, November 3, had moved considerably to the Right, and was on the point of sliding still further to the Right, since it included people who wanted not merely to neutralise Hungary but to restore capitalism and landlordism. Secondly, it is held that a growing danger of counter-revolution, the increasing activity of reactionary forces throughout the country, which the Nagy government was powerless to check, made Soviet intervention imperative. (Cardinal Mindszenty’s broadcast on the evening of November 3 is usually cited as proof.) Thirdly, the defenders of the second Soviet intervention claim that White Terror was raging in the country, and that prompt action by Soviet troops was needed to save the lives of Communists. I propose to try to answer these arguments in turn.

The character of the Nagy Government on the eve of the Soviet attack, and the positions taken up by the parties represented in it, have been analysed by Daniel Norman in an article in Tiibune of November 23, 1956, to which I am indebted for some of the translations below. The ‘Inner Cabinet’ of three Communists and four non-Communists had been replaced by a Government consisting of two representatives of the Socialist Workers’ (Communist) Party, three each from the Social-Democratic Party and the Smallholders’ Party, two from the Petöfi (National Peasant) Party and – what Norman does not mention – one representative of the revolutionary committees, Colonel Pál Maléter, who sat as Minister of War, and who was one of the two delegates arrested by the Russians. The suggestion seems to be that this change meant a certain swamping of the Communists, and that the non-Communists in the coalition could not be trusted to retain Socialism, but would pave the way for fascism.

To which it must be answered first, that this coalition was more truly representative of the Hungarian people than any government Hungary had known since 1947: it was a real people’s front goverment, and, if the matter had been put to the test, would undoubtedly have enjoyed the trust of the national committees; and, secondly, that statements by responsible leaders of the three non-Communist parties in the coalition gave no grounds whatever for branding them as enemies of Socialism. In the first issue of the new Népszava, on November I, the Socialist leader Anna Kéthly had written:

The Social-Democratic Party ... has won its chance of living, and it has won this from a regime which called itself a popular democracy, but which in form and essence was neither popular nor democratic. We greet with profound respect the heroes who have made possible the rebirth of the party, thousands of young intellectuals and workers who have fought, starving and in rags, spurred on by the idea of a free and independent Hungary ... Freed from one prison, let us not allow the country to become a prison of another colour. Let us watch over the factories, the mines and the land, which must remain in the hands of the people. (My italics – P.F.)

On October 31, in a speech to the inaugural meeting of the Pécs branch of the Smallholders’ Party, Béla Kovács said:

No one must dream of going back to the world of counts, bankers and capitalists: that world is over once and for all. A true member of the Smallholders’ Party cannot think along the lines of 1939 or 1945.

On November 3 Ferenc Farkas, general secretary of the Petöfi Party, and one of its members in the Nagy government (the Daily Worker on November 5 described this party as ‘semi-fascist’) said there were a number of points on which the Government was unanimous, including the following:

The Government will retain from the Socialist achievements everything which can be, and must be, used in a free, democratic and Socialist country, in accordance with the wish of the people.

We want to retain the most sincere and warmest friendly economic and cultural relations with every Socialist country, even when we have achieved neutrality. We also want to establish economic and cultural relations with the other peace-loving countries of the world.

The demand for neutrality, which Nagy supported, was no evidence of a slide to the Right, nor of ‘open hostility ... to the Soviet Union,’ nor of ‘repeated concessions ... to the reactionary forces’, as that shameful statement of the Executive Committee of the British Communist Party, issued only twelve hours after the Soviet attack began yet thoroughly approving it, sought to make out. If Yugoslavia could choose its own path to Socialism without joining one or other bloc, why could not the Hungarian people, too, have both neutrality and Socialism? I am in complete agreement with Norman’s conclusion that, far from being ‘reactionary forces’, the parties associated in the Coalition Government of Imre Nagy on the eve of the Soviet attack ‘were the only forces capable of dealing with the dispersed fascists, little groups of fascists or plain hooligans who had made their appearance lately among the revolutionary mass and perpetrated crimes condemned by everyone among the insurgents. Their number was not great. They had no possibility of organising themselves. Only a government which had the backing of the overwhelming majority of the Hungarians, as Nagy’s last government had, could have detected and dealt with them.’

This brings us to the second question. Were reactionary forces becoming more active? Of course they were. Was there a danger of counter-revolution? It would be senseless to deny it. The night I reached Vienna, November 11, I was told by Austrian Communists how 2,000 Hungarian émigrés armed and trained by the Americans, had crossed over into Western Hungary to fight and agitate. But the danger of counter-revolution is not the same thing as the success of counter-revolution. And between the two lay a powerful and significant barrier, which I for one was prepared to put my trust in: the will of the Hungarian people not to return to capitalism. As Bruce Renton wrote in The New Statesman and Nation on November 17:

Nobody who was in Hungary during the revolution could escape the overwhelming impression that the Hungarian people had no desire or intention to return to the capitalist system.

And remember that these people who wanted to retain Socialism and improve it had arms in their hands; they were armed workers, armed peasants, armed students, armed soldiers. They had guns and tanks and ammunition. They had splendid morale. They were more than equal to any putsch, if one had been attempted. But they were never given the chance to prove it. It was none other than the Communist Party paper Szabad Nép which on October 29 indignantly rebuffed Pravda’s article The collapse of the adventure directed against the people of Hungary. What happened in Budapest, said Szabad Nép, had not been directed against the people, it had not been an adventure, and it certainly had not ‘collapsed’. The demands were demands for Socialist democracy. Pravda’s claim that the insurrection had been instigated by ‘Western imperialists’ was ‘an insult to the whole population of Budapest’. It was not imperialist intrigue which produced this ‘bloody, tragic, but lofty fight,’ but the Hungarian leadership’s own ‘faults and crimes’, and, in the first place, its failure to ‘safeguard the sacred flame of national independence’. And Szabad Nép answered in advance the cry that counter-revolution obliged the Soviet Union to intervene:

The youth will be able to defend the conquests which they have achieved at the price of their blood, even against the counter-revolutionaries who have joined them. (The students and workers) have proved that they represent such a political force as is capable of becoming a guiding and irreplaceable force ... From the first moments of the demonstration and fighting they declared many times – and in the course of the fighting they proved it – that they were not against popular rule, that they were neither fascists nor counter-revolutionaries nor bandits.

As for the Mindszenty broadcast of November 3, the lengthy extracts quoted by Mervyn Jones in Tribune (November 30) make nonsense of Andrew Rothstein’s claim that it ‘issued a programme of capitalist restoration’, and John Gollan’s description of it as ‘the virtual signal for the counterrevolutionary coup’. Mindszenty on the whole supported the Nagy Government, and his one reference to private ownership came in a sentence beginning: ‘We want a classless society’! As Jones said, the speech was ‘reminiscent ... of a Labour Party policy statement’.

There is one further proof of how false was the claim that the Soviet troops went into action against reactionaries and fascists, and that is the indisputable fact that they were greeted, not with joy, as the Soviet communiqués claimed, but with the white-hot, patriotic fury of a people in arms; and that it was the industrial workers who resisted them to the end. ‘Soviet troops are re-establishing order ... We Soviet soldiers and officers are your selfless friends’, said the Soviet communiqué of November 5. It was the proletariat of Hungary, above all, that fought the tanks which came to destroy the revolutionary order they had already established in the shape of their workers’ councils. In my dispatch of November 11, I asked:

If the Soviet intervention was necessary to put down counterrevolution, how is it to be explained that some of the fiercest resistance of all last week was in the working-class districts of Újpest, in the north of Budapest, and Csepel, in the south – both pre-war strongholds of the Communist Party? Or how is the declaration of the workers of the famous steel town of Sztálinváros to be explained: that they would defend their Socialist town, the plant and houses they had built with their own hands, against the Soviet invasion?

Not only was no answer forthcoming to these questions, but the questions themselves never saw the light of day. The Stalinists in control of the Daily Worker backed the export of Socialism in high explosive form against the bare-handed heroism of ‘Red Csepel’. They took their stand on the wrong side of the barricades.

The third argument in favour of Soviet intervention is that there was ‘White Terror’ raging in Hungary, and that for the Soviet Union to have refused to intervene would have been ‘inhuman’. Leaving aside the still uncertain question of whether anyone ever did appeal to the Soviet Union to intervene, let us make quite sure what White Terror is. just as Red Terror is the organised, systematic repression by a proletarian dictatorship of its counter-revolutionary opponents, so White Terror is the organised, systematic repression by a bourgeois dictatorship of its revolutionary opponents.

Heaven help Andrew Rothstein and those others who call the state of affairs in Hungary on November 1, 2 and 3 ‘White Terror’ if they ever come face to face with real White Terror. In ten days the Versailles army which suppressed the Paris Commune of 1871 slaughtered between 20,000 and 30,000 men, women and children, either in battle or in cold blood, amid terrible scenes of cruelty and suffering. ‘The ground is paved with their corpses’, gloated Thiers. Another 20,000 were transported and 7,800 sent to the coastal fortresses. That was White Terror. Thousands of Communists and Jews were tortured and murdered after the suppression of the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, and hideous atrocities took place at Orgovány and Siófok. That was White Terror. In 1927 Chiang Kai-shek massacred 5,000 organised workers in Shanghai. That was White Terror. From the advent of Hitler to the defeat of fascist Germany untold millions of Communists, Socialists, trade unionists, Jews and Christians were murdered. That was White Terror. It is perfectly true that a section of the population of Budapest, outraged to the pitch of madness by the crimes of the secret police, was seized with a lust to exterminate Communists. It is true that the innocent suffered as well as the guilty. This is a painful and distressing fact. But to describe the murder of a number of Communists (which all observers agree was confined to Budapest) as ‘White Terror’ necessitating Soviet intervention is to describe events in Hungary in a one-sided, propagandist way. How many innocent Communists were murdered in Budapest? Twenty? Fifty? I do not know. But certainly fewer – far, far fewer – than the number of AVH men who were lynched. At the Agony of Hungary exhibition in London, and in all the hundreds of photographs I have seen, there was not a single one showing a lynched Communist. But there were many showing lynched AVH men in their uniforms. [1] There was one sequence showing a woman in civilian clothes being molested by a crowd, who accused her of being an AVH spy. The caption stated that the crowd let her go.

Now the only circumstantial evidence for the murder of Communists is that put forward by André Stil in an article translated in World News of November 24. Stil arrived in Budapest on November 12, nine days after the second Soviet intervention. His article was published in Humanité on November 19. Even bearing in mind the assertion of Coutts and others I spoke to that forty of those killed in the Budapest Party headquarters were AVH men, it is impossible to find Stil’s account of the treatment of the seven Communists whom he names anything but convincing and horrible. Yet Stil is obviously performing the disagreeable task of a propagandist making the most of a small number of atrocities. His need to have the attack on the Party headquarters begin on October 30 makes him antedate the Soviet withdrawal from Budapest by three days; he describes ‘the vandals attacking the liberation monument built upon the Gellért Hill’, whereas in fact the main figure was not attacked; and, worst of all, he mentions the AVH and its crimes in the following curious and oblique way:

Many of those who were there did not at first believe that the Party and its active members were being attacked, but that the attack was directed to the members of a secret police about whom the most unlikely stones were being told. (my italics – P.F.)

I have met Stil and have a great personal respect for him, as comrade, journalist, novelist and militant, but I should be dishonest if I did not say that the words I have italicised are unworthy of him. The truth about the ‘White Terror’ has been told by Bruce Renton:

In the provinces only the AVH was physically attacked. (New Statesman, November 17) I had seen no counter-revolutionaries. I had seen the political prisoners liberated ... I had seen the executioners executed in the fury of the people’s revenge ... But there was no ‘White Terror’. The Communists walked free, the secret police were hanging by their boots. Where then was this counter-revolution, this White Terror? (Truth, November 16)

The arguments in favour of the second Soviet intervention do not hold water. But even if Nagy had been making concessions all along the line to fascism, even if counter-revolution had succeeded, even if White Terror had been raging, it must be said, and said openly and with emphasis, that from the standpoint of Socialist principle the Soviet Union would still not have been justified in intervening. The Soviet aggression against Hungary was not merely immoral and criminal from the standpoint of the Hungarian people. It was a clear and flagrant breach of what Lenin called ‘that elementary Socialist principle ... to which Marx was always faithful, namely, that no nation can be free if it opresses other nations’. November 4, 1956, saw the leaders of the Soviet Union defy Lenin’s warning never to ‘slide, even in trifles, into imperialist relations with the oppressed nationalities, thereby undermining entirely our whole principle of sincerity, our principle of defence of the struggle against imperialism’.


1. On November 14 the Daily Worker published under the headline The White Terror in Hungary a photograph of ‘the body of a lynched Communist Party member in one of the wrecked Budapest Party offices’. Another photograph of the same corpse was in the paper’s possession, but was not used, showing clearly that the lynched man wore AVH uniform.

Last updated on: 15.1.2012