To Be, or Not to Be . . . Communist: Notes on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Part 1

Imre Nagy’s first speech to the newly infuriated masses of Hungarian students and protesters on October 23, the first day of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, captured the revolt’s complexity. Nagy, a reform-minded true believer in Communist ideals, addressed the crowd, moments after Ernö Gerö, a much-hated player in the Stalinist regime, had been booed off stage:

Comrades,” he began.

“No,” the crowd roared back in protest, and people began shouting, “we are not Comrades.” . . . Thousands of people started whistling and saying, “We do not whistle at you but at your word.”

He hesitated, uncertain, and tried again.

Citizens,’ he began. (Sebestyen 119)

Imre Nagy stood opposed to the Stalinist excesses of Hungary’s oppressive Rákosi regime, which gave him a certain amount of credibility with the rioting masses. Still, Nagy’s vision for Hungary’s future was of a nationally autonomous, liberalized, socialist state. Two nearby socialist states — Tito’s Yugoslavia and Gomulka’s Poland — offered examples of communist organization without the direct control of Soviet puppeteers.

TIME cover - Hungarian freedom fighter

Though Eisenhower largely ignored the Hungarian Revolution at the time, TIME magazine chose the nameless “Hungarian Freedom Fighter” as Man of the Year in 1957. The flag in the background – the Hungarian flag with the Rákosi-era socialist coat of arms cut out – became a powerful symbol for Hungarian independence from the Soviet Union.
Source: “Man of the Year 1957,” TIME, January 7, 1957.

In Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Victor Sebestyen suggested that the “Polish October,” a similar (though successful) revolt in Poland led by Władysław Gomułka only a week before Hungary’s bloody revolution, not only influenced the course of events in Hungary but also the way the Nagy and his cohort styled themselves and their government. “The Nagy group was inspired by Gomułka’s transformation from outcast to saviour of the nation,” Sebestyen explained (100). Neither Nagy nor Gomułka’s positions were truly anti-Communist. Poland remained a socialist state, though in a “Polish style,” and Nagy had similar aspirations for Hungary. “Nagy understood the shortcomings of the system all too well,” wrote Sebestyen, “yet the knowledge never shook his faith” because as much as Nagy “loathed Stalinism,” he was “irretrievably a Communist” (100-1; 120). Gomułka’s example proved there could be a middle ground.

Gomułka’s example also gave hope to Nagy and his cabinet that they could stand up to Khrushchev — and survive.

Other groups in Hungary had a more clearly anti-Communist bent. According to Sebestyen, workers in industrial towns “were the most determined to join the rebellion” and “turned their backs on communism” (136). A Hungarian peasant “spat on one T34 tank” as Soviet forces temporarily retreated from Budapest, and “hatred literally oozed from the Hungarians who silently lined the roadsides” (199).

Stalin Statue Dethroned

People crowd around a statue of Joseph Stalin pulled down in a Budapest public square during the first days of the Hungarian Revolution.
Source: “People congregate near Stalin statue,” Bard University Hungary ’56 Reunion and Conference Photo Gallery.

However, hating Soviets did not necessarily translate into anti-Communism. József Dudás, an exuberant and charismatic leader of a Hungarian insurgent militant group, fought Russian and pro-Soviet Hungarian forces until the bitter end, yet he did not believe that victory meant abolishing Communism completely from Hungarian politics. Despite his all-or-nothing approach to combat with Soviet tank divisions (and the rumor that he had a “special room at his headquarters specially for torturing AVO [secret police] officers”), he believed, “there must be elections and the Communists must take part” (Sebestyen 189).

Pál Maléter, the commander of the Hungarian army under Nagy during the short-lived resistance movement, was hanged with Nagy in 1958, and his last words were “Long live independent and socialist Hungary!” (Sebestyen 292).

To be, or not to be . . . Communist? The 1956 Hungarian Revolution suggests that the answer is not so simple.


Sebestyen, Victor. Twelve Days : The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. New York: Pantheon Books, 2006.


2 responses to “To Be, or Not to Be . . . Communist: Notes on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Part 1

  1. Wherefore art thou, temperance? CommunistLite was surely a goal following Stalin. What surprised me: the Freedom Fighters were only the second group to be named “Person of the Year.” The first were the American troops in Korea in 1950. And who won this dubious honor the year after the Freedom Fighters? None other than Nikita K. himself. The list is a hodgepodge of Cold Warriors.

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