Béla Király
Ten Truths About 1956
The Revolution of 1956, because it was so unexpected, because of its sequence of events, because of the triumph of youth guided not by persons or organizations, but by the very spirit of freedom, the collapse of the allegedly invincible Communist power, the rapid evolution of democratic institutions and the repeated, massive intervention of the Soviet superpower confused the political scientists, the media and the people around the world.

In this confused situation the positive interpretations were dominant: the good reputation of the Hungarians had not soared this high since 1848. Nevertheless, many factors were in doubt. The Soviet propaganda machine took advantage of these doubts to spread false rumors, sometimes with success. Even today, half a century later, these rumors are spread by enemies of liberty, or by the ill-informed: for instance, the notion that the Revolution failed, whereas it triumphed, or that the proclamation of neutrality was the cause rather than the effect of Soviet aggression.

Hence, I feel it necessary to summarize the events as an eyewitness and as a historian.

1) In 1956, the sensible patriots did not ask for a revolution, but urged fundamental reforms. For then, the Age of Reform, and at its climax, the April laws of 1848, were the model. As in 1848, in 1956 they trusted in peaceful transformation, but the aggressive intervention of power once again dissolved these illusions.

2) The objectives of the Revolution were most clearly formulated in the sixteen points proposed by the youth of the university, often misinterpreted. These included the following: national independence and a democratic bill of rights; in order to eliminate the Communist terror, a review of political trials, rehabilitation, and the return of war prisoners still in the Soviet Union, and the bringing of Mátyás Rákosi and Mihály Farkas to justice; the restoration of national symbols and holidays: the restoration of the Kossuth coat-of-arms, the declaration of March 15 as a national holiday and a Hungarian uniform for the soldiers; for the sake of a democratic government, it demanded Imre Nagy in the cabinet and the removal of the Stalinists; demanded to overcome the colonial status of Hungary, and for a review of Hungarian-Soviet and Hungarian-Yugoslav agreements, non-intervention in domestic affairs, and a settlement of the issue of access to uranium.

What was not demanded in the sixteen points? It did not demand the elimination of the Communist regime: its future would depend on the results of the elections to be held. Although it did not demand the immediate elimination of socialism, it did ask for a review of economic plans, the industrial productivity quotas, the system of requisitions and mandatory contributions. All this does not mean that the authors sympathized with either the communist method of leadership or the socialist organization of society. They asked for quick reforms, but left the future of the country up to the popular will.

3) The Revolution triumphed. I declared this much already at my first press conference upon my arrival in the United States. A journalist asked me why then I had left Hungary. I replied that on October 28, Imre Nagy declared an armistice. A radical political transformation of the country got underway; the AVH was disbanded. With the leadership of János Kádár, the Hungarian Worker's Party was reconstituted under the name of the Hungarian Socialist's Party, and the process of reforms started. Kádár committed himself to respecting the democratic rules of the game and even the principle of national sovereignty. Imre Nagy formed a coalition cabinet, which was able to carry out consolidation quickly.

Revolution is an internal affair, but armed aggression is an international one. Although Hungarian society was choked in blood in this regard, that does not mean that the Revolution did not triumph.

Although the American journalist accepted this explanation, there are still some today who write and speak about a “failed” Revolution. I feel that a person of truth should not do that.

4) The victory was won by young Hungarians. The AVH used weapons against the demonstrators; then came the Soviet tanks. How do we explain the victory? Of course, the answer is faith in the cause and determination, but there were two technical factors that also contributed to the victory.

The Soviets considered our country among their most loyal allies, and the Communist Party boasted that “Our country is not the breach, but a powerful bastion along the wall for peace.” Secondary school students were given basic military training, university students training as officers in the reserve. Thus the communists themselves trained their adversaries to become fighters and commanders of sub-units. At the same time Hungary was well endowed with weapons and ammunition depots, which opened their gates to the revolutionaries. Thus the greatest weaknesses in 1848, the lack of training and the lack of material, did not manifest themselves in 1956. These factors contributed to the victory in large measure, but could not guarantee its achievements. This was why it became necessary to form the revolutionaries into a National Guard, under central command.

5) For the sake of political consideration, the victorious youth opted for centralized leadership. Until the day of the armistice the freedom fighters had no united leadership. The university students took two essential initiatives. They opted to bring the combat units under the umbrella of a National Guard and a unified command, on the model of 1848. Their endeavor was backed by Colonel Sándor Kopácsi, who sided with the Revolution, and made the police headquarters at Deák Square available to them. By October 29-30, the delegates of the various foci of freedom fighters arrived in such large numbers that their resolutions could be considered the common ill of the revolutionaries. They selected the Revolutionary Committee for Public Safety, which formed the base of a competent higher command with a military character, the Command of the National Guard. They elected me to lead these, with Kopácsi as my deputy. Imre Nagy recognized both revolutionary organizations.

Although the Command of the National Guard accepted increasing numbers of freedom fighter units from the provinces, it nevertheless considered the restoration of order in Budapest as its principal task. As a consequence of its organizational activities, armed action became increasingly sporadic and, by the night of November 1, the citizens could sleep in peace, undisturbed by the sound of shots being fired. Consolidation had begun.

6) During the night of October 30 to 31, the Soviet Union launched armed intervention against Hungary. The Revolutionary Committee for Public Safety gathered reliable information on the strength and movements of the enemy. We reported to Prime Minister Imre Nagy on the tightening encirclement of the capital city, several times a day.

7) The declaration of neutrality on November 1 was the effect of the Soviet intervention, and not the other way around. Having ascertained the dimensions of the Soviet forces preparing for intervention and having protested to the Soviet government and to the Soviet ambassador, Yuri Andropov, to no avail, Nagy sent a report to the United Nations. Since the Soviet authorities countered the Hungarian objections with transparent excuses, and there was no formal response from the United Nations, the government announced the country's neutrality and its withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. Nagy must have been guided by the notion that if Russian aggression were viewed as coming from an ally, the West might consider the events as nothing more than “a family quarrel.” But this was not the case, since the attack was aimed at a neutral country. Maybe the United Nations would see fit to take action; there was nothing else to count on. Outsiders often concluded from the fact that the neutrality was declared on November 1, whereas the Soviet attack started on November 4, that Hungarians were once again hotheaded, that they provoked the attack. In view of the above, such a conclusion is not justified.

8) The whole of the Soviet bloc has to share moral responsibility for the events. Once China gave its approval to Soviet intervention, on November 1st a Soviet Party and government delegation arrived in Brest, where Kruschev briefed the Polish leaders. Next the Romanian, Czechoslovak and Bulgarian leaders were briefed in Bucharest. The former explicitly asked to be allowed to participate in the bloody repression of the Hungarian war of independence. Finally, on the island of Brioni, Tito was briefed regarding the action.

9) Soviet intervention was a war without a declaration of war. It was a war as far as its objective was concerned, for it aimed to overthrow the Hungarian government. It was also a war as regards its dimensions; in this operation, officially named “Whirlwind,” some 100,000 Soviet troops took part, with about 2,000 tanks. Moreover, it was a war between socialist countries, since the program of the Revolution did not include dismantling the socialist system.

10) The West and the United States recognized the justice of the cause after the Revolution. The free world reacted surprisingly swiftly to the events in Hungary. There were mass demonstrations in Paris, the headquarters of the Communist Party were set on fire, and large numbers of intellectuals resigned from the Party.

According to Hannah Arendt, the most outstanding feature of the Revolution was that of the councils, and since the Russian equivalent of the term is “soviet,” she wrote thus: “When Soviet-Russian tanks crushed the Revolution in Hungary, they actually destroyed the only free and acting soviets in existence anywhere in the world.” Milovan Djilas, Tito's former deputy, came to a prophetic conclusion: “The Revolution of Hungary meant the beginning of the end for communism.” Raymond Aron wrote as follows in his work The Meaning of Destiny: “The Hungarian Revolution, a historic tragedy, a triumph in defeat, will forever remain one of those rare events that restore man's faith in himself and remind him, beyond his proper lot, of the meaning of destiny: truth.”

The final report of the Commission of Five of the United Nations in 1957 states the fact of Soviet intervention; it was not until November 11, 1992, that the Russian side came to the same conclusion. At that time President Boris Yeltsin declared, in his speech in front of the Hungarian Parliament, that “1956 […] will remain an indelible shame of the Soviet regime…”

These are the truths of the Revolution of 1956.


Béla Király
Born in 1912, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant of the Hungarian Army in 1935. He fought actively in the Second World War and afterwards joined the Hungarian Communist party. He became a major general in the post-war Hungarian army before being arrested in 1951 on trumped-up charges. His death sentence was reduced on appeal to life imprisonment, but he was freed in September of 1956. During the Revolution he was appointed commander-in-chief of the military guard and military commander of Budapest. He later fled to Austria and eventually ended up in the United States, where he attended Columbia University. In 1962 he received his doctorate in history and began teaching at Brooklyn University. In 1989, Király delivered an address at the reburial of Imre Nagy and his martyred associates. He was an independent member of the Hungarian Parliament from 1990 to 1994. Since then, he has acted as a government adviser in Hungary.