1956: Poland versus Hungary, and Suez for good measure

Developments in the Cold War associated with the 1956 events in Poland are frequently lumped together in historical analyses with the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. However, the differences between them could hardly have been greater.

To start with, what amounted to a major Hungarian patriotic and nationalistic armed struggle for independence was in the case of Poland simply an eruption of some “tensions and discontent” during October 1956 that, besides a reshuffling of the party leadership, changed precious little in the country. To be sure, the June 1956 events in Poznań with their bloody suppression of factory workers’ demonstrations did result in several dozen casualties. But those numbers fade by comparison with some 2,500 Hungarian and 700 Soviet military casualties and 200,000 Hungarian refugees in what turned into a regular military operation including urban warfare, even though it lasted only about two weeks – or, rather, three days of actual military effort by the Soviet army.

The Poznań demonstrators were protesting against an unjust compensation system and generally bad economic conditions, without resorting to violence until after they had been attacked by Polish armed forces. The Hungarian protesters, on the other hand, had intercepted stocks of firearms from munitions factories early on, thus turning civic unrest into armed conflict by their own initiative. They also denounced Soviet interference and the imposed communist system overall. The communist Hungarian government right away requested the support of Soviet troops, thereby further fuelling the emerging antagonism between nationalistic patriots and their Soviet-backed dictatorial government.

Furthermore, information about the events in Poznań did not reach the general public in a way comparable to the manner word of the Hungarian Revolution had been spread. Minimized and denounced by the official propaganda, the Poznań demonstrations became one of the numerous political taboos in Poland for many years to come, and the Polish population could only speculate about what had really transpired there. Thus, Poznań never became the symbol of a struggle for independence in the way the Hungarian Revolution did.

The October unrest in Poland, although much discussed in Moscow and in Washington, consisted of not more than demonstrations, and its consequences did not have nearly as much impact inside the country as it had among the governing elites. In fact, the Polish people took little notice of the narrowly averted danger of a Soviet invasion, nor of the international confusion their internal affairs appeared to have caused. Until today, few people realize the significance of the events surrounding the return of Władysław Gomułka to power, since most of the struggle took place behind closed doors at the Politburo where Gomułka negotiated a measure of liberalization with Moscow and, most importantly, the removal of Soviet officials from the Polish leadership, especially the widely detested Polish-Russian general Konstanty Ksawerowicz Rokossowski. To be sure, both the replaced Polish government leadership and the newly-reinstated Gomułka, who had been an early victim of Stalinist purges, were hardened communists who usually took their orders from Moscow unquestioningly, cooperating with the Kremlin on resolving problems that could endanger communist dictatorship overall. This was not very different from the way antagonistic Hungarian leaders dealt with their own country’s problems – Moscow was consulted from the start at every step, until Imre Nagy decided to break ranks and announce Hungarian neutrality along with Hungary’s secession from the Warsaw Pact in view of massive Soviet reinforcements already pouring into the country to stifle the revolution, and in so doing breaking their earlier promises of withdrawal.

The chapter “From Demonstration to Revolution” in The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents (National Security Archive Cold War Readers) criticizes the Hungarian leaders of the 1956 revolution rather harshly. They are portrayed as weak, wavering, indecisive, and cowardly. It is important to notice, though, that it would be unjust to expect them to be patriotic heroes – before the revolution, they had simply been party opportunists in pursuit of power and of a better life through a career in politics that happened to be limited in a one-party system – a system imposed on the nation from outside by a conquering and occupying power. To expect that they would actually stand by their proclaimed convictions and risk their lives to defend the fiction of a “government by the people for the people” is clearly overly optimistic under the circumstances. Neither Ernö Gerö, nor Imre Nagy, not even János Kádár wanted to handle the hot potato of a nation boiling with unrest handed to them by the Hungarian Politburo and/or the Soviets. No wonder, then, that Gerö tried to avoid difficult decisions by taking extended vacations, first in the Crimea, then in Yugoslavia, until he would be relieved of the unpleasant obligation, and Nagy refused to leave his home during the protests in spite of vocal calls for his return to the government. In times of uncertainty and turmoil it was all too easy to make some inevitable missteps, for which it was even easier to become a victim of a subsequent witch hunt, as Nagy and Kádár had already had an opportunity to experience during previous Stalinist purges. Considering how many prominent communists had actually lost their lives or freedom in those purges and show trials during the late 1940’s and early 50’s, it is hardly any wonder that Hungarian politicians hesitated in accepting offers of leadership during such difficult times. What is, however, important to notice, is that Nagy decided in the end to pursue a heroic albeit doomed policy of protesting to the world rather than plainly surrendering (although his reputation with Moscow was not significantly damaged by such actions, as evidenced by the minutes of the Soviet Politburo’s deliberations that still considered him for membership in the puppet government intended to be installed after the revolution). Also, Kádár tried his best to convince the Politburo to pursue a more reasonable policy regarding Hungary, before accepting the official party line. Those discrepancies between deliberations behind the scenes and the official announcements constitute a fascinating part of research into the archived documents of this era.

The rationale behind some of the Soviet decision-making is unclear: why, for example, offers of help from Romania, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia to silence the Hungarian Revolution were rejected, and only Soviet troops participated in squashing the Hungarian Revolution, adding to the already vivid anti-Russian sentiments of the Hungarian population dating back at least to 1848. Another interesting and as of yet unanswered question is why the Kádár government was able to introduce a liberalization to the communist system, which did, in fact, prevent further unrest comparable to what Poland experienced in the 1970’s – after all, a conquered nation had no choice but to acquiesce to however harsh repercussions would be imposed by its Soviet disciplinarian, while Poland, having escaped Soviet military intervention (which would have amounted to a full-fledged war considering historic anti-Russian and vividly fermenting anti-Soviet sentiments of the time), changed so very little in its domestic policies despite the reinstatement of the relatively reform-minded Gomułka.

Still in the timeframe of 1956, the issue of Suez brought another aspect of the East-West conflict to light: in spite of fervent propaganda against various aspects of the subjugation of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union, Western powers were not above resorting to very similar techniques when it suited their own interests. Thus, and paradoxically, both sides used the very same arguments and eerily similar rhetoric to accuse the other party of the very same things they were committing themselves: both East and West called themselves “true democracies” and denounced the “imperialist” policies of the other side, and condemned its propaganda, denouncing human rights and civil rights violations, meddling into the internal affairs of sovereign nations, and whatever other sins a superpower could predictably be accused of. Thus, the French were scrambling to get the Soviet intervention in Hungary condemned by the UN in order to divert attention from their own crackdown on the Algerian independence movement; Britain and France jointly tried to use the same Hungarian card to prevent UN sanctions against their own attack on Suez; similarly, the Soviet Union was too busy with the unrest in its immediate Eastern European sphere of influence, to offer effective support to Gamal Abdel Nasser, its nominal ally in Egypt. And the US was caught in between trying to preserve its “liberation” rhetoric without actually doing anything that might upset either its allies or its opponents. Disappointing as it might have been to realize for small Eastern European countries, if they ever even harbored such illusions, their fate was simply not important enough for anyone of significance in the West to risk upsetting the tacitly agreed status quo between at first four, and eventually just two remaining superpowers.

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