On the afternoon of 23 October, approximately 20,000 protesters convened next to the statue of József Bem – a national hero of Poland and Hungary. Péter Veres, president of the Writers’ Union (hu: Írószövetség), read a manifesto to the crowd. Its claims were Hungary’s independence from all foreign powers; a political system based on democratic socialism (land reform and public ownership in the economy); Hungary joining the United Nations; and all freedom rights for the citizens of Hungary. After reading out the proclamation, the crowd began to chant a censored patriotic poem, the National Song (Hu: Nemzeti dal), with the refrain: “This we swear, this we swear, that we will no longer be slaves.” Someone in the crowd cut out the Communist coat of arms from the Hungarian flag, leaving a distinctive hole in the middle of it, and others quickly followed suit.
Afterwards, most of the crowd crossed the River Danube to join demonstrators outside the Parliament Building. By 18:00, the multitude had swollen to more than 200,000 people; the demonstration was spirited, but peaceful.
At 20:00, the first secretary of the ruling party, Ernő Gerő broadcast a speech condemning the writers’ and students’ demands. Angered by Gerő’s hard-line rejection, some demonstrators decided to carry out one of their demands, the removal of Stalin’s 30-foot-high (9.1 m) bronze statue that was erected in 1951 on the site of a former church, which was demolished to make room for the monument. By 21:30, the statue was toppled and the crowd celebrated by placing Hungarian flags into Stalin’s boots, which was all that was left of the statue.
At about the same time, a large crowd gathered at the headquarters of the Hungarian Radio, which was heavily guarded by the ÁVH. The flash point was reached as a delegation attempting to broadcast their demands was detained. The crowd outside the building grew increasingly unruly as rumours spread that the members of the delegation had been killed. Tear gas was thrown from the upper windows and the ÁVH opened fire on the crowd, killing many. The ÁVH tried to re-supply itself by hiding arms inside an ambulance car, but the crowd detected the ruse and intercepted it. Soldiers were sent to the spot relieving the security forces but they tore off the red stars from their caps and sided with the crowd. Provoked by the ÁVH attack, protesters reacted violently. Police cars were set ablaze, guns were seized from military depots and distributed to the mass while symbols of the regime were vandalised.
During the night of 23 October, Hungarian Working People’s Party Secretary Ernő Gerő requested Soviet military intervention “to suppress a demonstration that was reaching an ever greater and unprecedented scale”. The Soviet leadership had formulated contingency plans for intervention in Hungary several months before. By 02:00 on 24 October, acting in accordance with orders of Georgy Zhukov, the Soviet defence minister, Soviet tanks entered Budapest.
By noon, on 24 October, Soviet tanks were stationed outside the Parliament, and Soviet soldiers guarded key bridges and crossroads. Armed revolutionaries quickly set up barricades to defend Budapest, and were reported to have already captured some Soviet tanks by mid-morning. That day, Imre Nagy replaced András Hegedüs as Prime Minister. On the radio, Nagy called for an end to violence and promised to initiate political reforms that had been shelved three years earlier. The population continued to arm itself as sporadic violence erupted.
An excerpt from David Irving’s Uprising: One Nation’s Nightmare (published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1981):[…] WHEN Irving embarked on his research, political interest in 1956 had already started to wane in the West. By 1966, one had the feeling that the Western media were willing to turn a blind eye on 1956 as a result of Kádár’s successful efforts at consolidating his rule. However, by the time Irving’s book was published in 1981, this momentary lapse of interest had passed. It was not just the anniversary that placed Irving’s book in an entirely different context. Dramatic changes were fermenting inside the Soviet Empire and superpower relations, changes which all worked towards enhancing the significance of 1956. From a major tragic episode in the Cold War years, it was beginning to take on the status of the Soviet Empire’s Stalingrad.
It is worth examining Irving’s book in this context. I shall not bother pointing out the factual errors. From the historian’s viewpoint there is much more to learn by studying what kind of picture Irving presents of 1956 in 1981 to a western audience that unanimously regarded the 1956 Revolution as a democratic popular movement.
The title Uprising! already indicates that, in defiance of the popular view, the author does not see 1956 as a revolution. In his Introduction he quotes Trotsky: “Historians and politicians usually give the name of spontaneous insurrection to a movement of the masses united by a common hostility against the old regime, but not having a clear aim, deliberated methods of struggle, or leadership, consciously showing the way to victory”; then he continues his argument by claiming the following: “What happened in Hungary in October 1956 was not a revolution but an insurrection. It was an uprising. When it began it was spontaneous and leaderless, and it was truly a movement of the masses bound by one common hatred of the old regime.”
In his introduction Irving dissociated himself from the view that assigned to Imre Nagy and the group of intellectuals rallying around him — whom he repeatedly calls “eggheads” — a glorious role either in the uprising, or in the preparations leading to it. “Nor am I tempted to shed tears over the fate of Imre Nagy, who found himself cast willy-nilly in the role of rebel premier. I (…) find little that distinguishes him from the other faceless Communists who were carried into power from Moscow exile, and sustained there by the guns of Soviet tanks.”
Irving takes an avid interest in the Jewish element among those who played a role in Hungarian history after the war and during 1956. The book’s English edition begins with a biographical rundown of the main protagonists. Each entry, where it is at all possible, begins with the statement “Jewish” (Irving actually makes occasional mistakes), a statement which precedes information relating to occupation or position. In the rest of these potted biographies Irving fails to mention whether or not the person is “Magyar”. He reveals nothing of the origins of Cardinal Mindszenty (originally Péhm), György Marosán or János Csermanek (Kádár’s original surname), surnames that all suggest non-Magyar origins). Interestingly, this biographical list was not included in the German edition of the book. Irving explained to a reviewer of the German edition, Wilhelm Dietl, “this could have caused misunderstandings in Germany.” Jewish origin is indicated even for individuals who had absolutely nothing to do with the events in Hungary, as with one French journalist: “Michel Gordey, Jewish reporter on France-Soir“.
Irving makes no bones about his opinion that the Jewish question and anti-Semitism played a crucial role in the Hungarian events. The latent anti-Semitism of the ordinary population was aroused by the all-out terror unleashed by the Jewish clique both among the Muscovite Communists and in the ÁVH (State Security Bureau), still trying to avenge the mass-murder of Jews in 1944. While still in Moscow, through his dealings in the Comintern, Mátyás Rákosi seized leadership of the Hungarian Communist Party with “the tact of a kosher butcher”); upon his return to Hungary he used similar brutality in slicing up the non-Communist political parties. After all this it was small wonder if the “regime’s high Jewish profile caused deep popular resentment…” On the basis of the interviews conducted with Hungarian refugees of 1956 as part of Columbia University’s Oral History Project, he [Irving] states: “Paradoxically, the anti-Semitism generated by the Communist activities was so pervasive that many Jews were themselves infected by it.” The second, 1986, edition of his book also had a subtitle, “One Nation’s Nightmare”.
This explains why Irving’s account wasted no words on the political turn that the year 1953 (Imre Nagy’s first premiership) had brought, just as it also ignored the Party’s internal opposition gathering around Imre Nagy, the Petöfi Circle, the workers’ councils, the local revolutionary committees, and the re-established political parties, all of which were considered important political factors in historical works devoted to 1956. In Irving’s view, Imre Nagy drifted helplessly with the events. Initially he tried to preserve the Party’s power. Irving takes Marosán’s claim at face value, whereby Imre Nagy had consented to inviting the Soviet troops on the night of October 23. Later, Nagy was forced to accept the insurgents’ demands under the pressure of the the street. “Bit by bit he was dragging himself like a mortally injured cowboy along the dusty track down which the rebel hordes had long galloped with their demands. He could never catch up.”
Irving regards the insurgent street-fighters as the true protagonists of 1956. In that light it is all the more peculiar that, with a few exceptions, he habitually refers to them as “rebel/revolutionary mob” or “hordes”. He has little sympathy for the secret police, the ÁVH, yet he hints that “As Münnich and his evil cronies must have foreseen, in the country’s present mood the result of disbanding of the ÁVH was bound to be a pogrom.” As, indeed, the events proved.
“The mob rage was primeval, primitive and brutal. It was the closest that the uprising came to an anti-Semitic pogrom, as the largely Jewish ÁVH officials were mercilessly winkled out of the boltholes where they fled,” Irving writes on the lynchings.
Similarly to the “counter-revolutionary” accounts loyal to Kádár, Irving, too, presents the bloodbath in Köztársaság Square (above) as the crucial turning point, the moment when Imre Nagy and his government completely lost control of events. It was typical of the ensuing chaos, according to Irving, that on November 1 the Communist apparatchiks rallying around Nagy were already talking of a possible repetition of the White Terror that had followed the put-down of the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919.
As the story goes, it was precisely these developments, the death of Party Secretary Imre Mezö and the threat of a civil war, which motivated Kádár to switch to the Russian side. The picture is a dramatic one: Kádár swears revenge at Imre Mezö’s deathbed. Both he and Khrushchev had to hurry if they wanted to salvage something from the situation. “A historic decision confronts Khrushchev. He cannot risk a NATO presence in Hungary, nor can he delay his action too long: at any moment a final pogrom may liquidate the country’s remaining funkies.”