The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents

By Csaba Békés; Malcolm Byrne et al. | Go to book overview

PART ONE
HUNGARY BEFORE THE REVOLUTION

INTRODUCTION

By summer 1952, Hungarian communism had reached a state of crisis. Since the introduction of Stalinist rule just three years earlier, societal pressures had been building steadily under the combined weight of imposed economic rigidity and political excesses in the form of purges, show trials, and other extreme methods of control. The first cases of mass resistance against the system came in the critical agricultural sphere where peasants refused to go along with compulsory agricultural quotas and grain threshers went on strike leading to outbreaks of violence between farmers and local authorities.

Hungarian communist party leader Mátyás Rákosi's instinct for dealing with the crisis was, as always, to imitate his benefactor, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Just as Stalin was then in the midst of his final campaign of political vengeance at home, Rákosi decided to turn the system's repressive apparatus against his own colleagues in the leadership. At the beginning of January 1953, he ordered the arrest of Gábor Péter, head of the State Security Authority (ÁVH), and several other ÁVH officers, as well as a number of leading party functionaries. He sacked two other members of the top-level Hungarian Workers' Party (HWP) Political Committee, István Kovács and Zoltán Vas, and exiled them to the provinces. Their Jewish background suggested the influence of Stalin's own "anti-Zionist" purges. Far from being resolved, then, the crisis that had been bubbling up from below for months was now beginning to take its toll on the leadership. This was the state of affairs when news of Stalin's death arrived on March 5, 1953.


Soviet Policy after Stalin

After the dictator's passing, the new Soviet leadership tried to make significant changes in both the domestic life and foreign policy of the empire. In the late 1940s, the Soviet Union, whose economy had still not recovered from the trauma of World War II, had begun spending heavily in order to keep pace in the budding arms race with the United States. Following the pattern set in the 1930s, Moscow had planned to generate the capital for weapons production by diverting extensive resources from the agricultural and consumer goods sectors of the economy. But the new Kremlin leaders, especially during the premiership of Georgii Malenkov (1953-1955), were sensitive to potential domestic unrest and chose instead to create a more balanced economic structure featuring less emphasis on heavy industry, particularly arms production. However, any cuts in weapons expenditures could only come in the context of a general improvement in East-West relations, which until then had been based mainly on mutual fears of direct confrontation.

As a result, beginning in 1953 Soviet foreign policy adopted a much more flexible stance, exhibiting a willingness to negotiate and compromise with the Western powers for the first time since the closing stages of World War II. This change in Soviet behavior ultimately opened the way to the end of the Korean War and led to such a significant reduction in East-West tensions that the mid-1950s are justifiably referred to as the first period of détente.

A distinctive feature of the new Soviet foreign policy between 1953 and 1956 was its emphasis on creating a rapprochement with the West, particularly Britain, France and the United States. During Stalin's rule, the West lived in constant fear of the possibility of a Soviet attack. After 1953, however, the Kremlin's new tack, based on growing parity in the balance of power and mutual respect for the post-World War II status quo, gave rise to a greater sense of security in Western Europe. Yet, even under Stalin, Moscow had never had any serious intention of altering the European status quo. The Soviets respected the Allies' spheres of influence even during

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