Satellites or Prime Movers? Polish and Hungarian Reactions to the 1956 Events: New Archival Evidence

By Granville, Johanna | East European Quarterly, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Satellites or Prime Movers? Polish and Hungarian Reactions to the 1956 Events: New Archival Evidence


Granville, Johanna, East European Quarterly


"Happy is he who knows the causes of things," wrote the eminent historian Henry Steele Commager. "If this is true then historians are forever pursuing happiness, but never quite attaining it. Of all problems of history, causation is the most urgent, the most fascinating, and the most baffling." (1) Researchers today can better explain the causes of the popular revolts in Poland and Hungary in 1956, thanks to the opening of communist bloc archives in the early 1990s. In earlier times, scholars habitually analyzed the crises of 1956 from the Soviet viewpoint, focusing almost exclusively on one satellite country and its subordinate relationship with the Soviet Union, much like an astronomer studies the sun as the focal point and the planets as celestial bodies merely orbiting it.

This has been a useful approach, for example, in grasping the significance for the Soviet Union of the events in Poland and Hungary. Among other things, the revolts forced a Soviet reevaluation of the reliability and role of the non-Soviet Warsaw Pact countries in its alliance system. The Stalinist policy of heavy political indoctrination and enforced Sovietization could no longer be relied upon to keep national armies as reliable instruments of the Soviet Union.

However, much can be gained by shifting one's focus away from the Soviet Union and onto the "satellite" states themselves. While Soviet influence on the satellites always loomed large, especially in the 1950s, these satellites were also heavily influenced by their "fraternal socialist" neighbors and Yugoslavia. Archival documents reveal, for example, the extraordinary influence the Yugoslav press and diplomatic corps had in disseminating the news of the events of 1956 to all the satellite states, with a perspective radically different from that of the USSR. Moreover, events in Poland such as the Swiatlo revelations, the Poznan revolt, and Polish "October" sparked reactions in Hungary, and those reactions of the Hungarians then influenced the Polish leadership and population. (2) Ironically, without the Polish initial defiance of the Kremlin leaders on October 19-20, the student demonstration of October 23 in Budapest may not have taken place. Likewise, had the Soviet leaders not decided to intervene in Hungary, they may very well have intervened instead in Poland.

The purpose of this study, then, is to investigate the Polish reactions to the Hungarian events, and vice versa, the Hungarian reactions to the Polish events, drawing on documents from archives in Budapest and Warsaw. (3) Judging from the minutes of key party meetings, Hungarian leaders rarely mentioned Poland at the height of the Hungarian crisis. They apparently had no time to follow Polish events. On the other hand, the Polish response to the Hungarian events was to a certain extent more complex than the Hungarian response to the Polish events. While the Polish journalists, diplomats, and masses empathized with Hungarians, Wladyslaw Gomulka himself performed a shrewd balancing act.

Background on the Poland and Hungarian Events

Before examining the reactions themselves, it would be useful to review the chronology of events in Poland and Hungary, incorporating some of the new archival findings.

In February 1956, the Polish and Hungarian communist parties took their cues from Khrushchev's "Secret Speech" denouncing Stalin's crimes and "cult of personality." Purge victims were rehabilitated. Communist writers who had supported the Stalinist regime now heard the grisly details of the prisoners' experiences and became demoralized. The question of responsibility surfaced and led to sharp intra-party debates. Just two weeks after Khrushchev delivered his Secret Speech on February 25, the Polish communist Edward Ochab replaced Boleslaw Bierut, who had died suddenly during the Twentieth Party Congress in Moscow on March 12, 1956. In Poland, as in the other "satellite" countries a rift existed between the so-called Stalinist "Muscovites" (communist leaders who stayed in the USSR during World War Two) and the "home communists" (those who had languished in Stalinist prisons at home). …

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Satellites or Prime Movers? Polish and Hungarian Reactions to the 1956 Events: New Archival Evidence
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