Poland and Hungary, 1956: A Comparative Essay Based on New Archival Findings

By Granville, Johanna | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Poland and Hungary, 1956: A Comparative Essay Based on New Archival Findings


Granville, Johanna, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


The American naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan once wrote, "Force is never more operative than when it is known to exist but is not brandished." This article will examine the different courses of events in Poland and Hungary in October 1956 and attempt to answer a question that has long intrigued scholars. Why did the Soviet Union intervene in Hungary but not in Poland? Historians have developed three theses over the past four decades. First, the "historical thesis" emphasises the two countries' different historical experiences. Advocates of this thesis posit that, for the Russians, dealing with the Hungarians was a novel experience, since no part of Hungary had ever been under Russian rule. The Second World War, for example, was less traumatic for Hungarians than for Poles, and therefore the Hungarians were perhaps more willing to fight the Russians in 1956. (1) A second explanation for Soviet actions emphasises the role of individuals. Advocates of this "personality thesis" would most support Mahan's statement above about the power of deterrence. They argue that the outgoing heads of the Stalin-era leadership, Edward Ochab in Poland and Emo Gero in Hungary, shaped events the most. (2) Moreover, Wladyslaw Gomulka and Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski were wiser, bolder leaders, better able to deter Soviet aggression than were Imre Nagy and Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty. (3) Still a third thesis--the "neutrality thesis" is that, in contrast to the Poles, the Hungarians alarmed the Soviet Union by going too far, especially by declaring neutrality, withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact, and establishing a multiparty system. (4)

Nearly a decade has passed since communist bloc archives began to open, and thus perhaps it is appropriate to take stock and ask: do the new documents drastically alter these older explanations of the Polish and Hungarian events? This article will compare these events, drawing on recently declassified documents from Hungarian, Polish, and Russian archives. I will conclude that, while the documents do not alter the older interpretations significantly, they do yield a more nuanced view of Gomulka and Nagy and the ways in which they interacted with their colleagues and their constituencies.

Historical Thesis

Historians can challenge the first explanation (that dealing with the Hungarians was a "novel experience" for the Russians). It is beyond the scope of this article to compare at length Polish and Hungarian relations with the Soviet Union. However, historians can point, for example, to the 1849 tsarist invasion to help the Austrians suppress the Hungarian revolution; the communist regime under Bela Kun (March-July 1919); and the experience of the thousands of Hungarian POWs in the USSR, many of whom were not permitted to return to Hungary until well into the 1950s. (5) Moreover, one could easily reason to a different conclusion: the Russians' alleged inexperience in dealing with the Hungarians might very well have discouraged them from intervening twice. Likewise, extensive experience with the Poles might very well have prompted the Khrushchev leadership to order a full-scale invasion.

Personality Thesis

Beginning with the personality thesis, to a certain extent it is true that particular individuals, such as Edward Ochab in Poland and Erno Gero in Hungary, shaped events to a great extent. This section will first provide some basic background information, then compare the Poznan and October 23 crises, and finally compare the personalities of Gomulka and Nagy.

Just two weeks after Khrushchev delivered his Secret Speech on 25 February, Ochab replaced Bolestaw Bierut, who had died of a heart attack during the Twentieth Party Congress in Moscow, on 12 March, 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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