„”Out with the Russian troops” – Shots like the background noise of the Hungarian radio broadcast”
The headline of the editorial of „Amigoe di Curacao, the daily newspaper of the Netherlands Antilles” of 24 October 1956
Brief introduction of the causes of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Dutch society of the 1950’s
23 October 1956 is one of the famous dates of the resistance against total dictatorship, a moment in history during which emotions that had been hidden until then were unleashed. One of the hallmarks of the Stalinist terror system was the influence and regulation of private life to the greatest extent possible. A significant part of the Hungarian society of the time was kept under intimidation by the repressive organs of the communist state power. In addition to the resulting social frustration and forced living conditions, it is worth getting to know the complex background of the world event. The article below briefly describes a snapshot of the contemporary Dutch society and informs about the historical causes of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and Freedom Fight. What were the reasons that led to the breaking out of the struggle in Hungary between armed resistance groups formed from the population and the Soviet troops? What international and specifically Hungarian reasons were expressed in this way? What was the Hungarian and Dutch society like at the time? By examining such and similar questions, I will briefly describe the era and causes of the world event.
The development of the bipolar world order after the Second World War and the first decade of the Cold War had a far-reaching effect that resulted in the division of Europe. The introduction of the Stalinist system in Hungary coincided with the security interests of the USSR, because until June 1947 Stalin apparently believed that the Soviet Union could also benefit from the Marshall Plan. The Cold War, which developed after the political spread of the communist revolution came to a halt, burdened the history of the Hungarian society in multiple ways. From July 1947, the organization of the people’s democracy system into an independent block was consolidated. In September 1947, the Cominform was established, through which the Stalinist leadership had complete influence over the local parties. In the course of 1948-1949, in accordance with the famous “Percent agreement”, the Stalinist political system was established in the states that were part of the Red Army’s occupation zone in addition to the exclusion of Yugoslavia. Stalin introduced a leader cult based on his own model, during which the leader of the local communist parties was made the Stalinist dictator of the specific country. The local communist parties were used to introduce the Stalinist system. In addition to prisoners of war, the Soviet Union used prisoners of the system of forced labour camps in order to replace the missing workforce. It meant the enslavement of millions of people in the Gulag camp system.
There were two groups in terms of the direction of economic development within the Soviet Party: one of them was pushing for the central development of heavy industry and the second was prioritizing the development of agriculture. During the reconstruction of the Soviet economy, in addition to the collection of reparations, only internal resources could be counted on, therefore the requisitioning of the Red Army was combined with the requisitioning of resources and manpower by the local communist leadership (e. g. Malenkij robot). The monumental heavy industrial development of the Soviet economy resulted in commodity shortages, which led to inflation of the rubel. This macroeconomic process, in addition to the Cold War arms race, caused an extremely low standard of living. The mechanical adaptation of the Soviet system resulted in a similar situation in the occupied states.
The principle of collective responsibility strengthened the Stalinist regime’s total control of society. The communist leadership tried to remove all opponents of the political scene. Conceptual trials were carried out following the model of Stalin’s purges by producing false documents and supporting confessions extracted by torture. In Stalin’s last years (1951-53), the Soviet purges intensified, which was stopped only by the leader’s death on 5 March 1953. However, this did not result in significant change in the course of the Cold War. After coming to power in September 1953, Khrushchev, the new First Secretary, planned a long-term economic pre-emption of the United States until the eighties. His program tied to jointly manage incompatible processes and announced a return to the Leninist Line. This political program gave the opposition among the communist party members within the occupied states the opportunity to act. Against the troika representing the Stalinist line, the group of opposition around Imre Nagy, also a Muscovite, but a Leninist, became stronger. The program of Imre Nagy belonged to the second economic development method described above, the economic policy aimed at stimulating the production of agricultural and consumer goods.
Khrushchev’s political actions had a far-reaching impact on the local communist parties and the population of the occupied countries at once. The XX. congress of the Communist Party of Soviet Union can be considered the turning point after which the immediate international antecedents of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution must be reckoned with. In his speech, Khrushchev fully criticized the Stalinist regime, which speech was made public despite the closed session and became widely known. However, the criticism of Stalin’s terror was interpreted with different meanings by the different societies such as the societies of the occupied countries. As a result of Khrushchev’s statements, such political processes started in Poland and Hungary that caught even the new First Secretary unprepared. During 1956, the Soviet leadership was in a tight spot not only because of the Suez Crisis, but also because of the domestical political situation of its European subordinates. Khrushchev chose a political solution in Poland but in the case of Hungary, he decided in favour of armed intervention. The impact of Stalin’s policies and system thus begin its horrific afterlife.
„The protesting students demand the return of former prime minister Imre Nagy: HUNGARY FOLLOWS POLAND’s EXAMPLE – Budapest is cut off from the outside world. The city is seething with mass riots”
The front page of “De Telegraaf” dated 24 October 1956.
The conflict of interests between the United States of America and the Soviet Union sparked the Cold War during the definition of the world’s spheres of interest, during which regional military, economic and political state associations were created alongside the United Nations. It was the creation of NATO and the Warsaw Pact that determined the environment of Hungarian society, which resignedly accepted it during the reconstruction. The internal antecedents of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution include the armistice agreement and the 300 million dollar reparation demand, the Soviet military occupation, the takeover of communist power, the maintenance of the people’s court system, land reform and overcoming economic difficulties. The multiple challenges were further complicated by the financial crisis and disputes with neighbouring countries. One of the reasons for the 1956 Hungarian Revolution was the low standard of living. The reconstruction and war reparations were an extraordinary burden. As a consequence of the war, the number of people of working age decreased. The above-mentioned labour policy of the USSR also meant a temporary, but at the time, a more prolonged loss at the given moment. From the territory of Hungary, 550-570 thousand Hungarian prisoners of war were sent to labour camps of the Soviet Union for a longer or shorter time. The country suffered a war loss of 22 billion pengő in 1938 real value, which was five times the total national income of 1938. This was 40% of the total national wealth. In 1946, the national income reached half of the year 1938. This was made more difficult by the fact that the Soviet Union rejected the proposals of the Western powers to use the world market prices of 1944 when calculating the reparations, but rather increased the world market prices of 1938 by 10-15%. For this reason, a six-year compensation payment was calculated at a lower price. The Allied Control Commission partially ensured the collection of this war tribute by supporting the sovietisation process. The Soviet government later corrected the payment obligations and partially waived the reparation, so that by 1952 Hungary was able to fulfil the corrected version. Post-war Hungary also inherited a monumental obstacle in terms of paying reparations: during the Second World War, 280 million dollars of Hungarian claims, i.e. German debt, accumulated in the Hungarian-German foreign trade balance, which was lost for Hungary. These huge items resulted in a constantly low standard of living as a result of the forced development of heavy industry and Cold War hysteria.
The process of sovietisation was met with resistance by the Hungarian society, led by the Roman catholic church. The leader of the catholic resistance, Archbishop József Mindszenty was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1949. The new coat of arms of the Hungarian People’s Republic, decorated with a star, ears of wheat and a hammer, aroused general dislike in the contemporary Hungarian society. For the Hungarian society, the terror measures of the Rákosi-regime and the authorities of state administration provided an additional reason to hide their dislike. At first, the activities of the State Defense Authority (ÁVH) were aimed at eliminating resistance to the communist dictatorship. During 1949, the ÁVH regularized the show trials against the internal enemies of the Communist Party. The sovietised court system used a wide range of reasons to intimidate the Hungarian population.
- The trial and execution of László Rajk and his associates
- Show trials against the social democratic party’s leadership
- Proceedings against János Kádár and a group of Hungarian communists
Between 1950 and 1953, the courts sentenced nearly 400 thousand people: partly to prison terms, but partly to imprisonment in internment or labour camps
During the exchange of elites, the communist leadership seized the property of the former elite staying at the liquidated home. The economic policy of the Rákosi-regime followed the formation of the system of the USSR. One goal was the development of heavy industry and the other was the collectivization of agriculture. The decline in the standard of living can be traced back to several factors and a significant part stemmed from the mega-investments of the communist planned economy with high investment costs. At the beginning of 1951, the ticket system was reintroduced in Hungary. An average citizen of a People’s Republic had the communist party rule, the leader cult, the total state surveillance of everyday life, positive discrimination of workers, search for class enemies, introduction of terror and various personal practices of self-defence as a constant part of everyday life. Another everyday phenomenon was shortages, which could be seen in many areas of the economy and society. One of the general tasks of ordinary people was to acquire the missing items. The lack of goods is one of the reasons that fuelled the seething social mood. What was the reason for this lack of goods? The answer stemmed both from the mistakes of the above-mentioned Soviet planning system and the failure of recognize certain economic processes, i.e. the unprofessionalism of the Rákosi regime. One of the peculiarities of planned management was that the data used were inaccurate. The lack of goods, especially the lack of food, was due to the fact that during the first three-year plan, the proportion of agricultural investments that were initially low was further reduced along the way. Another problem was that they did not recognize economic trendlines and recovery periods. This mistake is important from the point of view of miscalculating the numbers and determining the results that can be achieved in the future, since it counted on unrealistic economic growth. This caused the unachievable objectives of the first five-years plan, which repeatedly fuelled the low standard of living. It was then that the fundamental mistake that Hungary should be “turned into a country of iron and steel” became a basic principle. This is especially important because the communist leadership did not even consider modern developments in heavy industry to be a priority. Thus, the electrotechnical industry, machine manufacturing and the chemical industry were all treated unfavourably by the economic management. Another professional mistake was the excessive centralization of the economy and as a result, the false interpretation of economic tasks. According to János Kornai’s definition, effective production can be defined and regulated based on six requirements. According to Kornai, one of the typical mistakes of planned management was that a trend developed in which other important tasks were neglected or not performed at all in order to fulfil the basic indicators.
From 1949, the conditions of the workers continued to deteriorate. Between 1947-1953, the monthly real earnings of industrial workers decreased throughout. This was also recognised by the Rákosi leadership in the fall of 1953. The low earnings were further reduced by the forced signing of peace loans, the membership fee of trade unions, fines at the workplace and the childlessness tax. This was derided as “Male Tax” or “Soldier Tax”. The real value of wages decreased by 30% in the mentioned period. By the beginning of the 1950’s, the proportion of the mostly young working class living under the subsistence minimum increased dramatically. The unfulfillment of work standards further disturbed the atmosphere, which was an incomprehensible situation, mainly for the uneducated and inexperienced former agricultural class who had become industrial workers as a result of the communist “reforms”. In 1950, e.g. the communist leadership increased the work standard by an average of 17% while keeping wages unchanged. The working conditions were further aggravated by the fact that the trade unions were completely controlled by the party and lost their interest protection function. As a result, skilled workers could only protest by withholding performance. Ernő Gerő, the head of the economy in the Rákosi-regime, introduced sanctions for “arbitrary” leaving of work.
In the Hungarian cultural life, as in the other states of the communist bloc, Marxism was introduced which eliminated diversity. After the nationalization, education was determined by communist curricula. The number of literary works published in the fifties was lower than before the Second World War. The number of daily and weekly newspapers decreased from nearly 400 to between 60 and 70. On the other hand, the number of publications of newspapers spreading communist ideology increased several times. In the period until Stalin’s death, Mátyás Rákosi led the communist party and the government in parallel. However, during 1953, Rákosi was forced to share his power with Imre Nagy, who became prime minister until the spring of 1955. In his person, the reformist communist wing came to power. In addition, the change in the Soviet power situation was clearly shown by the fact that Rákosi was severely criticized by the Soviet party leadership primarily because of the deplorable state of agriculture. The Nagy-government’s programme reduced the governmental pressure on the society. The broad masses of the Hungarian society sympathized with his politics. However, his programme meant nothing more than the Hungarian version of the Soviet agricultural programme. The Hungarian political turn in 1953-54 reached a state in which it supported the theory typical of the French Revolution. The government of Imre Nagy represented hope for a significant mass of the Hungarian society which could be confident that the Stalinist political system could be dissolved in Hungary. The reforms signalled to society the fact that the representation of the dictatorship were no longer strong enough to fully preserve the system. During 1954, the processes of revising the conceptual lawsuits began. This process further increased the popularity of the previously lesser-known Imre Nagy. In the spring of 1955, the Hungarian party leadership changed again: taking advantage of the internal struggles of the Soviet party and the antipathy of the Hungarian party leadership towards Nagy, Rákosi ousted Imre Nagy from the party leadership. Imre Nagy was also expelled from the Hungarian Workers’ Party at the end of the year. Although the Soviet leadership was happy that Hungary had stabilized to some extent, but it feared certain parts of Nagy’s programme due to the excessive involvement of the public and the excessive freedom of criticism. However the processes had already started. Nagy did not retreat from his previous views, but joined the internal opposition.
The XX. congress of the Soviet Union’s communist party in February 1956 resulted in a new turn. Emboldened by destalinisation, the Hungarian reform intellectuals and university students demanded a review of the conceptual trials and the prosecution of the guilty. By July 1956, the Soviet leadership backed down: Rákosi first had to admit his participation in the concept trials and after the Petőfi Circle was suspended in June as a results of the events in Poland, Rákosi unsuccessfully tried to criticise the activities of the communist reform opposition. In July, following the repeated intervention of Soviet political leaders, Mátyás Rákosi was relieved of all his party functions and moved to forced housing in a remote part of Soviet Union (at the end of the long drag, Siberia became his new residence). He was succeeded by his deputy, Ernő Gerő. On 6 October, a huge crowd gathered for the reburial of László Rajk and his companions. During 13 October Imre Nagy was rehabilitated. On 16 October, in Szeged, a group of university students established the independent United Association of Hungarian University and College Students (MEFESZ). On 19 October, the Soviet party leadership visited Poland and the units of the Red Army set off for Warsaw. The military intervention was only prevented by the fact that the reformist Gomulka swore an oath of loyalty to Khrushchev after which Gomulka was elected as the leader of the Polish Party. Until 23 October, the students from all Hungarian higher education institutions joined MEFESZ and the university students formulated their demands. The most well-known are the demands of the students of the Budapest University of Technology on 22 October 1956. The students decided to hold a peaceful march in support of their demands the next afternoon.
„All connections are lost. The IRON CURTAIN DOWN FOR HUNGARY”
From the front page of “de Volkskrant, the Catholic newspaper of the Netherlands” on 3 November 1956
A brief presentation of the Dutch society of the 1950’s is important from the point of view of our work, because the Netherlands ended the Second World War on the winning side and was able to benefit from all the American aid that was unavailable to Hungary. From the above, it is easy to understand the ‘Stalinist shock’ that hit Hungarian society, which combined with the low standard of living, created the social opposition that due to the violent impatience of the authorities, detonated the social bomb on 23 October 1956, which covered Hungary in blood for weeks. But what was the situation of contemporary Dutch society in the 1950’s? What did the Cold War mean to Dutch society?
The social reception of the Cold War era was mostly incomprehensibility. The communist-capitalist opposition divided the world into two camps in such a way that it resulted in uncertainty and doubt for the contemporary inhabitants of the Netherlands. Some individuals armed themselves with handguns or sought shelters for safety. The Cold War thus brought additional measures that unsettled the citizens of the Netherlands. The fear of war permeated the everyday life of Dutch society. More than half of the Dutch population believed that World War III could break out because of the empire-building policy of the Soviet Union. The Cold War also resulted in a split in the Dutch left. Like the Italian and French communists, the Dutch communists were attacked by almost all political parties in addition to the social democrats. During the years of the Cold War, the public believed to discover communist influence everywhere. The black and white attitude of the 1950’s which did not accept shades, was a good description of Dutch society’s attitude towards the Cold War. In the Netherlands, at this time, strict observance of social norms and adaptation to prevailing values became common. The era of mass consumption appeared parallel to the war reconstruction. The conflicts of the Cold War did not meet the desire of the Dutch for peace, tranquillity and prosperity. The Drees government was the first in history to appoint a woman to a ministerial position. The social democrat prime minister, Willem Drees became the ‘father of the state’ by introducing old-age pensions. However, by 1956, as a result of the development following the restoration, the youth became active. A new young social concept was born: the hooligan. The activation of the youth culminated in mass movements, which often turned into riots. The typical Dutch hooligan was a young man who did not understand the Cold War, rejected its propaganda and rejected the conservative family and social order. He was not attracted by security, career or tranquillity. The majority of the Dutch society longed for family tranquillity. The youth were active not for political reasons, but for the protection of interests. For the Dutch society, in addition to political and press battles, the opinions expressed by refugees from the Soviet regime were the primary sources. The Dutch had always taken a markedly anti-communist stance. With the exception of Amsterdam at the time, the party of the Dutch communists could not show any significant results. Based on this, it is no surprise that the streets of Amsterdam were the ones where tempers were unleashed and demonstrations, riots and clashes took place around the local communist buildings after the Soviet party leadership decision to deploy the Red Army and bloodily crush the Hungarian Revolution.
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