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October 23 1956

Stalin died in 1953 and the new chair of the Soviet party began a ‘de-stalinization’ process.

The fact that this narcissistic power was now forced to admit past sins and mistakes filled people living in Hungary and other Soviet-controlled countries with the hope that real change might be possible.

In June, workers in Poznan, Poland began demonstrations for better living and working conditions and demanded free elections.  The revolt was ruthlessly squelched by communist authorities.

University youth sympathising with the Polish workers organised a demonstration in Budapest for the 23rd of October.

Young people gathered at different locations in Budapest and many joined the peaceful processions during the day.  The crowd was closely lined up, remained orderly and had a cheerful attitude, but marched on with determination.  They numbered more than a hundred thousand when they reached Bem Square.  Many cut out the Soviet-inspired coat of arms from the Hungarian flag, creating a hole in the middle.  Under the cut-out, waving flags more and more shouted “Freedom, democracy and national independence!”

By dusk, the crowd counting two hundred thousand arrived at the Parliament building.

Late at night, Soviet party leadership in Moscow decided that under no circumstances will they allow their influence and power over Hungary and Eastern-Europe to weaken

Communist Dictatorship In Hungary

At the end of World War 11, Hungary was on the losing side.  “Behind the back” of the country, the victorious powers – the United States of America, Great Britain and the Soviet Union – decided that Hungary would come under the rule of the Soviets and their all-powerful leader, Stalin.

Being assured of the support of the Red Army, communist politicians within Hungary’s coalition government managed to gradually strengthen their power, thereby repressing the rising democratic developments.  By 1948-1949 the Soviet model of totalitarianism became reality in Hungary, its main characteristics being a single-party system, state life submitted to the communist party’s top leaders, mistrust and blame within the party due to the failure to produce expected economic indexes, intellectual and physical isolation of the country, forced agricultural collectivism, legal and material despoilment of the peasantry, forced industrialisation, planned economy, constant shop-shortage; cold-war hysteria; enforced worship of party leaders; state terror to keep the population in constant fear.

Siege At The Hungarian Radio

Late afternoon of the 23rd of October, a group of students marched to the Hungarian Radio to have their 16-point list of demands read off.  The leadership of the radio denied their request. 

They did broadcast communist part leader Erno Gero’s announcement on the same night.  In his speech, he disapproved of the revolt, denied granting of its demands and promised retribution to the participants. 

The atmosphere became more and more charged.  Many grabbed weapons from the military units ordered to protect the Radio but unable to get in.  Some soldiers joined the demonstrators.  First shootings were heard at about 9pm and the siege subsequently began.  The news ‘young people are being killed at the Radio” quickly spread throughout the city.  Many set out to pick up guns and ammunition at local barracks and armories.  The siege of the Radio ended at dawn with the victory of the revolters.

The peaceful demonstration thus turned into a revolt.  Later, as fights with powers loyal to the government and with soviet occupants (invited by Hungarian party leaders to intervene) began, it turned into a war of independence. 

Stalin’s Statue Pulled Down

A decree was issued in 1949 to raise a statue in Budapest of Stalin, the greatest communist leader alive.  The 8-metre tall statue weighing 65 quintals was inaugurated on December 16, 1951 on Felvonulasi Square that was built at the same time.  This square was the regular scene of the communists’ huge public events, parades and musters, where tens and hundreds of thousands of workers would be ordered to “voluntarily” and “enthusiastically” celebrate their parts leaders who would wave to them from the tribune raised on the pedestal of Stalin’s statute.

On October 23, a significant size group left the crowd that had gathered at the Parliament building and set out to demolish the statue of Stalin.  After several attempts they succeed: the statue, almost completely sawn at its knee was pulled down with the help of wire ropes, winders and several vehicles.  The crown pulled the hated monument to the side with trucks and cut it into pieces. 

Its bare torso, remaining on the pedestal – “the Boots” – soon became a symbol of the revolution.

The Revolters – “Pest Kids”

A symbolic figure of the revolution is the “Pest Kid” who takes on fighting with virtually no weapons and against all odds with youthful ardour, virtue and ingenuity.  It is a known fact that the armed fights in Budapest were fought mainly by teenagers and young adults in their twenties.  They fought fearlessly and uncompromisingly, so they are the ones to be thanked for the temporary victory in October. 

The Molotov-Cocktail

One of the simplest and best offensive weapons against tanks in the city guerrilla warfare is the Molotov-cocktail.  It was named after Molotov, Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, one of Stalin’s intimates.  It became famous through the 1956 Hungarian revolution when it was commonly used against Soviet tanks.  The Budapest formula for Molotov-cocktail is a bottle filled with gasoline, fitted with a gasoline-saturated rag.  When it is set on fire and thrown at an object the flaming gasoline breaking out of the bottle can set even the smallest nook on fire.  Many tanks and armoured vehicles were disabled with Molotov-cocktails in Budapest. 

Ruined Budapest

Although the revolution spread to other cities, most of armed clashes between the revolters and the Red Army took place in the streets of Budapest.  As a result, the inner city and its surrounding districts were almost completely ruined.  Almost all buildings on major streets suffered some kind of damage.

Intervening Soviet troops, their artillery, air force and tanks ruined many buildings, vehicles, roads, military facilities, airports and railways.  Fights made public transportation, industrial production, trade and education impossible.

Victims Of The Revolt

Even though the routing of armed groups was finished by the 10th-11th of November, political resistance endured until the spring of 1957.

The revolution and the fight for freedom ended with a significant number of casualties.

Several thousand were killed, almost half of them under 25.  Casualties were approximately twenty thousand.  During the retaliation following the defeat, more than twenty-two thousand were imprisoned for participating in the revolution and 229 received a death penalty.

Some two hundred thousand people left all their possessions behind and escaped from the country.  Those that remained suffered harassment from the police for years or even decades to come.  Those publicly sympathising with the revolt or those that participated even to the smallest extent were not allowed to continue their studies or were forced to leave their jobs.  The expression “politically unreliable” was written on their record sheet that went with them everywhere and inhibited both their professional and existential advancement.

The Blood Of The Hungarians

(…) Hungary conquered and in chains has done more for freedom and justice than any people for twenty years.  But for this lesson to get through and convince those in the West who shut their eyes and ears, it was necessary… for the people of Hungary to shed so much blood which is already drying in our memories. (…) 

In Europe’s isolation today, we have only one way of being true to Hungary, and that is never to betray, among ourselves and everywhere that which the Hungarian heroes died for, never to condone, even indirectly, those who killed them.

Those Hungarian youngsters, workers and intellectuals, beside whom we stand today with such impotent sorrow, understood this and have made us better understanding it.  That is why, if their distress is ours, their hope is ours also.  In spite of their misery, their chains, their exile, they have left us a glorious heritage which we must deserve: freedom, which they did not win, but which in one single day they gave back to us.

Albert Camus
October 23, 1957, Paris

The Most Cheerful Barrack

From the 1960’s on the domestic situation in Hungary grew milder and the era of so-called “soft tyranny” began.  The control over planned economy gradually loosened up, public life was relatively peaceful and cultural life was characterised by a more or less open-minded attitude.  However, all those characteristics make sense only when compared to the rest of the Communist block.  Hungary was no more than – as the popular saying goes – “the most cheerful barrack in the peace-camp”. 

In the shadow of the Red Army stationed in Hungary, true democracy or rebellion against the party that was controlled by the Soviet Union was out of the question.  Citizens lived under strict limitation of human rights, with their freedom of speech and their right to travel freely outside of the country inhibited.  Information networks were present in all areas of life.  As a sharp contrast, people were obligated to march in happy crowds on communist holidays, cheering the “democratic achievements of socialism”.

By the end of the 1908’s it became clear – both in Hungary and throughout the socialist world – that the state party and its totalitarian control is no longer viable.  The new Soviet attitude – refusing to intervene – was a key factor in the political changes that were under way.  Mikhail Gorbachev rightly realised that his country as well as the communistic world order was in total economic and political crisis and the preservation of the Central-Eastern-European power zone would no longer be feasible.


1987 Democratic anti-government circles declare their programs.  Society’ consensus: “Kadar must go!” (06/1987); Lakitelek Declaration: “… our nation has no common vision for the future” (09/1987)

27.05. and 12.09.1988 Demonstrations against the Bos-Nagynaros Dam mega-project on river Danube, expected to cause significant ecological damage

27.06.1988 A crowd of several hundred thousand demonstrate on Hero’s Square in Budapest against government sponsored demolishing of Romanian villages.

13.08.1988 Ex-prime minister Andras Hegedus (1955-56) called 1956 “a national uprising”.

28.08.1989 Minister of State Imre Pozsgay calls the 1956 events “a people’s uprising”.

15.03.1989 About a hundred thousand people demonstrate in Budapest on the anniversary of the 1848 Hungarian revolution and war of independence.  The events culminate when on the steps of the Hungarian Television headquarters there is a public reading of 12 points written by democratic opposition groups demanding democratic changes. 

Spring of 1989

10-11.02.1989 The central Committee (the legislative body) of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party declares that a multiparty system can be launched.

22.03.1989 The co-called Opposition Round-Table is formed.

25.04.1989 Partial withdrawal of Russian troops stationed in Hungary begins according to an international agreement.

02.05.1989 At an international press conference in Hegyeshalom, the demolition of the technically closed border, the so-called Iron Curtain, is announced.  Fences on the Austrian-Hungarian border are torn down.

01.06.1989 The abolition of socialist “competition of workers”

05.06.1989 The government decides: social and retirement status of citizens interned between 1949 and 1953 is to be restored.  Favourable decisions are made regarding cases of citizens that lost advantages due to political reasons as well as those that were relocated.  Another decision to ban censure on books and films is also announced. 

Summer of 1989

5-6.06.1989 Incommu, an independent group of artists places 301 traditional carved headstones (“kopjafa”), paying tribute to victims executed following the 1956 revolution, resting in Parcel 301, an anonymous grave in the Rakoskeresztur cemetery.

13.06.-18.09.1989 talks between the Opposition Round Table and state party representatives are carried on regarding crucial laws on the political changes – also called “fundamental laws”.

14.06.1989 United States Senate unanimously votes in favour of a declaration saying “the 1956 Hungarian Revolution was a divide in modern history – the first important indication that the fall of Stalinism would be inevitable.”

16.06.1989 Memorial service and re-burial for Imre Nagy, Prime Minister under the 1956 revolution and his fellow martyrs on Heroes’ Square, with hundreds of thousands present. 

Pan-European Picnic

01.08.1989 Previously closed Western borders are reopened

19.08.1989 Pan-European Picnic, a celebration symbolising the rapprochement of formerly opposed countries is held.  Before celebrations began, some 300 East-German refugees appear at the sight, break through the fence and run to Austria uninterrupted by the Hungarian guards. 

10.09.1989 The Hungarian government opens the country’s Western border for East-German refugees.

Autumn of 1989

Political Changes In Central-Eastern-Europe

23.10.1989 The Hungarian Republic is proclaimed.

09.11.1989 Borders within split Germany are opened and the demolition of the Berlin Wall begins.

10.11.1989 Bulgarian Communist Party leader Todor Zhivkov is removed from his position.

22.11.1989 In Czechoslovakia, Milos Jakes, together with the leadership of the communist party resigns following demonstrations.

17.12.1989 In Timisoara, anti-government demonstrations end in bloodshed.  As demonstrations continue, they quickly spread to Bucharest, thus evoking a revolution and the fall of the Ceausescu-regime in Romania.

25.12.1989 The Execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. 

Free Elections

24.01.1990 The Hungarian Parliament passes laws on freedom of conscience and religion, together with new church laws. 

31.01.1990 Press laws are modified.  Individuals are now allowed to found newspapers, television and radio studios. 

12.03.1990 The full withdrawal of Soviet troops begins in Hajmasker.

14-16.03.1990 The old parliament calls off all illegal lawsuits in the period between 1945 and 1963.

25.03 and 08.04.1990 The first free, democratic parliamentary elections take place after 43 years. 

02.05.1990 Statutory meeting of the Parliament of the Republic of Hungary.  The first decision of the freely elected parliament: the 23rd of October, the day when the revolution broke out in 1956 is to become a national holiday. 

October 23rd 2006

Furthermore, a symbolic event of great consequence will take place: The Boots will be installed only on the eve of October 23rd and exactly at 9.37pm on October 23rd 2006 the square will be inaugurated (since in 1956, 50 years ago it was exactly at this time that the statue of Stalin was demolished).  That night the square will become a memorial place dedicated to the Fight for Freedom and the Revolution, its axis defined by the Boots and “One Sentence of Tyranny”.  Not one word concerning present-day politics will be uttered from the speakers, only the striking music of Beethoven will be heard.  Everyone will be welcome to bring flowers or light candles at the memorial.  The Witness Square of our contemporary history will be open to visitors all night long, with people forming respectful and orderly queues.  With the help of web cameras, the park’s homepage will broadcast the celebration live, thus throughout the world people will be able to follow the course of events.

Hungary’s history is very recent as far as history is concerned.  If you were in Hungary when this was all happening or know someone who was please leave a comment below.  Thanks for reading this.

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