12. Nagy Calls in Russian Tanks

Nagy Calls in Russian Tanks

"The Party fights for a more democratic Workers and Peasants Republic, wherein the police and the standing army would be completely eliminated and replaced by a general arming of the people, by a universal militia; all the offices would be not only elective but also subject to instant recall by a majority of electors; all offices without exception would be paid at the rate of the average wage of a skilled worker; all representative parliamentary institutions would gradually give place to Soviets ... functioning both as legislative and executive bodies."
V. I. Lenin. Materials relating to the Revision of the Party Programme (May 1917).

The news spread fast. Within half an hour of the first shots in Sánder Street (and while Radio Budapest was continually broadcasting messages to the effect that "armed fascist and counter-revolutionary bands were attacking public buildings in the city") the truth about the events at the Radio Building was known by almost everyone in town. The rest of the country knew soon after.

During the months of intellectual ferment, little had been heard of workers' opinions. On October 21, a worker from a factory in Czepel had said: "Rest assured, we too shall speak." [59] Now the workers spoke with deeds. Those who had earlier left the arms factories returned there. Their comrades of the night shift helped load lorries with commandeered arms: revolvers, rifles, light machine guns, and ammunition. Many on the night-shift then left the factories and went to Sánder Street to help distribute the weapons and join the ever-increasing crowds. The police made no attempt to disperse the demonstrators. Many handed over their weapons to the workers and students, then stood aside; some policemen joined the demonstration. This also applied to the soldiers. Large numbers of soldiers handed over their arms. Although the majority did not fight alongside the revolutionaries, practically none fought against them. This is easily explained. The majority of soldiers were young peasants. The peasants had been less affected by the general ferment.

While fighting continued in Sánder Street and efforts were being made to occupy the Radio Station, thousands of workers and students began to form groups in the surrounding streets. These groups spread out into the city. They set up road controls and occupied some of the main squares. All cars were stopped. If members of the A.V.O. were found inside, the car was commandeered and the occupants sent off on foot. There was no general attack on the A.V.O. at this stage.

By 1 a.m., all the main streets and squares (including Parliament Square) had been 'occupied' by vast crowds. Large groups carrying an assortment of small arms stationed themselves at vantage points.

Getö's lies were still coming from the radio; over the incongruous signature of the Council of Ministers of the Hungarian Peoples Republic. "Fascists and reactionary elements have launched an armed attack on our public buildings and on our security units. To restore order, and until further measures are taken, all meetings, gatherings and marches are banned. The armed security organs have been ordered to apply the full vigour of the law against anyone who breaks this order." Later in the night, the term 'Fascists' was altered to 'counter-revolutionaries.' Of course, no mention was made of the machine-gunning by the A.V.O., nor of the killing of many of the unarmed people taking part in a peaceful demonstration.

It must be emphasized that although the situation had now reached the proportions of an armed uprising, it had not in any way been planned or organised. Many commentators throughout the world either claimed the whole thing had been previously organised or simply failed to mention its spontaneity. Whether their allegiance was to East or West, they were unable to understand that ordinary people could take effective action against the State without hierarchical and top-heavy organisation.

As we have previously shown, both the Russian rulers and the Western Powers had kept many Nazi administrators in position after the war. A hierarchical organisation, based on privilege, and reinforced by a rigid chain of command from above down, was for them the, very essence of 'efficiency'. Their minds had been conditioned to see this structure as the only one possible. Understandably, but wrongly, they believed that the efficiency of the Hungarian revolutionaries must depend on some form of organisation similar to their own. How else, they argued, could ordinary workers, students, and others have had such an excellent system of communication? How else could they have armed themselves with such speed and smoothness? The events in Hungary during the last week of October 1956 show clearly that the workers relied on quite different methods of organisation. If revolutionaries organise like those whose rule they seek to overthrow, they are defeated before the battle is engaged.

* * *

During the early hours of Wednesday October 24, workers and students were dying in the streets for the ultimate freedom to decide how to run their society. The Party leaders meanwhile were engaged in various manoeuvres. Getö arranged for the Premier to be relieved of his post. Andras Hegedüs, an obedient stooge of Rakosi, had been little heard of even before he had been made Prime Minister. Now he was out. Getö invited Nagy to take over. There is no evidence that Nagy needed any persuasion or that he made any conditions. No official announcement was made of this re-shuffle. The first the people knew of it was when, at 7.30 that morning, the radio referred to Nagy as the "Chairman of the Council of Ministers" - the official term for Prime Minister.

At 7.45 a.m. the radio announced that the Minister of the Interior had proclaimed martial law "as mopping-up operations against counter-revolutionary groups engaged in looting [60] are still in progress". At 8 a.m. came the shocking announcement that, under the terms of the Warsaw Treaty, the Government had asked for help from Russian military units stationed in Hungary - "The Soviet formations, in compliance with the Government's request, are taking part in the restoration of order." [61]

There is no doubt that Imre Nagy was Prime Minister of the Government which called in Russian troops. There is some doubt about whether he was tricked into doing so. A large number of students and intellectuals felt Nagy had 'betrayed' them. Their esteem for him dropped. At a crucial stage in the struggle, their morale took a severe jolt. But why should so many intellectuals have had illusions about Nagy? Nagy was concerned with 'order'. He had never shown that his idea of 'order' was any more than a liberalised form of the 'order' that had prevailed in satellite Hungary. And in the situation prevailing on October 24, 1956, any demand for this kind of order had long ago been eclipsed by the people's desire and all-out struggle for far more fundamental change. A man of Nagy's background was bound to believe, like Getö that the massive force of Russian tanks would soon restore 'order'. He had been in the first Russian puppet government. He had, in turn, been Minister of Agriculture, Minister of the Interior, Minister of Food, Minister of Agricultural Deliveries, and Deputy Prime Minister. He knew the ropes and where power lay. One of the main reasons for the naivety of the intellectuals was their lack of contact with industrial workers. There was, to some extent, a mutual embarrassment and suspicion. But action, the revolt itself, had brought them together as nothing else could have done. It was the workers who, on the morning of Wednesday, October 24, saved the struggle from complete collapse. They saw the Nagy issue as largely irrelevant. In the society they were glimpsing through the dust and smoke of the battle in the streets, there would be no Prime Minister, no government of professional politicians, and no officials or bosses ordering them about. The decision to call in Russian troops only strengthened the morale and resolve of the workers. They were now more determined than ever to fight to the end, whatever that end might be.

* * *

Thousands had spent the early hours of Wednesday in the streets or at meetings. A revolutionary council of workers and students was formed in Budapest and remained in permanent session. Radio Budapest continued to pour out lies: "The revolt is about to collapse; thousands have surrendered to the authorities; those who don't surrender will be severely punished; no action will be taken against those who surrender." "Fascists, misguided patriots, counter-revolutionaries, bourgeois, bandits". Persuasion, threats, cajoling, ranting. The purpose of propaganda is not to convince, but to confuse. It failed as far as the Hungarians were concerned. They knew it was all lies.

In Sánder Street, the Radio Building was repeatedly and furiously attacked. Later, the 'boys' (one of the names Hungarians affectionately gave to the fighters) succeeded in occupying it. But the transmitters remained in the hands of the A.V.O. who concentrated all their effort in holding them. Heading the small group of announcers who kept the station operating was one György Szepesi, a sports commentator. During the first days of November, a group of workers searched the whole of Budapest for Szepesi, but he had disappeared.