13. The Battle is Joined

The Battle is Joined

"A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is. It is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannons - authoritarian means, if such there were..."
F. Engels, On Authority (1872).

By 8.30 a.m., reports were circulating in Budapest that workers had already been involved in battles with Russian tanks on the outskirts of the city. Another report, less widely circulated, was that Suslov and Mikoyan had arrived in Budapest at dawn. They had apparently flown direct from Moscow, where the Kremlin was getting worried at the mess their men in Budapest were making of things. Mikoyan, it was alleged, had become very angry with Getö. Whether this was true or not, it soon became known that Getö had been 'relieved of his post' as First Secretary of the Communist Party. Janos Kadar was given the job. Many among the Communist hierarchy thought this a master move. Kadar was of working-class origin. He had spent a long time in prison as a Titoist. He had suffered considerably. He had been tortured - missing fingernails and scars on various parts of his body were proof of this. It is said he was a frightened man - frightened of pain. Understandably so. He was to prove soft clay in the hands of a ruthless 'leadership'!

Just after 9 a.m., Nagy broadcast a personal appeal as Prime Minister. He called for an end to the fighting. He asked that order be restored.

"People of Budapest! I announce that all those who, in the interest of avoiding further bloodshed, stop fighting before 13:00 hours today and lay down their arms, will be exempted from summary jurisdiction. We shall realise as soon as possible, by all means at our disposal and on the basis of the June 1953 Government Programme, as I expounded it at that time in Parliament, the systematic democratisation of the country in every sphere of Party, State, political, and economic life. Every possibility exists for the Government to realise my political programme by relying on the Hungarian people, under the leadership of the Communists. Heed our appeal. Cease fighting and secure the restoration of calm and order in the interest of the future of our people and country. Return to peaceful and creative work."

Does this sound like the speech of a man incapable of calling in Russian troops? First, the implied threat, clothed as a concession: "If you stop fighting by 1 p.m., you'll only be subject to normal (?) legal proceedings. If you don't then summary jurisdiction." All knew what summary jurisdiction meant. And what about "laying down arms"? This meant surrendering their newly acquired weapons to the authorities.

Why should Nagy have hoped that workers fighting Russian tanks, the A.V.O., and the whole rotten bureaucratic set-up, should suddenly hand in their arms that Wednesday morning? At that very time, the workers and students had every reason, on the contrary, to intensify their struggle. And what of "the June 1953 Government Programme"? Such a programme had been made redundant by the events of the last few days. It might have worked in April. On October 24, it appeared ridiculous. It may be true that Nagy was the most humane and liberal in the Hungarian Communist hierarchy. But he was a prisoner of certain ideas which clashed with the people's desire for fundamental political and economic change. It was beyond Nagy's comprehension to grasp what the people really wanted - what they were now striving towards.

Even if we accept that Nagy was honest and sincere, he must have shown an incredible naivety to talk, at this stage, of "the Hungarian people under the leadership of the Communists". Leadership? This was precisely what the people were against. This seemingly negative approach implied a very positive one: to make and carry out their own decisions. The only effect of Premier Nagy's first speech was to strengthen the resolve of most revolutionaries to fight on. As we shall see later, the people had already begun to build their own revolutionary organisations. As early as the first morning of the armed struggle, leaflets were being distributed in Budapest calling for a general strike. The imprint on these leaflets was: "The Revolutionary Council of Workers and Students."

* * *

Russian tanks had begun to enter the city at various points during the morning of October 24. Some units were immediately attacked by workers and students. Others were attacked after they had taken up strategic positions and opened fire. In some places, neither side opened fire. Here, students who had learnt Russian at school, were in conversation with the soldiers. It was explained that they were ordinary Hungarians - workers. A number of the young Russian soldiers seemed quite embarrassed. Perhaps they remembered some of the things they had been taught at school. Perhaps parts of 'Marxism-Leninism' did not quite accord with what was now required of them.

Increasingly bitter battles were now raging throughout Budapest: at Baross Square outside the Eastern Railway Station, by the Ferencvaros railway freight station, around the Party Buildings of the 13th District, and in the streets around the statue of General Bem, scene of the peaceful demonstrations of the previous afternoon. Tanks of the 'Union of Soviet Socialist Republics', 'workers' tanks', were firing 'workers' shells'. The bodies of Hungarian workers were being torn to pieces.

Two of the biggest battles were at Széna Square and at the Killian Barracks. At Széna Square, in Buda, many thousands of people waited not knowing exactly what to expect or what to do. The majority were industrial workers; but there were also many students, some of them young women. This was the general social composition of the revolutionaries. There were also schoolboys and even some schoolgirls. Most of them were armed.

The main idea was to stop all cars and see who was in them. They had found that by using hundreds of barrels to barricade the middle of the roads leading into the square, they could do this with ease. There were several gunfights with the occupants of cars who opened fire as soon as they saw the barrel barricade and its armed defenders. Several people were killed and wounded. Later the barricades were strengthened when workers brought onto the streets railway coaches and wagons from a nearby goods yard. Although some wagons were loaded with goods, nothing was taken at any time - a further indication of the people's awareness of the nature of their revolution.

Soon, all entrances to the Square were barricaded. The throb of powerful engines was heard and the first Russian tank rumbled into sight. It picked a weak spot in the barricade and went right through the centre of the Square. It was only attacked with a few odd rifle shots. Workers rushed to repair the breach. Then came two more tanks and two armoured cars. The was a heavy burst of machine gun and rifle fire from the revolutionaries. The first tank swung round and retreated down the road. The second rammed the barricade and, pushing a wagon along in front of it, moved slowly across the Square. Although attacked with Molotov cocktails, it rumbled on. The armoured cars were put out of action. All eight occupants were killed.

It had now become clear that the barricades had not been built to the best advantage. They were again strengthened. This time, the toughest obstacles were concentrated in the centre of the road, thus forcing the tanks to pass near to or on the pavements. Molotov cocktails could then be dropped on to them with far greater success from the windows of buildings lining the road.

A 'Molotov cocktail' is a home-made petrol bomb. It can be a very effective weapon, even against heavy armour. The Hungarians found them easy to make and fairly easy to use. Screw-top beer or lemonade bottles were used. The bottles were filled with petrol and the top very tightly screwed on. If non-screw-top bottles were used, it was imperative for them to be very securely sealed. A piece of dry rag (which was sometimes soaked in methylated spirit) was then firmly attached to the bottle by, a wire around a ridge in its neck, or by strong elastic bands. Before throwing, the rag was lit. As the bottles hit the Russian tanks the glass would break and the petrol would ignite, often with devastating effect.

* * *

As the battle progressed, the workers and students in Szena Square improved their fighting methods. They were quite undisciplined in the military sense. There was no saluting, no bawling of orders. In their motley dress, their small arms looking like toys against the thick armour and big cannons of the tanks, they no doubt appeared pathetic to the 'orderly' military mind. But before Saturday, these few thousands of undisciplined workers and students had put some thirty Russian tanks out of action. They were a true vanguard of the working class. They fought with great courage, ardour, initiative, and even humour. When a Russian tank caught fire, their cheers echoed from the buildings around the square. When a tank retreated, the Square was filled with cheers and laughter.

It was the same in the streets around the Killian Barracks. A group of workers had got hold of a small field gun which they operated from the front of the Corvin Cinema, on the Boulevard. The cinema, Budapest's largest, stood back from the other buildings in the street to form a 'bay'. When under extra-heavy fire, the gun was run back into the shelter of this bay. A tram conductor was put in charge of the aiming and firing of the gun. He and the others sometimes pulled their artillery up the street, to the Barracks at the junction of Ulloi Road and the Boulevard. From there they could shell targets in Ulloi Road until forced back to the Corvin Cinema. During lulls in the fighting, the gun crew would sit smoking and talking shop - revolution was their business. "At one time the discussion became so absorbing that a couple of Russian tanks had got into the Boulevard and were getting perilously close to the Cinema. There was a concerted rush to man the gun. Some way behind them came an odd figure in a furious shuffle to get to the gun. Under his arm was a crumpled newspaper, his hands sought frantically to pull his trousers up from around his ankles. 'Caught with your trousers down, eh?' came the inevitable jibe. The laughter continued as they made the gun ready. They fired the first round almost at point-blank range. It hit the first tank which exploded. The second tank immediately turned and retreated, but was caught in a crescendo of cross fire at the road junction. It stopped dead. Firing ceased. Thousands of eyes watched the tank. Suddenly, the Russian crew clambered out with their hands held high. A group of workers escorted them to the Killian Barracks." [62]

The Barracks had been taken over by a Hungarian army unit led by Colonel Pál Maéter, which had sided with the people. Maléter's men were supported by a large number of workers and students. Once inside the Barracks, the civilians armed themselves. Throughout the Thursday they were under heavy fire from Russian guns. Towards evening three Hungarian tanks appeared on the scene and took up strategic positions near the Barracks. They went into action the next morning. Each day and all day, the battle raged around the Killian Barracks and in the adjoining side streets. At night, things were relatively quiet, for the Russian tanks always withdrew.

For nearly three days the struggle in Budapest had continued relentlessly. On Friday the Russians brought in four big field guns to pound the Killian Barracks into submission. Pál Maléter and the soldiers and civilians occupying the barracks had no heavy weapons other than their faith in themselves and in what they were doing. They fought. The workers in the streets fought. The tram conductor and his 'boys' at the Corvin Cinema fought ... with their one small gun. Through determination, courage, and a flair for doing the unexpected, they not only kept the Russian gun crews on their toes, but caused them first drastically to restrict their fire and within two hours all four guns had been rendered useless.

Throughout the fighting, Radio Budapest alternated between calls to the freedom fighters (involved in this, that, or the other big battle) to surrender, and reports that one or other group of freedom fighters had or was about to capitulate. This incredible radio station was now listened to strictly for laughs.