The Hungarian Revolution, 1956!


Occasions when history rhymes: Just this once, we'll let you ask us about our connection to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

Our memory has been drifting back due to current events in Ukraine. We're talking about a situation in which history may not be repeating itself, but in which it may seem to rhyme. 

The events in question took place in October and November of 1956. We were in fourth grade at the time, but we think we hazily recall the excitement in this country associated with the events.

Essentially, Hungary had bene a Soviet client state since the end of World War II. Starting in October of 1956, a gang of university students joined with other malcontents in trying to drive the Russkies out.

 The leading authority on the revolution offers this thumbnail account:

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a countrywide revolution against the Stalinist government of the Hungarian People's Republic (1949–1989) and the Hungarian domestic policies imposed by the USSR. Initially anarchic, the Hungarian Uprising was the first major nationalist challenge to Soviet Union's control of Hungary since the Soviet Army ended the Nazi occupation of Hungary at the end of the Second World War in Europe, in May 1945.

The Hungarian Revolution began on 23 October 1956 in Budapest when university students appealed to the civil populace to join them at the Hungarian Parliament Building to protest the USSR's geopolitical domination of Hungary with the Stalinist government of Mátyás Rákosi. A delegation of students entered the building of Hungarian Radio to broadcast their sixteen demands for political and economic reforms to the civil society of Hungary, but were detained by security guards. When the student protestors outside the radio building demanded the release of their delegation of students, policemen from the ÁVH (Államvédelmi Hatóság) state protection authority shot and killed several protestors.

Consequently, Hungarians organized into revolutionary militias to battle the ÁVH...

We seem to recall the excitement of the next few weeks, as it seemed that the uprising might actually drive the Russkies out. 

Today, Hungary is taking a beating in liberal circles for what are perceived to be the autocratic tendencies and behaviors of its prime minister, Viktor Orban. Back then, the Hungarian revolutionaries were seen as heroes for their resistance to Soviet power. 

In essence, they were the Ukrainians of the day. That's where some of the rhyming comes in:

The roughly 3,000-strong resistance fought Soviet tanks using Molotov cocktails and machine-pistols. Though the preponderance of the Soviets was immense, they suffered heavy losses, and by 30 October 1956, most Soviet troops had withdrawn from Budapest to garrison the countryside. 

For a time, the Soviet leadership was unsure how to respond to developments in Hungary but eventually decided to intervene to prevent a destabilization of the Soviet bloc. 

On 4 November, reinforcements of more than 150,000 troops and 2,500 tanks entered the country from the Soviet Union. Nearly 20,000 Hungarians were killed resisting the intervention, while an additional 21,600 were imprisoned afterward for political reasons...Because borders were briefly opened, nearly a quarter of a million people fled the country by the time the revolution was suppressed.

For a few brief shining moments, it seemed that Molotov cocktails and machine pistols could push the Soviets out. Within a few weeks, though, massive Soviet reinforcements brought the revolution to an end.

Will history rhyme in Ukraine? We can't tell you that. But this is the cultural and historical framework within which Putin is working as he prepares to put the Ukrainian resistance down.

In part, we've been thinking back to the Hungarian Revolution because of the Hungarian kid who showed up in our fourth-grade class right there in Winchester, Mass. As we understood it at the time, he and his family were part of the quarter million people who left the country in connection with these events.

He had a very Hungarian first name, so much so that when we googled that first name yesterday, along with the name of the town, we did seem to get some hits. (We didn't recall his last name.) Assuming we found the right person—very few Americans would have had that first name—he graduated from Winchester High in the class of 1965, then went on to Tufts, where he played soccer and ran track. 

We don't recall exactly how well he liked his new American home. As best we recall, he got along fine, but we wish our mother had taught us to make a more forward-leaning effort to welcome this stranger from half a world away.

A few years later, our family was off to California. We've been thinking about that pleasant, gentle refugee kid as we've watched events unfold in Ukraine this week.

Back then, the Soviets weren't willing to let Hungary go. Today, Putin wants to get Ukraine back, and the odds still say that he'll get his way, with the possibility that outcomes could eventually be even worse.

A few last bits of historical rhyming are highlighted below. We pity the poor immigrant parents and children, but we also pity the poor conscripts of the world, who may not be told the whole truth:

On 3 November, a Hungarian delegation led by Defense Minister Pál Maléter was invited to attend negotiations on Soviet withdrawal at the Soviet Military Command at Tököl, near Budapest. At around midnight that evening, General Ivan Serov, Chief of the Soviet Security Police (KGB) ordered the arrest of the Hungarian delegation, and the next day, the Soviet army again attacked Budapest.

The second Soviet intervention, codenamed "Operation Whirlwind", was launched by Marshal Ivan Konev. The five Soviet divisions stationed in Hungary before 23 October were reinforced; Soviet forces soon reached a total strength of 17 divisions. The 8th Mechanized Army under command of Lieutenant General Hamazasp Babadzhanian and the 38th Army under Lieutenant General Hadzhi-Umar Mamsurov from the nearby Carpathian Military District were deployed to Hungary for the operation. Some rank-and-file Soviet soldiers reportedly believed they were being sent to East Berlin to fight German fascists. By 21:30 on 3 November, the Soviet Army had completely encircled Budapest.

At 03:00 on 4 November, Soviet tanks penetrated Budapest along the Pest side of the Danube in two thrusts: one up the Soroksári road from the south and the other down the Váci road from the north. Thus, before a single shot was fired, the Soviets had effectively split the city into two, controlled all bridgeheads and were shielded to the rear by the wide Danube River. Armoured units crossed into Buda and, at 04:25, fired the first shots at the army barracks on Budaörsi Road. Soon, Soviet artillery and tank fire were heard in all of the districts of Budapest...

"Some rank-and-file Soviet soldiers reportedly believed they were being sent to East Berlin to fight German fascists." 

We note the word "reportedly" there. But this sort of thing never ends.


  1. Actually, as we remember, the 1956 Hungarian uprising was more like a Hungarian civil war. Pro-western students and the professional classes vs Hungarian communists, mostly the working class. And then the Warsaw pact troops came and put an end to it.

    And, you're right, dear Bob: the current Ukrainian troubles are somewhat similar. It started as a civil war, with the pro-western clique allied with ethnocentric nationalists seizing power by a coup in 2014. Trying, for 8 years now, to subdue coal-mining regions in the east. And now the tables have turned. We'll see what happens.

  2. Somerby apparently wishing for some brutality to attenuate the effective sanctions and worldwide ostracizing of Putin and his cronies.

    Turns out those sanctions Trump refused to enforce were significant, thus the importance of getting him elected, from Putin's pov.

    Trump and his supporters - his voters and his fellow autocratic-minded leaders, know only hate, understand only hate, spew hate like the rest of us breathe. Frankly, it is sad, very sad. That's what people are saying. But not Somerby, he'd rather wish for suffering to avoid eating crow.

    1. AC/MA - anon 6:01 - where in this post does TDH wish for, or even hint at wishing for, suffering or brutality

    2. 12:18 he is drawing a line from the Hungarian resistance that ended through violence, to Ukraine, because Somerby does not like the current methods of dealing with Putin (neither does Putin!), Somerby is a lost soul, it may be hard for you to see because you may be in the same boat.

  3. I remember when they put military recruiters in my public school. They also put them up in the impoverished part of town, although they recruit pretty well with relatives of existing members too.

    In other words, here was an institution that was supposed to be about expanding your mind telling you that you also have the option of being a grunt for hire.

  4. “Today, Hungary is taking a beating in liberal circles for what are perceived to be the autocratic tendencies and behaviors of its prime minister, Viktor Orban. “

    Somerby, the “disinterested” observer cannot of course be bothered to form an opinion of Orban.

    Unlike people like Carlson and Dreher, who pay homage to him.

    And, on a similar note, Hitler was seen as a genocidal maniac.

  5. “Back then, the Hungarian revolutionaries were seen as heroes for their resistance to Soviet power. “

    “Were seen as…”. Were they heroes? Why can’t or won’t Somerby make this kind of judgment? Can anyone not see them as heroes, outside of Soviet apologists?

  6. “this is the cultural and historical framework within which Putin is working as he prepares to put the Ukrainian resistance down.”

    Things seem to be different vis a vis Ukraine. Europe, the US, and much of the world seem determined to stop Putin.

    And I find it odd to say “Ukrainian resistance”. I believe pretty much the entire country refuses to accept an illegal and insane act of aggression by Putin. “Resistance” calls to mind something like the French resistance, except they were resisting the Vichy government, which had capitulated to Hitler.

    No part of the Ukraine government has capitulated.

    1. mh -- I wish I agreed with you, but I see things more pessimistically. Since you posted, one Ukrainian city did surrender to the Russians. I don't think Europe, the US, and much of the world are really determined to stop Putin. They're committed to heavy sanctions, but if Russia is willing to suffer the sanctions, as Putin appears to be, then they will defeat Ukraine by means of their brutal bombing attacks.

    2. If you decide ahead of time that nothing will work to deter a dictator, then of course, why try anything at all? Just let Hitler have Europe -- we don't live there. Meanwhile, members of the Russian army are refusing to fight, there are protests in the streets of Russia, oligarchs are having their yachts confiscated which may motivate them to complain to Putin, and no one is buying Russian oil. But David thinks nothing will help, so he argues that we stand by and do nothing? Or what?

      We live in a world where people have learned that there is strength in numbers when many people stand together, even when they are not themselves militarily powerful. We do not live in a world where dictators run roughshod over their people because the world stands by and lets them do it. The world David suggests exists with Russia.

      This kind of defeatism and unwillingness to stand by allies is what allowed Germany to absorb countries until the West worked up the backbone to stop him. I think David is expressing an America First rationale, but appeasement only leads to greater problems later on.

    3. anon 11:18 - nuclear war ok, if that's what it takes? mh - did you know that there has been an ongoing civil war in the Ukraine between the central government and breakaway Russian supported and pro-Russian rebels?

    4. If it were to go nuclear, it would be by the Russians since Ukraine agreed to give up their nuclear weapons when they declared their independence, in exchange for commitments made by Russia that their sovereignty would be respected.

      Yes, there has been an ongoing civil war on the eastern border, instigated from the get-go by the Putin regime. But don't worry, he was just concerned about the "ethnic Russians". That will be , to quote Hitler, his final demand.

  7. Did you know that Hitler took a beating in the liberal world back in 1942, but now liberals view Germany as a close ally?

    Just like with Hungary, those liberals sure are a fickle bunch, I tell you.

    It’s all anthropology now…er, what was that Comrade Putin?

    I imagine the Ukrainians don’t view everything as “all anthropology”. What a ridiculous and destructive idea.

  8. I had a Hungarian refugee child in my classes in Middle School too. So what?

    This invasion of Ukraine is happening now and it is not provoked by any rebellion in Ukraine. It is Putin's cold-blooded attempt to take over a neighboring country. The parallels are to Hitler, not Hungary.

    This invasion is very real for the Ukrainian people. It is not some misty nostalgia for those who remember the tanks that imposed martial law on Hungary 70 years ago, in the aftermath of a different war.

    What is wrong with Somerby? You don't oppose a dictator with territorial ambitions by shrugging and saying that this sort of thing always happens, so who cares and why bother doing anything about it!

    At the very least, if Somerby does regard the Ukraine as a historical part of the Soviet Union, this should be described as civil war, since the Ukraine doesn't see itself that way at all. But this is nothing to shrug off.

  9. "but we wish our mother had taught us to make a more forward-leaning effort to welcome this stranger from half a world away."

    Yes, no doubt, everything Somerby wishes were different in his life is attributable to his mother's failure.

    1. Why make a special effort to befriend a Hungarian refugee?
    2. Why should his mother have to tell him to do such a thing?
    3. What does it matter how well such a child adjusted to America, all those years ago?
    4. What is the point of this sappy nostalgia about Hungarian refugees when Somerby wasn't even close enough to that child to decide to interact with him?

    The many refugees who come to our Southern border seeking asylum are similarly fleeing dangerous conditions in their own countries. Has Somerby ever given a thought to their needs or plight in all the time he has been writing here? Not that I can recall. Is refugee status different when it involves Hungarians than when it is a child coming from Central or South America?

    Somerby apparently wishes he had been nicer to his Hungarian classmate, but to what end? He cannot find it in his heart to recognize or understand what is happening to others who leave their homelands. Instead, he romanticizes the child he knew while dismissing the Ukrainian struggle as more war as usual and "sucks to be you, Ukrainian friends, but nothing to be done, nothing to talk about, just Putin doing his thing."

    Easy to see Somerby taking this same attitude toward what is happening in his own neighborhood in Baltimore, and shrugging away racism, concluding that it sucks to be black, but it was ever thus and will continue no matter what anyone does, so "sucks to be you, little black child." If he hadn't been preoccupied with his mother's failures, he might have done something to help them, in some vague way, 50 years ago. He no doubt wishes his mother had forced him to help them too, but she didn't, so she is crap, not Somerby as he muses beneath his pear tree and won't cooperate with his neighbor who wishes to rake up some leaves. It sounds like Somerby is ripe for assisted living, since he can't muster the strength to care about things he vaguely realizes he should care about -- if his mother had been the right sort of mother and not moved him to California.