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"Twelve Days: Revolution 1956
How the Hungarians tried to topple their Soviet masters"
by Victor Sebestyen
Weidenfeld & Nicolson | October 2006 | ISBN 0297847317
Extract from "Twelve Days"
Sunday, 4 November 1956
At 6.30 a.m. in the Associated Press newsroom in Vienna a series of telex messages began to arrive from Budapest. They were urgently sent from the office of the Hungarian newspaper A Free People (Szabad Nép). But they were not the words of an ordinary reporter. With one hand operating the teletype keyboard and another holding a gun, they were written by a young man who was seeing his desperate hopes for freedom crushed.
Since the early morning hours Russian troops are attacking Budapest and our population . . .
Please tell the world of the treacherous attack against our struggle for liberty...
Our troops are already engaged in fighting.
Help! - Help! - Help!
SOS! SOS! SOS!
The people have just overturned a tram to use as a barricade near this building. In the building young people are making Molotov cocktails and hand grenades to fight tanks. We are quiet, not afraid.
Send the news to the public of the world and say it should condemn the aggression.
The fighting is very close now and we haven't enough tommy-guns in the building. I don't know how long we can resist. They are fixing the hand grenades now. Heavy shells are exploding nearby. Above, jet planes are roaring ...
There was a break in the line for half an hour. Then the anguished messages started again.
At the moment there is silence. It may be the silence before the storm. We have almost no weapons, only light machine-guns, Russian-made long rifles and some carbines. We haven't any kind of heavy guns.
People are jumping up at the tanks, throwing hand grenades inside and then slamming the drivers' windows. The Hungarian people are not afraid of death. It is only a pity that we can't stand this for long.
A man just came in from the street. He said that we should not think that because the street is empty, people have taken shelter. They are standing in the doorways, waiting for the right moment.
There was another break in the transmission for a few minutes. The line reopened. It was now about two hours since Soviet tanks had begun an assault on Budapest in massive force.
Now the firing is starting again. We are getting hits.
The tanks are getting nearer and there is heavy artillery. We have just had a report that our unit is receiving reinforcements and ammunition. But it is still too little. It can't be allowed that people attack tanks with their bare hands. What is the United Nations doing?
There are between 200 and 250 people here in the newspaper building. About 50 are women.
The tanks are coming nearer. Both radio stations are in rebel hands. They have been playing the national anthem.
We will hold out to the last drop of blood. Downstairs there are men who have only one hand grenade.
I am running over to the window in the next room to shoot. But I will be back if there is anything new ... or you ring me.
Don't be mad at the way I am writing. I am excited. I want to know how this is going to end. I want to shoot but there is no target so far. I will file to you as long as possible.
Where is the UN?
A Russian plane has just fired a machine-gun burst. We don't know where. We just heard and saw it.
The building of barricades is going on. The Parliament and its vicinity is crowded with tanks ... Planes are flying overhead but can't be counted there are so many. The tanks are coming in long lines. Our building has already been fired on, but so far there are no casualties. The roar of the tanks is so loud we can't hear each other's voices.
Now I have to run over again to the next room to fire some shots from the window. But I'll try to be back if there's anything new.
The young man took a 'rifle break', then returned.
They just brought us a rumour that the American troops will be here within one or two hours.
Bullets are hitting this building again. The tanks are now firing towards the Danube. Our boys are on the barricades and calling for more arms and ammunition. There is most bitter fighting in the inner city ... The tanks rolled away from our building and have gone somewhere else ...
A shell just exploded nearby. Now there is heavy fighting in the direction of the National Theatre, near us in the centre of the city. In our building we have youngsters of fifteen and men of forty.
Don't worry about us. We are strong even if we are a small nation. When the fighting is over we will rebuild our unhappy country.
Send us any news you can about world action on Hungary's behalf. Don't worry ... we burn your despatches as soon as we have read them ...
Just before 11 a.m. the lines went dead. The reporter did not come back.
9 October 1944, Moscow
In his apartment in the Kremlin, Joseph Stalin hosted a war summit with Winston Churchill. Both men knew it was only a matter of months before Germany would be defeated. They wanted an understanding about the future of Europe after the conflict ceased.
Much to the annoyance of the British Prime Minster, who kept slightly more conventional hours, Stalin slept during the day and worked at night. The leaders met at 10 p.m., with only their Foreign Ministers, Vyacheslav Molotov and Anthony Eden, and two interpreters present. Churchill later described the scene: 'The moment was apt for business so I said "Let us settle our affairs in the Balkans. Your armies are in Romania and Bulgaria. We have interests, missions, agents there. Don't let us get at cross purposes in small ways. So far as Britain and Russia are concerned how would it do for you to have 90 per cent predominance in Romania, for us to have 90 per cent of the say in Greece and go 50/50 about Yugoslavia?"'
Churchill picked up some paper and wrote down on a half-sheet the deal he proposed. 'Hungary was another country to be split 50/50. Casting an eye over the paper, Stalin took his blue pencil and made a large tick upon it and passed it back to us. It was all settled in no more time than it takes to set down. After this there was a long silence. The pencilled paper lay in the centre of the table. At length I said "Might it not be thought rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues, so fateful to millions of people, in such an offhand manner? Let us burn the paper?" "No, you keep it," said Stalin.' The next day Soviet troops crossed the border from Ukraine into eastern Hungary and they did not leave for a further forty-five years.
Diplomats and historians still argue about the significance of the 'percentage deal', or as Churchill called it, 'the naughty document'. Many say it was unimportant and simply recognised the reality of Russian troops on the ground. But taken together with US agreement at the Yalta Conference the following year, the post-war division of Europe had a massive psychological effect in Hungary. 'After the war we felt abandoned by the West,' Eva Walko, a well-informed and astute young woman who had travelled widely in the west between the wars noted. 'And our feeling proved to be right.' Eden minuted his Permanent Secretary, Alexander Cadogan, after the 'percentage deal' was struck: 'I expect the Russians will want to be very hard on the Hungarians.' He was a master of understatement.
First, though, the Russians had to win their victory. The next six months in Hungary saw some of the most bitter fighting of the entire war. Two Soviet armies commanded by Marshal Rodion Malinowsky slowly encircled Budapest, while in the capital itself there was chaos and civil war.
Hungary, under its 'Regent' for the last quarter of a century, Admiral Miklós Horthy, had been a key ally of the Germans. Horthy's manners were impeccable, but he was ruthless and violent. Thousands of his opponents were murdered or disappeared. His primary aim was simple: to win the return of historic Hungarian lands lost after the First World War. Hitler had promised to restore to Hungary most of Transylvania, Slovakia and Croatia, which had been ceded under the Treaty of Trianon. From the mid 1930s, with Horthy's blessing, Hungary became increasingly Nazified, and when the time came the Regent's army enthusiastically marched against Soviet Russia.
Hungarians escaped the worst of the war until March 1944, when the Germans occupied the country. They were desperate to bolster the steadily weakening Eastern Front and they wanted to make up for lost time in implementing the Final Solution in Central Europe. In barely six months 450,000 Hungarian Jews, those living outside Budapest, were sent to the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Even if Horthy had wanted to save them - and the evidence is mixed, his private papers reveal him as a keen anti-Semite - he could do nothing.
In September 1944 the Regent at last tried to do the decent thing. Knowing the Germans would lose the war, he made secret overtures to Stalin about a separate Hungarian-Soviet peace. His attempt never came to anything. The Germans got wind of the plans. Commandos kidnapped his surviving son, Miklós junior, and on 15 October forced the Regent to abdicate. He was deported to Germany. Hitler replaced him as head of state with Ferenc Szálasi, the leader of the Arrow Cross, Hungary's home-grown fascist group, who unleashed an unprecedented reign of terror and destruction on the country that shocked even the German High Command by its barbarity. The transports to the death camps had stopped in the summer. But the Arrow Cross continued the slaughter. Its gangs roamed Budapest rounding up Jews and anyone suspected of socialist sympathies. Scores of thousands were shot on the Danube quayside and thrown into the river.
As Malinowsky's troops tightened the circle around Budapest, the defeat of Hungary was an imminent prospect celebrated in anticipation by the Western allies. Unlike Poland or Czechoslovakia, Hungary was not then seen as a plucky little victim nation. Propaganda from London, Washington and Moscow remembered that the Hungarians had been on the 'wrong' side in two world wars and judged them to be among the chief troublemakers in Central Europe. The view of the Tory MP and diarist Harold Nicolson, a man of liberal opinions, was common at the time:
When I learned that the Russian armies were within cannon-range of Budapest, I was conscious of delight, which I felt to be neither virtuous nor sane. My reason tells me that the Hungarians found themselves in a difficult position, and that it would have been hard indeed for them to maintain a stubborn neutrality. They were forced into the war by geographical necessity and by a burning resentment against the Treaty of Trianon. The fact is that since the day more than a thousand years ago, when Árpád first entered Hungary, the Magyars have done much harm and little good to Europe ... My satisfaction may be due to the quite rational feeling that this time the Hungarians will not again be able to disturb the peace.
The bloody siege of Budapest began on Christmas Eve and lasted fifty-one days. The Germans had transferred ten divisions to Hungary from the Western Front and Hitler's orders were to defend the city at all costs. More than 40,000 German troops and 70,000 Russians died in the battle, large numbers in hand-to-hand combat. Uncounted thousands of civilians, hiding in basements, were killed in the crossfire. At the end Budapest lay in ruins. All the bridges spanning the two sides of the Danube had been blown up by the retreating Germans. After Berlin and Warsaw, Budapest was the most war-ravaged capital in Europe. Ferenc Nagy (not to be confused with Imre Nagy), shortly to become Prime Minister, described the sight as he came out of his hiding place on 14 February 1945:
'Man-high rubble covered the streets. High blockades of concrete, steel girders, lumber, brick and glass from the collapsed buildings jammed the thoroughfares. The wrecks of thousands of planes, tanks, armoured cars were everywhere ... Merciful snow covered the uncounted dead. Animal carcasses littered the streets. Shop windows were full of the dead, while the wraith-like living ransacked the abandoned stores. Twisted tram rails jutted skyward like thin fingers of an imploring hand.'
For a few days of joy the Russians were greeted rapturously as saviours. But the frontline army moved on for the final assault on Germany, leaving behind soldiers who made Hungarians understand very quickly what it meant to be a conquered enemy. The Red Army's occupation caused despair even among those who welcomed it as the defeat of fascism. Soon, hatred of the Soviet Union became stronger than before the defeat. The first Russian words most Hungarians learned was the phrase Davai tchassey ('Give me your watch'). Looting was widespread, from officially sanctioned 'trophy brigades' which sought valuables that were sent back to Moscow, to soldiers emptying food stores.
The great novelist Sándor Márai had his belongings stripped, as did many of his friends:
The Russian who dropped by in the morning, conversed amicably with the family, showed pictures of his wife and children back home, sentimentally patted the heads of the children and gave them candy, departed and then returned in the afternoon or late at night and robbed the very same family he had made friends with that morning ... the looting was not aimed at the 'fascist enemy' but caused simply by abject poverty. These Communist Russians were so impoverished, so miserably destitute, so completely stripped of everything ... that now, set loose after 30 years of privation and drudgery, they threw themselves hungrily on everything that fell into their hands.
That included women. For more than four decades, until Soviet troops left Hungary in 1990, almost nobody dared mention the taboo subject of the rapes committed by Russian soldiers in 1945. Many victims would not talk about it in their own families or with friends, let alone in public. It is still not known exactly how many women were raped, but a report made by the Swiss Embassy at the time, kept secret for many years, made a rough estimate of around 150,000 (from a female population of about 4.5 million). As a direct result the abortion laws were liberalised so that women could terminate unwanted pregnancies.
Women were attacked from day one of the liberation, as Christine Arnothy, a fifteen-year-old girl emerging with her sister Ilas from a Budapest cellar, recalled:
The Russians were advancing and ... at each house, a group of soldiers left the main body ... One detachment entered our house. The officer who commanded it yelled at us to know if there were any Germans in the house. Several of us nodded in the direction of the staircase. The German was killed on the spot and Ilas, whom they had found close to this wounded man, was raped beside the still warm corpse. From the first instant we understood that what was happening was very different from what we had hoped.
Alaine Polcz, in her early twenties at the war's end, had been a prisoner of the Germans. When the Russians reached her village in eastern Hungary she was effectively held prisoner again. Soviet troops had seen a picture of her with her husband. He was an officer in the Hungarian army, so they arrested her. She was held with a group of other women in a church presbytery near the front line, where she could hear constant gunfire. Years later she remembered her ordeal. 'Earlier on in the war I had seen those posters in Budapest showing a Russian soldier tearing a crucifix off a woman's neck and I'd read pamphlets saying that the Russians did this and that. I didn't believe any of it. Propaganda I thought.' Soon she learned differently. She saw a young girl whose head was bleeding - a lock of her hair had been torn out. She was miserable and desperate.
'The Russians rode her,' said her mother. I didn't understand. 'With a bicycle?' I asked. The woman became angry. 'Are you a fool? Don't you know what they do to women?'
The next day Ms Polcz was in a room with her mother-in-law:
In came three Russians and told me to go with them. Now I knew exactly what they wanted. I put on my boots and tied my headscarf, then I untied it and tied it again, then I untied it once again to gain some time. As I stood there I heard something knocking on the door; it was the heels of my boots, I was trembling so much.
We stepped out into an L-shaped corridor. I started to attack them wildly ... kicked and hit them with all my strength, but the next moment I was on the ground. No one made a sound. We fought in silence. They took me to the kitchen at the back of the house and as I tried to defend myself they flung me down so that I hit my head against the corner of the rubbish bin. It was made of hard wood.
I came round in the priest's big room. The window panes were broken, the windows were boarded up. There was nothing on the bed but bare boards on which I was lying. A Russian was on top of me ... The feeling in my body hadn't returned with my consciousness; it was as if I was numb or gone cold ... In that windowless unheated room I was naked from the waist down. I don't know how many Russians used me after that, or how many there had been before. As dawn was breaking they left me. I got up. I could only move with great difficulty. My head and my whole body ached. I was bleeding profusely. Over the next few days new troops arrived and I was pestered a lot.
She was infected with syphilis from the repeated rapes.
Men who tried to protect women were viciously brushed aside, or killed. The best-known case was Bishop Vilmos Apor, from the western Hungarian town of Győr, who had bravely opposed the persecution of the Jews. On Good Friday 1945 drunken Soviet soldiers entered his palace in search of a group of young women they had seen going in through a side entrance. When the soldiers went down to the cellar they saw the Bishop in full ceremonial regalia blocking the entrance to the room where the women had sought refuge. He tried to wrestle with the intruders, but they shot him three times. Bishop Apor died two days later on Easter Sunday.
For many Hungarians 'official looting', as they referred to war reparations paid to Russia after the post-war peace settlements, seemed as bad as the pillaging by soldiers. 'We have had three great tragedies in Hungary - the Tartar conquest in the thirteenth century, the 150- year Turkish occupation - and the Soviet liberation,' a well-rehearsed saying of the time went. The division of Europe and the punitive damages awarded against Hungary in the Yalta and Potsdam agreements were resented almost as much as the Versailles and Trianon treaties had been a generation earlier after the First World War. 'The victorious country demands us to assert its rights for the reason that the vanquished country started war against it,' Vladimir Dekanozov, the Soviet Union's Foreign Affairs Deputy Commissar, explained bluntly on an early visit to Budapest.
Russia was entitled to all German-owned property in Hungary; this was to compensate the USSR for some of the losses incurred at the hands of the Nazis. About a third of Hungarian industry had been controlled by German capital - worth around $1 billion (at 1945 prices). Two hundred complete factories, and the machinery from 300 more, were dismantled and sent to the Soviet Union. Russia took over entire industries, setting up companies under joint Russian-Hungarian ownership. In this way the Soviets were able to profit from steel plants, railway construction, shipping on the Danube and transport, electricity coal and oil. István Ries, the first post-war Minister of Justice, a socialist, joked to a friend about the terms of the joint Soviet-Hungarian Shipping Company. 'You know, the agreement came about on the basis of perfect equality. The Russians have the right to ship up and down the river. We have the right to ship across.'
A third of the gold and silver reserves were taken by the Russians. Two hundred million dollars had to be paid in official war reparations to the Soviet Union and $50 million each to the other neighbouring 'victorious nations', Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia (at 1938 prices). The Hungarian national budget for 1946-7 set aside as war reparations eight times the sum allotted for post-war reconstruction. UN officials estimated three years after the war ended that the total material loss to Hungary of Soviet reparations, occupation and looting was 40 per cent of national income.
Partly due to the pressure of paying the reparations, and partly due to successive years of poor harvest, the currency collapsed. Hungary faced record hyperinflation. A US dollar was worth 1,320 pengo in July 1945. By November that year the exchange rate was one to 296,000. In the summer of next year it was 4.6 quadrillion to the dollar (that is fourteen noughts, an unenviable record). Most Hungarians refused to be paid in money. The wallpaper in many Budapest rooms was decorated with large banknotes in fantastical denominations. The currency was stabilised, largely with the help of the Americans, who returned to the National Bank $40 million of gold reserves that had been taken to Germany in late 1944. Had the gold remained in Hungary at the moment of 'liberation' it would undoubtedly have been seized as booty by the Russians.
Along with the Russian troops there came a group of Hungarian-born Communists, known as Muscovites. About 300-strong, they had spent long years in Russian exile, preparing for the day they would re-enter Budapest in triumph. Handpicked by Stalin, their purpose was to act as proconsuls in the Hungarian province of the Red Tsar's new imperium. They were chosen for one thing: unwavering loyalty to the USSR. Most of them were Soviet citizens and had spent fifteen or twenty years in Russia. They had lost contact with the land of their birth. The Soviet Union had given them shelter, a cause to believe in and a job. Most were professional Communist agitators who had never worked at anything else. Almost all of them had spent terms in jail of varying length under the Horthy regime. When they returned to Hungary after the war, they were not going home. Hungary had ceased to be home a long time ago for most of them. They returned as representatives of a foreign power, to serve the interests of the Soviet Union. They could have been sent anywhere and served their overlords in Moscow with equal fervour.
Life as an émigré in Soviet Russia was a dangerous business. Surviving the purges from the mid 1930s onwards was hard enough for a Russian. A foreigner who might be working as a Comintern agent, regularly in touch with other potentially dubious strangers, was always a mistrusted figure. Many lived in the seedy Hotel Lux in Moscow with other émigrés, constantly watchful of each other - and of their own backs. Several prominent Hungarian Communists had perished in Stalin's purges in the 1930s. The assassin's bullet had been the fate of Béla Kun, who had been head of the tragi-comic Communist republic in Hungary that lasted just 133 days in 1919. Even his status as a minor celebrity could not save him from being liquidated as a Trotskyite agent.
The Muscovite lived a life of slogans and - when the slogans changed, as they repeatedly did at the whim of Stalin - of grave danger.
The Muscovite's life was by no means enviable. Its leitmotif was fear. A Muscovite ... was never safe wherever he went - least of all the Soviet Union. Neither his loyalty, nor his long Party membership would protect him. He knew that he did not even have to commit a mistake in order to be relieved of his job, or to be arrested and tried. Muscovites knew that no such thing as permanent truth existed - because no such thing ever existed in the Soviet Union. [A Muscovite] knew the truth has many faces and the only thing that concerned him was which face was on top just then. He was fully aware that at all times truth was what the Secretary General or the Supreme Body of the Party held to be truth and therefore it did not particularly bother him that yesterday's truth had changed, by today, into a lie.
The Muscovites knew what was expected of them. They were to build a Soviet colony without the slightest deviation from the Stalinist model. But the plan was not to take over immediately. The order from their masters in the Kremlin was to wait until the time was right.
Click here to read Andrew Nagorski's review of Twelve Days in the Washington Post
About the author: Victor Sebestyen was born in Budapest in 1955 but came to Britain with his family as refugees just a year later. He has worked for many British newspapers, including the Evening Standard, where he was foreign editor, media editor and chief leader writer. Twelve Days is his first book.