Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Did the West abandon Hungary in 1956? - Part I.

Exactly 56 years ago, a series of protests by Hungarian university students turned into what became the first example of a popular uprising against an oppressive Soviet regime, and a key moment in modern Hungarian history - the Revolution of 1956. While the revolution is commemorated each year, it is often forgotten that it's success largely depended on foreign politics - not unlike the revolutions of 1848 and 1703. This two-post-long series will explain the origins and implications of the Suez Crisis on the Hungarian cause - and in the second post, will try to determine whether there was a realistic chance of foreign assistance for the revolutionaries.


The events leading up to the Suez Crisis and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 were radically different in nature - in fact, it was a practical coincidence that the two events occurred at the same time. What connects them, however is that in the end, both countries were only proxy theatres for the machinations of the Cold War. 

Previously - in Egypt

In Egypt, the main cause of the events were the clashes between British imperial and Cold War ambitions and Egyptian efforts at sovereignty. Under British occupation, officially dubbed a 'protectorate' since 1882, the people of Egypt have long desired independence. After 1922, this independence was unilaterally granted by the British colonisers - yet the new Kingdom of Egypt has remained  under heavy British influence and lacking popular support. During the Second Word War, British soldiers were already obliged to withdraw from all territories except the important trade route and strategic position, the Suez Canal. Yet the regime remained unpopular, and in 1952, the 'Free Officers Movement' performed a coup d'etat against the monarchy, and the country became a non-aligned, military dictatorship.
The new leader, Gamal Nasser embarked in a form of swing policy, buying arms and getting finance from both the Western powers and the Soviet Union as the situation wished. This quickly angered the Western powers - as a punishment, the USA has cut off all funding for the Aswan Dam on 19 July, 1956.
Nasser's response was the nationalisation of the Suez Dam company on 26 July, which up to that point has been a private company with shares held by the British government and French private shareholders. The British were understandably furious, and the government of the Conservative decided that they'd take a military course of action.

Previously - in Hungary

Following the Second World War, Hungary has slowly, but inevitably shifted into the Soviet sphere of influence, with a full-fledged Communist dictatorship established by 1949, under the leadership of the quasi-Stalinist Mátyás Rákosi. His policies - mass arrests, terror and deportations - were incredibly unpopular among the general populace, and contributed little to it's proposed goals of rapid industrialisation - as illustrated below. (Click to enlarge.)
Source: Wikipedia, Translation: Schoolonomic
Following the death of Stalin in 1953, the new Soviet leadership under Nikita Kruschev was a reformist one compared to his predecessor. Among a series of other Stalinist leaders, the Soviets 'relieved' Rákosi of his duties, and the reformist Imre Nagy became the new Prime Minister. Nagy embarked on a series of reforms and de-Stalinization initially backed by the Soviet leadership, but once again, international politics intervened.
When West Germany joined the NATO in May 1955, Kruschev changed his course of foreign policy and became more hardliner - which meant that Rákosi was able to convince the premier to support him, and he returned to power in 1955. However, Hungarians were hard to accept the return to Stalinism - the reforms initiated by Imre Nagy couldn't be redone.
Following a failed worker's rebellion in Poland in June 1956, the Soviet leadership replaced the Stalinist leadership of Poland with that of the reformist Wladyslaw Gomulka. This encouraged Hungarian opposition against Rákosi's renewed regime - the re-burial of László Rajk, a prominent victim of early 1950's internal party purges, was attended by a crowd over 100,000.

The beginnings

Following a series of negotiations between Israel, France, Great Britain and the USA, and the draft of military scenarios such as the Operation Musketeer and Operation Revise, finally the powers agreed in the secret Protocol of Sévres that their invasion would commence on 29 October 1956.
Meanwhile, Gomulka's quick reforms in Poland angered the Soviet leadership, which warned of a possible military intervention. This lead to anti-Soviet protests in Poland starting on 19 October 1956. In days, the Hungarian university student movements started organising sympathy protests - starting on 23 October 1956.

Hence the Hungarian Revolution and the Suez Crisis began - and who knew where would be the end? Check out our post on Thursday for a conclusion to the story. 

Hungarian Wikipedia on 1956
English Wikipedia on Suez Crisis

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