The Hungarian Revolution of October 23 1956 in the light of contemporary Dutch newspapers
1956 Budapest history related
In addition to the history and facts of the 1956 Hungarian Crisis
1956 Hungarian demonstrations
October 23 in Hungary
One of the Hungarian national holidays is October 23 which is a monumental reminder to all of us about the horrors of totalitarianism and the protracted action against total dictatorship. Therefore, my aim is to expand the contemporary assessment of the outbreak of the Hungarian Revolution by presenting an assessment of the contemporary Dutch press releases for informative purposes without claiming completeness.
The echo of the events of October 23 1956 in Hungary filled the world press. The middle stage of humanity’s twentieth-century history: the period of the bipolar world’s Cold War has an effect to this day. The history of Hungary was spent in the isolation of the Iron Curtain. The Rákosi regime was a hard line, Stalinist dictatorship with all its features: conceptual lawsuits, executions, disregard for civil liberties, use of secret service to the detriment of the population, one-party system, total service of the Communist Party of the USSR, violent food requisitioning, forced crop compulsory delivery system, low living standards, overcrowded heavy industry investments and many more. After the World War 2, the Hungarian society came under the rule of the communists gathering in the Hungarian Workers’ Party at the end of series of political processes that took place forced as a result of the Soviet constant military occupation.
The terrible losses of World War 2, the enormous costs of rebuilding the country, the scarcity of raw materials and the war reparations made impossible the type of capital-intensive heavy industry development structure that Soviet heavy industrialization meant. The living standard of the population was kept low by terror and arbitrary forced requisition in order to serve the interests of the Soviet Union. The heavy burden was exacerbated by a series of personal shortcomings and mistakes. Mátyás Rákosi, who in Hungary was mostly surrounded by a heroic personal cult similar to the “almighty” Stalin, followed his “master” so much that he can rightly be considered “Stalin’s best disciple”. Stalin himself considered Rákosi’s overzealousness to be an exaggeration, so Rákosi’s psychological problems further aggravated the historical situation. After the death of Stalin, a temporary easing process was observed, which took place during Imre Nagy’s course of prime ministry. Rákosi was then forced to let go temporarily, but as the fighting in the Soviet leadership allowed him, he torpedoed the program of Nagy’s government and restored Stalinism. Rákosi’s struggle to stay in power, the power-hungriness of his fellow party leaders and the dissatisfaction of Hungarian society culminated in 1956.
The demonstration of October 23 1956 in Budapest in the contemporary Dutch newspapers
The Cold War had reached one of its peaks in 1956: the population of the Warsaw Pact member states experienced a low standard of living and vulnerability. In addition to the workers’ uprising in Poznan during the summer of 1956, world politics was shaken by the parallel Suez Crisis and the Hungarian Revolution and Freedom Fight. The events had a significant impact on each other and these could had been felt through the resources used. Among other things, the sources illustrate well how the press drew parallels between events in Poland and Hungary. An anti-Stalinist speech by Gomulka, the reformist leader of the Polish Communist Party, at the Central Plenary Session of the Polish party on October 20 induced the already dissatisfied Hungarian youth to think of the possibility of expressing their opposition to the system in sympathy with the Polish nation. The contemporary Dutch dailies provide an important source because they shed light on the problems encountered by the Western press when reporting on the demonstration in Budapest on October 23 1956 and the resulting revolution and fight for freedom. At the same time, the Dutch dailies of the time offer a great opportunity not only to get to know the social atmosphere of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and Freedom Fight from the perspective of the major Western media. The reception of the world historical event, which the Dutch initially called only the “Hungarian uprising”, is also important to us because it is not only the reception of events that can be known but also the thoughts that influenced the authors of the articles. Therefore, below, I present the events of October 23 1956 through the mood, content and appearance of articles appearing in the columns of the Dutch daily newspapers of October 24 1956. According to the source documents, the Dutch broadcast the events in the wake of Western German and Austrian press, at least in the first days of the October 23 1956 Hungarian Revolution and ensuing fight for freedom. Although in some cases, they completely took over the West German and Austrian news. In their articles, they generally sought objectivity and the atmosphere of the articles clearly reflected the Cold War atmosphere of the time.
One of the most iconic contemporary Dutch newspapers, the Algemeen Handelsblad was one of the Dutch press releases covering the events of October 23 1956 in Hungary. The Algemeen Handelsblad was a national liberal economic paper, the October 24 issue of which focused on the situation in Hungary. “Russian troops helps Hungarians in stopping the riots”. Subtitle: “Nagy again prime minister”. The photo of Imre Nagy and Ernő Gerő appeared on the cover as an illustration. The author of the article reported on the events of the afternoon-night of October 23 1956 and the morning of October 24 1956 respectively. At length, but somewhat inaccurately. He referred the events to the category “massive riots”. The author recorded as a great achievement that the students were allowed to march in the afternoon, despite being banned shortly before. The seriousness of the situation was emphasized by the fact that the introduction of the curfew and the state of emergency were already indicated on the front page, while the events were continuously published on the third page. The author called the main character of the title page, Nagy a “cleansed” titoist, according to the orientation of the newspaper and considered his position to be unstable. The author was fairly well informed as he highlighted the occurring of the event on 19 October, when plenty of college students returned their membership cards for the Communist Youth Movement. He described the demonstration on the afternoon of October 23 1956 as a demonstration expressing sympathy for the Polish people, an approach that was one of the general features of the articles examined.
The demonstration was organized by the Petőfi Klub, which according to the author was a nationalist communist intellectual circle. This finding also returned in the columns of several Dutch dailies. It is an interesting statement about this paradox element that well characterized the duality of the situation in Hungary as the theory of communism was internationalist rather than nationalist. The writer emphasized that the gathered demonstrating crowd in the city centre was peaceful. The people carried only Hungarian national symbols and sang only songs with national feel. Among others the National Anthem that was banned for years. The author specifically detailed that there was not any red among the national cockades and flags. The crowd marched to Bem József square who was described as one of the Polish heroes of the Hungarian Revolution and Fight for Independence of 1848. Here, the demonstration demanded freedom of the press and expression, as well as proposals to raise the living standards, abolish Stalinism, freedom of foreign trade and re-regulate uranium mining. The author stressed that the parade received a lot of attention in the city and a large number of workers and employees joined the students, including off-duty soldiers of the Hungarian army. He informed his readers about another group of demonstrators who immediately tried to remove Stalin’s huge bronze statue as well as the red stars of the top of the houses. The author indicated that the crowd marching towards the building of Parliament also began to demand the withdrawal of Soviet troops after which military units also arrived on the scene. An inaccuracy can be found here, as he claims uncertainly that the army units initially used tear gas but because the crowd was not dispersed, a few shots were fired. On the other hand, he does not formulate it precisely, so it is not clear when and where, nor who to whom fired the shots. The article emphasized that according to the official radio broadcast, there were a number of victims and that the Hungarian government’s initial position was clear: “fascist and anti-communist elements tried to overthrow the people’s republic.” So he diagnosed a coup situation. After Imre Nagy came to power at night, he did not see any further development of the situation as favourable because Nagy could not immediately stop the escalation of the confrontations with any promise.
In another article, Algemeen Handelsblad openly called the event an “uprising”: a fierce rebellion against Stalinism”. The author was of the opinion about the changes in the Hungarian leadership at night that Ernő Gerő could help stop the situation with the help of the Soviet troops and the new staff just as Gomulka did in Poland. From this point of view, he found it understandable to reinstate Imre Nagy to his communist party and governmental functions. According to him, Nagy was popular among Hungarians only because Nagy was previously considered the leader of one of the Hungarian party wings, whom Rákosi had ousted from both the leadership and the party. By the way, he is a communist man of confidence in Moscow. In his opinion, no matter how the situation develops, it could mean a huge loss of prestige to the Hungarian communists. The author of the article interpreted the exchange of Nagy-Hegedűs (Imre Nagy replaced András Hegedűs as prime minister) and the political infightings among the communist party wings as well as the removal of Rákosi from power as signs that proved the weakness of the communists. The active participation of the Russian occupying forces in the maintenance of domestic political order, although he perceived that the Hungarian society was further distanced from communism than the Polish. In his view, Imre Nagy was a totalitarian communist, but his political program did not mimic Stalinist hard-line heavy industry. He described in detail the main moments of Nagy’s career: Russian captivity during the First World War, joining the Soviet Revolution. He returned home after World War I, but as a Muscovite he had to flee after the “Béla Kun’s coup” and then after the communist victory, until 1953 he was one of the functionaries of the Hungarian communist leadership. He then detailed the differences between Imre Nagy’s 1953 prime ministerial program and the Stalinist. Nagy was expected at this critical moment to provide a solution to an acute social problem that had developed, for example by ending kolkhozization, the Soviet-style combined forced collective farming. It is clear that the political circumstances and actors were described in detail.
Interestingly, in addition to his own commentary, he also presented what the official communist propaganda was ringing about the Revolution. Based on these, he stated that the Communists said about the event such as some Western-minded intelligentsia mixed with counter-revolutionary gangs created the upheaval. The author believed that the significance of the event lay in the fact that it could upset the Soviet-Hungarian alliance. According to him, Hungarian society could do nothing else because Hungary existed in such an unfavourable system of alliance and social order which forced Hungarians to reconcile with the occupying Russians, because Hungary did not find any significant support among the neighbouring Slavic states or Romania. In his perspective, the difference between the Polish and Hungarian situations was that: while the Polish nation owed their new state to Soviet influence, the Hungarians did not. Furthermore, it was precisely because of this that the Poles were more flexible towards the Soviet occupiers. He thought that although the Poles did not like the Russians either, they were cooperating with them more out of compulsion. According to his information, which he developed on the basis of the narration of the already fled dissidents from both states: Gomulka and his Polish circle are nationalist similar to Hungarian demonstrators. This is also a good symbol of both people’s compulsion as the communist idea was not rooted in society and therefore coercion must had been used against both societies. This was the new state for the Poles but in the case of Hungarians such reason was not existing. In his opinion, this was the reason why the Hungarian communists had to terrorize the Hungarian society more than in Poland. According to the author, this was also proved by the situation of Gomulka who, unlike László Rajk, was not prosecuted and executed. This could had been a propaganda trick, as László Rajk’s conceptual lawsuit or showcase then the execution of him were more of a derivation within the communist ranks, while Gomulka did not get so deep into the party’s grinders. This subjective finding may had stemmed from a lack of accurate knowledge, but may also had been targeting social mood creation purposes also. According to him, the struggle between the factions within the Hungarian communist party is also significantly greater than in the Polish party. He also pointed out that Rákosi was anti-titoist and this was a reason why the Hungarian diplomacy could not show any serious rapprochement with neighbouring states even not after the death of Stalin. In addition, there was some propaganda in the article as the author put it this way: Hungary would have done better if it traded with the West. This propagandistic statement is worth presenting because it is a good indication that Dutch society was unaware of the course of the Soviet liberation-occupation and the author could therefore easily assumed that: Hungary would had been doing better if… like Hungary had any choice, which was none other existing.
The cover of the populist De Telegraaf was full of events in Hungary: “The protesting young people are demanding the return of former prime minster Imre Nagy. Hungary follows the Polish example. Budapest is cut off from outside world. The city is buzzing with massive riots” – resounded the title of the editorial in the October 24 issue. The composition of Polish, Hungarian and Egyptian events formed the cover. Their article is straightforward, but less detailed and painted a somewhat more vague picture of the situation than the article above. He presented the events from the point of view of the protesters, so he was most preoccupied with the detailing of the parade and the demands, actions and voices of the protesters. “Out with the Russian troops!” and “we want a new government with Imre Nagy”. According to the author, the sympathy of the Hungarians aroused at the Polish events first took on an anti-government and then an anti-Soviet atmosphere, which resulted in the intervention of the communist power due to the slogans. The author lost the scene of the first armed clash because he said – it cannot be ruled out, only to increase the impact – that the military initially opened fire on the peaceful and unarmed mass at the Parliament but the most serious fighting took place at the Hungarian Radio building. The first shots were fired in front of the Hungarian Radio’s building. This inaccuracy maybe stemmed from the quality of radio transmissions as both authors repeatedly mention that radio transmissions are uncertain and there is no telephone connection either.
The Friese Koerier of Friesland used information from the AFP news agency. “An expression of solidarity with Poland. Great demonstrations in the Hungarian capital”. It deals with the topic in a much shorter term, as content of this newspaper is lesser than the two aforementioned giants. There is an article on the front page and a short commentary on the fourth page. The Petőfi Club is a communist youth organization that is also nationalist. This fact has somewhat confused Dutch journalists, as this misconduct had been mentioned several times. He was informed of the exact time: the demonstrations took place between three o’clock in the afternoon and six o’clock in the evening. Like the authors of the two articles above, he presented the event as a national parade in which government troops intervened after the claims were read. He detailed the demands of the protesters and the course of the parade. Referring to information from the MTI, he found that there were casualties but did not deal in detail with the fighting during the night. They were written in the second article: Hungary asked for the help of Soviet troops, “the article briefly noted the struggles in which the secret service’s militant troops clashed with insurgent groups of Hungarian protesters, citing Viennese sources. The author emphasized that the gravity of the situation was shown by the Hungarian government’s compulsion to seek the help of Soviet occupying forces to resolve the situation.
The social democratic Het Vrije Volk presented a large editorial and devoted an additional longer explanatory article to the events. “The Hungarian people rose up. The Russians intervened in the bloody revolution. Nagy again prime minister”. The article started with the Russian march in the morning and only later presented the circumstances of the demonstrations. The flow of information stopped immediately, there is no telephone connection and only the broadcasts of Budapest Radio can be referred to that are also uncertain – cited the circumstances. According to government propaganda, the first insurgents had already surrendered, but barely an hour after this morning’s announcement, shots and screams were heard before the Radio aired Imre Nagy’s speech. The writer defined the number of demonstrators approximately two-hundred-thousand. However, he made a mistake in detailing the first steps of the Imre Nagy government, because he stated wrongly about Imre Nagy’s personal participation in requesting the Russian military support of the Hungarian communist government. The author wrote about the negotiations between the insurgents and Imre Nagy and the demands of them. He emphasized that the original student demonstration in the afternoon was an announced and authorized demonstration. The government only wanted to ban it afterwards the collecting of information about that the demonstration could slip out of their control but at that moment a huge crowd already had been gathered on the Stalin Square and it seemed pointless to prevent it and therefore the government after the banning was announcing again allowed it by withdrawing the ban. At the same time, the author of the article believed that the paralysis of the Hungarian Communist Party’s leadership was discovered in the elemental power of the event, which led to governmental failure. The demonstrators spoke simultaneously against Rákosi, Gerő, the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact and the lawlessness.
On the third page, they wrote that “the Hungarians forced the party to capitulate”. Referring to the early morning news of Budapest Radio, the author informed his readers that the cause of the fighting was that the units of the Hungarian communist state security police opened fire on the crowd which resulted in a wave of resistance and riots. He detailed the whole process with reference to Viennese news: he accurately described the events that took place around the Hungarian Radio. Unlike other Dutch authors, he did not miss the venue and the date, and even here we can read about the events in full detail. He emphasized that the building of the Hungarian Radio was not protected by police units or units of the Hungarian army, but by the units of the secret service. A group of demonstrators marched to the building of the Hungarian Radio to perhaps prevent the radio announcement of Ernő Gerő who returned from Yugoslavia. Gerő was just about to announce that Hungary’s secession from the Soviet Union was a fabrication only. Five trucks of heavily armed black-clad team arrived at the building of the Hungarian Radio. According to the author, the protesters yelled at the gunmen and called them to leave. At half past nine in the evening, the protesters wanted to send a delegation to the building but they were arrested. Then the crowd tired to break into the building, but the security forces threw tear gas at them and then shot into the crowd. According to the author, this proved fatal because it blew up armed resistance. One dead person and several injured were recorded at the building of Radio Budapest. This clash at the night riots led to the extension of the curfew. The first refugees who arrived in Vienna on October 24 at seven o’clock in the morning declared that after leaving the city around nine-thirty in the evening there was no massive upheaval but only peaceful demonstrations. The refugees thought the whole event could had started around ten o’clock. From this article, the contemporary Dutch reader was able to learn in detail about the changes within the Hungarian political leadership, e.g. on the reorganization of the Political Committee of the Hungarian Workers’ Party, the renewal of the Central Committee of the party and several elements of the rehabilitation of Imre Nagy.
The front page of the Nieuwsblad van het Noorden, a contemporary traditional press publication from the contemporary province of North-Holland, described the condition of the Iron Curtain: “The Iron Curtain was becoming more and more fragmented. After Poland, Hungary is also on the move. The government in Budapest asks for the help of Russian troops”. According to the author of this dramatic article, a peaceful demonstration with the participation of mostly students turned into riot after the workers joined in. He accurately reported on the aims of the movement and the demands of the crowd. The rehabilitation of Imre Nagy and appointment to a senior position was paralleled by Gomulka and the events in Poland. He emphasized that the Polish communists were able to prevent the situation from biting and the Russians withdrew their troops. The article mentions no Soviet troops, it was written definitely and categorically always voiced the intervention of the Russian army. It illustrates the illusion of the situation by saying that peaceful protesters would actually be counter-revolutionary robbery gangs, according to communist radio broadcast. This duality can be found everywhere except the communist newspaper. However, some typography appeared in this demanding work, which probably appeared due to the inattention of the editorial staff as it erroneously stated that the Polish general Josef Bem was a famous hero of the Hungarian War of Independence in 1948 (!).
The official press body of the Dutch Communist Party, De Waarheid, alone was clearly arguing for the intervention of the government and official bodies. The article has a short and hostile tone and the article is less emphasized than the Polish or North African events published alongside it. It illustrates well that they tried to reduce the weight of the events. “… counterrevolutionary gangs began bloody attacks.” This daily was clearly the mouthpiece of Pravda in the Netherlands, so it is not surprising that the article does not seek an objective presentation, either in terms of the reasons for the event or its course. Fogging, perhaps this is what best characterized this article compared to others. Based on the article, a somewhat different image could be created for the reader. According to this, the largest Hungarian insurgent group had already surrendered and the outbreak of the fighting, all the damage and casualties are the fault of the consistently so-called “reactionary criminal gangs” who were the peaceful demonstrators. He remembered the Hungarian political changes only in headlines and the radio speech of Imre Nagy was evaluated in the follow-up article. The author of the article wrote what Imre Nagy claimed in his official radio announcement only that subversive elements could have mingled among the protesters thus they become hostile. He also highlighted the goal of Nagy which was to develop the Hungarian path of socialism. The speech of Zoltán Tildy premier was only briefly mentioned.
Appearing in the Caribbean, Amigoe di Curaçao covered the events of October 23 1956 in Budapest. The title of the editorial quoted the password of the demonstrators: “Out with the Russian troops!” and continued: “Shots give the background noise of Radio Budapest. Anti-Russian demonstrations continue in Poland.” This is a type of summary of both central European events. The author worked on both the Polish and Hungarian solidarity and described both situations in detail. The Hungarian demonstration was just a peaceful sympathy demonstration and it escalated because of the unpreparedness of the government. He emphasized the Hungarian national style of the demonstration and that no sign of communist symbols could be found. The article also had information about the background of the movement then it continued with the Polish crisis.
It can be generally stated that the outbreak of the Hungarian Revolution of October 23 1956 was presented in detail in the Dutch press right after the first clashes. Naturally, the articles were not free from either personal resolutions or political expressions. For the most part, the Dutch journalists tried to do a thorough job and also use a casual system to justify such developments. With the exception of the Dutch communist newspaper, the decline of the Hungarian communist government was mostly declared, which they said was one of the most pressing factors in the deployment of Soviet troops. It is striking that is some case inaccuracies also appeared due to largely inattention and the uncertainty of the situation was well illustrated by the articles. The Dutch press condemned the deployment of Soviet troops and the wording of the articles showed that they did not have much confidence in the credibility of Hungarian communist radio broadcast, as evidenced by the fact that most of the disturbances in the communication channels were interrupted apart from the communist newspaper.
Resources and literature:
The sources of the contemporary Dutch newspapers:
The releases of 24 October 1956: Algemeen Handelsblad, Amigoe di Curaçao, De Telegraaf, De Waarheid, Friese Koerier, Het Vrije Volk, Nieuwsblad van het Noorden
Rainer M. János: Az 1956-os magyar forradalom. (János Rainer M.): The 1956 Hungarian Revolution) – Osiris, Budapest, 2016.
Tischler János (szerk.): Budapestről jelentjük… - Az 1956-os forradalom az egykori nemzetközi sajtóban. (János Tischler (ed,): We report from Budapest… - The 1956 revolution in the contemporary international press) – 1956-os Intézet (1956 Institute), Budapest, 2007.
Pünkösti Árpád: Rákosi, Sztálin legjobb tanítványa (Árpád Pünkösti: Rákosi, the best disciple of Stalin) - Európa, Budapest, 2004.