The events that led to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 began at the Yalta Conference in February of 1945, where the Big Three allied nations – the United States, Great Britain and Russia – gathered to divide post-World War II Europe into “spheres of influence.” Hungary, a member of the Axis powers, was handed to the Soviets.

Hardline Communist Rule

Hungary, controlled by right wing forces before the war, had fought on the side of Germany, and had paid for it dearly, with thousands of its citizens killed by the Russians as they moved west. Post-war, Joseph Stalin’s Communist government occupied Hungary and turned it into a satellite of the Soviet Union. Stalin appointed the hard-line Communist Matyas Rakosi as the Hungarian prime minister. During his tenure, his secret police (the AVO) executed at least 2,000 political enemies and imprisoned tens of thousands of others, and he was fiercely resented by Hungarians. Hungarians were also dismayed by the fact that the Soviets sought to disband religious orders.

Students Seeking Freedom

After Stalin died in 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev became premier of Russia, Hungarians and others in Eastern Europe thought that he might ease off Stalin’s repressive Soviet policies. In fact, in 1955 Rakosi was replaced as prime minister by the more liberal Imre Nagy and Khrushchev gave a speech to the Soviet 20th Party Congress denouncing Stalinist excesses. This gave many Hungarians the hope that they would be allowed to be in charge of their own affairs. On the evening of October 22, 1956, students at Budapest Technical University adopted a resolution calling for, among other things, the right to create a free press and hold democratic elections. When these demands were rejected, hundreds of thousands of Hungarians took to the streets in a series of demonstrations that became violent when the Soviets attempted to put down the revolt using troops and tanks.

A Bloody End

The poorly armed Hungarian rebels battled Soviet forces. Unfortunately, the CIA-run Radio Free Europe gave false hope of assistance to the Hungarian fighters, causing them to believe aid was imminent when it was not. By November 4, the revolution was over, crushed by Soviet tanks. By November 22, Imre Nagy was a prisoner of the Russians (he would be executed in 1958). Thousands of Hungarians were executed or imprisoned; thousands more fled to the West.

Cause and Effect

Hungary underwent a period of repression that would last for decades. Other countries behind the Iron Curtain were cowed by the brutality of Russian actions.