Failed Revolutions: Hungary, 1956 and Czechoslovakia, 1968

Stalin’s death in 1953 sparked a new era in Cold War relations.  In spite of a leadership battle, the Soviets embarked on a series of reforms which began a thaw in East-West relations.  Khrushchev emerged as the leader in the Kremlin, and then in February 1956, gave a speech to the Twentieth Party Congress in which outlined his intent to carry out reforms towards ‘de-Stalinisation’.  Khrushchev inspired ‘de-Stalinisation’ of the Soviet bloc led to an increased hope for political and social change.   This speech sparked hope for political change, particularly in Eastern Europe.  This commitment to reform and move away from the ‘terror’ policies was tested in Poland between June and October that same year; riots and strikes occurred, and instead of being violently suppressed by a Soviet invasion, various concessions were granted[i].  The perception of success gave reformist communists, and the populations of the Eastern European nations hope, and increased expectations.  However, popular uprisings, like those seen in Hungary during 1956, and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, were crushed by a show of Soviet force.  

This show of force was the proximal cause of the failure of these revolts. There was a confluence of factors in the ultimate causes of their failure, so to find the ultimate cause(s) of their failure, it is necessary to consider the requirements for success.  The formation of the Post war world into two primary blocs was ‘the cornerstone of East-West relations’[ii], which led to the necessity of either Soviet benevolence, or support from the West in order for these revolts to succeed.  The Hungarian Uprising and the Prague Spring did not occur in a political vacuum; various preconditions and contemporary events played a role in the failure of these revolts. Nevertheless, three factors stand out: the geopolitical reality of the two rebellious States, the lack of outside support, and the increasingly radical demands of the population.  These three factors meant the revolts were doomed to failure.  First though, a brief outline of the two revolts.

The Revolts

On October 23, 1956, a peaceful student demonstration was held in Budapest, Hungary, in support of Polish reform.  As the crowd swelled to about two hundred thousand Hungarians, the demonstration quickly turned into a riot, and neither the AVH[iii], nor the Hungarian military could regain control[iv].  Erno Gero, Party Secretary in Hungary, formally requested Soviet military aid, which saw Soviet tanks in Budapest the next day.  Meanwhile, Imre Nagy, the former Prime Minister, was returned to the government in an attempt to placate the rebels.   Nagy called for a cease-fire on the 28th, and promised Soviet withdrawal, which was effected by the 30th October.  This, as it turned out, was not to last.  The Soviet Presidium, meeting 30th October, initially decided to withdraw and declared their willingness to negotiate with the new Hungarian government, however on 31st October the Presidium changed its mind; overnight they had decided to intervene.  The 1st November saw Nagy call for independence and a withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, and when the Soviets re-entered Hungary on the 4th November, Nagy pleaded to the UN to support Hungary’s independence.  No significant support was provided, and the Soviets crushed the revolt; the fighting lasted until the final wave of suppression on the 10th November.

Twelve years later, another reform project started in Czechoslovakia, this time much more organised.  The ‘Prague Spring’ was an ‘eight-month-long experiment’[v] to humanise socialism, modifying it to suit Czechoslovak conditions.  It came about after the loss of internal KSC[vi] party support for the then leader in Czechoslovakia, Antonin Novotny, due to a lack of positive economic and political reform. In early 1968 the ‘Stalinist’ era leader was ousted with the consent of Brezhnev, then Soviet Premier, who refused to support Novotny. Replacing him as First Secretary of the KSC was Alexander Dubcek, and soon after as President by Ludvik Svoboda.  This prepared the ground for Dubcek’s ‘Action Program’, a series of liberalisations including removal of censorship, some privatisation and greater democratic processes.  These reforms were instituted across several months, beginning in February – March 1968, Repeated warnings for moderation and limits by the Soviets had been ignored, and an increasingly demanding population had caused concern; a conservative wing in the government ‘invited’ the Soviets to put down the reformist government August 20-21, 1968.

Geopolitical concerns – The ‘buffer zone’ and a ‘contagion’

At the end of World War Two (WWII), The Soviet Union had been invaded several times in their recent history, and so, they demanded a ‘buffer zone’[vii] of communist friendly states over which they would have influence.  Based on agreements and military reality, the Soviets had achieved de facto control of Eastern Europe; the West allowed the ‘Iron Curtain’ to descend[viii].  McCauley suggests that this bipolarity formed out of WWII actually created a situation where each side, through ‘either passive acquiescence or more active measures’, supported the other in maintaining the status quo.

In 1956, Khrushchev was concerned that a departure from Hungary would leave holes in Soviet defences.  The Hungarian Uprising only occurred the year after Austria’s independence and the Belgrade Declaration[ix], so the possibility of Hungarian independence was unthinkable.  Hungary played a vital role in facilitating communication and control over the southern Communist states.  It was a link to Tito’s Yugoslavia, and helped ensure Yugoslavia was not isolated from the Soviets, which would risk closer ties with the West, and Western expansion.  Furthermore, the Suez crisis created an additional problem; knowing their limited capacity to act in the Middle-East at the time[x], the additional loss of Hungary would appear as though they were on a retreat from Empire – that they would not only be seen as weak in the Suez crisis, but as though they had given it up to the ‘imperialists’[xi].  Czechoslovakia also held a crucial location for the Soviets.  Not only did the State border the Soviet Union, but was a direct link to Western Germany; if Czechoslovakia was lost to Communism, then once again, the Soviets would have to be concerned over West-Germany, and Western invasion.  The loss of Czechoslovakia would also limit the capacity for communication between northern and southern Communist states[xii].

Both Khrushchev and Brezhnev were under pressure from within the CPSU, and in the other Communist states to take a hard line in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.  There was still a strong conservative wing in the CPSU, and noting that the after Stalin, the CPSU restored a significant degree of ‘collective leadership’[xiii], pacifying this group was a factor in securing these two States by force.  These two states had defied Soviet policy, and their reforms risked encouraging the populations in other Communist states.  Against Hungary in 1956, the neighbouring states were near unanimous; many states offered troops to quell the Uprising[xiv].  In 1968, it was predominantly East Germany and Poland offering strong arguments for Soviet intervention[xv].  At least part of this support was to avoid the possibility of a contagion – of revolts.  Both Khrushchev in 1956 and Brezhnev in 1968 were trying to avoid allowing these revolutions to spark a ‘snowball’ effect[xvi]. There was a great concern, not unjustified[xvii], that surrendering one satellite state under these sorts of conditions would set off a chain reaction of revolts; the Hungarian Uprising began itself as a protest in support of Polish concessions.  Further demonstrations occurred in the Soviet Union[xviii], and in this way, the intervention in Hungary and Czechoslovakia can be seen as sending a message to the whole of the Eastern Bloc that they remained under Soviet influence.

Increasingly Radical Demands in an Unprepared Leadership

Noting that they were geopolitically positioned in the Soviet sphere of influence, the demands made by the rebelling population were extreme; they were both idealistic and far-reaching[xix].  Furthermore, the demands became increasingly more fervent and radical as it progressed[xx]; the reform movement was outpacing the attempts to appease.  This was exacerbated by the lack of party control over the population and the media, and a failure of the leaders themselves.

In Hungary, the students’ organisation MEFESZ included the withdrawal of all Soviet troops; the reorganization of the government under Imre Nagy’s leadership; free elections for a new multi-party national assembly; various economic reforms; the rehabilitation of all victims of past injustices; and full freedom of speech and press[xxi].  Nagy was ‘reformed’ to the Communist leadership, but lost the initiative in managing the demands of the rebels, and selling reforms to Moscow[xxii].  Lack of firm leadership as the revolution gathered pace led to a loss of confidence by Moscow; rather than subduing the uprising, Nagy was attempting to keep pace with the accelerating events and increasingly radicalized popular demands[xxiii].

In Czechoslovakia, the Dubcek ‘Action Plan’ was really quite modest, but was seen as having wider potential[xxiv]; this was seen as positive by those supporting the reforms, and negative by those against them.  The reforms included removal of censorship, economic reforms towards a mixed economy, and the breakup of the unitary state into two.  When, on June 27, Czech intellectuals produced a two-thousand-word manifesto that advocated civil disobedience in order to ensure the continuation of the reform movement, even to the point of using weapons[xxv], this alarmed the anti-reformists in the Czechoslovak government, as well as the Soviets[xxvi].  For Dubcek in Czechoslovakia, it was very much a case of the offers of liberalisation provided simply prompted desire for even more liberalisation.

There was a distinct lack of forward thinking on the part of the leadership, particularly noting that they knew the system and their ‘comrades’ in the Soviet Union.  Events had resulted in unrealistic demands and expectations from the rank and file of the Revolt, producing a situation that the Soviets could probably not accept.  Many of the insurgents were determined to achieve their goals immediately, rather than settling for ill-defined negotiations that, once under way, would be subject to delay or derailment[xxvii].  They were idealistic, rather than pragmatic and patient[xxviii].  However justified they were, as valid as their claims may have been, as understandable the frustration, and as appealing their idealism, they should have tempered their enthusiasm.  The demand for ever wider reforms and the unwillingness to compromise or be patient with particular demands placed significant stress on the reformist government.  The necessity of placating the public, and the commitment to a new way, meant that they were unwilling to call for temperance, or use their power to halt insurgency.  A degree of self-censorship may have lessened the severity of the suppression, or removed its necessity by highlighting the lack of a threat the reforms actually posed.

(Lack of) Western Intervention

The only exit from Soviet Influence would seem to be with Western support; with plenty of reasons for the Soviet Union to interfere, there was still one possibility that gave pause: Western intervention.  Even before their entry into WWII, the US and Great Britain had signed the ‘Atlantic Charter’, highlighting a commitment to ‘freedom’ of peoples[xxix].  This was further bolstered by the commitment to the provision of political, military and economic assistance to nations under threat from external or internal authoritarian forces, as indicated by the Truman Doctrine[xxx].  Still further, the United States zealouslypromoted their doctrines of ‘liberation’ and ‘rollback’, rather than mere ‘containment’[xxxi].  However this would be shown as purely propaganda, in their response to the crisis in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.  In spite of this rhetoric, and the highly propagandist messages broadcast by the Western sponsored radio[xxxii], It was made very clear that the West would not support the Hungarians, even to the point of then President Eisenhower personally contacting the Soviets to ensure this was understood.  Bekes argues that the US administration was duplicitous in their policy; while being committed to these ideals in theory, they were thoroughly pragmatic to the point of immobility in practice.  They recognised the implicit international status quo that was firmly established by 1956, and they had no intentions of challenging this system[xxxiii].

After events in Hungary, Western propaganda decreased in intensity.  However in the 1960s there were moves towards ‘bridge building’ between the West and Czechoslovakia[xxxiv].  This, and Czechoslovakia’s geopolitical location in Europe, which shared borders with NATO West Germany, meant there was more of a chance the West would become involved.  Brezhnev   was concerned about risks of the conflict extending beyond Czechoslovakian borders, and becoming involved in a much bigger war than was necessary[xxxv]. However, then US President Johnson preferred to aim for a modus vivendi with the Soviets, focusing instead on setting up the SALT talks; the US was also otherwise distracted with the Vietnam War[xxxvi].

The West’s involvement in the both crises consisted of speeches which highlighted solidarity with the people, but refusal to intervene[xxxvii].  The West was not willing to provide support the liberation of these nations in Eastern Europe; ‘Defections from one sphere [of influence] would be exploited by the other only when it was clear that the first either could not or would not reassert control. Hence, the United States took advantage of departures from the Soviet bloc of Yugoslavia […]; it did not seek to do so in the case of Hungary in 1956 [or] Czechoslovakia in 1968’[xxxviii]

 

Both Hungary and Czechoslovakia were integral to the Soviet Union’s ‘security’, and the loss of one, or both, would cause significant problems for it.  The leadership in both revolts failed to manage social and political expectations and the enthusiasm of the population and the radical demands noting their position in Eastern Europe quickly became threatening to the Soviet Union.  After attempting political measures to rein in the satellite states, the Soviets decided to intervene militarily to quell resistance.  Since the Western priority was taking tentative steps towards détente, support from the West was not forthcoming.

 


[i] Though there was a degree of violence internally, suggesting the capacity of the government to control dissent was a factor in Soviet non-intervention. Johanna  Granville, “Poland and Hungary, 1956: A Comparative Essay Based on New Archival Findings,” in Revolution and Resistance in Eastern Europe: Challenges to Communist Rule, ed. Kevin McDermott and Matthew Stibbe (Oxford: Berg, 2006), 59.

[ii] Csaba Bekes, “The 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Great Powers,” Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics 13, no. 2 (1997): 51.

[iii] AVO (Allamvedelmi Osztaly), 1946-1950 / AVH (Allamvedelmi Hatosag), 1950-1956 – State Security Department.  Johanna Granville, “From the Archives of Warsaw and Budapest: A Comparison of the Events of 1956,” East European Politics & Societies 16, no. 2 (2002): 536, 39., note 47

[iv] In the case of the military, many were also unwilling to try; many ‘defected’ to support the revolt Granville, “Poland and Hungary, 1956: A Comparative Essay Based on New Archival Findings,” 61 – 62.

[v] Mark Kramer, “The Kremlin, the Prague Spring, and the Brezhnev Doctrine,” in Promises of 1968: Crisis, Illusion, and Utopia, ed. V. Tismăneanu (Budapest, Hungary: Central European University Press, 2011).

[vi] KSC (Komunistická strana Československa), the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia

[vii] Alan K. Henrikson, “Distance and Foreign Policy: A Political Geography Approach,” International Political Science Review / Revue internationale de science politique 23, no. 4 (2002): 455 – 56.

[viii] Bruce Kuniholm, “The Origins of the First Cold War: Methodologies, Values, and Their Implications for East-West Relations,” in The Cold War: Past and Present, ed. R. Crockatt and S. Smith (London: Allen & Unwin, 1987), 45 – 49.

[ix] FERENC A.  SZABÓ, “Hungary’s Geopolitical and Geostrategic Situation at the Time of the Revolution and Fight for Freedom of 1956,” Academic and Applied Research in Military Science (AARMS) 5, no. 4 (2006): 704; Csaba Békés, “The 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Declaration of Neutrality,” Cold War History 6, no. 4 (2006): 480.

[x] Brian McCauley, “Hungary and Suez, 1956: The Limits of Soviet and American Power,” Journal of Contemporary History 16, no. 4 (1981): 794-95.

[xi] Cold War International History Project (CWIHP), “Stenographic Record of a 4 November 1956 Meeting of Party Activists,”  Istochnik 6(2003), http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/113337

[xii] J.R. Short, An Introduction to Political Geography  (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982), 76.

[xiii] J. Valenta, Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia, 1968: Anatomy of a Decision  (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), 17.

[xiv] SZABÓ, “Hungary’s Geopolitical and Geostrategic Situation at the Time of the Revolution and Fight for Freedom of 1956; Amir  Weiner, “The Empires Pay a Visit: Gulag Returnees, East European Rebellions, and Soviet Frontier Politics,” The Journal of Modern History 78, no. 2 (2006): 352.

[xv] Valenta, Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia, 1968: Anatomy of a Decision, 23.

[xvi] Kramer, “The Kremlin, the Prague Spring, and the Brezhnev Doctrine.”

[xvii] Protests occurred in support of both Hungary and Czechoslovakia in various places across the SU and East Europe.  Valenta, Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia, 1968: Anatomy of a Decision, 24.

[xviii] Weiner, “The Empires Pay a Visit: Gulag Returnees, East European Rebellions, and Soviet Frontier Politics,” 354-59.

[xix] C. Gati, Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt  (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2006), 158.

[xx] Laura Cashman, “Remembering 1948 and 1968: Reflections on Two Pivotal Years in Czech and Slovak History,” Europe-Asia Studies 60, no. 10 (2008): 1648.

[xxi] Document 24, in C. Békés, M. Byrne, and J. Rainer, “The” 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents  (Central European.University Press, 2002), 188.

[xxii] Gati, Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt, 150.

[xxiii] Granville, “From the Archives of Warsaw and Budapest: A Comparison of the Events of 1956; Gati, Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt, 217.

[xxiv] J. Valenta, “The Soviet Union and East Central Europe: Crisis, Intervention, and Normalization,” in Communism in Eastern Europe, ed. T. Rakowska-Harmstone (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 1984), 334.

[xxv] Mitchell Lerner, ““Trying to Find the Guy Who Invited Them”: Lyndon Johnson, Bridge Building, and the End Ofthe Prague Spring*,” Diplomatic History 32, no. 1 (2008): 92.

[xxvi] {Valenta@40

[xxvii] Mark Kramer, “New Evidence on Soviet Decision-Making and the 1956 Polish and Hungarian Crises,” Cold War International History Project Bulletin 8-9, no. Winter (1996/1997): 368.

[xxviii] Gati, Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt.

[xxix] Lillian Goldman Law Library, “Atlantic Charter August 14, 1941,”  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/wwii/atlantic.asp.

[xxx] “Truman Doctrine: President Harry S. Truman’s Address before a Joint Session of Congress, March 12, 1947,”  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/trudoc.asp.

[xxxi] McCauley, “Hungary and Suez, 1956: The Limits of Soviet and American Power,” 779.

[xxxii] Radio Free Europe, Voice of America; space precludes significant discussion.

[xxxiii] Csaba  Bekes, “The 1956 Hungarian Revolution in World Politics,”  The Hungarian Quarterly 36 no. Summer (1995), http://www.rev.hu/portal/page/portal/rev/tanulmanyok/1956/bcs5.

[xxxiv] In particular, trade/economic links with the US, but also wider social links; Lerner, ““Trying to Find the Guy Who Invited Them”: Lyndon Johnson, Bridge Building, and the End Ofthe Prague Spring*; John G. McGinn, “The Politics of Collective Inaction: NATO’s Response to the Prague Spring,” Journal of Cold War Studies 1, no. 3 (1999): 177.

[xxxv] Valenta, Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia, 1968: Anatomy of a Decision.

[xxxvi] Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia, 1968: Anatomy of a Decision, 129-31.

[xxxvii] E.g. Dulles, as cited in McCauley, “Hungary and Suez, 1956: The Limits of Soviet and American Power,” 784.

[xxxviii] J.L. Gaddis, The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War  (Replica Books, 2001), 239.

Bibliography

Békés, C., M. Byrne, and J. Rainer. “The” 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents. Central European.University Press, 2002.

Bekes, Csaba. “The 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Great Powers.” Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics 13, no. 2 (1997/06/01 1997): 51-66.

Békés, Csaba. “The 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Declaration of Neutrality.” Cold War History 6, no. 4 (2006/11/01 2006): 477-500.

Bekes, Csaba “The 1956 Hungarian Revolution in World Politics.”  The Hungarian Quarterly 36 no. Summer (1995): 109-21. http://www.rev.hu/portal/page/portal/rev/tanulmanyok/1956/bcs5.

Cashman, Laura. “Remembering 1948 and 1968: Reflections on Two Pivotal Years in Czech and Slovak History.” Europe-Asia Studies 60, no. 10 (2008/12/01 2008): 1645-58.

Cold War International History Project (CWIHP). “Stenographic Record of a 4 November 1956 Meeting of Party Activists.”  Istochnik 6, (2003): 63-75. Published electronically November 04, 1956. http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/113337

Gaddis, J.L. The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War. Replica Books, 2001.

Gati, C. Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt. Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2006.

Granville, Johanna. “From the Archives of Warsaw and Budapest: A Comparison of the Events of 1956.” East European Politics & Societies 16, no. 2 (May 1, 2002 2002): 521-63.

Granville, Johanna “Poland and Hungary, 1956: A Comparative Essay Based on New Archival Findings.” Chap. 4 In Revolution and Resistance in Eastern Europe: Challenges to Communist Rule, edited by Kevin McDermott and Matthew Stibbe, 57 – 77. Oxford: Berg, 2006.

Henrikson, Alan K. “Distance and Foreign Policy: A Political Geography Approach.” International Political Science Review / Revue internationale de science politique 23, no. 4 (2002): 437-66.

Kramer, Mark. “The Kremlin, the Prague Spring, and the Brezhnev Doctrine.” In Promises of 1968: Crisis, Illusion, and Utopia, edited by V. Tismăneanu, 285-370. Budapest, Hungary: Central European University Press, 2011.

———. “New Evidence on Soviet Decision-Making and the 1956 Polish and Hungarian Crises.” Cold War International History Project Bulletin 8-9, no. Winter (1996/1997): 358-84.

Kuniholm, Bruce. “The Origins of the First Cold War: Methodologies, Values, and Their Implications for East-West Relations.” Chap. 3 In The Cold War: Past and Present, edited by R. Crockatt and S. Smith, 37-57. London: Allen & Unwin, 1987.

Lerner, Mitchell. ““Trying to Find the Guy Who Invited Them”: Lyndon Johnson, Bridge Building, and the End Ofthe Prague Spring*.” Diplomatic History 32, no. 1 (2008): 77-103.

Lillian Goldman Law Library. “Atlantic Charter August 14, 1941.”  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/wwii/atlantic.asp.

———. “Truman Doctrine: President Harry S. Truman’s Address before a Joint Session of Congress, March 12, 1947.”  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/trudoc.asp.

McCauley, Brian. “Hungary and Suez, 1956: The Limits of Soviet and American Power.” Journal of Contemporary History 16, no. 4 (October 1, 1981 1981): 777-800.

McGinn, John G. “The Politics of Collective Inaction: NATO’s Response to the Prague Spring.” Journal of Cold War Studies 1, no. 3 (1999/09/01 1999): 111-38.

Short, J.R. An Introduction to Political Geography. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982.

SZABÓ, FERENC A. . “Hungary’s Geopolitical and Geostrategic Situation at the Time of the Revolution and Fight for Freedom of 1956.” Academic and Applied Research in Military Science (AARMS) 5, no. 4 (2006): 704 – 13.

Valenta, J. Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia, 1968: Anatomy of a Decision. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.

———. “The Soviet Union and East Central Europe: Crisis, Intervention, and Normalization.” Chap. 11 In Communism in Eastern Europe, edited by T. Rakowska-Harmstone, 329-59. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 1984.

Weiner, Amir “The Empires Pay a Visit: Gulag Returnees, East European Rebellions, and Soviet Frontier Politics.” The Journal of Modern History 78, no. 2 (2006): 333-76.

 


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