The Hungarian Tragedy of 1956 Uncertainty and Domestic Tension in Eastern Europe: The Roots of the Hungarian Tragedy The Hungarian and Polish drives for greater political freedom from Russia in 1956 were startlingly similar, and yet the two nations followed very different courses in the months that followed the initial unrest. The bloodshed in Hungary was not a consequence of a particular doctrine of oppression but instead of the confusion and lack of a coherent policy that followed the death of Stalin and the relaxation of his hard-line stance. Facing competing demands of liberalization and maintaining a Russian dominated sphere of influence in Europe, Russia failed to handle the Hungarian and Polish crisises consistently. Russia's vacillation in a politically restless Hungary led to an escalating chain of reaction and Russian counterreaction that led to the radicalization of the political movement by non-Communist and nationalist influences and eventually forced Russia to invade or lose Hungary to the West. Both the Polish and Hungarian Communist parties found the directives handed down to them by the Russian Communists to be unworkable in their countries. In Poland, the Pozn n strike in June 1956 awakened its Communist government to the problems of maintaining in every detail the Russian Communist model; they realized that they might lose control over their country if they did not abandon the Stalinist conception of Communism which had been thrust upon them for the benefit of Stalin's paranoid foreign policy and with little regard for the practical issues of unemployment and industrial production the nation faced. In Hungary, the situation was similar and the main impetus for liberalization came not from the intellectuals, which the Russians would have been right to be suspicious of, but again from warnings of Hungarian Communists who saw danger in the growing disparity between Russian demands and Hungarian realities, and from the optimism of the people, who hoped to achieve the same compromises that Poland had gained. The split within the Hungarian Communist party was initiated by those who demanded nothing more than what had been ceded to Poland, and it began within the ranks of people loyal to, if not Russia, than the Communist cause. Both movements were inspired by the relaxation of Stalin's "iron fisted" diplomacy that followed his death in 1953; in Poland, the movement was accelerated by Bierut's death in 1956. Picking through the chaos caused within Russia by Stalin during his last, obsessively paranoiac years, Khrushchev and the other Russian leaders were agreed that more leeway had to be given the Eastern bloc; certainly they were not going to repeat Stalin's purges of all but the most fanatically loyal Communist leaders. Furthermore, Khrushchev could not ignore the warnings of Eastern bloc Communist leaders, some of whom feared the spread of civil unrest that would continue if the harsh Stalinist policies were not relaxed. In his speech to the Twentieth Congress, Khrushchev allowed for "[different] forms of transition of various countries to socialism," in effect legitimizing liberalization. Yet on the other hand could not ignore the strategic advantages of the tightly controlled empire that Stalin had built up in the Eastern bloc, and he must have kept in mind the lessons of Yugoslavia, that taught that a Communist power could exist independently of Russian economic and diplomatic support. Russia had not developed a coherent policy towards liberalization at the time of the Polish and Hungarian unrest. The Leninist conception of guided history might have, as Roberts proposes, played a minor role in influencing Russia's reactions to the Hungarian crisis, but by 1956 Communist ideology had been made subservient to Russian foreign policy. Yugoslavia, in defiance of Marx's conception of the "international proletariat", was treated not as a partner in the struggle against capitalism, but as a possible ally of the West. Stalin's purges had cleaned the Russian government of anyone but the most pragmatic and adaptable politicians; few Leninists brave enough to challenge Khrushchev must have remained to fight the Eastern bloc liberalization on ideological grounds.
The uncertainty in Russian foreign policy thus stemmed not from any ideological conflict but from the competing demands of: maintaining Russian hegemony in the Eastern bloc through centralizing the European Communist parties under Moscow's rule, and of the need to maintain political stability in the Eastern bloc as the Europe entered the difficult stage of rebuilding after the devastation of the War. Khrushchev's inability to come up with a coherent compromise between these two opposite demands led to the turmoil in Hungary, which, once disturbed by the invasion of October 23 -- itself a consequence of Ger 's unfortunate speech -- would never return to its previous equilibrium because of nationalistic sentiment and the pro-Western forces both within and without the country. When Prime Minister Ger made his broadcast on October 23, the population was stunned -- as, it is safe to assume, was Khrushchev, who would never have advocated such a retrogression to hard-line Stalinism. Accustomed to a coherent policy in which their government aligned with Russian directives, the people of Hungary felt betrayed when they were treated in such a different manner from Poland, and they expressed this anger in demonstrations that became increasingly anti-government. This was in part due to the nationalistic character of the Hungarian liberalization movement, a trait shared with the Poles. The statue of Stalin in Budapest was cast from metal salvaged from the melted down statues of Hungarian heroes of the nineteenth century; such symbolism was not lost on the parties that joined the struggle with the pro-liberalization Communists against the entrenched government and transformed the schism into a threat to Russia's control over the Eastern bloc. In addition to nationalistic support for greater political autonomy, the West played a role in encouraging democratic and other non-Communist insurgents to seize the movement as their own through radio broadcasts. A range of non-Communist movements including Cardinal Mindszenty's Christian Democratic Party seized upon the split within the Communist party; the bitterness of the fighting led to the consolidation and further radicalization of a great number of insurgent and pro-Western groups who wanted Hungary to gain far greater freedom from Russia. These various internal factors grew in importance as the population and provisional government reacted to the presence of Russian troops. The Russians became more and more anxious and each political move by the Hungarian government or the insurgent groups within it led to a hardening of Russian resolve, which in its turn further alienated the government and people from the possibility of peaceful reconciliation. The blame for the final invasion is often placed on Nagy, whose rash decision to move to a multiparty system and to withdraw from the Warsaw pact spurred the Russians to invade and take Budapest on November 4th. Yet by the end of October, it is doubtful that anybody could have restored order to the population without making such major concessions to the non-Communists and thus goading Russia into invasion. The rapid divergence of the Polish and Hungarian situations was a symptom of Russia's own uncertain liberalization and of the underlying tensions between the political leadership and the people of the Eastern bloc countries; after the revolution of 1956, Russia needed to reexamine its role in Eastern Europe and to create a new post-Stalin doctrine that provided for the divergent and local needs of its developing sphere of influence but also for the maintaining of diplomatic control over the bloc.