The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

‘Operation Whirlwind': Explaining the 1956 Soviet Invasion of Hungary

 

During the second week of this year’s student showcase we journey from Russia to Eastern Europe, with a trio of short articles relating to protest, dissent and opposition in communist East Europe. Today’s article by Arron Sharkey begins by analysing the Soviet decision-making process in the lead up to ‘Operation Whirlwind’ – the code name given to the Soviet invasion of Hungary launched on 4 November 1956.

 

‘Operation Whirlwind': Explaining the 1956 Soviet Invasion of Hungary

 

By Arron Sharkey

 

The Soviet decision to launch ‘Operation Whirlwind’, a large military intervention in Hungary, on the 4 November 1956 has created much discussion and debate amongst historians during the last thirty years. This was the second Soviet military action in Hungary in quick succession, following their initial response to a request for military assistance from Hungarian leader Erno Gero on the 23 October when 31,500 Soviet troops were sent to Hungary as a result of the growing demonstrations against the current Hungarian leadership and Soviet imposed policies. After Gero’s replacement by Imre Nagy on 24 October Soviet leader Khrushchev had a critical decision to make: whether to support Nagy’s efforts to quell the Hungarian rising through concessionary reforms, or whether to put an abrupt end to the growing demonstrations through force. Numerous factors influenced the Soviet decision making process between 24 October and the 4 November 1956, the date when 60,000 Soviet tanks crossed the Hungarian border to crush the revolution.

 

The Soviet Turnaround

 

Initially, when Imre Nagy assumed power on 24 October the Soviets threw their support behind his leadership, conceding that some ‘limited concessions’ were necessary to quell the growing dissent in Hungary. It is important to highlight how close the Soviets came to agreeing with the changes Imre Nagy proposed. Today, declassified minutes from meetings of the Soviet leadership demonstrate that while some quickly pushed for more decisive military action to quell the Hungarian rebellion, others were initially reluctant to endorse this course of action. On 28 October, at an emergency meeting among the Soviet leadership, Khrushchev maintained that there was ‘no alternative’ to supporting Nagy’s efforts and agreed to work towards a ceasefire and sanction the withdrawal of Soviet troops, despite several other leading figures suggesting more decisive military action.[1] On 30 October, following further intense discussions in Moscow, Khrushchev confirmed that the Soviets would withdraw their troops from Hungary. At this meeting Soviet defence Minister Zhukov even went as far as stating that: ‘we should withdraw troops from Budapest, and if necessary withdraw from Hungary as a whole. This is a lesson for us in the military-political sphere’[2].

 

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev initially declared his support for new Hungarian leader Imre Nagy and expressed his reluctance to launch any large scale Soviet military action in Hungary.

 

The Soviet declaration of withdrawal from Hungary was published in Pravda the following day, announcing ‘with respect to the immediate issue at hand, the Soviet government stated its willingness to withdraw the Soviet military units from the city of Budapest as soon as this was considered necessary by the Hungarian government.’ The declaration also confirmed that negotiations could begin about the ‘question of the presence of Soviet troops on the territory of Hungary.’[3] The crisis appeared to be resolved, in favour of the Hungarians! During the next twenty four hours however, a complete turnaround of this decision would be implemented. On 31 October Khrushchev announced that the leadership should ‘re-examine our assessment and should not withdraw our troops  … we should take the initiative in restoring order in Hungary’ to prevent socialism from being strangled.[4] By 1st November, Khrushchev had approved plans for a large scale military intervention to remove Nagy from power and crush the rebellion. A few days later the Soviet army would once again be rolling into Budapest. So what explained this radical change in policy?

 

Hungary: From Reform to Radicalisation

 

Developments in Hungary during the period 24-31 October were obviously crucial in influencing Soviet decision making. During Nagy’s first week in power, Soviet confidence in him ebbed away as the situation in Hungary continued to escalate and Nagy responded by issuing a number of reformist decrees, each one more radical than the last.

 

Within a week of taking power, Imre Nagy had sanctioned a series of far reaching reforms which would have certainly unsettled Khrushchev and his associates. Johanna Granville believes it was Nagy’s lack of firm leadership as the revolution gathered pace that consequently led to the loss of confidence in Moscow – rather than subduing the uprising Nagy was instead desperately trying to keep up with the accelerating events and increasingly radicalized popular demands.[5] The predicament Nagy found himself in would certainly not have been easy; the juggling act of attempting to maintain a functional government and dealing with the mass requests for radical reform policies whilst also attempting to appease the Soviets.

 

Hungarian leader Imre Nagy – during the 24 October – 1 November the reforms he offered the Hungarian people became increasingly radical.

 

A key concern of Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders was Imre Nagy’s course of action from the 27 to 30 October. On 27 October Nagy announced his intention to move away from single party rule and create a ‘people’s patriotic government’ which would include non-communists. On 28October the embattled Hungarian leader followed this with a radio broadcast promising economic concessions, amnesties for anyone involved in the uprising, the dissolution of the communist secret police (the notorious AVO) and greater independence from Soviet rule in the form of securing the withdrawal of Soviet troops stationed on Hungarian territory. Plans for a new ‘national government’ including non-communists were formalised on 30 November and on 1 November Nagy even proposed the withdrawal of Hungary from the Warsaw Pact.

 

The CSPU CC presidium clearly viewed Nagy’s plans to reorganise the Hungarian political system on a multi-party basis as a step too far. In response Molotov observed that the political situation in Hungary had now become clear: noting that an ‘anti-revolutionary transition government’ had been formed and a further slide to the right was expected. And the Hungarian communists were deeply divided by Nagy’s proposals – on 28 October a secret plea by Hungarian Prime Minister Andras Hegedus for Soviet troops to ‘restore order in Hungary’ was presented to the Presidium.[6] At the same time, Soviet concerns were further heightened by the information reaching them from Budapest, with communist insignia removed from buildings and the communist symbol torn from Hungarian flags during demonstrations. Mikoyan and Suslov, Soviet ambassadors despatched to Budapest to monitor the situation in Hungary sent regular reports back, which stated that the situation in Hungary appeared ‘increasingly unsettled’ with Nagy ‘helpless and unable to control events’. One damning report sent back to Moscow on 30 October claimed:

 

“The political situation in the country, rather than improving, is getting worse … We will try to liquidate them using the armed forces of the Hungarians. But there is a great danger in this … the Hungarian army had adopted a wait and see position. Our military advisors say that the attitude of Hungarian officers and generals towards Soviet officers has deteriorated in recent days … it may well be that if Hungarian units are used for the uprising, they will go over to the side of the insurgents…”[7]

Soviets concerns about a ‘turn to the right’ in Hungary were also strengthened by news of the public lynching of AVO (secret police) officers in Republic Square on the 30 October.

 

Hungarian demonstrators topple a statue of Stalin during the uprising of 1956. As events escalated in Hungary, Khrushchev came under increasing pressure to act.

“Russians Out!” – graffitti in Budapest during the 1956 revolution.

 

While the Soviet leadership had initially been willing to accept moderate reforms in Hungary, Nagy’s proposals clearly went a step too far. Charles Gati, an expert in the study of Hungary 1956, believes that it was the continued Hungarian push for revolutionary change (and Nagy’s willingness to grant it) which led Moscow to realise that Nagy’s reforms would result in granting Hungary a level of independence that would fundamentally undermine their own power in the East European bloc, with the realisation that ‘Hungary did not want to be on a longer leash; it wanted to be on no leash at all’[8].

 

Outside Influences

 

Beyond the developing crisis in Hungary, there were numerous other influences on the Soviet decision making process. It is possible that part of the reason behind Khrushchev’s U-turn on 31 October, was his desire to preserve his own authority in Moscow against Stalinist hardliners, potential rivals for the leadership, many of whom were pushing him to take more decisive action in Hungary and defend the prestige of the Soviet Empire. The fact that Hungary appeared to be deviating from Soviet control to such an extent not only worried leaders in Moscow, but internationally. Rising concern about ‘counterrevolutionary’ activities in Hungary were further heightened on 30 October when a telegram from Italian communist leader Palmiro Togliatti arrived in Moscow. Togliatti wrote ‘My opinion is that the Hungarian government- whether Imre Nagy remains its leader or not- is going irreversibly in a reactionary direction’.[9] Khrushchev also came under pressure to intervene from the Chinese Communists, who voiced their concerns that Nagy was making too many concessions and that events in Hungary were ‘no longer under party control’, while leaders in many of the East European satellite states – including the GDR and Poland – became increasingly concerned by the implications of the proposed Hungarian reforms and worried that demands for change may spread across Eastern Europe, so pressured Khrushchev to act quickly to prevent ‘contagion’.

 

Khrushchev was also obviously concerned that any Soviet withdrawal from Hungary would be perceived as a sign of weakness by the Western powers. Hungarian withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact would have left a gaping hole in Soviet defences in Eastern Europe. In his speech to the CC Presidium on 31 October he emphasised that ‘If we depart from Hungary, it will give a great boost to the Americans, English and French – the Imperialists. They will perceive it as weakness on our part and go on the offensive. We would then be exposing the weakness of our positions’.[10] It is important to also consider the turn of events regarding the Suez crisis in the Middle East on the 30 October. As is evident from the presidium session on the 31 October, the Soviet leadership had little faith in the ability of the Egyptian regime and were expecting inevitable concessions to the West, something which would weaken the Soviet position in the Middle East. Khrushchev worried that the West would be keen to ‘add Hungary to Egypt’, if they did not act quickly, perceiving any Soviet weakness in Eastern Europe as a ‘retreat from Empire’.[11] On the same day tens of thousands of Soviet troops (who had begun withdrawing from Hungary) received orders to move back towards Budapest and await Soviet ‘reinforcements’.

 

Although the decision to invade was essentially made on 31 October, Khrushchev still proceeded with some caution. In particular, he was keen to ensure that newly restored Soviet-Yugoslav relations did not suffer if possible. Khrushchev travelled to Brioni on the evening of the 2 November to brief Yugoslav leader Tito about the Soviet plan for large scale intervention in Hungary. However, Tito agreed that events in Hungary had gone too far, and that the possibility of ‘counterrevolution’ was on the cards, so was willing to support military action.[12] Tito’s backing removed the last potential stumbling block to invasion.

 

Conclusion

 

Hungary’s fate was sealed on 31 October 1956, when the Soviet decision to launch a large scale military intervention to quash the uprising and curtail Imre Nagy’s proposed reforms was made. However, the final decision in favour of military intervention was only made after considerable deliberation between key members of the Soviet leadership between 24 and 31 October. During this time discussions were shaped by both the escalating crisis in Hungary itself and by numerous wider factors. While Khrushchev initially appeared willing to consider some erosion of Soviet influence over Hungary by sanctioning a ‘partial retreat’, by 31 October it was clear he could not concede to the increasingly radical reforms endorsed by Nagy. It was increasingly apparent that events in Hungary had the potential for much wider ramifications; seriously weakening the international prestige of the USSR and undermining the Soviet monopoly of power in Eastern Europe. On 4 November 1956 ‘Operation Whirlwind’ was launched and 60,000 Soviet troops swarmed across the border into Hungary to subdue Hungarian calls for independence, remove Imre Nagy from power and install a new pro-Soviet leadership under Janos Kadar.

 

 About the Author

 

Arron Sharkey has just completed his BA in History at Swansea University. Duing  his third and final year of study, Arron specialised in the study of communist Eastern Europe.

 


[1] Working Notes from the Session of the CPSU CC Presidium on 28 October 1956 available online via the Wilson Center Digital Archive: http://www.wilsoncenter.org/digital-archive

[2] Working notes from the session of the CPSU CC Presidium on 30 October 1956 available online via the Wilson Center Digital Archive, http://www.wilsoncenter.org/digital-archive

[3] Declaration of the Government of the USSR on the principles of Development and Further Strengthening of Friendship and Cooperation between the Soviet Union and Other Socialist States, October 30, 1956, reproduced in Heller, Agnes and Feher, Ferenc, From Yalta to Glasnost: The Dismantling of Stalin’s Empire (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990),  65.

[4] Working Notes from Minutes of the CPSU CC Presidium, 31 October 1956 available via http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB76/doc6.pdf

[5] Joanna Granville, ‘From the Archives of Warsaw and Budapest: A Comparison of the events of 1956’, East European Politics and Societies, 16/2

[6] Letter from Hungarian Prime Minister Andras Hegedus to the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Socialist Republics, 28 October 1956 available online via the Wilson Center Digital Archive http://www.wilsoncenter.org/digital-archive

[7][7] Working notes from the session of the CPSU CC Presidium on 30 October 1956 available online via the Wilson Center Digital Archive http://www.wilsoncenter.org/digital-archive

[8] Charles Gati, Failed Illusions:  Moscow, Washington, Budapest and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt (Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2006), 188

[9] Cable from Italian Communist leader Togliatti on Imre Nagy’s Hungary on the 30th October 1956, available online via the Wilson Center Digital Archive, http://www.wilsoncenter.org/digital-archive

[10] Working Notes from Minutes of the CPSU CC Presidium, 31 October 1956 available via http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB76/doc6.pdf

[11] Working Notes from Minutes of the CPSU CC Presidium, 31 October 1956 available via http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB76/doc6.pdf

[12] Geoffrey Swain and Nigel Swain, Eastern Europe Since 1945, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 106

June 25, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. [...] When the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968, Dubcek expressed complete shock at this ‘unexpected’ turn of events, declaring ‘On my honour as a communist, I declare that I did not have the slightest idea … that anyone proposed taking such measures against us’.[11] However, the available evidence indicates that Soviet pressure on Dubcek to reverse his reform programme intensified between April and August 1968 and that Brezhnev repeatedly warned Dubcek about the possibility of outside intervention if he did not act decisively to bring the Prague Spring back under control. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Prague Spring was Dubcek’s failure to heed Brezhnev’s warnings. Instead, he remained seemingly oblivious to the increasingly dangerous position he was in, despite the precedent set by the earlier Soviet invasion of Hungary to prevent escalating reform in 1956, with Hungarian leader Kadar knowingly warning Dubcek ‘Do you really not know the kind of people you are dealing with?’[12] (For more on the 1956 Soviet Invasion of Hungary see the previous blog post HERE) [...]

    Pingback by Dubcek’s Failings? The 1968 Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia « The View East | June 27, 2012 | Reply

  2. We betrayed the free Hungarians by signaling to the Russians that we were uncomfortable with “instability” there and would not oppose a return to Russian Communist control of Hungary. We also betrayed East Germany and the underground in both countries. By doing so, we removed a major fear of the Communists: Coordinated uprisings by the anti communist underground forces in the captive nations. Shame on our leaders who have the blood of thousands of innocents on their hands!

    Comment by Geno | March 25, 2014 | Reply


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