The 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Russian Tanks That Crushed It

January 20, 2022Matt Fratus
Hungarian Revolution 1956 coffee or die

A crowd cheers on nationalist Hungarian troops in Budapest during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The year 1956 began with real hope in Russia and the Soviet Union, as its new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, called for the communist nation to improve its ties with Western Europe and the US. But by the end of the year, the Russian leader and the Soviet military made clear that their actions would not match those words: Russian tanks invaded the sovereign capital of Budapest, Hungary, installing a pro-Soviet government and crushing a budding independence movement.

In February 1956, Khrushchev gave a “secret speech” to party leaders calling for de-Stalinization of communist policies and a rapprochement with the West. Rather than live with an assumption of inevitable war, Khrushchev wanted the Soviets to pursue a policy of coexistence with Western powers — half of Europe under Russian control and communist, the other half democratic and aligned with the US. But the speech, which leaked from a secret meeting, sparked a chain reaction of rebellious protests among Russian-dominated countries unhappy with their assigned half.

Perhaps the most grotesque example of Soviet overreaction and military intervention came following the Hungarian Revolution in autumn, later that year.

On Oct. 23, 1956, some 200,000 student protesters marched through Hungary’s capital city of Budapest to reach Magyar Rádió Building, otherwise known as Radio Budapest. The peaceful demonstration developed into a spontaneous revolution. The crowd wanted to broadcast demands for independence and the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Police and soldiers launched tear gas into the crowd, and the police opened fire to quell the agitators.

Erno Gero, Hungary’s last Stalinist leader before the 1956 rebellion, declared martial law and ordered Soviet troops to disperse the crowds. 

Hungarian Revolution coffee or die
Dutch anti-communists march in moral support for the Hungarian Revolution in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, on Nov. 5, 1956. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“By early morning the revolution was in full swing,” The New York Times reported in a timeline of events. “There was guerrilla warfare in the streets against Soviet tanks.”

The protesters-turned-insurgents engaged Russian tanks as they patrolled the streets — some with nothing more than kitchen supplies and gasoline. The Soviets responded with gunfire and tanks. A former British tank officer, Lt. Col. James Noel Cowley, was the military attaché assigned to the British Embassy in Budapest. “The horror and carnage of the scene would appall the most hardened of imaginations,” Cowley later recalled.

Hundreds of Hungarians died in the coming days, and as Budapest came under curfew, fighting spread to the countryside. 

The rapid escalation of violence caught the US off guard, especially the CIA. Geza Katona, the only Hungarian-speaking CIA officer on the ground from 1950 to 1957, requested agency policy toward acquiring arms and ammunition.

“We must restrict ourselves to information collection only [and] not get involved in anything that would reveal U.S. interest or give cause to claim intervention” came the response on Oct. 28, according to the National Security Archive. The next day, another response added that “it was not permitted to send U.S. weapons in.”

Hungarian Revolution 1956 coffee or die
Rubble in the streets after the end of fighting in Budapest’s 8th District during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The messaging behind the scenes didn’t match public projections by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration that purported to support the liberation of the oppressed in communist nations. Besides the failure of the US and Western nations to take action, the world’s perspective also shifted away from Hungary to Egypt when Israel invaded and created a crisis at the Suez Canal.

Left to handle negations with the Soviets alone, Nagy announced Hungary’s neutrality and separation from the Warsaw Pact on Nov. 1. However, this move led the Russians to escalate their military intervention — code-named Operation Whirlwind — to crush the revolt with as many as 1,000 tanks.

“At dawn today, Soviet forces began an attack on our capital, obviously with the aim of toppling the legal, democratic Hungarian government,” Nagy said in a speech broadcast on Saturday, Nov. 4, 1956. “Our troops are fighting. The government is in place. I am making this fact known to our people and the whole world.”

The end of the Hungarian Revolution came in defeat after 12 days of conflict. An estimated 2,500 Hungarians lost their lives. Nagy was ousted from power and kidnapped by the Soviets. He was executed in June 1958. The Russian invasion sent a wave of more than 200,000 refugees into nearby Austria, 30,000 of whom relocated to the United States. A majority moved to New York City and Cleveland, Ohio, where the Hungarian American population today is over 1 million, one of the largest communities of Hungarian descent in the world outside of Hungary.

The 1956 Russian invasion began a series of crackdowns by Soviet forces across the globe.

“There seemed to be no stopping the Red tidal wave,” wrote Bill Hamilton Jr., veteran of the Navy SEALs and the CIA, in his book Night Fighter: An Insider’s Story of Special Ops From Korea to SEAL Team 6. “The United States refused to intervene in the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule. Cuba turned communist under a Castro takeover, the first Soviet-backed regime in the western hemisphere. East Germany erected the Berlin Wall. Communist regimes sprang up in South Yemen and Africa. […] South Vietnamese fled the country while an equal number ended up executed or in labor and ‘reeducation’ camps.” 

Read Next: Russia’s Invasion To Crush ‘Prague Spring’ Mirrors Ukraine Buildup

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
Curtis LeMay
Curtis LeMay: The World War II General Who Firebombed Japan

Who exactly was Gen. Curtis LeMay? And how did he become the commander who razed more than 60 Japanese cities during World War II?

eric smith marine corps commandant nominee
Highly Decorated Marine Officer Nominated To Be Next Commandant

President Joe Biden has nominated a highly decorated Marine officer who has been involved in the transformation of the force to be the next Marine Corps commandant.

USS Arizona
Profile of a Ship: USS Arizona

When the USS Arizona sank, it took 1,177 crew members with it. Today it remains beneath the water as a memorial to all those who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor.

b1 bombers bosnia
US Bombers Fly Over Bosnia in Sign of Support Amid Continued Secessionist Threats

A pair of U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers flew low over Sarajevo and several other Bosnian cities...

SR-71 Blackbird
SR-71 Blackbird: The Spy Plane That Could Outrun Missiles

Lockheed Martin’s SR-71 Blackbird was a government secret for years. Now retired, a newer version plans to take its place.

medal of honor recipient remains returned
Missing 73 Years, Medal of Honor Recipient's Remains Return To Georgia

Soldiers of the 9th Infantry Regiment made a desperate retreat as North Korean troops closed in arou...

dear jack
Dear Jack: My Battalion Is Out of Control

In this installment of “Dear Jack,” Marine veteran and amateur life coach Jack Mandaville advises a lieutenant colonel on how to restore order in the lower ranks.

  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
  • Request a Correction
  • Write for Us
  • General Inquiries
© 2023 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved