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The Hungarian uprising of 1956 was a watershed moment for the country of Hungary. Student protests against crushing economic conditions and an oppressive Soviet-installed government grew into a nationwide Hungarian revolution. Many lives were lost during the ultimately unsuccessful revolt.
The seeds for the Hungarian uprising were planted more than 10 years prior. During World War II, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary and continued to occupy the country after fighting ceased. Despite a treaty that preserved Hungary’s independence in name, the Soviets slowly undermined and overtook Hungarian government positions. The Hungarian Social Democratic Party and the Soviet-backed Communist Party combined and Hungary, in effect, became a Communist state.
Social unrest grew in the years after the government change as human rights and economic conditions deteriorated. Lingering war debts and Soviet policies that restricted trade and forced mandatory deductions from income contributed to a lower standard of living and a countrywide shortage of many essentials. These struggles were compounded by the persecution of people critical of the government. Individuals’ rights were further strained by the forcible removal of thousands from their homes and the Soviet take-over of schools and churches.
By 1956, conditions were ripe for the Hungarian uprising. The revolt began on 23 October with a student-led protest at the Parliament building in Budapest. When the standoff between police and demonstrators erupted in violence, angered dissidents across the country began their own violent revolts. Imprisonment and execution of Soviet sympathizers were commonplace, and the rebels soon had successfully wrested government control away from the Soviet Union. The new prime minister, Imre Nagy, vowed to reverse previous policies and restore fair elections.
The Hungarian uprising seemingly achieved its ultimate success when Soviet leaders began to talk negotiation and withdrawal. Yet the optimism would darken, because the Soviets suddenly changed course and undertook an overpowering and successful effort to crush the Hungarian uprising. Rebels withstood a massive Soviet invasion for six days before the final pocket of resistance surrendered. More than 3,200 people lost their lives during this bloody week; 2,500 of them were Hungarian citizens.
Many view the Hungarian uprising as a lasting symbol of the Cold War and its hostilities between forces of democracy and forces of communism. In fact, declassified documents revealed that a fear of how democratic nations would perceive the withdrawal as a sign of Communist weakness sealed the Soviets’ ultimate decision. The event facilitated harsh condemnations from democratic nations, although none of those nations assisted in the rebellion.
For Hungary, the uprising briefly spawned a hope that was doomed to suffer decades of oppression and secrecy. The Hungarian uprising was essentially erased from the nation’s consciousness; records were sealed and even the mere mention of the revolt risked punishment. Another watershed moment in world history — the 1980s fall of the Soviet Union — later changed Hungary’s fate for the better. On the 33rd anniversary of the Hungarian uprising, The Republic of Hungary was restored and the legacy of the rebels was secured. Governments and ordinary citizens began commemorating the 1956 uprising annually.