Imre Nagy led the Hungarians in the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. As Prime Minister, Nagy knew that he was taking a huge risk – a risk that end with Nagy being executed and his body being put in an unmarked grave.
Imre Nagy was born in 1896 at Kaposvár in Southern Hungary. Nagy fought in World War One but was captured and spent time in Russia. He escaped from prison and fought with the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution.
Nagy returned to Hungary – but now as a committed, though secret, communist. While there were outposts of communism throughout Europe – in Weimar Germany the Communist Party had strong support – the general reaction of European governments to communism was one of fright and conflict. The murder of the Romanovs in Russia was used to portray the communists as power-hungry despots intent on destroying what many viewed as the established way. Nagy had been part of the short-lived Soviet Republic led by Bela Kun but it collapsed in November 1919. After this Nagy had to be very careful with whom he associated, as the new government of Horthy was keen to hunt out communists. For his own safety, in 1928 Nagy left Hungary and moved to Austria.
Between 1930 and 1944, Nagy lived in the Soviet Union where he studied agriculture.
At the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union’s Red Army had gained a vice-like over Eastern Europe. Known anti-communist politicians disappeared as KGB agents removed anyone seemingly hostile to Joseph Stalin. Communism was imposed on these countries and the Cold War started.
The Soviets also imposed politicians on these countries and Imre Nagy returned to Hungary in 1945 as Minister of Agriculture. He was seen as being safe and loyal to Stalin and in his first year in office Nagy introduced numerous land reforms based on the idea of collectivisation. Great land estates were broken up and became the property of the people.
Nagy was briefly Minister of the Interior but in July 1953, he became Prime Minister. This appointment could only have come with the approval of Moscow and it was Prime Minister Malenkov who supported Nagy’s appointment.
Nagy immediately introduced a more liberal regime into Hungary. The harsh realities of collectivisation were relaxed and the manufacture of consumer goods was encouraged. Nagy’s approach could only have lasted while Malenkov remained the most powerful politician in Moscow. When he was removed as Prime Minister, Nagy’s day as Hungary’s Prime Minister were numbered.
The new hard-liners in Moscow knew that if any other countries in the Eastern Bloc viewed Hungary’s treatment as being soft, they might rebel against Soviet rule as well. No one in Moscow was prepared to risk this.
In July 1955, just eleven days after Malenkov left office, Nagy was forced to resign. In November 1955, he was expelled from the Communist Party and cast into the political wilderness. The hard liner Rakosi – a man loyal to Moscow – once again led the country.
However, Nagy was a popular leader in Hungary and politicians in Moscow feared an outright rebellion that could be copied throughout the other eastern nations under the thumb of Moscow.
The second rising of Nagy coincided with the Twentieth Party Congress in Moscow when Nikita Khruschev stunned his audience by openly attacking the rule of Joseph Stalin. To many it seemed as if a thaw in the Cold War was occurring and in the spirit of the day Imre Nagy was allowed to form a government on October 26th 1956 after being readmitted to the Hungarian Communist Party.
Nagy led a coalition government that included three non-communists from the Petofi Peasants Party, the Smallholders Party and the Social Democratic Party.
Nagy announced that he would introduce “far reaching democracy” into Hungarian daily life, and a Hungarian form of socialism with its own national characteristics. Nagy announced that his top priority was to improve the daily life of the workers. He also announced that political prisoners would be released.
However, Nagy, from Moscow’s viewpoint, seriously overstepped the mark when he announced on November 1st that Hungary would leave the Warsaw Pact and become a neutral nation. If this went unchecked by the Soviet Union, Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria etc might follow suit and the Warsaw Pact would collapse. This Moscow could not tolerate and it used its military might to removed Nagy from power on November 4th 1956.
Those who fought in Budapest and elsewhere in Hungary undeniably fought bravely. But against the Soviet Army it was futile. The Hungarian Uprising was quickly crushed with large areas of the capital damaged and many thousands killed. Many hundreds of thousands fled the country in fear for their lives.
Why Imre Nagy did what he did having been given a second chance is difficult to know. He must have known that his desire for Hungary to pull out of the Warsaw Pact would have been utterly unacceptable to the Soviet Union. Therefore, he must have known that any announcement of this would have been met with a very robust Soviet response.
As Soviet tanks moved through the streets of Budapest destroying a whole building if they suspected that it contained a sniper, Nagy took refuge in the Yugoslavian embassy.
His last message to the Hungarian people was broadcast:
“This fight is the fight for freedom by the Hungarian people against the Russian intervention, and it is possible that I shall only be able to stay at my post for one or two hours. The whole world will see how the Russian armed forces, contrary to all treaties and conventions, are crushing the resistance of the Hungarian people. They will also see how they are kidnapping the prime minister of a country, which is a member of the United Nations, taking him from the capital, and therefore it cannot be doubted at all that this is the most brutal form of intervention. I should like in these last moments to ask the leaders of the revolution, if they can, to leave the country. I ask that all that I have said in my broadcast, and what we have agreed on with the revolutionary leaders during meetings in Parliament, should be put in a memorandum, and the leaders should turn to all the peoples of the world for help and explain that today it is Hungary and tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, it will be the turn of other countries, because the imperialism of Moscow does not know borders and is only trying to play for time.”
He only left the safety of the building when it seemed as if the Soviets and Janos Kadar had given him safe passage. He was, in fact, arrested and taken out of the country. After a period of time he was returned to Hungary and secretly tried and executed on June 17th 1958 for treason and attempting “to overthrow the democratic state order”. The Hungarians were only told of his execution once it had been carried out. Nagy was buried in a remote area of the Kozma Street Cemetery and nothing about his life or death was allowed to be celebrated or commemorated by the new hard-line government led by Kadar.
In 1989, after the end of the Cold War, Nagy’s grave was found with other victims from the 1956 Uprising in an area overrun with weeds etc. The area was renewed and Nagy, along with others, was given what many Hungarians would have deemed a proper burial with a marked grave. An estimated 100,000 people attended his re-internment.