The Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990 Bringing you digitized history, primary and secondary sources
HTA Home Page | E-books | Europe | Hungary: The First Six Days

7: Hungary: The First Six Days

<< 6: One Day in the World's Press || 8: Budapest: Interview In a Basement Hideaway >>

Hungary: The First Six Days(1)



The first people who found themselves in the field against the Communist regime in Hungary were those whom that regime had pampered the most: writers, journalists, engineers, athletes, students, artists, and the like. Nine-tenths of those who started the demonstrations were students whose tuition and living expenses were paid by the government and who had been picked from the families of workers, peasants, and Communist Party officials. Yet they marched into the open to make their demands and then, when these were refused, stayed in the streets to fight. The first blood on the fateful evening of October 23 was shed by men of this kind.


After the first demonstration that Tuesday in Parliament Square, half of the two hundred thousand demonstrators went home. The other half broke into several groups and marched through the streets. One of these went to Kossuth Radio House to broadcast its demands. These had been published earlier in leaflets; and while each university group had a slightly different set, which varied to include specific grievances at different schools, the main political demands were the same as those that had been drawn up two days earlier during a mass meeting of students at Szeged. They included the extradition and punishment of Matyas Rakosi, the dismissal of Erno Gero, the appointment of Imre Nagy as Premier, the removal of Soviet shields to be replaced by Kossuth shields as Hungary's emblem, and the adjustment of taxes, wages, and working hours.

A deputation of three students followed by thousands more arrived at the radio station, which had been heavily occupied by the AVH, the hated and dreaded security police. The AVH ordered the demonstrators to disband, then brought out tear gas and fire hoses to halt the masses of students pouring in from all sides.

The students attacked with pots and pans and pieces of coal they had picked up at a nearby restaurant. The AVH began firing -first into the air, later into the surging students. Another group of students raced to an arms plant, where more shooting developed. A third group of students went to the Stalin Memorial, and there a detachment of police joined forces with them. Stalin's statue came toppling down before a happy, dancing crowd.

But at the broadcasting station the situation rapidly deteriorated. A Hungarian Army detachment arrived and demanded a cease-fire. The students obeyed but the AVH refused to evacuate the building. When two army officers were shot, the army retaliated instantly, and so began the first pitched battle between the army and the AVH, New army detachments arrived and began distributing weapons to the students. By eleven o'clock, several thousand students had arms, and the first round of the battle was won. The army received orders to withdraw.

During the night more guns were acquired by the students, who had by now developed a taste for fighting. The city police either joined them or gave up their arms willingly. Even so, the students were not much of a fighting force.


It was 4 A.M. when the first Soviet tanks and armored cars arrived in the city. Overnight another series of events had occurred. Workers in the suburbs had held meetings and drawn up demands generally in line with those of the students. To these had been added several specific points about factory-management councils and general increases in wages. At dawn the workers began marching in-to the city. Only about fifteen hundred of them were armed. All the rest had nothing but their bare hands and flags. No one was in command. Whoever spoke the loudest or made the most sense was obeyed. Impromptu committees and delegations formed, but the general impression was of huge convergent masses chanting slogans such as "Down with Gero!" "Punish the murderers!" "We want Nagy!" Later in the morning, another cry was taken up that was heard all through the subsequent days: "Out with the Russkies!"

All through this second day furious battles raged. On one side were seventy Soviet tanks, fifty armored cars, and small arms and automatic weapons. On the other were twenty-five thousand students and nearly two hundred thousand workers steadily pouring in from outlying districts. The rebels had at this time about four thousand small arms. To escape the wildly shooting Soviets and AVH men, the insurgents broke into small groups and occupied strategic corner buildings. Some entrenched themselves in military barracks. But still there was no central command, and each rebel unit operated on its own. This lack of organization contributed largely to the heavy casualties. No one plotted this revolt. It just happened.

The second night brought great changes in the situation. Nagy became Prime Minister. The rebel groups disbanded. Only a few remained manning the barricades. The night was quiet.

At this point it did not seem likely that the revolt would continue. It probably would not have gone on but for the tragic events that occurred between ten and eleven the next morning. A peaceful and unarmed demonstration arrived before the Parliament Building to shout [20/21] for another set of resolutions. There were Russian tanks in the square, but the drivers were smiling and friendly. Seeing a crowd numbering ten thousand arriving, the Hungarian security forces opened fire. The Russians also started shooting. More than a hundred persons died within ten minutes.

Within an hour the people's rage was beyond control, and the rebellion spread. Groups poured from all over carrying Hungarian flags. They defied Soviet and AVH fire during the rest of the day and the night following. Ceaseless fire broke out in all parts of the city. This third wave of revolt included nearly everybody. Among the bravest were both Communist and anti-Communists. There was still no command. The rebels had about five thousand rifles and nearly two thousand automatic rifles. However, the army units (which participated in the opening battles alongside the people but later went back to their barracks) had a number of heavy machine guns and grenades.

Gero's removal was announced during the night. The unarmed rebels went home, and now the fighting against the Soviet troops and the AVH was carried on solely by diehards.

On the fourth day, peace seemed near. Nagy had guaranteed amnesty. The last remnants of the first student bands surrendered. They considered that their demands had been met. So too, with some minor exceptions, did the workers from the suburbs. Practically all the citizens' groups that had been engaged in the fight started preaching and practicing cease-fire.

Up to then, at the height of battle the Soviet forces numbered 310 tanks, half of them heavy, 250 armored combat vehicles, and ten thousand men. What there was of the rebellion in the provinces was confined to meetings passing resolutions that were sent to Nagy and organizing local administration. One exception was Magyarovar, a small township between Gyor and the Austrian border, where the local AVH opened fire and the ensuing massacre claimed eighty-five lives.

Popular pressure exacted more and more concessions from the government, and the price of peace continued to rise. There was still some firing by groups fighting independently of any line of command. By Saturday, the fifth day, accurate counting was possible. The rebel army could still count on about eight thousand fighters, while another thirty thousand could be mobilized on short notice. Still the rebels had no leaders and not much of a program beyond "Out with the Russkies!" and "Down with the AVH!"


It is difficult if not altogether impossible to convey any notion of these people's fighting gallantry. Wherever the rebels were students and workers, there was not a single case of looting. Shop windows without glass were filled with desirable goods, yet nothing was touched. An incident I saw will illustrate this. Windows from a candy store and an adjacent flower shop were smashed and the sidewalk was littered with candy boxes. All these boxes were replaced in the glassless windows, but the flowers strewn about were gathered and placed on the bodies of dead rebels.

The masses of embattled students and workers never became a mob, but from time to time there appeared a few groups of marginal characters who gathered on street corners and started yelling "Exterminate the Jews!" Several cases of hard liquor were freely distributed and many people got drunk.

Nothing like this happened where either students or workers were assembled, but there was enough anti-Semitism around during the first night as well as during subsequent days to present a distinct danger signal in a country which only recently had gone through several years of intense Jew hating and which had maintained an official anti-Semitic policy since 1919. During the fifth and sixth days I saw four people attacked and beaten because they may have been Jews. Not severely, but nevertheless their clothes were torn and they were bleeding. The slogan was that Rakosi, Gero, and Mihaly Farkas -three Jews- were responsible for all the misery that had descended on the country. Still, during the first six days of the revolt these episodes could be considered both sporadic and exceptional.


Here and there, wherever a group started rioting, a few individuals seemed inclined to strike a note of extreme nationalism. I even wondered at times whether these nationalist elements had a supreme command. I did my best to find it, but I never succeeded in obtaining any convincing evidence. Yet the nationalist tide kept rising. A close associate of Nagy admitted on Saturday, the fifth day, that the revolt was beyond the control of those who had started it. Nagy decided that a final bid should be made. He advanced a program: The revolt was to be declared a national patriotic uprising and was to be handled as such. Again, he proposed an amnesty for all rebels and dissolution of the AVH, and promised the early withdrawal of all Soviet troops from Budapest and negotiations with Moscow for removal of all Soviet troops from Hungarian soil. The next day he appointed non-Communists Bela Kovacs and Zoltan Tildy to Cabinet posts. Two days later he announced the formation of a new Cabinet ending the one-party system and promised that free elections would be held.

The Nagy government kept floundering. The insurrection drifted. Then on Sunday, November 4, the Russian tanks that had been ringing the city opened fire. [21]

1. Leslie B. Bain, "Hungary: The First Six Days," The Reporter, XV (November 15,1956), 20-21. Reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher.

<< 6: One Day in the World's Press || 8: Budapest: Interview In a Basement Hideaway >>