Hungary suffered under the brutal Stalinist regime of Rakosi until 1953, and after the death of Stalin sections of the Party leadership (with support from Moscow) moved towards reform. The central figure in this change of policy was Imre Nagy, who became Prime Minister in 1953 and allowed political debate to re-emerge. However, the hardliners made a comeback in 1955 and ousted Nagy, leading to a bitter struggle in 1956 between different factions of the Party. Following Khrushchev’s February 1956 attack on Stalin’s crimes, many Communists demanded the rehabilitation of Laszlo Rajk, executed in a Stalinist show trial as a ‘Titoist’ in 1949. Writers and students engaged in campaigns for change, culminating in mass demonstrations demanding greater democracy, a new government under Nagy and withdrawal of Soviet troops. Protests erupted into fighting outside the radio building after security policy fired on the crowd, and crowds also attacked the secret police stations.
The government declared martial law and called in Soviet troops (October 23-24), triggering armed defiance by many Hungarians. After heavy fighting, Soviet troops withdrew from Budapest on October 29, but after Nagy declared Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact new troops moved into Hungary and attacked Budapest; bitter fighting continued from November 4-11 and Nagy and colleagues were arrested by Soviet troops when leaving the Yugoslav embassy on November 22 (contrary to explicit promises), and later executed. But during the period November 12 – December 13 the industrial workers, who had been at the forefront of the fighting, began to organize independent workers’ councils and to call brief general strikes. (Hannah Arendt has celebrated this expression of popular nonviolent resistance and participatory democracy in the Epilogue to the second edition of her Origins of Totalitarianism, London, Allen and Unwin, 1958, pp. 492-502.)