As a response to the West’s military alliance, NATO, the Soviet Union established the Warsaw Pact in 1955. The Pact joined East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Albania with the USSR. Khrushchev was clearly tying the countries of the eastern bloc in a military alliance. However in doing so, the wording of the pact seemed to be treating the satellite states as equal partners with the USSR.
Khrushchev was seemingly setting out a profound change of policy for the USSR: peaceful co-existence with the West, plans to reduce arms expenditure, closing down Cominform and releasing thousands of political prisoners. This was capped when he made an astonishing attack on Stalin in 1956, denouncing him as a wicked tyrant, a despot and no friend of the people (the famous Secret Speech to the Communist Party International in February, 1956 which was not made public until March).
Then, after Yugoslavia signed an agreement with the USSR in June, 1956 stating that it was possible for the satellite states to follow ‘different roads to socialism’ thousands of Polish industrial workers went on strike, calling for freedom and an end to Soviet occupation in their country—Krushchev agreed that Gomulka (leader of Poland) could carry out reforms, as long as Poland remained loyal to the USSR and the Warsaw Pact.
In June 1956, a group within the Communist Party opposed the leader, Rakosi. The Kremlin ordered Rakosi to be retired and replaced by Erno Gero, who was also not accepted by the Hungarians. A huge student demonstration on 23rd October caused the giant statue of Stalin in Budapest to be pulled down. Imre Nagy became the new leader, demanding more freedom for the Hungarians. Soviet troops and tanks stationed in Hungary as war began to withdraw. Hungarian rebels started to attack the Soviet troops, getting encouragement from Eisenhower’s (America’s president) sympathetic words “I feel with the Hungarian people” and “You can count on us.” Nagy called for free elections and said that Hungary wanted to leave the Warsaw Pact, and told the Soviet troops to leave. Example from source: “ In Hungary thousands of people have obtained arms by disarming soldiers and militia men.”
How did the USSR respond?
Khruschev at first seemed ready to accept some of the reforms. However, he could not accept Hungary leaving the Warsaw Pact and that it called for free elections. This was going too far, too quickly and Khruschev feared that if Hungary was allowed to break loose from Soviet control, then the other satellite states would quickly follow its example. So thousands of Soviet troops and tanks moved into Budapest in 1956. The Hungarians did not give in. Two weeks of bitter fighting followed.
What were the results?
Approximately 30,000 Hungarians perished. Another 200,000 fled across the border into Austria to escape the Communist forces. Imre Nagy and his fellow leaders were imprisoned and then executed. In addition, Khruschev put Janos Kadar, a man whose loyalty to the USSR was not in doubt, in place as leader. It took several months for him to crush all resistance. Around 35,000 anti-Communism activists were arrested and 300 were executed.
How significant was it?
The Soviets showed their power once again. Now there was no hope for the other satellite states to leave the Warsaw Pact or refuse Communism, as the Soviets clearly showed how powerful they were and how much influence they have. Moreover, it now seemed clear that the US would not risk a nuclear war over Eastern Europe, as even though the Hungarians made desperate pleas for Western intervention no help came. However, the Hungarian invasion marked an end to the thaw between the US and the USSR. The atmosphere of the Cold War was as bitter as ever.