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15 January 2014

Bloody Thursday, 1956: The Anatomy of the Kossuth Square Massacre

On 25 October 1956 one of the biggest mass murders in Europe in the second half of the 20th century took place on Kossuth Square in front of the Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest. Three books have been published about this tragedy and the event is – at least in part – studied in many more publications. Despite this, neither politicians nor professional historians have yet thrown light on the events with sufficient depth or thoroughness. On the contrary, the Hungarian judiciary has obstructed the discovery of the truth by legal methods, as it has with other mass shooting incidents of the same period. In addition, the published accounts very often contradict or even fail to acknowledge one another.
But all the published works contain some truth, even paradoxically the Kádár-era publications on ‘56 which were full of lies. There are common themes in all of them. It is on the basis of these that a completely new picture can be compiled which, whilst obviously open to dispute, can perhaps help us to get closer to the full truth.
All accounts of the shooting typically skim over the lead-up to it. Yet this is essential to understanding what happened in 1956 – including the shootings which occurred in the days before 26 October and which cost more than 1,000 lives. These were the events at Magyar Rádió on 23 October, at the Ministry of Defence on 24 October, on Kossuth Square on 25 October, and at Mosonmagyaróvár on 26 October.
Let us look first, therefore, at the many similarities between these events:
The crowds demonstrating were unarmed in every case – including the crowds at the Radio who managed to get hold of weapons only after they were fired upon despite the fact that armed groups prepared for battle were waiting for them.
 Except for the events at the Radio, it is difficult to ascertain what the crowds making their way to the given location actually wanted. In all cases, there is significant evidence indicating that participants were “lead, kettled... etc.” towards the location.
Again with the exception of the Radio building, many people in positions of leadership or authority knew in advance what was going to happen (although some of them made well-intentioned attempts to keep the people from demonstrating). In light of all this it is not easy to explain why armed persons shot into an unarmed crowd. Was this deliberate provocation by a Stalinist power? Did they hope by firing to provoke a spontaneous reaction, thus giving themselves an excuse to eliminate reformers and the opposition? One should note here that contemporary “official” accounts also speak of deliberate provocation in relation to the Kossuth Square firing, although they nonsensically attribute it to the “counter-revolutionaries”.
There is as yet no detailed account in the public domain of the battle plan the Soviet military and political leadership – in collaboration with their armed Hungarian counterparts – worked out on 20 June 1956 with the aim of reinstalling Hungarian “social peace”. It was within the framework of this plan, however, that Soviet units set off on 23 October 1956 – actually, some time before the armed battle – and that KGB head Ivan Serov arrived in Budapest with armed KGB personnel and seven KGB generals. The details of this battle plan and the role the KGB played in the Revolution are to this day unknown.
But that the KGB did play an active role was stated clearly by the then Budapest Chief of Police, Sándor Kopácsi, who was sentenced to life in prison at the Imre Nagy trial, and who is in my view the most credible chronicler of the events. Yet many historians hardly refer to his testimony at all.
Kopácsi met with Serov at the office of the Interior Minister, László Piros, on the 23 October, when the ban on demonstrations was in place. Kopácsi asks the obvious question: “What will happen if a demonstration happens despite the ban?” Serov answers: “Fascists and imperialist groups dare to go onto the streets in Budapest and among you there are still some who are in a quandary over whether we should use weapons against them? The time has come to give the Fascist underworld a lesson!” When Kopácsi replied that it was “not Fascists and imperialists who were preparing to demonstrate but students”, Serov “stormed off angrily”. It should be stressed here that this dialogue took place before the demonstration began.
Miklós Horváth briefly mentions the presence of Serov during October. And the participation of the KGB under the leadership of Serov in later reprisals is well- known. Kopácsi, whom the KGB later brutally interrogated, also details this in his book. It was also under the leadership of Serov that the KGB arrested Pál Maléter, the Defense Minister of the Revolutionary Government in Tököl on 4 November. The role of Serov is also well-remembered by Ágnes Ságvári who during those October days was a shorthand writer at Party HQ on Akadémia Street. According to Ságvári, Serov “participated with absolute sovereignty over the proceedings”, in other words, he acted independently from Soviet leaders Mikoyan and Suslov who were also negotiating.

Events in Poland around the same time have many similarities to the mass murder in Hungary. Few Hungarian historians have paid them sufficient attention, but their impact should not be underestimated. In June 1956 Polish forces opened fire on demonstrators in Poznań, killing around 70 people. In the aftermath, the Polish Stalinists attempted to arrest around 700 reformers on 16 October. Something similar happened in Hungary when Mátyás Rákosi’s Political Committee sought Soviet approval on 17 July 1956 for the arrest of Imre Nagy and 400 “opposition” members. That was thwarted by Mikoyan and Suslov who went on to demote Rákosi soon afterwards. It is important to realise, however, that bloody repressions were not extraordinary events under Soviet rule. Polish and Soviet units committed similar massacres at other times: 40 people were killed on the Baltic coast in 1970, for instance, and another 51 died in East Berlin in 1953. The Polish events turned dramatic – as did events in Hungary – in the second half of October 1956. Ferenc Fejtő called it “Revolution led from Above”. In Poland Soviet Army units were met in Warsaw by battle-ready armed workers and students. At the Polish party leadership meeting of 19–20 October, Khrushchev and a number of Soviet Party officials reached a compromise with the “anti-Stalinist” Gomułka. He was seen as the “Polish Imre Nagy”, but he was a fundamentally different figure since he disputed neither the basic tenets of socialism, nor the relationship with the USSR, nor the Warsaw Pact. Gomułka was an “anti-Stalinist” who wanted socialism with a Polish face – and in the tense atmosphere of the time this fell within the tolerance levels of the Soviet leadership.
How the demonstration prior to the Kossuth Square massacre came about has generally been overlooked. A thorough examination of the events suggests that rather than a “spontaneous demonstration”, organised provocateurs guided the unarmed peaceful crowd into the square from different directions. Publications during the Kádár era wrote of an “organised demonstration”; that “opposition elements spread the news that there would be a large demonstration in front of the Parliament”. Other Kádár-era passages on the incident tell how “if you are Hungarian you are with us! was at the time a kind of recruitment password”. Another one read: “In reality the most shameless provocation took place – the aim of which was to slander the State Security Services.” It went on: “The overwhelming majority of the crowd comprising men, women and children had honourable intentions; they obviously did not consider that a villainous provocation was underway and that among the crowd many were hiding weapons under their clothing.”
A third: “The demonstration was organised too as we know from the leaders of many armed groups that their men had participated.”
The map on the back cover of the book by András Kő and Lambert Nagy marks five different locations from where demonstrators converged on the square at roughly the same time. This is more or less impossible without coordinated organisation. The fact that leaders of the demonstration had Hungarian flags without the coat of arms – i.e. the coat of arms had not been cut out but had never been embroidered there in the first place – should also arose suspicion. These facts indicate organisation rather than spontaneity.
The role played by the tank in front of the Astoria Hotel deserves particular scrutiny. The established narrative was that the Soviet tank crew was fraternising with the public. Demonstrators sat on the tank and on the Soviet armoured vehicles which arrived later before setting off for the Parliament, led by the tank crew. The crowd was emboldened by the presence of the Soviet tank crews who had joined and were leading them. An eyewitness who worked at the Ministry of Heavy Industry on Szabadság Square shouted at the demonstrators: “Don’t go to the Parliament! Russian tanks have surrounded it!” A sixteen year-old girl replied, laughing: “There’s no problem with the Russians! The Russians have switched sides!” The witness saw two Russian tanks and two armoured cars laden with demonstrators.
Dr Erzsébet Kelecsényi, who made her way from the Astoria Hotel to the Parliament along with the tanks, said the following in an interview on Kossuth Rádió on 14 March 1999: “One question has been bothering me for years, indeed decades. Why did we actually go to Kossuth Square? In many court cases I heard that people were shepherded there. It would be worth finding out whether we ended up on Kossuth Square by accident or not.” (Róth–Szerdahelyi, 69)
Dr Kata Beke’s letter to Dr Kelecsényi – with whom she crouched under one of the tanks returning fire in front of the Parliament – tends to confirm such suspicions: “It would be good if we survivors combined our recollections. On the other hand I am inclined to think that we were deliberately shepherded there in front of the weapons just as they were in Salgótarján in December and elsewhere. It also fits into this crazy logic that the regime wanted to intimidate the city and the country with hundreds of dead. Recently someone said that there were a few people near the department stores on Rákóczi Street who convinced others to go to the Parliament but there were no speeches and no worked-up crowd atmosphere. There was no room for me on the tank at Astoria so I went by truck along with many others. Were those trucks there immediately by accident? The supposition is grisly but it is not unbelievable. Consider then the silence around the Parliament massacre, the many lies and misleading accounts, the general downplaying of events.”
These are suspicions, but they are the suspicions of an eyewitness.
From the BRFK Budapest Police Headquarters building on Deák Square, Sándor Kopácsi also watched the huge crowd making its way along Tanács Avenue – with three Soviet tanks laden with demonstrators and Hungarian flags at the front – among them many women and children. Kopácsi called the scene “the meeting of two peoples”. According to another eyewitness one of the tanks which “led” the crowd stopped on the corner of Báthory Street (now Vértanúk Square), then took the Hungarian flag from its exhaust before firing into the crowd at the Rákóczi statue.
There were other Soviet tanks standing in front of the Parliament which defended the unarmed crowd. In the light of all these events it is unimaginable that these tanks “switched sides”. In the Soviet Army, “switching sides” meant certain, even immediate execution by the Army’s “political officers”. The Soviet statutory courts remained operational during the days of the Revolution and sentenced an unknown number of Soviet soldiers to death. Thus, the “shepherding” Soviet tanks were the ones most probably acting under orders and thus active participants in the provocation.
The fact that many people in the buildings near to Kossuth Square also knew about the demonstration being prepared lends support to the “deliberate provocation” version of events. Indeed there were even people in positions of authority and leadership who knew in advance about the events and who attempted to dissuade people from going to the square. Ferenc Szűcs, who was an Agriculture Ministry employee at the time, says that “between 9 and 10 a.m. we were informed by the Minister’s secretariat on the first floor that we should vacate the offices facing the street and make our way to rooms which didn’t have windows looking onto the square or the street. Well, we crammed together on one side of the building.” István Somodi, also a Ministry of Agriculture employee, reports “there was absolutely no one in the office rooms, the puzzled staff were congregated in the bowels of the building in a large room”.
A colleague of Sándor Kopácsi desperately called him prior to the massacre saying that there was going to be trouble as there were armed State Security (ÁVH) snipers on the rooftops. Then a State Security officer rushed up saying “We’ll show them… we have orders to.” Kopácsi was reluctant to believe this as he had earlier seen women and children among the peaceful demonstrators. But he also knew that there had been State Security snipers on the roofs when Imre Nagy gave his speech on 23 October.
Gábor Bánrévy worked in a nearby architects’ office on Báthory Street. “The news spread at the firm on 25 October 1956 that a large women’s demonstration was taking place on Kossuth Square. Everyone of course hurried out of the building. At the gate of the Báthory Street building the party secretary was forlornly trying to hold back the people but it was a hopeless undertaking.”
There were even a couple of people from the nearby Hungarian Communist Party HQ who tried to hold the demonstrators back – in other words, they seemed to know what was going to happen. “Mrs László Orbán, wife of the Central Leadership Department Head, the secretary of the Technical University Party Committee, tried to warn the students by phone that they should hold people back from marching to their deaths. Valéria Benke, President of the Radio – also at the Party HQ – entrusted journalist Péter Erdős with the similarly hopeless task.”
Summarising the three elements of the demonstration the following conclusions can be drawn:
The Soviet tanks appeared to switch sides and so created a sense of security among the crowd, but they were active participants in the provocation.
Some leaders knew in advance what was going to happen; and among them were those who unsuccessfully attempted to prevent the crowd from going to the square.
The Soviet armoured vehicles “shepherded” the people into the square.
The various sources estimate the crowd prior to the massacre at between 3,000 and 20,000; Miklós Horváth’s estimate of 8,000–10,000 appears a reasonable guesstimate. According to eyewitnesses, the demonstrators took up roughly half of Kossuth Square from the end of Alkotmány Street towards Vértanúk Square and Báthory Street. The crowd, visibly emboldened by the earlier “support” of the “accompanying” Soviet armoured vehicles, went over to the Soviet tanks guarding the Parliament and also fraternised with the tank crews. The demonstrators shouted “Down with Gerő!”, “We are not fascists!” and “We are not riff-raff!” (although an anti-Gerő protest would perhaps have been more effective 300 metres away outside the nearby Party HQ on Akadémia Street). The national anthem was sung, much fraternising ensued, and still more joy was had at the sight of friendly Soviet armoured vehicles. What was palpable for a long time after it began, however, was not just that the crowd was peaceful but also that it had gathered without any aim or concrete purpose.
Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, all hell broke loose. From different places and buildings around the square volleys of fire were aimed at the unarmed masses from tanks, machine-guns, bren guns and hand weapons. Here we should stop for a moment, for the testimonies to date for the large part can be grouped into two categories. According to one version, the Soviet tanks on Akadémia Street and Vértanúk Square fired into the crowd. But it does not mention shots being fired from anywhere else. According to the other school of researchers, shots were fired from the Ministry of Agriculture into the crowd and there is no mention of the Soviet tanks. Both versions exclude the plausibility of the other’s account, whereas in my opinion both are correct; the two versions are not mutually exclusive but complementary. I would also add that shots came not only from the Ministry of Agriculture but from other buildings too.
Miklós Horváth’s account comes closest to the truth. For starters, he gives a detailed description of the Soviet tanks firing into the crowd, but he also states that the Hungarian border guard units at ground level fired too, whilst at the same time he does not exclude salvos coming from the Ministry of Agriculture. I look at the question of who shot whom in the next section, but going back to the crowd in the square, shots were fired at them from numerous directions. Return fire was also aimed at the buildings by the tank and armoured car crews around the Parliament and from elsewhere – that is, they defended the crowd. It is interesting that neither András Kő nor Lambert Nagy covers this in their work, whilst survivors from the square unanimously remember it. Indeed the White Book also states that the Soviet soldiers defended the crowd from the “counter- revolutionaries” in the buildings! Soviet soldiers were amongst the dead! I will write more on the contradictory role of the Soviet tanks below.
The firing lasted for roughly two periods of fifteen minutes. The massacre was not at an end, however. The uninjured and lightly wounded who had found shelter from the fire and were trying to escape – as well as those coming to the aid of the injured – were then fired upon. András Simonffy, who survived along with his father, gauges that the whole event lasted an hour and a half.
Regarding the number of dead there is also a huge discrepancy between different sources. The White Book puts the total number of dead at 22 and states that afterthe firing ceased, the crowd, including the lightly injured, was able to leave the square without further danger. Mikoyan and Suslov account for 60 dead in their report sent on 25 October. András Kő and Lambert Nagy identify 76 dead; Teréz Körömi puts the number at 238. Edit Kéri estimates the number of dead at 1,000, which is a number quoted by many eyewitnesses.
Sándor Kopácsi sent two trucks to transport the dead and injured, whilst according to the British Embassy the dead were taken away by twelve trucks. The official British report puts the number of dead between 300 and 800. The following day Tamás Mikes counted 820 bodies piled up at Kerepesi cemetery. He does not dispute that those at the square saw 100 to 200 dead, but according to him there were countless injured who could not be saved among those taken away. To summarise, taking into account the later testimonies of the injured, we can estimate the number of victims of the Kossuth Square massacre at between 800 and 1,000.
There are many reasons why we cannot establish an exact number. The trucks took the bodies to unknown locations. It is possible that they took away the ID papers of many of the dead – for example, those shot from the Ministry of Defence, who could have been buried somewhere as “persons unknown”. Some of the dead may have been cremated; Tamás Mikes tells of a “stack” of dead bodies next to an “out-of-use crematorium”. What is completely unacceptable however is the official number of dead on 25 October, as recorded by the 5th District register. This is close to the number (76) that Kő and Nagy subscribe to.
The question “where did the shots come from” is dealt with in a number of accounts. Volleys of shots were fired at the defenceless, unarmed crowd from different locations and directions simultaneously. That is why Edit Kéri’s viewpoint is mistaken. Kéri only examines the shots fired from the buildings but largely omits to examine the role of the Soviet tanks. The version of Kő and Nagy, however, is also mistaken as it does not include shots coming from the buildings. They write exclusively about a massacre perpetrated by Soviet tanks. Numerous survivors talk of shots coming from the buildings, yet the authors explain that by saying the survivors saw the reflection of the Soviet tanks’ backfire from the windows (!).
One author holds the Hungarians entirely responsible for the events, another the Russians. In fact it was a joint action, as the Justice Reparations Commission (led briefly by Frigyes Kahler) concluded in 1991, even though it then had little data at its disposal. One circumstance logically points to this conclusion: the crowd occupied a number of points of Kossuth Square. Hence some survivors vividly experienced (and remembered) the directions from which they were being shot at. Indeed, they ducked for cover from the shots. Those in front of the Parliament were mainly aware of shots coming from the Ministry of Defence, those at the Rákóczi statue of shots from the Soviet tanks.
To the question of “where did they shoot from?” we must consider an indisputable piece of evidence which until now has been largely ignored: the bullet-marks, still visible today, on the buildings of Kossuth Square and the Parliament. On the Ministry of Agriculture building, one can see not only traces of plastered bullet-marks at head height on part of the building, but also bullet-marks from head height up to the first floor on the whole of the Kossuth Square side of the building. On the northern and southern sides of the square, bullet-marks at head height can still be seen on the buildings, just as on those down the side streets at its corner. On the Parliament building especially there are a large number of bullet-marks on the south side from head height up to first-floor level, and on the side opposite the Ministry of Agriculture. Let us examine more thoroughly where the shots were fired from.
For a long time disputes have raged over whether shots were fired from the Ministry of Agriculture or not. Going through research material and survivor accounts we can be sure that shots were fired not just from the Ministry of Agriculture but also from at least two other buildings. The WhiteBookstates that shots were fired from the roofs of the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Housing and Public Construction, and the building of the Parliament cafeteria. An interesting new finding is that parts of the Ministry of Agriculture and the ÁEM (Ministry of State Monitoring) on Kossuth Square were cleared of people prior to the demonstration. Shots could have been fired from inside the buildings too, not merely from the roofs.
István Somodi and Imre Czinki recall the evacuation of parts of the building. László Varga also lists three buildings: the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Housing and Public Construction, and the Ministry of State Monitoring (which occupied what would later become the registry office). Shots were most likely fired from the lower windows as well as from the upper stories of these buildings. Interestingly enough, one of the most clear-cut pieces of evidence that shooting came from the Ministry of Agriculture can be found in the Kő and Nagy book (though ironically they try to refute the claim). Péter Gosztonyi recounts an interview he had in Moscow with General Yevgeny Malashenko who in October 1956 was General of the Soviet Army. Shots from the Ministry of Agriculture were fired not only at the crowd but also at the Soviet soldiers in the tanks around the Parliament. This fact is by now undisputable, but its consequences for the Soviets are astounding.
Malashenko told Gosztonyi that the soldiers shooting at the Ministry of Agriculture building were later hauled up before a military court. With this act the Soviet authorities committed a huge blunder from which they were unable to extricate themselves satisfactorily. If they found the Soviet soldiers guilty, then that could only be because they shot at “Hungarian Comrades” in the buildings. If they found them not guilty, however, that would shatter the decades’ long insistence of the Hungarian authorities that “counter-revolutionaries” were shooting from the buildings. The Soviets chose the latter way out and acquitted the Soviet tank crews saying that they had “returned fire” at buildings from which “persons unknown were shooting at the unarmed crowd”. With this, the Soviets effectively recognised that “Hungarian units” shot at the crowd.
It is beyond dispute that Soviet armoured troops shot at the crowd. Those who did so fired from two locations: from Akadémia Street into the square, and from the corner of Kossuth Square and Báthory Street at the Rákóczi statue and surrounding area. Surviving eyewitnesses report shots coming from both locations and commands given in Russian prior to the outbreak of fighting.
A relatively new finding on the basis of Miklós Horváth’s research is that the Hungarian border guard units at ground level also fired at the crowd. (These were the “Green State Security”, not to be confused with the “Blue State Security”.) Tibor Juhász, who led the vehicle sub-division of the Border Guard Command, vouches for the presence of the border guards. According to him there were border and river guards stationed at numerous locations on the square; indeed a bren gun was set up on a table in the building at the corner of Nádor Street which border guard officers used to shoot at the crowd. József Kaló also says that “Green State Security men jumped out of the ground floor of the building on the corner of Báthory Street”. To summarise, a defenceless crowd was shot at from numerous buildings on the square as well as from snipers and armoured troops at ground level.
The question of who shot is more difficult to determine. It would be easier to establish who did not shoot. It can be completely discounted that the insurgents (“counter-revolutionaries” in the contemporary parlance) fired at the crowd even though for decades official Hungarian sources contended precisely that. For one thing they could never have gained entrance into the strictly guarded government buildings, and for another they had no reason to do so. This viewpoint is also shared by László Eörsi. The participation of the Hungarian Army in this atrocity can also be dismissed despite the fact that many Hungarian Army leaders were present in the Ministry of Defence. This is dramatically (if unintentionally) confirmed by the Ministry of Defence Secretariat 1957 report which accuses the Hungarian Army leadership – among them Minister István Bata – of “illiterate ineptitude” for not taking firmer action against the insurgents. The report cites the following events at the Ministry of Defence. “The true stance of the inner circle of top leaders was shown when on 25 October Lieutenant General Tikhonov demanded that General Lajos Tóth give his Hungarian units an unconditional order to fire.” Lajos Tóth went so far as to declare that he would “not countenance giving out such an order”. It is not my task to defend the Hungarian military leadership of 1956. But it is surely possible that the orders were not given owing to reasons of human conscience.
According to Lieutenant General Géza Révész it was as a consequence of this that the “Imre Nagy wing” of István Kovács, László Hegyi, Gyula Váradi, etc. came to the fore at the Ministry of Defence, exploiting the “ineptitude” of Bata and his men and drawing a line under these events. This group came into the open when via Imre Nagy they blocked the Military Committee plan prepared for the “liquidation of Corvin Lane”. It should be emphasised that Imre Nagy was the legitimate Prime Minister of Hungary at the time. We should also add that the Stalinists in the Ministry of Defence wished to introduce a military dictatorship and oust Imre Nagy from day one of the Revolution.
I also concur with László Varga when he says that “the accounts prove that rather than amateurs it was highly trained soldiers that carried out what happened. The size of the massacre in itself proves that there was a political decision behind it. The available threads unanimously lead to Party HQ. The upper command behind the actions was in the Ministry of Defence building.” (Varga, 109–111, 116.) Thus the later narratives of “panic fire” and “warning shots” are completely unfounded.
Miklós Horváth also asserts that at the same time the crowd was making its way to the square, Soviet officials Mikoyan, Suslov and KGB head Serov were in a meeting with the Hungarian party leadership at the Akadémia Street Party HQ. In the middle of the meeting Serov left the room and the building. During the discussions the Soviet political leaders sharply criticised Gerő for his handling of events up until then and promptly dismissed him. Hence Gerő was no longer First Secretary at the time of the massacre.
What was the role of the Soviets? It is possible to separate the Soviet armoured units on Kossuth Square into two groups: those who participated in the provocation plot and “those sacrificial armoured units not in on it”. Among the “participants” can be listed the tanks “leading” the crowd as well as those who fired from the direction of Akadémia and Báthory Streets. It was in the vicinity of these units that orders given in Russian could be heard. Survivors unanimously recounted this, for example Péter Hanák who was on Akadémia Street. General Lajos Tóth also explicitly blames the events on the Soviet units.
The work of the armoured units is evidenced by the countless bullet marks on the south side of the Parliament and the footage of numerous dead around the Rákóczi statue. What cannot be determined is who gave the armoured units the order to fire. The possibility that Serov, who had left Party HQ by that time, gave the order cannot be excluded, but neither can it be proven with currently available evidence. The Soviet order was more probably the giving of a signal to Hungarian troops too, which could explain how the firing began at practically the same time from a number of different locations.
The armoured units not in on the plot were originally posted to defend the Parliament opposite the Ministry of Agriculture but there was one among them which came from the Astoria Hotel and which shot at the Ministry according to Erzsébet Kelecsényi. Their crew was on friendly terms with the peaceful demonstrators when they were fired on from the buildings. The Soviet soldiers then began to fire at the buildings, in part from the tanks and in part from outside them. These units lost men too. That later they were hauled up before military courts – as mentioned above – only shows up the grotesque absurdity of the whole affair.
The most difficult question is in determining who shot from the building. I believe that it is currently impossible to establish this for a number of reasons:
It can most likely be stated that it was not uniformed persons who shot from the building (apart from perhaps the “Green State Security” border guards, noted above), but rather “mixed” groups dressed in civilian clothing that had moved in from the Ministry of Defence building. This group may have comprised members of the Hungarian Federation of Partisans, plain-clothes State Security officers and discharged soldiers. To be brief and perhaps controversial, the opponents of the Imre Nagy faction, or, more specifically, the Stalinists, deliberately participated in the massacre. László Eörsi and Edit Kéri among others claim that members of the Federation of Partisans also participated.
It is extremely unlikely that the more than 100 “volunteers” would have prepared a list of their own names; it is possible that most did not even know one another. But most eyewitnesses mention sighting members of the Federation of Partisans, which acted together with a mixed group. The report of Federation leader László Földes, given at the meeting of the Central Leadership on 26 October in which he stated “we haven’t shot at the crowd since 7 a.m.”, would appear to support this. Földes would later explicitly deny taking part in any of the events. He writes in his book published in 1984 that “we went to the Central Leadership meeting then back to the Ministry of Defence. We received notice from the Federation of Partisans building on Beloiannisz Street that a number of old Comrades had arrived and wanted to fight. I went across for them and took 80 to 100 Comrades into the Ministry of Defence. We armed them too. They participated in a number of manoeuvres, for example they guarded buildings together with Soviet units.”
Following this there seems to have been some kind of attempt on 26 October in the Party HQ to apportion responsibility for the events. In his first speech János Kádár – by then First Secretary – declared that “we have to halt those carrying out the putsch”. Then Imre Nagy, clearly addressing the members of the Military Council, declared that “for you the military considerations take priority over political ones. You gave out the order opposing the Political Committee”. To this László Földes retorted, which Hazai confirms: “We only defended the public buildings.” Földes later denied many times that the Federation of Partisans was connected to the Kossuth Square massacre. Gábor Bánrévy recalls, however, that at his workplace in 1963, a discharged army officer drunkenly bragged that he had shot at the crowd, which also supports the “mixed group” theory.
News immediately spread around the city that the State Security ([ÁVH]; at that time this meant the “Blue State Security”) troops had shot at the crowd. This was also reported by the Western radio stations. This misinformation was most likely spread on purpose in order to avert attention from the true perpetrators. The report of the former “Blue State Security” Parliamentary Guard gave two persuasive and logical reasons for excluding the possibility that it was (Blue State Security troops who fired: if State Security had been in the nearby buildings, their units at the Parliament would have known; otherwise it is impossible that the State Security would have shot at the Soviets. I wrote above about the Hungarian border guard units (“Green State Security”) who participated.
Finally, the events at the Parliament should be touched upon. According to the diary of Serbian journalist Dobrica Ćosić who was at the Parliament on 29 October, he saw bullet-marks and spent cartridges inside the building. The bullet-marks on the Parliament and those visible today on the first floor of the Ministry of Defence suggest an exchange of gunfire. This narrative is backed up by the account of István Somodi, who called on the Parliamentary guard from the Ministry of Defence to halt the firing. Shockingly he received the reply: “Ok! They should down weapons and then we won’t fire on them.”
József Nagy – who by photographic witness stood on the Soviet tank in front of the Parliament in a white mackintosh – explicitly claims in István Stefka’s study that those on the square were also shot at from the Parliament.
Summarising the events it can be established with great probability that the Kossuth Square massacre was a deliberately planned joint Hungarian–Soviet action.
On the Hungarian side the Stalinist party leaders still in power (belonging to the Gerő–Rákosi faction), as well as the Soviet and Hungarian authorities in the Ministry of Defence, planned and carried out the act of mass murder.
Their aim was a huge reprisal against the expected counter-reaction – which in fact was to take place at Köztársaság Square, albeit to a much lesser extent – and the elimination of the Imre Nagy faction reformists. The actual role of Imre Nagy in the Revolution and then during the reprisals has probably not been completely explored. Donald Rayfield writes the following in his monumental work: “Imre Nagy can be considered the last person executed by Beria, who had been his protégé and at the time of the 1956 uprising was the Prime Minister of Hungary. He was enticed into a trap with perfidious falsehood then executed on 16 June 1958.” It is a great shame that the author only touches the question most briefly. In my mind Imre Nagy and János Kádár did not have prior knowledge of the tragedy – since its aim was their overthrow. Mikoyan and Suslov most likely realised the complete failure of the Gerő faction Stalinists, which is why Ernő Gerő was deposed.
With events already underway, it was not possible to stop the crowd surging towards the Parliament; but I do not consider it impossible that the unsuccessful attempts from within the Party HQ to stop the crowd were deliberate. The situation may have been similar to that in Poland where the Soviets had aided the anti-Stalinist Władysław Gomułka into power at the expense of the Stalinist Bolesław Bierut. Imre Nagy – among others – could not become the “Hungarian Gomułka” because he had overstepped the mark when it came to Soviet tolerance. Thus the revolutionaries fought on the street against one of the strongest armies in the world allied with their Hungarian collaborators, and in the meantime the Stalinist mass murderers wanted to eliminate the reformists from within the party apparatus.
Our findings can be summed up in the following:
The demonstration prior to the massacre was not spontaneous but rather the people were shepherded into Kossuth Square with the active participation of the Soviet armoured units.
The number of dead can be estimated at between 800 and 1,000, including those injured who died later from their wounds. This is why the pictures shown in the Hungarian press over the past 20 years are misleading, since these only show the dead lying around the Rákóczi statue. According to survivors, the dead and the seriously wounded in reality covered the southern half of Kossuth Square from the Parliament building.
At present, the Hungarian “civilian” participants cannot in my mind be identified beyond reasonable doubt. Perhaps documents will surface later – for example, CVs and recommendations for decoration – that can help here. The involvement of the border police units (the “Green State Security”) also appears to be quite certain, although no personnel were ever identified as taking part in the massacre either.
The shots, fired in from various locations around the square and the nearby buildings, began at practically the same time, most probably on Soviet orders.
Some of the Soviet armoured units on the square were active participants in the massacre, while those around the Parliament who “were not in on it” returned fire on those firing out of the buildings at them.
But exactly what happened remains unclear since no proper investigation has yet taken place by either politicians, historians or the judiciary. The researching of Russian and other documents – for example, documentation on the investigation into the soldiers who returned fire as well as the CVs and medal recommendations for those shooting from the buildings – would be a considerable step towards uncovering the truth. What possible objection can there be to such enquiries?
One would expect that 35 years‘ fear and suppression of facts had ended in 1990.
Translation by Andy Clark
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Fejtő, François: Histoire des démocracies populaires. Éditions du Seuil, 1992. Horváth, Miklós: 1956 hadikrónikája [The military chronicle of 1956]. Akadémiai Kiadó, 2003.
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Kő, András – NAGY, Lambert: Kossuth tér 1956. Teleki László Alapítvány, 2001. Kopácsi, Sándor: Életfogytiglan [Life imprisonment]. I.U.S., 1989.
Lomax, Bill: Hungary 1956. Allison & Busby, 1976.
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Orbán, Éva: Igazságot 1956-nak [Justice for 1956]. Szent László Király Alapítvány Kiadó, 2011.
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Róth, Miklós – Szerdahelyi, Szabolcs: A Kossuth téri sortűzper [The Kossuth Square shooting before the court]. Magyar Ház, 2006.
Simonffy, András: Rozsda ősz. Magvető, Budapest, 1990.
Somodi, István: “Kossuth tér 1956. október 25.” In Hitel, October 2009.
Stefka, István: Ötvenhatötvenéve[Fifty years from fifty-six]. Kairosz, 2006; 56 arcai [Images of 1956]. Kairosz.
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Official” publications under the Communist regime
Ellenforradalmi erők a magyar októberi eseményekben [The role of counter-revolutionary forces in the events of October 1956] – the so-called White Book. Published by the Information Office of the People’s Republic of Hungary.
Hollós, Ervin – Lajtai, Vera: Drámai napok [Tragic days]. Kossuth, 1986. Gyurkó, László: 1956. Magvető, 1987.

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