1958: Imre Nagy, former Prime Minister of Hungary

Fifty years ago today, the onetime Hungarian Prime Minister and three others associated with the country’s shattered 1956 revolution were hanged in Budapest for treason by the Soviet-backed Hungarian government.

A moderate Communist, Imre Nagy assumed leadership of Hungary from 1953 to 1955, a period of ideological thawing after the death of Joseph Stalin.

Nagy charted a “new course” towards Austrian-style neutrality or Yugoslavian-style “national Communism” not yoked to Moscow, opposed domestically by his predecessor and rival Matyas Rakosi, who eventually ousted the reform-minded minister.

But Nagy’s anti-Soviet credentials saw him elevated back to the office by popular acclamation during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution — an interval of the nation’s history still deeply cherished in Hungary today. Here’s a recollection by newsreel montage to the strains of Beethoven’s salute to the national martyrs of another time and place.

Nagy held the office for only ten days before Soviet intervention crushed the revolution. He issued this radio appeal to the world (in Hungarian, followed by the English version at about 0:34) on November 4, 1956:


It was an appeal against all geopolitical realities; Hungary was the Soviet Union’s sphere, and western counter-intervention could have precipitated World War III. Verbal outrage abounded, of course:

But Khrushchev gibed that the United States had “supported” the revolution “in the nature of the support that the rope gives to a hanged man.”

For all that, the abortive revolution has won the benediction of history: still venerated in Hungary, and arguably a turning point in the postwar world when the Soviet Union set itself unmistakably and, eventually, fatally against the legitimate aspirations of its subjects.

Nagy’s statue in Budapest’s Martyrs’ Square. Creative Commons photo by Martin Ujlaki.

Less the leader of this stirring movement than carried along by it, Nagy nevertheless embraced the revolution fully.

His government hardly had the opportunity to implement any sort of programme, but it gestured towards multiparty parliamentary democracy. Nagy attempted to withdraw Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. And to the fame of his memory, he refused Soviet blandishments after his capture to recant and accede publicly to the new Hungarian government.

For these principles, Nagy, his defense minister Pal Maleter, and revolutionary officials Miklos Gimes and Jozsef Szilagyi underwent a weeklong trial June 9 to 15, culminating in execution on this date — all strictly hush-hush, and not announced until the bodies were cold.

Though secret, the trial was tape-recorded in its entirety. This past week, to coincide with the anniversary of the affair, the full 52 hours of audio were publicly aired for the first time — over the same June 9-15 span, and at the location of the original trial. The recordings are held by the Open Society Archives, which maintains a wealth of information on the 1956 revolution (such as, topically, this ‘death circular’ issued by anti-Soviet Hungarians). Formerly held under lock and key, the audio files are not yet published for public distribution at this point, but one would expect that it’s only a matter of time.

Nagy and his companions were officially rehabilitated and, on this date in 1989, reburied with honors; tens of thousands turned out to pay respects that had been officially prohibited for 33 years. In this chaotic period as Soviet domination of eastern Europe crumbled, their fellow-traveler Bela Kiraly (who gives a fascinating account from the inside of the Revolution in this 1996 interview) returned from exile for the reinternment ceremony and found that he was technically still under the sentence of death he had received in absentia at Nagy’s trial.

On this day..