The International background of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and that of the Prague Spring in 1968: A Comparative Analysis

During the 40 year long Communist rule in East Central Europe the two crises in the Soviet Block which were chrushed by military intervention were the 1956 Hungarian uprising and the the Prague Spring in 1968. Perhaps because of the seemingly rather different character of the two events, in the accounts of historians dealing with the crisis in Czechoslovakia it is generally the differences rather then the similarities between the two events which are stressed, if such a comparison is deemed necessary at all.

In my view however, a comparative analysis on this field could reveal not only striking similarities on such issues as the character of the reform movement of intellectuals preceeding the events, the role of the press, the continious pressure of the society on the party leadership, the mechanism and process of Soviet crisis management and decisionmaking on the military intervention, etc. but it could also offer important lessons concerning the very question of whether there had been a chance for the survival of the Prague Spring.

Such a comparison may also be useful on the basis of my conviction that the decisions of all the major protagonists of the Czechoslovak tragedy, that is, the party leadership in Prague, the Kremlin, the leaders of the Soviet Block countries and the West alike were affected, in some way, significantly by the lesson of the 1956 Hungarian revolt.

In my paper I am going to analyse the international aspects of the two crises concentrating on the logic of Soviet decisionmaking, their role in World politics and their effect on East-West relations, trying to draw attention to some illuminating parallels between the two events.

Taking into account the time limit of the papers as well as the difficulties of such a comparative analysis in an oral presentation I have chosen to summarize my findings in the form of theses on the following major themes:

General factors determining East-West relations in the periods preceeding the crises:

  • A. Crisis management in the Soviet Block and the reaction of the West
  • B. The aftermath of the crises and their impact on East-West relations

The first thesis of the general factors determining East-West relations in the periods preceeding the crises is: that following the establishment of the American-Soviet bipolar World order after the Second World War East-West relations were based on the mutual recognition of the European status quo and the spheres of interest.

The second is: that in spite of the slogans of popaganda in certain periods (US: liberation of the East European nations; SU: exportation of the communist system to the West) no serious attempt was made by either superpower throughout the whole period, leading up to the fall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980's, to intervene in the others sphere of interest in Europe.

The third thesis is: that Eastern Europe never had any real importance in American policy making and on the field of East-West relations the issue of the satellites was always subordinated to the actual course of American-Soviet relations. Consequently, it was tacitly accepted as early as in the middle of the 1950's that liberalization in Eastern Europe is desirable only to an extent which is accaptable for the Soviet Union. On this basis in the period preceeding the Hungarian revolt real American policy (as opposed to the continued propaganda of liberation) was aimed at promoting the idea of national communism, identified with Titoism at that time. The policy of bridge building in the 1960's had the even further reduced goal of contributing to the East European countries' gaining a somewhat greater extent of internal and external freedom thruogh an evolutionary process mainly by increasing trade with the Soviet Block countries.

The fourth: Consequently the United States (and the West in general) had instigated neither the Hungarian revolt nor the Prague Spring, as claimed by communist propaganda during and after both events. Certain means of American propaganda, however, especially Radio Free Europe had catalyzing effect on the events in both cases, acting as an alternative source of information for the population.

The fifth of the theses: In fact both crises were against the actual interest of the West in general and the United States in particular, since both events happened at a time when a promising course of détente in East-West relations was in progress.

The sixth thesis: Soviet policy towards the satellites throughout the whole Cold War era was based on the conviction that these countries belong to the Soviet empire, must serve as a security zone for the Soviet Union and owing to the mutually respected European status quo, their status would never be questioned by the United States and the West. The degree of reforms and liberalization allowed for these countries changed from time to time as a function of the power relations in the Soviet leadership, but there is no sign that it was ever assumed in Moscow that a significant deviation from the Soviet model of the Communist political-economic system would be tolerated by the Soviet Union in any of the satellites.

A. Crisis management in the Soviet Block and the reaction of the West

1. The Hungarian revolt lasted only for two weeks and its most striking feature was an armed uprising against the Stalinist system and Soviet domination, while the Prague Spring, a process of eight months is generally presented as a peaceful and rather cautious evolutionary reform movement aimed at establishing a new type of socialism with a human face.

Yet, a more thorough examination of the two historical processes shows that in fact there is much in common in them and the main tendencies inherent in these processes are basically the same. (I am going to discuss this topic later.) In this context it is not really surprising that the Soviet response was also the same both to the Hungarian revolt in 1956 and to the Prague Spring twelve years later.

2. The Soviet leadership handled the crises in 1956 and in 1968 with delicate care in their first phase, trying to find a political solution and regarding armed intervention the utmost response to the deviation of their satellites. In 1956 the Kremlin had to manage two parallel crises in Poland and in Hungary, and it is clear now that the Soviets were trying to find a "Polish solution" to the Hungarian revolt as well during its first week. Khrushchev in fact was first unwilling to give military assistance at the request of Hungarian party leader Gerô on 23 October, and a decision on Soviet military intervention, which actually started the armed uprising in the country, was made on the strong pressure of Soviet Ambassador Juri Andropov. On the next day a Soviet crisis managing mission of Mikojan, Suslov, KGB hief Serov and Deputy Chief of Staff Malinyin was sent to Budapest whose task was to handle the situation by negotiating permanently with the Hungarian leadership, formally and informally as well, and report to Moscow when means of a political solution came to an end.

In the case of Czechoslovakia, similar negotiations took place at the highest level in the form of a series of official bilateral (Soviet- Czechoslovak) and multilateral (Warsaw Treaty states) meetings.

For the Soviets the aim of these negotiations in both cases was to make their deviant counterparts understand where the limits of Moscow's tolerance were, and to put pressure on them so that they voluntarily respect those limits.

3. During their negotiatons with the Soviets both Imre Nagy in 1956 and the Czechoslovak reformist leaders in 1968 wanted to preserve the confidence of Moscow by trying to convince their counterparts that they were able the control the situation (and they really believed it so) and that until they were in power, the cause of socialism was in no danger. They also argued that they only wanted to create a reformed and more human version of socialism, that is socialism with a human face as it is called after the experiment of the Prague Spring. (It is worth mentioning here that the first Communist politician to work out a coherent conception of something like socialism with a human face was Imre Nagy, who in his writings in 1955-1956 developed the idea of a reformed socialist system.)

This policy seemed to be not unsuccesful up to a point, since the Soviets, in lack of a better solution, temporarily accepted both Imre Nagy and the Dubcek leadership, and hoped that owing to their popularity, they would really be able to control social discontent. At the same time, they as Communists were expected to understand that the extent of authorized reforms and concessions would be determined by the Soviet Union.

4. The lesson of the two crises in 1956 (Hungary and Poland) seems to have determined significantly the political philosophy of the Prague leaders. Not knowig the course and the actual steps of Soviet decisionmaking in 1956, they could assume, that the Soviets suppressed militarily the Hungarian revolt, because Hungary had withdrawn from the Warsaw Treaty and declared its neutrality, which obviously jeopardized the security of the Soviet Union. In Poland, however, where the revolt was limited to introducing internal reforms only and no foreign policy matters were raised, Soviet military intervention could be avoided eventually. Consequently, it could be hoped by the Czechoslovak leaders that a similar self-confinement would present sufficient guarantee for the Soviets concerning their security interests.

5. Both Imre Nagy and the Prague leaders undertook an unrealizable task: they wanted to meet the claims of the Soviets and the gradually but rather quickly radicalizing demands of the society at the same time. Since the society regarded the concessions unsatisfactory all along, and put continious pressure on the leadership, the latter had to manoeuvre with the Soviets from time to time. This however, when realized by the Soviets led to a serious loss of confidence from the side of the Moscow leaders. This was the case when on 25 October, 1956 Imre Nagy proclaimed in his radio speech that the Hungarian Government was starting negotiations on the withrawal of the Soviet troops from the country, although previously the Hungarian Politburo, on Mikojan's and Suslov's intervention firmly rejected such a proposal. Brezhnev too, according to his telephone conversation with Kádár on 18 July, 1968 , was shocked, when he learnt that the Soviet Politburo's letter to the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party had not been submitted to the CC, instead it had been published and only the Presidium, where the reformists had a majority, had taken a stand on the issue.

6. Soviet decisionmaking was basically determined by the security interests of the Soviet Union, as it is often pointed out, however, in my view the major guarantee for this security was not so much the stationing of Soviet troops in a satellite state, (as it is argued in the case of Czechoslovakia) but rather the stability of the Communist system itself in that country. In this context, it is very likely that both in 1956 and in 1968 the decision on intervention was made in Moscow after the consideration of the existence of the following four factors, on which long range Soviet interests were based:

    a. A unified, and able to act party leadership which is loyal to Moscow

    b. Efficient and firm state security forces

    c. Loyal military command and a disciplined army

    and last but not least

    d. Monopoly of information, that is, a loyal press controlled by then party

On 31 October, 1956, when the Soviet Politburo made its decision on the second intervention, chrushing the Hungarian revolt, the situation in Hungary undoubtedly gave reason for such a step, aimed at saving the Soviet type Communist system in Hungary. Without going into details on this; the dissolution of the ÅVH (the state security forces), the restoration of the multyparty system on the 1945 basis, the disintegration of the party leadership, the passivity of the army and the existance of an entirely free press were all signes of an irreversible process of the Communists' and the Soviet Union's loosing control over Hungary. Deviances directly concernig the foreign policy of the country, as the withrawal from the Warsaw Treaty and the declaration of the neutrality were not preconditions of such a decision, on the contrary, these steps of the Hungarian Government were only desparate responses to the more and more obvious Soviet preparations for a military intervention.

For the first sight it may be more difficult to identify the same four factors of the crisis of the regime when examining the events in Czechoslovakia. It is interesting that even Kádár, who tried to mediate between Moscow and Prague but eventually supported the intervention, even after the joint military action on 23 August claimed that the situation in Czechoslovakia was similar that of the Polish crisis in 1956, not the Hungarian one, as the Soviets saw it. In this case, however, in my view, the Soviet estimate was closer to the reality, so from their own point of view they made a right decision.

In short: In Czechoslovakia too, there was a continious shift from the conception and the practice of a reformed socialist model to a non-totalitarian system, which eventually would have reached its climax in the establishment of the modern form of this system, that is parliamentary democracy, as it actually happened when outside control ceased to exist in 1990.

Of course it can be argued that the international situation in 1968 and in 1990 was quite different, and that the very aim of the Dubcek leadership was to keep the situation under control in order to avoid Soviet intervention. But what is true for the reform communists in the party leadership, it is not true for the society. The events in Hungary in 1956 showed that Imre Nagy for a while, tried to pursue the same policy of self-confinement, beeing aware of the conditions of Realpolitik, but the society, led by an immanent longing for freedom, neglected the realities more and more every day. The consessions of the leadership, which would have been declarad dangerous rightist deviations even some months before, did not satisfy the people, on the contrary, they began to beleive, that even more radical changes were realizable.

In the Summer of 1968 there were already many signs of the same tendency in Czechoslovakia as well. The relatively free press, the establishment and functoning of the political clubs, the restoration of the Social Democratic Party, the 2000 words declaration, the article on Imre Nagy were all factors which show that the Czechoslovak society, having strong nostalgia for the parliamentary democracy of the interwar period, would have in no way limited its demands to introducing a reformed socialist system in the long run.

The Dubcek leadership, which up to the point of the Soviet intervention was yet able to control the situation indeed, actually had two options:

  1. The first option was to try to limit the process of liberalization at a level which was likely to be accapted by the Sovietet Union (the Gomulka model in 1956). This, however would have caused a conflict with the society, so the resistance of the society should have been suppresed by internal forces (the Jaruzelsky model of 1981). Such a solution, however eventually would have led to the reverse of the reform process and the end of the Prague Spring.
  2. The second option was (what actually was followed by both Imre Nagy and the Prague leaders) to avoid conflicts with the society and gradually yield to the continious pressure of the society. At the same time they tried to convince the Soviets that the political reforms, however serious they seemed to be, were still within the limits of the socialist system. This is how the Czechoslovak leadership did not implement the agreement of Cierna nad Tisou as they had every reason to assume that the society would consider it a betrayal of the very idea of the Prague Spring and perhaps would react fiercely to such a step.

The Soviets on the other hand considered this fact an obvious evidence for the unability and, what is worse, the unwillingness of the Prague leaders to control the situation under Soviet terms. Besides facing the existence of a no more reliable party leadership, and a more and more dangerously free press in Czechoslovakia, by the beginning of August Moscow had no more confidence either in the state security forces, or in the military command in that country as their loyalty was considered to be much stronger to the Prague leadership than to the Soviet Union. So all the four factors, the consideration of which the Soviet decision on the intervention had been made in Hungary in 1956, were similarly regarded to be in a state of crisis in the case of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and this recogniton in Moscow directly led to the decision on military intervention, putting an end to the Prague Spring.

In 1968, however the Soviets did not wait until the last phase as in Hungary, when they had got into a direct and open conflict with the satellite government, and were hoping that a newly elected pro-Soviet Czechoslovak party leadership would legitimate their action, saving the problems caused by the instalment of the Kádár government from outside the country in 1956. (However, the name of the planned but never established "provisional revolutionary government of workers and peasants" was almost exactly the same as the official name of the Kádár government, except it was not called "provisional".)

7. The main difference in the character of the crisis management and the subsequent intervention is that in 1956 it was the individual responsibility of the Soviet Union, while in 1968, through a series of multilateral negotiatons, five of the Warsaw Treaty states too, were drawn in this process and the intervention was implemented as a joint military action of the Soviet Union plus the five East European states concerned.

An elementary form of this cooperation, however, was already working in 1956. On 24 October there was a summit meeting in Moscow for the satellite party leaders, convened to discuss the Polish crisis, but, as an unexpected item on the agenda, the situation in Budapest was handled as well. Right before the second Soviet intervention, during the first days of November Khruschcev and Malenkov personally consulted the satellite leaders, and on a secret mission to Yugoslavia, on the island of Brioni they acquired the consent of Tito as well. Although the intevention was implemented by Soviet troops only, it is known that previously both East Germany and Rumania offered their participation to Moscow. Recent scholarship has pointed out that there was even a kind of coordination among the Warsaw Treaty countries concerning ordering military preparedness in the countries bordering Hungary.

8. The Breznev Doctrine, a term introduced by Western analysts on the basis of the famous article of the Pravda in September, 1968, in fact was an immanent principle of the Soviet block policy and it was in effect from the time of the Soviet-Yugoslav conflict in 1948. Although it was not formulated publicly until 1968, this tacitly accapted doctrine of saving the Communist system, the guarantee of the Soviet security interests at any price, determined Moscow's reaction during the Berlin uprising in 1953 and in the case of the Hungarian revolt as well. It is interesting in this context that as early as in the Summer of 1956 Khruschcev informed Tito that should unexpected events happen in Hungary, the Soviet Union would use every means to restore order in the country, that is to save the Communist regime.

9. Western reaction to the Prague Spring and the military intervention suppressing it was even more cautious than it was in the case of the Hungarian revolt . The lesson of Hungary led to the stopping of American propaganda on the liberation of the East European nations, consequently the issue of the satellites was raised not even in the electoral campaigns in 1964 or 1968. In 1968 it became even more obvious that the United States and the West, on the basis of the status quo policy, had tacitly accapted the right of the Soviet Union to apply a potential "Brezhnev Doctrine" in its own sphere of interest during the whole Cold War era.

C. The aftermath of the crisesa nd their impact on East-West relations

  1. Owing to the status quo policy, no crisis inside the Soviet Block had any serious effect on World policy or East-West relations. Both the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian revolt and the Prague Spring was followed by a series of denouncing declarations in the West but the ongoing process of détante was not effected by these events and the negotiations were continued after a short period of obligatory moratorium.
  2. In 1968 even the forum of the United Nations was used for the condemnation of the Soviet Union in a much more limited extent than in the case of Hungary, and the West even avoided creating an uncomfortable situation similar to that of the several year long fruitless debates over "the situation in Hungary".
  3. American-West European relations, however, were effected in some way by both events, since, for a time, their impact reduced the tendencies in West Europe to become more independent from American influence, and both crises resulted eventually in the strengthening of NATO and maintaining US military presence in Europe at an earlier level.
  4. Both experiments had rather serious impact on the left-wing political movements worldwide, and especially in Western Europe. The crushing of the Hungarian revolt meant the first blow to the image of a peace loving Soviet Union and its ready to change political system, while the suppression of the Prague Spring was generally considered to be an utmost evidence that the Soviet type Communist system can in no way be reformed.