The Suez Crisis and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution
“The Suez Crisis and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution”, East European Quarterly, volume XXXV, Spring 2001, No. 1, 47-58. (USA) (English version of the Postface to the Hungarian edition of Denis Lefebvre’s L’Affaire de Suez, Budapest, Osiris, 1999.)
“The method is the same in all cases—in philosophy, in any art or study. We must look for the attributes and the subjects of both our terms, and we must supply ourselves with as many of these as possible …” Aristotle wrote in Analytica Priora1. One of the “terms” discussed here is the Suez undertaking of Great Britain, France, and Israel while the other one is the Hungarian Revolution which broke out on October 23, 1956.
In this essay, we will summarize what we know about the connection between the two parallel crises. Applying the Aristotelian method, we will gather together “as many of these connections as possible.” This is of utmost importance since archival sources at our disposal are quite incomplete.
The chronological parallel is obvious: the onset of the Hungarian Uprising on October 23, 1956 and the Israeli onslaught against Egypt on October 29, 1956 are very close to one another in time. However, was there any other connection beyond their simultaneity? Did the two crises have any affect on one another, and if so, how? From among the numerous questions two which arise are of fundamental importance which need our special attention: 1) How much did the outbreak of the Hungarian revolution affect the planning and execution of the Suez intervention? 2) Did the Suez question influence the tragic fate of the Hungarian revolution, contributing to the Soviet intervention. In what follows we will try to find responses to these two questions.
The simultaneous series of events in Hungary and in the Middle East received major coverage in the world press. Recalling this “unbelievably feverish period,” André Fontaine, the editor-in-chief of the foreign political column of Le Monde, says that there were mornings when, affected by the piles of news arriving from these two crises areas, the front page had to be changed several times: “At eight o’clock we decided to emphasize Suez and yet, another half an hour later, Hungary was ahead. And then again it changed.”2 In the minds of many people living at different points of the world, the two conflicts were connected despite the vast geographical distance. For example, in several neutral states as well as among the majority of Canadians and West-Germans, the general consensus formed that the Soviets would never have dared to intervene in Hungary with such cruelty and cynicism had the British and the French not handed to them such an outstanding distraction. Hundreds of university students in Hamburg demonstrated with the inscription on their placards: “Eden is the assassin of Budapest.” In France, however, the majority of the public emphasized a different aspect of the question: they resented that the UN condemned the Soviet Union only verbally for the Hungarian intervention while, following the British and French action in the Suez Canal, the UN decided to deploy UN forces.3
The contemporary Hungarian press, daily papers, and the Budapest Hungarian radio regularly reported developments in the Suez crisis from October 29 on. Except for foreign reaction to the Hungarian revolution, this was the most extensively discussed topic of the foreign news. Based on news agency reports and newspaper coverage, the events of the Suez action were covered closely. Great attention was given to debates within the UN since these related to the Hungarian question as well. Later, due to the fact that the revolutionaries had greatly expected to receive military aid during the uprising but that none was forthcoming, and due to the propaganda of the Kádár regime, an unfavorable view of the French and the British took root in Hungary. This view held that the French and British followed their self-interest in ignoring Hungary, even as the occupation by the Soviet Union developed, in order to use the situation to attack Egypt.
As mentioned earlier, both the Suez question and the Hungarian Revolution was considered to be a significant event by the international media. With the passing years, a large amount of historical literature had been written about both events. In the1960’s and 1970’s only secondary sources were available to analyze global political relations: the press, official announcements, and memoirs. Lacking archival documents, analysts had to rely on assumptions about the most important questions. But beginning in the second half of the 1980’s, the holdings of American, English, French, and other western archives became available for research. With the collapse of East-European communist regimes in 1989-1990, it became possible to look at their government and party documents relating to the Hungarian revolution. In 1992-1993 even a segment of Soviet documents became available to researchers.4
English language documents about the Suez issue usually treat the Hungarian question as a marginal affair although there do exist authors who try to combine the two events and strive to reveal the connections.5 As the French literature, along with historical works which deal exclusively with the Hungarian Revolution, concise monographs analyzing the 4th Republic, French foreign policy after World War II, and international relations in general often dedicate extensive discussions to the topic. Most French books mention the temporal coincidence of the Hungarian Revolution and the Suez issue.6 Certain analysts point out that France and Great Britain capitalized on the Soviet Union’s occupation with the Eastern European disturbances,7 while other publications have only called attention to the contradictions of the events’ reception in France.8
There were several Hungarian papers written as well which dealt with the connections between the Hungarian events and the Suez issue. According to Hungarian historiography during the Kádár era, there was a close connection between the two crises: English and French leadership had considered the events in Hungary and a presumed occupation by the Soviet Union when deciding on the timing of the attack against Egypt. The best known book about the Suez Crisis reflecting a Kádárian view is László Salgó’s A szuezi háromszög 1956 [The Suez Triangle: 1956] which emphasized that the French government “timing the intervention on October 31 was supposed to have meant guarantees that the Soviet Union—due to the Hungarian Revolution—would be unable to take decisive steps in the interest of Egypt.”9 Applying a montage technique by combining the events at Suez and in Hungary, the author claimed that the two events were closely connected from the very beginning, that they developed in parallel, and that the French-British decision was premeditated.
Representatives of western Hungarian emigrants also sought answers to basic questions about globally significant political events. Historian Miklós Molnár, who lives in Switzerland and is of Hungarian origin, concluded that because of the news about the outbreak of the Hungarian revolution, representatives of the Allies, conferring in Sévres on October 22-24, 1956 to prepare for the Suez intervention, set the date for the Israeli attack earlier than planned in order to utilize the unexpected engrossing occupation by the Soviet Union. On the other hand, he also held to the view that the Suez question affected the Hungarian Revolution since the Suez events impacted the policy of the Soviet leadership on Hungary. However, Molnár did not consider this to be the only not the decisive cause of Soviet decisions.10 Emil Csonka’s book, published in Munich, also claimed it is probable that the British and French Suez action influenced Soviet decision-makers at forming their views about Hungary. “The moment the Kremlin understood that the West’s attention could not focus exclusively on the Hungarian question, that the leading western powers were in serious conflict over the Suez question, and that Central and Eastern Europe was no longer Washington’s main preoccupation—rather, it was to discipline England and France—it was dead sure that it could do anything with Hungary it wanted.” However, Csonka also did not consider the effect of the Suez action on the Soviets decisive either.11 Béla Király, the former Commander of the National Guard, stressed during an interview that, “at least indirectly, Suez damaged us” since it was Suez that occupied the UN’s attention instead of Budapest and since “the Soviet leadership might have contemplated that the aggression against Hungary could be executed with less loss of prestige.”12
Following the 1989-1990 change of regime in Hungary, books exempt from the ideological distortions of the Kádár regime could finally be published. A high school textbook, Az 1956-os magyar forradalom [The 1956 Hungarian Revolution], which summarized all the questions relating to the Revolution, for the first time also mentioned the Suez connection. The authors were also of the view that the Middle Eastern conflict shifted the world’s attention away from Hungary. However, the Suez action is not listed among the causes of the November 4 second Soviet intervention which crushed the Hungarian Revolution.13
Now that we have had an overview of significant contemporary opinions and those reflected in scholarly literature on the interconnections between the Suez and Hungarian crises, let us set out to examine how the significant amount of government documents newly available for research, and publications based on them, affect our image of the events and what responses they offer to the basic questions asked earlier.
Csaba Békés was the major scholar who studied the British government’s archives on its response to the Hungarian Revolution. According to Békés, “the Hungarian uprising did not exert any significant effect on the development of the British policy either on the timing of the Suez campaign or during the time period before launching the attack against Egypt.”14 Although the British Ambassador in Budapest, Leslie Fry, fully identified with the goals of the Hungarian Revolution and sent numerous telegrams to London, his reports did not illicit any significant reactions by the British Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He hardly received any response to his telegrams. On the other hand, my research in the archives of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Archives Diplomatiques)15 proves that French diplomats—although affected more closely by the Algerian war and the Suez events—paid closer attention to the case of Hungary. Documents and interviews with French diplomats on assigned posts in 1956 indicate that Foreign Ministry officials received the news of the Hungarian Revolution with sincere sympathy and a desire to help. To understand the dual crises is complicated by the fact that, until the outbreak of the Suez War, neither the British nor the French Ministries of Foreign Affairs were informed about the secret military preparations since only the highest level officials participated in preparations for the Suez intervention. Only these highest-level officials knew about the British-French-Israeli talks of October 22-24, 1956 in Sévres.
What were these secret conferences about? Did they also discuss the uprising in Budapest? Denis Lefebvre’s work does not mention this. The last scholarly view about this question, of which I am aware, was published in Georgette Elgey’s book in 1997. The especially well-informed and well-connected French historian utilized documents and the testimony of French witnesses that she had saved for almost 25 years. Our first basic question which we posed at the beginning of the Epilogue was how the outbreak of the Hungarian revolution affected negotiations in preparation for the Suez intervention. Elgey wrote that, “In Sévres (on October the 23rd) the Israelis and the French had been pursuing unsuccessful negotiations the whole day. Unexpected dramatic events in Budapest during the night served as an excuse to convince Ben Gurion, who was about to leave, that he should stay on in France. The French kept repeating that the time had arrived to step up against Nasser. A more favorable situation could not have been dreamt. Neither the Americans, preoccupied with a presidential election, nor the Russians, struggling with the Hungarian uprising, would be able to hasten to help Nasser.”16 That was how the French leaders spoke about the occupation of Hungary by the Soviet Union. But why was the Hungarian uprising used as an excuse? Was it because of the timing of the Suez intervention?
Csaba Békés, who was the first to examine the interrelations between the Suez issue and the Hungarian Revolution, set out to reconstruct the relationship between the two series of events by using British and, to a certain extent, Israeli documents. According to him, Ben Gurion’s diary indicates that the news of the Hungarian uprising did not influence the timing of the Israeli attack since all the major items on the script later executed by Israel, Great Britain, and France had already been conditionally determined on the first day of the Sévres conference on October 22.17 “At setting the conditional time, the British and French Ministers of Foreign Affairs urged an Israeli attack to occur as soon as possible.”18 The underlying motive behind this urgency might have been that French and British military forces, in preparing for an attack against Egypt, had been standing by for a long time and it could not have been kept at a high level of readiness for a long time. 19
Israeli historian Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov, who has written about the connections between the Hungarian and Suez events based on Israeli sources, has pointed out that David Ben Gurion had seriously considered a possible Soviet military intervention in case of a Franco-Israeli-Egyptian war. What is more, he was afraid that “Israel would be the only target of the Soviet retaliation, especially if Israel initiates the war by itself.” During the Sévres conference the Israeli Prime Minister shared these worries with the French. Probably in response to this, the question of the Hungarian uprising also came up at the conference: “… The Polish and Hungarian events played important roles during the discussions. The French Foreign Minister, Christian Pineau, described the advantages of immediate action. In his view, the Soviet Union’s problems in Poland and Hungary decreased the probability of Soviet intervention in Egypt.”20
In sum, according to sources available at the present time, it can be assumed that the issue of the Hungarian uprising came up during the Sévres talks, during the preparation for the Suez action, but that it was not significant at determining the timing of the attack. In his diary Ben Gurion does not even mention the Hungarian events in connection with the French-British-Israeli talks.21
The agreement at Sévres had the Suez Action begin on October 29 with Israeli troops attacking Egypt. From that point on, the Hungarian uprising became significant for the British government due to the United States’ fierce conduct because of the action in the UN. The Security Council put the Hungarian question on its agenda on October 28. However, the British tried to delegate the question to the emergency UN Assembly meeting convened to discuss the Suez events in order to shift and divide attention.22 Consequently, their attitude towards the Hungarian question was subordinated to the Suez question. A similar approach could be detected in the case of French foreign policy.23 For example, the French delegate’s October 27 instructions from Paris included the fact that the French government opposed setting up an examining committee for the Hungarian question since it would have created an unpleasant precedent when the Suez issue later received publicity. Following the start of the attack in the Middle East, the French followed the British in trying to utilize the Hungarian question to alleviate the protests that broke out in the United Nations. “Do not allow the [Hungarian] question to be pushed into the background when the UN’s full attention is given to the Israeli-Egyptian question,” the Foreign Ministry wrote to the leader of the French UN mission.24 Due to American resistance, and in spite of the British and French plans, the Hungarian question was tabled at the November 4 emergency UN Assembly meeting convened to discuss the Suez issue.
What is the explanation for the United States so decidedly countering the intentions of its most important allies? “From the very beginning of the Suez campaign, the Americans were aware of the real motives underlying the English (and French) efforts described above. … The American leadership was of the view that, since they lack effective tools to influence events in Hungary which belonged to the Soviet sphere of interest, they ought to concentrate on solving the Suez crisis where they had to impress their own political-military allies and not another super power in opposition to them.”25 For Washington, the Middle East was far more important than Eastern Europe, as was the third world at large which Washington was trying to draw into its own political and economic sphere while also preventing the Soviets from gaining power in these areas.
Now that we have summarized the kind of policies which the leading western powers pursued in connection with both crises taking place during the Fall of 1956, we will examine Soviet views and measures which had such a fatal impact on the outcome of the Hungarian Revolution. This will make it possible for us to respond to the second fundamental question raised early in this paper—whether the Suez crisis affected the tragic fate of the Hungarian Revolution and whether it contributed to the Soviet intervention?
During the Hungarian crisis the Presidium of the Soviet Communist Party, the highest political forum of the Soviet Union, was in almost continuous session. The notes of Vladimir Nikiforovic Malin who at that time directed the General Department of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party and participated in the Presidium’s sessions, give a comprehensive overview of the Presidium’s debates, their turns and decisions.26 There are two allusions made to the Suez case in these writings. The first one is on October 28 before the launching of the Israeli attack on Egypt on October 29 and before the British and the French would interfere on October 31. As Khrushchev said, “The English and the French have started to stir up trouble in Egypt. Let us not get in company with them.”27 The chief party secretary—who must have gained information about the Anglo-French preparations from intelligence sources28—might be alluding here to the enormous difficulties the British and the French would encounter in the case of military action.29 After days of hesitation, on October 31 the Presidium of the Soviet Communist Party decided on the military suppression of the Hungarian Revolution. In the minutes of this session, which proved to be so decisively important for the Hungarian Revolution, the following sentences attributed to Khrushchev can be read: “If we withdrew from Hungary, it would encourage the American, English, and French imperialists. They would attribute it to our weakness and would swing into attack. We would demonstrate our weakness [with the withdrawal]. In that case our Party would not understand us. Besides Egypt, we would give them Hungary as well.”30 According to these statements, the Soviet leader “placed Hungary in the context of the Suez situation which he considered to have been decided on that day. During the following days the Soviet military advisors were withdrawn from the area.”31 Accounting for his decision, the chief party secretary kept mentioning one factor—to defend the imperial prestige.32 Thus it seems that Khrushchev did not wish to seem weak. Conclusively, the British-French-Israeli venture had a share in Moscow’s decision to order the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution. The question is to what extent and in what way did it contribute.
On October 30, the previous day, the Presidium of the Soviet Communist Party assented to the Soviet government statement that Soviet military units—whenever the Hungarian government asked—would be withdrawn from Budapest and the Soviet government was ready to discuss the eventual complete withdrawal from Hungary. What explains such a radical change in Khrushchev’s and Presidium’s views by the 31st? Soviet archival resources at our disposal—which is still minimal despite the recent discoveries—do not make an unambiguous answer possible. Is it the Suez case? There is no direct evidence for that since the most recent developments of the Suez crisis—the deployment of British and French troops—did not come up during that session of the Presidium’s.33 On the other hand, in similar situations—Berlin in 1953 and Czechoslovakia in 1968—the Soviet leadership never needed a Suez-type stimulation to come to such a decision. The first Soviet military intervention in Hungary—on October 23, 1956—could also be brought up in this context. In other words, in all likelihood the Soviet troops would have been deployed to crush the Hungarian uprising even without the Suez events since, by the end of October, the extent of changes in Hungary exceeded the threshold the Soviet leaders found acceptable: a vision of the total collapse of a communist dictatorship had emerged while a democratic regime was developing. All these automatically threatened the unity of the Soviet bloc.34
At the same time the Suez action might have facilitated the decision about the Soviet military intervention by extending an excellent distraction to thwart a probable international uproar in the wake of the bloody crush of the uprising in Hungary.
Based on archival materials and publications derived from them, it seems that there was not only a temporal coincidence between the Suez and Hungarian crises during the Fall of 1956. And, the two events met not only in the columns of the world press and in the different forums of the UN—which had been functioning mainly as a propaganda device for a while anyway. Although the two series of events stem from totally different causes—the nationalization of the Suez Canal and the threat to Israel were in the background of the action against Egypt, while in Hungary it was the crisis of the Stalinist-type regime—the two crises influenced and affected one another. Most recent results of archival research give significant evidence of the connections between the two series of events. Therefore we can offer the following responses to our basic questions: although the confusing situation in Europe and the Soviet Union’s occupation must have come up at the Sévres meeting of the British-French-Israeli allies on October 22-24 in preparation for the Suez action, this question did not influence their changing of the date of attack. Raising the issue, the British and French tried to reassure the Israelis who feared a Soviet military counter-attack. On the other hand, the Suez action could not have affected the final outcome of the debate in the Kremlin since they had been discussing Hungary’s fate for days. However, it may have had a secondary affect on its decisions.
We have tried to examine, in Aristotle’s words, “what relates to the two things in question and what those two question relate to.” Although we have tried to summarize “as many of these as possible,” we cannot give final answers.