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9-08-2015, 22:30

THE POLISH CHALLENGE AND THE HUNGARIAN RISING

Stalin’s Russia was determined to turn Poland into an obedient Soviet-controlled state; all vestiges of democratic influence were to be swept away. A Tito-like defiance could not be tolerated in Poland, which was strategically far more vital to the USSR than Yugoslavia. Fearful that the orthodox communist but nationally minded Polish first secretary of the Communist Party, Wladysav Gomulka, could cause trouble, Stalin had him removed and imprisoned. Gomulka’s rival for power, the president of Poland, Boleslaw Bierut, a former Comintern man, was placed in the crucial position of first secretary. To make doubly certain, a Soviet general, Marshal Konstanty Rokossowski, installed as deputy premier and minister of defence, ensured that Poland did not stray from the Soviet fold. Rokossowski could call on a Polish army of 400,000 men and on the Soviet divisions stationed in Poland, which was ruled by the party rigidly on the Stalinist model. Fears of West German demands for the recovery of Germany’s ‘lost’ territories of Silesia and East Prussia could be used to make Poland the most important member, besides the Soviet Union, of the Warsaw Pact alliance, which the Russians had set up in 1955 to counter the formation of NATO in the West. Economically, too, Poland was closely linked to the Soviet Union through bilateral treaties. It was also a member of Comecon, the Soviet-dominated Council of Mutual Economic Assistance, set up in 1949. In its early years Comecon hardly bestowed ‘mutual’ benefits on its members but was largely inactive, a propaganda answer to Western cooperation and Marshall Aid. Industry and small workshops were almost totally nationalised in Poland. The economy was directed by a central plan which gave greatest emphasis to heavy industry and armaments. The workers suffered from the exploitation of their labour, and independent trade unions had been crushed. To these privations, the easiest responses were absenteeism, petty theft and shoddy work. Thus the Polish socialist state in this command economy did not win the support of the class on which communism was supposed to be firmly built – the industrial workers. The party tried to push state agriculture too, imposing prices and exacting taxes. Stalinist collectivisation made only slow progress, however: less than 10 per cent of arable land had been collectivised by 1955. The rest remained in the hands of small farmers, but they were defenceless against rigid state controls and reacted by producing less and less. The Catholic Church, traditional custodian of Polish culture, came to embody national independence and resistance to communism and Russification. Relations between state and Church rapidly got worse after 1949; the Church’s privileges and possessions were curtailed and in 1952 bishops and priests were arrested and imprisoned. Then in 1953 the primate of Poland, Archbishop Stefan Wyszynski, was forced to retire to a monastery. All these repressive measures failed to break the religious feelings of the majority of Poles. Farmers clung to their soil and workers could not be persuaded to build up a socialist Poland which offered them so little reward. The bureaucracy, the secret police and the party were ‘them’, to be suffered only as long as was necessary – and that meant, as Poles realised, as long as Soviet military force held Poland in its grip. Stalin’s death did not lead to any immediate thaw in Poland. Bierut held on to power, though on Moscow’s insistence ‘collective’ leadership had to be adopted by splitting the positions of party secretary and premier. Soon a split developed, as it had in Moscow, between the Stalinist hardliners and the reformers, and Bierut was forced into concessions. Beria’s fall in the Soviet Union had downgraded in the Soviet Union the previously all-powerful security apparatus and limited its murderous activities. Poland’s regime had to follow suit. Communists unjustly imprisoned were rehabilitated and Gomulka was quietly released from prison. Discussion became more free and critical; even Western jazz could now be played. The Stalinist years had proved to be no more than a cloak as far as people’s minds were concerned: a religious, patriotic and critical population remained very much alive in town and country and so showed up the isolation of the Polish communist leadership. Khrushchev’s not so secret speech to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party in February 1956 denouncing Stalin was a heavy blow to Bierut and the hardliners in Poland. Indeed, it may have contributed to the heart attack and death of Bierut in Moscow a few weeks later. Edward Ochab, formerly a Stalinist, now with the wind of change from Moscow a more flexible communist, succeeded as party secretary. He had turned reformer. Khrushchev’s speech was read out at Communist Party meetings throughout Poland; a general amnesty released many political prisoners. Reforms eased the lot of farmers and workers, but the firm control of the party made people regard talk of ‘democratisation’ with cynicism, and the Russians remained ever present. Yet, three years after Stalin’s death popular pressure from below intensified in Eastern Europe, fuelled rather than appeased by half-hearted reforms, as it turned into open risings in Hungary in November 1956. But the most serious crisis appeared first to be occurring in Poland, when in June 1956 the Poznan steelworkers escalated a pay dispute into a disturbance of much wider significance. They now loudly demanded ‘Bread and Freedom’ and so challenged the whole Soviet-backed system, though only in peaceful demonstrations. The authorities reacted with brute force. Army units fired into the crowds, killing and wounding more than 300. Poles were killing Poles. In the aftermath of these events in Poznan the Politburo of the Polish Communist Party was thrown into confusion by the deep division between the Stalinists and the reformers. According to the Stalinists the Poznan disturbance was the work of ‘enemy agents’; according to reformers it was an expression of legitimate grievances. Most worrying were demands of ‘freedom’, not just internal freedom, but freedom from the Soviet Union. This, no Soviet leaders at the time would tolerate and the Poles knew that if Russia’s position were seriously threatened Poland would be forcibly brought back into line. Nevertheless the Polish reformists gained the upper hand. ‘Workers’ councils’ were established to bring a ‘democratic’ element into management. A reform programme was adopted and Gomulka emerged as its leading exponent on the Central Committee. In the struggle with the Stalinists he soon enjoyed extensive popular support in Warsaw and other cities. The crisis point was reached in mid-October 1956. The Soviet leadership became so alarmed that Khrushchev and a high-powered Soviet delegation arrived uninvited in Warsaw to halt the slide, which might end in a repudiation of Soviet control and of socialism. Soviet troop movements were set in motion. Poland was on the brink of bloody conflict. It is interesting to compare the situations in Poland and Hungary at this time and to ask why an armed conflict developed in Hungary but was averted in Poland. It is clear that Khrushchev wanted to avoid a military showdown, whether in Poland or in Hungary, because he realised the immense setback it would mean for his reformist policies and for his own position in Moscow. From a Soviet point of view the danger Gomulka presented lay in his Polish nationalism – another Tito could not be tolerated. Then there was the even greater danger that a national popular uprising would occur and that the Polish leaders would lose control. Gomulka convinced Khrushchev that only he and the reformers could retain control, that while he wished to correct the Stalinist errors of the past he was a convinced communist, and that while Polish nationalism required that Poland assert the right to be treated as a sovereign nation Poland would remain loyal to the Soviet alliance. What was equally clear to Khrushchev was not only that Gomulka enjoyed immense popular support for his stand, but that the Polish army would be likely to side with the Polish leadership, however hopeless the struggle. Khrushchev had enough trouble on his hands without inviting more, but he returned home with misgivings. Before the end of the year the Stalinists were purged from the Polish party and the Russians agreed to abandon direct interference in Polish affairs. The way was open for ‘national communism’. Gomulka also delivered his side of the bargain. Poland remained a communist state; it did not repudiate its membership of the Warsaw Pact and did not intervene on Hungary’s side. The Polish leaders recognised the limits of Soviet tolerance. The Hungarians did not and paradoxically it was Hungarian support for Poland that radicalised the Hungarian unrest into a full-scale rebellion against Soviet domination. Hungary had suffered particularly under the iron hand of the Stalinist first secretary Mátyás Rákosi, having since the summer of 1949 been turned into a communist state on the Soviet model. Rákosi eliminated his communist rivals, even hanging Laszlo Rajk, a former minister of the interior. The peasantry was forced into collectivisation and industry was placed under central state control. The prisons filled and a vast and much hated secret police enormously extended its activities. To Khrushchev and the majority of the Kremlin leadership an unreformed Rákosi was a distinct liability. Rákosi in turn anxiously watched the de-stalinisation developments in Poland and was shaken by the apparent Yugoslav–Soviet reconciliation. His response to demands for economic reforms and for more freedoms within a communist system, which were being advocated by intellectuals and the more progressive communists around Imre Nagy, was to clamp down even more severely in the summer of 1956. In July, however, the Kremlin forced him to resign. There was no strong and popular communist like Gomulka to replace him. The post of first secretary was given to another, hardly less hated Stalinist, Ernö Gerö. At least János Kádár, a cautious reformer, who later was to play a critical role in the revolution and the post-revolutionary history of Hungary, joined the Hungarian Politburo. After July, the divided Hungarian leadership and the still overwhelmingly Stalinist party machine failed to provide any firm national communist direction to those such as the students, intellectuals and many urban Hungarians who were looking for change. Imre Nagy was potentially the only popular communist around whom the nation might have rallied, but like a good communist he refused to organise an opposition. Concessions by the Politburo were interpreted as signs of weakness. Opposition grew and took more and more challenging forms under the influence of the Polish October. On 23 October 1956 students spearheaded a mass demonstration of support for Poland in the Hungarian capital. A ban on the demonstration, which looked as if it would have been in vain, was lifted. At first everything proceeded peaceably. But during the evening the hated Hungarian security police, the AVO, started firing on demonstrators. The demonstrators were joined by huge crowds calling for Imre Nagy. Gerö then agreed to the intervention of Soviet troops to restore order. At this stage they behaved with restraint. On the following day, 24 October, the Hungarian Politburo, in the hope of containing the revolutionary situation, appointed Nagy premier but Gerö remained first secretary. The party had lost the support of the people and, although the greater part of the Hungarian army did not join the rising, the Politburo felt too uncertain of the soldiers’ loyalty to use them against their fellow countrymen. The rising was spreading through Hungary and was taking the form of a national rebellion. That same evening of 24 October two important emissaries arrived from Moscow, Mikhail Suslov, the party ideologist, and Anastas Mikoyan, the oldest member of the Politburo to have survived Stalin’s purges, a man of negotiating skill and adaptability. They agreed with Nagy that Soviet intervention had been a mistake and consented to the dismissal of Gerö and his replacement by Kádár. The Kremlin saw a ‘Polish solution’ as the lesser evil, despite the danger of allowing the uprising to spread disaffection to Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. That did not happen. Nor was there a Polish solution in Hungary. Nagy was being swept along by the rising and the committees and organisations springing up all over Hungary. His success in securing the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Budapest only created the illusion that the mass protest of Hungarians against communist autocracy and foreign occupation had succeeded. A heady Hungarian nationalism asserted itself. Nagy tried to ride the revolutionary wave in order to direct it into less dangerous paths. On 29 October Suslov and Mikoyan were back in Budapest. The following day Nagy announced that Hungary would return to a multi-party system, making a decisive breach with communist (though not necessarily socialist) rule. But when he gave way to the demand that Hungary should withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, the writing was on the wall. The Kremlin could not afford to lose total control or to take the risk of being replaced in Hungary by the West. Anglo- French preoccupation with Suez made the Russian decision to intervene easier; it was equally clear that the US would restrict itself to diplomatic protests. What the Soviet leaders had to weigh was the effect of their decision whether or not to intervene on Eastern and central Europe. The Warsaw Pact and Russia’s whole position was in jeopardy. The Chinese, Bulgarian, Romanian and Czechoslovak leaders were urging intervention; Poland was busy with its own affairs and Yugoslavia could not oppose the Soviet Union in Hungary. So the Kremlin decided on the repression of the Hungarian rising. The pretext for intervention was provided by Kádár. The first secretary had left Budapest and had broken with Nagy, whose supporters he condemned as counter-revolutionaries. On 3 November 1956 Soviet tank divisions returned in force. The Hungarians, who had hastily armed themselves, were joined by only a few detachments from the Hungarian army. Civilians were resisting trained troops and the Russian suppression of Hungarians fighting for independence and democracy could be seen on Western television screens. The fight lasted long enough to influence Western opinion against the Russians. In the West it also opened the eyes of many communists and fellow travellers, who now left the party. Nagy and the Hungarian military commander Pal Maleter were arrested while negotiating (they were later tried and executed). Soviet tanks showed no restraint this time but pulverised any building from which rifle fire was heard. Thousands of Hungarian refugees fled to the West, and armed resistance in Hungary was soon crushed. Kádár, carried to power on the back of Soviet tanks, now worked to restore some semblance of credible Hungarian independence. He accepted that the Kremlin would not permit any democratic multi-party government or Hungarian neutrality. Provided, however, that the Kremlin could be reassured on these two crucial points, then, as in Poland, the Kremlin would allow Hungary some degree of autonomy and freedom to choose its own path. That was Khrushchev’s policy and, to the surprise of the West, Kádár at first very cautiously and then much more boldly charted the course of Hungarian autonomy within the Soviet alliance. In economic policies, Kádár followed a new course, less repressive, less rigidly centralised, allowing some scope for private enterprise and so eventually turned Hungary into the most liberal and, for a time, most prosperous communist state. Kádár’s realistic nationalism and his country’s growing prosperity in the end more reconciled the Hungarians to his regime, which had saved them from the threat of another Soviet intervention.

 

 

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