The crises in Hungary and Czechoslovakia were the most traumatic events in the history of USSR engagement in Eastern Europe since the Yugoslav crack of 1948. Comparative perspective analyses of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968 are hence crucial to comprehend the WTO’s (Warsaw Treaty Organization) and Moscow’s stand towards collective security concerns in Eastern Europe – concerns that have influenced the Kremlin’s modus operandi in many following instances, especially in the 80s\90s.
Not only both episodes have put under stress the local regimes, but they resulted in wider consequences for the overall stability of the Soviet Union and its leaders, notably Khrushchev (1953-1964) and Brezhnev (1964-1982). However, the Hungarian and Czech questions had remarkably different causes, leading to different scenarios. Accordingly, this analysis considers the two cases as very different examples of revolutionary paradigms.
The Hungarian Crisis
Hungary is a country with a strong political tradition, rooted in centuries of continuous struggle for independence, and hardened by the Ottoman, Austrian, German and Soviet occupations. Budapest’s special relationship with the USSR did nothing but confirmed such trend as enduring in time. The first and most immediate reason of the 50s\60s unrest was the 1956 policy of de-Stalinization initiated by Nikita Khrushchev, who promoted a new, and more tolerant, administrative model for the USSR.
This in turn accelerated the democratization of several Communist parties in the Union, increasing the demands for radical reforms in many Eastern European countries, most importantly Poland and Hungary. Other than this exogenous factor, social unrest in Budapest had been growing due to the dissatisfaction against Communism, widespread poverty, and the repression techniques implemented by the Soviet secret police. While the Polish reforming process, though opposed by the Kremlin, proved virtuous and gradual, the simultaneous Hungarian unrest was rather a sudden, violent, explosion of protests and demonstrations. Public disorders and upheavals were particularly increased by Moscow’s momentaneous threat to intervene militarily in Poland, Hungary’s historical ally in Central Europe. Fearing possible uprisings, the Soviet leaders removed the Hungarian leader Nagy, choosing the discredited politician Rakosi to implement destalinization in Hungary. The winds of uprisings seemed not to diminish, and the new leader appealed to Moscow to conduct punitive expeditions against the Hungarian dissidents. Khrushchev firmly refused and promptly substituted Rakosi with another politician, Erno Gero. On 23 October 1956, the discontent turned into proper uprisings, and a giant statue of Joseph Stalin was pulled down during a student march in Budapest.
Tanks were initially sent repressing the revolts, but the Kremlin ordered them to retreat as soon as the former Hungarian Leader, Imre Nagy, was restored at the top of the country. The Kremlin had restored Nagy as leader of Hungary with the realist purpose of de-escalating the growing socio-political discontent, but it was too late.
The revolution went soon far beyond the reforms programmed by Nagy and his entourage. Hungary’s Communist Party was a shadow of its former strength, and it disintegrated in a variety of different currents and positions. While anti-Communist propaganda started spreading, the leader’s name was frequently used for purposes he would have not approved (J. Valenta, Comparative Politics, 1984). Imre Nagy’s choices did not improve the situation, instead they caused the subsequent Soviet intervention.
In approximately a week, the Hungarian leader introduced democracy, freedom of religion, freedom of speech and announced that Hungary would withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. Albeit prone to dialogue and negotiation, Khrushchev could not allow Hungary neither to embrace capitalism, nor to break the USSR geopolitical security belt by leaving the Warsaw Pact. To prevent the anti-Communist uprisings from spreading in the neighboring Soviet countries, the Kremlin could do nothing but intervene. The question was only how. Khrushchev saw a favorable moment when the West was tied up by the Suez Crisis, that had seen the US forcing Britain, France, and Israel to block any intervention against Nasser’s Egypt. Betting on the Western inaction should the USSR have intervened in Budapest, the Kremlin sent thousands of troops and Tanks against Hungary.
After two weeks of harsh resistance by the Hungarian people, the Soviet Union repressed the uprisings and executed many members of the opposition, among which Nagy and his advisors. The USSR had secured the iron curtain once again, and no other revolt would follow in Eastern Europe for years to come.
The Prague’s Spring
Similarly to the Hungarians in 1956, Czechoslovakians were becoming more and more hostile towards the Communist regime. The chronic problems of the USSR administration – food shortages, political repression et similia – were widespread in Prague as much as in Poland and Hungary. As in the case of Hungary, things got worse in the aftermath of a change in the administration of the country, which is when Novotny was forced to resign by the Kremlin and was quickly substituted by the reformist Alexander Dubcek. Importantly, Dubcek’s political agenda was centered on the necessity to change Communism in Czechoslovakia from within, proposing the concept of “Socialism with a human face”. Thinking that Communism did not have to be as restrictive and oppressing as it had been to that time, he considered paramount to liberalize some aspects of the Czechoslovakian socio-political structure.
Consequently, Dubcek eased the tensions with the secret police, increased the freedom of speech and lifted many of the Kremlin’s restraints in the country. Yet, aware of the unfortunate ending of the Hungarian question in 1956, the Czech leader made soon clear to Brezhnev that he had no intentions to withdraw from the Warsaw pact, nor to put in danger Communism as a whole. Correspondingly, the so-called Prague’s Spring was a rather gradual, legalistic, and tolerant movement. Dubcek’s noble intentions notwithstanding, his set of reforms ended up undermining social order in the neighboring communist regimes, among which Eastern Germany and Poland. In July 1968, a meeting took place between Dubcek and the WTO’s members, where the Soviets put pressure on Dubcek to stop his plan of reforms. Not satisfied by the results of the negotiations with Prague, Polish and Eastern German troops commenced military exercises along the borders with Czechoslovakia, warning Dubcek about their intentions should he not comply with their security concerns. On 20 August 1968, Soviet and WTO’s troops launched a direct invasion of Czechoslovakia. Dubcek preferred to order not to fight back the invaders, and the whole country was occupied about 24 hours later.
Although Dubcek was imprisoned, he was never executed. Importantly, the events in Czechoslovakia led to the establishment of the Brezhnev Doctrine, whereby Iron curtain countries (Eastern European countries bordering with the Western bloc) would not be allowed to neither to reform nor to abandon Communism.
Hungary and Czechoslovakia might look very similar case-studies of Soviet interventionism. Yet, they differ in many aspects, from their raison d’etre to their political ending. The two cases share the endogenous factors –the repression of their respective regimes, the widespread poverty, the intimations of the secret police and the complete absence of any socio-political freedom. Besides, in both countries the social unrest\changes began when the Kremlin cut its support to the old governments, prompting a power shift in Hungary, where Nagy was eventually restored again, and in Czechoslovakia, where Novotny was substituted by Alexander Dubcek.
Last, in both Hungary and Czechoslovakia the USSR staged military interventions (though only Russia in Hungary, while more than one WTO member in Czechoslovakia). However, premises were quite different. The change in Czechoslovakia was promoted by the Government, and it consisted of a set of gradual, peaceful reforms, that did not threat the USSR by direct means. On the contrary, the Hungarian case is marked by tense, widespread uprisings and episodes of violence caused by the people themselves, with little if any direct link with the regime or the person of Imre Nagy. Yet, where Dubcek promised not to withdraw from the WTO, Imre Nagy had clearly posed a threat to the USSR integrity by declaring its willingness to leave the WTO, adopt a capitalist economy and, likely, bandwagon with the Western bloc. There is a clear difference between the two cases also on the ground of ideology: Hungary witnessed the emergence of a structural revolt against Communism, and the Communist party itself fragmented soon in a number of different stands; on the other hand, Alexander Dubcek promised immediately loyalty to Communism, and promoted a rather idealist-socialist program of reforms.
The Czech’s enthusiasm never matched the revolutionary temper and elan of the Hungarians in 1956 (J. Valenta, Comparative Politics, 1984). Indeed, where the Hungarians fought back causing thousand of casualties to the Soviets in 1956, the Czech simply surrendered. This is why we should regard Hungary and Czechoslovakia as different revolutionary paradigms, driven by similar reasons but diverse in their manifestation. Another similarity regards the USSR patterns of interventions in 1956 and 1968 with regard to the conditions in the Global stage at the moment of intervention.
In 1956, Khrushchev took advantage of the Western stalemate during the Suez Crisis, which tied up the US, France, Britain and Israel. It was a propitious moment to force the Eastern European power balances, suffering no retaliation from the other side of the curtain. Similarly, in 1968 the Western energies and finances were drained by the ongoing Vietnamese war, that would later on turn into one of the major military and ideological setback in the history of the United States of America. Again, the situation was clearly in favor of the Kremlin to take care of its domestic security concerns, quickly overthrowing Dubcek’s government through a joint military intervention of the Warsaw pact countries.
In both situations, the US and its NATO allies could not risk the outbreak of a big-scale war for hegemony with the Soviet Union, which acted accordingly to pursue its strategic interests in Budapest and Prague.
Soviet leaders always had political, ideological, and economic interests in the stability and good performance of its Eastern European countries. They are indeed strategically paramount to Moscow’s geography of power and geopolitical security. This is a trend enduring in time, valid in 2020 as it was in the Soviet times, and before.
Politics change, geography does not. According to these due premises, the Soviet Union’s hierarchy of threats – specially in the Eastern European context – followed these principles:
1. Any withdrawal from the Warsaw pact in Eastern Europe is not permissible, and shall be addressed with strength and decision (1956 scenario);
2. Any attempt to liberalize a country’s regime shall be annihilated if it puts in danger the overall stability of the USSR (1968 scenario; yet, in 1956 there was no intervention against Gomulka’s reforms in Poland because of the different conditions –> it was not a threat as much as the Hungarian was).
A last consideration is historical in character. One of the non-obvious common factors in the Hungarian and Czech scenarios might had to do with the long-lasting historical difference between the Eastern European countries (importantly, Eastern Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia) and Russia, together with many other Central Asian countries. Radical Leninism is more likely to fail and drive towards social uprisings in Eastern Europe than in other sub-regions of the USSR because such countries have inherited a predominantly Western political, philosophical and cultural tradition, marked by constitutional experiences and principles of individual freedom and self-determination.
The Soviet approach towards politics, on the contrary, is much related to the despotic systems of Tartar, Czarist, and Byzantine centralized administrations, where Messianism and Leninist dogmas find consensus in a much easier way than in Central-Eastern Europe.
In any way, the Soviet interventions were not blindfolded, but dictated by the Kremlin’s and the WTO’s necessity to confront with collective security concerns, likely to undermine the stability of both the USSR and Communism in general.
|PATTERNS TO INTERVENTION||HUNGARY||CZECHOSLOVAKIA|
|Favorable International conditions to intervene by force (US-USSR)||YES||YES|
|Revolution from above||NO||YES|
|Revolution from below||YES||NO|
|Peaceful process of reforms||NO||YES|
Jiri Valenta, “Change, Soviet Interventionism, and Normalization in East-Central Europe”, Comparative politics, January 1984, Jstor;
Peter Deli, “Esprit and the Soviet Invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia”, Contemporary European History, March 2000, Cambridge University Press, Jstor;
Eliav Lieblich, “The Soviet Intervention in Hungary”, 2018, Jstor;
Abu Nasar Saied Ahmed, “The Chinese Response to the Soviet Interventions”, The Indian Journal of Political Science, Published by the Indian Political Science Association, March 1986, Jstor;
M. Rainer, “The Crimes of the Communist Regime in Hungary, National Report”, January 15 2010, Jstor.