"O year of years! and to have seen thee there!
The people call thee still the harvest year,
The soldiers year of war; the old men long
To tell of thee, and poets dream in song."
Adam Mickiewicz, "Pan Tadeusz",
translated by Kenneth Mackenzie.
New York: Hippocrene Books, 2000
Adam Mickiewicz, a Polish Romantic poet, wrote these lines about the year 1812: the year when Napoleon's Great Army was advancing towards Moscow, the Poles were dreaming of regaining their independence, and entire Europe was still with anticipation. There are those moments in history of nations and even continents, when it seems that the world which has hitherto existed is coming to an end, and that almost anything could happen. 1956 was also such an incredible year, a true annus mirabilis. When on 25 February Nikita Khrushchev stood on the rostrum in the Kremlin palace, the delegates to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union sat still in anticipation, which gradually turned into astonishment, and even shock. From this highest tribune, words were spoken of Stalin's mistakes and crimes, of murders committed on communists, of forced resettlements of entire nations, of Stalin's having led the country to the verge of defeat in the war against Hitler. Quite recently, one was sent to the gulag for words like this. The delegates, listening to Khrushchev in full concentration, were forbidden to even take notes - the speech was to be secret, meant exclusively for the ears of the communist elite. However, as early as a few days later, the Kremlin leader decided to have his "Secret Speech" read out at thousands of open party meetings in factories, offices, and even schools all over the Soviet Union.
To this day, historians have wondered over Khrushchev's motives for this surprising decision. The most convincing answer is that he wanted to seek social support for his "de-Stalinisation" plans. And indeed, from that moment on, the "thaw" in the communist block ceased to be a process which was steered and controlled by the party, becoming - to an ever growing degree - a grass-root social movement, and at times and in some places: one that exploded the communist system. Khrushchev acted like the proverbial "sorcerer's apprentice": he released powers which he was not able to control.
It started in Poland, which was the only country apart from the USSR where Khrushchev's "secret speech" was made available not only to party elites, but where dozens of thousands of its copies were read out in open party meetings. The effects were like a thunderbolt. The country was in ferment, censors started to allow increasingly blunt criticism of Stalinism and demands of democratisation. People were beginning to lose their fear; they started saying out loud what they thought and what bothered them. Documents of regional Security Offices show that even their agents and informers were refusing to co-operate, which happened probably only once again in the history of communism - at the time of its collapse in 1989.
On 28 June, 1956, Poznan residents took to the streets, demanding wage increases, price cuts, and improved working conditions. However, much like three years earlier in East Berlin, economic and social demands were immediately followed by political, national, and independence slogans. A workers' protest turned into an uprising. The demonstrators seized a majority of public buildings, street fights against the police and security forces lasted almost two days. The rebellion was bloodily crushed, and brutal repressions ensued. These were not limited to Poland only - the rulers of other communist countries feared similar outbursts. In Hungary, the Petofi Circle - a meeting place of reformist intellectuals - was closed.
However, the social pressure was too strong for the authorities to be able to hamper the changes in the longer run. In Poland, the regime turned to Władysław Gomułka, the only communist politician who enjoyed popular respect, removed from the party leadership in 1948 and later imprisoned. In popular perception, he had a reputation of being a leader who was able to oppose Stalin and who wanted to build in Poland a communist system different from the Soviet one. It was for these reasons that the Kremlin opposed Gomułka's return to power. In the morning of 19 October, a plane with the Soviet delegation landed at the Warsaw Okecie airport, carrying on board Khrushchev, a few other members of the Central Committee, and some marshals and generals of the Red Army. Simultaneously, Soviet troops stationed in Lower Silesia and West Pomerania started advancing towards Warsaw. After lengthy discussions which lasted many hours, the Kremlin leaders flew back to Moscow, and tanks bearing red stars stopped over one hundred kilometres away from the Polish capital. Poland found herself not only facing an armed Soviet intervention which was to halt the changes not approved by Moscow, but also on the verge of an anti-Russian national uprising. Rallies, meetings and demonstrations were taking place all over the country. Hundreds of thousands of people voiced their support for Gomułka on the one hand, but on the other hand demanded freedom, withdrawal of Soviet troops from Poland, departure of Soviet "advisers" from the Polish army, the release of Primate Stefan Wyszyński and other imprisoned bishops and priests, and the abolition of the much-hated Security Office (UB). Under this vehement grass-root pressure, the authorities were forced to carry out a much deeper and farther-reaching de-Stalinisation than was the case in other communist block countries. The Catholic Church regained its autonomy, collectivisation was abandoned, and ideological pressures on culture, science and everyday life were reduced. The communist authorities later backed out of many of the concessions and reforms, but a significant part of the changes introduced in 1956 proved to be lasting and irreversible, thus differentiating Poland from her neighbours.
The Kremlin rulers did not resign themselves easily to the changes in Poland. There are strong indications that Beijing's position, which opposed armed intervention, had a significant influence on the Kremlin. This was by no means out of warm attitudes towards Gomułka or the Polish October, but rather out of a wish to demonstrate that China was on an equal footing in the communist block, and that no important decisions should be taken without her. The Chinese stand was one of the first signs of the violent conflict which would tear the world communism apart a few years later.
Yet, to a large extent, the Polish October was victorious due to the tragedy that befell the Hungarians. The Soviet tanks advancing towards Warsaw started the final withdrawal to their bases only on 23 and 24 October, when fighting in Budapest was already underway. The clashes had started with a demonstration in solidarity with Poland, organised in front of the monument to Józef Bem (in Hungarian: József Bem), a Polish-Hungarian hero fighting for Hungary's independence during the 1848 Spring of Nations.
François Fejtö wrote that, in Poland, the revolutionary movement was absorbed by the existing system, albeit at the price of the system's deep transformation. The Hungarians went further: theirs was the first anti-totalitarian revolution in history. Within merely a dozen days or so, the totalitarian communist system collapsed like a house of cards. It was replaced by revolutionary committees, workers' councils, and Imre Nagy's multiparty government which announced free elections and Hungary's withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. The Russians were withdrawing from Budapest, Hungarian freedom fighters were celebrating their triumph, and a feeling of euphoria spread to a significant part of the world public opinion. In Washington, Secretary of State John Dulles stated that we were nearing the moment of a great and long-awaited victory over the Soviet colonialism. We have also learnt quite recently that the Kremlin was seriously considering a withdrawal from Hungary and its agreement to Nagy's multiparty government. At the end, history took a different course. The Hungarian uprising was bloodily crushed by the Soviet troops, while Western governments remained passive. It was probably the last possible moment to save the cohesion of the Soviet empire. Revolutionary ferment started spreading to Hungarians living in Transylvania.
Khrushchev's decision was also influenced by events in the Middle East, i.e. Egypt's defeat after having been attacked by Israel and, later, by France and Great Britain. The crisis of the communist block in Central and Eastern Europe turned into a global crisis taking place in many dimensions. The Middle East war was, on the one hand, yet another scene in the Israeli-Arab conflict existing to this day, and on the other hand it was one of the last attempts by London and Paris to maintain their status of colonial powers. When Moscow announced it would provide its Egyptian ally with military assistance, the conflict threatened to turn into a world war. The war also led to one of the most serious crises in the history of NATO, as Washington had not been forewarned of its European allies' actions.
For the Poles, 1956 brought a wider margin of freedom. Despite all the later disappointments, it was one of the most important steps on a long path, crowned with toppling the communist dictatorship and regaining independence in 1989. For a brief moment, the Hungarians came closest to winning independence, but for them this annus mirabilis ended with a tragedy symbolised by tanks with red stars crushing the barricades in Budapest, by the executions of Prime Minister Nagy and hundreds of freedom fighters. However, in later decades, the memory of this uprising will be the main source of inspiration for all the Hungarians opposed to enslavement.
For the communist block, year 1956 was the first great internal crisis. Saving the empire at a price of a brutal armed intervention precipitated, at the global level, the process of de-legitimising the communist ideology. It stripped off the illusions of many Western intellectuals, heretofore supporting Moscow without hesitation. The gulag in Siberia was far away, but the tanks in the streets of Budapest and thousands of refugees from Hungary had a shattering force, also from the perspective of Paris or Rome. It would still be a long wait till the next annus mirabilis, the 1989 Spring of Nations, but the first step was made.