Fifty years ago today
Communism was an ideology based on envy of the rich but resulting in devastation to all. The keys to Soviet power were control over business, borders, and ideas. Control of the "commanding heights" of the economy and in particular control over food distribution made it highly dangerous to oppose communists rulers.
The Soviet bloc severely restricted exit, a policy known as the "iron curtain." A communist state was a vast prison camp: the government fed you and you were not allowed to leave. Except for a brief period during the 1956 Revolution, this state of affairs lasted until Hungary opened its borders to free Austria in 1989, leading later that year to the fall of the Berlin Wall and freedom in Eastern Europe.
Victim of communist genocide in the Ukraine, 1930s.
The Soviets had a control over the observed reality and beliefs of its subjects that is hard to imagine in today's Internet era. The communist party owned all broadcast stations and newspapers and severely restricted smaller-scale means of communications such as telephones, small printing presses, and copy machines (and later faxes and computers). Government art encouraged secular worship of a godlike Marxist avant-garde, echoing the deification of emperors in imperial Rome.
A crucial event in fighting totalitarianism: rebels took control of a radio station from the communist media monopoly and redubbed it "Magyar Szabad Radio" (Hungarian Free Radio)
Thus, although the Soviets had already murdered millions, directly and through robbery of food and other vital supplies (as in "Ukranian famines" under both Lenin and Stalin), little was known about these events: behind the iron curtain all mention of them was excised from academia and media; outside the iron curtain they were unknown, denied, or ignored. To this day these events, collectively the greatest mass murders in world history committed by any ideological movement within a single century, remain largely forgotten thanks to the remarkably successful efforts of Soviets in destroying or simply failing to report publicly the evidence.
Meatspace blog: messages for rebels in shop window.
The resignation of the Stalin-era dictator Mátyás Rákosi under pressure from the new Soviet dictator Kruschev in July of 1956 emboldened Hungarians to speak somewhat more freely among themselves. László Rajk, judicially murdered under the Rákosi regime, was reburied and celebrated and the anti-Stalinist Imre Nagy (pronounced "Nahj") was invited to rejoin the Hungarian Worker's Party (the communist party and the only legal party). On October 16th students in University of Szeged boycotted the official party student union and reestablished the non-communist MEFESZ student union which had been banned under Rákosi. Soon students all over Hungary followed suit.
Members of the Hungarian Writer's Union and students, numbering over ten thousand, gathered to demand reform on October 23rd -- 50 years ago today -- at the statute of General Bem, a hero of Hungary's War of Independence in 1849. Students who had brought some Hungarian flags started cutting out the hated communist red star from the flags, leaving ragged circles. By 6 p.m., the crowd had crossed the Danube to the Parliament Building. Enthusiastic locals swelled it to probably well over a hundred thousand. Some enthusiasts toppled the largest Stalin statue, leaving his boots.
The government radio stations, the only ones allowed, railed that the crowds were "reactionary mobs." ("Reactionary" was the favorite insult of self-styled "progressives" in both the Soviet bloc and the West.) In response a crowd gathered at Radio Budapest, guared by the State Protection Authority (Államvédelmi Hatóság or ÁVH), the communist Hungarian equivalent of the U.S. FBI. When some of the crowd's leaders expressed demands for equal time on the radio to rebut the government's slanders, the ÁVH detained them and the crowd grew even angrier. Soon the ÁVH fired tear gas into the crowd, and soon after that started shooting into the crowd. Hungarian soldiers (of the regular army) were sent in to assist the ÁVH, but when some soldiers witnessed the protestors being fired on they mutinied, joining the crowd. The crowd and its new army recruits fanned out, siezing control of military depots and distributing guns. The Revolution had begun.
Rebels overan the communist party's headquarters and cut out the hated red star from the Hungarian flag.
Ghandian non-violent resistance only works where there is a well-established free press sympathetic to the resisters. This was certainly not the case behind the iron curtain in 1956. After the ÁVH fired on unarmed protestors most of the Hungarian Army sided with the protestors, defended them from the ÁVH, and helped them capture the government radio station. With control of the radio station rebels were able to broadcast their rebuttals of the government's slanders, to call for justice against the murderers of protestors, and to make their case for anti-communist reforms. Military depots were raided and arms distributed to civilian rebels, defeating communist gun control.