VERITAS Research Institute for History and Archives

Following the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Hungarian communist leader János Kádár and his acolytes had to essentially rebuild the Hungarian People's Army, whose one and only task was to defend the system, i.e. to maintain order. At the start of the 1960’s the Soviets assumed that in the first phase of a hypothetical war, NATO would attempt to destroy the most important facilities and infrastructure, carrying out the attack with missiles, bombers and fighter jets. In order to drop their payload on a distant target (in the Soviet Union), a number of these attacking aircraft would have to fly through Hungarian airspace, so it was no surprise that the first task of the regime after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution was to set up an air defense system. The Soviets believed the Soviet Union would be attacked from multiple directions. They were able to infer what kind of weapons would be employed against them from a given direction by taking into consideration maximum weapon range and information gleaned through intelligence activity. The same applied to Hungary and the rest of the countries allied with the Soviet Union. The Soviets were weary of a surprise attack, in which case they assumed territorially small but densely populated states would be crippled.

Since a potential invasion of Hungary would assumedly come from the directions of Italy and West Germany, reconnaissance was considered as extremely important. Rapid troop deployment to areas under attack, the mobilization of the army and a transition to a wartime economy were all treated as priorities. Even in light of an imminent attack against them, the Soviets did not expect to fight a defensive war; their war planning emphasized offensive tactics. In the event of a possible World War III, they planned to cripple Western Europe with nuclear strikes, their primary objective being the destruction of major cities and industrial centers. In the early 1960’s, although NATO had a larger nuclear arsenal, the Warsaw Pact enjoyed preeminence in conventional weaponry. In a potential war, the Soviet Union planned to attack from several directions: north, central and south, to the latter of which Hungary belonged. Warsaw and Prague were the two main targets heading north from Hungary.

The Soviets expected several nuclear strikes on both domestic and enemy territories, which would conceivably knock out communication capabilities. In the first phase of a war, they expected radioactive contamination over a territory four times the size of Hungary (approximately 370,000 km²). Neither the Warsaw Pact nor NATO planned to occupy major cities, as these would have been presumed destroyed. Unlike in World War II, seizing cities was considered not worth the time and effort. Early detection of a potential launch of a nuclear missile became an essential function. Fast military operations, i.e. the fast deployment of tanks and other armored vehicles, were considered as important. Hungarian and Soviet troops would commence attacks from Hungary in the directions of the Danube River, Ljubljana, Northern Italy and Graz. Austrian neutrality did not particularly interest the war planners of World War III, nor the unclear role that Yugoslavia would play, although later it was thought Yugoslavia would join the side of the Warsaw Pact.

by Dávid Kiss

Photograph: Washing a T-55 tank in Tata in 1971 (Source: Fortepan)