November 11th marks a special anniversary. On this day in 1956, Csepel finally fell to the Soviet Army. This is remarkable in light of the fact that the Soviets had already taken the Hungarian Parliament Building on November 4th. Can you tell us what happened during the ensuing week? How were the Hungarian revolutionaries able to hold out for such a long time?
A lot of things led up to it. Although Csepel and its labor force were exceptionally important to the communists, when the Soviets intervened on November 4th, 1956, their primary objectives were occupying the Parliament and the government district, isolating and eliminating the various groups of revolutionaries and neutralizing Hungarian armed forces. On the other hand, Csepel was considered as more a symbol of the idea of the workers’ state than a strategic target. In my opinion, neutralizing Corvin Lane, Széna Square and the other downtown areas where the Hungarian revolutionaries assembled was much more important. By taking control of them, the primary areas of downtown in terms of political control could also be kept in check. I am not, of course, trying to downplay the achievements of the Csepel fighters, who organized their defense exceptionally well with help from soldiers and police and by using the tools available to them. They were no doubt a major thorn in the side of the Soviet troops, not to mention the losses they caused. The Soviets tried to break the Csepel fighters with tanks, mortar fire and air raids.
What kind of firepower and other tools did the Csepel revolutionaries have at their disposal? What role did anti-aircraft guns play in defending Csepel Island?
Civilian fighters primarily used small arms, i.e., Soviet submachine guns and grenades. Anti-aircraft guns, placed on Szent Imre Square and the surrounding area, were initially operated by soldiers and civilians alike, although some of the soldiers – out of a sense of hopelessness – gradually retreated from the battles. A few hundred people actively participated in the defense of Csepel. The anti-aircraft guns were mainly used against Soviet tanks. Reconnaissance for the Soviets was inadequate, so they initially underestimated the Csepel fighters. They had not counted on facing such resistance. The Soviets ended up losing at least eight tanks in the fighting.
On November 7th, the revolutionaries successfully shot down a Soviet aircraft. So the Soviets actually made use of their air force during their attack on Csepel?
Yes, the Soviets used bombers against the Csepel revolutionaries, who succeeded in downing a Soviet IL-28. It crashed near the cemetery on Csepel Island. Obviously, the aim of the Soviet aerial and mortar attacks was to destroy the anti-aircraft guns.
If my understanding is correct, as far as international law is concerned, acts of war were taking place in Hungary from November 4th onward. Could we rightfully refer to the events on Csepel as the “One Week War”?
Many people regard what happened as a Soviet-Hungarian war; it is definitely a szabadságharc (freedom fight). Insofar as war is concerned, we should be careful not to forget the onetime members of the Hungarian State Protection Authority, i.e. secret police, who sided with the Soviets in smashing the revolution. Unfortunately, this was not simply a war, but also a fight against the Hungarian servants of Soviet-style communism. The events on Csepel I would not designate as a one-week war. They were, in any case, an important clash in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Let’s also not forget that other groups continued the resistance elsewhere in Hungary. For example, the Mecseki láthatatlanok (Mecsek Invisible Fighters) in Pécs held out until December. This does not lessen the endeavors of the Csepel revolutionaries, but we must acknowledge that serious resistance and rearguard actions occurred in several locations elsewhere in the country. The Csepel fighters also believed that the UN and the troops of Western countries would intervene on the Hungarians’ behalf. This illusory faith and hope drove their superhuman efforts to fight on.
Csepel Island was under the revolutionaries’ control for one week. Why do you think they are so little remembered today?
In my opinion, it is not only characteristic of the history of the fighting that took place on Csepel. Unfortunately, I am not convinced that public education treats the memory of the Budapest and countryside ‘56-ers with the emphasis it deserves. Although it is undeniable that in the buildup to the sixtieth anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, there were major positive steps taken. But in order for the general population to have an adequate understanding of who they were, we still need to do a lot of talking about the history of the ’56 revolutionaries. For those of us who toil as historians or regularly deal with history, the responsibility is great. Raising greater awareness about them is a must. Burying the memory of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution reaches all the way back to the Kádár regime. We still have a lot of work to do.
Source of photography: MTI/Ferenc Kovács