239. Loyalty Amidst Treachery: Austrian-Hungarian Relations, 1955-1956

By
Bianca Adair

During October 1956, Hungarians reached out to join the West and found that, by intent and purpose, they were alone. Even the international community appeared to have abandoned their call for freedom. By the second invasion of the Red Army on November 4, the Hungarians seemed to stand alone, refugees in their own country. Yet throughout the fight, the Austrians remained loyal to their historic neighbors and the ideals that drove the uprising.

Through the Austrian example and aid, Hungarians found hope and refuge from the entrapments of the Cold War. To examine the impact of the relationship between Austria and Hungary, this paper takes an in-depth look at how the image of Austria was presented to frame arguments and policy preferences leading to the 1956 Revolution. The analysis indicates that the completion of the Austrian State Treaty and the declaration of neutrality encouraged the re- emergence of relations between Austria and Hungary, while influencing the policy preferences that drove the Revolution and hampered the establishment of the Kadar regime. In short, Austrian independence deeply affected Hungarians because of the ideal that the Austrian model represented and their common historic identity.

To assess the use of historic identity, this paper will cover three periods, beginning with the Austrian State Treaty and declaration of neutrality in 1955. Just as the leadership of the Soviet Union initiated its new foreign policy program of "peaceful coexistence," the pro-Stalin Matyas Rakosi had returned to the helm in Hungary, thereby creating an interesting internal dynamic. Rakosi had successfully censored discussions on the reversal of domestic liberalization policies, but he could not keep the press from covering the liberalization of Soviet foreign policy. As a result, foreign policy became an indirect means of criticizing the regime and re-asserting Hungarian ties with the West through Austria. The Hungarian media focused on the developments of the "peaceful coexistence" policies, including the initiation and completion of the Austria State Treaty.

The Austrian declaration of independence in 1955, remained of particular importance to Hungarians, and many believed that the Red Army would have to leave Hungary as a consequence of its neighbor's independence. In accordance with the Peace Treaty of 1947, the Red Army remained in Hungary to maintain the lines of communication with troops in the Soviet zone of occupation in Austria. An independent Austria brought with it the hope for the removal of the Red Army, an issue that re-surfaced in October 1956. Austrian neutrality also brought with it freedom from the confines of the polarized politics of the Cold War and opportunities for Austrians to develop further relations with historic neighbors like Hungary. While these attributes were discussed within the reform-oriented echelons of the Hungarian government in terms of support for the changes in Austria, the discussion shifted to the promotion of policies that mirrored the Austrian example.

The change in the tone of the media from support to promotion of policy preferences occurred in Hungary at the end of March 1956. After Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech in February, Rakosi lost control of the dissidents and outspoken party reformers on most issues, including foreign policy. From April to October 1956, these foreign policy concerns focused on two issues. First, dissidents and reformers called for increased relations with the West generally, but Austria specifically. Initially, the media focused on the emerging relations between Austria and Hungary, ranging from the disagreements over Austrian property that had been nationalized by the communists, to the positive aspects of renewed relations over water rights, trade, cultural, and sporting exchanges. According to the media coverage, these expanding relations fell under the guise of Hungarian "peaceful coexistence." Yet, on many occasions, references were made to the historic relationship between Austria and Hungary as a justification for the ever closer relations.

The second foreign policy concern was the removal of the Red Army from Hungary, an issue directly related to the Austrian State Treaty and the formation of the Warsaw Pact. The Warsaw Pact was viewed by Hungarians as an invalid agreement because it violated the 1947 Peace Treaty. According to Hungarian views, the Warsaw Pact had been signed under duress and the individuals who signed the treaty had not acted on behalf of the people. Since Hungarians rejected the agreement, in their eyes, it was invalid. Any questions over Hungarian views of the Red Army vanished by mid-October, when groups of students in Gyor called for the troops to go home, echoing chants similar to those heard in Budapest at the beginning of the Revolution.

Between October 22 and November 1, foreign policy concerns shifted from policy promotion to the demands of the revolutionaries, including demands for declaration of Hungarian neutrality. Certainly, the revolutionary government appeared to have responded to those demands on November 1, when Prime Minister Imre Nagy declared Hungary a free, independent, democratic, and neutral country. This rapid shift away from the promotion of certain demands to national policy demonstrated the effective use of historic identity as a means of framing policy preferences and giving them legitimacy through identity and tradition.

By legitimizing Hungary's declaration of neutrality through historic identity, the revolutionaries set up a difficult situation for the incoming Kadar regime. Janos Kadar and his supporters had to invalidate what the revolutionaries had legitimized with the use of identity and tradition. During mid-November through 1957, the regime leaders attacked the policies of the Nagy government and the Austrians, particularly propositions of Hungarian neutrality. Despite growing pressure from the new leadership in Hungary, the Austrians never relented and maintained their open asylum law that had been presented to Imre Nagy on November 3 at the Austrian Embassy in Budapest.

Clearly, reformers and dissidents used the common historic identity to manipulate the foreign policy agenda from mid-1955 through 1956. On the one hand, the reformers and dissidents appeared to support closer relations with Austria, while on the other hand, the image of Austria was used as a means of pressuring the communist leaders to alter Hungarian policies away from the Soviet Union to an independent policy process. In addition, the use of identity to legitimize closer relations with the West and the legal arguments against the Red Army set up a difficult task for the Kadar regime. In particular, the regime leadership could not legitimize its policies in contrast to the Nagy government because it had no foundation acceptable to the Hungarian public. As a result, the new leaders resorted to violent repression to assert their dominance. Furthermore, the refusals of the Austrian government to bow to the demands of the Kadar regime increased the sympathetic feelings betweens Austrians and Hungarians. This loyalty demonstrated by the Austrians during the 1956 Revolution deeply affected Hungarians and set the stage for closer future relations between the historic neighbors.

Bianca Adair spoke at an EES Discussion on October 24, 2001. The above is a summary of her presentation. Meeting Report #239.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant