Following the Warsaw Pact's 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia the lead Czech reformer Alexander Dubček was dismissed and given a lowly job with the forestry commission.

A decade or so earlier, the similarly reform minded government in Hungary in 1956 was treated much more harshly. Imre Nagy and his colleagues were secretly tried and executed.

While it might seem absurd to think of Brezhnev's USSR developing a humanitarian sensibility, everything is relative. Had Moscow by 1968 evolved a notion that executing high ranking political opponents was brutal, Stalinist, counter-productive and damaging in the eyes of world opinion?

Or is there an entirely different explanation? Were there important political and military differences between the cases of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968?

  • 4
    Actually, usually the opposite is assumed - Khrushchev's term is considered to be the time of relative liberalization following Stalin's death. Brezhnev on the other hand went into the opposite direction again, he was more conservative. So Tom's explanation is more likely. Oct 28, 2011 at 5:56

4 Answers 4


One reason was that the Prague Spring leaders paid "lip service" to Communism and Soviet rule throughout. In essence, they weren't (officially) trying to overthrow the Soviet regime so much as they were trying to "modify" it. This had some acquiescence of the Soviet Union, who was trying a modest series of reforms (post Khrushchev), until things "got out of hand" in Czechoslovakia. That is, the scope of reforms proposed from many sources were greater than the Soviets, or Dubcek for that matter, were willing to allow.

In essence, Dubcek and the other Czechs weren't punished so much for "rebellion," as for "incompetence." (The latter leads to demotion, not execution.) In Hungary, on the other hand, the rebels tried to install free elections and take Hungary out of the Warsaw Pact. This, of course, could not be be tolerated by the Soviet Union, which is why the Hungarian leaders were treated severely.

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    Note also that the Russian name for the events in Hungary is "Hungarian counter-revolutionary mutiny" which clearly shows how they were perceived. It is also important that Hungary was an armed conflict whereas Dubcek's government didn't fight the Soviet troops when they marched in (Soviet army lost 12 people in individual incidents - compare that to 669 in Hungary). Oct 28, 2011 at 6:07
  • An additional factor may have been a significant increase in dissidents and human rights activists within USSR
    – DVK
    Nov 20, 2011 at 19:08
  • 1
    Just for the record, the Hungarian rebels were not a politically homogeneous group of people with consensus about a plan. For example, the Hungarian leaders were also Communists and they were talking about reforms of Communism. Breaking up from Warsow Pact didn't seem that radical, if you consider the revolution happened just one year after Austrian independence (and Austria was actually occupied that time, unlike Hungary).
    – Greg
    Nov 19, 2015 at 22:30

I think the difference may be that the coup in Hungary was closer in time to World War II and that Hungary was "defeated" while Chechoslovakia "liberated". The difference was that the events in Hungary were seen as a fascist revanchist putch.

It also should be noted that during the event in Hungary many communists and their sympathizers were killed or executed which prompted an adequate response.

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    I would object to the word "adequate", it somehow justifies Soveit actions. Perhaps "symmetric" would be a better choice.
    – quant_dev
    May 14, 2012 at 12:46

Imre Nagy and his colleagues were secretly tried and executed."

The "White books" (I-V) including The Counter-revolutionary Conspiracy of Imre Nagy and his Accomplices were made public and are accurate (if not complete, nor analytically acceptable) records.

The incidents behind the decision to engage in a second intervention are well known. Mikoyan produced a minority report against intervention, Zhukov had spoken about the inordinate costs of the planned intervention, and the Yugoslavian and Chinese contacts prevaricated about their positions. Then the Nagy coalition government announced it was leaving the Warsaw Pact. The Political Committee of the Central Committee would not accept this. While the decision to execute Nagy had not been made by November 4 1956, the results of the resistance and then general strike did put the Political Committee into a position where it was easier to execute Nagy.

Key problems with the coalition government of 1956 for the Political Committee's majority:

  • Workers' councils (key)
  • Threat of an economy managed directly by workers' councils (key)
  • Coalition government with pro-socialist parties
  • Political purge of people with "Anti-Party bloc" politics from the Communist Party and its apparent refoundation on reformist lines
  • Formation of "new" pluralist communist parties (HDIM, Students') (key)
  • Re-emergence of the Social Democratic party on a revolutionary basis in the factories (key)
  • Re-emergence of the Social Democratic party as a parliamentary party
  • Leaving the Warsaw Pact

For Mikoyan, at least some of these factors were viewed with great favour. For Lukacs (interview, published by Outlook as a pamphlet, consult National Library Australia) some of these were positive, some were unavoidable. For the main line in the Political Committee these were abominations as they threatened the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's exclusive rule. The changes threatened two things:

  • Monopoly of political rule by the Communist Party (in the Soviet Union) or by the united workers' party (ie: the Communist Party) in the "coalitions" of the soviet-style societies.
  • Monopoly of industrial rule by the communist nomenklatura and non-communist party nomenklatura: ie, the threat of a self-governing working class

These features were not present in a revolutionary form in the Czechoslovak events of 1968. And the Soviet Union was not in a recession or inner party political crisis in 1968 which threatened the possibility of revolutionary change spreading to the Soviet Union itself. Finally, the opposition to the intervention in Czechoslovakia was far less stridently opposed—armed workers didn't have to be bombarded out of their factories, student militia didn't retake Parliament square on the 3rd day of Czechoslovak operations—leading to a far reduced need to find scapegoats in Czechoslovakia.


The Hungarian uprising started shortly after the start of the Suez Crisis and overlapped in time. In the book Art of Betrayal, the author describes how MI6 (and others) tried to instigate uprisings in Albania. These were doomed to failure because Kim Philby was informing the Soviets of what MI6 and CIA were planning; what happened in Hungary was exactly what was being attempted in Albania. With Western countries tied up over the Suez issue, they had no moral authority to stop the Soviets, or even to assist the rebels.

My belief is that the reason the Soviets were so aggressive at suppressing the Hungarian uprising was that they believed it to be a Western-driven invasion (much like the later Bay of Pigs debacle) and not an authentic rebellion (such as the Czech one). They felt it important enough that this was the first time AK-47s were used outside of the Soviet Union according to Suvorov. For a gun that now adorns flags and coats of arms, it had been a carefully kept secret until 1956. Suvorov claimed that they were kept hidden in zippered pouches when not on military bases.

The Suez crisis is considered to be the end of the British Empire, and why France chose not to participate in NATO. I believe that if the Hungarian uprising happened 6 months later, it would have turned out very differently.

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    Given that Mikoyan was on the ground in Budapest and directly reporting to the PC as a full member, your supposition regarding the PC's knowledge of the Hungarian situation being incorrect is unsustainable. See Granville's work in Soviet archives. Apr 13, 2013 at 1:09

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