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Why did both Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 rebel against Soviet Domination?
The causes for such a massive and all-captivating rebellion, which occurred both in Hungary (1956) and in Czechoslovakia (1968), originated most from deep-rooted antagonism towards Soviet domination in the Eastern Europe in the post-war era. A continuous political and cultural suppression by Soviet dictatorial policies, obviously linked with economic constraints, coalesced to provoke robust insurrections. Short-term reasons are of no less importance in the analysis of these events. In the case of Hungary, Khrushchev’s speech on the 20th Part Congress - which discredited Stalinist rule and encouraged a policy of diversion - played a significant role in the development of Hungarian resistance. While observing events in Czechoslovakia, the role of Dubcek’s government should be emphasized, since it was their new program, which raised a significant enthusiasm in Czechs, to aim for a neutral course.
One of the main reasons for the initiation of a certain alienation process in Hungary was the brink of an economic catastrophe, to which Hungary was brought by its ex-premier Matyas Rakosi in the mid-1950’s. Since Hungarian economic developments mirrored those of the Soviet Union, Rakosi also made a strong emphasis on the build-up of Hungarian heavy industry at the expense of the rest of the economy. Likewise, Rakosi’s successor, Imre Nagy, was to pursue Malenkov’s ‘new course’, which aimed to divert the country’s resources to light industry and seize the imposed collectivization of agriculture.
The economic relaxation led to a corresponding intellectual relaxation. Intellectuals began to discuss not only the nature of the changes in Hungarian communism, but also the value of a Communist system; society commenced debating on the possibility of achieving democracy in a Communist state.
Nagy’s plans were cut short by the fall of his Soviet Protector, Malenkov, in February 1955. Rakosi seized the opportunity to regain leadership over both the state and the party, re-instituting a Stalinist hard line. Nagy gave in without a fight, perhaps because he expected Rakosi would fail in his attempt to re-impose ideological conformity. His intuition has not deceived him; hatred of Rakosi’s brutal and repressive regime which executed at least 2000 people and put 200,000 other in prisons and concentration camps was enormous. Masses were enraged by the falling living standards, while hated party leaders were comfortably off. However, Nagy could hardly have expected the shake-up in the Soviet block that was to result from Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Party Congress in February 1956.
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The Soviet leaders decided time was ripe for a change in the leadership in the Hungarian Communist Party (CPH). Nevertheless, they denunciated Nagy as a potential premier and instead appointed Erno Gero, whose governing methods, according to Tito, were in no particular way different from Rakosi’s. Had the Soviet leaders supported Nagy at this point, when he still had a chance to put himself at the head of the reforming forces, they might have prevented the more radical revolution that was to follow.
Although the Hungarian uprising had failed due to the military predominance of the Soviet Union, the longing for liberalization and independence refused to be suppressed. In Czechoslovakia in the 1960’s the internal reforms went furthest from any other satellite state in the Eastern block, which posed the most direct challenge to the Soviets. The Czechoslovakian opposition escalated gradually for several reasons. First of all, the Czechs were industrially and culturally the most advanced of the Eastern bloc peoples, who strongly objected to the over-centralized Soviet control of their economy. It seemed senseless, for example, that they should have to put up with poor quality iron-ore from Siberia when they could have been using high-grade from Sweden.
From 1918 until 1938, Czechoslovakia had been a liberal, west-orientated state, valuing democratic principles, such as freedom of speech, freedom of movement and so forth. Soviet acquisition of Czech territory has not only brought Russian domination in the country’s political affairs, but also the ideological uncertainty. Social-political repression - media/press censorship, restrictions on personal liberty, economic imposition of Soviet delegated economic measures - were resented by Czech intellectuals and masses in general. Violent and brutal methods of the police, which were often used to disperse various protest marches and demonstrations, only mounted tenacious opposition in the Czech population.
Henceforth, matters came to a head in January 1968 when the Czech leader, Antonin Novotny, a pro-Moscow communist, was forced to resign and Alexander Dubcek became the First Secretary of the communist party. Dubcek and his supporters had a completely new program, primarily the communist power would no longer dictate policy or dominate the political and social life of the state. Industry would be de-centralized, which meant that factories would be run by works councils instead of being controlled from the capital by party officials. Independent cooperatives were to be set up to govern farm work, rather than them being collectivized. There were to be wider powers for trade unions, expansion of trade with the West and freedom to travel abroad. A significant accent was made on the encouragement of freedom of speech and freedom for the press. The government longed for criticism; Dubcek believed that although the country would remain communist, the government should earn the right to be in power by responding to people’s wishes. He called it ‘socialism with a human face’.
Despite the fact that Dubcek’s government was most careful to assure the Russians that Czechoslovakia would stay in the Warsaw Pact and remain a reliable ally, Russians became immensely disturbed as the new program was carried into operation. They were well conscious that such a immense liberalization in Czechoslovakia would lead to an all-round cooperation with the Western block, and thus with the United States. Russians could not give card blance to Czechoslovakia, and therefore in August 1968 a massive invasion of Czechoslovakia took place by Russian, Polish, Bulgarian, Hungarian and East German troops. The hapless Czechs, stunned and infuriated, were forced to restore Communist party control, remove Dubcek, re-impose censorship, and curb democratization. Reprisals followed and the new leadership imposed severe dictatorial controls.
From the afore-analyzed events we can make a conclusion that rebellions which occurred in Hungary and in Czechoslovakia were bound to take place sooner or later. Masses were tormented through the extensive control of the Soviet Union. They longed for better standards of living, for freedom of various life aspects, such as speech, movement, choice. People were suppressed from communication with the rest of the world, suppressed form cultural and industrial progress. This degradation could not be endured for a long period of time, which was justified later on in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.