It lasted less than three weeks, from Oct. 23 until Nov. 10, but the Hungarian Revolution that convulsed Budapest and the rest of Hungary in late 1956 sent shock waves through eastern and central Europe that reverberated for decades. More than a few historians, in fact, cite the popular revolt as the first rip in the Cold War’s Iron Curtain.
The general lineaments of the 1956 conflict are well-known: In the autumn of that year, hundreds of thousands of Hungarians, in cities and the countryside, rose up against occupying Soviet forces and, critically, against the country’s brutal, homegrown secret police, the State Protection Authority. For a few heady weeks, it seemed like the insurgents might actually push the Russians out altogether. By mid-November, though, the Soviet army had regrouped and launched an all-out assault on a nation that was, nominally, both an ally and a protectorate.
Roughly 3,000 Hungarian civilians—men, women, children—were killed during those three weeks. The uprising was crushed. But the ripples of the revolt—the Prague Spring in ’68, Poland’s Solidarity trade union movement in the 1980s and other rebellions, large and small—were wide-ranging, and long-lasting.
Here, LIFE.com recalls the events through photos made by the great Michael Rougier, a photojournalist whose pictures routinely conveyed both an unmistakable authority and a seductive intimacy—often in the very same frame.
In its Nov. 12, 1956, issue, meanwhile, in an article titled, “Patriots Strike Ferocious Blows at a Tyranny,” LIFE magazine commemorated the short-lived uprising like this:
A month after Soviet troops had retaken the capital and the rest of the country, LIFE published another major article on the insurrection—this time singling out the fearlessness of Hungary’s women for praise:
Thirty-three years to the day after the start of the uprising, on Oct. 23, 1989, president Mátyás Szűrös officially declared the establishment of the Hungarian Republic, replacing in an instant the Hungarian People’s Republic. A few weeks later, on Nov. 9, 1989, thousands of people attacked a brute, concrete symbol of the Cold War—and of the Warsaw Pact’s illegitimacy—not with rifles and Molotov cocktails, but with sledgehammers and pickaxes. Four decades after the Hungarian Revolution had ended in defeat, the Berlin Wall—which had not yet been built when Budapest first rose up against the USSR—peacefully fell.
The Cold War was over.
Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE
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