Imre Nagy, the son of peasants, was born in Kaposvar, Hungary in 1896. He worked as a locksmith before serving in the Austro-Hungarian Army during the First World War. He was captured by the Russian Army and spent most of the war in a prison camp in Siberia. He escaped in 1917 and fought with the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution.
Nagy joined the Hungarian Communist Party when he returned to Hungary in 1918 and held a minor post in the Soviet Republic established by Bela Kun in 1919. Admiral Miklos Horthy, commander-in-chief of the Imperial and Royal Fleet, returned to Hungary in November 1919 and led the overthrow of the Soviet Republic. Nagy lived undercover until fleeing to the Soviet Union in 1929. Nagy remained in exile throughout the Second World War.
When the Red Army liberated Hungary from the German Army, Nagy returned to Budapest and served as Minister of Agriculture in the provisional government established in 1945. In this post he introduced important land reforms.
In 1947 Nagy became Speaker of the Hungarian parliament and became associated with those who favoured a more liberal communist regime. Over the next few years Matyas Rakosi attempted to impose authoritarian rule on Hungary. An estimated 2,000 people were executed and over 100,000 were imprisoned. These policies were opposed by some members of the Hungarian Communist Party and around 200,000 were expelled by Rakosi from the organization.
Rakosi had difficulty managing the economy and the people of Hungary saw living standards fall. His government became increasingly unpopular and when Joseph Stalin died in 1953 Matyas Rakosi was replaced as prime minister by Nagy. However, he retained his position as general secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party and over the next three years the two men became involved in a bitter struggle for power.
As Hungary's new leader Nagy removed state control of the mass media and encouraged public discussion on political and economic reform. This included a promise to increase the production and distribution of consumer goods. Nagy also released anti-communists from prison and talked about holding free elections and withdrawing Hungary from the Warsaw Pact.
Matyas Rakosi led the attacks on Nagy. On 9th March 1955, the Central Committee of the Hungarian Workers Party condemned Nagy for "rightist deviation". Hungarian newspapers joined the attacks and Nagy was accused of being responsible for the country's economic problems and on 18th April he was dismissed from his post by a unanimous vote of the National Assembly. Rakosi once again became the leader of Hungary.
Rakosi's power was undermined by a speech made by Nikita Khrushchev in February 1956. He denounced the policies of Joseph Stalin and his followers in Eastern Europe. He also claimed that the trial of Laszlo Rajk had been a "miscarriage of justice". On 18th July 1956, Rakosi was forced from power as a result of orders from the Soviet Union. However, he did managed to secure the appointment of his close friend, Erno Gero, as his successor.
On 3rd October 1956, the Central Committee of the Hungarian Communist Party announced that it had decided that Laszlo Rajk, Gyorgy Palffy, Tibor Szonyi and Andras Szalai had wrongly been convicted of treason in 1949. At the same time it was announced that Nagy had been reinstated as a member of the Communist Party.
The Hungarian Uprising began on 23rd October by a peaceful manifestation of students in Budapest. The students demanded an end to Soviet occupation and the implementation of "true socialism". The police made some arrests and tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas. When the students attempted to free those people who had been arrested, the police opened fire on the crowd.
The following day commissioned officers and soldiers joined the students on the streets of Budapest. Stalin's statue was brought down and the protesters chanted "Russians go home", "Away with Gero" and "Long Live Nagy". The Central Committee of the Hungarian Communist Party respond to these developments by deciding that Nagy should become head of a new government.
On 25th October Soviet tanks opened fire on protesters in Parliament Square. One journalist at the scene saw 12 dead bodies and estimated that 170 had been wounded. Shocked by these events the Central Committee of the Communist Party forced Erno Gero to resign from office and replaced him with Janos Kadar.
Nagy now went on Radio Kossuth and announced he had taken over the leadership of the Government as Chairman of the Council of Ministers." He also promised the "the far-reaching democratization of Hungarian public life, the realisation of a Hungarian road to socialism in accord with our own national characteristics, and the realisation of our lofty national aim: the radical improvement of the workers' living conditions."
On 28th October, Nagy and a group of his supporters, including Janos Kadar, Geza Lodonczy, Antal Apro, Karoly Kiss, Ferenc Munnich and Zoltan Szabo, manage to take control of the Hungarian Communist Party. At the same time revolutionary workers' councils and local national committees are formed all over Hungary.
The new leadership of the party is reflected in the comments made in its newspaper, Szabad Nep. On 29th October the newspaper defends the change in the government and openly criticises Soviet attempts to influence the political situation in Hungary. This view is supported by Radio Miskolc and it calls for the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country.
On 30th October, Nagy announced that he was freeing Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty and other political prisoners. He also informs the people that his government intends to abolish the one-party state. This is followed by statements by Zolton Tildy, Anna Kethly and Ferenc Farkas concerning the reconstitution of the Smallholders Party, the Social Democratic Party and the Petofi Peasants Party.
Nagy's most controversial decision took place on 1st November when he announced that Hungary intended to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. as well as proclaiming Hungarian neutrality he asked the United Nations to become involved in the country's dispute with the Soviet Union.
On 3rd November, Nagy announced details of his coalition government. It included communists (Janos Kadar, George Lukacs, Geza Lodonczy), three members of the Smallholders Party (Zolton Tildy, Bela Kovacs and Istvan Szabo), three Social Democrats (Anna Kethly, Gyula Keleman, Joseph Fischer), and two Petofi Peasants (Istvan Bibo and Ferenc Farkas). Pal Maleter was appointed minister of defence.
Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union, became increasingly concerned about these developments and on 4th November 1956 he sent the Red Army into Hungary. Soviet tanks immediately captured Hungary's airfields, highway junctions and bridges. Fighting took place all over the country but the Hungarian forces were quickly defeated.
Nagy sought and obtained asylum at the Yugoslav embassy in Budapest. So also did George Lukacs, Geza Lodonczy and Julia Rajk, the widow of Laszlo Rajk. Janos Kadar, who claimed that Nagy had gone too far with his reforms, became Hungary's new leader.
Janos Kadar promised Nagy and his followers safe passage out of the country. Kadar did not keep his promise and on 23rd November, 1956, Nagy and his followers, were kidnapped after leaving the Yugoslav embassy.
On 17th June 1958, the Hungarian government announced that several of the reformers had been convicted of treason and attempting to overthrow the "democratic state order" and that Nagy, Pal Maleter and Miklos Gimes had been executed for these crimes.