International Relations Since 1945

Imre Nagy

The execution of Hungarian Communist leader Imre Nagy

On June 16th 1958, Hungarian Communist politician Imre Nagy was executed. Arrested after Soviet forces brought the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 to an end, Nagy was found guilty of treason in a secret trial and executed by hanging.

Nagy had been sacked from his position as Chairman of the Council of Ministers in April 1955 due to his independent attitude that favoured a “New Course” in Socialism. Although his moderate reforms were met with hostility from the USSR, they garnered significant support within Hungary where opposition to the hard-line government of Mátyás Rákosi had grown since the death of Stalin in 1953. Nagy’s popular support led to him being appointed Prime Minister on October 24th 1956, the day after the Revolution began.

After a week of violence, Nagy recognised the crowd’s desire for political change. Despite being an ardent Marxist he began moves towards introducing a multiparty political system and, on November 1st, announced Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and its status as a neutral country. This proved too much for Khrushchev in the USSR, who moved his troops into Budapest and seized control of most of the city by the 8th November. Nagy took refuge in the Yugoslavian embassy, but was arrested when he was given false promises of safe passage to leave Hungary on the 22nd November.  He, and other leading members of the deposed government, were imprisoned in Romania until 1958 when they were returned to Hungary for trial.

News of Nagy’s trial and execution were only made public after the sentence had been carried out.

Prague Spring

The origin and start of the Prague Spring

On the 5th January 1968, the Prague Spring began when Alexander Dubček became the new First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. The Prague Spring lasted for just over seven months before the Soviet Union, along with other members of the Warsaw Pact, invaded Czechoslovakia to bring the reforms to a halt.

Dubček was a committed Communist, and had been First Secretary of the regional Communist Party of Slovakia since 1963. However he struggled to work with Antonín Novotný, the President of Czechoslovakia, under whose control the country experienced a slow and uneasy move towards destalinization while suffering a huge economic downturn. Frustrated by Novotný’s failure to effectively restructure the country, Dubček and other reformists challenged him at a meeting of the Central Committee in October 1967. In response Novotný secretly invited the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to visit Czechoslovakia to secure his support. However, this plan backfired when Brezhnev learned just how unpopular Novotný was and instead lent his support to remove him from power.

Consequently Dubček replaced Novotný as First Secretary on the 5th January 1968, and quickly began to introduce a series of political reforms. Known as “socialism with a human face” this political programme was intended to maintain Communist control of the government while allowing mild democratisation and political liberalisation. However, as the reforms took hold the government was faced with public demands to go even further. At the same time, the USSR and other Warsaw Pact countries began pressuring Dubček to bring the Prague Spring under control. On the 20th August they took matters in to their own hands and invaded Czechoslovakia.

Prague Spring Dubcek

Czechoslovakia and the Prague Spring 1968

Comparing and contrasting Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968

This I/GCSE History revision podcast looks at the uprisings in Communist Hungary and Czechoslovakia.  Although they were 12 years apart, they share some common similarities but also have some marked differences.  The podcast is divided into three main sections.  Considering Hungary first, then Czechoslovakia, I explain the respective causes of the uprisings, the events during them, and finally the consequences. The third part of the podcast compares the two revolutions.

The first part of the episode addresses the Hungarian uprising of 1956 from the downfall of Rakosi to the rise of Nagy and his own eventual execution before the USSR reasserted its control over Hungary through Kadar.  An explanation is given of why the USSR was so unwilling to allow Nagy’s reforms to take hold, and the extent to which the Hungarian people fought to assert their independence.

The second part of the revision podcast focuses on Czechoslovakia in 1968.  The policies of Dubček and the Prague Spring are outlined, along with their effect on the attitudes of both the Czech people and the Soviet Union.  The eventual demise of Dubček following the USSR’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 is then described.

The final part of the podcast is arguably the most important for revising History GCSE and IGCSE.  The episode concludes with a comparison of the two uprisings, detailing an essay technique that helps you to explain the similarities and differences between them in an examination answer.  It doesn’t actually matter whether you think they were more similar or more different, but it is important to present a balanced answer as outlined in the podcast.


End of the Prague Spring

The end of the Prague Spring

At around 11pm on the 20th August 1968, troops from the USSR, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary entered Czechoslovakia in an invasion that brought the Prague Spring to an end. The invasion, known as Operation Danube, led to almost half a million soldiers crossing the border to bring Alexander Dubček’s reforms to an end.

The Prague Spring began in early January, shortly after Dubček became the leader of Czechoslovakia. Keen to push forward with de-Stalinisation within the country, he granted greater freedom to the press and introduced a programme of ‘socialism with a human face’ by which he intended to decentralise parts the economy and introduce some limited democratic reforms.

This new openness saw open criticisms of the Czechoslovakian government begin to appear in the press, which concerned the other Warsaw Pact countries. János Kádár, the leader of Hungary who came to power after the fall of Imre Nagy in 1956, even warned that the situation in Czechoslovakia seemed “similar to the prologue of the Hungarian counterrevolution”.

Concerned that Dubček’s reforms might spread to other Eastern Bloc countries and threaten the USSR’s security, the Soviet leader Brezhnev chose to open negotiations with the Czechoslovakian leadership that lasted into August. The talks ended in compromise, but Brezhnev continued to be unhappy with the situation and began to prepare military intervention.

Overwhelmed by the military invasion, Dubček asked his people not to resist. 72 Czech and Slovak soldiers and 108 civilians were killed, with a further 500 civilians injured. It later emerged that members of the Czechoslovakian government had asked for Soviet assistance against Dubček’s reforms.

Laika the dog

Laika the dog: the first animal in orbit

On the 3rd November 1957, Laika the dog became the first animal to enter orbit around the Earth when she was launched into space on board the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 2.

Laika was never intended to return as the technology to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere had not yet been developed. However, the launch of a canine into space was seen by the Russian scientists as a precursor to human spaceflight in order to determine the effect of launch and prolonged weightlessness on a living passenger. Laika survived the launch, but died due to overheating as a result of a malfunction in the temperature control system.

Laika was a stray dog who was found on the streets of Moscow. Strays from Moscow were specifically chosen on the assumption that they had already learned how to deal with extreme temperatures and prolonged periods without food. However, Laika and two other dogs still had to undergo extension training ahead of the mission. This included long periods of time in cramped conditions, extreme G-forces on centrifuges, and exposure to loud noises to simulate the conditions of spaceflight.

Throughout the mission, scientists on the ground monitored data coming from sensors attached to Laika. The readings indicated significant stress, but she survived the launch and made four circuits of the Earth before dying of overheating. The exact cause of her death was only confirmed in 2002.

Laika’s death raised ethical questions about the use of animals in scientific research since the spacecraft was not designed to be retrievable. She was, therefore, knowingly sent a mission from which she would not return.

Kennedy’s announcement of a plan for manned moon landing

On the 25th May 1961, American President John F. Kennedy made the announcement to a joint session of Congress that he had set his sights on a manned moon landing before the end of the decade.

To many people, including some personnel at NASA, Kennedy’s address seemed ridiculous. The USA had only sent its first man into space 20 days earlier and, although Alan Shepard’s spaceflight aboard Freedom 7 was a huge success, the USSR’s Yuri Gagarin had already become the first man in space three weeks before that. Taking on the USSR at a technological game that they were already leading appeared reckless.

An underlying issue was that, as part of his election campaign, Kennedy had promised to outperform the Soviet Union in the fields of space exploration and missile defence. In his famed television debate with Richard Nixon, Kennedy had mocked the fact that Nixon was proud of the USA being ahead of the USSR in terms of colour television while trailing in terms of rocket thrust. Gagarin’s flight had proved to the world that the USSR was currently ‘winning’ the Space Race, and so put pressure on Kennedy to increase spending on the Apollo space program.  Having received a memo from Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson in which he reported that the USA was unlikely to ever outperform the USSR under the current spending arrangements, Kennedy launched the largest peacetime financial commitment ever made.

The $24 billion dollars did work, however, and Apollo 11 achieved Kennedy’s goal by landing on the moon on 20th July 1969.

The Berlin Wall

The construction of the Berlin Wall

Beginning at midnight on the 13th August 1961, East German police and army began to close the border with West Berlin. The barbed wire and mesh barrier that was constructed overnight was gradually replaced with a virtually impregnable ring of reinforced concrete that ran 155km around West Berlin.

The border between East and West Germany – sometimes referred to as the inner-German border – had been closed since 1952, although the crossing between East and West Berlin remained open. This easy access proved highly problematic for the Communist government of East Germany, since people comparing the two parts of the city found West Berlin to be much more appealing.

Berlin became a focal point for East Germans who wanted to move to the West, and by 1961 an estimated 20% of the entire population had emigrated. The majority were young, educated, and skilled professionals. This so-called “brain drain” seriously depleted the workforce, and was hugely damaging to the political credibility of East Germany.

The erection of the Berlin Wall was intended to put a stop both of these problems, although it was presented to the East German people as the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart”. The East German leader, Walter Ulbricht, had even denied any intention of building a wall just two months earlier despite pressuring USSR Premier Nikita Khrushchev to support him doing just that.

The construction of the Wall turned Berlin overnight from the easiest way to cross between East and West into the most difficult. It cut people off from their jobs, and divided families. The crossing was not opened again for 28 years.

The Berlin Wall

The construction of the Berlin Wall

A short film documenting the construction of the Berlin Wall, featuring interviews with people who were affected by it.

Berlin wall memorial on street

Interpretations of the Berlin Wall

This video compares the West’s and East’s interpretations of the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961.