GCSE and IGCSE History Revision
On the 4th July 1950, Radio Free Europe – founded the previous year to transmit uncensored information to audiences behind the Iron Curtain – completed its first broadcast.
Although the station was uncensored in the sense that it shared information that was suppressed within the Communist Bloc, it’s important to remember that it was still a propaganda tool founded and principally funded by the United States government.
The task facing the journalists who worked for RFE was daunting. Since they broadcast to states that suppressed a range of information and news, the gathering of intelligence to provide broadcast material was an enormous challenge. They often relied on risky contact with émigrés and people who had traveled behind the Iron Curtain for eye-witness accounts, and closely monitored print and electronic media from the communist governments. It’s even been suggested that the quality and quantity of information was so comprehensive that the communist governments themselves used Radio Free Europe to gain information about what was happening within their own countries.
However, RFE was still fundamentally a broadcaster that promoted anti-communist ideas and was therefore a significant threat in the countries it targeted. The USSR tasked the KGB with establishing expensive radio jamming facilities to try to block broadcasts, while in 1981 a terrorist group funded by the Romanian regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu detonated a bomb at RFE’s Munich headquarters.
Despite these challenges Radio Free Europe and its partner station Radio Liberty continued broadcasting, and even after the end of the Cold War has continued to broadcast to countries where a free press is not established.
On the 6th December 1956, the “Blood in the Water” water polo match took place between the USSR and Hungary. A semi-final in the 1956 Melbourne Summer Olympic Games, the game is famous as a result of the violence that marked the game. It gained its nickname, and ended, after a Hungarian player was punched by one of the Russian opponents so hard that it drew blood.
The match was played just weeks after the USSR’s crackdown of the Hungarian Revolution. At the time the Hungarian team – who were reigning champions – were training outside Budapest but were able to hear gunshots and see smoke as the fighting intensified in the city after Soviet tanks moved in on the 1st November.
Having been moved to communist Czechoslovakia to complete their training and avoid getting caught up in events at home, the scale of the USSR’s response to the uprising only became clear to the Hungarians after they arrived in Australia. Facing the Soviet Union in the semi-final, they quickly realised that this provided an opportunity to regain some national pride against their oppressors.
The game was violent from the start with verbal abuse, kicks and punches being thrown by both sides. The Hungarians outplayed the USSR throughout the match and were leading 4-0 when Russian Valentin Prokopov punched Hungarian Ervin Zádor in the final quarter. As he climbed out of the pool with blood streaming down his face, the pro-Hungarian crowd went wild.
Hungary went on to win gold against Yugoslavia but many of the Hungarian team didn’t return home afterwards, instead seeking asylum in the West.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.