The ICRC since 1945: the Hungarian uprising


How the ICRC set up an emergency operation to help people caught up in the violence that had broken out in the Hungarian capital, Budapest, in late October 1956: relief supplies, prisoners, separated families.

Demonstrations that broke out in Budapest on 23 October 1956 were met with repressive measures by the authorities, who declared a state of emergency the following day. State radio announced that those who threatened public order risked the death sentence and said that the government had called for assistance from Soviet troops stationed in Hungary.

  ©ICRC/ref. hist-01993 (all rights reserved)    
A convoy crossing into Hungary from Austria    
    At this news, political protests turned into open defiance, as members of Hungary’s armed forces joined the insurgents. As fighting intensified and spread outside the capital, rebels seized power in provincial towns.

On 27 October the ICRC in Geneva received an urgent appeal from the Hungarian Red Cross, requesting blood plasma, transfusion equipment and dressings. A consignment was put together and dispatched on a chartered aircraft on the afternoon of the 28th. Also on the flight were two ICRC delegates, Herbert Beckh and René Bovey.

From Budapest the plane flew on to Vienna, to load relief supplies that were starting to arrive in large quantities in the Austrian capital. It was to make several more flights between the two cities in the following two days.

 Rebel stronghold  

After contacting the Hungarian Red Cross to discuss the distribution of relief supplies, it was decided that Bovey would remain in the capital while Beckh would go to Györ, a town about 100 kilometres west of Budapest that had become a stronghold of the insurgents.

Before this could take place, on 31 October the Soviet military closed all airports in Hungary. Perhaps sensing a possible worsening of the situation, the ICRC broadcast – using its own shortwave frequency – an appeal, urging all combatants to spare those who were not taking part in the fighting. It called for prisoners to be treated humanely and given a fair trial, and for the wounded and sick to be cared for without discrimination.

When Beckh met insurgent leaders in Györ, he managed to persuade them to order their troops to treat captives in accordance with the Geneva Conventions – this had the result of saving the lives of some 300 prisoners they were holding. However, the following day Beckh learned that insurgent-he ld detainees in Budapest had been executed. The leaders in Györ invited him to broadcast his appeal for humanitarian conduct on their own transmitter, " Radio Liberation " .

 Visit to prisoners  

Beckh went on to visit 29 prisoners held by the insurgents at the town of Sopron, on the Hungarian-Austrian border. However, the ICRC was unable at any time to visit persons arrested by the authorities or Soviet forces.


The ICRC's appeal, broadcast
in early November 

  … The ICRC is informed that combats are still raging in Budapest, and that numerous wounded have not yet been collected and cared for. It makes an urgent appeal to commanders and combatants to call a truce by mutual agreement in order that the wounded may be collected and evacuated...

As fighting continued, the ICRC had a fresh appeal broadcast by radio stations in Europe (see box) and set about organizing, with the League of Red Cross Societies (now the International Federation) and the Austrian Red Cross, a relief operation by road from Vienna. At the same time, steps had to be taken to care for the growing number of refugees who had fled the violence in Hungary.

On 4 November, after Soviet troops took control of key points in Budapest, all communications to and from Hungary were cut. The two additional ICRC delegates who ha d been sent to help in the operation found themselves stranded and were unable to make contact with Soviet forces until the 9th, when they were given assurances that Red Cross convoys would be allowed to enter the country.

This took on added importance in view of the fact that the Red Cross was acting alone: on 4 November the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting to discuss the situation in Hungary, but a veto by the Soviet Union ensured that the UN was unable to take action in the crisis. The difficulty was compounded by a General Assembly vote condemning the Soviet role; because of its neutrality, the ICRC became the only foreign organization allowed to work in Hungary.

 Relief convoys  

An initial convoy of 65 vehicles, carrying relief supplies and including a medical unit, left Vienna on 9 November. After a day's delay at the border, it arrived in Budapest on the 12th. It was the first of several such convoys; supplies were also sent by rail and by barge on the Danube.

On 4 December the ICRC concluded an agreement with the United Nations whereby the ICRC assumed responsibility for the distribution in Hungary of relief supplies provided by the UN.

Another source of concern was the situation facing the 200,000 or so refugees from Hungary who had crossed into Austria. While their material needs were largely taken care of, many of them were anguished at having been separated from relatives. To help in the process of restoring family links the ICRC began broadcasting the names of people seeking news of their loved ones.

Once the crisis was over and the uprising crushed, the Hungarian authorities asked the ICRC to draw up a plan for re-uniting families that had been dispersed. Proposals were put forward in April 1957 but proved unacceptable to the government, which did not agree to Hungarian nationals leaving the country to join family members abroad.

The ICRC closed its delegation in Hungary in October 1957, when the emergency operation was no longer needed. In all, it had managed the dispatch of relief valued at more than 80 million Swiss francs, including food, clothing, medicines and hospital equipment.

 More detail on the ICRC's work in Hungary in 1956-57 in Françoise Perret's   article   in the International Review.  Read about the ICRC's work in   Hungary  and eastern Europe today.