Béla Király

The Hungarian general who led the 1956 revolt

Béla Király


For two weeks in 1956, thousands of Hungarians fought to overthrow their Soviet overlords, only to be crushed by tanks in the streets of Budapest. Their military leader was Maj. Gen. Béla Király, who later said that the failed uprising “was the start of the series of events—the end of communism—for which we had to wait another 33 years.”

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“Király’s life in the army began almost by accident,” said the London Independent. Unable to afford veterinary school, he entered the service in 1930 and graduated in the top 5 percent at the Ludovika Military Academy, where he “developed a passion for organization, chains of command, and troop maneuvers.” During World War II, he served under Hungary’s pro-Nazi government, but disobeying orders, he outfitted 400 Jewish slave laborers with proper army uniforms against the winter weather. At war’s end he surrendered and was exiled by the victorious Red Army to Siberia. “But Király and several of his comrades managed to jump off the train carrying them to Russia.” Király later joined the Communist Party and rose quickly, only to be sentenced to death on trumped-up espionage charges in 1951. He was released in October 1956, just as popular unrest toward Hungary’s Soviet puppet government was swelling.

When the regime collapsed, “the new prime minister, Imre Nagy, called on Király to unify disparate Hungarian security forces into a cohesive National Guard,” said the London Daily Telegraph. In late October and early November, he tried to rally some 30,000 Hungarian troops and 26,000 insurgents. But he knew the cause was hopeless and watched helplessly as 100,000 Soviet soldiers and 4,500 tanks quickly annihilated his forces. Nagy and his cohorts were executed, but Király managed to flee, “first to Austria and then to America.” There he earned a Ph.D. in history at Columbia University and taught military history at Brooklyn College.

Király was celebrated in exile as a resistance hero. In 1989, as communism collapsed across Eastern Europe, he returned to Hungary to speak at the reburial of Nagy in a ceremony attended by 100,000 people. The following year he was elected to Parliament. Király spoke often of the abortive revolution, usually downplaying his role. “To tell the truth, there was no central command,” he said. “The commander in chief of the freedom fighter forces was an idea. Freedom, liberty, was the idea. Everyone fought for that.”

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