A Cold War Humanitarian Action: The Western Admission of 1956 Hungarian Refugees

Gusztáv D. Kecskés
Research Centre for the Humanities
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 11 Issue 4  (2022):913–935 DOI 10.38145/2022.4.913

The story of the refugees who fled Hungary following the Soviet suppression of the 1956 Revolution and the coordinated international humanitarian operation launched to receive them is an outstanding chapter in the history of emigration. These refugees received far more favorable treatment than earlier Hungarian expatriates or other European refugees had been given. With a total of 200,000 refugees, their successful transportation to host countries and their subsequent integration represented an exceptional success for international aid efforts. How can this efficiency be explained? Trends in humanitarian sentiment in world public opinion, influenced in part by the horrors of World War II, and the increasingly precise formulation of the rights of the refugees were just as important, as factors, as the supportive attitude of the populations of Western countries, who empathized with the suppressed revolution. The exceptionally favorable composition, from the perspective of the labor market, of the mass of people who fled in 1956 coincided with Western economic prosperity, producing economic “miracles.” However, even these favorable initial conditions would not have led to such a swift and successful settlement in the West of nearly 200,000 Hungarians had it not been for the Cold War rivalry between the Eastern and the Western blocs. As a consequence of the ideological and propaganda conflict with the Soviets, the NATO governments had the necessary political will to give effective support for a resolution to the Hungarian refugee problem, even after emotional support among the public opinion had waned.

Keywords: humanitarian action, 1956, Hungarian refugees, United Nations, UNHCR

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