The Hungarian Revolution

Erich Lessing’s documentation of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution offers an unparalleled insight into the realities of the revolt

Erich Lessing

Erich Lessing The beginning of the deStalinisation period in Hungary saw the development of an opposition movement, particularly among students and intellectuals. Imre Nagy, who was called in as Prime Minister, (...)

“I think we should record whatever we see, whether we like it or not,” wrote Erich Lessing, one of Magnum’s earliest members. Revered for his ability to capture fleeting moments of history, his documentation of the Hungarian Revolution is unparalleled in both its scope and power. The first photographer to arrive in Budapest where the revolt began, Lessing stayed to photograph its duration and aftermath. The photo-essay was a defining moment in his photographic career, however the extent of the suffering he witnessed also caused Lessing to question the purpose of war photography and he went on to steer clear from documenting conflict for the rest of his life.

Erich Lessing Months before the revolution, steel-workers begin striking at the Stalinvarosz steel-plant, the flagship and pride of the Hungarian Communist industry. Stalinvarosz steel-plant (now Dunapentele), l (...)

"I think we should record whatever we see, whether we like it or not"

- Erich Lessing
Erich Lessing In a stormy meeting of the Hungarian Writers' Union, György Szüdi called the planned rise of agricultural production by twenty-seven per cent 'simply idiotic'. The Writers' Union was dissolved in J (...)
Erich Lessing A Writers’ Union meeting on June 27 1956, concerning press and information policy, sparked the Revolution. Pictured here is Emil Horn, later a historian of the Revolution. Budapest, Hungary. 1956. © Erich Lessing | Magnum Photos

Soon after the end of World War II, the Soviet Union seized control of defeated Eastern European countries and enforced Communist rule. In Hungary, growing discontent across the county at both the occupying Soviet forces and the activities of the ruthless, home-grown Hungarian secret police, known as the AVO, culminated in an uprising on October 23, 1956, during which thousands of Hungarians in Budapest took to the streets demanding political reform. From members of the intelligentsia and students, to factory workers and soldiers, the freedom fighters represented a cross-section of society, united in their animosity towards Soviet rule. Within days, the protest had garnered the support of millions and the Soviets were gradually forced to retreat back across the border for a few weeks. By mid-November however, the Russians had launched a brutal counter-attack and regained control, resulting in the deaths of 3000 Hungarian citizens and forcing 250,000 people to flee the country.

Erich Lessing A membership meeting of the Writers' Association on December 28, 1956. Tibor Dery has the floor. Pictured in the foreground is Gyula Hay, with his chin in his hand. Several weeks after this meeting (...)
Erich Lessing At the meeting of the Petšfi Cercle on June 27, 1956, the social democrat, Arpad Szakasits, talks to the philosopher George Lukacs. Budapest, Hungary. 1956. © Erich Lessing | Magnum Photos

Along with providing an invaluable insight into such a significant historical event, Lessing’s photographs are also a testament to his own experience of the Revolution: both his revulsion of the Soviet troops enforcing Communist rule and his deep compassion for the millions of Hungarians rising up against them. His images expose the brutality of the uprising to a degree that had not been seen in photography since the documentation of the American Civil War in the 1860s and would not be seen again until images of the Vietnam War emerged just over a decade later. From the bodies of Soviet soldiers strewn amongst the debris of battle to the chilling image of a dead AVO man surrounded by unfazed insurgents, Lessing presents to us the death and destruction of the revolt with unabashed directness. Present for the entirety of the revolution, his unforgiving photographs of the opposition can be read as reflecting his abhorrence of a regime inflicting such destruction.

Erich Lessing The Hungarian Revolution began with an initial mass rally in Budapest on October 23, 1956.It was crushed by Soviet troops after days of street-fighting. Two insurgents watch a side-entrance to a re (...)
Erich Lessing In order to calm the crowd outside, the portrait of Lenin is rapidly being removed from the council room of the city hall by freedom fighter. Gyor, Hungary. October-November, 1956. © Erich Lessing | Magnum Photos
Erich Lessing A Hungarian solder, whose armband indicates that he has joined the freedom-fighters, stands in front of a disabled Soviet tank. Budapest, Hungary. October-November, 1956. © Erich Lessing | Magnum Photos
Erich Lessing Members of the insurrection looting the Soviet Cultural shop on Vaci Road and destroying the propaganda material. Budapest, Hungary. October-November, 1956. © Erich Lessing | Magnum Photos
Erich Lessing The Soviet bookshop ‘Horizon’ is attacked by revolutionaries. Books and portraits of hated communist leaders are burnt in the street. An enthusiast recites poems by Sandor Petöfi, the poet of the H (...)

The series also captures the initial relief of a people who momentarily believed they had overcome their oppressors. In one of Lessing’s most iconic images, revolutionaries are pictured pulling down a portrait of Lenin, while others capture civilians celebrating their victory on the streets of Budapest. Pictured too are the organizations and individuals who pioneered the revolt: from the meetings of the Petoefi-Cercle, a group of intellectuals credited with laying the foundations of the Revolution, and the gatherings of the Writer’s Union, a major voice of dissension against the regime, to striking steel and factory workers in the days and month leading up to the revolt.

Erich Lessing Bystanders try to catch the first issue of the new, pro-revolution communist party paper. When Imre Nagy became prime minister in the first days of the Hungarian revolution, the paper was no longer (...)
Erich Lessing During the Soviet retreat from Budapest, on October 29, happy crowds march through the city. Budapest, Hungary. October-November, 1956. © Erich Lessing | Magnum Photos
Erich Lessing Freedom fighters on a Hungarian tank, surrounded by joyous citizens, who did not know that the Soviet retreat, announced for October 31st, 1956, was only feigned. Budapest, Hungary. October-Novembe (...)

"I did not want to cover any revolutions or any wars any more. It makes no sense. I’ve seen too much"

- Erich Lessing
Erich Lessing A pair of bronze boots is all that is left of a huge Stalin monument, destroyed during the night on October 23, 1956. Budapest, Hungary. October-November, 1956. © Erich Lessing | Magnum Photos
Erich Lessing The body of a fallen Soviet soldier on Jozsef Boulevard. Budapest, Hungary. October-November. 1956. © Erich Lessing | Magnum Photos
Erich Lessing An artillery wreck in Dohany Street. Budapest, Hungary, October-November 1956. © Erich Lessing | Magnum Photos

The power of Lessing’s work lies in the everyday realities of the events he photographed, capturing the intense array of human emotion that comes with any moment of social upheaval. But the experience also took a toll on his own outlook on life, as he struggled to reconcile the purpose of this type of photography. “I did not want to cover any revolutions or any wars any more. It makes no sense. I’ve seen too much,” wrote Lessing after his experience of photographing the Revolution. Indeed, by the beginning of the 1960s, Lessing had moved away from documenting war and conflicts for magazines to focus on long-form documentary projects more suited to the format of the photo book. In tandem with this, his the subject-matter of his work shifted from a documentation of history to the examination of history itself.

Erich Lessing Citizens look at destroyed armoured cars in Prater Street. Budapest, Hungary. October-November, 1956. © Erich Lessing | Magnum Photos
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