Homage to 1956: Shows the Decline and Fall of the Soviet Empire Through the Lens of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

SUBJECTS — World; Hungary; Cold War; Russia (Soviet Union);

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Courage in War; Human Rights;


AGE: 12+; Not rated:

Documentary; 2007, 97 minutes; Color. Available from

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TWM offers a worksheet to keep students’ minds on the movie and to direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.

See the Film Study Worksheet for a Documentary.

See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project and Movies as Literature Homework Project.


Teachers can modify the worksheets to fit the needs of each class.


This award-winning documentary describes the dramatic events of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and its role in the unraveling of the Soviet Empire. The movie shows the sacrifices that Hungarians were willing to make in their attempt to break free from Soviet domination.


Selected Awards:

This film won eight film festival awards and was nominated for an Academy Award in the “Best Documentary” category. Torn from the Flag was presented to the United States Congress and was entered into the Congressional Record.



Participants in the uprising, politicians, academics, and U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.



Klaudia Kovacs and Endre Hules.


The film is an excellent supplement to units on the Cold War. TWM’s research shows that the movie is accurate except for two minor statements by one of the interviewees. The film is especially timely in light of recent events in Ukraine.

Viewing this movie will enhance students’ understanding of the history of Eastern Europe during the Cold War and the process by which Eastern Europe eventually broke free from the Soviet Empire. Students will discuss historical concepts important to a study of post-War Europe including Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, the Iron Curtain, popular resistance to Communist rule, and the role of de-Stalinization in the unraveling of international communism. Discussions of the two questionable statements will enhance students’ understanding of the end of the Second World War.


None, once the two statements described above are discussed.


Watch the movie with your child.


The film provides its own factual background. The following information should be provided to the class either before or after the film has been shown.

One point missing from this movie and from many accounts of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution is that during the Second World War, Hungary allied itself with Nazi Germany and declared war on the Allies, including the U.S., the United Kingdom, and, most importantly, the Soviet Union. Russia was a major ally of the U.S during the Second World War. During the German invasion, Russia suffered incredible losses. (Statistics vary, but between 20 and 30 million Russians, military and civilian, died in the war, which for the Russians, started with the German invasion. Total U.S. casualties in Europe were less than 200,000, all military personnel.) However, with great sacrifice and with assistance from the Russian winter, the Soviets were able to turn back the Germans, inflicting heavy losses. Some historians say that in WWII the Red Army contributed more to the defeat of Germany than did all of the other Allies combined. For example, the Soviets killed about three German soldiers for every one German soldier killed on the Western Front.

Hungary contributed several hundred thousand infantry, as well as mechanized divisions, to the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The uprising of 1956 occurred only eleven years after the end of the war. Hungary’s role as a fascist power which had recently been a significant aggressor against Russia, would have been fresh in the minds of members of the Soviet Politburo.

This history relates to the statement in the film by Otto von Habsburg, a respected statesman in post-war Europe and also the last crown-prince of Austria-Hungary. Mr. von Habsburg asserts that Hungary was “sold down the river” at the Yalta Conference. The implication is that FDR and Churchill didn’t protect Hungary when they agreed to Red Army occupation and Soviet administration of Eastern Europe.

However, von Habsburg’s claim that Hungary was somehow betrayed at Yalta ignores several important realities. As a practical matter, Soviet hegemony over Hungary was pretty much assured in early February 1945 when the Yalta conference was taking place. At that time, the Russians were well on their way to conquering Hungary. Budapest, the Hungarian capital, fell to the Russians only a few days after the Yalta conference ended. Hungarian/German resistance collapsed on April 4, 1945, less than two months after Yalta. During this period, the American and British armies were busy fighting the Germans in Western Europe. There was no effective way to prevent the Red Army from occupying Hungary and no effective way to dislodge the Red Army once it was in place. In addition, as a former member of the Axis that had declared war on the Allies and was still actively fighting, Hungary had no right to expect protection from the U.S. or the U.K. Moreover, Russia would have been justifiably outraged had its allies tried to deny Russia the right to occupy Hungary and to protect itself from a former enemy which had killed Russian soldiers and citizens.

This point does not take anything away from the desire for freedom that led to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the heroism of the Hungarian people during the uprising. It simply corrects what appears to be a statement that does not recognize the historical situation.

There is one other questionable remark made by Mr. von Habsburg in the film. He states unequivocally that the 1956 Hungarian uprising was the decisive battle of the Cold War. This is a matter of interpretation and perhaps Mr. von Habsburg was using a little hyperbole. Certainly, the events in Hungary in 1956 were an important battle and it turned out to be the beginning of the end of the Soviet Empire. There were, however, many important battles to come, such as the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Gdansk shipyard strikes of 1980.

Four Hungarian Cold War Jokes:

One of the ways that people deal with oppression is with jokes that are funny because they contain a nugget of truth. After the film has been shown, the following jokes may help students understand the situation in Hungary under Soviet domination.

#1. It is Budapest in late 1956. The Hungarian uprising has been crushed by Russian tanks and the city is in ruins. On the battered buildings, government posters proclaim thanks to the Russians for the friendly assistance given to Hungary by the Soviet Union.

Two men meet on the street. One says to the other, “You know come to think of it, we Hungarians are very lucky people.”

“What?” says the other. “You don’t mean you’ve become a communist?”

“Oh no, but just think. The Russians came here as friends. Imagine what they’d have done had they came here as enemies!”

#2. Q: A Hungarian soldier was confronted by a charging German soldier and a charging Russian soldier. Which did he shoot first, and why?

A: He shot the German first–business before pleasure.

#3. At School Number One in Budapest, Comrade teacher announces the day’s lesson will be in Marxist criticism and self-criticism.

Teacher: Istvan, please stand up and tell us what Marxist criticism and self-criticism means.

Student: Comrade teacher, Marxist criticism is how we must view my parents, who joined the reactionary counter-revolutionary forces who sought to destroy our heroic workers’ and peasants’ state, and then fled to the imperialist, capitalist west, to continue their intrigues against the Socialist regime.

Teacher: Excellent, Istvan. And what is your Marxist self-criticism?

Student: I didn’t go with them.

#4: May Day was the big Communist holiday. In Budapest, as the Hungarian armed forces parade past the Communist leaders, there is an impressive array of tanks, missiles, armored cars, and soldiers marching in their best uniforms.

The Communist leaders stand impassively as the soldiers and their vehicles pass by. Then, right at the end, comes a battered old open truck, sputtering exhaust as it carries three fat middle-aged men in badly fitting grey suits. An apparatchik turns to the defense minister and asks,

“Who are they?”

“That’s our secret weapon,” says the minister. “Economists from the Ministry of Planning.”


Note to Teachers: The film naturally divides itself into two sections. The first half of the film, about 48 minutes, contains the background up through the point where the Hungarian people think they’ve won. The second half deals with the Soviet reaction and what occurred after the revolution was crushed.


View of the Berlin Wall from the West 1986 taken by Thierry Noir

1. Why did Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev change his mind and send in the Red Army?

Suggested Response:

    • The rebellion threatened Communist rule in Hungary (unlike the recent challenge posed by Polish Communists led by Wladyslaw Gomulka who had targeted rule by the Kremlin but not the Communist system).
    • Nagy’s decision to leave the Warsaw Pact threatened the policy of having Eastern European states serve as buffers to another European invasion of Russia.
    • If the Soviet Union allowed the Hungarian uprising to succeed, anti-communist elements in other Eastern European states would be encouraged to revolt as well.
    • China and the leaders of other Eastern European satellites of the Soviet Union demanded that Russia act to stop Communism being damaged.
    • Prime Minister Nagy had, or so the Soviets believed, lost control of the situation. Hungary was not just de-Stalinizing — it was becoming capitalist.
    • Hungary had allied itself with the Axis in WWII and sent units to assist the Germans in their invasion of the Soviet Union.
    • Hard-liners in Russia urged Khrushchev to act, and Khrushchev’s own position could be imperiled if he allowed Hungary to break away from the Soviet block.
    • Khrushchev thought that the West would not intervene to help Hungary, and he was correct.
    • Allowing the Hungarians to throw out the Red Army and withdraw from the Warsaw Pact would show weakness that the West would exploit.


2. Why didn’t the West help the Hungarian people when they rose up against Soviet domination and Communist oppression?

Suggested Response:

There were several reasons: (a) The Allies themselves were divided over the British-French-Israeli seizure of the Suez Canal; much of their attention was focused on the Suez crisis; and (b) the U.S. didn’t think Hungary, or any of the “captive nations,” were worth a world war.


3. What role did Hungary play in WWII and what effect, if any, did that have on the decision of the Russians to invade?

Suggested Response:

See the Historical Background section.


4. Evaluate the role of Janos Kadar. Was he a patriot or a traitor?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer to this question.


5. What was the double game that Washington was playing with the revolutionaries? What was the damage caused by this double game? What benefits did the free world, and ultimately the Hungarians, eventually reap from this double game?

Suggested Response:

The duplicity engaged in by the U.S. was encouraging the Hungarians to revolt and giving them the impression that the U.S. would support them when the U.S. actually had no intention of intervening. The damage was that many thousands of Hungarians died or were injured when they probably wouldn’t have risked their lives if Radio Free Europe and other organs of the U.S. government had told the truth, i.e., the U.S. was not going to risk a world war over Hungary and would not intervene. The benefits the free world gained from the Soviet suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising were enormous. It showed the brutality of the Soviet Empire and the fact that it was held together by force. This decimated the communist parties of Western Europe and was an important first step in the eventual destruction of the Soviet Empire (including the liberation of Hungary) without a world war that would have involved nuclear weapons.


6. From the standpoint of a Russian Communist, if Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in the secret speech started the disintegration of the Soviet Empire, should Khrushchev have kept quiet and not pursued an active policy of de-Stalinization?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer to this question. Here is a strong response. The speech was necessary to start the process of healing the wounds in Russian society caused by Stalin’s crimes. If it ultimately had the effect of leading to the dissolution of the Soviet Empire and the end of the Soviet Union, then those events would have happened anyway, and would probably have been more cataclysmic without an official denunciation of Stalinism.


7. Look at the picture below. What does this tell you about the “Iron Curtain” and the “captive nations” of Eastern Europe?

Suggested Response:

Points to note: On the Western side, there is abundant graffiti, a park with trees, and streetlights. A man is walking his dog. On the Eastern German side, there is a roadway for military vehicles, a no-man’s land, and the wall is unpainted concrete without a trace of graffiti. Conclusion: Eastern Europe was, in many ways, a very large prison.


Each of the discussion questions can serve as an essay prompt.


1. Write a description of the events in Hungary during October and November 1956 from two different viewpoints: one from the standpoint of a Hungarian freedom fighter and the other from the standpoint of a member of the Russian Politburo. Describe the conditions in Hungary before the revolution, the revolution itself, the Soviet response, the conditions after the revolt was crushed, and the international effects of the Soviet actions. [If necessary, delete some of the topics. The length of the paper should be suitable for the class.]


2. Read The Legacy of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution by Károly Nagy and two entries in the Freedom Fight 56 Oral History Project. Write one to two-page reflections on each.


3. Research and write an essay on the life of Imre Nagy, Pál Maléter, Janos Kadar, or Nikita Khrushchev. [For an in-depth project, a student or a group of students can be assigned to research the life of Pál Maléter and add material to the Wikipedia entry on this Hungarian patriot.]


4. Compare the importance of the following events in the dissolution of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe: the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the Prague Spring of 1968, and the Gdansk shipyard strikes of 1980.



Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.



Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.



Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.


Speaking and Listening:

Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.


Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.



The websites and studies listed in the Links to the Internet section.

This Learning Guide was written by James Frieden and was last revised on April 11, 2015.

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