Deconstruction of a Myth?
Austria and the Hungarian Refugees of 1956-57


The wave of refugees created by the 1956 Hungarian revolution constitutes a particularly interesting example of political migration. When studying this exodus and its effects, Hungary’s Western neighbour Austria deserves special attention since it was the country that at first received the majority of the refugees. Large-scale refugee movements typically have important political and security repercussions for both the sending and receiving of countries. Judged by today’s standards—with the routine news in the apathetic “first” world of tens of thousands of refugees desperately trying to enter Europe in search of a brighter future—it seems almost amazing how positively, even passionately, the Hungarian refugees were welcomed in Austria and elsewhere in the West.

The fact that 1956 represents an exceptional and fascinating moment in migration history may explain why in Austria these events tend to be remembered in a highly positive way. It is often the case that contemporary Austrian witnesses have their own personal story to tell of Austria’s impressive humanitarian performance. In May 1957 the Austrian Interior Minister Oskar Helmer stressed in a session of the council of ministers that Austria had made “a good impression” because of its willingness to help the refugees. He continued: “We have earned ourselves a name in the entire world because of the refugees”.[1] Both Austrian and foreign scholarship on this topic almost unanimously agrees on this positive evaluation of Austria’s role in sheltering the refugees. During the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian revolution in October 2006, the truism of Austria’s selfless provision of aid was hardly questioned, as newspaper articles, exhibitions, and above all official ceremonies celebrated Austria’s positive role in 1956.[2]

There is no doubt that the efforts of the Austrian people were indeed outstanding. As the popular American novelist James A. Michener wrote in his famous book The Bridge at Andau, which was based on interviews he conducted with Hungarian refugees in Austrian refugee camps, “It would require another book to describe in detail Austria’s contribution to freedom. I can express it briefly only in this way: If I am ever required to be a refugee, I hope to make it to Austria.”[3] The sheer magnitude of Austria’s efforts is amply demonstrated in the countless thankful notes from Hungarians (and non-Hungarians) from all over the world now in the Austrian State Archive in Vienna. To cite just one example, the following letter reached the Austrian Foreign Ministry from Brisbane, Australia: “We, the Hungarian Community in Brisbane, wish to express our most sincere gratitude for the help your government extended to our brave compatriots wounded in their desperate struggle for freedom. During the centuries your country has often helped us in our historical role of being Europe’s bulwark against the hordes of the East, but help has never been more appreciated than in this critical hour.”[4]

In the midst of all this (self-)praise, it is all too easy to forget that Austria was cast into a very delicate situation due to the influx of the Hungarian refugees for which it was not prepared in terms of either resources or infrastructure. The aim of this paper is to present, on the basis of archival material, a more balanced picture of the reception of the Hungarian refugees by highlighting how Austria struggled to handle the situation. It will be shown how Austria as a state reacted to this difficult situation and how different institutions—ministries, charity organisations, and the United Nations—managed to work together to resolve the crisis.

The 1956 Hungarian revolution and Austria

Austria received its state treaty and full sovereignty in May 1955 after a decade of occupation by Allied forces. The Hungarian crisis, which broke out on October 23, 1956, constituted its first serious foreign policy crisis.[5] When the Soviet troops used brutal military force to crush the thirteen-day revolt, Austria had to put into effect the neutrality it had adopted only a year before. While the Austrian population and its leadership (except the politically isolated and unimportant Austrian communists) clearly sympathized with the freedom-fighting Hungarians, the Austrian government had to live up to its neutral status and carefully measure its reactions. In particular, its border was secured to prevent any interference from Austrian territory. Its prominent role in connection with the Hungarian uprising was initially to allow those people fleeing Hungary to enter Austria and subsequently to direct them on to other countries. Its humanitarian efforts were acknowledged world-wide, apart from of course the Soviet Union and its satellites, who accused Austria of having allowed “reactionary elements” and weapons to cross the Austrian-Hungarian border and thus of having violated its neutrality.

A breaking wave of refugees

Although refugees were already a familiar sight in Austria in the 1950s,[6] the massive influx of Hungarian refugees proved to be an exceptional moment in Austrian history, even if its long term role was primarily to act as a first place for asylum and a hub for collecting refugees in preparation for further movement elsewhere.

At the outbreak of the revolution and during the early days of fighting, there was little to worry about because the number of refugees was relatively small. At this point only 3,000 to 4,000 people crossed into Austria.[7] The Austrian authorities sent a telegram to their embassies in Paris, London, and Washington requesting help, but at that time they did not expect a large influx of refugees. After all, many Austrian officials seemed to believe that the revolution would be victorious and a flood of refugees was unlikely to occur. Nevertheless, the Austrian Minister of the Interior Oskar Helmer proclaimed as early as October 26 that asylum would be granted to all Hungarian refugees, regardless of their reasons for leaving their home country.[8]

The few refugees who came before early November did not cause any embarrassment for the authorities. However, this state of affairs soon changed dramatically. On November 4 Soviet troops mounted a powerful intervention, aiming to crush the revolt. Suddenly, the hopes of a victorious revolution vanished and gave way to the fear of Soviet repression and reprisals. The massive influx of people into Austria started in the early morning of that day. Although the authorities had been preparing for an arrival of refugees, this mass immigration exceeded all their calculations. It was as if a dam had burst; all along the 300-km-long frontier men, women, and children travelling in trucks, tractors, carts or on foot crossed from Hungary to Austria.[9] For weeks, the border was entirely open and on a daily basis 3,000 to 5,000 refugees entered Austrian soil. The “Iron Curtain”—or to use the official Hungarian denomination, the “technical border barrier”—had sealed off the border since 1949, but it had been dismantled in the spring of 1956 as a consequence of the improved relations between Austria and Hungary during what is referred to as the “thaw period” in the international context of the Cold War. Now with both the barbed wire and the mines entirely gone, the refugees could easily stroll over what the Austrians called the “green border”.[10] Later, when the Soviet troops started to survey the border more closely, the best known way to reach Austria was without doubt over the so called “Einser Kanal” (Channel Number One) at the famous bridge at Andau, later immortalized in James Michener’s famous novel.[11]

While the fighting was still going on in Hungary, many women and children were sent over the border for their protection. Later, when the fighting ceased many young men crossed the border.[12] The refugees included entire families, people of all ages, students, and even orphans. The reasons for their flight ranged from the fear of political repression as a consequence of the revolution to the long-cherished wish to escape the communist regime. More then half of the refugees came from the capital city of Budapest, while the rest hailed almost exclusively from the western regions of Hungary. About 4 percent of the national population fled; the percentage from the city of Sopron was as high as 12 percent. Two-thirds of the refugees were male, with more than half under the age of 25.[13]

There were also a certain number of soldiers amongst the refugees. In accordance with international law, the Austrian Ministry of Defence decided to open four internment camps for all refugees carrying weapons and those clearly recognizable as military personnel. By December 1956 more than a 1,000 people were held in the largest internment camp in Salzburg, Wals-Siezenheim. The interned refugees were practically prisoners; they could not move about freely, and their chances of being accepted by other countries were slim.

The Austrian authorities were forced to improvise since no infrastructure existed to receive such a massive influx of persons. Red Cross officials tried to collect and group the refugees behind the border. The refugees, many totally exhausted and nearly frozen to death, were first taken to schools or restaurants. They were then transferred in larger groups to a refugee camp in Eisenstadt, the capital of Austria’s border province, Burgenland. From there public trains or buses brought them to a large camp called Traiskirchen to the south of Vienna. Finally, by mid-November, when things became better organised, the refugees were distributed among different camps all over the country.

However, the existing camps were soon filled and the stream of refugees did not cease. By mid-November 1956, when the wave of refugees reached its peak, Austrian newspapers referred to the situation in the border regions as catastrophic. Officials did not know where to put the newly arriving refugees since every possible place was already occupied. At times the border patrols even told refugees to come back in a couple of days in the hope that the situation would improve.[14]

Primitive camps instead of the “Golden West”

Where should thousands of refugees be taken in a country which was still recovering from the hardships of the Second World War and which still took care of around 120,000 refugees? The only practical possibility was to house the new refugees in empty war-damaged houses and any abandoned building in the former occupation forces that remained unused. In the beginning, the new “camps” consisted only of empty rooms, some even without water or electricity. In some cases toilets, windows, and doors were broken or lacking altogether. The refugees had to sleep on straw, which had to be brought in by local farmers.[15]

This situation worsened after November 4. On that day alone more than 5,000 refugees crossed the border. However, following the initial surprise, chaos gave way to better organisation and management. Soon every refugee received a minimum of 2,400 calories of daily nutrition, and clean and warm clothes were distributed, along with pocket money, toiletries, and cigarettes. Sanitary facilities were built and medical care was supplied.

Nevertheless, life in the camps caused distress amongst the refugees. They lived together in cramped and narrow spaces, and had little means of physical or intellectual activity. The Interior Ministry tried to cope with this situation and asked all contributing aid organisations to attend to the cultural and religious needs of the refugees. Radio, newspapers, films, literature in Hungarian language, sports and other activities were called for.[16] Many organizations reacted positively, and provided courses in baseball, football and ballet, dancing lessons, and theatre groups. Even a small orchestra was organized. Buses with Hungarian literature arrived at the camps and informative newspapers were published in various Austrian provinces informing the refugees about legal rights, asylum law, and the possibilities of emigration to other countries. Furthermore, the diverse religious needs of the refugees were also provided for.

Despite all these efforts, doctors detected a “camp psychosis” among the refugees, which manifested itself in passivity, depression, and latent aggressiveness.[17] These symptoms were especially noticeable in the internment camp in Salzburg, from whence many of the internees tried to flee in order to sneak into a “normal” camp. In mid-November 1956 around 100 internees held a hunger strike to protest against the way they were treated, and later that month disturbances there required police intervention to restore order.[18] In mid-December 1956 the director of security in Burgenland reported that the formerly thankful Hungarians had become more and more dissatisfied and impatient. In addition, they demanded expensive drugs and were not happy with the medical care.[19] Austrian officials were of course less than pleased by these complaints. A document from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that the camps were suitably equipped, and more comforts and conveniences would only induce the refugees to stay in Austria.[20] In January 1957 Interior Minister Helmer was forced to make a public declaration that refugees also had duties and criticised those who caused trouble.[21]

Chaos and rivalry amongst Austrian institutions and organisations

One Austrian newspaper reporting in mid-November 1956 about the strong emotional solidarity shown by the Austrian population concluded that when the “cool head gets lost,” help turns into confusion.[22] Despite the admirable work being done, the organization of care for the refugees was hampered by the multitude of aid organizations working in parallel and the rivalry and quarrels among them. The UN High Commissioner Auguste Lindt had the task of coordinating the entire refugee program, while the Red Cross strove to harmonize the efforts of the different humanitarian institutions, and the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM) took over the registration and further transport of the refugees. Allegedly 40 organizations were involved in refugee care in Austria, including the Knights of Malta, Caritas, Rettet das Kind, CARE, the International Rescue Committee, the Knights of St. John, and the Quakers. Some of the organizations came into being in a spontaneous manner in response to this crisis and thus were not only un-coordinated, but also perceived other organizations as rivals. The President of the Austrian Red Cross, for example, refused to collaborate (at least for a while) with other organizations in assessing the camps’ needs.[23] At times the understanding between the Red Cross and the Austrian authorities deteriorated to the extent that the former threatened to stop its food shipments.[24]

In addition, collaboration among the Austrian authorities and different ministries was poorly managed. The Austrian Chancellor Figl had tried at an early stage of the crisis to introduce an action-committee to coordinate the Austrian authorities. However, due to the reluctance of the Minister of the Interior, this committee only came into being on November 13.[25] A department called 10 UH (Ungarnhilfe [Hungarian Aid]) had already been set up a week earlier within the Ministry of the Interior, which was to act as an overall coordinator.[26] The Minister also complained about the unsatisfactory collaboration of various local governments.[27]

Financial issues never ran smoothly. The Austrian authorities finally struck a compromise with the League of the Red Cross, which assumed the expenses for the larger camps until the summer of 1957. The Austrian Red Cross took over this task until the autumn of that year, and then passed it on to the Austrian Ministry of the Interior.[28]

Where should the refugees go?

As mentioned above, the Austrian authorities, on October 28, had already contacted their embassies in Paris, London, and Washington, hoping to obtain assistance with the refugee problem. The sheer number crossing the border after November 4 quickly led the government to conclude that it was unable to handle this mass of people alone. It was thus eager for the refugees to move on to other Western countries as soon as possible. However, it became clear almost immediately that many states were more willing to support the Austrians financially in aiding the Hungarian refugees than to open their own borders to them.[29]

Austria expected help from all the states that had signed the Geneva Convention, as well as from the other Western European countries and the USA. On November 4, the day of the second Soviet intervention, Helmer sent a telegram to the High Commissioner of Refugees and drew his attention to Austria’s problems. As a result, offers to take in refugees poured into Vienna. The generous promises, however, were not followed by action. To begin with, the transportation of the refugees was slow due to its having been suddenly improvised.[30] Before long the problem of the receiving states’ selection of refugees surfaced. The fact that other countries screened and selected the refugees as immigrants turned into an acute problem when Austria’s capacity to house and feed them reached its limit, and still thousands more kept arriving every day. A document from the Ministry of the Interior from November 1956 clearly expresses the view that the usual measure of screening—including selection, medical exams, and the acceptance of only young and working age people—was not appropriate for these special circumstances. Austria would end up having to take care of all the women, children, sick and old people in addition to the sacrifices it had already made.[31] The Austrian UN delegation was adamant in its demands before the UN Plenary session at the end of November: “ This measure [the transfer of refugees] should be implemented by a waiver of all bureaucratic formalities. May it be remembered that Austria, too, cannot discriminate at her borders”.[32] Austria tried to make clear that not only the working population but also the elderly people and children had to be transferred along with their families. Austria was especially critical of the screening measures implemented by the United States, which insisted on long medical examinations by the immigration office. They not only made the refugees come to Vienna several times for the medical check-up, but also made sure that “no toes and fingers were missing,” as one Austrian document put it mockingly.[33]

In mid-November 1956—when all possible accommodations in Austria were filled to capacity and some school buildings in the Austrian provinces had to been given over to house refugees—Helmer once again complained in the council of ministers about the scant help given by other countries. For example, Switzerland was the only country to accept refugees without any examination and the Netherlands, which had offered to take up to 2,000 refugees, caused “unthinkable difficulties.” Observing that Belgium only wanted to take men and young people, his anger was undisguised: “that’s what the charity of the foreign countries looks like!” Helmer sorrowfully warned, “we now have to speak rightly of a state of emergency. Yesterday refugees were housed in a running train since we have no accommodation left.”[34]

On November 17 the Austrian government once again sent a memorandum to all the accredited foreign missions within the country.[35] It demanded that they react positively in regard to three essential measures: the immediate transfer of the refugees to other countries without a previous examination; the provision of financial support; and aid shipments of food, clothing, and other necessities. In a message to the Washington embassy the situation was depicted as follows: “Thousands more people stream into Austria—apparently with the silent toleration of the Soviet authorities. The moment draws closer when Austrian authorities will not even be in a situation to take up the refugees as a stop-gap measure.”[36] Austria also reiterated its appeal at the Plenary Assembly of the United Nations. On November 27 the Austrian delegate Kurt Waldheim explained that 87,000 refugees had fled from Hungary into Austria and that only 20,000 had been transferred to other countries. Furthermore, every day about 8,000 new refugees were arriving. He stressed: “Austria cannot do it alone. She necessarily depends on generous, joint help from other countries. Reception centres, holiday homes and empty hotels, all available private housing facilities and even schools, are completely filled up […] We are confronted with an emergency that can only be met by immediate measures.” [37]

In addition, Austria’s budget was heavily burdened by the outlays for the refugees. Government experts had calculated that the total expenses for food, camps, and medical supplies incurred up to November 7 had exceeded receipts from donations by two million dollars.[38] In late November Waldheim stated before the UN General Assembly: “[…] it has to be understood by all those able to help that the burden Austria is most willingly taking upon herself, is a heavy one and is about to exceed the country’s financial capacities. Austria has already spent 120 million Austrian Schillings, the equivalent of 4.8 million dollars, on refugees from Hungary during the last four weeks. The costs of maintaining the current number of Hungarian refugees in Austria for a period of six months are estimated at 600 million schillings or about 24 million dollars.” [39]

The American President, Eisenhower, reacted to the requests of many Hungarians and on December 1 raised the immigration quota from 6,500 to 21,500. However, even this measure was not enough. Alarmed by the situation, the US Vice President, Richard Nixon, visited Austria later that month to gain firsthand experience of the crisis. While there he held talks with the Austrian authorities, inspected the border, and talked to refugees.[40] As has already been commented, many refugees hoped to be given asylum in America. However, the United States immigration laws only permitted refugees from the first country that granted them asylum, which in the case of the Hungarian refugees was Austria. Thus not only did many refugees only reluctantly accept the opportunity to emigrate to a country other than the United States, but this issue also created a serious problem when refugees tried to re-enter Austrian territory after having been transferred to other European countries.[41]

As the documents from the Austrian archives cited here clearly show, the transportation of refugees to the other Western countries did not happen fast enough from the Austrian perspective. Nevertheless, this does not diminish the fact that the receiving countries subsequently proved to be very generous and provided real opportunities for the refugees. The Hungarian refugees were resettled in 37 countries. The Austrian Yearbook for 1956 reveals that the US accepted the largest number of Hungarian refugees (19,655), followed by Great Britain (13,018) and West Germany (10,934). However, according to the official statistics there were still 87,725 refugees in Austria at the end of 1956. Another source tells us that by summer 1959, the US had taken in 38,058 refugees, Canada 25,513, and Great Britain 20,690. According to these figures 11,471 refugees remained in Austria at this time.[42]

The often admired willingness of the West to accept the Hungarian refugees can partly be explained by the fact that the whole world had closely followed the dramatic showdown in Budapest. It was the first major international crisis to appear on television, and was headline news in newspapers and on cinema newsreels for weeks. In addition, the events were almost always presented and assessed in their Cold War context. After all, every refugee fleeing to the West seemed to prove the democracies’ moral superiority and thus needed to be welcomed. The feeling of guilt in the West (and the public pressure on governments) should also not be underestimated. Many Western governments were happy that “at least something” was being done since the Hungarian people had been left alone in their struggle for democracy.

However, it should be noted that the Hungarian refugees fled in a very short time span in relatively small numbers, and the burden they imposed was distributed all over the world. Furthermore, Europe’s economic upsurge had just started and so there were not that many rivals in the labor market. Yet the positive reception of the 1956 Hungarian refugees is even more remarkable if one considers the reluctant attitudes towards displaced people all around the world then still in need of resettlement, for example in Austria, Italy, Germany, Greece, China, or the Middle East.[43]

The refugees as a security problem

The fact that thousands of refugees stayed in Austria proved especially difficult for Austria’s interior security officials, who were concerned about their political activities. Among the refugees there were many activists who held political discussions, tried to create refugee organizations, and even hoped to continue promoting the ideals of the revolution. By mid-November 1956, when the fighting in Hungary began to die out, more young people who wanted to continue the struggle assembled in Austria. The perturbed Austrian Foreign Minister wrote: “Taking into account the large number of people, it becomes harder and harder for the Austrian authorities responsible to control and prevent the political activities of the refugees. Considering their political danger, immediate transportation of large numbers to other countries is already urgently necessary.”[44]

The highest priority was to remove the refugees from the border area in order to prevent possible political incidents. The governor of the eastern province of Burgenland had already detected irredentist activities there.[45] Other authorities also observed that refugees were creating new political organisations. In February 1957 a directive by the Interior Ministry addressed the political and intelligence activities of the Hungarian refugees in Austria: “The Ministry of the Interior is, under no circumstances, willing to tolerate any activity by foreigners in Austria which aims to disturb the peaceful relations of the Republic with other states, or which aims to influence the internal political situation in other countries.”[46]

The fact that thousands of Hungarian refugees resided in Austria began to be especially problematic when the secret services from both the East and West tried to take advantage of the situation. American intelligence organisations, for example, tried to hire refugees to go back to Hungary and to serve as agents there. On the other hand, the Hungarian secret police tried to recruit refugees in order to stay informed about developments within Austria. It goes without saying that this was a very delicate situation for a neutral country such as Austria.

Repatriation of Hungarian refugees

Austria was in a delicate position when it came to the new Hungarian government’s repatriation demands. Ever since early November 1956, the Hungarian government, via its Vienna consulate, demanded that the Austrians not impede those willing to return to Hungary. Since the end of November, the Hungarians were eagerly trying to set up a repatriation commission that was active in the Austrian camps. The Hungarians, having proclaimed an amnesty to all those willing to return, declared they had information about thousands of Hungarian refugees wanting to return to their homes. The Austrian authorities, they claimed, prevented this and forced the refugees to emigrate to other countries.[47]

The Austrians were of the opinion that all those willing to leave were not dissuaded from doing so. Any refugee wanting to go back to Hungary had only to sign a written declaration saying that he or she chose to return at his or her own discretion and was willing to be handed over to the Hungarian authorities. One particularly delicate element of this procedure was the establishment of each person’s identity.[48]

While Hungary wanted to handle the issue in a bilateral manner, the Austrians strove to internationalize it by involving the UN High Commissioner. A solely Hungarian commission was proposed by the Hungarian government, but the Austrians rejected this idea. Following negotiations between the Austrian authorities and the High Commissioner, a bilateral commission began work in mid-January 1957. The commission consisted of both Austrian and Hungarian representatives, along with an observer sent by the High Commissioner. The refugees who wished to appear before the commission were to be collected in special camps where they had to await the decision of the Hungarian authorities.[49]

The Austrian authorities had stated from the very beginning that they could not take responsibility for incidents in camps, given the “known temper of the Hungarians.”[50] Indeed, soon after the arrival of the repatriation commission, the first incident occurred in a refugee camp, when some refugees tried to throw stones at the members of the commission. The police had to intervene to help them depart safely.[51] From that moment on the commission held its meetings not in the refugee camps, but in other official buildings.[52]

It is very hard to a give the exact number of repatriated Hungarian refugees. While some sources refer to around 3,000 refugees, others cite around 12,000 by mid-1959. A report from the UNHCR even speaks of 18,200 refugees who eventually returned to Hungary. The Hungarian Foreign Ministry claimed that 13,000 refugees had already returned by January 1958.[53]

The question of children and minors became a special case that resulted in a legal conflict lasting for years. The Hungarian government demanded the repatriation of all minors under the age of eighteen, while the Austrian government wanted to send back only those under the age of fourteen. The bulk of the children under 14 were indeed repatriated, and the older children were dealt with individually through the involvement of the High Commissioner.

Hungarian demands for establishing a repatriation commission were accompanied by a propaganda offensive from the entire Eastern bloc. An example worth citing is the UN delegate from Belorussia, who alleged that the Austrian government and the UN hampered the efforts of refugees who wanted to return to Hungary. The delegate of the USSR went even further and declared that children who wanted to join their parents back home in Hungary were interned behind barbed wire.[54] The Eastern press portrayed the situation of the refugee camps in Austria in horrific and terrible terms, claiming the refugees were imprisoned in camps with scarce room, and very little food and water. It was also alleged that the Hungarian refugees were being sold as slaves to mines and plantations or were being recruited for the Foreign Legion.[55]


The sudden eruption of a political or economic crisis can, under certain circumstances, result in massive emigration. This not only has negative effects on the country from which inhabitants are fleeing, as in the well known case of a “brain drain,” but also for the neighbouring countries which are forced to receive the refugees. The exodus of thousands of Hungarian citizens as a consequence of the unsuccessful 1956 Hungarian revolution can be studied as a textbook exemplar of such a situation. The country which was most directly affected by this exodus—at least in the early stages—was Hungary’s Western neighbor, Austria. Unlike present-day practice, the Austrian authorities granted asylum to all Hungarian refugees and the international community agreed to classify them as “political refugees,” despite the fact that not all of them satisfied the Geneva Convention’s criteria.

The spontaneous direct action and provision of material aid by the Austrian people is an established fact which has been stressed by many scholars. The deep sympathy for the Hungarian refugees can be explained by the synergy of many factors: geographic proximity, the memory of a shared Austro-Hungarian past, Austrian memories of the experience of Soviet occupation from 1945 to 1955, and the integration of the Hungarian revolution into the context of the Cold War.

However, as the subsequent transportation of the refugees to other places of asylum failed to occur as quickly as the Austrians had anticipated, the image of the Hungarian refugees in Austria soon deteriorated. After November 1956 there were increasing complaints about both the high costs of aiding the refugees and pessimism about when they would move on to other destinations. The refugees began to be portrayed as a burden to the Austrian state, which was seen as both a humanitarian and political problem. Interior Minister Helmer openly stated that the refugees also had their duties, and the media started to stress that the limits of Austria’s capacity to assist had been reached. Furthermore, initial sympathy soon faded as the thousands of refugees became rivals in the job market and in the search for accommodations.[56]

The refugee problem represented a two-fold problem for Austria as a state, in that it posed both a political quandary and a financial and administrative burden. Austria was without a doubt honestly surprised by the sheer magnitude of the sudden influx of refugees. Organisational problems such as poorly equipped camps or conflicts among charity organisations soon surfaced as a result. Austria repeatedly requested help from other Western countries, and was quite upset by their unwillingness to assist. Not only were the masses of refugees simply too much for such a small country; they also constituted a serious security problem. With regard to Austria’s foreign policy, the reception of the refugees raised two issues. On the one hand, Austria was constantly attacked by the Eastern bloc countries in connection with the refugee question, and relations with the Soviet Union and its satellites suffered a severe blow. On the other hand, Austria’s humanitarian actions were widely acknowledged in the West, and Austria became known as a refugee country.

For the thousands of refugees, Austria was the first Western country in which they found shelter. This was not only deeply symbolic of Austria’s Western orientation just a year after the Soviet occupation forces had left the country’s Eastern regions, but it was also an unforgettable moment for the refugees themselves. The latter point may be the reason why the former Hungarian refugees who became Austrian citizens continue to shower praise on Austria’s efforts in receiving the 1956 refugee wave. Yet while Austria’s humanitarian actions should not be understated, widely held naive “myths” need to be corrected by also revealing the more complex, and in some senses negative, events that took place. The lessons archival documents teach us—fifty years after the actual events—include the advisability of stepping back and acknowledging that the reception of the refugees in Austria did not happen as smoothly as is normally portrayed.

The 1956 exodus of the Hungarian refugees was not only a landmark in Austrian history. The refugee crisis has also left an indelible and enduring mark on an international scale. Most scholars now agree that 1956 was the first example of a generous acceptance of refugees. Even more importantly, it provides a strong argument for framing the settlement of refugee problems in an international context, instead of trying to handle it bilaterally. Without the help of the UNHCR, the ICEM and the various non-governmental organizations, the crisis could not have been solved by Austria alone. The aftermath of the 1956 uprising helped shape the way humanitarian organizations would deal with refugee crises for decades to come. The episode also left a permanent mark on international refugee law and policy.[57]

Selected Bibliography:

Beyer, Gunther. “The Political Refugee: 35 Years Later.” In Theories of Migration, ed. by Robin Cohen, 96-105, Cheltenham: Elgar, 1996.

Ceresnyés, Ferenc. “Ötvenhatosok menekülése Ausztriába és Ausztrián át.” Múltunk 1 (1998): 42-70.

Engelke, Edda. Ungarnflüchtlinge in der Steiermark. Vienna: Studienverlag, 2006.

Gáal, Károly, and Roland Widder (eds.). 1956 und das Burgenland: Berichte über die Hilfsaktionen für ungarische Flüchtlinge. Eisenstadt: Burgenländische Landesregierung, 1996.

Goodwin-Gill, Gill. The Refugee in International Law. Oxford: University Press, 1996.

Granville, Johanna. “Of Spies, Refugees and Hostile Propaganda: How Austria Dealt with the Hungarian Crisis of 1956.” History 91 (2006): 62-90.

Haslinger, Peter. “Zur Frage der ungarischen Flüchtlinge in Österreich 1956-1957. ” In Migrationen und ihre Auswirkungen. Das Beispiel Ungarn 1918-1995 , ed. by Gerhard Seewann, 147-162. Munich: Oldenburg, 1997.

Hoff, Hans and Hans Strotzka. Die psychohygienische Betreuung der ungarischen Neuflüchtlinge in Österreich 1956-1958. Vienna: Holllinek, 1958.

Kern, Friedrich. Österreich: Offene Grenze der Menschlichkeit. Die Bewältigung des ungarischen Flüchtlingsproblems im Geiste internationaler Solidarität. Vienna, 1959.

Loescher, Gill. Beyond Charity: International Cooperation and the Global Refugee Crisis. New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Michener, James. The Bridge at Andau. New York: Fawcett, 1957.

Murber, Ibolya. Flucht in den Westen 1956. Ungarnflüchtlinge in Österreich und Liechtenstein. Feldkirch: Rheticus, 2002.

Murber, Ibolya, and Zoltán Fónagy (eds.). Die ungarische Revolution und Österreich 1956. Vienna: Czernin, 2006.

Rasky, Béla. “‘Flüchtlinge haben auch Pflichten.’ Österreich und die Ungarnflüchtlinge,” 1956. (5.20.2007).

Sóos, Katalin. “ Ausztria és a Magyar Menekültügy 1956-7”Századok 5 (1998): 1019-1051.

Stanek, Eduard. Verfolgt, Verjagt, Vertrieben. Flüchtlinge in Österreich von 1945-1984. Vienna: Europaverlag, 1985.

Stedingk, Yvonne (ed.), Die Organisation des Flüchtlingswesens in Österreich seit dem Zweiten Weltkrieg. Vienna: Braumüller, 1970.

Szépfalusi, István . “ A legújabb felismeresek az 1956/57-es Magyar menekülthullámról.” Limes. Komáron-Estergom Megyei Tudmányos Szemle 1 (1998): 113-122.

Zierer, Brigitte. Politische Flüchtlinge in österreichischen Printmedien – dargestellt am Vergleich des Ungarischen Volksaufstandes und der Revolution in Rumänien 1989. Ph.D. Thesis. Vienna University, 1995.


1. Ministerratsprotokoll, 30.4.1957 in Österreichisches Staatsarchiv, Archiv der Republik (hereafter: ÖStA, AdR), BKA/Ministerratsprotokolle, 2. Republik, Raab II.

2. The official ceremony took place at the “Austria Center” in Vienna on October 17, 2006. Hungary, represented by Prime Minister Gyurcsány and president Solyóm, set out to solemnly thank Austria for its efforts to help the Hungarian refugees in 1956. President Solyóm stated: “Austria, its state and people, has offered such a high moral performance which serves as an example up to this date.” The Austrian President and Chancellor were awarded the highest Hungarian decorations. The Austrian officials, headed by Chancellor Schüssel and President Fischer, in turn were thanked for the positive role of the Hungarian refugees who had stayed in Austria. Pester Lloyd, 10.17.2006.

3. Michener, James. The Bridge at Andau. New York: Fawcett, 1957, 244.

4. Telegramm des Relief Committee For a Free Hungary an Figl, in ÖStA, AdR, BKA/AA, II-Pol 1956/Ungarn 3a, GZl. 511.190, Zl. 520.448.

5. The Hungarian revolution of 1956 was a spontaneous nationwide revolt against the Communist government of Hungary and its Soviet -imposed policies. It started on October 23 , 1956 with a student demonstration in Budapest. The revolt spread from the capital across the country while the Soviet troops and the Hungarian State Security could not gain the upper hand. A new government headed by the communist reformer Imre Nagy was established. He disbanded the hated State Security, declared Hungary’s intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact , and pledged to re-establish free elections. On November 4 , a large Soviet force invaded Budapest and crushed the revolution, killing thousands of civilians. Repression and mass arrests followed, and the opposition was surpressed.

6. In the aftermath of the Second World War Austria was a transit country for masses of refugees and Displaced Persons (DPs). In 1946 around 1.4 million refugees were counted in Austria; by 1955 around one-fifth of them (245,000) had received Austrian citizenship. In the summer of 1956, of the 127,000 persons who had the status of refugees in Austria, 18,000 came from Hungary. At that point many of the earlier refugees continued to live in camps. See Stedingk, Yvonne (ed.). Die Organisation des Flüchtlingswesens in Österreich seit dem Zweiten Weltkrieg. Vienna: Braumüller, 1970, 25.

7. Among these early refugees were a certain number of Hungarian communists who fled what they believed would be a successful revolution. Even around 120 members of the feared Hungarian secret police (ÁVO) found their way to Austria. See Stanek, Eduard. Verfolgt, Verjagt, Vertrieben. Flüchtlinge in Österreich von 1945-1984. Vienna: Europaverlag, 1985, 60.

8. It should be noted that the risk of such a proclamation was quite high and that the Austrian government counted on only about 10,000 refugees at that time.

9. As one soldier guarding the border recalled: “We were always asked over the radio if a jeep or a Dodge should be sent [to pick up the refugees]. Most of the time we said that they should go ahead and send a Dodge in order to fit everybody in since a couple of meters away we usually find more refugees anyhow.” Gáal, Károly, and Roland Widder (eds.). 1956 und das Burgenland: Berichte über die Hilfsaktionen für ungarische Flüchtlinge. Eisenstadt: Burgenländische Landesregierung, 1996, 198.

10. Already during these crucial times, Austrian officials put forward the interpretation that the Soviets let the Hungarians escape on purpose hoping that all the hopelessly anti-Soviet elements would be eliminated from Hungarian society. Österr. Botschaft Belgrad an BKA/AA, 1.12.1956, in ÖStA, AdR, BKA/AA, II-Pol/Ungarn 3d, GZl. 511.190-Pol/56, Zl. 791.898.

11. For some time it was the only escape route to the “free” West before the Soviet troops blew up the bridge. After that the refugees crossed the channel either by boats or swam in the freezing cold water.

12. Erklärung des Gesandten Waldheim in der III. Kommission, 11.27.1956, in ÖStA, AdR, II-Pol 1956/Ungarn 3c, GZl. 511.190-Pol/56.

13. Rasky, Béla, “ ‘ Flüchtlinge haben auch Pflichten.’ Österreich und die Ungarnflüchtlinge 1956. ” (5.20.07), 4.

14. Haslinger, Peter. “Zur Frage der ungarischen Flüchtlinge in Österreich 1956-1957.” In Migrationen und ihre Auswirkungen. Das Beispiel Ungarn 1918- 1995. Ed. Gerhard Seewann. Munich: Oldenburg, 1997, 154.

15. While the refugees sleeping on straw created an evident fire risk, the Austrian Interior Minister’s statement before the council of ministers showed more concern for Austria’s reputation than for the sake of the refugees: “The price of this could be Austria’s considerable reputation abroad.” Ministerratsprotokoll, 11.13.56, in ÖStA, AdR, BKA/Ministerratsprotokolle, 2. Republik, Raab II.

16. Haslinger, “Zur Frage,” 151.

17. Hoff, Hans and Hans Strotzka. Die psychohygienische Betreuung der ungarischen Neuflüchtlinge in Österreich 1956-1958. Vienna: Holllinek, 1958, 31.

18. Ceresnyés, Ferenc. “Ötvenhatosok menekülése Ausztriába és Ausztrián át.” Múltunk 1 (1998): 56.

19. Tiroler Sicherheitsdirektion an Bundesministerium für Inneres (hereafter: BMfI), in ÖStA, AdR, BMfI, GZl. 368.251-2/56, Zl. 368.251-2/56.

20. Haslinger, “Zur Frage,” 155.

21. Zierer, Brigitte. Politische Flüchtlinge in österreichischen Printmedien–dargestellt am Vergleich des Ungarischen Volksaufstandes und der Revolution in Rumänien 1989. Ph.D. Thesis. Vienna University, 1995, 484.

22.Die Presse, 11.16.56.

23. Haslinger, “Zur Frage,” 154.

24. Gáal, Widder, 1956 und das Burgenland, 25.

25. Ministerratsprotokoll, 11.13.1956, in ÖStA, AdR, BKA/Ministerratsprotokolle, 2. Republik, Raab II.

26. Kern, Friedrich. Österreich: Offene Grenze der Menschlichkeit. Die Bewältigung des ungarischen Flüchtlingsproblems im Geiste internationaler Solidarität. Vienna, 1959, 27. It was time for coordination. On November 5, the US ambassador Thompson called the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and asked it to do something about coordinating aid for the Hungarian refugees. He remarked that such a mess and the glaring lack of communication among the different ministries, the Red Cross, and other private organisations led him to think that the Austrian authorities had lost control over the situation. Amtsvermerk, 11.06.56, in ÖStA, AdR, BKA/AA, II-Pol 1956/Ungarn 3d, GZl. 511.190-Pol/56, Zl. 519.915-Pol/56.

27. Ministerratsprotokoll, 11.13.1956, in ÖStA, AdR, BKA/Ministerratsprotokolle, 2. Republik, Raab II.

28. Vereinbarung über die Ungarn-Flüchtlingshilfe in Österreich, 12.12.56, in ÖStA, AdR, BKA/AA, II-Pol/Ungarn 3d, GZl. 511.190-Pol/56; Kern, Österreich, 89.

29. In addition, the Hungarian refugees were at that point not pleased about leaving Austria since they either wanted to await the final outcome of the situation in Hungary or were still hoping for other family members to join them. The fact that most refugees hoped to emigrate to the United States and not to any other country did not help the situation either.

30. A plane belonging to the French Red Cross landed in Vienna on November 7 with medicine and picked up refugees on its way back home. The next day, the first transport left for Switzerland. Sweden, Belgium, and the Netherlands used buses. However, given the masses of refugees, what was needed was coordinated action.

31. Amtsvermerk, 11.15.56, in ÖStA, AdR, BKA/AA, II-Pol 1956/Ungarn 3d, GZl. 511.190-Pol/56, Zl. 520.422-Pol/56.

32. Erklärung des Gesandten Waldheim in der III. Kommission, 11.27.56, in ÖStA, AdR, II-Pol 1956/Ungarn 3c, GZl. 511.190-Pol/56.

33. Haslinger, “Zur Frage,” 157.

34. Ministerratsprotokoll, 11.13.56, in ÖStA, AdR, BKA/Ministerratsprotokolle, 2. Republik, Raab II.

35. Telegramm BKA/AA an Österr. Botschaft in Moskau, 11.17.56, in ÖStA, AdR, II-Pol 1956/Ungarn 3c, GZl. 511.190, Zl. 520.565.

36. BKA/AA an Botschaft Washington, 11.17.56, in ÖStA, AdR, II-Pol 1956/Ungarn 3c, GZl. 511.190, Zl. 520.440.

37. Erklärung des Gesandten Walheim in der III. Kommission, 11.27.56, in ÖStA, AdR, II-Pol 1956/Ungarn 3c, GZl. 511.190-Pol/56.

38. Gesamtaufwand für Flüchtlinge aus Ungarn, in ÖStA, AdR, BKA/AA, II-Pol 1956/Ungarn 3d, GZl. 511.190-Pol/56, Zl. 520.048-Pol/56.

39. Erklärung des Gesandten Waldheim in der III. Kommission, 11.27.1956, in ÖStA, AdR, II-Pol 1956/Ungarn 3c, GZl. 511.190-Pol/56.

40. Informationen für den Herren Bundesminister, 12.12.56, in ÖStA, AdR, BKA/AA, II-Pol/Ungarn 3d, GZl. 511.190-Pol/56, Zl. 791.815-Pol/56; Amtsvermerk, 12.21.56, in ÖStA, AdR, BKA/AA, II-Pol 1956/ Ungarn 3d, GZl. 511.190-Pol/56, Zl. 792.188-Pol/56; Amtsvermerk, 12.21.56, in ÖStA, AdR, BKA/AA, II-Pol 1956/ Ungarn 3d, GZl. 511.190-Pol/56, Zl. 792.159.

41. There were cases in which refugees announced that they wanted to return to Hungary and once in Austria they refused to travel any further. This upset the Austrian Foreign Minister Leopold Figl who said in the council of ministers on January 15, 1957: “Even our people are already going mad over this refugee story. We cannot be the benefactor of the entire world…. We cannot make any concessions, otherwise we will get all of them [the refugees] back.” Ministerratsprotokoll, 1.15.57, in ÖStA, AdR, BKA/Ministerratsprotokolle, 2. Republik, Raab II. The Austrian government decided to close its border to returning refugees unless it was guaranteed that they would really proceed back to Hungary. Ministerratsvortrag, 1.21.57, in ÖStA, AdR, BKA/Ministerratsprotokolle, 2. Republik, Raab II.

42. Kern, Österreich, 68.

43. Loescher, Gill. Beyond Charity: International Cooperation and the Global Refugee Crisis. New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, 71.

44. BKA/AA an Botschaft Washington, 11.17.56, in ÖStA, AdR, II-Pol 1956/Ungarn 3c, GZl. 511.190, Zl. 520.440.

45. Ministerratsprotokoll, 12.04.56, in ÖStA, AdR, BKA/Ministerratsprotokolle, 2. Republik, Raab II.

46. Weisung des BMfI, Generaldirektion für die Öffentliche Sicherheit, 2.01.57, in ÖStA, AdR, BMfI, GZl. 28.000-2/60, Zl. 32.752-2/57.

47. Ungarische Verbalnote, in ÖStA, AdR, BKA/AA, II-Pol 1956/ Ungarn 3d, GZl. 511.190-Pol/56, Zl. 792.243-Pol/56. Up until mid-December, only 500 persons had gone back to Hungary, whereas more than 1,000 had crossed the border daily despite the restrictive measures taken on the Hungarian side. Amtsvermerk, 12.27.56, in ÖStA, AdR, BKA/AA, II-Pol 1956/ Ungarn 3d, GZl. 511.190-Pol/56, Zl. 792.110.

48. Österreichische Neue Tageszeitung, 1.22.56, in ÖStA, AdR, BKA/AA, II-Pol 1956, Ungarn 6.

49. Arbeiter-Zeitung, 2.02.57, in ÖStA, AdR, 02, BPD, Ungarn, Liasse Ungarische Revolution.

50. Amtsvermerk, 12.27.56, in ÖStA, AdR, BKA/AA, II-Pol 1956/ Ungarn 3d, GZl. 511.190-Pol/56, Zl. 792.110.

51. Die Presse, 2.07.57, in ÖStA, AdR, 02, BPD, Ungarn, Liasse Ungarische Revolution.

52. Die Presse, 2.08.57, in ÖStA, AdR, 02, BPD, Ungarn, Liasse Ungarische Revolution.

53. UNHCR, World’s Refugees, 30-31.

54. Vertretung bei den Vereinten Nationen an BKA/AA, 12.07.56, in ÖStA, AdR, II-Pol 1956/Ungarn 3c, GZl. 511.190, Zl. 791.946.

55. Prawda, 25.11.1956, in Sowjetpresse über Österreich, in ÖStA, AdR, BKA/AA, II-Pol 1956, Ungarn 6, GZl. 519.644-Pol/56, Zl. 791.431-Pol/56.

56. Zierer, Ungarnflüchtlinge, 169.

57. The various intergovernmental organisations such as the UNHCR and the Red Cross became more important as a result of the crisis. The UNHCR emerged much strengthened and its international prestige considerably enhanced. It was significant that the UNHCR at this time got its first foothold in Communist bloc countries, namely Hungary and Yugoslavia (where it established a temporary office). The Hungarian exodus provided the UNHCR with its first experience of handling a massive refugee wave and provided its first opportunity to work hand in hand with the Societies of the International Red Cross and the League of the Red Cross.


Time, Memory, and Cultural Change IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences, Vol. XXV
© 2009 by the author. Readers may redistribute this article to other individuals for noncommercial use, provided that the text and this note remain intact. This article may not be reprinted or redistributed for commercial use without prior written permission from the author. If you have any questions about permissions, please contact Klaus Nellen at IWM.

Preferred citation: Gémes, Andreas. 2009. Deconstruction of a Myth? Austria and the Hungarian Refugees of 1956-57. In: Time, Memory, and Cultural Change, ed. S. Dempsey and D. Nichols, Vienna: IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences, Vol. 25.