The story of the Hungarian revolution of 1956 has been stylishly told before. Two books in particular spring to mind: the British historian Bill Lomax’s Hungary 1956, published in 1976, and Sandor Kopacsi’s In the Name of the Working Class, an eyewitness account by the Budapest police chief who sided with the revolutionaries, which was translated into English in 1986.
What Victor Sebestyen manages in his new history, however, is to tell the story with verve at the same time as explaining for a post-cold-war readership the international context of the extraordinary events of October-November 1956, when an overwhelmingly working-class uprising came within a whisker of overthrowing a Soviet-imposed Stalinist dictatorship.
In Sebestyen’s account, the roles of Nikita Khruschev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and Dwight D Eisenhower, president of the United States, are – rightly – as important as those of Imre Nagy, the reformist Hungarian prime minister from 24 October to 4 November 1956, or indeed of any other Hungarian. It was Khruschev’s insistence on showing the Hungarians who was boss and Eisenhower’s refusal to do anything that might risk war that determined the revolution’s fate – its brutal suppression by Soviet invasion.
The revolutionaries resisted the tanks with petrol bombs and rifles, and the workers’ councils that were such a notable feature of the revolution continued to organise strikes and demonstrations long after ceding control of the streets to the occupiers. But their leaders were arrested and imprisoned and Hungary returned to communist dictatorship under the opportunist Janos Kadar, who remained in power until 1988. Nagy and his closest comrades were executed in 1958.
What the revolution might have turned into if Khruschev had left it to its own devices cannot of course be known. Sebestyen makes less of the role of the workers’ councils than Lomax and others, which to my mind is a shame. This was a self-managed proletarian revolution above all else, and it is not too fanciful to believe that it might just have created a pluralist, egalitarian, decentralised, self-managed socialist society.
But never mind. If Sebestyen doesn’t speculate about the potential of the workers’ councils, it is nevertheless clear from his account that the overwhelming majority of Hungarian revolutionaries wanted at very least some form of democratic socialism rather than a return to capitalism. The communist claim that the revolution was an attempt by fascists to seize power was, quite simply, a slanderous lie.
Could anything have prevented the defeat of the revolution? Perhaps if the west had threatened military action in support of the revolution, Khruschev would have been forced to back down. But the west was in no position credibly to threaten military action – the Hungarian revolution coincided with the debacle of Suez, which tore the Atlantic alliance asunder – and, of course, the Soviets had the bomb.
Sebestyen was born in Budapest and was a small child when his family left Hungary after 1956 as refugees. A respected journalist in Britain, he has a great feel for the politics of the 1950s and writes in a terse demotic style. This is an exemplary work of popular history that deserves a wide readership.