Did the Revolution Have to Fail?

Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

by Victor Sebestyen
Pantheon, 340 pp., $26.00

During the thirteen days between October 23 and November 4, 1956, crowds of unarmed Hungarian demonstrators and a few thousand lightly armed revolutionaries forced a tyrannical one-party government to resign. They also caused the retreat from Budapest of the Soviet occupation forces, the dissolution of the hitherto all-powerful Communist Party, and the virtual disappearance of the political police on which one-party rule had been based. The Revolution freed all the political prisoners in the country and allowed for the appearance of a free press as well as of free radio stations.

On November 1, a newly installed democratic multiparty government under Imre Nagy announced that Hungary was withdrawing from the Soviet-led Warsaw military pact and adopting a position of neutrality, which it appealed to the United Nations to protect. Only the large-scale intervention of Soviet armored columns brought in from the East put an end to the democratic experiment on November 4; but civilian resistance continued for many weeks afterward.

One of the major dilemmas of an account of the Revolution is how far back one ought to go in history to trace the origin of events that enabled a small nation to defy the largest country in the world. That Hungarian was an isolated language and that Hungary had its own cultural tradition in a sea of Slavic speakers were certainly factors; the Magyars feared, rightly or wrongly, a great Slavic threat. Then, in 1849, we find that 300,000 Russian troops invaded the country in order to salvage Habsburg power from independence-minded Hungarians, led by Lajos Kossuth. In March 1919, when Béla Kun and his Communist companions seized power, they vainly hoped for—and Hungary’s social and political elite unnecessarily feared—an invasion by Lenin and Trotsky’s “Bolshevik hordes.” In the same year, counterrevolutionary Whites established an authoritarian regime in which anti-Bolshevism, anti-liberalism, and anti-Semitism were articles of belief. But the crucial event leading to the Revolution of 1956 occurred in June 1941 when Hungary joined in the German military attack on the Soviet Union. Miserably equipped Hungarian troops sent to the Don River perished in the winter war. The inevitable next step was the country’s invasion, in 1944, by the triumphant and vengeful Red Army.

The war, including the death of perhaps a million Hungarian citizens, half of them Jews whom the right-wing regime of Regent Miklós Horthy deported to Auschwitz, destroyed public morality and left the country in ruins. Consequently, in the early postwar years, Hungary’s weak democratic forces were unable to resist the power of the Communists, who had the support of the Soviet occupation forces in establishing a Stalinist regime.

No less importantly, between 1938, which was the date of the first anti-Jewish law, and the 1960s, when Communist terror became less severe, the country experienced a series of social convulsions brought about by the extermination of nearly two thirds of its Jewish citizens; the expulsion of most members of the German minority after the war; and the flight, imprisonment, forced relocation, and expropriation of the…

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