[Marxism] Eric Hobsbawm on Hungary 1956

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Nov 10 13:47:29 MST 2006

LRB | Vol. 28 No. 22 dated 16 November 2006
Could it have been different?
Eric Hobsbawm

Journey to a Revolution: A Personal Memoir and History of the Hungarian 
Revolution of 1956 by Michael Korda · HarperCollins, 221 pp, $24.95

Twelve Days: Revolution 1956 by Victor Sebestyen · Weidenfeld, 340 pp, £20.00

A Good Comrade: Janos Kadar, Communism and Hungary by Roger Gough · Tauris, 
323 pp, £24.50

Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest and the 1956 Hungarian 
Revolt by Charles Gati · Stanford, 264 pp, £24.95

Contemporary history is useless unless it allows emotion to be recollected 
in tranquillity. Probably no episode in 20th-century history generated a 
more intense burst of feeling in the Western world than the Hungarian 
uprising of 1956. Although it lasted less than two weeks, it was both a 
classic instance of the narrative of justified popular insurrection against 
oppressive government, familiar since the fall of the Bastille, and of 
David’s in this case doomed victory against Goliath.

For the Western side in the Cold War, then at its height, it dramatised the 
desire of enslaved peoples for liberty and, after a brief intermission that 
allowed some 200,000 Hungarians to escape, its ruthless repression by arms 
and terror. For Communists outside the Soviet empire, especially 
intellectuals, the spectacle of Soviet tanks advancing on a people’s 
government headed by Communist reformers was a lacerating experience, the 
climax of a crisis that, starting with Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, 
pierced the core of their faith and hope. It cost the Italian Communist 
Party something like 200,000 members, and most Western Parties the bulk of 
their intellectuals. And it was literally a spectacle. Hungary 1956 was the 
first insurrection brought directly into Western homes by journalists, 
broadcasters and cameramen, who flooded across the briefly breached Iron 
Curtain from Austria.

Fifty years later, the Hungarian October carries a distinctly lighter load 
of emotion, except in its own country, which has recently seen, and is 
still seeing, an attempt to replay the drama of 1956 in the same setting 
and ideally with the same script: mass demonstrations turning into riot, 
the occupation of broadcasting studios, national flags with circles cut out 
of the middle, by analogy with those from which the symbols of Communism 
were removed. The issue today is the replacement of a centre-left party of 
the free market by more chauvinist and demagogic centre-right market 
champions. The tragedy of 1956 has been succeeded by something close to a 
post-Communist farce.

New documentation has transformed the history of the Hungarian October 
since the fall of Communism opened the Hungarian and many of the Russian 
archives and Freedom of Information legislation eased access to state 
papers in the US. All but one of the books discussed here are written by 
Hungarians old enough to have been participants or contemporary observers, 
or at least infants, in 1956. Except for Michael Korda’s lively memory of 
an Oxford undergraduate jaunt, they are historically serious and not only 
recollect but analyse emotion in tranquillity. Victor Sebestyen’s Twelve 
Days is well documented, based on up to date knowledge, and vividly 
written. Roger Gough’s important biography of Kádár shows considerable 
understanding of a difficult, and in the end haunted, historical figure who 
was, not uncharacteristically, an admirer of The Good Soldier Svejk.

full: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n22/hobs01_.html



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