A Fateful Day in October
November 6, 2006
by Ronald Radosh
The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution By Victor Sebestyen Pantheon, 340 pages, $26
THE Hungarian-born British journalist Victor Se bestyen has written a small masterpiece that should be read and treasured by all who value mankind's eternal quest for freedom.
His story is the doomed 1956 Hungarian rebellion against Soviet oppression, when citizens with small arms faced off and temporarily forced Soviet tanks and troops to retreat. Sebestyen's dramatic narrative describes the temporary euphoria of early success, the dashing of hopes after the Soviet response and the inability of the West to come to the rebel's side with any support. Sebestyen traces the history of Hungary from the the fascist Horthy dictatorship that welcomed German occupation during World War II to the country's "liberation" by Soviet troops. Under Stalin's man, Hungarian Premier Matyas Rakosi, Hungary became one of the most ruthless regimes, dominated by the secret police (AVO), which brutally put down any dissent. Until one fateful day - Oct. 23, 1956 - when a scheduled communist parade to celebrate the government's new "reform" agenda quickly escalated into an unprecedented mass demonstration of students and workers in Budapest against Soviet control of their nation.
Shouting "Russians go home," thousands marched through the city, revealing precisely the unity, Sebestyen ironically notes, "between the workers and intellectuals that Lenin prescribed as essential for revolution." A revolution is what soon broke out.
To deal with the situation, reformist communist Imre Nagy was restored to power. But it was too little, too late. An already radicalized population wanted a democratic system and independence from the Soviet Union. For a short time, Nagy thought the people could be contained, that the Soviets would accept modest changes and that the crowds would accept a compromise. Sebestyen skillfully reveals the Kremlin's duplicity and manipulation. It knowingly misled the Nagy government and lied about its own real plans - to smash the brewing revolt by a massive invasion.
Khrushchev sent in 500,000 troops. This huge army was far superior to the small enclaves of civilian guerrilla warriors and the ill-equipped new Hungarian National Guard, led by the brave Gen. Bela Kiraly. The revolt was crushed; Nagy and others in his government were promptly arrested, later tried and executed for treason. Nagy's refusal to confess to counter-revolutionary activity made him a national hero.
Sebestyen also deals with the Eisenhower administration's response to this Soviet aggression. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was known for talking about the "rollback" of communism and "liberation." But it was all bluff. Eisenhower and his advisors were not willing to risk a nuclear war with the Soviet Union to protect one of Russia's satellites. Yet, as Sebestyen proves, Radio Free Europe, the widely popular U.S. radio voice throughout Eastern Europe and Russia, led many Hungarians to believe that the United States was behind their rebellion and that military help would soon be on its way.
In the short term, the Hungarian people lost. But almost half a century later, they won their long war for freedom. But already in 1956, the unpopularity of communism had been proved, and the process of its internal decay had begun.
This review originally appeared in the November 5, 2006, New York Post.
Ronald Radosh is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute; Prof. Emeritus of History at the City University of New York, and the author of many books, including "The Rosenberg File;" "Divided They Fell: The Demise of the Democratic Party, 1964-1996," and most recently, "Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left."