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This is a re-print of an article published by London Review of Books.

Could it have been different?

by Eric Hobsbawm

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.

Charles Gati’s Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt is an outstanding work. Its four major conclusions can be briefly stated in the author’s own words. ‘First, relatively few Hungarians actually fought against Soviet rule, and their ultimate aim was to reform the system, not to abolish it.’ Although practically all Hungarians cheered them on, the armed freedom fighters numbered no more than 15,000; they were mostly young, and they were ‘deeply nationalist, anti-Soviet and anti-Russian – but not anti-socialist’. ‘Second, the revolution lacked effective leadership.’ It was a ‘bungling performance’. Imre Nagy’s ‘fearless, uncompromising behaviour before the kangaroo court that sentenced him to death in 1958 should not obscure that fact that however well-meaning he was, he lacked the political skill to make the revolution victorious; in particular, he failed to steer his country between the freedom fighters’ maximalist expectations and Moscow’s minimalist requirements.’ ‘Third, the Soviet leadership in Moscow was not trigger-happy . . . Fourth, the United States was both uninformed and misinformed about the prospects for change – even as its propaganda was very provocative.’

Gati assumes that in 1956 the USSR might have accepted a regime of limited pluralism in Hungary had Hungarian demands been less radical, because it was already rethinking its Central European strategy; it had withdrawn its forces from a neutralised Austria in 1955 and Hungary, unlike Poland, had little or no strategic significance for Moscow. In any case the dramatically de-Stalinising Twentieth Party Congress in the same year had anticipated important changes in international Communism. As for the US (about which the author is bitter, as one of the 96 per cent of Hungarian refugees who had expected the American help that Radio Free Europe seemed to promise), it never planned to do anything: ‘Suez,’ Gati writes, ‘was but a convenient distraction.’ The Hungarian services of Radio Free Europe, consistently inflammatory in tone, urged the Hungarians towards total liberation, while the station’s Polish desk recognised that Polish reform had limits ‘which could not be overstepped’. In a sense this was also the difference between the Polish Church, which signalled its support for Gomulka, and Hungary’s Cardinal Mindszenty, too diehard even for Rome.

Counterfactual history can tell us in principle that history has no predetermined outcomes, but nothing about the likelihood of any other than the actual ones. The tragedy of the Hungarian uprising is that what did happen was always as close to a certainty as makes no matter. Yet its history is full of alternative political choices, major and minor, considered and taken, reconsidered and altered, in Moscow and Budapest, notably by a changeable Khrushchev. Nevertheless, in retrospect, given their historical context, there is an air of inevitability about the flow of events, as there is about the direction of a great river.

Perhaps the best way to begin the history of the uprising is with the miserable state of the Hungarian Communist Party during World War Two. Since briefly establishing the only Soviet republic outside Russia in 1919 (with the enthusiastic support of the young Hungarian movie industry under Alexander Korda, Michael Korda’s uncle), the Party had been scattered and reduced by domestic repression, Stalin’s terror and its own internal quarrels, and several times had actually dissolved. Gati claims that by 1940 there were barely more than two hundred activists in Hungary and fewer than fifty reliable survivors in Moscow, with the result that one of Stalin’s four Magyar postwar proconsuls (Rákosi, Gerö, Révai and Farkas), all incidentally Jewish, had to be transferred from the Czechoslovak to the Hungarian Party. The most that can be claimed is that the Party, though small, had enjoyed considerable sympathy between the wars among artists, writers, university students and other intellectuals. What is especially striking, given Central European anti-semitism, is the relatively high number of Jewish members. (One third of Hungarian Jews, about 275,000, survived the war.) The predominance of Jews was a considerable worry to both the Hungarian and the Soviet Communist Party leadership. A black humorist might even claim that the problems of the Hungarian revolution arose from the persistent search for a reliable and popular Hungarian leader who was not a Jew; hence the peasant Imre Nagy in 1953 and again in 1956, and the chess-playing worker, illegitimate son of a Slovak chambermaid, János Kádár, in 1956.

At the end of the war this did not much matter: no attempt to install Communism was made in Soviet-controlled territories in the wake of victory. For the time being Stalin settled for multi-party ‘people’s democracies’ with firm Communist control of the centres of power, while at the same time dividing and disabling non-Communist parties (‘salami tactics’). The situation changed dramatically with the outbreak of the Cold War and the Soviet split with Tito’s Yugoslavia in 1948. Hungary was assimilated to the Soviet model of the late Stalin era under the leadership of Mátyás Rákosi (‘Stalin’s most faithful pupil’) and for six years lived through the usual show-trials and executions preceded by confessions, and a harsher and more extensive reign of terror than any of the other Soviet satellites had to endure. The chief victim was the home-grown Communist leader Laszló Rajk, who was executed in 1949 and whose posthumous rehabilitation was to mobilise dissident opinion. Between 1950 and Stalin’s death, 7 per cent of the total Hungarian population was tried by the courts and 4 per cent found guilty. The attempt at express socialisation and lightning Soviet-style industrialisation was a total failure. Even from Moscow’s point of view the situation was so unsatisfactory that Hungary, alone among the satellites, was considered to be in need of immediate reform. A few months after Stalin’s death in 1953, the Soviet leadership imposed a ‘new course’ under a former agriculture minister, the moderate (in Soviet terms ‘Bukharinite’) and patently non-Jewish Nagy, who joined a reluctant Rákosi and the rest of the Moscow quartet as prime minister.

It is not difficult to understand the state of mind of Communists and others, intellectuals especially, who in 1944-47 had flocked to a regime that offered the chance to build a new Hungary, whether of workers or of peasants – in this land of feudal estates, agrarian labour was poverty-stricken and oppressed. They had found themselves committed to, even complicit with, the local version of the terrorist regimes of Stalin’s final years: now its policy was seen to have failed, and its victims, dead or alive, were being ‘rehabilitated’. Not without a sense of their own guilt (this was particularly the case among journalists and writers), they had shed their illusions, but retained hope in a return to a people’s ‘socialism with a human face’. In Nagy, a known moderate, they saw that face.

On the other hand an extraordinary effort of historical imagination is needed to understand the main agents of the first 15 years of postwar Hungarian history, all ‘professional revolutionaries’ of the Comintern and Stalin era. The structure of disciplined and authoritarian organisations of believers, whether in the Communist Party or the Roman Catholic Church, imposes the same obligatory public face on all but the supreme head, and hides personality, tensions and political disagreements under a blanket of uniformity. What lay behind the stony-faced public demeanour, the personality-drained language of official discourse, the discipline that meant that all orders to make and impose ultimate sacrifices were carried out? The Cold War encouraged us to see Communist believers in Eastern Europe not as political human beings but rather as actors reduced to the one-dimensional roles of a Ben Jonson play – ambition, assertion of power, mafioso cunning, subtlety, even fear and self-preservation or (in the case of secret police chiefs) a taste for cruelty. Few wonder about the inveterate hardliners who seem to present no occasion for historical revision, Rákosi, Suslov or Gerö, mistaken though it is to take their inflexibility for granted, or to assume that it was always politically irrational. We are puzzled about those who appear to change. Are they the same people?

How could the familiar, mercurial post-Stalin Khrushchev once have been Stalin’s hammer of the Ukrainians? But he was. How could Nagy, the survivor of the 1919 Hungarian Soviet, the man who presided over the 1956 revolt against the USSR, have been a paid member of the NKVD in the 1930s who denounced fellow Hungarian refugees in Moscow, as we now know from the Russian archives that he did? But he was. How could Kádár, head of the most tolerant and least tyrannical regime in Eastern Europe from the 1960s to the 1980s, be the man who, before falling victim to the Stalinist terror himself, brutally interrogated Rajk, or the man who in 1958 insisted on the execution of Nagy when it was no longer required or even expected by the USSR? But, as Gough’s biography makes clear, he was. How can we understand ‘the curious mental state’ of Communists under the Stalin terror, one ‘that combined permanent anxiety and boundless idealism’, as Gati puts it?

Revolutions do not occur without a high degree of popular discontent, but they are not made by it, least of all in authoritarian countries with strong powers of repression. In the Communist regimes of the 1950s change came from the top or not at all. The Hungarian revolution corresponded to Lenin’s model of a ‘governmental crisis which draws . . . the masses into politics’. In the case of Communist regimes ‘governmental crisis’ implied divisions within the ruling party. Two factors made the Hungarian situation explosive.

The divisions in the Hungarian Party coincided with the struggles in the Soviet Party that followed Stalin’s death, and which did not properly end until the removal from power in 1957 of the Stalin loyalists Molotov, Malenkov and Kaganovich. Hungarian reform or national Communism lacked the crucial advantage enjoyed by the Polish Communists: namely, a group of potential leaders within the top management who were capable both of retaining their grip on the Party and remaining united in confronting the Russians. In Hungary the old Stalin team had never lost control of the Party apparatus, though they had visibly lost control of the substantial body of disillusioned Communists and intellectuals. The result in the years 1953-56 was something like a ‘public sphere’ independent of the regime. Unlike Gomulka, Nagy had no purchase on the Party machine. He owed his Party career after 1944, and again in 1953, to the patronage of the NKVD, which probably saved him from jail or execution under the Rákosi terror, but he had the bad luck to be the protégé of its last chieftain under Stalin, the formidable and politically reform-minded Beria, who lost his political clout (and his life) a few days later.

The uncertainties of Moscow politics allowed Rákosi and the rest of the Moscow quartet to maintain, and from time to time reinforce, their control of the Party apparatus until July 1956, and even after that the Russians could find no obvious replacement for them. The trouble with Nagy, for the Russians (notably the extremely able Yuri Andropov, their ambassador from 1954 to 1956), was that he might not be able to keep control. The death of Stalin removed the sanctions of jail, terror and death: when Khrushchev reminded Nagy in 1955 of the fate of Zinoviev and Rykov both knew the unreality of the threat. Soviet uncertainty and temporising about the Hungarian leadership guaranteed trouble. The old Stalinists would not be forced to leave Hungary until July 1956 (Rákosi) or even until after the start of the rising (Gerö). Nagy, expelled from the Party by Rákosi, was not readmitted to it until ten days before the outbreak of the revolt, nor appointed to the premiership until after it had begun. Supporting and then dropping Nagy, but leaving him free in 1955-56, made him, in Gati’s words, ‘the coming revolt’s only conceivable, if altogether unlikely, inadvertent and – sad to say – ill-equipped leader’.

Trouble had inevitably followed the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Party, the ten days of February 1956 destined to shake the Communist world. Had there been a grassroots rebellion in Hungary like the Poznan strike in Poland the Hungarian and Soviet Party leaders might have had a sense of the depth of the regime’s unpopularity and been forced to come to clear decisions, as the Party had in Poland. There was no such outbreak, but only an increasingly vocal anti-Stalinist dissidence on the part of the articulate classes, who campaigned on those issues of historical memory and injustice which lend themselves so well to Central European public discourse. This opposition now had a substantial student component, a constituency whose capacity for independent political mobilisation was not in those days widely recognised by any regime.

It was the coincidence of the student mobilisation – some 40,000 students were involved – and the Polish crisis that precipitated the uprising. In early October, at the start of the academic year, students at universities throughout Hungary began to replace the Communist union with their own organisations and to demonstrate. On 19 October the Polish CP restored the former victim of Stalinism, Wladyslaw Gomulka, then seen as a ‘national’ Communist, to his leadership and outfaced the Soviet leaders who threatened, but refrained from armed intervention. As mass meetings of Hungarian students resolved to leave the Communist organisation, drafting what amounted to a manifesto for revolution, the ‘Sixteen Points’, a demonstration of Budapest students, nominally in solidarity with the Poles, was planned for 23 October. Starting from different points it would converge on Bem Square, under the statue of the Polish general who fought in the Hungarian war of liberation in 1848. Announced, then banned and again permitted by the disoriented authorities, it turned into a gigantic political march against Gerö and the Russians, with the inhabitants of Budapest, full of rumour and hope, joining in at the end of their working day. As darkness fell, a crowd watched Stalin’s statue fall to the ground; only the Great Leader’s jackboots remained standing. During the night this unexpected eruption turned into an armed insurgency as students attempted to storm the radio station that refused to broadcast their Sixteen Points and the security forces opened fire. The police and the available Hungarian army units refused to intervene; one Budapest barracks under Colonel Pál Maléter joined the insurgents. Groups of young men, at first unco-ordinated and increasingly from the working classes, fanned out to search for arms, transport and support – and found them.

Surprised, confused and helpless, the Party leaders appointed Nagy to the premiership, declared martial law and asked for Russian troops. Six thousand reached Budapest within 24 hours, and the Moscow Politburo sent two of its heavyweights: the hardliner Mikhail Suslov and the flexible Anastas Mikoyan, who opposed military intervention from start to finish.

The heroic memories of the Hungarian uprising are largely based on the next three days, when brave and ingenious urban guerrillas succeeded in fighting to a standstill Soviet troops who expected a police action and found themselves faced with a revolution, which quickly spread from Budapest to the rest of the country. From 27 October fighting – or the number of casualties – tailed off, as the Nagy government took shape, established itself and began to negotiate with the Russians. Moscow, or at least Khrushchev, clearly still wanted a Polish or Yugoslav outcome – i.e. a reforming Communist regime – but the collapse of the Hungarian Party had been so dramatic that Nagy pressed for a withdrawal of Soviet troops and a return to the pluri-party system that had been in place from 1945 to 1947. Mikoyan argued for concessions, even reluctantly backing the presence of non-Communists in the Budapest government. (Whether he had the full support of his colleagues for this is not clear.) More surprisingly, Suslov went along with him. (So, it seems, did Tito and Mao.) So did the Moscow Politburo, which on 30 October issued a sensational declaration, published the following day in Pravda: troops would be withdrawn from Budapest as soon as requested by the Hungarian government and negotiations would begin about ‘the whole question of the presence of Soviet troops on Hungarian territory’. From this moment Hungarians and Poles were to be free to work out their own problems without Soviet advisers and Soviet troops.

A day later Moscow (supported by both Tito and Mao) changed its mind. Why, having unanimously and genuinely opted for the political solution did the Soviet regime now choose military force? It is true that Hungary, despite having been offered ‘an even longer leash’ than Poland, clearly wanted total independence, but this does not explain the suddenness of the change. Gati suggests that an incident which took place on the 30th, and is vividly described in Sebestyen, was crucial: the attack by insurgents on the headquarters of the Greater Budapest Communist Party on Republic Square, temporarily defenceless except for a contingent of secret police after the withdrawal of Russian and Hungarian soldiers. The building was taken, the Budapest Party chief – a strong supporter of reform – killed, and 23 secret policemen lynched by the mob in front of the world’s newsreel cameras. It was this demonstration of anarchic fury, combined with Nagy’s increasing concessions to the maximalist demands on the street, that persuaded both Moscow and Beijing that uncontrollable disorder was impending in Hungary. ‘In the end,’ Gati writes, ‘Nagy became a reluctant revolutionary who could not control that sudden outburst of violence . . . and this was the main reason why he lost whatever confidence Moscow had had in him.’

The alternative was the reform government’s number two, János Kádár, who had begun to impress the Russians. He left Budapest on 1 November as a member of Nagy’s government and returned six days later in a convoy of Soviet tanks – which made short work of the uprising once its full force was deployed. He has been denounced for his betrayal, but, unlike some other episodes in his long career, notably the execution of Nagy in 1958, it can be justified. The insurgents’ programme was beyond reach. What was the alternative to a Russian victory, if not a quiet reform Communist regime backed by a reform-minded Khrushchev? (In subsequent years the Kádárs were to develop a family friendship with the Khrushchevs.) Nagy’s choice implied only heroic victimisation – followed sometime in the future by public rehabilitation – and a return of the Hungarian Stalinists, with or without Rákosi and Gerö. Kádár’s solution was the only one available. To everyone’s surprise this uncharismatic figure, with a record of purely Hungarian service, loyal but with mixed success as a Communist functionary, never at ease with intellectuals, turned out to be the most successful ruler of his country in the 20th century. According to his biographer, a poll organised by several media organisations in late 1999 to discover the greatest Hungarians of the country’s millennial history, gave him third place after St Stephen and István Széchenyi, the great 19th-century reformer. But Nagy’s memory returned to haunt him in his old age.

In Moscow Mikoyan had opposed intervention to the end and beyond, on the grounds that it would aggravate the Cold War and do long-term damage to the position of the USSR. He was right on the second count but wrong on the first. Hungary stabilised relations, teaching Washington that limited objectives were better than an absence of policy combined with fundamentalist rhetoric. On the other hand, the USSR learned the lesson that dependent Parties were unreliable. From 1956, the Politburo, fatally encouraged by its success in reconquering and stabilising a dissident Hungary, rested the stability of its unsteady empire on military force. In the 1980s, once it was clear that Gorbachev was no longer ready to march or to subsidise, the immediate collapse of Soviet empire and influence was certain. Paradoxically, the man who chose Gorbachev as his successor was Andropov, who, as ambassador in Budapest, had been the strongest backer of intervention and Kádár’s most reliable supporter in the long aftermath. •

Eric Hobsbawm, currently the president of Birkbeck, remembers the contemporary impact of both Budapest and Suez. A new edition of his Revolutionaries will be published next year; his memoir, Interesting Times: A 20th-Century Life, came out in 2004.

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