Twelve Days: Revolution 1956, By Victor Sebestyen

Khrushchev dithered, then struck; Hungary could not be allowed to fall
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The great virtue of this lucid, highly readable account of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 is that it eschews all clichés to get through to what really happened in those traumatic October and November weeks.

A routine demonstration in Parliament Square, Budapest quickly led to the collapse of the country's Communist system and the withdrawal of Soviet troops, worsted by armed guerrillas in street battles.

The Kremlin installed Imre Nagy, a Communist but a dove, alongside the Stalinist hardliners. Wishing to satisfy the revolutionaries and to placate his masters in Moscow, Nagy was caught in the middle. When the revolution swung right, the Kremlin suspected him of being a "crypto-counter-revolutionary"; to fanatical freedom-fighters, he was Moscow's stooge. By 28 October, the battered Red Army withdrew, leaving 500 dead.

A ceasefire was announced, but the violence got worse. Trying desperately to ride the bucking bronco of revolution, Nagy announced Hungarian independence, withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, and multiparty democracy. The Politburo and Khrushchev agonised and dithered, then decided that if they let Hungary go, the Soviet empire would fall like a house of cards.

So the wartime hero Marshal Konyev and the Red Army were unleashed on 3 November. Some 150,000 troops, thousands of tanks and blanket air cover enabled Konyev to make good on his boast that he could pacify Hungary in three days. The Russians proved, by a ruthless but brilliant campaign, that they were just as formidable a fighting machine as in the glory days of 1942-45. By 7 November, the Soviet triumph was complete.

Still, the mystery of Hungary's rapid collapse remains unsolved, at least by Sebestyen. The real villain was not so much the Soviets, who could scarcely have acted otherwise, but the CIA-sponsored Radio Free Europe. It encouraged the guerrillas to think that US military intervention was imminent, traduced Nagy as a Kremlin puppet (his project of "Communism with a human face" didn't stand a chance), and exhorted the rebels to keep fighting. RFE's irresponsible encouragement of the wild men meant that they embraced impossibilism writ large.

The unfortunate Nagy, a classic tragic hero, was executed by the Soviets, but most of the wild men escaped to the US to join their CIA backers in comfortable retirement. There is a horrible moral in here somewhere.