Leading article: Lessons for today from an uprising of the past


Fifty years have passed; two and a half generations have grown up without the memory. Yet the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 lives on as one of the emblematic chapters of the cold war; a heroic challenge to Soviet domination whose failure sealed the division of Europe for another 30 years and cruelly exposed the limits of western power.

For many, this will be a tragic anniversary: a reminder of lives, years and futures lost. For others, it will offer inspiration, proof that the flame of idealism cannot be snuffed out, however hostile the circumstances. The refusal of the human spirit to tolerate tyranny is perhaps the most uplifting lesson to be drawn from the Hungarian Uprising. But, with the benefit of hindsight, there are many others.

First, the revolts that shook the Soviet empire originated within the countries concerned, they were not fomented from without. When the Berlin Wall was breached, the countries of East and Central Europe, Hungary included, reclaimed their independence, and there were brave individuals and opposition groups ready to take power. There was no need to impose democracy: democracy was already waiting in the wings.

The second lesson is that, while the Hungarian Uprising had indigenous roots, one cause of its failure was the lack of western support. Either East or West had to blink, and it was the West that blinked first. The United States had no appetite for a new confrontation in Europe. There were warm words for the Hungarians and their ideals, but no willingness to break the settlement agreed at Yalta. As for Britain and France, they were otherwise engaged - in the desperate adventure now known just as "Suez".

There is little point to the "if only" games played with history. But it is clear the colonial world to which Britain and France were hopelessly clinging was already in the past, while the future lay with an undivided Europe. If only the shape of the future had been so evident then. If only, we might add, as lesson three, the US and Britain had not allowed themselves to be so distracted by their unrealisable project in Iraq that they neglected Afghanistan and the search for a settlement in the Middle East.

The fourth lesson is that, while military force cannot win hearts and minds, it can - alas - subjugate quite successfully. It was not until the Soviet Union was in terminal decline, with a new leader averse to spilling blood to preserve his empire, that freedom came within reach. By unilaterally opening its border to the west, Hungary was the first to grasp it.

And a fifth lesson, a footnote almost, on migration and compassion. After the Uprising failed, some 200,000 Hungarians found refuge abroad, many in the US and Britain. With a slightly guilty conscience, we made them welcome; they have done their adopted countries proud.

Half a century ago, it would have been inconceivable that Hungary would today be part of a 25-strong European Union, a Europe almost without borders. And the speed and joy with which the iron curtain parted should eclipse any temporary difficulties Hungary - or any other new European country - may be facing.

But there was irony in the fact that yesterday, even as the official commemorations of the Uprising began, there were clashes between police and a new generation of protesters in the vicinity of the Parliament building in Budapest. They shouted their fury against the government of Ferenc Gyurcsány, a communist youth leader in his earlier life, and brandished placards demanding "Freedom". The scenes were not pretty, but this was not history repeating itself. In 1956, Hungary suffered a national tragedy; 50 years on, these protests are the growing pains of democracy.

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