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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee / Graduate Helpdesk Analyst

£20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

Recruitment Genius: Estimator

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a major supplier of buil...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£28000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: Application Support Engineer with SQL skills

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

Day In a Page

Read Next

The Top Ten: Words In Christmas Carols That Ought To Be Revived

John Rentoul
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas