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20 October 2006 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, the seemingly spontaneous (at least to those outside Hungary) set of demonstrations that quickly morphed into a full-fledged revolution that almost freed Hungary from Soviet hegemony. Twelve days after it began the revolution was crushed under the tread of Red Army tanks. Victor Sebestyen's "Twelve Days" is an informative and well-written examination of the revolution, its causes and its consequences.

Twelve Days is divided into three parts: "Prelude", "Revolution" and "Aftermath". In the Prelude Sebestyen provides a concise history of Hungary in the first half of the twentieth century. This is an invaluable introduction for readers, such as this reviewer, who have not previously immersed themselves in Hungarian history. After the First World War and the subsequent Treaty of Versailles, Hungary came to be ruled by a fascist regime led by Admiral Horthy. Hungary under Horthy became an ally of Hitler's Germany and found itself at war with the Allied Powers, most importantly the USSR. Toward the end of the Second World War, the German Army occupied Hungary and fought a desperate battle against the Red Army. The 100 day siege and conquest of Budapest was brutal and the damage to Budapest was exceeded only by the damage done to Leningrad, Stalingrad, and Warsaw. (Krisztian Ungvary's "The Siege of Budapest" makes an excellent companion volume to Twelve Days). Sebestyen then takes the reader through the immediate post-World War II years in which the Hungarian Communist Party, under the leadership of Matyas Rakosi gradually seized total control of the reins of power. Sebestyen's description of the brutality of Rakosi, who fancied himself as something of a Stalin-protégé follows. Rakosi's brutality, which rivaled that of Stalin's, laid the groundwork for the 1956 uprising. As noted by Sebestyen, Stalin's death and Khrushchev's denunciation of the cult of Stalin left many Hungarian's feeling that the time was ripe for liberalization and it is with this feeling in mind that Sebestyen begins his recitation of the revolution itself.

The revolution starts with a series of small demonstrations in Parliament square but these demonstrations caused the Communist party structure to collapse like a house of cards. The relatively small Soviet troop presence was humbled by the demonstrators. The Soviets deposed Rakosi and announced that Imre Nagy would take over Hungary's leadership. Nagy is a compelling figure. Sebestyen paints a sympathetic yet objective portrait of Nagy. Nagy, a dedicated Communist (albeit not a hardliner) found himself immersed in a situation he could not control. A jovial, if somewhat plodding bureaucrat, Nagy underwent a transformation from a party-liner to the leader of the drive for total independence from the USSR and from the one-party system then in place in Hungary.

Events in Hungary did not take place in a vacuum and Sebestyen's narrative covers the critical roles played by both the USSR and the USA. Sebestyen takes the reader into the Kremlin and paints a picture of a fragmented and confused Politburo that initially was prepared to grant Hungary some `freedoms' but ultimately decided it had to crush to the revolution brutally lest it lose its grip on the rest of Eastern Europe. The USA's role was marked more by inaction than action. The Eisenhower administration, most notably his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, made the `roll back of Communism' a key tenet of the administration and Eisenhower's 1956 re-election campaign. At the same time, the USA-sponsored Radio Free Europe regularly urged its Eastern European listeners to take a stand against Communist rule. Unfortunately, the Hungarian people were cruelly disappointed to find that the USA had absolutely no interest in doing battle with the USSR over Hungary. In fact, Eisenhower made it a point to let the USSR know that it wished to remain neutral and, in effect, let the Kremlin know it had a free hand to do what it wanted.

The Kremlin did send in the tanks in great numbers and crushed the incipient revolution twelve days after it started. Order was restored and the Communist Party took back control of the government. The new party leader, Janos Kadar, was responsible for the prosecution and execution of the revolt's leaders, including Nagy. Life returned to the status quo until the fall of the Soviet Union over thirty years later.

Victor Sebestyen's "Twelve Days" provides a great service in providing a concise history of these twelve days. Twelve Days is a scholarly work (thoroughly researched and annotated) that is written with the lay reader in mind. Twelve Days is a thoughtful, well-written account of twelve tumultuous days in Hungary that left this reader hungry for more accounts of Hungary and its history. Highly recommended. L. Fleisig
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on 19 December 2006
For a few days in 1956, it must have felt as if Christmas had come early for the people of Hungary: "Many people in Budapest had never eaten so well as during the Revolution. Strange, when all that fighting was going on to remember that, yet it was so".

The bleak and desperate reality of life under Communism provides the prelude to the Hungarian Revolution, and I found it the most compelling aspect of Victor Sebestyen's book. As World War Two ended, so the Soviet army raped and pillaged its way through Hungary, and thereby set the tone for the tyranny that followed. The sheer horror of the establishment and prosecution of the Hungarian Communist dictatorship almost beggars belief, and it reached a pitch of intensity during the Rakosi purges: "Of the 850,000 members of the Communist Party in 1950, almost exactly half of them were in prison, in labour camps, exiled or dead three years later."

This grim joke dates from the time: `There are still three classes in Hungary: those who have been in jail; those who are in jail; and those who will be in jail.'

It is no surprise, therefore, that Hungary rose in revolt in 1956, and that students played a prominent part in the Revolution. However, what is striking is that Imre Nage and his new government were blind not only to the duplicity of Yuri Andropov, the Soviet Ambassador to Budapest, but also to the impotence of the United Nations, which did little to stir world opinion against the brutal Soviet invasion that finally crushed the Revolution.

At the beginning of the book, Sebestyen provides a thumbnail sketch of the `Main Actors'. At first, I thought this heading was a little trivial, and demeaned the events that the book describes. But on reflection, it is extremely profound because regardless of your political persuasions, the Hungarian Revolution was a human tragedy in which almost everyone played their part as if it had been scripted for them. As in all tragedies, there is a moral: to live is to learn.

Victor Sebestyen was one of the lucky ones who escaped from Hungary in the months that followed the Revolution. For those left behind, he notes that a "collective amnesia" has since descended on the country, especially among the young, who do not want to be reminded of the wretched squalor of their Communist past. This book is an attempt to preserve the memory, if not the spirit, of Hungary in 1956: 12 days which showed the world, for perhaps the first time, the true and irredeemable nature of Soviet tyranny.
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on 2 September 2006
There is a whole subgenre of books on the Uprising - George Mikes, Noel Barber, George Urban, etc. None of them is as complete or readable as this one, with its thumbnail sketches of all the leading characters, the narrative which for once takes in Krushchev's private dramas as well as Imre Nagy's, and its sheer pace. This slow reader took a mere two evenings to finish it. There isn't a dull passage in the book, which is in parts very affecting - not least because the story of the Uprising, and all the smaller more personal stories it contains, is one of the most dramatic and vivid in the last century. Like Anthony Beevor's Stalingrad, it makes you grateful to live in a time when history books are as exciting as the history they describe.
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on 29 October 2006
This is a historical subject about which I (like most I suspect) knew very little. However, this book gives probably the most complete and compelling view of one of the most overlooked passages in the history of post war Europe. At a time when the West was fixated with Suez it details the subject without judgement, bias or bitterness. It is clearly a subject the author has researched in painstaking detail and one about which he cares passionately. It is also written in such a way that a complete novice of the subject like me can feel comfortable and informed without the sense of being lectured or patronised. I cannot now wait to visit the city of Budapest myself and get an even greater sense of the tragic events.
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on 19 June 2007
Victor Sebestyen is an amazing writer. He has created a beautifully crafted text that tells the amazing story how ordinary people rose up against the might of the Soviet Union in 1956.

The Hungary of the early '50's was a totalitarian state at the mercy of it's Stalinist leader Mátyás Rákosi and the ruthless State Security Police. Budapest was city that had lived in fear for years and when the population perceived a wavering in it's Communist leaders that fear gave way to anger at it's own government but more importantly at the 'Puppet Masters' in Moscow.

'Twelve Days' tells of the spontaneous uprising of the Hungarian people that was brave, directionless and ultimately doomed.
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on 12 December 2012
Being very familiar with the Stalinist era in Russia and Poland I was keen to find something readable about Hungary, about which I am considerably less knowledgeable. I really enjoyed this book, it described events in detail without being burdensome and difficult to follow, the maps and pronunciation guide at the beginning were also very useful, especially for a non speaker of Hungarian! Would definitely recommend for anyone interested in the Cold War, or Eastern Europe in the last 60 years.
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on 24 May 2012
I have read extensively on the history of Communist Eastern Europe, however, one blind spot has always been the 1956 Hungarian Rising. Thanks to Mr. Sebetsyen, this topic is covered in a ground breaking and monumental way.

I had no idea just how much the Soviet Union interfered in the quashing of this event and Sebetsyen covers the account of how the revolution was ruthlessly and callously destroyed by the Russians. Divided into three very concise and well researched parts, the book covers the before, during and afterwards in a detailed narrative history which highlights just how close the Hungarians came to becoming a Western style democracy.

Lies, damn lies and Soviet politicians helped to persecute and ultimately defeat the Hungarian freedom fighters whilst at the same time, allowed an equally rebellious Poland a certain amount of self-determination. A period of history which needs to be read and researched.

Very good and very informative.
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The Hungarian uprising was the first real challenge to Soviet imperialism after 1945 and as such was a significant moment in European history and an important precursor of the events of 1989.Potential readers should not hesitate with this book.Sebestyen has written a lucid and gripping account of the events of October and November 1956.He is particularly good at painting the international context of the rebellion rightly seeing it as part of a wider game of cold war chess. The machinations of Khrushchev and his cohorts are vividly brought to life as our the heroic and rather haphazard efforts of the freedom fighters on the streets of Budapest.The contradictions of U.S policy towards Communism are also very effectively exposed.This is history which manages to combine exciting narrative with cool, rational analysis and consequently this book satisfies on several levels, appealing to the general reader and the historian in equal measure.Strongly recommended.
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on 4 August 2009
For many of us the Hungarian uprising was a small point in history. Victor Sebastyen's first book brilliantly brings the events of 1956 alive. Written in an easy to read journalistic style he introduces the characters and puts them into context. He has a wonderful turn of phrase and an eye for the human detail. Both the major political figures and the ordinary man and woman are there.
The significance of the way the soviet system worked and the unwillingness of the West to interfere in the Soviet area of influence is well brought out.
It is a page turner of a historical book.
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on 20 June 2015
A poart of Hungarian history that fascinates me & by all accounts this account is a pretty accurate reflection of the 12 days of the revolution. Easy to read, in terms of it flowing well, not so easy to be able to comprehend the pure evilness (in my mind) of what brought it all to an abrupt end.
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