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Twelve days that shook the world
on 7 January 2007
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