23 September 2016

Chronicle of an Extraordinary Year

Simon Hall,
1956. The World in Revolt, Faber & Faber, London, 2016


1956 was a year of change, tumult and rebellion all around the world. So many events were compressed into just twelve calendar months that looking back on 1956 it seems that it was a time of global revolt. Post-war norms imposed upon Europe were breaking down while major colonial or post-colonial disturbances erupted. Entire nations and races found their voice and flexed their muscles, often against enormous obstacles. Looking at 1956 from a societal viewpoint one can say that even if in certain countries the change was slow and more technical than far-reaching, for the rulers of the world it was a veritable annus horribilis.

In his recent book Simon Hall attempts to put on record the most important changes of 1956, and make sense of some very different movements. What did the black movement for desegregation in the Deep South of the United States and the Poznań revolt in Poland have in common? The first was a political action with probable economic consequences, the second an economic revolt with immediate political results. The revolts and reform movements were either focusing on more equality or on more “freedom”, a blanket term for individual self-determination and national independence. What also connected them was a common trait: fearlessness. Revolts happen when people subjected to arbitrary rule lose their fear of the rulers or fear for the possible consequences of their actions. In many cases this leads to bloodshed, but this is a risk one has to take: radical change almost always involves some spilling of blood.

In 21 chapters plus an “Aftermath” Simon Hall discusses all the events of 1956 from the campaign against segregation in Montgomery, Alabama, to Fidel Castro’s landing in Cuba and the grand trial of activists opposing apartheid in South Africa. In his account a special place is allotted to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union which ushered in nine months of unrest in the Soviet bloc. Khrushchev did not reveal all Stalin’s crimes, but the ones he did reveal thoroughly discredited the Communist movement, destroying its (already dubious) appeal as an idealistic creed to build a society of social and racial equality. These revelations quickly became the starting point of radical reformist movements all over Eastern Europe. In Hall’s book no less than six chapters deal with the unexpected consequences of this “secret speech” in Poland and in Hungary.

Dealing with the brief liberalising “Thaw” in Poland which started with the security service officer Józef Światło’s revelations in Radio Free Europe (Hall does not mention how his defection shaped Polish public opinion), the author somewhat underestimates the role of Polish writers and journalists in the anti-Stalinist revolt which culminated in Wladyslaw Gomulka’s election as First Secretary of the Polish United Workers Party in October 1956. The disillusioned Communist Adam Ważyk’s A Poem for Adults” is mentioned on page 203 but the name of philosopher Leszek Kołakowski and his important “Revisionist” message is missing from this narrative.

A separate chapter deals with the Poznań revolt in June 1956 and Simon Hall rightly points out how this mainly working-class protest shook the leadership of the PUWP and led to reforms, as well as to relatively lenient sentences for the most active participants of the riot. The shock of Poznań (where only Polish troops were involved in putting down this popular revolt) made possible the victory of the “Polish October”, i.e. the return of “national Communist” Gomulka to power. In chapter 16 dealing with the latter there are minor errors: Stalin died in March not May 1953 (p. 274) and the murder of Polish officers in Katyń forest was not carried out by the Red Army but by special detachments of the NKVD (p. 278). This chapter includes the important information that in Poland Nikita Khrushchev “finally ordered Soviet troops back to their bases [only] on October 24” (p. 286). In other words it was events in Hungary which deflected Soviet attention from Poland to a country several hundred miles to the south.

As for Hungary, Simon Hall is very informative. An entire chapter (eleven pages) are devoted to the activities of the Petőfi Circle, giving the correct date for its establishment as the spring of 1955. It was created by the youth organisation of the Communist Party as “a kind of safety valve for dissent” (p. 185), but after a year of inactivity it was suddenly transformed (as early as March 1956!) into a platform for stringent criticism of the Communist system. Hall describes the June 27th meeting on “press freedom” (attended also by this reviewer) as the most explosive of all the Circle’s meetings, and which led indirectly to Moscow’s removal of Mátyás Rákosi, Hungary’s pocket-Stalin. The participants of the “press freedom” meeting loudly demanded Imre Nagy’s reinstatement into the Party, but what they got instead as leader of the Hungarian Workers’ Party was another old Stalinist, Ernő Gerő. Hall rightly remarks that had Imre Nagy been returned to power at that time “history might have turned out very differently” (p. 190).

In fact, while Gomułka had got back his Party card by the first week of August 1956, Imre Nagy was reinstated in the Hungarian Party only in mid-September. These few weeks and the poor advice given to the Politburo by Andropov (Soviet Ambassador to Hungary at the time) on how to handle the political situation made all the difference. The majority of the Polish leadership moved decisively behind Gomułka, and Khrushchev – to avoid likely street-fighting in Warsaw had there been Soviet military intervention – backed down. Reforms, however, moved too slowly in Hungary. The majority of the Party leadership was unsupportive, and the massive student demonstration of 23 October 1956 found both Imre Nagy and the Communist leadership unprepared. The Russian mistake was to send in their tanks almost immediately after things had got out of hand and blood had been shed at the Radio Station. That changed a (perhaps still containable) Budapest revolt into a national struggle for freedom.

Hall’s mistakes in the “Uprising” chapter are due largely to the use of his sources. Instead of other works such as Sir Bryan Cartledge’s excellent Hungarian history, Hall relied too much on Victor Sebestyen’s Twelve Days: Revolution 1956 which is full of factual errors. After László Rajk’s funeral, he says “the police dispersed the [student] demonstrators peacefully” (p. 293). In fact, the police thought the small demonstration was permitted and did not pay any attention to it. He also mixes up the two demonstrations, i.e. the Technical University’s and the other faculties’ march on the Pest side (p. 296), claiming amongst others that the Faculty of Arts demonstration was organised “at the Karl Marx University”. As the following sentence mentions the statue of Sándor Petőfi as an assembly point, it gives the false impression that the aforementioned statue is in fact in front of that university. Hall then gives a by and large correct description of the revolution, though the figure given for the number of fighters at the Corvin Passage in the first few days is wildly exaggerated (they numbered less than a hundred, not 2,000!). One can agree with his assessment that the revolutionaries of 1956 had very different agendas being “united around the rather nebulous demand for ‘freedom’” (p. 313) which in this context meant mainly freedom from Soviet tutelage.

It must have been a problem how to deal simultaneously with the Anglo-French intervention at Suez and the outcome of the Hungarian revolution. Hall solved it in three different chapters, one dealing with Anglo-French preparations after the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, another with the military action itself and the third one discussing “Operation Whirlwind”, i.e. the second Soviet intervention in Hungary. First of all, he makes it clear why the nationalisation of the Canal happened (the US loan promised for the Aswan Dam did not materialise and President Nasser of Egypt needed money to finance the building of the Dam) and how England and France reacted to it, secondly that military action could not have taken place without collusion with the Israelis. Both the timing and the execution of the Suez intervention were embarrassingly bad but the main obstacle to its success was the position of the United States. Nasser was not Mussolini, as Sir Anthony Eden pictured him, but an Arab statesman fiercely determined to change the post-colonial status of his country and his policy gained respect not only in the Arab countries, but throughout the Third World. Eisenhower and Dulles were wary of the Anglo-French action in the first place and when the Soviets offered “volunteers” to help at Suez, the US had no alternative but to put an end to the whole adventure.

From a Hungarian point of view the Suez crisis happened at the worst possible time. We know that the Soviet Politburo deliberated on whether the “Hungarian situation” could be resolved politically or militarily and several factors tipped the balance for intervention. One of these was the possible “destabilising” effect on Hungary’s neighbours had the revolution been victorious. Another one, which Hall does not mention, was the fear of the Soviet leaders of having to fight “the imperialists” on two fronts at the same time, i.e. at Suez and Budapest. By and large, however, Simon Hall’s conclusion is correct: “The Suez crisis was not… the decisive factor in Soviet policy-making… but the diversion… certainly presented the Soviet leadership with an opportune moment to strike” (p. 343). At the same time, the impotence of the United Nations (and by implication the United States) to help Premier Imre Nagy who left the Warsaw Pact declaring Hungary’s neutrality, exposed the flaws of Western anti-Communist rhetoric.

As for the aftermath of the events of 1956, Poland enjoyed a few years of relatively liberal Communist rule with great benefits for its culture. After a period of brutal retaliation, living standards also improved in Hungary, culminating in János Kádár’s “goulash-Communism”. While in Europe and in the developed world the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution put an end to an “idealistic” brand of Communism, this was not true for countries where nationalism could be harnessed to the cause of social revolt: Chapter 20 (Sierra Maestra) of Simon Hall’s book rightly addresses the beginnings of the Cuban revolution. Not Nikita Khrushchev but Fidel Castro and Che Guevara became the idols of the next generation of “romantic revolutionaries” and, interestingly, the cruel repressions by Cuban dictator Batista in 1957–58 were denounced by the revolutionary Ortodoxo Party as an attempt “to turn Cuba into a Hungary of the Antilles” (p. 369). Communist Cuba survived thanks to a compromise in 1962 between the United States and the Soviets; pro-Western, independent Hungary had to wait for its cue until 1990. Hall ends his book with a quotation from a speech by Martin Luther King which stresses the interdependence of struggles in 1956: “Africa’s present ferment for independence, Hungary’s death struggle against Communism, and the determined drive of Negro Americans to become first class citizens are inextricably bound together.” This is why, when studying modern history, we have to single out the year 1956 as a beacon, a promise and an important watershed.

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