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Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt by Charles Gati

18 September 2007

A little less than a year ago, I attended a talk organised by the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The subject of that talk was a recently published book about the October-November 1956 Hungarian crisis, where the Soviet Union sent troops into Hungary to crush an escalating series of protests by anti-government and anti-Soviet demonstrators. I picked up a copy of the book when I was there, and the review came surprisingly easily for a book on a subject that’s not really in my area of expertise.

Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt by Charles Gati

The violence and brutality of the Soviet action in crushing the 1956 Hungarian rebellion shook the faith of many left-leaning individuals outside of Soviet bloc — but at the same time, Soviet action also punctured the lofty rhetoric of ‘rollback’ and ‘liberation’ that American political leaders had favoured when speaking of Western policy towards the Soviet satellites. With the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian revolt occurring this past year, historians have been looking back at this major incident in the early Cold War in an attempt to figure out what happened to make things go so wrong so quickly. And Charles Gati’s point in his new book is essentially this: in Hungary in the autumn of 1956, everyone screwed up — everyone.

Attempting to summarise the full course of events in October 1956 is a bit beyond me, so I’ll do my best to summarise why things went so catastrophically wrong. There were many illusions in Hungary in late 1956. Hungarian Prime Minister Imre Nagy, the only Hungarian politician who had any real credibility with the people, was under the impression that he could keep hold of the situation even when his version of reformed communism was overtaken by events. The Hungarian demonstrators were under the impression that they could expel Soviet forces from Hungary all in one go — dreams further promoted by irresponsible agit-prop from Hungarian-language broadcasters at Radio Free Europe — and were also under the impression that the Western democracies would not let the Soviet Union get away with murder. The Soviet leadership in Moscow had been feeding their Hungarian comrades mixed messages for ages, but they were under fewer illusions than the other players involved. The only decisive message left for them to send was the one that involved tanks. And in America, President Eisenhower was facing re-election plus troubles in the Suez plus a complete lack of any actual military/intelligence plans to support an anti-Soviet revolution in Central Europe. American illusions that anti-Communist rhetoric would be sufficient to keep the Soviets out of Hungary were quickly destroyed. By the time the smoke cleared and all the illusions vanished, a new Soviet-backed Hungarian government had suppressed all political opposition and reasserted control over the country. Time magazine might have made the Hungarian revolutionary its ‘Man of the Year’ in 1957, but by then the revolutionaries were dead, imprisoned, or in exile. And Imre Nagy, who had fled to the Yugoslavian Embassy in search of sanctuary, would later be tricked out of hiding to face a secret trial and the hangman’s noose.

Failed Illusions is quite a solid history book. Granted, it isn’t always easy to keep the names of the historical figures straight even if you’re familiar with them from other sources, and I would have greatly appreciated a dramatis personae either at the front or the back of the book for quick reference and reminder. But even though Gati writes with the passion of one who is personally involved in the history being written (he had witnessed the turmoil as a young reporter in Budapest and was one of over two hundred thousand Hungarians to flee the country in 1956-57), he is able to keep the standard romanticised account of the rebellion at arm’s length. He examines the crisis from four different perspectives — the Hungarian government, the Hungarian people, the Soviet leaders and the American politicians and broadcasters — and manages to blend the perspectives together while still preserving the distinct motives and reasons behind the differing actions. It might not be the ‘definitive’ history of the failed revolution in Hungary, but the information Gati provides and the wealth of resources he refers to have laid out more than enough for future scholars of this time period to be getting on with.

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