21 November 2006


I'm surprised there hasn't been more comment on this, Eric Hobsbawm's take in the current London Review of Books on the Hungarian revolution of 1956. Hobsbawm, the most prominent Communist Party of Great Britain intellectual who stayed with it after 1956, is no fool: the piece has plenty of insights into the reasons Hungary rather than any other Soviet satellite exploded when it did.

But in the end he regrets nothing. The Soviet intervention was justified because the revolutionaries went too far and took their revenge on the hated secret police. The key moment, writes Hobsbawm, was

the attack by insurgents on the headquarters of the Greater Budapest Communist Party on Republic Square, temporarily defenceless except for a contingent of secret police after the withdrawal of Russian and Hungarian soldiers. The building was taken, the Budapest Party chief – a strong supporter of reform – killed, and 23 secret policemen lynched by the mob in front of the world’s newsreel cameras. It was this demonstration of anarchic fury, combined with Nagy’s increasing concessions to the maximalist demands on the street, that persuaded both Moscow and Beijing that uncontrollable disorder was impending in Hungary…

The alternative was the reform government’s number two, János Kádár, who had begun to impress the Russians. He left Budapest on 1 November as a member of Nagy’s government and returned six days later in a convoy of Soviet tanks – which made short work of the uprising once its full force was deployed. He has been denounced for his betrayal, but, unlike some other episodes in his long career, notably the execution of Nagy in 1958, it can be justified. The insurgents’ programme was beyond reach.

What was the alternative to a Russian victory, if not a quiet reform Communist regime backed by a reform-minded Khrushchev? (In subsequent years the Kádárs were to develop a family friendship with the Khrushchevs.) Nagy’s choice implied only heroic victimisation – followed sometime in the future by public rehabilitation – and a return of the Hungarian Stalinists, with or without Rákosi and Gerö. Kádár’s solution was the only one available.

"The insurgents' programme was beyond reach"? Only because the Soviet leaders decided it was and sent in the tanks. The fatalism and Realpolitik cynicism are almost Kissingeresque.

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