Saturday, February 23, 2008

Victor Sebestyen's "Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution" Book Review

I agree with previous [Amazon US] reviewers who went beyond an emotional summary of the Revolution or comments on the structure of Sebestyen's history to comment on particular strengths and weaknesses of his study. Brandon Wilkenning accurately critiqued the book's concentration upon an elite-centered cadre. The results in "Twelve Days" reminded me more of an old-fashioned account reliant more upon diplomatic manuevers, archival correspondence, and Cold War contexts than one based on internal political analyses, first-hand testimonies from street fighters, or eyewitness journalists. These all are included, admittedly, but the flavor of the book remains rather bland as Sebestyen prefers situating the 1956 uprising in the greater framework of Soviet-U.S. relations. This is not to the book's detriment per se, but it did vitiate its energy for me as a curious reader familiar with events reported by other writers from Budapest and Hungary at this time. I'd been hoping for a livelier narrative. The material often fascinates despite the plodding prose.

However, Sebestyen granted his focus gives us an Imre Nagy who continued to lag a day behind, until he was trapped by the lies of Yuri Andropov. Pól Maléter emerges as more of a "national communist" than others he fought with, and Sebestyen glances over a crucial problem in how we define the goals of those who bravely fought the Soviets and their allies in the Hungarian CP. Maléter argues for an anti-capitalist revolt (p. 187); Sebestyen refers (pp. 195, 221) to how as the revolt continued that anti-communist industrial workers (usually under thirty, usually tradesmen) from strongholds like Csepel island gained the upper hand over intellectuals and students who may have begun the rebellion. These mentions constitute the summation of his treatment of this important topic. Since many in the West spin-doctored 1956 as an anti-Marxist liberation front, and since others who have discussed the revolt have taken pains to insist upon its "democratic socialist" intentions (although that ideological phrase is not as I recall used by Sebestyen), I remain less enlightened than I'd hoped when I started "Twelve Days."

The book's likely by default, as it's timed to the fiftieth anniversary in its publication and promotion, to become a standard introduction. The maps are useful, and you can appreciate what Sebestyen tells you about the strategic importance of the Kilián Barracks and the Corvin Cinema. The AVO's role and the fate of those lynched earns explanation that had often been clouded in earlier studies. The cynicism of Stalinist Hungary and the Muscovites who returned from the purges to collaborate gains needed scrutiny. The jails in which in the early 1950s held 1.3 million of 9 million citizens merit description. The relentlessly transient definition of truth in a land of fear, betrayal, lies, and inhumanity appears much more vivid after close attention to early pages of the book.

Eisenhower, Nixon, Dulles, Khrushchev, Kádár, and Rákosi emerge better understood for the calculating decisions they made. The UN won no plaudits, nor Hammerskjold. Cardinal Mindszenty became for me stubborn, enigmatic, and unsympathetic. Radio Free Europe and the CIA both earn in Sebestyen's unearthing of primary sources more culpability than certain previous scholars have attributed to them for goading the fighters on, both before and during the revolution.

Yet, it could have been better in its details. Its bibliography gives earlier English-language works, but a few published memoirs which I have read are not included. Near the end, on p. 287, he recounts the terrible fate of Mária Wittner, who I wondered may have been one of the "freedom fighters" in a well-known photo of two young women walking along, fully-armed, early in the uprising. Yet, this photo's not included in what's a rather skimpy array of illustrations on what by now is an historical event that earned many pictorial moments deserving a place in this book. Above all, you still close this book with too little a feel for what it was like to fight, flee, hide, or endure the revolt. The post-revolt sufferings of those arrested get treated too superficially, the fate of those released who had to survive in Kádár's regime stays rather hazy, and what kind of post-Soviet 1956 Hungary that those who fought in the streets wanted remains vague.

How much of this is the fault of the book and how much is due to the understandable uncertainty of life in wartime leaves you as a reader pondering this intriguing subject. On the other hand, perhaps Hungarians simply were too busy, as Sebestyen notes, endlessly talking in the brief euphoria after the illusory withdrawal of the armed Russian bears to have time to plan. Sebestyen waffles on the political substance of the brief republic proclaimed. I remain baffled. Yet, perhaps many people themselves once free wished first to dream, exult, and babble. "A study among refugees later suggested that on average people made between 300 and 400 calls in thirteen days." (184) The governing plans made by the mimeographing proclaimers and exuberant rebels in passing here seem to be multifarious. A thousand flowers bloomed amidst the broken glass and towering rubble, a few hours between October and November, 1956.

(P.S. Posted to Amazon US today. I have reviewed other books on Hungary on Amazon; my review of George Faludy's classic memoir "My Happy Days in Hell" can be found on my blog as well. It tells the story of how a young poet fled first the fascists and then returned post-WWII from adventures in French North Africa & the U.S. Army to encounter the Stalinist regime and how he became a victim in its jails and camps.)

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