The Deathblow to Soviet Communism: Scholars Say That the 1956 Revolt by Hungarian Freedom Fighters against the Soviet Union Was the Seminal Event in the Fall of That Communist Empire. (World: The Hungarian Revolution)

By Goode, Stephen | Insight on the News, January 7, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Deathblow to Soviet Communism: Scholars Say That the 1956 Revolt by Hungarian Freedom Fighters against the Soviet Union Was the Seminal Event in the Fall of That Communist Empire. (World: The Hungarian Revolution)


Goode, Stephen, Insight on the News


Hungary, October 1956: After eight years of Stalinist repression and communist tyranny, revolution breaks out as the whole world watches. Freedom fighters, most of them working-class teens and their parents, confront Russian tanks with rifles and homemade weapons, seeking independence from the Soviet Union and basic human freedoms. For 13 autumn days, a small nation takes on the Soviet Goliath and, for a while, seems to hold it at bay.

Then the leviathan responds -- brutally. A Russian invasion leaves widespread death and destruction and drives hundreds of thousands into exile. At home, revolutionary leaders who fail to escape are put to death by the hundreds during the next two years. The communist government survives. The revolution seems to have failed miserably.

But did that fierce, heroic battle for freedom really fail? No, according to a conference recently held at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington. Debating and discussing the question, "Was the Hungarian Revolution a Crack in the Iron Curtain or a Mortal Wound for Communism?" eight American and Hungarian scholars came down firmly on the side of the revolt as a mortal wound delivered directly at the body of Soviet power. They argued that it was a wound from which the `Soviet Union and communist Eastern Europe never fully recovered, and which contributed to their ultimate collapse 34 years later.

Paul Hollander, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is the author of Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society. As he put it: "I believe that the revolution did inflict a mortal wound on Soviet communism, although we didn't realize it at the time, nor did we for decades."

Another participant, Janos Horvath, a former economics professor at Bucknell University and now a two-term member of the Hungarian Parliament, said: "The lasting message of 1956 in one short sentence is, "Tyranny is unstable because it carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction.'" In the case of Hungary, those seeds "were the moral indignation of a whole people who reacted to events those people found unbearable."

Why talk about the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 at a time when a world war against terrorism now preoccupies the United States and its allies? Geza Jeszenszky, Hungary's ambassador to the United States, drew the parallel when he told INSIGHT (see Picture Profile, Nov. 12) that both the Hungarian Revolution and the events in the United States on Sept. 11 should never be forgotten because both serve as vivid, powerful examples of evil at work in the world: the Hungarian Revolution as an assertion of human spirit against the relentless boot of tyranny, and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as a slaughter of innocents that no amount of casuistry can explain or forgive.

Interestingly, the younger scholars at the conference concentrated on narrow questions about the course of the revolution. Bianca Adair of the University of Alabama, for example, traced how the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the Soviet sector of Austria, and Austria's attainment of neutrality only months earlier, influenced events in neighboring Hungary. If Austria could gain these advantages, Hungarians wondered, why couldn't they?

Another young scholar, Anna Balogh of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, raised the question of the role the West -- through agencies such as the CIA -- played in the revolt, concluding that there was no evidence the revolution was started by outside forces. If there was Western-agency activity during the 13 days of the revolution, she added, then that activity was limited and inconsequential. The Hungarians had done it mostly alone.

It was up to three older scholars to take the broad view and show how what first appeared to be a tragedy for Hungary -- the crushing of the revolution -- was in the long run the opening act of a long drama whose last act was the fall of the Iron Curtain itself. …

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