368 pages, Pantheon, ISBN-13: 978-0375424588
October 20, 2006 marked the 50th Anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, the seemingly spontaneous (at least to those outside of Hungary) set of demonstrations that quickly morphed into a full-fledged revolution that almost freed Hungary from Soviet hegemony; twelve days after it began the revolution was crushed under the tread of Red Army tanks. Victor Sebestyen’s Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution seeks to inform the people of the West just what happened during this most tragic time. The results are rather like one of those old-fashioned “official” histories that were reliant more upon diplomatic maneuvers, archival correspondence, and Cold War contexts than one based on internal political analyses, first-hand testimonies from street fighters, or eyewitness journalists. While all of those are included, the flavor of the book is rather bland, as Sebestyen prefers placing the 1956 uprising in the greater framework of Soviet-U.S. relations rather than as the nationalistic uprising that it was. On the upside Eisenhower, Nixon, Dulles, Khrushchev, Kádár and Rákosi emerge better understood for the calculating decisions they made. The United Nations wins no plaudits, nor do Dag Hammarskjöld or József Cardinal Mindszenty.
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…and 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, but this photo isn’t 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, but, perhaps, many people themselves once free wished first to dream, exult, and babble.