Der Ungarnaufstand 1956. Eine Revolution und ihre Folgen

TitleDer Ungarnaufstand 1956. Eine Revolution und ihre Folgen
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsHarms, Victoria
Author(s) of reviewed materialLendvai, Paul

book. Title translated: The Hungarian Uprising of 1956. A Revolution and its Consequences

PublisherMünchen: Bertelsmann
ISSNISBN-13: 978-3570005798
Review year


Full Text

Great attention was granted to the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 not only in Hungary itself, but also outside it. Parallel to numerous commemorative events and academic occasions, Germany, too, experienced a wave of publications. One of the most significant books among these is Paul Lendvai’s Der Ungarnaufstand 1956. Eine Revolution und ihre Folgen [The Hungarian uprising in 1956. A revolution and its consequences] that analyzes the main events, protagonists as well as the revolution’s controversial afterlife.

Paul Lendvai is one of the most well-known intellectuals who publish about East Central European and Hungarian history in German (e.g. his 1996 autobiography Auf schwarzen Listen. Erlebnisse eines Mitteleuropäers; his distinguished 500-pages of Hungarian history DieUngarn. Ein Jahrtausend Sieger in NiederlagenDer Medien-Krieg: wie kommunistische Regierungen mit Nachrichten Politik machen (1981), etc.). A journalist by profession and education Lendvai’s style of writing makes historical complexities easily accessible to his mostly lay audience. Anecdotes by the Budapest-born Austrian émigré contribute to the narrative smoothness. Regular references to thinkers such as Canetti, Montaigne, Ellie Wiesel, de Tocqueville and alike are part of Lendvai’s unique style, which elevate the intellectual standard of his works.  

The book starts with the developments since the Second World War in Hungary that led to the outbreak the revolution in 1956 (chapters I to III deal with the Communist takeover, the Rákosi era, De-Stalinization starting in 1953, Nagy’s first premiership until 1955, etc.). Lendvai rightly balances between the various actors involved in the Hungarian revolution itself: he points out that the intentions and hopes of actors such as the Reform communists around the revolution’s Prime Minister Imre Nagy, the students who initiated the revolution on the 23rd of October or the fighters on the streets were never quite synchronized during the legendary 13 days of the revolution. While generally events in Budapest, the capital and centre of action, are emphasized, Lendvai shows that smaller towns echoed the call for national independence and council rule, too (p.97). The author particularly insists that the workers’ councils resisted the suppression by Soviet tanks the longest and remained a living proof of the illegitimacy of Kádár’s government (Chapter XVI: ‘Die zweite Revolution’). Lendvai swiftly sketches out the international context which forced the revolution to fail (p.270). As a specialist on Yugoslav politics as well, he devotes a separate chapter on the until today neglected unknown ‘Yugoslav-Soviet conspiracy’ (chapter XV). 

A disappointed former ’56 participant elucidates the ‘Moral Bankruptcy of the US-Liberation policy’ and the ‘Worldwide Echo’ in chapters XVII and XVIII. In these, the author does not only discredit the tactics of Radio Free Europe and its Hungarian Board (pp.206), the deliberate passivity of President Eisenhower (p.209) or the ambivalent actions of the US Embassy (see p.173) without which, in his view, Kádár’s long-term success cannot be properly understood. Addtionally, Lendvai exposes the complete failure of the UN during yet another Cold War crisis (e.g. p.212). Meanwhile, using some of the latest archival findings and literature, Lendvai clarifies common misperceptions and myths that have persisted on both sides of the Iron Curtain (e.g. p.61, 97, 153, etc). 

Throughout the entire analysis Lendvai emphasizes the dependence on decisions made in the Kremlin, which were based on the reports by the high-ranking Soviets Mikojan, Suslov, Serov and ambassador Andropov (pp.100, p.136, pp.157). Their accounts of the developments in Hungary, he claims, basically dictated the second Soviet intervention (p.101). 

As a journalist and Hungarian émigré who fled to Vienna in early 1957, Lendvai elaborates on the non-conformist activities of writers and the Communist propaganda against those countries that received Hungarian refugees. In particular, the author praises the “unprecedented” (p.225) Austrian support. Austria, he stresses, was the only country that officially questioned the Soviet intervention and demonstrated solidarity (pp.232) in addition to Poland. The author presents Hungary at the mercy of unjust Cold War politics. Lendvai’s anger at Western passivity is followed by a detailed account of the persecution and repression that unjustly struck participants. After a short outline of the commonly known fate of Imre Nagy and his associates, the author underlines the immense scope and excessive sentences of court trials that followed (chapter XIX: ‘Brutal revenge of the victors’). The amnesty of 1963 seems a bitter reimbursement.  

In the last chapter, Lendvai explicitly refuses to accept the commonly held view that Goulash Communism was an achievement owed to the 1956 revolution (p.248). Only the reburial on June 16, 1989, at last, rewarded the struggle for national independence while all Kádár could achieve was political tranquility and economic comfort in return for “deliberate amnesia” (pp.253). Nevertheless, the economic crisis in the 1980s, Gorbachev’s reformism, and the struggle over his succession caused the decline of Kádár’s authority. Ultimately, his successors, Grósz, Németh, Pozsgay, Nyers and Horn, gained political leadership thanks to the reassessment of 1956 as ‘uprising’ instead of counter-revolution, and therefore destroyed the party’s base of legitimacy (pp.262).

However, the ‘return of 1956’ as well as Lendvai’s account of Kádár’s persistent popularity do not come as a novelty to those familiar with Hungarian history. Finally, in ‘Epilogue: To whom belongs 1956?’ Lendvai takes a stand on all those controversial issues of memory politics that actually erupted so radically in 2006, the year of publication. At times, the book suffers from such simplifications which facilitates reading for an unfamiliar German audience, but neglects the significance of nuances for contemporary Hungary. Although the lack of a political or ideological, hence, unifying program is mentioned and the diversity of actors stressed (e.g. p.26 or p.269), the author still insists that ‘56 was “a spontaneous and unexpected revolution according to the very meaning of this term” (p.269). Consequently, the misleading title which combines ‘uprising’ with ‘revolution’ diminishes the significance these terms have played in the history of 1956. Although he rejects today’s ideological fights, Lendvai, too, pays tribute to ’56 as a symbol of national unity (pp.270). Paradoxically, though, while unity plays an inherent role in ’56 narratives of all political couleur, from a scholarly point of view there is no reason to speak of such. Furthermore, the characterization of Nagy appears vague and inconsistent in contrast to his detailed assessment of Kádár – which correspond to the tone of most recent publications.

Taking Lendvai’s biography into consideration elucidates his position towards these politicians as well as contemporary Hungarian history: Born in Hungary to Jewish parents, he was arrested by the Nazis and turned to the Communist party following the Second World War. Imprisoned under Rákosi he joined the reformist intellectual circles prior to 1956. Once an established journalist in Vienna, he became a confident and later biographer of Chancellor Bruno Kreisky. Thus, Lendvai’s presentation of Nagy as “always balancing and inherently cautious”, a “waverer, exhausted and cardiac” (p.65) corresponds to the latter’s failure to meet the population’s and intellectuals’ expectations to which also Lendvai adhered. Nevertheless, Nagy remains an icon of the revolution and, henceforth, appears also as “a tragic hero of Hungarian history” (p.245). As journalist in Kreisky’s entourage, Lendvai interviewed Kádár in 1981; then he experienced him as a “modest and fatherly” ruler (p.249) who “with incomparable skills, subtle, cynical and at times brutal” (p.258) preserved his position for the following 32 years. Thus, Lendvai convincingly describes Kádár as mediator between the dooming Kremlin and the Hungarian people who willingly gave in to amnesia in exchange for relative prosperity.  

Summing up, Der Ungarnaufstand 1956 is an easy reading providing an up to date analysis written for an interested German audience, published on the occasion of the 50th anniversary. Lendvai basically fulfilled the task of recalling personal memories and reproducing familiar literature which those that became interested in the topic can pursue further, thus this work does not meet the expectations set by his earlier works. A closer analysis of the Hungarian revolution which simultaneously reflects Lendvai’s own ideological convictions would have been a more nuanced and enlightening, hence, unique contribution.