Ezerkilencszázötvenhat az újabb történeti irodalomban. Tanulmányok.

TitleEzerkilencszázötvenhat az újabb történeti irodalomban. Tanulmányok.
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialGyáni, Gábor, and János M. Rainer

book. Title translated: Nineteen fifty-six in newer historical literature. Studies.

PublisherBudapest: 1956-os Intézet
ISSNISBN 978-963-9739-02-4
Review year


Full Text

The publication of over three hundred books[1] as well as approximately the same number of articles,[2] and the holding of more than one hundred scholarly conferences accompanied the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. This massive wave of cultural interest and production led two eminent Hungarian historians, Gábor Gyáni and János M. Rainer to inquire into the scholarly novelties that surfaced concerning 1956 when attention and symbolic relevance was highest. They claim that while political history, the totalitarian model and a normative understanding of the events admittedly still predominate, at least quantitatively speaking, new ways of writing history have clearly gained ground over time (pp.8-9). These newer scholarly explorations can be defined as having new subject matters, such as the social history of the revolution, the various linguistic structures detectable in the ways 1956 is described, or the history of the memories of 1956. These newer types of studies also often aim to preserve the heterogeneous realities of this historical event instead of reducing them to some homogenous image, and present smaller groups and micro-level events instead of an all-encompassing narrative (p.9, p.15).
In the assessment of Gyáni and Rainer, historical writings that are of these kinds have appeared in various periodicals, and their major aim with the publication ofEzerkilencszázötvenhat az újabb történeti irodalomban was to collect the most interesting and innovative ones of these in one volume, to thereby allow them to have a stronger, common impact (though without having the aim of being exhaustive). After the introduction by the two editors that briefly discusses the publication as a whole and the content of each text, the twenty-two articles[3] form parts of seven larger chapters titled Historiography, Conceptual Questions; The Social History of the Revolution; The Revolutionary Mobilization; The History of Symbols and Ideas of the Revolution; The Hungarian 56 and the World; The Representation of the Revolution; The Memory of the Revolution.
Ezerkilencszázötvenhat az újabb történeti irodalomban has much to recommend it, as it includes many excellent studies in terms of empirical coverage and/or analytical depth, and is a many-sided and often thought-provoking book. Unfortunately, it would be beyond the scope of this review to address each of the twenty-two articles of this collection separately. Instead, I shall focus, first, on presenting two articles that are especially interesting from a theoretical point of view, both discussing questions raised by the idea of revolution and, second, two that are based on comprehensive empirical coverage and tackle the issue of past politics in 1956.[4] Last but not least, prior to making some concluding remarks I shall also reflect on the composition of the volume.
Gábor Gyáni, pursuing an intellectual dialogue with Péter Kende and his attempt to conceptualize and verbally capture the meaning of 1956, draws on previous analyses of the “modern, transhistorical understanding” of the notion of revolution in his “Forradalom, felkelés, polgárháború. 1956 fogalmi dilemmáiról” [Revolution, Uprising, Civil War. On the Conceptual Dilemmas of 1956], and asks whether the events of 1956 can be fittingly denoted by this word loaded with normative content. In Gyáni’s view, the key issue in this respect is whether one can call an event a revolution which is a violent mass movement but consists “merely” of an anti-totalitarian change of rule (p.30)? His answer is that in the modern, ideological sense of the word this cannot be done without reservations, since 1956 aimed at a kind of restoration or return rather than at “the continuation and furthering of revolutionary permanence” (pp.34-5). Gyáni claims that while everyday usage has long called 1956 a revolution (with the well-known exception of the Kádárist users of the infamous counter-revolutionary label; for more on this see footnote 5), this cannot serve as a decisive argument from an analytical point of view. He calls 1956 a freedom fight par excellence,[5] and sees it as fitting the revolutionary ideal in the sense Condorcet understood it, who wanted to apply the word only to changes aimed at freedom (p.35).[6]
While I fully agree that any attempt to find a simple and exact category for 1956 will encounter difficulties (p.30) as well as the point that such conceptual dilemmas are meant to be raised for the sake of more sophisticated research, rather than resolved for the sake of a coherent, closed theory (p.37), let me remark that Condorcet’s idea of revolution is transhistorical too, namely in the sense that here revolutions are seen as parts of the struggle between the forces of freedom and unfreedom. Related to 1956, it would be interesting to further explore the following questions: first, how can the understanding of 1956 as an event for liberties be reconciled with the lack of an articulated liberal ideology and programmes [7]and in the absence of a liberal self-understanding of the large majority of the participants? Second and related, how can any self-conscious liberal narrative that puts the struggle for liberties at the center accept the idea that what happens in history is beyond what people do to happen and think happens, i.e. that the meaning of 1956, even from the liberal point of view, is not immanent to this story, but transcendental to it? This I see as a crucial issue since, while Gyáni is right in emphasizing the severe limitations class-based historical teleologies of Marxist origin have in accounting for 1956, we also have to critically explore what the grand narrative of freedom (and, in its teleological version, its spread) is really able to explain of this history, and also where it fails to work.
Sándor Horváth’s “Kollektív erőszak és városi térhasználat 1956-ban: Forradalmi terek elbeszélése” [Collective violence and use of urban space in 1956: The Narration of revolutionary places] also approaches the idea of revolution, though from a very different point of view. He critically looks at the widely influential (and often foundational) myth and the accompanying symbols of revolution. He inquires into the narrative acts of place creation that frame the stories of 1956, and, more specifically, into the depiction of societal spaces and the presentation of theatrical scenes (pp.116-7). Horváth remarks on the important role (the perceived) changes in the use of spaces play in revolutionary narratives that often aim at depicting public spaces as expressing the political will of the people (since they usually ambition to serve as narratives of identity building), and asks how these spaces come to be depicted as revolutionary, mysterious or spectacular, which topoi and schemes are employed to convey these ideas (p.118). He also discusses conventions of the revolutionary photo (with masses and fighting typically in the foreground) and the symbolic and powerful ways the opposition between “force” and “reason” can be depicted (p.130).
In aiming to explain these powerful revolutionary symbols, he points to the important (though rarely consciously understood) interaction of the traditions of what he calls the monumental revolutionary narrative and the customary ways of approaching the modern metropolis. By 1956, these interactions created such a “conventionally revolutionary” image of the city that, in his view, this was able to determine for decades what kind of stories in what places would be narrated from the multiple, heterogeneous events in 1956 (p.126). These perhaps somewhat abstract-sounding ideas find highly concrete applications: for instance, Horváth manages to contextualize the powerful and long-lasting image of the pesti srác (“the kid from Pest”) by pointing to how this image uses and merges former stereotypes (of “the brutes” who occasionally invade the city, causing fear and fright) and elements of the heroic narratives (of solidarity, courage, etc.) (p.136). Moreover, he perceptively remarks how the spots of most intense fighting were all at the conventional divide between the downtown area and the outskirts of Budapest (p.132), in other words exactly where the barricades “ought to stand” to symbolically enact the revolutionary war between oppressors (the centralized state) and oppressed (the marginalized people). Though unfortunately the article is not too systematically written and it addresses more issues than is able to tackle in depth or illustrate convincingly, this nevertheless remains a highly perceptive and insightful piece of writing, full of thoughtful and inspiring remarks on how to decode written and visual materials related to 1956.
Their shared topic of past politics in 1956 and the comprehensive command of their source materials make György Gyarmati’s “Kossuth-címeres forradalom 1956-ban. Ikonográfiai sajtótükör, október-november napjaiból” [Revolution in 1956 with the Kossuth Coat of Arms. An Iconographic Mirror of the Press from the Days of October-November] and Éva Standeisky’s “Követett és elvetett múlt az 1956-os forradalomban” [The past to be followed and the past to be rejected in the 1956 Revolution] into articles that are in a creative dialogue with each other. Gyarmati explores the public rebirth of “national identity and patriotic self-consciousness” and points to the standard, almost completely general re-usage of historical topoi through his country-wide coverage of the iconography of the press in the revolutionary weeks. He finds that the use of the Kossuth Coat of Arms[8] and front page reprinting of poems by the generation active in and around 1848 have been the norm following the sea change that began in the last days of October 1956 (without any centralized decision being made to this effect) (pp.259-260) – to last for no more than a few days... In this sense, there is an interesting discrepancy between historical documents and the memory of these times, between the overwhelming quantity of the use of the Kossuth Coat of Arms as symbol and the later canonization of the flag with the hole in the middle as the symbol of 1956 (p.272).
“Követett és elvetett múlt az 1956-os forradalomban” by Éva Standeisky is in creative and critical dialogue with this overly homogenizing approach that focuses on symbols and 1848 only. She sensibly makes a differentiation between communicative and cultural memory: 1848 clearly belonged to the latter group by 1956, and therefore its cult could appear rather consensual. So she agrees that 1848 could be used as a way to cover up differences, but remarks on the nevertheless existing variety of traditions related to the symbols of 1848. Standeisky also mentions that the Kossuth Coat of Arms was the symbol of the republic founded in 1946 as well, so its use in 1956 could also refers to the early post-war years (pp.224-229). Crucially, she claims that genetically 1956 had most in common with 1918 (p.231), though this does not answer the question whether this situational similarity or the many living memories of 1945(-48) were having a stronger impact in determining what happened in 1956 (p.233). In the names of the revolutionary organization, one can discern the impact of both early postwar periods, but especially the latter one. She rightly points out and explores in detail what could serve as a very good indicator to mark differences between actors, namely how many post-war years they rejected and where they wanted to go back to newly start from. In sum, her article conveys a more multilayered sense of time and influence of the past that the participants in 1956 must have had and is both more encompassing and nuanced than the somewhat overly narrowly focused, though empirically also sound piece by Gyarmati.
Let me remark that the empirical basis of articles included in Ezerkilencszázötvenhat az újabb történeti irodalomban differs widely. Mark Pittaway’s “A magyar forradalom új megközelítésben: az ipari munkásság, a szocializmus széthullása és rekonstrukciója” [A New Approach to the Hungarian Revolution: Industrial Workers, the Collapse and Reconstruction of Socialism] sensitively explores the story of workers in the 1950s on multiple levels, discussing the evolution of their relation to the regime, their inner hierarchies and divisions, their changing wages and living standards and even some other issues. In terms of the richness and diversity of the archival materials presented, this study is exemplary. On the other end of the spectrum concerning the amount of empirical materials is one of the two studies based on oral history interviews, written by Júlia Vajda and conducted with survivors of the Shoah. Here the empirical material drawn on is rather minimal: it consists of merely two interviews.
In the case of a publication that aims to collect the most interesting and innovative journal articles on topics related to 1956, some reflection on the composition of the volume is in order. While agreeing with many choices, I have four slight reservations in this respect. First, I find the inclusion of the two articles on international relations[9] somewhat weakly justified, and not only because they are not based on newly uncovered materials,[10] but also their level of exploration (“great politics”) as well as writing style are rather conventional. They do not seem to fit the evaluative category of newer historical literature. Second, while Standeisky has two impressive contributions, her third study, titled “Érzelem és értelem az 1956-os forradalomban” [Emotions and Reason in the 1956 Revolution] stands out as significantly weaker than the others, both conceptually and empirically.[11] Third, while Sándor Radnóti’s “A sokaság drámája” [The Drama of the Many] on the notable play Kazamaták by Térey and Papp is an excellent and at times profound analysis of text as well as context, he makes it clear that this play represents one of the approaches of a new generation to 1956, a generation to which he does not belong (p.356).[12] For this reason, but also to illustrate the contemporary reception of art works related to 1956 better through showing some of the significant generational differences, perhaps it would have been more fitting to include several other writings of literary criticisms onKazamaták, present them in the form of an ongoing debate on representations of 1956, their meaning and value. Fourth, Sándor Révész’s “Kommunisták a forradalomban” [Communists in the Revolution] is an intriguing and at times nuanced piece of writing, but it is also very much written by an ideologically committed liberal who explicitly aims at community and consensus-building (note his revealing, recurrent use of the plural form) and therefore, in my view, this text sounds “out of tune” with the rest of the collection – while it has its analytical strengths, the stake here seems to be very much about whom and what (not) to symbolically appropriate.
These slight reservations of mine concerning the exact selection of articles notwithstanding, minor differences in judgment which would no doubt be revealed between any two lists of preferences, this collection certainly manages to provide a quality coverage of up-to-date research related to the many facets of 1956, and the articles are able to mutually strengthen each other’s impact (exactly what served as the reason for publishing this volume in the first place), and hopefully even serve as inspiration for further reflection and research in these fruitful newer directions.  

[1] Many of these three-hundred have appeared before and/or belong more to the category of popularizing materials rather than that of scholarly works in a more strict sense.

[2] Published in eleven specially dedicated journal issues and elsewhere.

[3] Of these twenty-one have appeared previously, in eleven different organs. The periodicalMúltunk is the most represented with four pieces. Two of the articles are co-authored and two authors appear more than once, Gábor Gyáni twice and Éva Standeisky three times. Let me add that five of the authors are not Hungarian, though out of them only one, Mark Pittaway has done research in Hungary and in Hungarian.

[4] This division into the theoretical and the empirical is addressed by Thomas Cooper, who has discovered a similar duality between various (Western) poems written with 1956 themes: some aim to define/construct some overall meaning, thereby turning the unique event into an abstraction through symbols and literary clichés, while others are descriptive and aim to avoid allegorical readings (p.332). Cooper also points to the challenge of writing historical texts since they are expected to provide both meaning and objective descriptions (p.340). See his “Az  ábrázolásmód rekonstruálása: az 1956-os események és az irodalom” [Reconstruction of Discourse: Literature and the Events of 1956]. One of the articles that could serve as model of how to link conceptual and empirical explorations and, what is more, come to conclusions on the basis of comparisons is János M. Rainer´s titled “Állami erőszak és ellenállás Magyarországon 1956 előtt”  [State-inflicted violence and resistance in Hungary before 1956]. Aiming to conceptualize and assess resistance to the communist dictatorship in Hungary prior to 1956 and its relation to 1956, Rainer poses three questions: whether repression and terror was exceptionally vicious in Hungary compared to other countries of the Soviet bloc, how can we come to a nuanced and realistic picture of forms of resistance (here conceptual differentiation between different forms is crucial), and whether these were at the heart of the outbreak of the revolution (p.105)? He answers the first question in the negative, then shows that active, conscious resistance could have no more than 4, 000 to 5, 000 participants, though the number of people with a record of “everyday resistance” ought to be put at several hundreds of thousand or even around a million (pp.112-113). Still, he argues that the Hungarian specificity lies more in the seriousness of the “corrections” that followed the death of Stalin, in the special strength of a critical movement among the communists. Compared with this factor, the role of active resisters has to be seen as small in the Hungarian case.

[5] There is also a rightist preference for calling 1956 freedom fight over revolution, which Gyáni curiously does not mention in this context.

[6] Moreover, in Gyáni’s view, even words such as uprising, revolt, civil war would be more fitting, as they all lack the “transhistorical connotations” of the word revolution (p.32).

[7] Standeisky also mentions the lack of ideologically coherent articulations, remarks on the many confused interpretations and rather utopian programmatic points throughout her “Eszmék az 1956-os forradalomban” (see especially her concluding remarks on p.200).

[8] Imre Nagy declared on the radio his governments willingness to restore this coat of arms on the 28th of October.

[9] The one by Günter Bischof that points to the failure of American foreign policy under Eisenhower and Dulles (found unprepared by the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and consequently failing to act in its best interests or in a morally sound way) and discusses the emptiness of the rhetoric of liberation, and the one written by David Holloway and Victor McFarland placing 1956 in the context of the evolving Cold War confrontation and the emerging balance of destructive potential as well as the shared knowledge thereof.

[10] Admittedly the basic, most important sources were uncovered earlier, as is remarked in the introduction (p.13).

[11] To illustrate why I am somewhat dissatisfied with this particular article: at one point, Standeisky makes an unverifiable statement: “the majority of people were emotionally involved in the revolution” (p.139), while later in the same paragraph she calls “the desiring of national independence, the opposition to dictatorship and communism” “the “dominant emotions” of 1956” – a rather curious definition of emotions (italics added by me in both cases – FL). Moreover, she makes statements about mass phenomena whose applicability to 1956 in general are at best questionable: “the subject dissolved, became an object: gave up on conscious thinking, on assessing” (p.139). To explain the (supposed) mass psychosis of the participants, she quotes Nietzsche discussing slave morality – a highly unfitting example, in my view (p.141). [One might want to compare this with Eörsi and Vajda’s remarks to the opposite effect that “It is our conviction that active participation and the taking of risks in progressive movements, revolutions is an individual moral act for each individual” (p.77) (even if Gyáni would have good reasons to disagree with the progressivist tone used here) and  “For a historical moment, the mass becomes a community which fulfils the desires and aims of the individuals comprising it and makes them politically relevant. It is not the instincts, but rather the rationality of collective action, visible also for the individuals, that organize the movement leading to the uprising” (p.86)] At times she uses long quotes without contextualizing them (see f.e. on p.140, in the main paragraph of p.146, or in the second paragraph of the new section on p.153). Last but not least, she reproduces the dichotomy between the rational university students (“in control of the peaceful transformation”) and the unruly workers (“unable to control their impulses”) (p.143) that Sándor Horváth so aptly criticizes elsewhere in this same book. Once again, I find her two other articles both much better researched and written, and that is why I find the inclusion of this one rather unnecessary and somewhat puzzling.

[12] He describes their approach with the words “the impartiality and coldness of a new generation.”