Journey to a Revolution: A Personal Memoir and History of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956by Michael Korda
The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was perhaps the most dramatic single event of the Cold War and a major turning point in history. Though it ended unsuccessfully, the spontaneous uprising of Hungarians against their country's Communist party and the Soviet occupation forces in the wake of Stalin's death demonstrated to the world at large the failure of Communism. In
The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was perhaps the most dramatic single event of the Cold War and a major turning point in history. Though it ended unsuccessfully, the spontaneous uprising of Hungarians against their country's Communist party and the Soviet occupation forces in the wake of Stalin's death demonstrated to the world at large the failure of Communism. In full view of the Western media—and therefore the world—the Russians were obliged to use force on a vast scale to subdue armed students, factory workers, and intellectuals in the streets of a major European capital.
In October 1956, Michael Korda and three fellow Oxford undergraduates traveled to Budapest in a beat-up Volkswagen to bring badly needed medicine to the hospitals—and to participate, at street level, in one of the great battles of the postwar era. Journey to a Revolution is at once history and a compelling memoir—the author's riveting account of the course of the revolution, from its heroic beginnings to the sad martyrdom of its end.
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Journey to a Revolution
A Personal Memoir and History of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956
By Michael Korda
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
The Idol with Feet of Clay
Few things stand out less clearly at the time than a turning
point in history, at any rate when one is living through it.
As a rule it is only in retrospect that an event can be seen
clearly as a turning point. Historians write as if they were
looking at the past in the rearview mirror of a moving car;
and, of course, picking the "turning points" of history is
something of a specialty for many historians-in some cases,
the more obscure, the better. Turning points, however, are
much harder to recognize as they occur, when one is looking
ahead through the windshield.
To take an example, we now recognize that the Battle of
Britain was a turning point in World War II-fewer than 2,000
young fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force handed Hitler his
first defeat, and ensured that whatever else was going to
happen in 1940, Great Britain would not be invaded-but those
who lived through the Battle of Britain day by day did not
perceive it as a decisive, clear-cut event. The fighter pilots
were too exhausted and battle-weary to care; and the public,
while buoyed by the victories of the R.A.F. in the sky over
southern England, was still struggling to come to grips with
the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk
and the collapse of France, and would soon be plunged into the
first stages of what later came to be known as the blitz.
Those who-as children-saw the white contrails of the aircraft
swirling overhead in the blue summer sky, or watched the shiny
brass cartridge cases come tumbling down by the thousands, had
no sense of being witnesses to a "turning point"; nor did
their elders. It was only much later that this turning point
began to be perceived as one, and that Battle of Britain Day
was added to the list of annual British patriotic
In much the same way, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, while
it was clearly a major event, was not perceived as a turning
point in history until much later, when the unexpected
disintegration of the Soviet empire in eastern Europe,
followed very shortly by the total collapse of the Soviet
Union itself, could be traced back to the consequences of the
uprising in the streets of Budapest.
The three weeks of the Hungarian Revolution ended, of course,
in a victory for the Soviet Union, as everybody knows, but not
since Pyrrhus himself has there been so Pyrrhic a victory. The
Hungarians had chipped the first crack in the imposing facade
of Stalinist communism and had exposed the Soviet Union's
domination of eastern Europe for the brutal sham it was. For
the first time, people in the West-even those on the left-had
seen the true face of Soviet power, and it shocked them.
The Hungarians lost, but in the long run the Russians lost
more. Communism became much harder to sell as a humane
alternative to capitalism (or to western European democratic
socialism); and the Russians themselves, badly shaken by the
size and the ferocity of the uprising they had put down with
such overwhelming force, and dismayed by the attention it
received in the world's media, never attempted to repeat the
experience in Europe. From time to time, the tanks might be
sent rumbling into the streets again, as they were in Prague
in 1968, but they would not henceforth open fire on civilians.
Without apparently having given the matter much thought, the
Russians discarded the trump card in their hand: the belief on
the part of eastern Europeans that the Red Army would shoot
them down mercilessly if they rose against the puppet
governments the Soviet Union had imposed on them at the end of
World War II.
More dangerous still, those governments themselves, whose
ultimate legitimacy rested on the threat of armed intervention
by the Soviet Union, ceased to believe that it would ever
intervene again to support them with force the way it did in
Hungary in 1956-and if the Russians would not, then how, when
push came to shove, were the "people's governments" of Poland,
Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the German Democratic Republic,
Bulgaria, Romania, and Albania to remain in power over the
This is always a serious problem of empire, by no means
limited to the Soviet Union. In 1919, the United Kingdom used
violence, albeit on a considerably smaller scale, against the
congress party in India when General Dyer ordered his troops
to open fire on demonstrators in Amritsar, killing 379 of them
at Jallianwallah Bagh, and wounding perhaps three times as
many. The massacre horrified the British-except for the
impenitent General Dyer and his supporters-and the result was
an increasing reluctance on the part of the British government
to use force against the congress party at all. In
consequence, the threat of armed violence-one of the pillars
on which the raj stood-gradually became more and more remote
and unlikely. The Indians ceased to fear it, the British grew
increasingly unwilling to use it on a large scale, and
independence for India thus became only a matter of time.
In much the same way, the Hungarians' uprising against their
own unpopular government and the government's Soviet masters,
while it failed, fatally shook the confidence of the Soviet
government in its ability to control the countries of eastern
Europe-a confidence that had already been weakened by Stalin's
death, by the increasingly (and defiantly) independent
attitude of Tito's Yugoslavia, and by the widening ideological
rift between the Russian and the Chinese communist parties.
After 1956, the Soviet Union found itself in an increasingly
uncomfortable and ambivalent position vis-à-vis the eastern
European "people's democracies," since the Soviet leadership
was desperately trying to dismantle the remnants of Stalinism
at home and bring about a "thaw" in Russian life, while at the
same time continuing to prop up unrepentantly Stalinist
leaders in the Soviet Union's client states....
Excerpted from Journey to a Revolution
by Michael Korda
Copyright © 2006 by Michael Korda.
Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Michael Korda is the author of Ulysses S. Grant, Ike, Hero, and Charmed Lives. Educated at Le Rosey in Switzerland and at Magdalen College, Oxford, he served in the Royal Air Force. He took part in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and on its fiftieth anniversary was awarded the Order of Merit of the People's Republic of Hungary. He and his wife, Margaret, make their home in Dutchess County, New York.
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