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Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

by Victor Sebestyen

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Twelve Days is a riveting day-by-day account of the defining moment of the Cold War—the inspiring but brutally crushed Hungarian Uprising.

Victor Sebestyen, a journalist whose own family fled Hungary, gives us a totally fresh account, incorporating newly released official documents, his family's diaries, and eyewitness testimony. We witness the


Twelve Days is a riveting day-by-day account of the defining moment of the Cold War—the inspiring but brutally crushed Hungarian Uprising.

Victor Sebestyen, a journalist whose own family fled Hungary, gives us a totally fresh account, incorporating newly released official documents, his family's diaries, and eyewitness testimony. We witness the thrilling first days when—armed only with a few rifles, petrol bombs, and desperate courage—the people of Budapest rose up against their Soviet masters and nearly succeeded. As the world watched in amazement, it looked as though the Hungarians might humble the Soviet empire. But the Soviets were willing to resort to brutal lengths—and, sadly, the West was prepared to let them. Dramatic, vivid, and authoritative, Twelve Days adds immeasurably to our understanding of this historic event and reminds us of the unquenchable human desire for freedom.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This is a vivid, heartbreaking account of the brutal crushing of the first armed insurrection against Soviet occupation. Twelve Days is essential reading for understanding the great risks people will take for freedom.”

–Kati Marton, author of The Great Escape: Nine Hungarians Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World

“On the anniversary of 1956, wielding a vast array of newly released archives and completely new eyewitness testimony, Victor Sebestyen has written a magisterial but also totally gripping and fresh account of the noble, violent, and doomed Hungarian revolution: a tale of murder and battles on the streets of Budapest and in the dungeons of the KGB, and of high-level intrigue from the White House to the Kremlin. Above all, it is a story of courage and decency among ordinary Hungarians. The result is a tour de force.”

–Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

KLIATT - Raymond Puffer
Hungary's abortive attempt at national independence was one of the lowest points of the Cold War. The countries of Eastern Europe became dependent satellites of the Soviet Union in 1945, and 11 years later they had not yet settled into the inert political limbo desired by the Kremlin. Indeed, it was a time of pervasive unrest in the Soviet Bloc. By 1956 the Soviet leadership had smashed a popular uprising in East Germany, was facing down chronic unrest in Poland, and was increasingly uneasy about Marshal Tito and Yugoslavia's "independent path to Communism." In short, Hungary's brave attempt to send home its Red Army occupiers came at an inauspicious time. Observers on the other side of the Iron Curtain could only follow the dramatic events in broad outline. The trouble began with student marches for modest university reforms and swiftly blazed into huge public demonstrations for Hungarian autonomy. Soviet Premier Khrushchev, haunted by images of East European youths throwing stones at Russian tanks in 1953, hesitated for a few critical days. The swift emergence of a popular government forced him into action, however, and he reacted with a heavy hand. Soon radicalized young people were once again heaving homemade gasoline bombs at Soviet armor. The Western world watched these developments with frustration, immobilized by fears of the huge Red Army and by the new Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles. Sebestyen tells the story well, integrating the necessary political and social intricacies into a flowing narrative that carries the reader along. The book has full scholarly apparatus with chapter notes and a fine index. It is a pity that a book like this couldn't have appeareddecades ago. Reviewer: Raymond Puffer, Ph.D.
Library Journal
Fifty years ago, the Hungarians rose in spontaneous revolt against their Soviet overlords and the inept and brutal hacks governing their country. Sebestyen, a London-based journalist, uses previously unreleased documents from Hungarian and Russian archives and eyewitness accounts and diaries to reassess what he characterizes as "the least organized revolution in history...no leaders, no plans." Its causes were multiple, including Soviet Premier Krushchev's relaxation of control over Eastern-bloc countries, communism's triumph in Poland, and hatred of the Rakosi government in Hungary. Radio Free Europe had incited Eastern Europeans to rise up, but when the uprising started, President Eisenhower delayed acting until the time for action was past: his attention was on the Suez Canal instead. The Soviets attacked the vastly outnumbered and poorly equipped freedom fighters. Sebestyen's conclusion is discouraging but indubitably correct: "The revolution was the defining moment of the Cold War when the Soviet Union showed...it was prepared to use barbaric measures to keep its empire, and the West was content to let it do so." Recommended for all libraries. David Keymer, Modesto, CA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.21(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.77(d)

Read an Excerpt

9 October 1944, Moscow

In his apartment in the Kremlin, Joseph Stalin hosted a war summit with Winston Churchill. Both men knew it was only a matter of months before Germany would be defeated. They wanted an understanding about the future of Europe after the conflict ceased.

Much to the annoyance of the British Prime Minster, who kept slightly more conventional hours, Stalin slept during the day and worked at night. The leaders met at 10 p.m., with only their Foreign Ministers, Vyacheslav Molotov and Anthony Eden, and two interpreters present. Churchill later described the scene: 'The moment was apt for business so I said "Let us settle our affairs in the Balkans. Your armies are in Romania and Bulgaria. We have interests, missions, agents there. Don't let us get at cross purposes in small ways. So far as Britain and Russia are concerned how would it do for you to have 90 per cent predominance in Romania, for us to have 90 per cent of the say in Greece and go 50/50 about Yugoslavia?"'

Churchill picked up some paper and wrote down on a half-sheet the deal he proposed. 'Hungary was another country to be split 50/50. Casting an eye over the paper, Stalin took his blue pencil and made a large tick upon it and passed it back to us. It was all settled in no more time than it takes to set down. After this there was a long silence. The pencilled paper lay in the centre of the table. At length I said "Might it not be thought rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues, so fateful to millions of people, in such an offhand manner? Let us burn the paper?" "No, you keep it," said Stalin.' The next day Soviet troops crossed the border from Ukraine into eastern Hungary and they did not leave for a further forty-five years.

Diplomats and historians still argue about the significance of the 'percentage deal', or as Churchill called it, 'the naughty document'. Many say it was unimportant and simply recognised the reality of Russian troops on the ground. But taken together with US agreement at the Yalta Conference the following year, the post-war division of Europe had a massive psychological effect in Hungary. 'After the war we felt abandoned by the West,' Eva Walko, a well-informed and astute young woman who had travelled widely in the west between the wars noted. 'And our feeling proved to be right.' Eden minuted his Permanent Secretary, Alexander Cadogan, after the 'percentage deal' was struck: 'I expect the Russians will want to be very hard on the Hungarians.' He was a master of understatement.

First, though, the Russians had to win their victory. The next six months in Hungary saw some of the most bitter ghting of the entire war. Two Soviet armies commanded by Marshal Rodion Malinowsky slowly encircled Budapest, while in the capital itself there was chaos and civil war.

Hungary, under its 'Regent' for the last quarter of a century, Admiral Miklo´s Horthy, had been a key ally of the Germans.* Horthy's manners were impeccable, but he was ruthless and violent. Thousands of his opponents were murdered or disappeared. His primary aim was simple: to win the return of historic Hungarian lands lost after the First World War. Hitler had promised to restore to Hungary most of Transylvania, Slovakia and Croatia, which had been ceded under the Treaty of Trianon. From the mid 1930s, with Horthy's blessing, Hungary became increasingly Nazi ed, and when the time came the Regent's army enthusiastically marched against Soviet Russia.

Hungarians escaped the worst of the war until March 1944, when the Germans occupied the country. They were desperate to bolster the steadily weakening Eastern Front and they wanted to make up for lost time in implementing the Final Solution in Central Europe. In barely six months 450,000 Hungarian Jews, those living outside Budapest, were sent to the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Even if Horthy had wanted to save them - and the evidence is mixed, his private papers reveal him as a keen anti-Semite - he could do nothing.

In September 1944 the Regent at last tried to do the decent thing. Knowing the Germans would lose the war, he made secret overtures to Stalin about a separate Hungarian-Soviet peace. His attempt never came to anything. The Germans got wind of the plans. Commandos kidnapped his surviving son, Miklo´s junior, and on 15 October forced the Regent to abdicate. He was deported to Germany. Hitler replaced him as head of state with Ferenc Sza´lasi, the leader of the Arrow Cross, Hungary's home-grown fascist group, who unleashed an unprecedented reign of terror and destruction on the country that shocked even the German High Command by its barbarity. The transports to the death camps had stopped in the summer. But the Arrow Cross continued the slaughter. Its gangs roamed Budapest rounding up Jews and anyone suspected of socialist sympathies. Scores of thousands were shot on the Danube quayside and thrown into the river.

As Malinowsky's troops tightened the circle around Budapest, the defeat of Hungary was an imminent prospect celebrated in anticipation by the Western allies. Unlike Poland or Czechoslovakia, Hungary was not then seen as a plucky little victim nation. Propaganda from London, Washington and Moscow remembered that the Hungarians had been on the 'wrong' side in two world wars and judged them to be among the chief troublemakers in Central Europe. The view of the Tory MP and diarist Harold Nicolson, a man of liberal opinions, was common at the time:

When I learned that the Russian armies were within cannon-range of Budapest, I was conscious of delight, which I felt to be neither virtuous nor sane. My reason tells me that the Hungarians found themselves in a dificult position, and that it would have been hard indeed for them to maintain a stubborn neutrality. They were forced into the war by geographical necessity and by a burning resentment against the Treaty of Trianon. The fact is that since the day more than a thousand years ago, when Árpád first entered Hungary, the Magyars have done much harm and little good to Europe . . . My satisfaction may be due to the quite rational feeling that this time the Hungarians will not again be able to disturb the peace.

The bloody siege of Budapest began on Christmas Eve and lasted fifty-one days. The Germans had transferred ten divisions to Hungary from the Western Front and Hitler's orders were to defend the city at all costs. More than 40,000 German troops and 70,000 Russians died in the battle, large numbers in hand-to-hand combat. Uncounted thousands of civilians, hiding in basements, were killed in the cross fire. At the end Budapest lay in ruins. All the bridges spanning the two sides of the Danube had been blown up by the retreating Germans. After Berlin and Warsaw, Budapest was the most war-ravaged capital in Europe. Ferenc Nagy,* shortly to become Prime Minister, described the sight as he came out of his hiding place on 14 February 1945: 'Manhigh rubble covered the streets. High blockades of concrete, steel girders, lumber, brick and glass from the collapsed buildings jammed the thoroughfares. The wrecks of thousands of planes, tanks, armoured cars were everywhere . . . Merciful snow covered the uncounted dead. Animal carcasses littered the streets. Shop windows were full of the dead, while the wraith-like living ransacked the abandoned stores. Twisted tram rails jutted skyward like thin fingers of an imploring hand.'

For a few days of joy the Russians were greeted rapturously as saviours. But the frontline army moved on for the nal assault on Germany, leaving behind soldiers who made Hungarians understand very quickly what it meant to be a conquered enemy. The Red Army's occupation caused despair even among those who welcomed it as the defeat of fascism. Soon, hatred of the Soviet Union became stronger than before the defeat. The first Russian words most Hungarians learned was the phrase 'Davai tchassey' ('Give me your watch'). Looting was widespread, from of cially sanctioned 'trophy brigades' which sought valuables that were sent back to Moscow, to soldiers emptying food stores.

The great novelist Sándor Márai had his belongings stripped, as did many of his friends:

The Russian who dropped by in the morning, conversed amicably with the family, showed pictures of his wife and children back home, sentimentally patted the heads of the children and gave them candy, departed and then returned in the afternoon or late at night and robbed the very same family he had made friends with that morning . . . the looting was not aimed at the 'fascist enemy' but caused simply by abject poverty. These Communist Russians were so impoverished, so miserably destitute, so completely stripped of everything . . . that now, set loose after 30 years of privation and drudgery, they threw themselves hungrily on everything that fell into their hands.

That included women. For more than four decades, until Soviet troops left Hungary in 1990, almost nobody dared mention the taboo subject of the rapes committed by Russian soldiers in 1945. Many victims would not talk about it in their own families or with friends, let alone in public. It is still not known exactly how many women were raped, but a report made by the Swiss Embassy at the time, kept secret for many years, made a rough estimate of around 150,000 (from a female population of about 4.5 million). As a direct result the abortion laws were liberalised so that women could terminate unwanted pregnancies.

Women were attacked from day one of the liberation, as Christine Arnothy, a fifteen-year-old girl emerging with her sister Ilas from a Budapest cellar, recalled: 'The Russians were advancing and . . . at each house, a group of soldiers left the main body . . . One detachment entered our house. The officer who commanded it yelled at us to know if there were any Germans in the house. Several of us nodded in the direction of the staircase. The German was killed on the spot and Ilas, whom they had found close to this wounded man, was raped beside the still warm corpse. From the rst instant we understood that what was happening was very different from what we had hoped.'

Alaine Polcz, in her early twenties at the war's end, had been a prisoner of the Germans. When the Russians reached her village in eastern Hungary she was effectively held prisoner again. Soviet troops had seen a picture of her with her husband. He was an officer in the Hungarian army, so they arrested her. She was held with a group of other women in a church presbytery near the front line, where she could hear constant gun fire. Years later she remembered her ordeal. 'Earlier on in the war I had seen those posters in Budapest showing a Russian soldier tearing a cruci x off a woman's neck and I'd read pamphlets saying that the Russians did this and that. I didn't believe any of it. Propaganda I thought.' Soon she learned differently. She saw a young girl whose head was bleeding - a lock of her hair had been torn out. She was miserable and desperate.

'The Russians rode her,' said her mother. I didn't understand. 'With a bicycle?' I asked. The woman became angry. 'Are you a fool? Don't you know what they do to women?'

The next day Ms Polcz was in a room with her mother-in-law:

In came three Russians and told me to go with them. Now I knew exactly what they wanted. I put on my boots and tied my headscarf, then I untied it and tied it again, then I untied it once again to gain some time. As I stood there I heard something knocking on the door; it was the heels of my boots, I was trembling so much.

We stepped out into an L-shaped corridor. I started to attack them wildly . . . kicked and hit them with all my strength, but the next moment I was on the ground. No one made a sound. We fought in silence. They took me to the kitchen at the back of the house and as I tried to defend myself they flung me down so that I hit my head against the corner of the rubbish bin. It was made of hard wood.

I came round in the priest's big room. The window panes were broken, the windows were boarded up. There was nothing on the bed but bare boards on which I was lying. A Russian was on top of me . . . The feeling in my body hadn't returned with my consciousness; it was as if I was numb or gone cold . . . In that windowless unheated room I was naked from the waist down. I don't know how many Russians used me after that, or how many there had been before. As dawn was breaking they left me. I got up. I could only move with great difficulty. My head and my whole body ached. I was bleeding profusely. Over the next few days new troops arrived and I was pestered a lot.

She was infected with syphilis from the repeated rapes.

Men who tried to protect women were viciously brushed aside, or killed. The best-known case was Bishop Vilmos Apor, from the western Hungarian town of Gyor, who had bravely opposed the persecution of the Jews. On Good Friday 1945 drunken Soviet soldiers entered his palace in search of a group of young women they had seen going in through a side entrance. When the soldiers went down to the cellar they saw the Bishop in full ceremonial regalia blocking the entrance to the room where the women had sought refuge. He tried to wrestle with the intruders, but they shot him three times. Bishop Apor died two days later on Easter Sunday.

For many Hungarians 'official looting', as they referred to war reparations paid to Russia after the post-war peace settlements, seemed as bad as the pillaging by soldiers. 'We have had three great tragedies in Hungary - the Tartar conquest in the thirteenth century, the 150year Turkish occupation - and the Soviet liberation,' a well-rehearsed saying of the time went. The division of Europe and the punitive damages awarded against Hungary in the Yalta and Potsdam agreements were resented almost as much as the Versailles and Trianon treaties had been a generation earlier after the First World War. 'The victorious country demands us to assert its rights for the reason that the vanquished country started war against it,' Vladimir Dekanozov, the Soviet Union's Foreign Affairs Deputy Commissar, explained bluntly on an early visit to Budapest.

Meet the Author

Victor Sebestyen was born in Budapest and was an infant when his family left Hungary. As a journalist, he has worked on numerous British newspapers: he reported widely from Eastern Europe when Communism collapsed in 1989, and covered the war in the former Yugoslavia. At the London Evening Standard he was foreign editor, media editor, and chief lead writer. He writes frequently for The Times and The New Statesman.

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