The Fateful Hungarian ’56 Revolution


A cause lost in the fog of the Cold War?

Charles Gati’s masterful Failed Illusions (2006) is perhaps one of the most authoritative analyses distinguished by  its “sober-minded realism” of what really happened –in what started as within-system reforms but radicalized into fully-fledged anti-communist counterrevolution- and what ought to have happened to avoid the subsequent tragic bloodshed and its fateful end as a historic ash heap of failed illusions –those of the young would-be révolutionnaires in the “streets” of Budapest; those of their right-wing Radio Free Europe instigators; those of the White House and American politics  of misplaced hopes that verged on hypocrisy; those of Moscow’s competing interests and designs on power as well as the dilemma and predicament of steering the post-Stalin Soviet bloc of states especially those of Central and Eastern Europe; and Imre Nagy’s and his cohort’s unchecked communist idealism and inadvertent or belated radical revisionism.

What makes this work unique is the vantage point of historical hindsight complemented by the author’s judicious and critical assessment of a time of history that he experienced himself. For this veritable and analytical scoop on Hungary’s failed revolution, Gati relies on “a vivid, memorable experience” but also builds up an insurmountable case of false hope using an array of documentary evidence –Central Intelligence Agency, Hungarian and Russian records. In addition, he cites numerous personal interviews gathered from actors of various shades who participated in the events of 1956.[1] What emerges is not only an impressively detailed reconstruction of these events sufficient to acquaint even a novice with an intimate understanding of the finer points of what –in retrospect- was one of the earliest and greatest cracks to appear in the Soviet bloc but, also, an account that successfully calls into question the widely accepted wisdom that what happened in Budapest happened because it had to. Put differently, Gati posits that the Hungarian revolution cannot and should not be interpreted as the logical outcome that “reflected the correlation of forces in the Cold War,” and, as such, was not “foreseeable and inevitable.” [2] Equipped with newly available information, Gati convincingly scrutinizes self-evident or preordained interpretations of the events arguing that room existed for the success of the revolution.

This possibility lay in, one, the prudence and pragmatism of Hungarian leadership, which failed to rise to the occasion to take control of, and direct the radical elements towards the desirable outcomes comparable to those of the Polish October. Gati lays the blame of this failure squarely on Imre Nagy who was at first confused, troubled and indecisive –he was slow “to make common cause with the workers, students, and soldiers who sought independence from the Soviet Union” and was, equally as a direct result of this and his burdensome NKVD and Stalinist past, an inadvertent revolutionary.[3] As such, the author argues that had the Hungarian leader been more decisive and skillful as his Polish counterpart in curbing the radical/maximalist demands –by toning them down- instead of yielding to them, then perhaps, the Kremlin would not have preferred a military intervention. What was needed, according to Gati, was not the politically uncompromising or the poetic unyielding spirit of Sándor Petőfi but the pragmatic and great prudence of Ferenc Deák the architect of the 1867 compromise under the circumstances of twentieth century imperial Russian (read Soviet communist). As such, from the start, Nagy’s failure lay in the fact that he did not set his sights on a Titoist or Gomułkaist outcome (217).

Gati also lays the blame on the Soviet leadership and Nikita Khrushchev in particular who was more concerned with his position  vis-à-vis his detractors like Malenkov and Molotov in Moscow and saving Soviet communism under his new banner of anti-Stalinism. For the time being, however, it is the Stalinist strategy of Soviet “bloc cohesion”-through military force- that was relied upon to bring about “stability” in the troubled part of his empire –Budapest. Regime stability in Hungary had to be enforced militarily in a bid to convince his potential rivals in the Kremlin that he was their man –that is, he was not about to let Hungary drift off into the arms of the capitalist West. [4] In making up his mind about a forceful ordering of affairs in Budapest, the Republic Square lynching, Nagy’s poor judgment of reinstating the Hungarian postwar multiparty system and his unilateral decision to pull out of the Warsaw Pact helped a great deal. In addition, Moscow had to make an example out of Hungary if it was going to ensure that the virus of national/independent communism –Titoism- did not spread in the Soviet bloc. There also was in Moscow morbid “fears of what might happen rather than …what was actually happening at” the time, which, in a nutshell, further captures the nature of the illusion there.

Closely related are the twin illusions of the United States –at the highest level of leadership, American politics in general and its security and intelligence institutions as well as its Central and Eastern Europe only policy arm –Radio Free Europe, whose Hungary desk/programming was run by uncompromising right wing (anticommunist) maximalists. As far as all these entities were concerned –playing to a sincerely blind/misled Hungarian gallery-  it was believed that an endless infusion of the rhetoric of manumission and hope, as opposed to well-laid plans, was capable of bringing freedom and liberation to the Soviet European empire. In as far as Hungary was concerned, argues Gati, American authorities ranked this Cold War front a low priority and were all but ignorant of the events leading to the revolution. One of the serious mistakes made was playing to the American electorate championing the idea of communist containment and “rollback” when the only real stakes as far as they were concerned was to emerge or be recognized as the political party best capable of dealing with the Soviet Union and its growing world empire. In addition, rhetoric was not matched with an honest assessment of America’s actual strategic capabilities with regard to international security, diplomatic and political.

Gati’s misgiving is that the United States failed to seize the opportunity to pursue limited objectives –Communist diversity instead of democracy; greater measure of independence from Moscow rather than strict independence; and free-reign in domestic affairs in communist bloc countries as opposed to (in) their foreign policy.[5] For Gati, the U.S was the Big Bad Wolf -omnipotent- “huffing and puffing rather than a serious superpower depleting its Communist enemy’s strength.”[6] For their part, Hungarians in exile and specifically those who worked for Radio Free Europe, were adamantly anticommunist and failed to see/embrace Nagy and his followers for what they were –revisionist communists- and, therefore, agents of gradual (minimalist) gains as opposed to what they preferred heady with hope for immediate, complete and uncompromising liberation from Soviet communist influence.[7] In a nutshell, these illusions can be summed up in one simple truth viz. – hope is not a method. According to Gati, a pragmatic policy “replacing the fundamentalist rhetoric of liberation” on the part of the U.S government, coupled with Hungarian valor peppered by wisdom and circumspection would have, perhaps, been met with a more accommodative Soviet stance of a post-Stalin empire built on local/national “regime viability” as opposed to coercive bloc cohesion. The attentive reader cannot fail to pick up the what if counter-factual aspect of Gati’s argument.

While one readily appreciates the author’s rectification of the “inevitable failure” interpretation of the revolution, s/he at the same time recognizes –as Gati himself does at different times in the book- that this insight accrues from the availability of information since the event and the benefit of hindsight. Gati notes, for instance, that at the time, “it was not easy to discern what was going on and especially what to do under such chaotic circumstances.” Gati further notes that, he as the writer/historian is sympathetic to most players because “they were operating in the context of limited information and considerable uncertainty,” which then is the author’s concession that all the actors he discusses –the Hungarian, Soviet and American leadership- could not be expected to make perfectly rational decisions. Therefore, what the author calls prudent steering of human/public affairs between that which is desirable and that which is possible –the ability to be idealistic without succumbing to illusions- is not always possible because such rational decision-making is a function of time; availability of all possible information (to weight the implications of available alternatives); idiosyncratic and groupthink decision-making dynamics; and un/certainty of expected outcomes.

As this work clearly shows, some decisions were made on the spur of the moment and/or circumstances affected by the fear of the unknown or personal and party rivalries, which played no small role in determining the outcome of the Hungarian crisis –for example, Nagy’s decision to up the stakes by pulling out of the Warsaw Pact or his appeal to the United Nations; Khrushchev’s decision to reverse the Soviet Politburo’s decision not to intervene militarily in Hungary and appointing Nagy as the premier; the deterioration of the relationship between Mikoyan and Suslov affected the decision taken in Moscow with regard to intervention or nonintervention; while the U.S elections determined what was said regarding the crisis there, among numerous other factors affecting good decision-making.

Be this as it may, it does not dislodge Gati’s strong caution that in spite of these limitations of high-level decision-making, the lesson of the Hungarian revolution is that conflict should not be viewed as a win-lose situation but approached with an open mind –guided by prudence and pragmatism. Last but not least, Belgrade and Marshal Tito do not feature enough in the book although Gati, as it were, does a good job drawing the complex linkages between Moscow, Washington DC and Budapest, which is difficult without having to add a new analytical dimension. It would have been interesting, however, for the author to explain Marshal Tito’s support of Soviet actions in Budapest not only in terms of wanting to be the only show in town but also as a result of his own local fears (of multiparty politics) aroused in his own backyard by Milovan Đilas’s book, The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1957).

[1] For this see C. Gati, Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt (Washington, DC & Stanford: Woodrow Wilson Center Press & Stanford University Press, 2006) 238, 220 & 223.

[2] Gati, Failed Illusions, 205.

[3] Gati, Failed Illusions, 173: this aspect of the failure of Nagy’s leadership skills is discussed exclusively in chapter two of the book and more extensively in historical context in the exceptional and impressive chapter on The Revolt that Failed –five. It emerges even more clearly where/when the author contrasts what happened in Poland and Hungary with regard to not only unique historical relationship; geopolitical strategy; size etc. but, importantly, on the leadership skills of Gomułka and Nagy (201, 217 & 212).

[4] Gati, Failed Illusions, a theme well-covered throughout the book –see, for example, 153, 187, 189-190, 192, 198, 212  & 213-215.

[5] Gati, Failed Illusions, 235-237. It is telling that 96% of Hungarian refugees in Austria believed and expected some form of U.S help during the revolt (207). Captivated by American salesmanship, most Hungarians in general, according to Gati, preferred to ignore the point that they were not getting what they thought they were being promised (102-3).

[6] Gati, Failed Illusions, 71, 165 & 218: the U.S was suffering from the illusion of American exceptionalism and power/omnipotence. America had not only “misled the outside world about its intentions in order to put the Communists on the defensive; it also misled itself.”

[7] Gati, Failed Illusions, 109 –on the basis of historical hindsight, the author recognizes that RFE analysts did not understand that some of yesterday’s Stalinists had become genuine anti-Stalinist reformers.

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Nicholas Githuku

Assistant Professor, African History at York College, CUNY
Nicholas Githuku is a Ph.D. holder in African Studies. His research interests include: War & Peace Studies in general; Conflict and Security and mediation in general and trends in the Great Lakes the Horn Regions of Africa; Memorialization of War; Development studies (Sub-Saharan Africa): Postcolonial/Contemporary Kenyan Politics; European History (1648 to 1900); First and Second World Wars; and Post-1989 Eastern Europe (Balkans) History.