Commentary Magazine


The Bridge at Andau, by James Michener; The Hungarian Revolution, by George Mikes; A Student's Diary, by Laszlo Beke

Fateful October
The Bridge at Andau
by James Michener
Random House. 270 pp. $3.50.

The Hungarian Revolution
By George Mikes
Andre Deutsch (British Book Center). 192 pp. $2.95.

A Student’s Diary: Budapest, October 16-November 1,1956
By Laszlo Beke
Viking. 125 pp. $1.95
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The Bridge at Andau is an account of the Hungarian revolution based entirely on talks the author had with Hungarian refugees whom he met last November as they were crossing the Austrian border. Mr. Michener devotes most of the book to descriptions of some outstanding episodes of the Budapest uprising, but he also provides flashbacks showing what life was like in Hungary before the revolution. The details of these flashbacks, taken in isolation, seem plausible enough, but their cumulative effect is misleading. One would not know from these stories, for example, that the “thaw” in Soviet policy after Stalin’s death extended to Hungary too, nor do we learn anything about the coalition regime—composed of small landholders, Socialists, and Communists—which preceded the Communist one-party dictatorship.

It is impossible to achieve complete accuracy in reconstructing the events of the actual uprising, since eyewitness accounts of large-scale incidents (such as the siege of the radio station during the night of October 23-24 or the massacre in Parliament Square on October 25) diverge considerably. The main outlines, however, are drawn on Mr. Michener’s pages, and some aspects of the revolution are brought out clearly: the unbelievable courage with which children and adolescents defied death time and again until many were slain; the despair which drove a people to choose death and destruction rather than continue with a life under Communism.

But there are fatal limitations in Mr. Michener’s approach. To begin with, a revolution cannot be portrayed from eyewitness accounts alone, no matter how thoroughly these are checked by “highly trained research experts.” Many crucial political facts must be established from other sources. Whenever Mr. Michener tries to fill the political background in, he relies on fantasy and speculation, often giving the impression of writing about a political never-never land. A glaring example of this is his description of the very first act of the revolution, the presentation of the students’ demands at the radio station:

At nine o’clock that night, while the crowd still hovered near the station a group of university students arrived at the great wooden doors and demanded the right to broadcast to the people of Hungary their demand for certain changes in government policy. These young men sought a more liberal pattern of life. The AVO men laughed at them, then condescendingly proposed, ‘We can’t let you broadcast, but we’ll tell you what we’ll do. We’ll let you put your complaints on tape, and maybe later on we’ll run the tapes over the air.’ The students refused to fall for this trick and tried to force their way into the building, but the AVO men swung the big doors shut.

This is a purely imaginary scene. The young men were not merely seeking “a more liberal pattern of life”; the text they wanted to broadcast included such points as the formation of a new government under the premiership of Imre Nagy, the withdrawal of Russian troops, the revision of trade treaties with the Soviet Union. The conversation with the laughing policemen at the door of the building never took place. The AVO men guarding the radio station did not negotiate with the students, and there was no offer such as Mr. Michener describes. Actually, the students’ delegation was admitted to the building and there followed a long and fruitless negotiation with the radio authorities as to what could and could not be broadcast.

Mr. Michener has his own notion of what the revolution meant politically:

. . . in Budapest the Soviets perpetrated their horrors upon a people who had originally been their peaceful associates, who had been good communists, and who had co-operated to the point of sacrificing their own national interests. In Budapest, the Russians destroyed with cold fury the very people who had in many ways been their best friends in Eastern Europe. They were not fighting reactionaries. They were not fighting antique elements trying to turn back the clock of history. They were annihilating fellow communists.

Mr. Michener must have heard from many refugees that the workers of Csepel, the miners of Pecs, the students of Budapest were not fighting to restore capitalism, and this apparently could mean only one thing to him: the Hungarians were Communists, willing to sacrifice their own national interests to further the Soviet cause. One is either a reactionary capitalist bent on turning back the clock of history, or a devoted follower of the Soviet Union. Since the Hungarians were not the former, they must have been the latter.

The fallacy involved in such reasoning is obvious. What the Hungarian uprising shows is that the Hungarians could, and did, loathe both the Soviet Union and their own Communist regime, without desiring to return confiscated industrial and landed property to its former owners. But the fact that restoration of capitalism and landlordism was generally rejected by the revolutionaries does not justify the conclusion that at some earlier time the Hungarians as a nation had turned Communist or become the “best friends” the Soviet Union had in Eastern Europe. As long as they could express themselves freely, the Hungarian people voted overwhemingly against the Communist party, in spite of intense pressures and blandishments. One can blame the Russians for many things, but not for annihilating “friends” and “fellow Communists.”

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Perhaps the most important political question raised by the events in Hungary from October 23 to November 4 is this: what prevented the situation from being stabilized as it was in Poland? Part of the answer is that Hungary’s revolution started at a higher pitch: the first popular demands involved not only a reorganization of the Communist party leadership and the replacement of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but also the withdrawal of Soviet troops. This left much less room for compromise than existed in Poland, where the Soviet troops were considered useful as a shield against Germany, despite the fact that they were also an occupation force.

Another crucial difference was that in Budapest the Communist police and Russian troops attacked the aroused populace, while in Warsaw no armed clashes took place. Finally, the Hungarian revolutionaries adopted a platform that would have destroyed the Communist state root and branch and led to the severing of all political and military ties with the Soviet Union. It is this radical political shift above all else which requires explanation. Was it a matter of irrational bravado? Or did it result from avoidable blunders committed by the Hungarian Communist leadership?

In his book about the revolution, the Hungarian-born British writer George Mikes stresses the role of avoidable blunders. The first “blunder” was the failure of the party leaders to make Nagy premier on the day the demonstrations started; had he been appointed then, there would have been no bloodshed, and “Hungary might have been steered on the path of the Polish solution.” But according to Mr. Mikes, the situation might have been saved even after the police and the Russian troops began firing on the people if it had not been announced officially, and untruthfully, that Nagy himself had called the Soviet troops in. This destroyed the people’s confidence in Nagy and strengthened the position of more extreme anti-Communist elements on both the right and the left. Nagy was permitted to disclaim responsibility for the Russian intervention and to blame it on Gerö and Hegedüs only several days later, when the damage had already been done. But by that time, he was too weak to resist radical pressures, and the final “blunder” was one he committed himself: he “overstepped the limits set by the Russians and made certain claims which were bound to be unacceptable to them.”

Mr. Mikes’s first point seems plausible indeed. The original demonstration would almost certainly have taken place even if Nagy had become premier immediately, but the atmosphere would have been much calmer. With Nagy at the helm, Gerö—whose speech that evening so angered the crowd—might have chosen to remain silent. Even if he had gone on the air, however, he probably would have spoken in a different and perhaps less provocative manner. The students, of course, would have published their list of demands in any case. But it is by no means certain that they would have insisted on broadcasting them (in the actual course of events, this insistence was a response to Gerö’s speech), and even if they had, it would not have been difficult to prevail upon the managers of the radio station to let them have their way. This would have created a delicate situation with the Russians: a public declaration calling for Soviet troops to clear out of Hungary would have displeased them very much. But it is most unlikely that they would have attacked the population for that reason alone.

As to the second “blunder” discussed by Mr. Mikes, I have considerable doubts. The linking of Nagy’s name to the Soviet intervention could not have made much difference once the fighting started. He had no choice but to bow to the Councils’ demands, and these were radical in the extreme. The orientation of the various Councils differed in certain respects, but on two matters unanimity was complete: the one-party Communist regime and the Russian occupation had to end. As long as these demands were not granted, the revolutionaries would not call off their general strike and would not lay down their arms.

All this made an amiable solution à la Polonaise utterly impossible. And, of course, the Councils could not conceivably have pushed the Russians out by force or by a general strike. What, then, made the revolutionaries act as they did? Was it a kind of psychic automatism, a compulsion to go to the limit without regard for consequences? Or did they entertain some sort of calculation, intelligible in rational terms even if mistaken in fact?

Only a very tentative answer to these questions is possible at present. Psychic automatism probably played an important role, but the element of rational calculation does not seem to have been completely lacking either. There was, indeed, a general conviction in Hungary that the United States could not remain aloof once armed struggle broke out. This conviction was not based on American broadcasts alone: the Hungarians believed that the United States could not afford to leave Hungary to her fate. But armed American intervention did not seem necessary to the revolutionaries: certain energetic political moves, they thought, would have been sufficient. Most Hungarians are now convinced, for example, that the second Soviet intervention would not have taken place if a UN observer team had been sent to Budapest while it was still a free city.

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There is an interesting document which clearly reflects this “rational” component of Hungarian revolutionary extremism. It is a short book written by a Hungarian art student using the pseudonym Laszlo Beke. Mr. Beke was a member of the Students’ Revolutionary Council and participated actively in the uprising. He is by no means a typical representative of the revolutionary students, for he stands at the extreme right of the political spectrum, speaking like an integral nationalist of pre-war vintage. His reaction to the revolutionary events was also quite exceptional: he writes about Nagy, for example, with undisguised hostility and contempt. Of course, Nagy’s behavior during the early days of the revolution bitterly disappointed many Hungarians. But on October 23, he was a genuinely popular figure, and few people were as icily reserved toward him as Mr. Beke.

The keynote of Mr. Beke’s entries for the first two weeks is extreme combativeness, a determination to go on fighting to the death. Then, on October 31—with no Soviet troops present in Budapest and with virtually the whole population in a state of euphoria—everything suddenly changes for him. Upon hearing that the Austrian frontier is open, he decides that he must leave the country with his pregnant wife. It is clear to him that all is lost; the Russians will come back, and all members of the Revolutionary Students’ Committee will either be shot or deported.

What made Mr. Beke give up the revolution as lost when almost everyone else in Budapest thought it had miraculously triumphed? The answer lies in a short paragraph of the entry for the 31st: “From border points they [fellow students from Western Hungary] had received word that military aid from NATO countries appeared to be hopelessly out of the question. No one seemed to know why [my italics].”

This way of making the point shows how firmly Mr. Beke had been convinced that Western military aid could not fail to materialize. He had not been helping to push the revolution to the limit of defiance out of some psychic compulsion; he firmly had expected that if only Hungary took on the Soviet Army, allies would be forthcoming. When this expectation turned out to be groundless, only catastrophe appeared possible, whether the Soviet troops withdrew from Budapest or not.

The terrible Soviet invasion of November 4 shattered the illusion that the revolution had triumphed. By that time, Mr. Beke was in safety; the bulk of the freedom fighters, however, went on resisting. No relief was in sight and the odds were hopeless, but giving up was still out of the question. The Councils did not retreat from their political demands; on the contrary, two new points—a denunciation of the Warsaw pact and a declaration of neutrality—were added to the original list at the very end, when Russian tank columns were converging on Budapest. Mr. Mikes points out, correctly it seems to me, that the denunciation of the Warsaw pact was not the cause of the second intervention but its consequence. It represented a last desperate attempt to enlist Western political aid for Hungary; after all, the United Nations could not ignore a military attack on a neutral and sovereign state. This last glimmer of hope died like Hungary’s earlier dreams of freedom and independence. But even the fading of the last hope did not mean the end of the struggle. Not hope but despair sustained the last stand of Hungary’s fighters.

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