My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Sebestyan is best in the middle section of this book. A fast-paced but heavily detailed narrative presented on a day-by-day structure that was well suited to events. I enjoyed the little journalistic flourishes that brought the personalities to life: Cardinal Mindszenty tucking up his cassock so that he wouldn’t be identified as a priest; Defence Minister Maléter patting his holster as he remarked the uprising didn’t mean end of Socialism in Hungary. This sort of detail is either imagined or researched, the cross referencing of accounts suggests it is researched. Excellent.
The problem is in the Prelude and Aftermath sections where he tries to replicate this one day at time approach. It doesn’t work: the causes and effects of the uprising can’t be distinctly packaged into events. What’s more trying to squeeze them into a diary format means that some important things have been left out.
For example, many of the Hungarian combatants were teenagers and would have been small childen when Budapest was besieged in 1944. During that time over 48,000 Axis, 70,000 Soviet and 76,000 Civilians were killed. Afterwards 400,000 Hungarians were sent to the Gulag, and 30,000 were raped. It makes the 2,500 combat deaths, 2,500 executions and 22,000 arrrests of 1956 pale into insignificance. Would the uprising have happened at all if a generation of Budapest’s children hadn’t been utterly brutalised? For a blistering fictional account of this time see Under the Frog, for the facts see Battle for Budapest.
The Aftermath is a mere sketch, mostly concerned with the immmediate implications for Hungary and the conduct of the Cold War – America is of disproportionate interest to Sebestyan. He remarks that in 1989 the post-Soviet republic was created on October 23rd, yet there is no analysis of the how current Hungarian politics is caught in the shadow of ’56. Which is strange seeing as I found his research enlightening here.
The uprising was spontaneous and leaderless, or at least conducted by small groups whose only common ground was a hatred of the Russians. At one stage the teenage rebels of the Corvin Cinema were exchanging fire with the patriotic soldiers at Killian Barracks. There was a strong element of civil war that Sebestyan doesn’t linger on. Yet, the hatreds of the civil war are apparent today in the frequent disorder that occurs on the anniversary of the uprising, and the attempt by the current Government to rewrite the 1989 settlement. 1956 is still a very divisive event in Hungarian politics, and I can’t even guess why it is given the prominence it is. If we want to celebrate a national tragedy, shouldn’t we be looking at ’44 instead?