A boiling over of the masses

Alexis de Tocqueville distinguishes between two types of patriotism: patriotism of instinct, built on tradition, and patriotism of reflection, built on knowledge and “nurtured” by the exercising of civil rights. In his analysis, the transition from the ancient instinctual patriotism to the rational variety usually is precipitated by a social upheaval, breaking “the spell of tradition.” Victor Sebestyen’s Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution provides an in-depth look at a nation struggling through such a transition.

Sebestyen, a respected British journalist, succinctly describes the Hungarian people’s instinctual patriotism, rooted tenaciously in the soil, detailing how, in the interest of protecting this soil, Hungary chose the losing side in both world wars. He also describes how, in 1945, Great Britain and the United States agreed—however tacitly—that Hungary, a country that readily had sided with Nazi Germany, should be let to slip behind the iron curtain.

“Plenty of scores had to be settled after the war,” notes Sebestyen, describing the subsequent transfer of power. Hungary’s induction into the Soviet sphere would be particularly severe, being a non-Slavic nation whose wartime repentance came too little and far too late.

The Hungarian communists who took power, returning home after years of exile in the Soviet Union, proved as brutal as their Soviet bosses. The country’s new leader, Mátyás Rákosi, was hand picked by Stalin himself, and came “with specific instructions to turn the country into a model Soviet colony,” which he did with brutal efficiency.

The recent release of Soviet documents from the Cold War era admittedly was valuable to Sebestyen, but the true test of historical writing is to constructively weave the evidence into a compelling narrative. Sebestyen is able to guide the reader along a stable, and highly detailed, timeline without sacrificing the arc of a great story. He does so through the generous use of primary sources, allowing their words to describe the popular resentment and hostility—emotions that increased in proportion to the expansion of internal turmoil and Soviet demands.

Sebestyen’s analysis doesn’t overlook the hypocrisy of President Dwight Eisenhower’s foreign policy. Ike’s public saber-rattling about “rolling back communism”—which encouraged anti-Soviet actions via the CIA-run Radio Free Europe—was paired with practiced isolationism. Sebestyen relates then-Vice President Richard Nixon’s rather un-democratic view of the situation, “It would be no bad thing … in public relations terms, if the ‘Soviet iron fist were to come down hard on the Soviet bloc.’ ”

Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” of February 1956, highly critical of Stalin’s rule, opened the flood gates of political opposition and raised expectations of imminent reforms in Hungary. Emboldened by changes throughout the Warsaw Pact, “students set the fuse for the revolution,” writes Sebestyen. The events that follow are related in harrowing detail, from the labyrinthine political maneuvering to the pitched street battles.

It’s notable that Sebestyen’s own history is tied inextricably to the events of 1956, his family having fled Hungary during the revolution. His writing reflects a commensurate degree of emotional attachment to the subject while maintaining a professional balance, the result of which is a stirring history that never devolves into memoir in disguise. Nowhere is this more apparent, or important, than when he details the violent events that followed the brief ’56 thaw.

After 12 days of fighting the revolution was decisively crushed—surviving revolutionaries were jailed, rebel leaders executed. Over 2,600 Hungarians died fighting the Soviet tanks that were deployed to “intervene.” More than 150,000 people fled the country.

In the aftermath of 1956, Hungarian patriotism did the rational thing: It turned inward. The Hungarian Revolution, according to Sebestyen, “is a story of heroic failure,” but this failure instilled the notion of “victory in defeat” deep within the Hungarian psyche. Weakened by the rebellion, their patriotism was healed in personal reflection, to emerge self-assured when the Soviet empire crumbled in the late ’80s. Twelve Days sets the stage for that final, belated victory.