Journey to a Revolution

by Michael Korda, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, N.Y., 2006, $24.95.

Fifty years have now passed since the tragically unsuccessful rebellion of the Hungarians against the Stalinist government imposed upon them by the Soviet Union. Although ultimately crushed by the overwhelming force of the Red Army, the Hungarian Revolution has since proved to have been the first significant crack in the monolith of Communist hegemony, and subsequently led to the breakup of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union itself. As noted writer and publisher Michael Korda observes in Journey to a Revolution, his enthralling new book on the 1956 rebellion, “not since Pyrrhus himself has there been so Pyrrhic a victory” as that of the Soviet Union over the Hungarians. After the brutal excesses perpetrated upon the Hungarians in 1956, the world would never again be able to regard communism as a benevolent alternative to Western capitalism, nor would the Soviets be able to perpetrate such excesses without serious foreign and domestic repercussions.

Korda writes with great insight about both the uprising itself and the people and events that led to it. Although born in Britain and a resident of the United States, Korda is the son of noted set designer Vincent Korda, and the nephew of director Zoltan Korda and producer Sir Alexander Korda—all well-known figures in the British film industry and all Hungarian expatriates. Despite his continuous insistence that he is British, Korda betrays his heritage by describing as one of their national traits that Hungarians “took pride in listing famous people who were Hungarian, or of Hungarian descent, no matter how remotely,” and then proceeds to do exactly that himself, at great length.

Korda, who speaks fluent Russian, also understands far better than most writers the very different character—and deep-seated mutual antagonism—of the Russians and Hungarians. He carefully traces that antipathy from the tsarist military intervention on behalf of Hapsburg Austria against the Hungarian Revolution of 1849, through World War I to the abortive Communist revolution of Béla Kun in 1919, followed by the Fascist counterrevolution of Admiral Miklos Horthy and that government’s half-hearted participation on the German side in World War II. After the devastating invasion by the Red Army in 1944, the Soviets imposed a government upon Hungary composed largely of Hungarian Communists who had spent the past 21⁄2 decades in the Soviet Union, and who no longer had much in common with the people they were now called upon to rule. Under the circumstances, the events of 1956 were almost inevitable.

Although most histories of the Cold War tend to polarize its events into a simplistic view of good versus evil, Korda maintains that revolutions, once they begin, tend to take on a life of their own that has little or nothing to do with the issues that instigated them. The Hungarian Revolution was a classic case in point. On the very first day the uprising had achieved its immediate goal of reinstating Imre Nagy, the popular Communist prime minister who had been recently ousted by the Soviets in favor of the hard-line Stalinist, Ernö Gerö. Nevertheless, the unstable situation spiraled out of control when tens of thousands of Hungarians, who had gathered to hear Nagy speak, were fired upon by nervous Hungarian security police and Soviet army soldiers. With Hungarian army troops going over to the insurgents, who began attacking both the Hungarian security police and the Russians, what was left of the Hungarian government lost whatever control it had over the situation. Once that happened, the Soviet army had little choice but to intervene in full force. The Western powers, occupied by the simultaneous crisis over the Suez Canal, offered no help to the embattled Hungarians, and the end was a foregone conclusion.

Along with his description of the events in Hungary, Korda examines the possible links between the 1956 Suez Crisis and the Hungarian Revolution. In particular, he discusses the possibility that British intelligence may have deliberately encouraged the Hungarians to rebel as a means of distracting the Soviet army, and thus preventing the Soviet Union from intervening in the British and French occupation of the Suez Canal. There is no doubt that both British and U.S. propagandists encouraged the Eastern Europeans to rise against their Soviet occupiers with promises of Western military aid that never materialized.

Korda himself took a minor part in the rebellion when he and four fellow Oxford undergraduates volunteered to deliver a consignment of medical supplies to the hospital in Budapest. Much (though by no means all) of Journey to a Revolution is devoted to an account of his firsthand experiences of the Hungarian Revolution, which he recounts in vivid detail and with a surprising amount of wry humor. Overall, the book is highly recomended as both an insightful, in-depth look at the peculiar character of the 1956 uprising and an enthralling good read.


Originally published in the March 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here