Contemporary history is useless unless it allows emotion to be recollected in tranquillity. Probably no episode in 20th-century history generated a more intense burst of feeling in the Western world than the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Although it lasted less than two weeks, it was both a classic instance of the narrative of justified popular insurrection against oppressive government, familiar since the fall of the Bastille, and of David’s in this case doomed victory against Goliath.
For the Western side in the Cold War, then at its height, it dramatised the desire of enslaved peoples for liberty and, after a brief intermission that allowed some 200,000 Hungarians to escape, its ruthless repression by arms and terror. For Communists outside the Soviet empire, especially intellectuals, the spectacle of Soviet tanks advancing on a people’s government headed by Communist reformers was a lacerating experience, the climax of a crisis that, starting with Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, pierced the core of their faith and hope. It cost the Italian Communist Party something like 200,000 members, and most Western Parties the bulk of their intellectuals. And it was literally a spectacle. Hungary 1956 was the first insurrection brought directly into Western homes by journalists, broadcasters and cameramen, who flooded across the briefly breached Iron Curtain from Austria.
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