Great Scream

Keith Middlemas

  • Uprising! One Nation’s Nightmare: Hungary 1956 by David Irving
    Hodder, 628 pp, £13.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 340 18313 6

This volume marks an extension of Mr Irving’s historiography: indeed, its critical reception has already provoked him to reply (in the New Statesman, 8 May) that he sees himself as ‘dedicated to the Augean task of revising modern history’. There are, of course, similarities with his earlier work: the vast mass of detail, painstakingly gathered from an impressive range of oral and written sources (although the rewards are rarely commensurate with the amount of energy used up); the same idiosyncratic use of evidence, as he proceeds from quite minor discoveries to challenging generalisations; and the same bewildering mixture of detailed narrative garnished with reported speech and snippets of broad analysis. Here, however, he tackles a subject potentially more open to revision than that, say, of Hitler’s War – one whose intrinsic drama can serve as a vehicle for rather more subtle expressions of the ideology of the ‘radical right’.

The events of October and early November 1956 in Hungary do not, by common consent of the historians who have looked at them, provide a clear case for saying that this was an uprising or a reform movement, or for offering any other single definition. They do not compare easily with the Prague Spring, or even the Polish October, 1956, and certainly not with the relatively disciplined activity of Solidarity in the last nine months.

Irving argues well the extent of confusion, contradiction and sheer irrationalism. Though often laden with clichés, and reminiscent of Guedalla at his worst, the narrative has a vigour which in the climactic week becomes almost overwhelming. For the sense of drama, and the immediacy of his witnesses’ recall, one could forgive such irritations as the tendency to surround a scrap of evidence with a mass of trivia (Nagy flourishing his gold Schaffhausen watch), and the odd habit of Anglicising the more familiar Hungarian Christian names, Pal to Paul Maleter – to the point of absurdity with Louis Lederer of the Observer. The appalling privations of the Russian wartime occupation, the aftermath under Rakosi, the Rajk trial, and the dismal day-to-day life in a post-war People’s Democracy, come across with claustrophobic intensity.

But all this effort barely changes the standard interpretation. Where there are genuine areas of disagreement, Irving tends to give indirect or contradictory opinions. Cardinal Mindszenty is seen as the vainglorious revival of an old reactionary dream, when he reaches Budapest on 30 October: yet he is described as having been a ‘martyr’ in 1948. A small matter perhaps, but a pointer to a larger difficulty: the focus is so narrow. There is nothing here about the problems and tensions of a Soviet Union facing the consequences of post-Stalin relaxation; very little on earlier uprisings in East Germany and Poland in 1953, or on the Polish October itself. Shown in isolation, Hungarian leaders behave as if they had no continuous rapport with Moscow, as if Rakosi did not attempt to play politics between Khrushchev and the ‘anti-Party’ group, or Nagy to capitalise on Tito’s desire to see the Yugoslav socialist experiment justified, after the long nightmare of Stalin’s hostility.

Where there is a serious attempt at revision, as with the assessment of Nagy, the attempt is too often vitiated by a sudden shaft of venom. To portray Nagy as an apparatchik out of his depth, vain, bombastic, pompous, fearful of stepping out of line without a Central Committee to back him up, evading responsibility for the first Soviet invasion, is not unreasonable, though harsh. Yet suddenly we have the malice: ‘his porky frame and roll of fat bulging over his collar ... his rounded, irregular face leaves the odd impression of a crop of haemorrhoids sprouting a Joseph Stalin moustache; the eyes squinting through pince-nez betray distant Mongol ancestry.’ The question why Gomulka should have succeeded when Nagy failed is not asked: instead, Irving casts doubt on the ability of the latter’s ‘addled brain’ even to have understood his celebrated declaration about a ‘national democratic movement’. Could he have done other than follow behind the hotheads in Budapest or Györ? Was he blackmailed by the threats of rebels in the West to march on the capital? What was the true role of the enigmatic Attila Szigethy in pushing, or perhaps moderating, the fateful demands for free elections and Hungarian withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact? The case is not argued, though Irving is judicious enough about Nagy’s responsibility for allowing extreme right-wing opinion to revive – a revival which let Tito off the propaganda hook.

He is clearer and fairer on Kadar’s role, on the foxy Party Secretary’s appreciation of trends, as the duel developed with Nagy for political direction of what was left of the Party; and on the essential point that the real danger, in Soviet eyes, came, not from a revival of the old bourgeois parties, but from the Social Democrats, who might split the working-class movement and make a Spain, or worse a Korea, for the great powers to fight out the Cold War. Yet even this is qualified by some fairly obvious flattery in the Introduction – the price perhaps of the privilege of investigating in today’s Hungary.

Beyond the narrative, however, what of the ‘new interpretation’? This was ‘not a revolution’, we are told, ‘but an insurrection. It was an uprising.’ This imprecise language serves as the basis for two major attempts at revision, concerning the extent and significance of anti-semitism, and the role of the Hungarian intellectuals, which in turn lead on to and embody a pervasive world-view about the utterly irredeemable nature of Communism, the ‘big Lie’. Beneath the surface argument, the choice of language and the positioning of Irving’s judgments appear carefully chosen.

With their numbers cut by two-thirds during the Nazi occupation, it is not surprising that many surviving Hungarian Jews turned to the Soviet troops as liberators and later joined the Communist Party. There they were safer from an old, endemic anti-semitism, and the Party welcomed recruits whose loyalty could be counted on. As a social phenomenon in the 1950s, the causes of anti-semitism in Eastern Europe merit discussion, and there is no reason to doubt that much popular hatred of the Party focused on the fairly obvious Jewishness of some of Rakosi’s apparatchiks (or ‘funkies’, as Irving calls them). Perhaps it is a subject ‘omitted from many histories of 1956’. But it is a long way from that to seeing the whole affair as a chain of association linking funkies, and the captive press, with Jews, making the Jewish factor both an origin – the uprising as pogrom – and an explanation for ultimate betrayal, a neat conjunction of the old Judaeo-Marxist conspiracy. Meanwhile epithets do their work: Rakosi employs ‘the tactics of a Kosher butcher’; the opposition inside the Party is a ‘largely Jewish tumour’; we hear of ‘Jewish torture officials’, of Jewish intellectuals hiding behind their curtains, and of one ‘ex-Jew’.

Irving is barely more subtle about the intellectuals, and a great deal more contradictory. First, in the Introduction, comes the judgment: ‘it was obvious to me that the industrial workers ... had powered the uprising ... the writers and intellectuals joined the clamour later, belatedly making audible the long-suppressed rage of the workers and students.’ Then follows a trail of mutually incompatible statements, leaving only a nasty flavour behind. He seems to accept that the Writers Union protest was important in September 1955, and the ‘great scream in the night’ in support of Nagy two months later: but immediately these stands are demolished by degrading personal details about the men who made them. He accepts that the Petöfi Circle ‘went a long way towards providing the machine proposed by Nicolas Gimes’, yet adds: ‘at first the public paid little heed.’ He quotes a single source, ‘you can’t make butter out of shit,’ to offset another declaration that the Circle’s meetings ‘were the talk of Budapest’.

An ideograph (‘out in front marched the industrial workers who had suffered from the Marxist bungling and persecution. Close behind followed the students, and behind them shambled the Communist intellectuals, bleating that they had only just realised the horrors of the Rakosi regime’) precedes six pages of evidence that the Petöfi Circle debates actually did inspire the public and affect the Kremlin’s policy – witness Mikoyan’s visit in July 1956. Irving compares the Writers Union with the Encyclopaedists’ preparation of the French Revolution, and eulogises the writer Julius Häy’s tours of the provinces – only to comment: ‘their contact with the real proletariat was a harrowing experience for intellectuals.’ When the action starts, the Circle is condemned as ‘trying to superimpose their own antiseptic demands on the next day’s demonstration’. ‘Woolly-minded’ intellectuals appear to feel ‘guilty’ at the bloodshed they have inspired; the intelligentsia ‘began feverishly constructing new political parties, founding newspapers, and otherwise dissipating their energies in non-urgent, non-combat tasks’.

Somewhere in all this there is a grim but worthwhile point. Yet what it all seems to sustain is an argument that the events of ’56 did not need an organisation, or means of communication, or plans. ‘The Reform Communist intellectuals [significant distinction] – the writers and journalists provided the least leadership of all; they were the nobodies of the uprising.’ Instead, a ‘Jewish writer and Communist’ like Häy found himself ‘horrified at what was now crawling up out of the bloody swamps of revolution’. Thus the circle is complete. The revolt of the ordinary people of the villages (who had apparently ‘never heard’ of the Writers Union), incited by the effete intellectuals, is betrayed by men too weak or corrupt to guide them against the real enemy.

The core of Irving’s evidence, cited repeatedly in quasi-scientific terms, lies in the mass of studies made of a selected thousand Hungarian refugees in 1957, mainly under CIA auspices, with the intention of finding those psychologically-motivated to carry on the crusade against Communism. This material, made available to him in the United States, is used constantly, almost without evaluation. It is an important source: yet to base so much on 1/200 of the total number of refugees, interviewed under these conditions, is surely excessively uncritical. Is it surprising that the answer comes out pat, with the Rand Corporation psychologist’s explanation of the ‘blur’ in the Marxist intellectual, or the rather dubious methods employed to assess ‘mass opinion’ three years earlier, or sheer psychobabble about why one biochemist turned his rifle on the approaching Russians?

In a curious way, Irving is ‘fair’. He slates the Eisenhower Administration, preoccupied with a Presidential election, and points out the irresponsibility of Radio Free Europe in inciting Hungarian hopes of intervention which no President could ever have sustained. But this serves only to underpin the main message: the heroes were the people of Hungary, the workers and peasants, who saw through the great Lie of Communism. Reform Communism becomes thus a poisonous illusion. Irving does not want to go back to the Cold War because in 1956 the USA was too soft. He returns to the fundamental anti-Bolshevism of the war of intervention after 1918. It is hardly surprising that so little is said about Gomulka or the Yugoslav experiment. Instead, Kadar is praised as a skilful broker who could milk the system’s weaknesses to bring relative prosperity and peace to Hungary after it was all over: and in the end this explains the distinction fudged earlier, between an uprising to overthrow the Party’s authority and a revolution to transform it and make the state democratic. Uprising would fulfil its author’s aim only if its conclusions could also be attributed to the Prague Spring and the success of Solidarity. Those likely to be convinced of that, by this eccentric and sinister book, are probably already as certain of these conclusions as Irving was when he began.