Twelve Days: Revolution 1956 – How the Hungarians Tried To Topple Their Soviet Masters by Victor Sebestyen - review by Adam LeBor

Adam LeBor

The Battle for Budapest

Twelve Days: Revolution 1956 – How the Hungarians Tried To Topple Their Soviet Masters


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 336pp £20

Of all the capitals of Central Europe, Budapest exudes the most powerful sense of history. Take a stroll through the Belvaros – the downtown area – at night, and it’s easy to imagine the rumble of tanks, or the ghosts of sharpshooters and street-fighters from 1956 flitting across the roofs. Fine old Habsburg apartment buildings are still spattered with bullet holes and shrapnel marks, their doorsteps worn smooth by generations of invaders. For those in the West, the revolution is encapsulated by the grainy black-and-white pictures of teenage street-fighters hurling Molotov cocktails at Soviet tanks. It is unfortunate, although probably inevitable in a country as polarised as Hungary, that the legacy of 1956 remains so controversial. The nationalist Right has tried to appropriate 1956 as an uprising against both the Soviets and any kind of left-wing government. But historians now agree that many of the revolutionaries, and Hungary’s leader Imre Nagy, wanted to reform Communism and build a new kind of Socialist regime with a human face. They definitely did not want a return to the pre-1939 era of landlords and aristocrats, writes Victor Sebestyen in his masterly history of the 1956 revolution. 

Nowadays Hungary is ruled by a coalition of the Socialists and the liberal Free Democrats. The Socialists are the descendants of the Communists, reborn as a fully democratic, modern European party. Still, there will be tricky questions of protocol at the government-sponsored commemorations this year. How can former Communists, such

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