Cox Terry, Terry Cox. Challenging Communism in Eastern Europe: 1956 and Its Legacy. London: Routledge, 2008. 193 S. $125.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-415-44928-1.
Reviewed by László Borhi
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (June, 2010)
T. Cox (Hrsg.): Challenging Communism in Eastern Europe
„Challenging communism in Eastern Europe“ is a collection of essays dealing with the history and memory of 1956 in Hungary, Poland and the Soviet Union in addition to a paper on the Hungarian opposition round table talks in 1989. Even though the Hungarian 1956 has become the metaphor of freedom struggle János M. Rainer asserts that in an age of relativisation and doubt the 1956 Revolution will not „take such a place in collective memory“ (p. 2) in Hungary as the Revolution of 1848 has done. This, he argues may have to do with the quarrel over the legacy of the revolution that has still not subsided in a deeply divided society. But Rainer points out that it is not easy to reconstruct what Hungarian society wanted to achieve since a large segment of it never got the chance to express its desires. The program promulgated on October 23 was both radical and moderate. Radical in the sense that it wanted to restore national independence and a multiparty system; moderate because it wished to leave the newly established economic system more or less intact. Hence a paradox: Hungarians wished to restore democracy but not capitalism, which means that the present ambiguous Hungarian stance on market capitalism has historical roots. Rainer explains that non-communist participants in political life understandably exercised self-restraint. Indeed, self-censorship characterized the whole revolution on the (mistaken) grounds that an independent but socialist Hungary might be acceptable to the Soviet Union. Rainer adds that the new Hungarian democracy is a direct heir of the 1956 Revolution.
Whereas Rainer placed the diffuse memory of 1956 in the context of the 20th century mindset Gábor Gyáni explains the rejection of 1956 as a unifying national event with the fact that in an age where well-established group identities have eroded communities search for a usable past „to lend legitimacy to their present-day existence“ (p. 11). Gyáni argues that 1956 has become a positive grounding narrative and contains a wide range of possible meanings and interpretations. As the failure of the effort by Erzsébet Nagy, the martyred prime minister’s daughter to ascribe a fixed meaning to 1956 shows, the memory of the revolution cannot express a stable narrative. This also has to do with the workings of „hot memory“: the past is still with us and influences the present. Hungary’s new political culture was constructed from both imported and domestic materials. The question then is the role of professional historians. They too are caught up according to Gyáni in the so-called hermeneutic circle. Their account of the past may not be less subjective than a memoir when describing events under the rule of hot memory. Therefore their accounts of 1956 „have gained limited credibility and prestige“ (p. 18) partly because of the legacy of communist historiography. There are still rival images of 1956 in circulation in part because of the „natural divergences that mark discursive practice“ and „much more to the domination of the plural historical narratives based on personal recollection or other forms of collective memory“ (p. 19). Past is democratized much to the concern of professional historians.
„When faced with major political or social ruptures, individuals may be forced to rethink the meanings of their lives.“ (p. 21) Through oral interviews James Mark examines how one group in Hungary, Communist party members who joined the movement immediately after World War II reacted to three different political systems, and how their private and public autobiographies were moulded in response. In private, individuals’ relationships with public narratives were determined both by their past experiences and their relationship with the new regime. In sum James examines survival strategies under dictatorial conditions, strategies that are irrelevant to stable democracies. Accounts, public and private, of 1956 are shaped by career and life strategies more than personal experience. For those that spun their personal identities around „antifascism“ both the post-1956 and the post-1989 periods were challenges that required them to retell their personal history and reinvent their place in society often times to protect their private sphere from political incursion and to reassert moral status in an ideologically hostile society. Hence the statement made by Gábor Gyáni that the „The ‚realistcic‘ nature and the mere credibility of the events thus recalled are thus provided not by their close reference to the actual events in the past, but rather by their relevance and specific meaning gained from the stry itself“ rings true. (p. 17)
Eszter Balázs and Phil Casoar deal with the manipulative use of images for construction of history. A Paris Match picture, „Heroes of
Budapest“ taken by an American photojournalist, was meant to offer „a universal symbol of revolution and freedom reflecting emotional empathy“ (p.57). Twenty years later, in 1976, taking a picture at the same location as the original 1956 picture with a contemporary couple on it, emphasizing the cult role of the picture Paris Match intended to „celebrate photojournalism itself“ (p. 62). But as the authors argue the picture in 1976 can be viewed „as an involuntary celebration of goulash-communism by observers in the West“ (p. 63). The original photo was used by the Kádár regime to portray the revolution in repulsive, dark terms. It featured with the caption „the underworld in arms“, a step away from the image to assimilation by language. Regime propaganda attributed a new visual meaning to the photo by manipulating the couple depicted as repulsive and frightening. In the West the picture became an icon of photojournalism and was amalgamated into the depiction of the eternal freedom fighter.
While the previous essays highlighted the constructed nature of our understanding of the past, Tony-Kemp Welch’s and Krzysztof Persak’s and Attila Szakolczai’s papers attempt the careful reconstruction of the political history of 1956. Kemp-Welch concludes that although by pulling out defense minister Rokossovsky Moscow offered a significant public gesture to placate the Poles, the changes in bilateral relations were „more symbolic than substantive“ (p. 90). Moreover, Gomulka showed no interest in opening to the West fearing that „socialism’s entanglement with capitalism would lead to ‚counter-revolution‘ of a new type“. He showed similar disinterest in further political modernization seeking solace „in recognition of geopolitical ‚realities‘“ (p. 91), the intelligentsia’s hopes soon faded.
Although little change occurred in Poland after 1956 the country was not invaded by the Soviets and escaped the brutal reprisals that became the lot of the Hungarians. Krzysztof Persak’s careful analysis of the relevant historical documents endeavors to shed light on how a political solution to the Polish crisis was worked out while a violent Soviet intervention was also in the cards. Even though there is a great quantity of archival documentation, crucial evidence is missing as usual. A significant difference between Hungary and Poland is that Khrushchev was willing to examine the situation in Poland on site, whereas in Hungary’s case he relied on reports from Budapest. According to the author the real intention behind Soviet troop movements in Poland still cannot be discerned. It may have been brutal pressure, or a full-scale intervention that had already started and was called off. Several explanations account for the lack of military action. Perhaps China’s veto, but the evidence linking this to the Soviet decision to abstain from military action is not conclusive. Persak maintains nonetheless that the October 21 Soviet decision took the Chinese view into account. A crucial difference between Poland and Hungary was that the former never considered leaving the Warsaw Pact and the situation there never seemed to spiral out of the control of the ruling party.
Attila Szakolczai’s essay, which breaks with the Budapest-centered account of 1956 and reconstructs events as they unfolded and influenced nationwide politics in the major towns of Győr and Miskolc, makes it clear that Hungarian demands were far more radical than anything put forward in Poland, moreover the revolution engulfed the country’s population at large. In Miskolc the situation got out of hand – the author meticulously reconstructs the chain of events – and degenerated into lynching, the security forces collapsed, law and order broke down. By contrast in Győr, where unarmed demonstrators were shot local leaders were able to consolidate the situation. By November 4 the revolutionary forces triumphed in both towns and their counties. This was a completely different situation than the one in Poland and together with the Hungarian wish to quit the WTO (something that the revolutionaries in both provincial towns demanded from the outset) confronted Moscow with a virtual fait accompli.
Karl E. Lowenstein examines the first period of Soviet openness that followed N. S. Khrushchev’s secret speech. He asserts that in the brief period while it lasted writers and other intellectuals ventured to question even some fundaments of the political system in a process that saw the rebirth of public opinion in the USSR. Lowenstein argues that the lessons of Hungary were crucial: „the quick change [in Hungary] from discussions of reform to outright ‚counter-revolution‘, suggested to the party leaders that any relaxation of control might lead to the collapse of the regime“ (p. 152). As a consequence the CPSU leadership’s secret letter of December 1956 put an end the period of openness much earlier than previously assumed. The ferment generated by the secret speech, Lowenstein argues illustrates why Gorbachev’s proposals generated the explosion they did. Nigel Swain’s essay begins where the previous essay ends: in 1989. Swain explores the depths of the Hungarian opposition round table’s deliberations on the institution of presidency. Swain’s essay reveals that despite the seeming unanimity vis-á-vis the ruling party the opposition was already deeply divided along political and the urbanist-populist line.
„Challenging Communism“ can be recommended to all those interested in the questions of memory and history, communism and 20th century Eastern Europe.
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László Borhi. Review of Terry, Cox; Cox, Terry, Challenging Communism in Eastern Europe: 1956 and Its Legacy.
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