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50 Years Later: a Look at Hungary’s Failed Revolt
Photo by Kevin Matthews

50 Years Later: a Look at Hungary’s Failed Revolt

Center for European and Eurasian Studies hosts visiting professor to share unconventional analysis of historic event.

Gati suggested his book's immense popularity has to do with his controversial methods. In the book, Gati asks "questions that have never been asked before" and has reached "a conclusion so contrary to" those of other scholars, he said.

This article was first published in The Daily Bruin.

By Helen Yim, Daily Bruin contributor

STUDENTS, FACULTY and members of the community gathered together last Thursday to hear a leading scholar defend his unconventional approach to analyzing the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

Charles Gati, a professor of European studies at Johns Hopkins University, came to UCLA to discuss the ideas presented in his latest book called "Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt."

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a popular revolt against the Communist government of Hungary which was controlled by the Soviet Union. Thousands of revolutionaries armed themselves in a struggle for democratic reform but were quickly overwhelmed by the Soviet military which controlled Hungary at that time.

At the event, Gati argued strongly against the traditional belief that military intervention by the Soviet Union was inevitable.

Gati cited the incompetence of Hungarian revolutionary leaders and the apathy of the United States government as main reasons for the revolution's failure.

"It was very critical of both the American government and of the Hungarian government," Beth Greene, a graduate student in history, said of Gati's lecture.

The lecture was part of a series of events planned by the Center for European and Eurasian Studies to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

UCLA history Professor Ivan Berend, who also spoke at the event, praised Gati's book as "extraordinary, outstanding ... the best book of 1956 I know of."

"Failed Illusions" topped the best-seller list in Hungary for weeks.

Gati suggested his book's immense popularity has to do with his controversial methods. In the book, Gati asks "questions that have never been asked before" and has reached "a conclusion so contrary to" those of other scholars, he said.

Some students familiar with Gati's new book agreed that Gati's work departed from previous historians' analysis of the revolution.

"The work goes against all the writings of previous scholars on the Hungarian Revolution," Greene said.

Gati said it was the duty of the leaders of the revolution to temper the expectations of the revolutionaries.

"They should have (understood that) something is better than nothing, a good guideline for any country's foreign policy. It was not understood by mature (government officials) and Americans who should have known better," he said.

Gati also condemned the Eisenhower administration's policy of containment and rollback of Soviet power as hypocrisy, as the United States took no action during the Hungarian Revolution.

In the operative files of the CIA, Gati found that only one CIA agent was present in Hungary in 1956 and that the U.S. had no plans to assist Hungary.

"It's like a comedy routine here. ... The CIA was prepared not at all," Gati said.

Gati claimed that shifts in Soviet foreign policy before the Hungarian revolution meant the Soviet Union was more open to demands for reform and may have tolerated the revolution had the revolutionary leaders, particularly Imre Nagy, prime minister of Hungary in 1955, been more reasonable and perceptive.

"There was no wisdom there on the part of the Hungarians, no rational thinking," Gati said.

Instead of making unrealistic demands, Nagy should have guided the revolutionaries to a more gradual, evolutionary process for reform, according to Gati.

"If the revolution had more modest goals it could have succeeded," Gati said.

Gati said he was "critical of the U.S., even more so" than of the Hungarian leaders. Gati said the Eisenhower administration was not interested in gradual change, and the mentality of the White House in 1956 was to leave the country to the Soviets unless it could become "a free, independent country."

While Berend praised Gati's new approach, he also stressed the improbability of any self-limitation on the part of the Hungarian revolutionaries.

"The questions (Gati poses) are probably not realistic of course. ... In real terms, revolution is never self-limited," Berend said.

Berend called the possibility of avoiding Soviet invasion in 1956 "slight."

Although improbable, Berend stressed that the questions Gati poses provided the historian with "an excellent analytical tool in this case."

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