The Sprit of ’56
by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken
One of the most enduring myths reverently repeated among aging Cold Warriors and their acolytes is the contention that Ronald Reagan, and by extension, the United States government, defeated the Communists and brought about the end of the Cold War. This is always a convenient tale around American election time, but such self-congratulatory rhetoric does a great disservice to those who actually did bring about the end of decades of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. In reality, the Cold War was ended by the men and women of Eastern Europe who stood up to well-armed totalitarian regimes and demanded liberty, risking a beating, imprisonment and death. In contrast, no American politician, at any time during the Cold War, was ever at risk of much of anything. Even in the case of nuclear war, the President and Congress would likely be safe in their bunkers while the ordinary folk of North America and Europe perish. The real risks, and thus the real heroics were exhibited by the dissidents and revolutionaries behind the Iron Curtain. We should keep this in mind this week especially as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956.
The uprising, like many rebellions, sprang to life suddenly, beginning in an unexpected way and quickly commanding the support of a broad cross-section of the Hungarian population. As is usually the case, the widespread popular support behind the uprising was a source of shock and panic to the self-satisfied and bloated regime that was soon to fall.
The uprising began as a student protest with students demanding access to a radio station to broadcast their demands. The situation quickly escalated as the State Security Police fired on the students, and outrage and resistance to the regime spread rapidly.
In the week following October 23rd, the Hungarian population spontaneously formed itself into militias and seized arms from their masters. Government agents were imprisoned and executed, current prisoners were released and armed. Within days a new government had been formed and the new independent regime signaled its intent to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact and to hold free elections. But on November 4th, the Soviets, far out of reach of the free Hungarian militias, invaded Hungary in order to "liberate" Hungary from what they saw as a "counterrevolutionary" uprising. The Soviets eventually crushed the rebellion, killing thousands and installing a new puppet regime.
Viewed only in the short term, the uprising was a failure, for it failed to permanently cast off the Soviet-style police state that had turned Hungary, like the rest of the Eastern Bloc, into a vast prison. Yet, fifty years out, it is clear the Uprising was indeed a success. Even maximum-security prisons have riots, and the Hungarians were ruled by a State that, like so many other States before and since, ruled by sheer terror, yet couldn’t withstand for more than a few days a popular uprising of a disarmed populace.
The uprising inspired rebellion in its neighbors. By 1968, dissidents in Czechoslovakia demanded sweeping reforms, only to be crushed by the Soviets and their satellite governments. And in Poland, the Polish State attempted to destroy resistance by machine-gunning demonstrators in 1970. The Soviets assumed that such shows of brute force would end resistance, yet, throughout Eastern Europe, the spirit of 1956 had never been crushed, even after the Soviet tanks had rolled in.
By 1980, the Poles had formed Solidarity, the dissident "labor union" that incited anti-soviet rebellion, but in spite of the Communist government’s declaration of martial law in 1981, and the arrest and imprisonment of most of its leaders, the movement continued. Its success further emboldened and encouraged other "right-wing bourgeois agitators" (as the Communists described them) to resist all the more.
At the same time, the Soviet state was becoming progressively weaker and poorer, since, as Ludwig von Mises had predicted decades earlier, State-planned economies can always be relied upon to collapse under their own despotism. By 1980, high oil prices, which had propped up the regime for a decade began to decline, and finally, Eastern Europe, with all of its agitators and underground rebellion became more of a burden than a buffer to the Soviet state.
By 1989, the Brezhnev Doctrine had to be abandoned when Polish dissidents held free elections without Soviet approval. The Soviet government, too poor and too besieged by resistance on all sides to intervene, declined to take action as it had done in 1956 and 1968. In one of the most remarkable victories for liberty in centuries, the power of the state was rolled back across Europe — and peacefully no less — as those "counterrevolutionaries" who had risked their lives to challenge Communist domination sat ready to open the prisons, disband the state police forces, and finally realize the fruits of the Revolution of 1956.
Today, we are often told that the United States government was the indispensable and crucial factor in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. Throughout the Cold War, many American politicians made many speeches, and made many threats, but for all its bluster, the American State couldn’t even handle a small island off the coast of Florida, much less a tiny country in Southeast Asia. Yet, we are supposed to believe that the Soviet Politburo trembled in fear to such a degree that it eventually collapsed under the weight of despair. In fact, it has rarely happened, if ever, that a state simply gives up in the face of a threatening foreign power. Indeed, the opposite happens. The state becomes all the more willing to fight a desperate battle to the death, and can usually rely on the population to rally behind it.
States don’t give up in the face of foreign threats, but when they fear their own people, it is another matter entirely. By 1989, the Communist governments in Eastern Europe faced massive crises of legitimacy. Perhaps, they had faced such crises for decades, since 1956 even, when the crumbling foundation on which these regimes rested was revealed. After decades of moral, intellectual, and physical resistance, with an illegal political party in Poland alive and well, and with the Hungarians, as always, poised to throw off their chains, the enormous prison known as the Eastern Bloc simply ceased to exist.
This week, we should remember the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, and all of those who gave their lives and what little amount of liberty they had to face down despots bristling with nuclear weapons and terrible weaponry of every kind. For American politicians who still claim the mantle of defeating Communism, talking tough about resisting despotism with other people’s lives and fortunes continues to be a convenient political ploy. But for the men and women of Eastern Europe who not only spoke out against oppression, but took up arms against it, faced real punishments — a lifetime in prison, or perhaps death. For decades, they harassed, insulted, denounced, de-legitimized, and mocked their oppressors. Their example can not be confined to any particular time or place, but should be a permanent reminder to us that no oppression is inevitable or invincible. No State is so powerful that resistance cannot bear fruit. All that is required is courage.
Ryan McMaken [send him mail] teaches political science in Colorado.