Do not bother reading this book! It’s just arrant Cold War propaganda, and some of the comments in it verge on racism and homophobia to boot. What a disappointment. I was looking for something about the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, and I’ve read some excellent works by James Michener in the past, but I’m not sure how I even got through this. He just about stopped short of claiming that “the Russians” (had he never heard the word “Soviets”?!) ate little children and that communism condemned everyone to living on dry bread and water. The West, by contrast, was apparently practically perfect in every way. What happened in Hungary in 1956 was appalling, but I’m afraid that, in its own way, this book is pretty appalling as well. This was not what I was hoping for.
I do appreciate that, in 1957, when this book was published, Cold War tensions were running high; but I still don’t expect this sort of bias in a book written by a respected 20th century American author. It was the sort of language you expect in … I was going to say a Victorian book, but I think a better analogy might be a 17th century tract taking one side or the other over the various wars of religion. What a shame, because the story of the Hungarian Uprising is an extremely important one, and the story of the 200,000 or so refugees one that’s often forgotten.
Andau is a village just inside Austria, on the border with Hungary. In 1956, around 70,000 refugees crossed a small wooden bridge, the Brucke von Andau, from Hungary into Austria, and then walked the nine mile “Road to Freedom” to Andau itself, where they were given a warm welcome. The bridge was destroyed by Soviet troops in November 1956. It was rebuilt forty years later. The book tells the story of conditions and emotions within Hungary in the build-up to the Uprising, of the horrors of the Soviet invasion and the brutal suppression of the Uprising, and of the flight of the refugees. It should have been a fascinating and emotive read, but it was difficult to take in the story of the events through all the propaganda.
For example, he said that he’d spoken to some young married couples – but then started going on about how he thought they weren’t really married because the women weren’t wearing engagement or wedding rings, and then claim that communism meant that everyone in Hungary in the 1950s was so poor that they couldn’t afford to buy rings. Pages and pages about how it was virtually impossible for anyone in communist Hungary to buy a car, whereas it was dead easy for the American working-classes to do so.
He also went on at length about how communism was the enemy of religion. All right, to some extent obviously that’s true, but it was a fairly blatant attempt to appeal to conservative middle America. As for saying that the troops from Soviet Central Asia were particularly brutal and that most of the Hungarian secret police were gay, and that any Hungarians who weren’t Jewish would have preferred the Nazi occupation to the Soviet occupation … I was just disgusted by what I was seeing on the page. I would never have touched this book if I’d known it was going to be like this, but everything else I’ve read by James Michener’s been reasonably good.
What it wasn’t particularly was American propaganda. He criticised the US for not doing more to help, and for not taking in more refugees. But it was very much anti-Soviet, anti-communist propaganda. It was fulsome in its praise of the heroic Hungarians, and the Austrians who welcomed the refugees – OK, that I could have lived with, despite the flowery language. There was certainly heroism in Hungary, and the Austrians did welcome the refugees – and some of the refugee stories were very moving. Some of the characters were real, others based on real people, or a combination of real people; but he does explain that. And, yes, the communist regimes in Eastern Europe were often brutal, and what happened in Hungary in 1956 was horrific.
But this is not an account of what happened. It’s just propaganda. And it was a best seller. It’s even got its own Wikipedia page! That is frightening. I’m trying not to judge a book written in the 1950s by the standards of today, but propaganda is propaganda, in any generation. And I didn’t expect it from James A Michener. I’ve got another book on the 1956 Hungarian Uprising to read, and I just hope it’s a bit more objective than this one!