(Montgomery, Alabama bus segregation, 1956)
During my forty two year teaching career my students repeatedly complained when I used the term “watershed date” in class. There are certain dates in history that deserve that characterization, i.e.; 1648 the dividing line between the Medieval and the modern, 1789 the year of revolution and of course 1989 the collapse of the Soviet Union, among many others. Often historians seem to come up with new dates, arguing its historical significance, and in Simon Hall’s new book 1956: THE WORLD IN REVOLT, the author chooses a year that probably qualifies as a “watershed date.” The year 1956 witnessed a number of important events that include the Suez War, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, the Polish uprising, the Algerian Civil War, Nikita Khrushchev’s destalinization speech, the independence of Ghana, and important events in South Africa, Cuba among many others. Trying to write a complete history of all of these events is a daunting task that for Hall, falls a little bit short. The author makes a valiant attempt by introducing the main characters through biographical sketches and goes on to explain what has occurred and why it is important. The problem for Hall is carrying out his theme of anti-colonialism and the rise of independence movements, while trying to effectively link them all together globally, a truly difficult task.
(Algerian Civil War independence movement)
Today we acknowledge the sixtieth anniversary of the Suez War and the Hungarian Revolution with a number of new books appearing particularly monographs by Michael Doran and Alex von Tunzelmann, which are narrower in focus than Hall’s work. The author teaches at the University of Leeds and has published a number of works on civil rights and the protest movements of 1960s. Hall sees 1956 through a much wider lens in which the European powers refused to fully relinquish their imperial ambitions, the so called “people’s democracies” of eastern Europe were confronted by further Soviet oppression, and in the United States and South Africa white supremacists tried their best to retain racial control. The book is broken down into a series of chapters that seem to jump from one topic to another with a closing paragraph that tries to create continuity with the next chapter. This technique is very informative from a narrative perspective, but linking the history of Rock n’ Roll to civil rights and independence movements is a bit of a stretch. At times this technique does work as the Algerian Civil War impacted other colonial struggles in Cyprus, Ghana and other areas.
Hall devotes a great deal of time to the Suez Crisis that resulted in war at the end of October into November 1956. His narrative is spot on but he does not add anything new to historical analysis. His discussion of Gamal Abdul Nasser, Guy Mollet, Anthony Eden, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and David Ben-Gurion are accurate and provide insights into how the drama unfolded and was settled. Hall relates Suez to events in Poland and Hungary as the war provided cover for the Soviets to crush descent in its satellites. It was able to avert a military incursion of Poland through threats, and in Hungary the Soviet army crushed the revolution with tanks and infantry. Hall introduces Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Wladislaw Gomulka, Imre Nagy, and the workers and intellectuals who stood up for their principles as best they could. These events were fostered by Khrushchev’s February 20, 1956 Speech to the Soviet Party Congress where he denounced Stalin and his “cult of personality” and argued that countries could take a different path to socialism. The Soviets let the genie of freedom out of the bottle and throughout the Soviet bloc people began to call for greater rights. As events in Hungary showed the forces of freedom went too far for Soviet tastes. As Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn stated “the October Revolution created a world communist movement, the Twentieth Congress destroyed it.” (381)
(Hungarian people demonstrating against Soviet oppression knock down statue of Joseph Stalin in Budapest)
Hall makes many astute comments in the narrative. His discussion of the strategy employed behind the scenes during the Montgomery bus boycott and the leadership of Martin Luther King and how he relates the strategy of non-violence pursued by civil rights leaders in America and its impact on events in Africa and Asia are important. The strategies and ideology of the white supremacists blaming calls of integration and greater civil rights for all citizens as a communist plot, just played into the hands of Soviet propaganda as it was crushing the citizens of Budapest with tanks. Hall is perhaps at his best when discussing the origin and the course of the Algerian Civil War. His explanation of how one million European settlers living in Algeria dominated a Muslim population of over nine million reflects the basic problem. Of these one million Europeans, about 12,000 owned most of the industry, media and fertile land in Algeria. Hall explains the creation of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) and describes its leadership and strategy as the bloody civil war that Alistair Horne calls the “A Savage War of Peace” in his excellent study of the conflict progresses from its origin in November 1954 and would not end until 1962.
(Nelson Mandela, imprisoned in South Africa, 1956)
Hall’s final chapter is very timely as he describes the rise of Fidel Castro and his 26 July movement. It is especially relevant today as this morning we learned that Fidel passed away at the age of ninety. Hall explores Fidel’s rise and how he created his movement with his brother Raul, Che Guevara and eighty Marxist guerillas, and why it was so successful, in addition to its impact in the western hemisphere and Africa.
Overall, the book is extremely well written, though it relies too often on secondary sources. If you are looking for a general history of world events with a global perspective that seems to come together in the mid-1950s that impacts Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas for decades, then Hall’s effort might prove a satisfactory read.
(Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, 1956)