1956: THE WORLD IN REVOLT by Simon Hall

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(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.

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(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)

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(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.

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(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.

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(Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, 1956)

MANDELA by Martin Meredith

As the world has praised Nelson Mandela over the last few weeks there seems little to add concerning his importance to world history.  A man of such magnitude deserved a biography that encompasses his entire life with an author who delves into all aspects of their subject including their flaws.  I found two major biographies of Mandela, Anthony Sampson’s MANDELA, and a book of the same title by Martin Meredith.  I chose Meredith’s work because Sampson’s was the “authorized biography” and I wanted to read a book that appeared less likely to be hagiography.  Meredith who has written a number of books on South African history is both a historian and a journalist and has written a book that is more than a biography of Mandela as a person and what he experienced, but a work that encompasses all major aspects of South African history from the introduction of apartheid through the election of Mandela as president and his term in office.  The book itself is very detailed and explores Mandela’s life beginning with his tribal upbringing and education in missionary schools and ending with his retirement from public life in 2007.

As a narrative history Meredith has presented a readable account of his subject, though at times his prose is somewhat wordy and trenchant.  However, once the reader becomes used to Meredith’s approach the material is worth exploring as the author provides important historical background to each aspect of his topic, and he is able to weave important analysis into each major subject.  The reader is exposed to Mandela’s personal development at the same time Meredith incorporates the history of the African National Congress (ANC) into the narrative.  Meredith explores ANC policy as it tries to implement a strategy to deal with apartheid and presents the factions that developed within the party as the “party elites” pursued a more moderate approach when compared to the younger generation that emerged during World War II that wanted to pursue a more violent and radical program.  Throughout the book Mandela appears to side with the “elites” and except for a few burst of anger over the course of events he calls for a non-violent course of action.

Meredith provides details of the horrendous conditions that existed for Africans in Afrikaner society.  The role of State Security and police in repressing opposition is ever present as violence, torture, and murder are employed to maintain the apartheid system.  Meredith presents the evolution of Mandela from a young man pursuing a career in law to an activist who can no longer tolerate what is happening in his country.  Meredith reviews the Rivonia Trial using court transcripts that results in Mandela’s twenty-seven year imprisonment, most of which takes place in the notorious Robben Island prison.  The evolution of Mandela’s political thinking, his relationship with warders, other prisoners, and the prison hierarchy are revealed in detail.  Upon his release we witness what Mandela has become and we follow the course of his career, renewed family life, and attempts to lead South Africa out of its period of darkness.  The negotiations between Mandela and the ANC on the one hand, and P.W. Botha and F. W. de Klerk, the two Prime Ministers are presented.  The years 1990-1994 are vitally important and provide insights in trying to understand the South African political persona, and why Mandela’s achievement of a bi-racial democracy for South Africa was so important.

The areas I found most interesting dealt with the internal debates within the ANC and the different personalities involved.  Aside from Mandela, individuals such as Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo emerge as important figures that deserve a great deal of credit for the evolution of ANC policy and resulting successes.  Meredith does an exceptional job in discusses Afrikaner politics and policy maneuvering as the different Prime Ministers try and maintain a system that evolves into a worldwide pariah.  The fractious nature of South African society is nicely explained as we see how the Indian, Africans, and Afrikaner populations exist within a segregated society.  We witness the economic and societal implications of apartheid and the lengths that the white power structure went to maintain it.  Throughout the narrative all aspects of the story return to Mandela, a man who is exceptional, but also somewhat flawed.

Meredith delves into Mandela’s personal life and what emerge are an authoritarian father, a poor husband at times, a philanderer, and a person who could be very stubborn and dogmatic.  Meredith offers examples to support his conclusions but his overall evaluation of Mandela is an exceptional individual who overcame enormous obstacles.  Meredith captures Mandela best as he describes his survival strategy while imprisoned, “he became adept at concealing his emotions behind a mask, rarely letting any sign of anger or bitterness emerge and never betraying doubt or despair before others.” (286)  These traits allowed Mandela to develop his own “personality cult” while in prison and later as a politician and became a means for him to survive the personal and political crises that he was confronted with each day.

Mandela’s political naiveté is an important component when dealing with his world view.  Meredith is on firm ground as he discusses Mandela’s relationship with his wife Winnie.  Mandela’s devotion to her blinded him to the fact that she is almost a sociopath in dealing with her own sense of self.  The discussion of the Mandela United Football Club and the violence and murder she was involved with is important as Mandela constantly makes excuses for her actions and repeatedly supports her attempts to secure her own political power base.  Meredith nicely documents their marriage, its failure, the court appearances, and the final break up as Mandela finally after making excuses for years comes to the realization of what his wife really is.  When dealing with Winnie or negotiations with de Klerk and others Mandela develops rationalizations to justify his positions, it is as if he has tunnel vision when he confronts evidence that does not support his world view.  Once Mandela becomes president of South Africa Meredith should be more balanced in describing “a benign patriarch, floating above the political hurly-burly and taking a broad-brush approach to government”(567) because of the problems that ensued after he left office and was replaced by Govan Mbeki.  Meredith presents Mandela’s flaws but he is correct in praising his subject in that without him apartheid would have witnessed a much more violent end than transpired under his leadership.

If there is an aspect of the book that might have enhanced the experience for the reader it would have been to use footnotes or endnotes.  It is obvious that Meredith is on top of his material but his annotated bibliography designed to create a broad umbrella for citations is not very effective and leaves this reader to question where some of the information originates.  Overall this is a work of history that is greatly needed for those who would like to understand what has transpired in South Africa in the twentieth century and gain insights as to where it is heading in the future.  The audience for this book might appear narrow from my comments, but it is worth plowing through because of the story it tells.