1956: The World in Revolt

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1956 was a year of change across the world. The apparently stable international order imposed by the victorious powers at the end of the Second World War was challenged by a series of dramatic revolts. This book provides an excellent survey of the key events from Budapest to Cairo and Algiers to Montgomery, Alabama.

Author Simon Hall brings their impact home with lively and inspiring blow by blow accounts and portraits of key personalities such as Rosa Parks, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Imre Nagy.

In February Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s not so secret speech denouncing the crimes of Stalin opened the floodgates of opposition to the state capitalist regimes of Eastern Europe.

Not only was Stalinist rule challenged, but the myth that these societies were in any way more progressive than Western capitalism was shattered for millions as Soviet troops were sent in to crush a workers’ revolution in Hungary.

Meanwhile the US’s claim to be the land of the free, in contrast to the totalitarianism of the so-called communist regimes, was exposed by the heroic revolt of the black people of Montgomery against segregation. In Cuba, in America’s own backyard, came the first stirrings of revolt against the corrupt puppet ruler Batista.

Britain’s remaining pretensions to superpower status were finally destroyed as Egypt’s nationalist leader Nasser first nationalised the Suez Canal and then faced down a full-scale invasion by Britain, France and Israel. While explaining well the implications of the defeat at Suez for British imperialism, Hall does not appear to recognise that US motives for opposing the attack were about undermining British and French influence in the Middle East and therefore equally imperialistic.

French imperialism was rocked both by this humiliating defeat and even more so by the rising of the oppressed Muslim population of Algeria against colonial rule. However, Hall seems to suggest that the nationalist movement was equally to blame for the extreme violence of the conflict. He describes attacks by the National Liberation Front on French colonists in gory detail while not mentioning France’s long record of extreme and wholesale violence against any sign of opposition to its rule.

Hall brings together a wide range of seemingly unconnected events and paints a vivid picture of a world in turmoil. He shows how struggles were often consciously linked by leading participants. As Martin Luther King put it, “This determination on the part of the Negro to struggle…until segregation and discrimination have passed away, springs from the same longing for human dignity that motivates oppressed people all over the world.”

Although many of the movements of 1956 did not end in victory, they were a precursor to major change to come. The radical movements that were to flower in the 1960s had their roots in the events of that year.

This book is a powerful and thoroughly enjoyable read and is recommended to anyone who wants an introduction to these important events.