New Canadian publication on 1956
The proceedings of the international conference which took place at the University of Ottawa in October 2006 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution have been published by the University of Ottawa Press. The conference was part of a series of activities in the fall of 2006 including concerts, films, exhibitions, and other commemorations undertaken in collaboration between national cultural agencies, universities, and community organizations. The Canada-Hungary Educational Foundation (set up in 2005 to create awareness for this anniversary and Canada’s generous response to the refugee exodus) participated in a number of these activities as reflected on many pages of this website, which was itself a 50th anniversary project. We are pleased to publish here a review by Ottawa writer and former CBC journalist Kevin Burns of this new collection of essays. The 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Hungarian and Canadian Perspectives was officially launched at the University of Ottawa on November 2nd 2010.
Handling History with Care
September 19, 2010
The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: Hungarian & Canadian Perspectives,
Edited by Christopher Adam, Tibor Egervari, Leslie Laczko, and Judy Young
International Canadian Studies Series, University of Ottawa Press, 2010
296 pps., illustrated with black and white photographs, paper. $39.00
In The Uses and Abuses of History1, Margaret MacMillan warns us to use history with care. She writes that we “should be wary of grand claims in history’s name or those who claim to have uncovered the truth once and for all.” She concludes, “In the end, my only advice is use it, enjoy it, but always handle history with care.”
The contributors to The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: Hungarian and Canadian Perspectives, edited by Christopher Adam, Tibor Egervari, Leslie Laczko, and Judy Young, published recently by the University of Ottawa Press, have followed MacMillan’s wise advice. This quartet of editors has presented the careful and considered work of twelve international and Canadian contributors who interpret the impact of the events in Hungary of 1956 and their impact and significance in Canada ever since.
This collection of essays makes available to a broader readership presentations that were originally given to participants at a three-day colloquium at the University of Ottawa on the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. Organized by the Faculty of Arts’ Institute of Canadian Studies and the Faculty of Social Science, in partnership with the Hungarian Studies Association of Canada, the colloquium examined the current circumstances of research into the Revolution and its impact in Canada and elsewhere. Bringing key experts in different disciplines together, such events can offer tantalizing insights into sometimes arcane scholarly detail. When they work well, they provide enough context to encourage participants to pursue their own research questions. And this collection of essays does exactly that. Rather than provide a comprehensive overview of 1956 and the events that followed, it offers a series of fascinating fragments of historical, sociological, and political detail, while raising questions to encourage further research and reflection by specialists and amateurs alike.
For example, Csaba Békés, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, explains how a series of documents published until the 1990s (the Malin Notes) forced much reinterpretation of what was “an accepted fact.” These documents relate to discussions within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union at the height of all the tensions. Their release, writes Békés, has inspired historians “to convince readers that Hungary’s place, role, and opportunities in the world can only be gauged realistically – in history and in the present – if mythical thinking is authoritatively overcome in our approach to the recent past by realistic historical self-knowledge.” Echoing MacMillan, Békés says that historians achieve this by “persistently battling the historical myths, legends, illusions, and misconceptions.”
János Rainer’s traces the roots of the Revolution in the social and economic turmoil of life in Hungary in the 1930s. Susan Glanz provides a detailed economic analysis of the political parties in Hungary before the Revolution and how the economy changed after 1956. By 1960, she writes, “Hungary had begun to make its own goulash (Communism), though at this time there was little meat in the stew.” Heino Nyyssönen of Finland’s University of Jyväskylä shows how Hungarians are still fighting passionately over how to commemorate the events of 1956.
The University of Toronto’s Harold Troper outlines the broad Canadian context of the complex and sometimes divisive human story of how more than 37,000 Hungarian refugees were resettled in Canada. Troper says it illustrates not only the Canadian Cold War policies of that time, but also “the growing power of non-print media, television especially, to both shape the popular imagination and influence public policy, and, finally, of the ability of government with political will, in this case working in cooperation with non-government agencies (NGOs), to overcome the bureaucratic inertia that so often haunts organizational structures.”
Troper could very well be talking about recent events off the coast of British Columbia. “If the Canadian public was moved by what it saw as a humanitarian crisis and one befalling those who suffered for freedom’s cause, the government initially saw problems.” In a related article, Greg Donaghy identifies the lasting policy implications of the events of 1956 and the role of public pressure in encouraging Canada to adopt “a more generous attitude toward other migrants.”
In addition to essays that challenge a reconsideration of historical events in Hungary and their impact on Canada, the collection contains pieces on economics, politics, Jewish perspectives (Júlia Vajda’s account of the Revolution as experienced by Shoah survivors, for example), as well as a comparison of the Hungarian settlement in Argentina (NYU’s Judith Kesserü Némethy). Hungarian archivist Maria Palasik provides a powerfully documented re-assessment of the role of women in the Revolution.
Among the Canadian essays is Nándor Dreisziger’s overview of early Hungarian settlement in Canada, and Peter Hidas’s descriptive and statistical depiction of the arrival and reception experiences of the refugees. Also doubling up as a contributor, editor Christopher Adam shows how one of Canada’s ideologically conflicted Hungarian newspapers dealt with the story by resorting to convincing the refugees it would be better if they returned to Hungary.
The editors write in their introduction that although a study of one major Hungarian/Canadian story, a work like this “is relevant to research on the trajectories of various categories of refugees and immigrants.” To return one final time to Margaret MacMillan, this collection of essays also suggests that those who “use history to understand ourselves” also have the opportunity – and in MacMillan’s words the responsibility – to “use it to understand others.”
1. The Uses and Abuses of History – Margaret MacMillan, Penguin, 2008