Imperial Follies

In 1956, the British stumbled in Suez, and the Soviets crushed the Hungarian uprising—revealing the fatal flaws of modern empire.

Fifty winters ago, Russian tanks were demolishing buildings in Budapest, and British warplanes were bombing Cairo International Airport. The coincidence of these two crimes and disasters made a fool out of the nascent United Nations, gave birth to the New Left, put an end to European colonialism, curtain-raised the fall of Communism in 1989, and confirmed the United States as the postwar superpower. In retrospect, the twin episodes of hubris seem almost irrational. Yet hubris has its reasons, too, and they are worth examining.

“If a particular cause, like the accidental result of a battle, has ruined a state,” wrote Montesquieu in considering the role of chance and contingency in the Roman case, “there was a general cause that made the downfall of this state ensue from a single battle.” Though this insight may verge on the tautologous, it is nonetheless superior to the view—pungently expressed by one of the pupils in Alan Bennett’s triumphant success The History Boys—that history itself is no more than “one fucking thing after another.” The powder train had been laid across Europe before the random event at Sarajevo, and might almost as easily have been ignited by the confrontation at Agadir in Morocco a few years earlier. If the Confederacy had not been so hubristic as to fire on Fort Sumter, it certainly was hubristic enough to be doomed to make a comparably fatal mistake.

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Khrushchev and Eden in 1955

Perhaps this view necessarily applies better to endings than to beginnings: one does not have the same sense of certainty concerning, for example, the open question of which European people would or could have been the first to subjugate and settle the Americas. Hegel’s famous remark about the owl of Minerva—which takes wing only at dusk, and which thus enables one to mark only the closure of a period—is for this reason much over-employed. But the crepuscular theory of history is no less serviceable for being something of a cliché. When General de Gaulle was asked why he was so reluctant to recognize Communist rule in Eastern Europe as permanent, he responded, “Parce-que l’avenir dure longtemps.”

Once it is pitilessly conceded that the future has a big future, certain once-epochal events immediately become more manageable and intelli­gible. In the fall of 1956, one undoubtedly saw the closing moments of two very imposing systems. One of them, the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, was ironically almost Rasputin-like in surviving the evidently mortal wound and staggering on for several more decades. The other, the British Empire in the eastern Mediterranean and Near East, had already outlived a number of apparently terminal moments but after Suez, expired almost at once. The “verdict” of history was still the same in both cases and was apparent to some clear-sighted people at the time.

From the archives:

Flashbacks: "Suez in Retrospect"
Articles written in the months and years following the Suez crisis take stock of its implications.

It is not often pointed out that in 1956, both the Russian and British empires had recently undergone the psychic experience of another sort of fin de régime, with the resignation of Winston Churchill and the death of Joseph Stalin. Their successors, Sir Anthony Eden and Nikita Khrushchev, had more to prove—and more to fear from invidious comparison—than either might have liked to admit. As these books demonstrate, both leaders felt compelled to act in ways, and in circumstances, in which they were as much the prisoners of events as the masters of them. And sometimes they were acutely aware of the fact. Most people tend to think of Soviet actions in Eastern Europe, for example, as the outcome of petrified bureaucratic thinking that was inclined to reach for repression as the first resort. And so it was in practice. But Victor Sebestyen’s illuminating book shows a surprising degree of self-awareness in the Kremlin, which understood—subjectively, so to speak—that its Hungarian puppets were unloved and incompetent, and might draw the Red Army into a moral and political trap:

Under [Mátyás] Rákosi’s stewardship Hungary’s economy was a disaster, unease was growing, the jails were full to overflowing, the courts were handing out sentences of a severity that could not be justified and Rákosi’s personality cult was appearing more and more ridiculous.

When the local Stalinists were summoned in 1953 from Budapest to a crisis meeting in Moscow, it was in order to be told that they were a disgrace to Communism. No less an authority than Lavrenti Beria attacked the excesses of the Hungarian secret police (which must have stung a bit), while Georgy Malenkov, according to Soviet archives, announced sternly:

We, all of us here on our side, are deeply appalled at your high-handed and domineering style. It has led to … countless mistakes and crimes and driven Hungary to the brink of catastrophe.

In May 1955, the Soviet Union agreed to evacuate its troops from neighboring Austria, on the grounds that they were no longer needed nor (to put it mildly) wanted in that country. At almost exactly this time, the British Conservatives, recognizing that the end of dominion in India logically reduced their dependence on Suez, had also made the essential concession by evacuating the Canal Zone and admitting that their period of direct rule in Egypt was at an end. Yet in October 1956, the Red Army was a hated invader on the streets of Budapest, and not long afterward, British soldiers were wading back ashore at Port Said. How came such cruel follies to be committed?

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Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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