The world as we knew it, 60 years ago

Dr Simon Hall, senior lecturer in American history at Leeds University and author of 1956: A Year in Revolt.
Dr Simon Hall, senior lecturer in American history at Leeds University and author of 1956: A Year in Revolt.
  • Leeds University lecturer Simon Hall pieces together the chaotic and momentous year that was 1956.
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We’ve just put a terrible year behind us. The world is in a dreadful state. There’s no need here – no space either – to recount 2015’s catalogue of horrors. It’s tempting to think everything is getting worse, the world descending into chaos. For anyone tempting to entertain this suspicion or fear, Simon Hall’s new book comes as a salutary reminder that it’s always been like this. There is a significant difference of course. We are better, or at least more immediately, informed today. Fewer horrors go unremarked and unrecorded. There are cameras everywhere. There is satellite television and the internet. We now see what once we could only read about.

In 1956 the demand for civil rights for African Americans provoked conflict, rioting and lynching; there was the bus boycott associated with Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, while proposals for the end of segregation in schools revived the dispute between the respective rights of States and the Federal Government. In South Africa the apartheid government arrested more than 50 opposition leaders, among them Nelson Mandela, and charged them with treason. France was engaged in what became the most vicious of wars in Algeria, and Britain in a somewhat less violent one in Cyprus. In the summer Egypt’s President Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, and in the autumn Britain and France, in collusion with Israel, attempted to re-occupy the Canal Zone and overthrow Nasser. That same month there were anti-Soviet risings in Poland and Hungary. In retrospect, one can see 1956 as the year in which the dissolution of the French and British empires became inevitable – Ghana achieved independence and the first cracks appeared in the Soviet Empire.

The unrest in Poland and Hungary was triggered by an event that was not intended to be broadcast. This was Nikita Khrushchev’s speech to the secret session of the Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in which he denounced Stalin and exposed his crimes. Some of his colleagues had warned him against doing so, Lazar Kaganovich saying that any public examination of Stalin’s “mistakes” would “raise doubts about the correctness of our whole course”. This was precisely what happened. The Hungarian Rising was a consequence. Its bloody suppression, along with Khrushchev’s speech, deprived the Soviet Union of the moral authority it had possessed.

For us in Britain the Suez conflict was equally traumatic. It divided the country as sharply as the Iraq War would do in 2003. Only success could have justified it. American opposition ensured its failure. The French, who were even more eager than we were to overthrow Nasser on account of the military help he was giving the Algerian rebels, believed we had let them down again. We came to a different and more humiliating conclusion: that it was henceforth impossible for Britain to undertake independent military action without the approval and support of the USA. As Hall writes, the price of Suez “was, effectively, subservience to Washington”. 
It marked the end of Britain as a Great Power.

Hall, senior lecturer in American history at Leeds University, deals with the events of this momentous year clearly and for the most part fairly in a series of short narrative chapters. He is particularly good on Eastern Europe and the failures of the satellite Communist regimes; it was their economic incompetence, as much as their denial of freedom, that inspired rebellion. Social chapters on the decline of deference associated with youth movements and rock music in the West are more perfunctory. He tries to be fair to the French determination to suppress the Algerian rebels, but doesn’t always succeed. Concentrating on the dramatic, and often terrible, events of the year, he pays little heed to one of its most significant developments. That summer the ministers of six Western European countries engaged in negotiations which prepared the way for the signing of the Treaty of Rome and the creation of the European Economic Community which would in time become the European Union, with the Eastern European states of what was once the Soviet Empire among its members.