BOOK REVIEW: The Bridge at Andau by James Michener

The Bridge at AndauThe Bridge at Andau by James A. Michener

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the fall of 1956, there was a revolt in Hungary against the Soviet-puppet leadership. While this revolution ultimately failed, it was a powerful underdog story that revealed the brutality of the USSR.

Novelist James Michener was one of the journalists at the border crossing for which the book is named. He collected the stories of those who were fleeing the Soviet crackdown. Michener found what he heard to be chilling, and this book had a profound impact on Americans.

The book begins with a typical story of a woman carted off by the ÁVO (Állam Védelmi Osztag), the Hungarian secret police. She was returned several weeks later, fundamentally changed and psychologically broken. It was this type of lawless injustice that led to the revolt.

The book recounts the many trials, tribulations, moments of hope, and moments of peril of the revolutionaries. It covers the opening salvos at the Magyar Radio building and then at the Kilian Barracks (located at a prominent intersection on the Budapest’s Grand Circle [Nagykörút]) and continues to the flight of the failed and hunted revolutionaries.

Throughout the book one is constantly reminded of how ingenuity and will can succeed in the face of severe disadvantage. The Soviets came with tanks, but the Hungarians had only the few small-arms that they could liberate from those military barracks that sided with the revolutionaries. The guerrillas would put brown dinner plates upside-down in the road. These looked roughly like anti-tank mines. When the tankers stopped to investigate, guerrillas would drop Molotov cocktails into the tank’s engine inlet.

The most heart-rending part of the book deals with the children that were actively involved in the fighting, and tank-killing specifically. The small and agile children could apparently move up to the tanks unseen more easily than adults.

This may seem like just another example of a true story with a sad ending. It’s true that the Soviets came back after a feigned withdrawal, tricking the revolutionary leadership into “negotiations” that turned out to be executions. Overall, thirty thousand Hungarian casualties resulted from this two-week battle. However, the story is not as simple as “the underdog got defeated.”

Michener quotes a revolutionary who summed it up best, “Russia won, but they’d better keep two of their soldiers in Budapest for every one Hungarian they give a gun. Let the Kremlin sleep on that.”

I’d highly recommend this book for those interested in history, military strategy, or even just a compelling human interest story.

My copy of Bridge at Andau is well-worn. As a Master of Science in International Affairs student, I did a thesis on Soviet/Russian asymmetric warfare. One of the three cases that I studied extensively was the Hungarian revolution. While the ’56 Revolution was arguably the least successful of the three (the others being Afghanistan and Chechnya), it wasn’t due to lack of Hungarian will so much as the still strong  state of the Soviet Union.

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