From the Suez crisis to ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ 1956 was a particularly dramatic year – and its influence can still be felt 60 years on.
This battle between the champions of freedom and the guardians of the old order lay at the very heart of 1956 – one of the most dramatic years of the 20th century.
Across the American South and in South Africa people of colour mobilised in their tens of thousands – organising mass marches – engaging in civil disobedience and making stirring appeals to democratic ideals – in an attempt to dismantle institutionalised white supremacy.
Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ denouncing Stalin inspired hundreds of thousands to take to the streets of Prague Warsaw Budapest and other cities to call for greater political cultural and economic freedoms – attack the hated secret police and ominously to demand the withdrawal of the Red army from the ‘people’s democracies’.
There was growing pressure for change too across the old European empires.
1956 saw colonial power surrendered in Africa as France ceded independence to Tunisia and Morocco while a half-century of British rule in Sudan came to an end.
Agreement was also reached to end colonial rule in the Gold Coast and British Togoland (which merged to form Ghana).
Elsewhere the colonial masters proved harder to dislodge.
Caught between the uncompromising demands of Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) and the unwillingness of the country’s 3 million European residents to give up their privileged position – and share power with the Muslim majority – France’s new socialist prime minister Guy Mollet dispatched 300,000 troops to crush the FLN rebels.
Then Britain and France acting in collusion with Israel sent tens of thousands of troops to seize control of the Suez canal – recently nationalised by the Egyptian leader General Abdel Nasser – only to be forced into a humiliating climb-down by the US.
Nor was the year’s rebellious spirit restricted to the political sphere.
As Elvis Presley enjoyed his first No 1 with ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ teenagers rioted at rock concerts across North America – western Europe and Australia.
In Britain more than 80 local councils banned screenings of hit musical Rock Around the Clock amid widespread fears about teenage delinquency.
John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger which debuted at London’s Royal Court theatre in May and helped to launch the so-called ‘angry young men’ group of artists novelists and playwrights was widely viewed as a tirade against the British establishment.
In America the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl with its references to illicit drugs and ‘deviant’ sexual practices and its attack on modern capitalist society – helped usher in the 60s counterculture.
Faced with unprecedented challenges to their authority those in power fought back – often ruthlessly – in a desperate bid to shore up their position.