October-November 1945 in Hungary: The Smallholders win the First Elections in the First Republic   1 comment

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Above: The Republican Coat of Arms of 1945

Between 1945 and 1949 Hungary’s political system altered radically and violently. The dozen or so political parties which had been revived or established in 1945 prepared to contest fair and free elections by merging themselves into four main parties, two representing the peasants and two representing the workers. The latter two, the Social Democrats and the Communists were later to merged in 1948, to form the Hungarian Working People’s Party. As in the rest of Eastern Europe, a “people’s democracy” was established which essentially promised to follow a reformist, peaceful path towards socialism, with concessions of a more revolutionary nature offered to the Communists. Gradually, but almost inexorably, these compromises, or ‘salami slices’ began to add up to the predominance of the communists within the HWPP, and to the domination of this party over all others.

Among the leaders of the Hungarian Communists, who became extraordinarily active first in Moscow and then in Debrecen and Budapest in 1944-45, Mátyás Rákosi played an essential part from the beginning. However, in the early years of the new Republic, from 1945 to 1948, those who, unlike Rákosi and his clique, had remained in Hungary and allied themselves with the loose resistance groups, engaging in ‘illegal’ activities throughout the war and in the pro-Axis period prior to it, still had some influence within the party and the provisional parliament.

Hungarian society, although struggling with hyperinflation from the middle of 1945, remained optimistic in the autumn, prior to the elections. The announcement of free elections was not only required by the Yalta agreement, but regarded as essential due to the fact that truly revolutionary transformations had already taken place in the social and political fabric of the country. Already the coat of arms and official stamp of the state and the legislative assembly had changed, representing a radical break with the monarchic and aristocratic ascendancy of the past.

However, this symbolic transition needed to be replaced by a more far-reaching transformation in the composition of both the legislative and executive branches of government. There were still many doubts about the legality of many of the changes which had been effected well before the peace settlement had been confirmed in September. Special ties had been developing between Moscow and Budapest since the overthrow of the Regency the previous autumn, and not just between comrades, as the recently published writings of Domokos Szent-Iványi, the Regent’s envoy to Moscow, confirm. An agreement on close economic co-operation and even the full resumption of full diplomatic relations, led the western powers to urge free elections in Hungary and to refrain from recognising the Provisional Government until the Soviets agreed to their being held.

The elections, by secret ballot and without census, of 4 November 1945 were the most democratic and the freest in Hungary until those of 1990. Only the leaders of the dissolved right-wing parties, volunteers in the SS, and those interned or being prosecuted by the people’s courts were barred from voting. The liberal electoral law was also supported by the Communists, who were not even bothered by their failure of their proposal to field a single list of candidates on the part of the coalition parties, which would have ensured a majority of the parties of the Left: intoxicated by their recruitment successes and misjudging the effect of the land reform on their appeal, they expected an enthralling victory by winning as much as seventy per cent of the vote. To their bitter disappointment, the result was just the opposite: the Smallholders, winning the contest in all of the sixteen districts, collected 57% of the vote, the Social Democrats scoring slightly above the Communists at 17%. The National Peasant Party won a mere 7% of the vote.

Of the many reasons for the success of the Smallholders and the failure of the Communists at the elections, one was surely the fact that Cardinal Mindszenty, infuriated at the overwhelming majority of its landed property without compensation, and at the clergy’s being excluded from the elections upon Communist initiative, condemned the Marxist evil in a pastoral letter and called the faithful to support the Smallholders. Nevertheless, the verdict of nearly 4.8 million voters, over 90% of those enfranchised, clearly showed their preference for a property-owning parliamentary democracy and market economy over a state-managed socialist economy. They hoped that this preference would be respected by the Soviets, in spite of their occupying forces, who were expected to leave once the peace treaty was signed. However, guided by the same expectation and wishing to avoid confrontation with the Soviets, the Smallholders yielded to Voroshilov, who made it plain that only a grand coalition, in which the Communists would preserve their position, would be acceptable to them.

The cabinet was formed after the debate on the form of the post-war Hungarian state decided, in spite of a vigorous monarchist campaign led by Cardinal Minszenty and some uncertainty on the issue among the Smallholders, who eventually came out in favour of a continuation of the Republic. Zoltán Tildy was elected President on 1 February 1946, with Ferenc Nagy as Prime Minister of a government in which the Smallholders held half of the offices, but with the Communists in charge of two key ministries, including the Ministry of the Interior, which controlled the police.

There was also some disagreement about whether Nagy or Tildy should be the Smallholders’ candidate for President. Some of the deputies in Parliament declared that they had only voted for a republic on the understanding that Nagy would be its Head of State. He was more popular than Tildy, but argued successfully with his party members that Tildy was older and more experienced. However, the failure of Nagy to persuade Tildy to give up his plans for the Presidency, severely weakened the potential resistance to the eventually takeover of the Communists, since the MFM (Hungarian Independence Movement), the multi-lingual diplomat Szent-Iványi among them, had hoped to monitor and influence all communications between the Head of State and the Russians. Nagy, lacking in both international experience and foreign languages, would be more dependent on Szent-Iványi as Chief Secretary to Cabinet of the Head of State.  The agreement of the two men, made behind closed doors on the night of the general election victory, to exchange roles threw this plan into disarray, as Szent-Iványi recalled in his papers:

After that scene (i.e. Nagy’s capitulation, surrender to Tildy) Saláta (a leading younger and ‘most talented’  member of the MFM) hurried to see me. He was very upset, he could not hide his emotions. ‘Unbelievable’, he began, ‘we have carried out to the letter our plan of May, and now, we have to see that all our efforts and work are destroyed by one single man’s action, an action motivated purely by sentimental reasons. Well, Nagy has proved that he is not a real politician since he is too influenced by emotions… But now, what still could be done?’

While he was talking, I was thinking of the series of misfortunes which had so often destroyed our… plans, invariably the fiasco was caused by an event or the action of one individual. So: Darányi, who was one of the pillars of the work I had been planning, dies in October 1939; Teleki, who was my main pillar and hope as far as the futures of Hungary and East Central Europe were concerned, passes away under tragic circumstances in April 1941; the failure of Nicky Horthy and even of his father in October 1944 after all our preparations. Was there anything we could still do? And hope for?

After the elections and Ferenc Nagy’s failure, a great change took place in… the leadership and activities of the MFM.

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At a time when we are remembering the contribution made by another President, Árpád Göncz, who became the first Head of State of Hungary’s Third Republic in 1990, and held the office for ten years, a decade in which he showed great statesmanship and was well-respected by the Hungarian people, it seems strange to also reflect on how different the course of Hungary’s post-war history might have been had Ferenc Nagy taken the Presidency. Perhaps it would have made little difference to the eventual outcome of the machinations of the Rákosi clique in the three years to the establishment of a Communist state in 1948, but had both Tildy and Nagy shown greater courage in their choices, Hungary’s first republican government might have been better-placed to assert its independence from Moscow’s influence and ultimate control. To fall into the trap of historical inevitability in rejecting the role played by individual choices would be to replace the humanity involved in history with another kind of fatalistic historicism, which has sometimes proved popular in post-Communist Hungary.

Sources:

István Lázár (1989), A Short History of Hungary. Budapest: Corvina Books.

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.

Domokos Szent-Iványi (2013). The Hungarian Independence Movement, 1936-46. Budapest: Hungarian Review Books.

 

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One response to “October-November 1945 in Hungary: The Smallholders win the First Elections in the First Republic

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  1. Reblogged this on hungarywolf.

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