1948-49: The Turning Point
In February 1992, Tom Leimdorfer, my former colleague at the Society of Friends (Quakers), was running a week’s residential course for teachers and teacher trainers in Szolnok in eastern Hungary, in the middle of the great plain (Alföld). After the first session, a Physical Education lecturer from a teacher training college called Katalin asked him if by any chance he was the same Leimdörfer Tamás who once attended the Veres Pálné experimental primary school in 1948-49. She remembered being amongst his group little lady friends!
Veres Pálné experimental primary class 1, September 1948
Tom in top row, extreme right. Bomb damage seen in background
Class teacher Sára Németh
As that academic year got underway, Hungary was effectively becoming a one-party state. It was, and is still often assumed in the west that the communist era in Hungary started at the end of the war. This is far from the case. The Soviet Red Army drove out the previous occupying German troops and the fascist arrow-cross regime of Szálasi was thankfully brought to an end in April 1945. Democracy was restored with free elections, and in fact a more genuinely democratic government came to power than Hungary had known for decades. However, within a year the pressures from Stalin’s Soviet Union ensured that Hungary would be firmly within its economic sphere and the government had few choices. By 1947 the right of centre prime minister from the Smallholders’ party was ousted. The most dramatic political change came early in 1948. The election gave the Communist Party 22.3% of the vote, but their strategy of salami slicing the ‘opposition’ parties came to a successful conclusion with the absorption of the left-wing of the Social Democratic Party into the Communist Party. Those who opposed the move had either been exiled, or, like Anna Kéthly, together with tens of thousands of ordinary members, were expelled. On 12 June 1948 the first congress of the now 1.1 million-strong Hungarian Workers’ Party had begun. Rákósi became General Secretary, with another former Muscovite exile, Mihály Farkas, the left-wing Social Democrat György Marosán and János Kádár serving as his deputies. In its programme, the Party committed itself to Marxist-Leninism, to the building of socialism through the ‘struggle’ against ‘reactionaries’, friendship and co-operation with the Soviet Union and the other people’s democracies, combined with a domestic policy of further nationalisation and comprehensive economic planning. The year 1948 soon became known as the year of the turning point. By this time, as László Kontler has written,
… major battles had been won by the Communists in the war for minds, that is, the struggle for dominance over the network of education and cultural life in general, by transforming their structure and content. As in the political and economic spheres, here, too, the destruction caused by the war, the desire to create something out of nothing and the vacuum which could be penetrated, favoured the most tightly organised force on the scene. The damage caused in school buildings, in educational and research equipment, library holdings and public collections by the warfare or by German and Soviet pillage was matched by the number of casualties of war among teachers and intellectuals, especially writers, who fell victim… by the dozens.
Those who resisted either fled the country or were arrested. By the end of the year other political parties had been banned and wholesale nationalisation was in full swing. Yet the Communists were careful to maintain a the post-war ‘coalition’ of an education system based on liberal democratic and national values without imposing Marxist-Leninist ones. The first National Council for Public Education, created in April 1945 and chaired by Albert Szent-György, the Nobel Prize winning scientist, included such diverse members as the composer Zoltán Kodály. Its main initiative was the transition to the eight-year elementary system which Tom Leimdorfer was now entering, originally proposed in 1940 which, besides skills in literacy and arithmetic, also made the acquisition of fundamental knowledge in the social and natural sciences possible. In the new curriculum, the conservative nationalist traditions were being replaced by more progressive ones. The transition to the new system was completed by the end of the 1940s, despite 70% of teachers not having the qualification to teach special subjects in the upper elementary section. At higher levels of education, the opening of the gates to free university places resulted in a doubling of students, though at the cost of a decline in overall standards. Nevertheless, this and other measures meant that several thousand young people from more humble origins were able to gain access to higher education.
However, the debates over aesthetic and ideological issues related to literature and culture, invariably initiated by the Marxist circle of Lukács, gradually metamorphosed into a witch-hunt against the apolitical or decadent representatives of the western-oriented populist writers. The Hungarian Academy of Sciences was also denounced by Lukács at the party congress in 1946 as a stronghold of reaction, and the removal and destruction of several thousand volumes of fascist, anti-Soviet and chauvinist literature from its library by the political police a few months later bode ill for the future. As in politics, 1948 became the year of the turning point in the cultural status quo, when the winding up of the non-communist press started and the Communists scored their most important success in their Kulturkampf against its most formidable rival, the Catholic Church, with the establishment of state control over ecclesiastical schools. The introduction of the eight-year elementary school system and the nationalisation of textbook publishing had already incited violent protests, especially among the organised clergy. Pastoral letters, sermons and demonstrations denouncing the proposed nationalisation of schools were all in vain: parliament enacted the measure on June 16. About 6,500 schools were involved, about half of them being Catholic-controlled.
Dark years again, 1949-53:
The New Year of 1949 saw the establishment of one party dictatorship under Party Secretary Mátyás Rákosi, whose salami tactics had got rid of all opposition and whose establishment of the feared secret police (ÁVH, commonly referred to as the Ávó) heralded an era of full-blown Stalinist repression. It lasted just over four years, but was all-pervasive. The first victims were some of Rákosi’s former political allies and hence rivals. The most prominent was Foreign Minister László Rajk who was accused of siding with Tito, who had led his communist Yugoslavia out of the Soviet Block towards neutrality. The perceived threat posed to Soviet hegemony led Rákosi to opt for an astonishment effect to convince people of the need for an ‘iron fist’. The fact that Rajk had worked in the western communist movement before the war lent some plausibility to the fantastic allegations that he was an imperialist agent collaborating with the excommunicated Yugoslavs. Convinced by Kádár that the class enemy must be intimidated and that he therefore needed to accept his role as a ‘scapegoat’, though he would ultimately be spared, Rajk signed the expected confession. The charges against him were made public in June 1949. In October he was executed together with two of his associates paid with their lives for just keeping lines of communication open with Tito. Many others accused in the case were also put to death, jailed or interned later on, in the party terror which lasted until 1953. The proclamation of innocence, exhumation and ceremonial reburial of László Rajk in 1956 was one of the key events leading up to the Revolution. A new constitution, modelled on the Soviet one of 1936, made Hungary a People’s Republic. The role of the state organs at all levels was confined to practical management of issues, while strategic policy and control remained in the hands of the party élite.
Tom’s second school year started in September 1949 in a school nearer home, Bocskai primary school (named after one of the Transylvanian princes who successfully resisted both Habsburg and full Turkish rule). Although it was only 15 minutes walk from home, there were several roads to cross, so in some ways it was a more hazardous journey. It was a dull building, which would have been recognised as a suburban primary anywhere and it had a small dusty playground. Tom was a stranger in a year two class of all boys who were all pleased to see their friends and ignored me. Then, on the second day, a boy with a nice smile and very big ears started to talk to him. They soon discovered that they both only had Mums, but Dani was the middle one of three brothers, while Tom was an only child. They both listened to classical music and Dani had recently started to play the violin, while Tom was in his second year of making very slow progress on the piano. They had both recently learnt to play chess and were both keen on football. Within days they were firm friends, a friendship which was to last a lifetime in spite of distance. Dani’s mother (‘Gitta’) wasted no time in inviting him and his mother to her flat. He remembers that…
She was one of the kindest, most patient and loving people I ever met. She had lost her husband in the final days of the siege of Budapest. Gitta and my mother Edit, having met through their sons, became the closest of friends. Living close to each other, Dani and I were in and out of each other’s homes, played football in the street outside our house (which was safe, unlike the main road outside their large block of flats). To a large extent our friendship must have been rather exclusive as I have no memory of any of my other classmates till we moved to the middle school in year five and became part of a wider group or little gang of 10/11 year olds.
The school day in Hungary started at eight in the morning and finished before one. They took sandwiches for break time (elevenses). Outdoor playtime during break was carefully structured with organised games or walking quietly in pairs. Tom’s class had the same teacher throughout the three years he was at the Bocskai school. She was an efficient and motherly woman. It was the ‘dark years’ of 1949-52, but school was a quiet haven, if rather dull. At the beginning of each year, they all had to buy the grey textbooks stacked in piles for each year and each subject in the bookshop. These were standard texts for all schools and only cost a few forints. Each year they contained more and more propaganda mixed in with what would be recognised as standard subject matter, especially in history.
By 1954, the number of secondary school pupils was 130,000, nearly double that of the highest pre-war figures, and three times as many students (33,000) went to universities, including several newly established ones. The proportion of young people attending from peasant and working-class origins, formerly barred from higher education, rose to over fifty per cent. The inculcation of Marxism-Leninism through the school system was emphasised at all levels within the new curricula. To satisfy this requirement, the whole gamut of text-books was changed, as Tom mentions above, new ones being commissioned and completed under careful supervision by the relevant party organs. Teaching of foreign languages was confined to Russian which became compulsory from the fifth year of elementary school in spite of the lack of qualified teachers.
For Tom, there was some homework even in the early years of elementary school, but afternoons were mainly free for play. When not playing with Dani, Tom spent much of his time with his grandmother, ‘Sári mama’:
We read books together, played endless board games (including chess and draughts), listened to music on the radio and talked about different performers, went for walks in good weather. Sometimes my cousin Éva came over too and we would play together. Occasionally, Sári mama sang songs from Lehár and Kálmán operettas, read me poems translated from world literature and told me stories of plays. From time to time (with the odd tear in her eye), she talked about my father when he was young, telling me which poems and what music he liked. School gave the basic numeracy and literacy skills, but my education during those year came mainly from my grandmother. With Mami working all day and often tired and stressed in the evening, ‘quality time’ with her had to wait till the weekend.
Among the most immediate and direct effects of the events of 1949-52 on Tom’s family was the loss of property, and for the second time within a few years. Tom’s grandfather’s timber yard had been confiscated under the Jewish Laws during the war. He had re-built the business from scratch as soon as the war was over. However, in 1948, he could see the signs ahead. The nationalisation of the large banks and the companies controlled by them, which was the ultimate test of the Smallholder Party, had been enacted on 29 September 1947. The bauxite and aluminium followed two months later. Then, on 25 March, 1948, all industrial firms employing more than a hundred workers were taken into state property by a decree prepared in great secrecy and taking even the newly appointed ‘worker directors’ by surprise. Ármin Leimdörfer (whose business only employed six or seven) generously offered it to a newly formed large state-owned building co-operative. He was employed in the new firm and they valued his expertise. A few months later, all small businesses were also nationalised and their owners deported to remote villages. This also nearly happened to Tom’s grandparents twice during 1950-52. On both occasions, the senior management appealed to the political authorities to rescind the order as Tom’s grandfather was deemed essential to the firm and had several inventions to his name. On the second of these occasions, all their furniture was already piled on the lorry before they were allowed to return to their flat. Tom’s great-uncle Feri also lost the garage he owned, but kept his job as a much valued architect.
Just five years after surviving the Holocaust, many Hungarian Jewish people, in some cases entire families, were deported from the cities to distant farms in the country together with so-called class aliens, aristocrats, Horthyites and bourgeois elements, ordered to leave behind their apartments and personal belongings and to perform forced labour. It was no longer the upper and middle classes who were the objects of the communists’ ire, but any person belonging to any class who could be branded as an enemy in Rákosi’s system. During the eight years of this reign of Stalinist terror, mostly between the period 1948 to 1953, 600,000 Hungarians were made subject to legal charges taking away their rights, many of them being placed in detention by the police and juridical authorities. By adding family members to this number, the number of citizens affected increases to more than two million, out of a total population of less than ten million.
The deportations also had the effect of freeing up accommodation in Budapest for workers the government wished to bring in from the provinces. There was also housing shortage as the result of war damage. Without legal proceedings, 13,000 ‘class enemies’ (aristocrats, former officials, factory owners, etc.) were evicted from Budapest, together with a further three thousand from provincial towns, to small villages where they were compelled to do agricultural labour under strict supervision. The official justification was their unreliability during a time of imperialist incitement and sharpening of class struggle, but the reality was their removal to satisfy the need for city housing for the newly privileged bureaucratic class. As living space became rationed, Tom’s small family flat was deemed too large for just his mother and himself:
She acted quickly to offer one room (my room) to a friend of hers whom we always called by her familiar name of ‘Csöpi’. If Mami thought that she had prevented a forced flat share with strangers, she was to be disappointed. We still had the small room next to the kitchen, the one designed for domestic staff, which Bözsi had occupied midweek during the immediate post-war years. The district authority allocated that room to a couple from the provinces. They were not unpleasant people, but the situation was difficult for everyone with shared kitchen and bath room for three very different households (one single young woman, one couple, my mother and me). Mami and I shared the largest room in the flat. The large sofa was turned each night into a wide twin bed. The room also housed a baby grand piano, a large bookcase, a coffee table and a very large old desk, which was my pride and joy as I was allowed full use of it from an early age. The wall opposite the window had the large ceramic stove jutting out into the room (next to the piano). Our room had the french window leading to the small balcony and the stairs to the garden. We shared the garden with Csöpi, but the couple just had the small room and use of kitchen and bathroom all of which opened from the entrance hall. The windowless dining area also opened to the entrance hall, then had two doors: one to our room and to Csöpi’s room (my old room). Our two rooms also had an intercommunicating double door, which did not give either of us any privacy, though we kept it closed…
… It was assumed that the couple who were `brought in’ had some party links, so it was always best to keep a low profile. All blocks of flats had wardens and the wardens were paid to keep an eye on the residents and to inform the secret police of any trouble or suspicious activities by the standards of the state. Residents gave wardens gifts in order to try to keep in favour, as false accusations were quite common.
Our warden lived in the flat below ours, which now would be called a ’garden flat’. Their front window looked out to our garden at knee level, but they only had access to the yard at the back. He was a cantankerous middle-aged man with a liking for too much alcohol, but he had a kind and forbearing wife. Mami made sure that whenever we had a parcel from my uncle Bandi in England, the warden had a present. Occasionally, the warden would appear on our doorstep, somewhat embarrassed, and ask a few questions about a visitor he had not seen before. It was all part of his job.
The shocking figures, combined with Tom’s eye-witness evidence, reveal the supreme inhumanity of the régime not just in terms of the scale of the deportations but also in the dehumanising effect of the housing measures in poisoning private relations, breaking consciences and confidences and undermining public commitments. For anyone who has read George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1948, it is not difficult to imagine how varying degrees of distrust pervaded individual relations, if not necessarily in their families and with intimate friends, surely with colleagues, neighbours, fellow members of clubs and choirs. On one of my first visits to Hungary, in July 1989, a Catholic priest commented that, for him, growing up in Budapest, 1984 was not a work of fiction. It described exactly what life was like in Hungary in the period 1948-53. The gap between the official proclamation of the people’s democracy and the reality of their helplessness against the obvious violations of its principles made people apolitical in a highly politicised age, turning them away from civic service.
Meanwhile, the communist state embarked on a 5-year plan of heavy industrialisation. The three-year economic plan, whose task was bringing reconstruction to completion, through the restoration of pre-war production levels, had been accomplished ahead of schedule, by the end of 1949. The building of Ferihegy Airport, just outside the capital, begun during the war, was also completed. Huge investments were made to enhance industrial output, especially in heavy industry. Planned targets were exceeded, at the expense of agriculture. In respect of the latter, the earlier gradualist approach had been abandoned by the Communists in the summer of 1948. Although the organisation of co-operative farms was their long-term goal from the outset, they realised that the sympathy of the peasantry depended on land reform, and therefore they supported it in the most radical form possible. Even in early 1948, a long and gradual transition to cooperative farming was foreseen, but in view of the June resolution of the Cominform, which censured the Yugoslav party because of its indulgent attitude to the peasant issue. Rákosi also urged the speeding up of the process, setting aside a few years to its accomplishment. Smallholders were forced into large agricultural collectives managed by party bosses (large landowners had already fled to the west and their land was confiscated). Eventually, the cooperatives were quite successful, but in the first years the effects were devastating. Food production slumped by half and food shortages became the order of the day. In spite of the fact that its share of national income was the same in agriculture as for industry, the former suffered from low investment. When Tom’s uncle visited from Britain, where ration books controlled the austerity of 1947, he was surprised that war-devastated Hungary still had food in plenty. But by 1951, queues for rations of milk, bread, cheese and meat were the order of the day. Tom remembers standing in food queues after school, keeping a place for his grandmother.
The entirely unreasonable project of transforming Hungary, whose mineral resources were insignificant, into a country of iron and steel established an imbalance in the national economy to the extent that, while the population in general was satisfied with the modest increase in living standards compared with the terrible conditions of 1945-6, the target of reaching pre-war consumption levels was unrealistic. Meanwhile, Hungary’s foreign trade relations were undergoing a profound transformation. By 1949, the Soviet Union took over Germany’s place as its foremost foreign trade partner, a process sealed by the signing of a treaty of friendship and mutual aid between Hungary and the Soviet Union in February 1948. This was followed by the establishment of an entire network of exchange through the creation of the Council of Mutual Economic Aid (COMECON) on 20 January, 1949. The Soviets realised that they could save the expenses of dismantling, transporting and reinstalling equipment and, in addition, use Hungarian labour while exerting greater control over the country’s domestic economy, by creating or reorganising companies of key importance in shipping, air transport, bauxite exploitation, aluminium production, oil extraction and refinement, as mixed concerns. Tom Leimdorfer comments on the combined effects of these economic policies on ordinary people:
With everything nationalised, gradually all choice in items of clothing also disappeared. Worse still, there were actual shortages of items likes shoes or socks or shirts. These were quite unpredictable and probably partly due to rumours and panic buying. Occasionally, one would hear that clothing items of a certain size were available at a particular outlet (by now all stores were also state-owned or directed co-operatives), but there would soon be a shortage. Long queues would form and the item would soon disappear. Large quantities of other items would be lying around unsold. The state denounced the rumours as being started by enemies of the communist state. It is possible that they had a point, but the ridiculous system of supply led planned production was probably mainly to blame. A certain factory had a target to produce a quantity of a certain product and that had to be fulfilled, irrespective of what was actually needed. Workers and managers who fulfilled or exceeded their targets were given prizes (‘Stakhanovite’ medals with small financial bonuses), those who failed faced disciplinary action.
There was a culture of fear in the workplaces. People were regularly denounced as enemies of the state and investigated. Someone could be denounced for pre-war right-wing connections, for having been a ‘capitalist’, for having links with the west or for supposed fraud or misdemeanour at work. Actually, there was a lot of fraud, mainly perpetrated by those who thought they were safe. In fact, nobody was safe as they could be denounced by others who wanted their job or who wanted to climb the political ladder within the party. One close friend who experienced the horrors of the ‘knock in the night’ was Gyuri Schustek, who had been at college with my father. He was taken for interrogation by the secret police for allegedly falsifying documents in the workplace. At one point, he was told at gun point to sign a false confession. He kept his nerve and refused. After several months, he was released without explanation or apology. He never knew who denounced him or why. Such experiences were quite common.
The main organ of repression, the ÁVH or Ávó, was separated from the Ministry of the Interior and put directly under the authority, first of the council of ministers, and then of the Defence Committee. Its permanent staff originally consisted of 28,000 officers, striking at individuals or refractory groups or rivals of the leaders upon direct orders from them, based on ‘evidence’ collected from about 40,000 informers also employed by the the political police. Records were kept on about one million citizens, or over ten per cent of the total population. Of these, around two-thirds were prosecuted and nearly 400,000 served terms in prisons or internment/ labour camps, mostly in quarries and mines. By 1953, the tide of persecution had turned on the creators of the system itself, including the chief of the political police. About eighty leading party members were executed, tortured to death or committed suicide in prison, and thousands more zealous communists served prison terms.
There were a few ‘show trials’ and presumed disappearances to Siberia. More likely, prominent figures who were or were deemed to be in opposition to the regime served lengthy terms of imprisonment, some with hard labour. One distant relative, the poet György Faludi (his hungaricised name from Leimdörfer) spent time working in stone quarries and later recorded his experience in the book ‘My happy days in hell’.
For most people, however, it was all much less dramatic. Just an all-pervading atmosphere of fear and distrust, families teaching their children not repeat conversations they heard at home, everyone careful not to be overheard in public places. The language of the school and the workplace (which had to be really ‘politically correct’) was totally different from private conversations. The state controlled media was not believed by anyone (not even when it happened to tell the truth) and listening to low volume radio broadcasts of the BBC World Service or the right-wing ‘Radio Free Europe’ was both risky and difficult as they were often jammed by state-generated radio interference signals.
It was not all negative, of course. The communist regime improved the health service and education, especially in rural areas, and eliminated absolute poverty. There was no real starvation, homelessness or unemployment. There was improvement in sports facilities and Hungary gloried in its near invincible football team and the 16 gold medals at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. The pervading mood, however, was drabness and fear.
While the mobility between the main sectors of the economy was as yet insignificant, the project of social levelling advanced towards the ultimate communist ideal of a classless society with no private property, an ideal which was not against the wishes of a broad cross-section of society. As a result of the land reform, the nationalisations, the mass forced removals of officials from their posts and the deportations, ‘genteel’ Hungary, the peculiar amalgam of post-feudal, capitalist and liberal-nationalist values was, as Rákosi claimed triumphantly, thrown into the dustbin of history. The business and middle classes who had championed them either emigrated or metamorphosed into service industry or factory workers and engineers. Previously sharing over forty per cent of the national income, they now accounted for a mere ten per cent, while the mass of rural paupers became small proprietors or kulaks, before they too were consigned to history’s dustbin by the intensification of the class struggle in the 1950s. People were told that the reason they could not buy butter or eggs was because the kulaks who were hoarding and hiding their produce.
The party operated an immense system of patronage through which non-measurable benefits (mainly job promotion) could be earned; and for the party élite various perquisites were available according to rank, in a salient contradiction to the professed ideal of equality and the frequent calls to ever tighter austerity in the interest of a glorious future. Among the bulk of the population, a silent resentment grew. Aversion to the personality cult and the ideological terror, the hatred of police repression, bewilderment at the stupidities of economic planning and anger at the anomalies it caused, and the utter exasperation and disillusionment with the régime in general were sentiments occasionally expressed in strikes and perceptible across the Hungarian social spectrum by the time Stalin died on 5 March, 1953. Besides sparing Hungary and other eastern-central European countries from having to ‘import’ a new wave of terror from the USSR, which had begun in the previous months, the ensuing power struggle and its outcome favoured important changes in the tone and methods, if not in the content and substance, of the communist régimes. With the permission and even on the insistence of Moscow, the process of de-Stalinisation could be started throughout the Soviet bloc.
See part three, following.