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Roots of Liberal Democracy, Part Two: Hungary from Revolution to Revolution, 1919-1956.   Leave a comment

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Lines of Demarcation – Neutral zones (November 1918-March 1919)

Revolution and Reaction – Left and Right, 1919-20:

Following the end of the First World War, the collapse of the Habsburg Dual Monarchy, and the chaos which followed under the Károlyi government in Hungary, the Party of National Union, established by magnates and experienced politicians in 1919, and led by the Transylvanian Count István Bethlen, wanted to restore the pre-1914 relations of power. While they realised the need to improve the conditions not only of the ‘historic middle class’ but also the peasantry and the urban working classes, they adamantly rejected the radical endeavours of the ‘immigrant intelligentsia’. This term was, of course, their euphemism for the Jewish middle classes. They also envisaged the union of the lower and the upper strata in the harmony of national sentiment under their paternalistic dominance. A more striking development was the appearance of political groups advocating more radical change. Rightist radicalism had its strongest base the many thousands of demobilized officers and dismissed public servants, many of them from the territories now lost to Hungary, to be confirmed at Trianon the following year. In their view, the military collapse and the break-up of ‘historic Hungary’ was the fault of the enervated conservative liberalism of the dualist period, which they proposed to transcend not by democracy and land reform, but by an authoritarian government in which they would have a greater say, and measures aimed at the redistribution of property in favour of the ‘Christian middle class’ and the expanse of mobile, metropolitan capital, with its large Jewish population. Groups such as the Hungarian National Defence Association, led by Gyula Gömbös, had been impatiently urging the armed defence of the country from November 1918.

For the time being, however, the streets belonged to the political Left. Appeals from moderate Social Democrat ministers for order and patience evoked the contrary effect and served only to alienate the disaffected masses from them. Their new heroes were the Communists, organised as a party on 24 November 1918 by Béla Kun, a former journalist and trade union activist recently returned from captivity in Russia. Within a few weeks, the Communist Party had acquired a membership of over forty thousand, and by January 1919 a range of strikes and factory occupations had swept across the country, accompanied in the countryside by land seizures, attempts to introduce collective cultivation and the demand to eradicate all remaining vestiges of feudalism. While the radicals of both the Right and the Left openly challenged the tenets of the new régime, Károlyi’s own party effectively disappeared. Most of the Independentist leaders left the government when Jászi’s plan to keep the nationalities within Hungary was aborted. The main government party were now the moderate Social Democrats, struggling helplessly to retain control of the radical left among their own members who constituted an internal opposition to Károlyi’s government and were influenced by the communists.

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The growing pressure from this radical left and the loss of territory undermined the Károly régime. The communists, led by Kun, forced Károly to resign and the Hungarian Soviet Republic came into being on 21 March 1919, with a bloodless assumption of power. It lasted for 133 days. It began with not inconsiderable success when Soviet Hungary quickly linked itself to the Bolshevik aim of worldwide revolution which the war created and which looked at the time to be taking hold and spreading. Instead of redistributing land, Kun nationalised large estates and thus, by giving priority to supplying the cities and by issuing compulsory requisitions for food products, he alienated the mass of the peasants. Many of the intellectual élite, who had applauded the democratic reforms of the autumn of 1918 were initially drawn to the attractive goals of the Soviet Republic. They included not only Communists like Lukács, who became ‘People’s Commissar for Education’, but also members of the Nyugat circle who held positions in the Directorate of Literature, as well as Bartók and Kodály, who became members of the Directorate for Music. Gradually, however, most of these figures became disaffected, as did the middle classes and intelligentsia. Gyula Szekfű, a historian and one of the professors appointed to the University of Budapest, had already, by the end of July, begun work on his highly influential Three Generations (1920), hostile not only to the communist revolution but also to democracy and liberalism which he blamed for paving the way for Kun; soon after, Dezső Szabó, another early sympathiser, published The Swept-away Village, with its anti-urban, anti-revolutionary and anti-Semitic content, which were in high currency in inter-war Hungary.

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The measures which were taken against the opposition, the counter-revolution, were inconsistent and alienated the middle classes. The anti-clerical measures taken by the Kun government also annoyed the traditionally devout peasants, concerned about the security of the ‘family hearth’. All of this made them more susceptible to counter-revolutionary propaganda, which did not fail to emphasise the ‘foreign’ (that is, ‘Jewish’) character of the revolution (over half of the ‘commissars’ were indeed of Jewish origin). Organised counter-revolution consisted of two groups, both of them based outside the territory controlled by the Kun government but operating through sympathisers within it: the Hungarian National Committee (Anti-Bolshevik Committee) created in Vienna in April created by all the old parties and led by Count István Bethlen (pictured below), and a counter-revolutionary government set up at Arad on 5 May, led by Count Gyula Károlyi, later moving to Szeged. Apart from these errors of Kun’s leadership, it soon became evident that the hoped-for, swift-moving worldwide revolution had come to an abrupt halt almost at its inception. The failure of the even more fragile Bavarian Revolution and the failure of the Soviet Red Army to break through on the Ukrainian front into the Carpathians to provide assistance to Kun and his supporters put paid to any fleeting chance of success that the Hungarian Soviet Republic might have had of survival.

The ever-growing group of politicians and soldiers who saw the white and not the red as Hungary’s future colour organised themselves in Vienna and in Szeged, the latter being on the edge of the neutral zone agreed with the Entente powers on 31 December 1918 (see the map at the top). The Entente regarded them with far less suspicion than Kun’s “experimental” workers’ state. They represented a conservative-liberal restoration without the Habsburgs, which was far more acceptable in the French, British and Italian statesmen who were meeting in Paris. In August 1919, a Social Democratic government took charge again, temporarily, and a large band of leaders of the Soviet Republic fled to Vienna by train. Wearing the feather of the white crane on their field caps, detachments of commissioned officers quickly headed from Szeged in two prongs towards Budapest, which, in the meantime, had been occupied by Romanian troops at the invitation of the Entente powers. A brutal sequel followed the reprisals upon which the Romanians had already embarked. Executions, torture, corporal punishment and anti-Jewish pogroms marked the detachment of ‘white feathers’ to the “sinful” capital, the main seat of the Hungarian Bolsheviks. Counter-revolutionary terror far surpassed the red terror of the revolution both in the number of victims and the cruelty they were dealt.

Following the flight and the other communist leaders to Vienna, where they claimed political asylum, Gyula Peidl, a trade union leader who had been opposed to the unification of the workers’ parties and played no role under the Soviet Republic, took office. But with the country war-torn and divided between armies, a rival government in Szeged, and the eastern part under foreign occupation, it was unlikely that the new government would last long. Although it planned to consolidate its position by rejecting the dictatorship of the proletariat on the one hand and defying conservative restoration on the other, it was still regarded by its intended coalition partners – Liberals, peasant democrats and Christian Socialists – as crypto-communist, and failed to gain recognition from the Entente powers. Assisted by the Romanian Army, which had occupied Budapest, a coup forced the government to resign after only five days in ‘power’, on 6 August 1919. The government which replaced it, led by a small-scale industrialist, István Friedrich, not only dismantled the apparatus set up by the Soviet Republic, but also the achievements of Mihály Károlyi’s democratic government, in which Friedrich had himself been a state secretary. In particular, civil liberties were revoked, revolutionary tribunals were replaced with counter-revolutionary ones, which packed the prisons with workers, poor peasants and intellectuals, and by the beginning of 1920 nearly as many death sentences had been carried out as during the ‘red terror’.  The intellectual élite were persecuted; Bartók and Kodály were prosecuted, Móricz was imprisoned and several others, including Lukács, fled the country.

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Meanwhile, the Romanian Army continued their ‘pacification’ of the countryside, systematically transporting cattle, machinery and the new crop to Romania as ‘war reparations’. There was also the ‘National’ Army led by Admiral Horthy, who transferred his independent headquarters to Transdanubia and refused to surrender to the government. Without any title, his troops gave orders to the local authorities, and its most notorious detachments continued to be instruments of ‘naked terror’.  In three months, they may have killed as many as two thousand actual or suspected former Soviet members, Red Army soldiers, and sometimes innocent individuals who were Jews. Besides the executions and lynchings, about seventy thousand people were imprisoned or sent to internment camps during the same period. The emissary of the peace conference to Budapest in October 1919, Sir George Clerk, led finally to the withdrawal of the Romanian troops from Budapest, and their replacement by Horthy’s Army, which entered Budapest ceremonially on 16 November (see the picture below). In his speech before the notables of the capital, he stigmatised the capital as a ‘sinful city’ that had rejected its glorious past, Holy Crown and national colours for red rags. The people hoped to heal the wounds of the war and its aftermath by returning to order, authority and the so-called Christian-national system of values.

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It was also due to the increasing influence of Horthy and the changes in the political balance that Clerk abandoned his initial insistence on securing an important role for the Social Democrats and the Liberals in the new coalition government whose creation the Peace Conference demanded.  Since he commanded the only troops capable of maintaining order and being ready to subordinate them to the new government, it had to be an administration acceptable to Horthy personally and to the military in general. As a result, the government of Károly Huszár, formed on 19 November, the fourth in that year, was one in which the members of the Christian National Unity Party and other conservative-agrarian groups prevailed over those of the Independent Smallholder Party, the Social Democrats and the Liberals. Although the great powers insisted that voting in the national elections in January 1920 should take place by universal suffrage and secret ballot, the circumstances were unfavourable to fulfilling any illusion of a democratic outcome, according to Kontler. The Huszár government made only half-hearted attempts to ensure the freedom of the elections and the terrorist actions of the detachments of the National Army together with the recovering extreme Rightist organisations were designed to intimidate the candidates and supporters of the Social Democrats, the Smallholders and the Liberals. In protest, the Social Democrats boycotted the elections and withdrew from the political arena until mid-1922. The Smallholders and the Christian National Unity Party emerged as victors in the election.

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The ‘monarchists’ were now in the ascendancy over the ‘republicans’, and they argued that the monarchy should be retained to emphasise the historical continuity and legality of Hungary’s claim to the ‘crown lands’ of King István. However, as neither the great powers nor Hungary’s neighbours would countenance a Habsburg restoration, the medieval institution of the ‘Regent’ was resuscitated and Horthy was ‘elected’ regent on 1 March 1920, with strong presidential powers. Three days later, a new coalition government of Smallholders and Christian-Nationalists was formed under Sándor Simonyi-Semadam, its major and immediate task being the signing of the peace treaty in Paris.

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Restoration & Right-wing Ascendancy, 1920-1940:

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The Horthy régime owed its existence less to internal support within Hungary than to international contingencies, according to László Kontler. In spite of its roots in the extreme right, it bore the imprint of the priorities of the western peacemakers that assisted at its inception, even in the 1930s, when the changing international atmosphere made it lean even more heavily back towards these roots. Admiral Miklós Horthy had played no part in politics until, in the summer of 1919, already over the age of fifty, he temporarily took the helm of the radical anti-parliamentarian aspirations of the Christian (that is, non-Jewish) middle class which wanted authoritarian courses of action.

His inclinations made him a suitable ally of Hitler in the 1930s, although he was always a hesitant one. His views were always conservative and traditionalist, rather than radical. Having restored first public order and then parliamentary government, enabling the old conservative-liberal landowning and capitalist élite gradually returned to the political scene and overshadowed the extreme right until the 1930s with the rise of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The restoration concerned only the élite of the old dual monarchy, but not its political system, which was more democratic, with an extended suffrage and the presence of workers’ and peasants’ parties in parliament.

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At the same time, however, it was less ‘liberal’, with harsher censorship, police surveillance and official anti-Semitism of increasing intensity. The architects of this political outlook were Hungary’s two prime ministers in the period between 1920 and 1931, Count Pál Teleki and Count István Bethlen. Both of them were from Transylvanian families owning large estates and were sincere admirers of the liberal achievements of the post-1867 era. But the post-war events led them to the conclusion that liberalism had to be controlled, and they both argued that Central and Eastern Europe, including Hungary, was as yet too immature to simply graft western-style democracy onto the parliamentary system, which they nevertheless considered to be the only acceptable form of government. Teleki and Bethlen, therefore, advocated a ‘conservative democracy’, guided by the aristocracy and the landed gentry, as the proper response of the region to the challenges of the democratic age. They opposed all endeavours aimed either at the radical extension or the complete abolition of the liberal rights enshrined in the ‘parliamentarism’ of the dualist period. Kontler argues that they did so because:

Liberal democracy seemed to them a mechanical application of the majority principle, undermining political responsibility and stability. They despised communism and were suspicious of social democrats because of their campaign against private property. Finally, they opposed right-wing radical and fascist trends epitomised by Gyula Gömbös and the other ‘protectors of the race’ who thought that the parliamentary system had outlived itself and ought to be replaced by authoritarian rule which would facilitate a redistribution of economic functions at the expense of the Jewish bourgeoisie and in favour of the Hungarian Christian middle classes. 

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The fundamental character which the political system of the country retained until the German occupation of March 1944 emerged at this point as a result of Bethlen’s consolidation. Hungary became a parliamentary state with strong elements of authoritarianism and a hegemonic party structure, in which the institutions inherited from ‘the liberal era’ were operated in an anti-democratic fashion. The government acknowledged a lawful political opposition, consisting of Social Democrats, bourgeois liberals led by Vilmos Vázsonyi and later by Károly Rassay, and after 1930 a rejuvenated Independent Smallholder Party; and on the right, of different groups of Christian Socialists and Rightist radicals, such as the Party of Racial Defence founded by Gömbös, which seceded from the government party in 1923. However, the adjustment of interests took place, not at the sessions of parliament, but rather at conferences among the various factions within the government party; its decisions might have been criticised but were rarely changed by the opposition, which the vagaries of the system also deprived of a chance to implement alternative policies by assuming power.

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“No rebellion, but neither submission”

The ‘Trianon syndrome’ also accentuated the general infatuation of all things Hungarian, easily falling into chauvinism and racism, that characterised much of public discourse throughout the whole of the Horthy era. In the beginning, the Horthy régime sought solely to correct the unquestionably misconceived and unjust territorial provisions of the 1920 Paris agreements through the revision of national borders in ways that benefited Hungary. Instead of reconciliation and cooperation in reducing the significance of the borders, it opted to the end for national, political, ideological and military opposition. The irredentist and revisionist propaganda shown in the postcards below reveal how it did not recoil from crude devices that wounded the self-esteem of neighbouring Slavic peoples who, of course, replied in kind. But the régime was differentiated from first fascist Italy and then Nazi Germany by the fact that it never even considered mobilising the masses for violent extra-parliamentary action against a post-feudal, aristocratic order, or against the ethnic and linguistic minorities, especially the Jews. Neither did it attempt a systematic regimentation of the press and cultural life in general.

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In the mid-1920s, Hungary was a bourgeois conservative-liberal state living in relative peace, with a functioning parliament. It also retained many antiquated and obsolete features, but these did not obstruct moderate modernisation in the spirit of both progressive conservatism and liberalism. Public health and education reforms improved conditions in the towns and villages, where many new technical courses were offered, and an extensive network of marketing cooperatives developed under the name Hangya, (Ant). Count István Bethlen was the ‘unruffled father of the consolidation’ but Count Pál Teleki was the first prime minister, an academic geographer who was an authority on ethnic groups and economic geography (pictured below); as such, he participated, by invitation, in the first demarcation of the state borders of modern Iraq in 1924-25. At that point, Bethlen himself became the head of government. The Communist Party was illegal and the Social Democratic Party, in a pact with the Smallholder Party, renounced its agitation among the majority agrarian population in order to secure its ability to function in the cities and urban areas.

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On the question of Trianon, although the British Tory governments of the mid-1920s lost interest in Central European affairs, the Hungarian cause found at least one influential and steadfast British supporter in the person of the press magnate Harold Sidney Harmsworth, Lord Rothermere who, under the charms of a Hungarian aristocratic lady, published his article, Hungary’s Place under the Sun, in the Daily Mail in June 1927. Rothermere’s proposal was that, in the interests of peace in Central Europe and the more effective containment of Bolshevism, the predominantly Hungarian-inhabited borderlands of the other successor states should be restored to Hungary. His proposal embarrassed the British government and evoked a mixed response from within Hungary itself. On the one hand, it was welcomed by the Hungarian Revisionist League of several hundred social organisations and corporate bodies; on the other hand, an ethnically inspired revision of the Treaty seemed less than satisfactory for many in official circles and was fully acceptable for the social democratic and liberal opposition. Rothermere’s intervention coincided with two developments: growing and well-founded disillusionment with schemes for peaceful revision, and the recovery of Hungary’s scope of action through the departure of both the foreign financial and military commissioners by early 1927. As soon as the surveillance was lifted, Hungary, like the other defeated countries in the First World War, began to evade the military stipulations of the peace treaty and began making overtures to both Italy and Germany.

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Király útca (King Street), Budapest, in the 1920s

The world economic crisis of 1929-31 reached less-developed Hungary after a brief delay at the end of the ‘reconstruction’ period. It immediately muddied the puddles of prosperity that were barely a few years old. It set back the regeneration of Hungarian industry that had switched from a war to a peace economy and manufactured mostly consumer goods and was therefore very sensitive to the development of a buyer’s market. Not for the first or last time, it choked the agrarian economy into a cycle of overproduction. The economic crisis was not yet over but receding, when the right-wing army officer, Gyula Gömbös, pushed István Bethlen aside to become PM, and an unmistakable fascism gained ground. This was signalled by corporate endeavours, populist demagogy (including some ‘leftist’ arguments), racism and brutal violence and unbridled friendship with Benito and Adolf. After a forced and modest turn to the left dictated by consolidation, the pendulum swung to the right. And when the economic crisis ended, hopes for war kept the economy growing. Gömbös’ successor, Kálmán Darányi, announced the Győr Programme in the “Hungarian Ruhr region”, putting the heavy industry in the gravitational centre of industrial activity which served the rearmament drive previously prohibited by the Entente powers.

Changes in the international scene between 1936 and 1938 encouraged fascist organisations in Hungary. Hitler’s re-militarisation of the Rhineland only evoked consternation and protest, but no action on the part of the western powers; the German-Italian axis eventually came into existence, with Japan also joining in the Anti-Comintern Pact; General Franco’s armies were gaining the upper hand in the Spanish Civil War. At the same time, PM Darányi’s foreign minister, Kálman Kánya negotiated in vain with his opposite numbers from the ‘Little Entente’ countries during the summer and autumn of 1937 in order to secure a non-aggression pact linked to the settlement of the minorities’ problem and the acknowledgement of Hungarian military parity; and he also failed to reawaken British interest in Hungary in order to counter Germany’s growing influence. As a result, these moves only served to annoy Hitler, who, having decided on action against Austria and Czechoslovakia, nevertheless assured the Hungarian leaders that he considered their claims against the latter as valid and expected them to cooperate in the execution of his plans.

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The Anschluss on 12-13 March 1938 still took the Hungarian establishment by surprise, the more so since they were expecting Hitler to cede the Burgenland to Hungary, which he proved unwilling to do. On the other hand, the German annexation of Austria was hailed among the followers of Szálasi, who despite the banning of his Arrow Cross Party shortly earlier, were able to exert formidable propaganda and political agitation. This prompted Darányi to work out an agreement with the extremists, who, in return for moderating their programme, were legalised again as the Hungarist Movement. This was too much for the conservatives as well as for Horthy himself. Darányi was dismissed by the latter on 13 May 1938 and replaced by Béla Imrédy, who had a reputation as an outstanding financial expert and a determined Anglophile and ‘Hungarism’ was averse to his political taste. Yet it was under his premiership that the Hungarian parliament stepped up rearmament by enacting the new military budget which resulted in a great economic boom: a twenty-one per cent increase in industrial output by 1939, nearly as much as the entire economic growth since 1920. It also enacted the anti-Jewish legislation prepared under Darányi, the law on the more efficient assurance of equilibrium in social and economic life established a twenty per cent ceiling on the employment of ‘persons of the Israelite faith’ in business and the professions, depriving about fifteen thousand Jewish people of jobs for which they were qualified. Some of the governing party as well as Liberals and Social Democrats in parliament, in addition to prominent figures in cultural and intellectual life, including Bartók, Kodály, and Móricz protested, while the radical Right found the measure too indulgent.

However, he was vulnerable to his political opponents, who claimed that they had discovered he had Jewish ancestry. In order to deflect attention from this accusation, Imrédy crossed over to the extreme right and became the main promoter of anti-Semitic legislation. Therefore, the main legacy of his premiership was, therefore, a second anti-Jewish law (May 5th, 1939), which defined Jews as a racial group for the first time. As it was not a definition based on religious observance, it became the harbinger of the Holocaust. People with two or more Jewish-born grandparents were declared Jewish. Private companies were forbidden to employ more than 12% Jews. 250,000 Hungarian Jews lost their income. Most of them lost their right to vote as well. I have written extensively both about the anti-Jewish Laws and Hungary’s international relations, particularly with Britain, elsewhere on this site:

https://chandlerozconsultants.wordpress.com/2014/05/14/horthy-hitler-and-the-hungarian-holocaust-1936-44/

https://chandlerozconsultants.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/magyar-british-relations-in-the-era-of-the-two-world-wars-part-two-world-peace-to-world-war-1929-1939/

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Territorial changes affecting Hungary, 1938-41

Here, I wish to concentrate on Hungary’s internal politics and the domestic policies of the Horthy governments. Nevertheless, the international situation soon made it difficult for the Darányi government to follow policies independent from German influence, whether foreign or domestic. The blitzkrieg on Poland of September 1939 forced many Poles to cross the Carpathians into Slovakia (by then under Hungarian occupation thanks to the country joining the Axis alliance, and gaining – under the First Vienna accord – considerable territories in Slovakia containing significant Hungarian populations) and into post-Trianon Hungary itself. In spite of German protests, the Polish refugees who decided to remain in Hungary were made welcome, in keeping with the historical friendship between Poland and Hungary,  But this brief interlude of Polish asylum, as István Lázár has pointed out represented not even a momentary halt in our country’s calamitous course. Lázár has also pointed out that although most of the Jews living in the Slovakian territories declared themselves to be Hungarian, this did nothing to improve their ultimate fate, and that many of the Hungarians who “returned home’ bitterly observed that though they had been subject to harmful discrimination as members of a national minority “over there”, on the other side of the Danube, the bourgeois Republic of Czechoslovakia did uphold civil rights and equality to a much greater extent than did a still half-feudal Hungary, whose gendarmes were abusive and where an increasingly intimidatory atmosphere developed between late 1939 and 1944.

The Death Bed of Democracy, 1941-1956.

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At the beginning of this period, Pál Teleki returned to the premiership. Lázár has described him as a ‘schizoid character’ and a ‘vacillating moralist’. He supported serious fact-finding sociological investigations about conditions among the poorest members of Hungarian society, but also arrived at agreements with the extremists of aggressive racism, perhaps to take the wind out of their sails in the spirit of his own more moderate nationalism. But his plan to form a counterweight to Nazi racism by appeasing Hungarian racists was blown apart by the Regent’s decision in the spring of 1941, to allow the transit of German forces to attack Yugoslavia. Finding himself in an impossible situation, and in a genuine but ultimately futile gesture, Teleki shot himself, leaving a confused letter for Admiral Horthy, which accused ‘the nation’ of perfidiousness and cowardice in siding with the scoundrels … The most beastly nation. He blamed himself for not stopping the Regent in this. In June 1941, Hungary entered the war against the Soviet Union and subsequently with the Allied Powers. Not consulting Parliament, Prime Minister László Bárdossy had, in fact, launched Hungary into the war illegally in answer to the bombing of Kassa, which he claimed was a Soviet provocation.

By entering the war, Bárdossy and his successors as PM expected at least to retain the territories re-annexed to Hungary between 1938 and 1941, and all other aspects of the inter-war régime were intended to remain unchanged by Horthy and Kallay, who not only repudiated any communication with the Soviets, but were also unwilling to co-operate with the representatives of the democratic alternative to the Axis alliance which was beginning to take shape by the summer of 1943. This even included an exclusive circle of aristocrats around Bethlen who established a National Casino and then went on with the Liberals of Károly Rassay to create the Democratic Bourgeois Alliance with a programme of gradual reforms. Endre Bajccsy- Zsilinszky and Zoltán Tildy of the Independent Smallholder Party not only submitted a memorandum to the government urging it to break away from Germany and conclude a separate peace but also worked out a common programme of democratisation with the Social Democrats. Despite the great wave of persecution in 1942, the Communists also reorganised themselves under the cover name of ‘the Peace Party’, which made it easier for them to collaborate with anti-fascists in the Independence Movement who, at the same time, harboured anti-Bolshevik sentiments.

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I have written elsewhere about the Movement, Magyar Függetlenségi Mozgalom, founded in late 1941 under the leadership of Domokos Szent-Iványi (right), whose recently published memoirs deal with the period from 1939 to 1956, though mainly up to his arrest by the Communist-led government in 1946.

The western powers would have preferred to be dealing, after the war, with a thoroughly reformed Hungary governed by a ‘popular front’ of Liberals, Smallholders and Social Democrats. While the Nazis called for an intensification of the war effort, the Hungarians tried to diminish it and to make overtures to the Allies. However, their cautious and secretive diplomacy was closely followed by the Germans, who did not permit the Hungarians to reach a separate deal. Kállay had no alternative but to continue the military co-operation with Germany, though he protected the Jews living in Hungary, including the refugees from the Third Reich. He also permitted anti-Nazi groups to re-emerge and operate more openly. Above all, he hoped to be able to surrender to Western troops, thus avoiding a Soviet invasion. The US sent the Hungarian-American Francis Deák to Lisbon with instructions to talk to the Hungarians with the objective of keeping Hungary out of Soviet control. On 1 October Roosevelt met the Habsburg Otto von Habsburg, who had remained as his guest in the US during the war and assured him that if Romania remained with the Axis and Hungary joined the Allies, the US would support a continued Hungarian occupation and retention of southern Transylvania. The Hungarian government was willing and sent a message to Lisbon to that effect.

In January 1944, the Hungarian Government authorised the Archduke to act on its behalf. An American military mission was dropped into Western Hungary on 14 March, calling for Horthy’s surrender. Twenty thousand Allied troops were then set to parachute into the country and the Hungarian Army would then join the fight against the Germans. However, these moves became known to German intelligence, which had cracked the communications code.  By the time Horthy came to believe that his government could reach an agreement with the Soviets to end their involvement on the eastern front, it was again too late. On March 18th, 1944, Hitler summoned Horthy to a conference in Austria, where he demanded greater collaboration from the Hungarian state in his ‘final solution’ of his Jewish problem. Horthy resisted, but while he was still at the conference, German tanks rolled into Budapest on 19th March. Italy managed to pull out of the war, but while Horthy was still conferring at Hitler’s headquarters, a small German army had completed its occupation of Hungary by 22 March. By this time Horthy possessed neither moral nor physical strength to resist, and simply settled for keeping up appearances, with a severely limited sovereignty.

002On March 23rd, 1944, the government of Döme Sztójay was installed. Among his other first moves, Sztójay legalized the overtly Fascist Arrow Cross Party, which quickly began organizing throughout the country. During the four-day interregnum following the German occupation, the Ministry of the Interior was put in the hands of right-wing politicians well-known for their hostility to Jews. I have written extensively in other articles (see the references above) about the Holocaust which followed, both in the Adolf Eichmann’s deportations of the estimated 440,000 Jews from rural Hungary and the occupied territories to Auschwitz (pictured above) and other ‘death camps’. The devotion to the cause of the ‘final solution’ of the Hungarian Gendarmerie surprised even Eichmann himself, who supervised the operation with only twenty officers and a staff of a hundred, including drivers, cooks, etc. Very few members of the Catholic or Protestant clergy raised their voices against sending the Jews to their death. A notable exception was Bishop Áron Márton, in his sermon in Kolozsvár on 18 May. But the Catholic Primate of Hungary, Serédi, decided not to issue a pastoral letter condemning the deportation of the Jews. When news of the deportations reached British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, he wrote in a letter to his Foreign Secretary dated July 11, 1944:

 “There is no doubt that this persecution of Jews in Hungary and their expulsion from enemy territory is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world….”

The idea that any member of the Hungarian government, including the President, or Regent, was unaware of the scale and nature of the deportations is fanciful, to say the least, as is the idea that Horthy was responsible for stopping the deportations from the countryside and/ or the capital. It is true that Horthy ordered the suspension of all deportations on July 6, but by then the Regent was virtually powerless. This is demonstrated by the fact that another 45,000 Jews were deported from the Trans-Danubian region and the outskirts of Budapest to Auschwitz after this day. The Sztójay government continued to ignore the Regent and rescheduled the date of deportation of the Jews of Budapest to Auschwitz to August 27th. What prevented this was that the Romanians switched sides on 23 August 1944, causing huge problems for the German military, and it was on Himmler’s orders that the cancellation of further deportations from Hungary was enacted on 25 August. But with the German high command preoccupied elsewhere, Horthy regained sufficient authority to finally dismiss Prime Minister Sztójay on 29 August. By then the war aims of the Horthy régime, the restoration of Hungary to its pre-Trianon status, were in tatters. The First and Second Awards and the acquisitions by force of arms would mean nothing after the defeat which now seemed inevitable. The fate of Transylvania was still in the balance in the summer of 1944, with everything depending on who would liberate the contested territories from the Germans. When Royal Romania succeeded in pulling out, the Soviet and Romanian forces combined forces began a joint attack and the weakened Hungarian Army was unable to contain them.

024A later ‘reign of terror’ followed the coup which brought the Szalási Arrow Cross government to power and ended Horthy’s rule in Hungary on 15 October 1944 (in the picture, top right, Ferenc Szalási in the foreground). Following this, tens of thousands of Jews of Budapest were sent on foot to the Austrian border in ‘death marches’ (pictured below), and most of the remaining forced labourers under Hungarian Army command were deported to Bergen-Belsen. Two ghettos were set up in Budapest. The big Budapest ghetto was set up and walled in the Erzsébetváros part of Budapest on 29 November. Arrow Cross raids and mass executions occurred in both ghettos regularly. In addition, in the two months between November 1944 and February 1945, the Arrow Cross shot between ten and fifteen thousand Jews on the banks of the Danube.

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Soviet troops liberated the big Budapest ghetto on 18 January 1945 (pictured above, bottom right). On the Buda side of the town, the encircled Arrow Cross continued their murders until the Soviets took Buda on 13 February.

 

As the front rolled westwards through Hungary,  revolutionary changes were already taking place behind it. However, Hungarian society could not achieve these by its own efforts: they were brought about with the help of foreign troops. This did not mean the immediate or forceful introduction of the Soviet political system. In the summer of 1945, the diplomat Domokos Szent-Ivanyi was optimistic about the future of Hungary, arriving at the conclusion that there were still opportunities for a return to democracy which could be realised with a well-planned strategy. One of his key observations in support of this was that…

The decisive factor in the Carpo-Danubian Basin as well as in the whole of East Central Europe is, and will be for many decades to come, the Soviet Union. In consequence any solution and settlement must be made with the cooperation of the Soviets.

As to the Western Democracies they are only of secondary important to the region. In handling the problems of Central Europe, the Western Democracies had shown a frightening weakness. In spite of all previous promises and obligations, countries and individuals alike had been abandoned by the Anglo-Saxons… My opinion was that no Hungarian Government must compromise its good relationship with the Soviet Union… Even in the case of a future war in which the Soviet Union lost, the immense territory of the Russian Empire would still be there, and she would continue to be Hungary’s most powerful neighbour.

This was a prophetic statement of the course which the second half of the twentieth century would take, and indeed the first decades of the twenty-first. Of course, the ‘future war’ turned out to be a long, cold one. But first, from his point of view, Hungarian-Russian relations could only be achieved by the removal from power of the Rákosi-Gerő clique, but this must also be achieved by legal, constitutional means and not by conspiracies and intrigue, by holding and winning indisputable elections. His MFM, the ‘underground’ inheritor of the conservative-liberal democratic tradition of Bethlen and Teleki, pledged its support to the Smallholders’ Party in this transition process. When the full force of the atrocities receded, the Soviet military leadership was more inclined to trust the routine business of public administration to the experienced Hungarian officials rather than to radical organisations, including previously banned communist ones, which had been suddenly brought to life with renewed popular support. Many of the Communist veterans of 1919 had spent the past thirty-five years in exile, many of them in Moscow, and though some wanted to see an immediate reintroduction of the dictatorship of the proletariat, these individuals were discouraged by the fact that a return of a ‘conservative-liberal democracy’ rather than a ‘people’s democracy’ was already on the national agenda. This sense was soon reinforced by the arrival of delegates from the western wartime allies; British, American and French officers belonging to the Allied Control Commission were present to oversee the domestic situation in Hungary.

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Although the fighting sometimes left large areas untouched, death and destruction were nationwide. According to rough calculations, the economic losses suffered during the war amounted to five times the national income of 1938, the last year of ‘outright’ peace, or forty per cent of the total national wealth. In the fighting itself, between 120 and 140 thousand people were killed and another quarter of a million never returned from captivity in Soviet Russia. They either died there or found new homes elsewhere. At least half a million Hungarians were kept in these camps for longer terms, most released after two or three years, though tens of thousands were set free only in the next decade. Of course, these losses were in addition to the loss of some 600,000 Hungarian Jews, Roma and other Holocaust victims referred to above. And then many thousands of ethnic Swabian Hungarians were either deported to Germany or taken to the Soviet Union for so-called ‘reparations’ work. Many women and girls in Budapest were raped by Red Army soldiers. In other ‘material terms’, Budapest and several hundred other settlements lay in ruins and not a single bridge across the Danube remained intact. The Nazis had plundered the gold reserves of the National Bank, most of the railway rolling-stock, machinery and other equipment, farm animals, museum treasures and a great deal of private property. What remained of food and livestock passed into the possession of the Red Army, which used them to supply their forces stationed in Hungary, as well as those in transit to the west.

These were just the basic, enforced costs and scars of war. There were many other problems related to the changing borders, mass internal migrations and emigration, racism and discrimination, economic reparations and inflation, all of which had to be dealt with by central government. Under moderate military supervision, local self-government bodies proved effective in upholding the law and new possibilities for further education opened up for the children of workers and peasants. Between 1945 and 1949 Hungary’s national political scene altered radically and violently. A dozen or so political parties revived or were established in 1945 and contested the fair and free elections of 1945. At first, everything went according to plan for the Independence Movement and the Smallholders’ Party, which overwhelmingly won both the municipal and general elections of autumn 1945.

However, straight after the general election, an argument broke out among the leading party members as to who the candidate for President should be (to be elected in the Parliament) and who should be Prime Minister. Also, they were forced into a Coalition government with the Social Democrats and Communists. The twelve parties were then quickly reduced to four by the manoeuvring and ‘salami-slicing’ tactics of the Communists. Over the course of the next year, the leaders of the Independence Movement were intimidated and finally arrested. Of the two peasant parties and two workers’ parties remaining, the Social Democrats and the Communist Party merged in 1948 to form the Hungarian Working People’s Party. As in the rest of Eastern Europe, a “people’s democracy” was then established which essentially promised to follow the peaceful path of socialist revolution. In some countries, other parties survived on a nominal basis, or in alliance with the ‘leading party’. In Hungary, however, political activity could only continue within the framework of the People’s Front.

Initially, the Smallholder-led Coalition government gave an impressive economic performance. Reconstruction proceeded quickly. Land reform benefited 650,000 landless and Smallholder peasants. Although workers wages fell to a fraction of what they had been earlier, industrial recovery was very rapid. As well as catering for the domestic market, trade began with Soviet, Czechoslovak and Romanian partners. But most of the progress of the 1945-49 period was then destroyed in the period which followed, 1949-53. The unrealistically ambitious plan targets set, the rapid pace of industrialisation and armaments production and the compulsory collectivization of the land, undermining the spontaneous organisation of cooperatives led to a deterioration of workers’ conditions at all levels and to peasants fleeing from the land, causing further ‘dilution’ of labour. It also led to a variety of further acts of intimidation of small-scale producers and the middle classes, appropriation of property and class discrimination throughout society, even involving schoolchildren. Production was emphasised at the expense of consumption, leading to directed labour and food rationing. Finally, there were the show trials and executions,  which were becoming the familiar traits of Stalinist régimes.

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The Congress of Young Communists – a poster by István Czeglédi & Tibor Bányhegyi

At the beginning of the 1950s, every poster displayed a pure smile or healthy muscles. Portraits of Mátyás Rákosi, the “people’s wise leader”, filled the streets. 

After Stalin’s death, Imre Nagy, himself a former exile in Moscow, returned from the periphery of the party to the centre of events. In 1944-45 he distributed land in his capacity as minister of agriculture in the Debrecen provisional government; in 1953 he was prime minister, though Rákosi remained as the Party’s first secretary. Consequently, the next years failed to produce the necessary political corrections, even after the momentous Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Party. Although Nagy succeeded in putting the economy on a sounder footing and those sentenced and imprisoned unjustly were rehabilitated, Rákosi and his clique launched one counter-attack after another. At the end of his memoirs on the Hungarian Independence Movement, Domokos Szent-Iványi draws ‘telling’ conclusions about the whole period of authoritarian government in Hungary. Written with the benefit of hindsight following a decade in prison and the subsequent Revolution of October 1956, his view of recent Hungarian events had clearly shifted his view of  Hungary’s place in European history, especially in relation to the Soviet Union, from those written in the summer of 1945, quoted above:

The dictatorship of Rákosi and his gang had no other support but the bayonets of the Red Army or rather the power of the secret services of the Russian Communist Party and of the Red Army. It was a situation which, within less than a decade, led to the Hungarian Revolution of October 1956, the end of the Rákosi dictatorship and a more peaceful and less disturbed period of the History of Hungary.

The period of the “Twenty-Five Years of Regency” (1919-1944), as well as the dictatorship of the Nazi supported Szálasi régime (1944) and the dictatorship of Mátyás Rákosi and his gang, supported by Stalin’s and Beria’s régime, cannot be considered or treated as independent chapters of Hungarian History. They were the continuation of Hungary’s history of the previous centuries and they do not mark the end of the natural evolution of the Hungarian people. This evolution has been determined by political and geographical factors and the future of Hungary will be influenced similarly by the same factors.

Hungary belongs to Western Civilization and she is essentially a European country. Yet, on the other hand, she had always been on the very line between Eastern and Western Civilization, and has never freed herself from Eastern influence entirely.

Sources:

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

István Lázár (1992), An Illustrated History of Hungary. Budapest: Corvina.

Gyula Kodolányi & Nóra Szeker (eds.) (2013), Domokos Szent-Iványi: The Hungarian Independence Movement, 1939-1946. Budapest: Hungarian Review Books.

 

Posted December 14, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Agriculture, Anglo-Saxons, anti-Semitism, Assimilation, Cartoons, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Civil Rights, Civilization, Co-operativism, Cold War, Communism, democracy, Education, Empire, Ethnic cleansing, Europe, Germany, Great War, History, Holocaust, Hungarian History, Hungary, Immigration, Imperialism, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Jews, Journalism, liberal democracy, manufacturing, Marxism, Migration, Monarchy, Mythology, Narrative, nationalisation, Population, populism, Racism, Refugees, Russia, terror, tyranny, Unemployment, Unionists, USSR, Utopianism, Warfare, Yugoslavia

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Budapest between the Holocaust and the Uprising, 1946-56: Part Two, 1948-53; Descent into Dictatorship.   Leave a comment

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!

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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.

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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. 

Sources:

See part three, following.

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