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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.

The Twin Crises of Autumn 1956: Suez & Hungary, part four.   Leave a comment

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26-30 October: Days of Victory in Hungary

Half an hour after the radio announced the fall of Gerő on 25 October, ten thousand demonstrators  gathered around Sándor Kopácsi’s police headquarters. In unison, the young people shouted ‘take down the star!’ Kopácsi commented:

The roof of our building, like that of every public building, bore a large, five-pronged star in red metal, studded with a hundred red electric bulbs. Ours was at least five or six metres high. I listened to the crowd and watched it, surrounded by my officers and the two Soviet counsellors… This was a delicate situation: the red star was the symbol that had always guided my path. It was my identity, the distinctive symbol of the ‘great family’. The crowd was getting impatient: ‘Down with the star, down with the star!’

‘Better go up and take it down, guys’.

The secretary of the party organisation at police headquarters, a former Resistance fighter who had fought in Tito’s underground, looked at me unhappily…

My deputy sent a commando up to the roof, equipped with tools. When the crowd saw the policemen taking down the star, they shouted with glee. The hostility they had demonstrated since the massacre to everything and everyone associated with the red star dissipated a bit.  

The ÁVH were a different matter, however. They were so panic-stricken that they even opened fire, mistakenly, on their own comrades sent to relieve them. More than a hundred of those who had not been involved in unjust trials, torture, or in commanding the troops that had committed atrocities over the past three days were given refuge in the police headquarters by Kopácsi, whom they trusted to defend them against the crowd. They included his friends from the Partisans’ Union and Bartos, the AVH’s quartermaster, whom Kopácsi knew had never been involved in anything other than the supply corps. He let them have several offices where they played cards or used the phone to talk to look for a more private hide-out. Several dozen officers and men gave themselves up as prisoners, while others were hauled in to the headquarters by the new National Guard. They were fed as normal and lived in open cells until the day of the second coming of the Soviet Army.

Tom Leimdorfer remembers that on the Friday, 26 October, there were rumours that the revolution had spread to other towns, and that the Hungarian Army (or part of it) had joined the revolution. There was also much speculation about the role of the government and the response of the Soviet leadership. More immediate problems came in the form of privations resulting from the state of emergency:

Family and friends were ringing to check if we were alright. We were running out of food and so were other families in the block. Then we heard that the shop on the ground floor would open as there appeared to be a lull in the fighting. We went to join the queue. To my surprise, a Russian soldier came along the line and entered the shop, asking for bread and milk. There was no animosity towards the individual soldier, but everyone pretended not to understand what he was saying. Then someone asked me to translate, saying that I should know from my school lessons.

The next two days continued for Tom, as for many others forced to stay at home, as a blur of boredom, uncertainty, rumours and counter-rumours of political developments. Meanwhile, Nagy had quietly chosen his course of action. On Saturday 27th, he reshuffled his cabinet to include some relatively credible communists like Lukács, and two former Smallholder Party leaders, Tildy and Béla Kovács. He was siding with the revolutionaries.

Then on Sunday, 28 October, everything changed. ‘Free’ Radio Kossuth stopped referring to the ‘counter-revolution’ and started talking about an uprising against the crimes of the former régime. Indeed, Nagy started to talk about a ‘national democratic movement’, also announcing a cease-fire and even the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Budapest. He acknowledged the revolutionary bodies created during the previous days, promised an amnesty and the disbanding of the AVH. On the economy, he promised agrarian reform. There was also an official announcement by the Central Committee of the Party approving the Government’s declaration promising the end of one-party rule. It added:

In view of the exceptional situation, the Central Committee has passed on its mandate to lead the Party to a new Party Presidium of six members. Its chairman is János Kádár. 

Throughout Hungary the mood of anger following Bloody Thursday had turned to one of expectation on Sunday. Open elections were held in towns and villages. Imre Nagy requested that Khrushchev honour the cease-fire and order the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops. He agreed to their withdrawal from the capital, but at the same time deployed more divisions along the Ukrainian border with Hungary. Nevertheless, the population of the city were convinced of victory:

Suddenly, people felt free to leave their homes and joyful crowds filled the streets of the capital. Next morning we saw lines of Soviet tanks crunching their way out of city.

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As Nagy had announced on the radio the previous day, an agreement had been reached over their movement out of the capital. Beginning on 29th, by noon on the 31st there were few tanks and armoured vehicles to be seen on the streets of Budapest. This gave rise to a kind of (as it turned out, false) euphoria, adding to the idea that the revolution was victorious.  On the Monday morning, 29 October, Imre Nagy moved his main office and base from the Party’s headquarters in Akadémia utca, where he had been since being recalled to government, to Parliament. Together with his entourage of associates, and his new government colleagues, Nagy was bombarded with requests and demands presented by visiting delegations from all over the country. One of the earliest delegations to have discussions with Nagy was composed of representatives of armed groups of insurgents from different parts of the city. They offered conditional recognition of his government, demanded the complete withdrawal of Soviet troops by the end of the year and immediate dissolution of the AVH. Nagy was more interested in their laying down of arms, since a general cease-fire had already been ordered, and the Soviet troops were already leaving Budapest. The delegates agreed that they would hand over their arms to Hungarian forces once the Soviet forces had left the country completely. There was also some discussion about the formation of a National Guard, during which Nagy is reported to have asked the delegates, “Lads, do you really believe that I am not as Hungarian as you are?” One of the leaders replied, “Maybe, but there’s a revolution going on, and what counts is who is the greater revolutionary, not what kind of Hungarian you are.”

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There were constant streams of workers’ representatives, sent by the newly formed workers’ councils. New councils were also formed in several government departments, challenging the centralised power of the state. Most importantly, several thousand members of the Hungarian Army defected to the workers’ cause, taking their weapons with them. The Uprising was successful, and the Revolution all but complete. Tom Leimdorfer confirms this atmosphere in a capital which emerged battered but liberated:

On Monday, it seemed that everyone was on the streets. Budapest looked war-torn. There were smouldering fires, some houses in ruins others with gaping shell holes. Our block of flats and the one opposite were both pot-marked with machine gun fire. The overhead cables of the trams were twisted and torn, many roads blocked by the debris of battle including burnt out tanks, cars and buses. Some people were burning publications of communist propaganda and works of writers who supported the regime. We were busy checking how relatives fared and buying provisions from shops which were beginning to open. The next day we were hearing totally different voices on the radio and heard that the leading communist members of staff had been dismissed. The first free newspapers appeared on the streets. They were thin publications, but everyone wanted to read them.

Meanwhile, Radio Free Europe, the CIA-backed station that broadcast into Eastern Europe, was talking up the situation in typically dramatic fashion, to the annoyance of the Soviets and the concern of their Hungarian comrades. It proclaimed the West’s backing for what it called Hungary’s “freedom fighters”. World opinion supported the Hungarian uprising. It seemed that Imre Nagy had the confidence of the people and the Soviet leaders (Khrushchev, Mikoyan, Suslov and their envoy Andropov) were prepared to give the new government a chance, trusting that the moderate communists (Nagy, Kádár and Munnich) would keep Hungary within the Warsaw Pact. Carried along by the momentum of events he could barely control, Nagy made a further radio announcement on 30 October that he was abolishing the one-party system forthwith and forming a new coalition government:

The constantly widening scope of the revolutionary movement in our country, the tremendous force of the democratic movement has brought our country to a cross-road. The National Government, in full agreement with the Presidium of the Hungarian Workers’  Party  (Communist Party), has decided to take a step vital for the future of the whole nation, and of which I want to inform the Hungarian working people…

The Cabinet abolishes the one-party system and places the country’s Government on the basis of democratic co-operation between coalition parties as they existed in 1945…

We wish to inform the people of Hungary that we are going to request the Government of the Soviet Union to withdraw Soviet troops completely from the entire territory of the Hungarian Republic. 

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Nagy’s  ‘National Government’ included several ministers from other parties, prominent among them being the iconic figure of the veteran Social Democrat leader Anna Kétly. Kéthly had opposed the fusion of the Social Democratic Party, which she had led before the war, with the Communist Party, which formed the Hungarian Workers’ Party. She was therefore purged from the political scene in the Rákósi era, spending a number of years in prison on trumped-up spying charges. British journalist Basil Davidson interviewed her in Parliament a few days before her appointment. She told him that her party’s participation in the Nagy government would depend on a number of conditions being met, including the return of its newspaper, Népszava (‘People’s Voice’). In addition,

“she said that there were dangers, even now, of a right-wing putsch. ‘Among the revolutionaries’ she told me, ‘there are right-wing Fascist extremists who would clearly love to capture our national revolution so as to impose another kind of dictatorship’. These were dangers against which Hungarians should remain on their guard, which is very different from saying that Fascists had succeeded in capturing the revolution.”

Immediately following her appointment, several suppressed Hungarian political parties began to reconstitute themselves, including the Social Democrats and the National Peasant Party. Nagy also agreed to recognise the revolutionary councils that had been created, including the one in the army which was established the same day. Its leader was immediately appointed to the new government. As Tom Leimdorfer remarked:

Suddenly, incredibly and briefly, it all seemed possible…  Perhaps that was the high point. That Tuesday, we heard that Cardinal Mindszenty was released from prison. This was also good news and we awaited eagerly what he would say on the radio. This was when I saw a very worried frown come over my mother’s face. This was not a speech to help reconciliation. Then in the afternoon a group of AVO  men were shot at point-blank range and some of their bodies were hung from the lamp posts of one of the main boulevards. There were other reports of violence and revenge killings. The revolution was showing its ugly side and we were beginning to have some doubts and fears. My mother met up with some colleagues who said that the border was open and many people were crossing to the West. She asked me if I thought we should try to get to England. I was horrified that we should even think of leaving at that time and she dropped the idea.  

Despite the speed of the changes carried through by Nagy, and the doubts and fears about the violent excesses being carried out in the name of the Revolution on the streets of Budapest, it looked as though the Soviets would give in to this massive display of people power opposing the apparatus of the state. A declaration was issued outlining the relationship between the Soviet Union and the socialist states. In it the Kremlin acknowledged that Hungarian workers were “justified” in pointing out the “serious mistakes” of the previous régime. The news agency TASS announced that the Soviet Union “deeply regrets” the bloodshed in Hungary, and agreed with the removal of Soviet soldiers from Hungarian soil. The statement was published in Pravda the following day, the 31st, at the same time as it was reported in the Hungarian press. The CIA Director, Allen Dulles, called it “one of the most important statements to come out of the USSR in the past decade”. The notes taken at the Soviet Party Presidium meeting also suggest that the wording of the statement was genuine for the point at which it was issued:

The communiqué represented a genuine initiative by the more ‘liberal’ wing of the Soviet leadership to create a more even balance in relations between the USSR and its satellites, and they managed, at least very briefly, to get their hard-line colleagues to agree. 

What may have played a role in changing the change of mind and heart in the Soviet Politburo was the last report from Budapest of Mikoyan and Suslov, made on 30 October. In it they relate the worsening situation referred to by Tom Leimdorfer, highlighting the strengthening role of what they call “hooligan elements”, the weakening of the HWP’s position and the “wait and see” position of the Hungarian army. The report was “one-sided”, tending “to accentuate the anti-Communist sentiments of the population, and grossly exaggerating the atrocities that were being committed.” An account was kept of all the Soviet war memorials overturned and war graves desecrated, “corroborating this bleak picture with reports of the lynchings at Köztársaság tér”. Nevertheless, it is evident from Tom Leimdorfer’s remarks that these brutal hangings of suspected AVH men did make a profound impact beyond simple numbers on the people of Budapest, as of course, their perpetrators meant them to. Moreover, Khrushchev is reported to have used the phrase “they are murdering communists in Budapest” more than once in the hearing of the Yugoslav Ambassador to Moscow.

It was at this moment that the world went mad, or at least the Israeli-British-French ‘triumvirate’ did. Their dead-of-night intervention to in Egypt to prevent Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal made the outcome of the Hungarian revolution dependent on superpower bargaining. Neither the USSR nor the USA were interested in military confrontation, but both were concerned to defend their strategic interests; the Soviets were willing to remain passive in the Middle East if they received assurances that there would be no Western intervention in Hungary. This was also agreed by the end of Tuesday 30 October. This tacit agreement meant that the promise which had been expressly given by Radio Free Europe on Eisenhower’s behalf, which played no small role in the resolve of the Hungarian insurgents, was thus broken, while the Soviet leaders sought and obtained the agreement of Tito to their planned alternative of intervention.

Alex von Tunzelmann believes that, in return, the situation in Hungary helped to push an already volatile situation between the superpowers closer to the brink. Khrushchev had to think very carefully about Suez when he was dealing with Hungary, just as Eisenhower had to think carefully about Hungary when he was dealing with Suez:

Both crises were referred to the UN, which was awkward because normally Britain would have stood by the US and condemned Soviet aggression – but since it was doing exactly the same thing, the UN was hamstrung. The US went against Britain and France at the UN for the first time, so this was the real danger to that alliance.

However, before either crisis was discussed in New York, it was a decision made by Imre Nagy which may well have sealed the fate of Hungary’s Revolution.

dsc09364(to be continued…)

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