Archive for the ‘Radio Free Europe’ Tag

Beginnings of the Cold War in Central/Eastern Europe, 1946-56: Territory, Tyranny and Terror.   1 comment

019Eastern Europe in 1949. Source: András Bereznay (2002), The Times History of Europe.

Following the defeat of the Third Reich, the map of the European continent was radically transformed. The most striking transformation was the shrinking of Germany, with Poland the principal beneficiary, and the division of what remained of the two countries. But Poland lost vast territories on its eastern border to the Soviet Union. West Germany (from 1949, ‘the Federal Republic’) was formed from the American, French and British areas of occupied Germany; East Germany (‘the Democratic Republic’ from 1949) was formed from the Soviet-occupied zone (see the maps below). The former German capital followed this pattern in miniature. Czechoslovakia was revived, largely along the lines it had been in 1919, and Hungary was restored to the borders established by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. Yugoslavia was also restored in the form it had been before the war. The Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – together with the Ukraine and Bessarabia, were all incorporated into the Soviet Union. Austria was detached from Germany and restored to independence, initially under a Soviet-sponsored government reluctantly recognised by the western powers. It gradually moved away from Soviet influence over the following ten years.

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It rapidly became clear that Stalin’s intentions were wholly at variance with the West’s goals for western Germany. The two zones of Germany followed wholly divergent paths: while denazification in the west followed the Austrian model, with the first free elections taking place in January 1946. However, in the east the Soviets moved quickly to eradicate all pre-war political parties other than the communists, sponsoring the German Communist Party, which became the Socialist Unity Party in April 1946. All other political organisations were suppressed by November 1947. As it became clear that the western and eastern halves of the country were destined for separate futures, so relations between the former Allies deteriorated. Simultaneously, the Soviet Army stripped the country of industrial plunder for war reparations. Germany rapidly became one of the major theatres of the Great Power Conflict of the next forty years. Berlin became the focal point within this conflict from the winter of 1948/49, as Stalin strove to force the Western Allies out of the city altogether. In September 1949, the Western Allies, abandoning for good any hopes they had of reaching a rapprochement with Stalin, announced the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany. This was followed, the next month, by the creation of the Soviet-sponsored GDR. More broadly, it was clear by the end of 1949, that Stalin had created what was in effect a massive extension of the Soviet Empire, as well as a substantial buffer zone between the USSR proper and the West. Western-Soviet relations were plunged into a deep freeze from which they would not emerge for decades: the Cold War. In escaping Nazi occupation, much of Central/Eastern Europe had simply exchanged one form of tyranny for another.  

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In July 1947, the USA had issued invitations to twenty-two European countries to attend a conference in Paris, scheduled for 12th July, to frame Europe’s response to the Marshall Plan, the proposal put forward by President Truman’s Secretary of State to provide an economic lifeline to the countries of Europe struggling to recover from the devastation caused by the World War. Stalin and his Foreign Minister, Molotov, had already given their reaction. Stalin saw the issue not only in economic but also political terms, his suspicious nature detecting an American plot. He thought that once the Americans got their fingers into the Soviet economy, they would never take them out. Moreover, going cap-in-hand to capitalists was, in his view, the ultimate sign of failure for the Communist system. The socialist countries would have to work out their own economic salvation. Nevertheless, Molotov succeeded in persuading Stalin to allow him to go to Paris to assess the American offer.

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The ‘big four’ – Britain, France, the USA and the USSR – met first at the end of June in Paris. Molotov agreed to back limited American involvement in the economies of Europe with no strings attached. However, Soviet intelligence soon revealed that both Britain and France saw Marshall’s offer as a plan for aiding in the full-scale reconstruction of Europe. Not only that, but Molotov was informed that the American under-secretary, Will Clayton, was having bilateral talks with British ministers in which they had already agreed that the Plan would not be an extension of the wartime Lend-Lease Agreement which had almost bankrupted Britain in the immediate post-war years. The British and the Americans also saw the reconstruction of Germany as the key factor in reviving the continent’s economy. This was anathema to the Soviets, who were keen to keep Germany weak and to extract reparations from it. The Soviet Union was always anxious about what it saw as attempts by the Western allies to downplay its status as the chief victor in the war. Molotov cabled Stalin that all hope of effecting Soviet restrictions on Marshall aid now seemed dead. On 3rd July, Molotov, accusing the Western powers of seeking to divide Europe into two hostile camps, gathered up his papers and returned to Moscow that same evening.

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With the Soviets out-of-the-way, invitations went out to all the states of Western Europe except Spain. They also went to Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Albania, Finland, Yugoslavia, Poland and Czechoslovakia. After initial hesitation, Moscow instructed its ‘satellites’ to reject the invitation. On 7th July, messages informed party bosses in the Eastern European capitals that…

…under the guise of drafting plans for the revival of Europe, the sponsors of the conference in fact are planning to set up a Western bloc which includes West Germany. In view of those facts … we suggest refusing to participate in the conference.

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Most of the Communist parties in the Central-Eastern European countries did just as they were told, eager to display their loyalty to Stalin. But the Polish and Czech governments found the offer of US dollars too appealing since this was exactly what their economies needed. In Czechoslovakia, about a third of the ministers in the coalition government were Communists, reflecting the share of the vote won by the party in the 1946 elections. Discussions within the government about the Marshall aid offer, however, produced a unanimous decision to attend the Paris conference. Stalin was furious and summoned Gottwald, the Communist Prime Minister, to Moscow immediately. Jan Masaryk, the foreign minister, an independent non-Communist member of the Prague Government. Stalin kept them waiting until the early hours and then angrily told them to cancel their decision to go to Paris. He said that the decision was a betrayal of the Soviet Union and would also undermine the efforts of the Communist parties in Western Europe to discredit the Marshall Plan as part of a Western plot to isolate the Soviet Union. He brushed aside their protests, and they returned to Prague, where the Czechoslovak Government, after an all-day meeting, unanimously cancelled its original decision. Masaryk, distraught, told his friends:

I went to Moscow as the foreign minister of an independent sovereign state; I returned as a Soviet slave.

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Above: Conflicting cartoon images of the Marshall Plan and the Cold War. Fitzpatrick, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, shows the Kremlin’s noose tightening around Czechoslovakia. Krokodil has the Europeans on their knees before their US paymaster. 

The Poles forced them into line as well, and their government made a similar announcement. Stalin had his way; the Eastern Bloc now voted as one and from now on each state took its orders from the Kremlin. Europe was divided and the Cold War was irreparably underway. From Washington’s perspective, the Marshall Plan was designed to shore up the European economies, ensure the future stability of the continent by avoiding economic catastrophe, thereby preventing the spread of communism, which was already thriving amidst the economic chaos of Western Europe. But from the Kremlin’s point of view, the plan appeared to be an act of economic aggression. Stalin had felt his own power threatened by the lure of the almighty ‘greenback’. In Washington, Stalin’s opposition to the plan was seen as an aggressive act in itself. The US ambassador in Moscow described it as nothing less than a declaration of war by the Soviet Union. Both sides were now locked in mutual suspicion and distrust and the effects of the Marshall Plan was to make the Iron Curtain a more permanent feature of postwar Europe.

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The same day as the Conference on European Economic Cooperation (CEEC) opened in Paris, 12th July 1947, the first meeting of Cominform, the short form of the Communist Information Bureau took place in the village of Szkliarska Poremba in Poland. A revival of the old Communist alliance, or Comintern, established by Lenin, this was a direct response to the Marshall Plan, and an attempt to consolidate Stalin’s control over the Soviet satellites and to bring unanimity in Eastern Bloc strategy. Andrei Zhdanov, the Soviet ideologue, Stalin’s representative at the meeting, denounced the Truman Doctrine as aggressive and, playing on Eastern European fears of resurgent Nazism, accused the Marshall Plan of trying to revive German industry under the control of American financiers. Along with the representatives of the Communist parties of France and Italy, which had been encouraged to operate through left-wing coalitions in a Popular Front, the Czechoslovak Communist delegates were ordered to move away from their coalition and to seize the initiative.

The coalition government in Czechoslovakia had previously operated on the principle that Czechoslovak interests were best served by looking both to the West and to the East, an idea dear to the hearts of both President Benes and Foreign Minister Masaryk. But as relations between the two power blocs worsened, the position of Czechoslovakia, straddling East and West, became ever more untenable. Masaryk, though not a Communist, felt increasingly cut off by the West after Prague’s failure to participate in the Marshall Plan. Washington regarded the capitulation to Stalin over the Paris conference as signifying that Czechoslovakia was now part of the Soviet bloc. The harvest of 1947 was especially bad in Czechoslovakia, with the yield of grain just two-thirds of that expected and the potato crop only half. The need for outside help was desperate, and Masaryk appealed to Washington, but the US made it clear that there would be no aid and no loans until Prague’s political stance changed. Although Masaryk tried to convince the US government that the Soviet line had been forced on them, he failed to change the American position. Then the Soviets promised Czechoslovakia 600,000 tons of grain, which helped prevent starvation and won wide support for Stalin among the Czechoslovak people. Foreign trade Minister Hubert Ripka said…

Those idiots in Washington have driven us straight into the Stalinist camp.

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When the Soviet deputy foreign minister arrived in Prague, supposedly to oversee the delivery of the promised grain, the non-Communist ministers took a gamble. On 20th February, they resigned from office, hoping to force an early election. But President Benes, who was seriously ill, wavered. Following orders from the Cominform, the Communists took to the streets, organising giant rallies and whipping up popular support. They used the police to arrest and intimidate opponents and formed workers’ assemblies at factories. On 25th February, fearing civil war, Benes allowed Gottwald to form a new Communist-led government. In the picture on the left above, Klement Gottwald is seen calling for the formation of a new Communist government, while President Benes stands to his left. In the picture on the right, units of armed factory workers march to a mass gathering in support of the takeover in the capital.

In five days, the Communists had taken power in Prague and Czechoslovakia was sentenced to membership of the Soviet camp for more than forty years. Masaryk remained as foreign minister but was now a broken man, his attempt to bridge East and West having failed. A fortnight later, he mysteriously fell to his death from the window of his apartment in the Foreign Ministry. Thousands of mourners lined the streets for his funeral, which marked the end of the free Republic of Czechoslovakia which had been founded by his father, Tomás Masaryk thirty years earlier. News of the Communist takeover in Prague sent shock waves through Washington, where the Marshall Plan was still making its way through Congress. Now the case had been made by events: without US intervention, Europe would fall to the Communists, both East and West. Had Washington not written off Czechoslovakia as an Eastern bloc state, refusing to help the non-Communists, the outcome of those events might have been different. This was a harsh but salient lesson for the US administration, but it made matters worse by talk of possible immediate conflict. The Navy secretary began steps to prepare the American people for war and the Joint Chiefs of Staff drew up an emergency war plan to meet a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. On 17th March, Truman addressed a joint session of Congress with a fighting speech:

The Soviet Union and its agents have destroyed the independence and democratic character of a whole series of nations in Eastern and Central Europe. … It is this ruthless course of action, and the clear design to extend it to the remaining free nations of Europe, that have brought about the critical situation in Europe today. The tragic death of the Republic of Czechoslovakia has sent a shock wave through the civilized world. … There are times in world history when it is far wiser to act than to hesitate. There is some risk involved in action – there always is. But there is far more risk involved in failure to act.

Truman asked for the approval of the Marshall Plan and for the enactment of universal military training and selective service. On 3rd April, Congress approved $5.3 billion in Marshall aid. Two weeks later, the sixteen European nations who had met in Paris the previous year, signed the agreement which established the OEEC, the body which the US Administration to formalise requests for aid, recommend each country’s share, and help in its distribution. Within weeks the first shipments of food aid were arriving in Europe. Next came fertilisers and tractors, to increase agricultural productivity. Then came machines for industry. The tap of Marshall aid had been turned on, but too late as far as Poland and Czechoslovakia were concerned. The plan was political as well as economic. It grew out of the desire to prevent the spread of communism into Western Europe. No longer could European nations sit on the fence. Each country had to choose whether it belonged to the Western or the Soviet bloc. In the immediate post-war years the situation had been fluid, but the Marshall Plan helped to accelerate the division of Europe. Forced to reject Marshall aid, Czechoslovakia became part of the Soviet sphere of influence, albeit abandoned to this fate by Washington, sacrificed once more by the Western powers. On the other hand, France and Italy were now firmly in the Western camp.

Paranoia permeated the Soviet system and Communist Central/GeorgeEastern Europe in the late forties and early fifties, just as it had done during Stalin’s reign of terror in the thirties. Hundreds of thousands of people were sent to labour camps and many thousands, loyal party members, were executed. In Hungary, as many as one in three families had a member in jail during the Stalinist period. As one Hungarian once told me, recalling his childhood forty years earlier, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1948 but only recently (in 1988) available to Hungarians to read, was 1948 in Hungary. In the Soviet Union and throughout the Soviet bloc, conformity was everything and no dissent was allowed. Independent thought was fiercely tracked down, rooted out, and repressed.

In the first phase of the Soviet takeover of Central/ Eastern Europe, Communist parties, with the backing of the Kremlin, had taken control of the central apparatus of each state.  Sometimes there were tensions between the local Communists, who had been part of the underground resistance to the Nazis, and those who had been exiled in Moscow and who had been appointed at the behest of Stalin to senior positions in the local parties. Initially, they were devoted to condemning their political opponents as class enemies. In 1948 a new phase began in the Sovietisation of the ‘satellite’ states, in which each nation was to be politically controlled by its Communist Party, and each local party was to be subject to absolute control from Moscow.

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In Hungary, the arrests had begun at Advent in 1946, with the seizure of lawyer and politician, György Donáth by the ÁVO, the state security police, on a charge of conspiracy against the Republic. Prior to his arrest, Donáth had left Budapest for a pre-Christmas vacation near the Hungarian border, so the ÁVO, who had had him under surveillance for some time, feared that he might attempt to flee the country and wasted no time in arresting him there, using the secret military police, KATPOL. Following this, a number of his associates were also arrested. In order to save these fellow leaders of the secret Hungarian Fraternal Community (MTK), which he had reactivated in the spring of 1946, he took all responsibility upon himself. He was condemned to death by a People’s Tribunal on 1st April 1947, and executed on 23rd October the same year. Cardinal Mindszenty, the representative of the religious majority in the country, was arrested soon after and put on trial on 3rd February 1949.

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(Following his release from prison a week before, in 1956)

In Czechoslovakia, where the Party had seized control in February 1948, a series of ‘show trials’ highlighted different stages in the imposition of Communist authority. Between 1948 and 1952 death sentences were passed against 233 political prisoners – intellectuals, independent thinkers, socialists, Christians. The execution of Zavis Kalandra, an associate of the Surrealists and a Marxist who had split with the prewar Communist Party, shocked Prague. Nearly 150,000 people were made political prisoners in Czechoslovakia, seven thousand Socialist Party members among them.

The crisis that prompted this strengthening of control was the split with Tito in 1948. The war-time partisan leader of Yugoslavia headed the only Communist country in Eastern Europe where power was not imposed by Moscow but came through his own popularity and strength. Although Stalin’s favourite for a while, Tito was soon out of favour with him for resisting the Soviet control of both Yugoslavia’s economy and its Communist Party.  In June 1948, Yugoslavia was expelled from Cominform for having placed itself outside the family of the fraternal Communist parties. Stalin even prepared plans for a military intervention, but later decided against it. The ‘mutiny’ in Yugoslavia now gave Stalin the opportunity he sought to reinforce his power. He could now point not just to an external ‘imperialist’ enemy, but to an ‘enemy within’. ‘Titoism’ became the Kremlin’s excuse for establishing a tighter grip on the Communist parties of Eastern Europe. Between 1948 and 1953 all the parties were forced through a crash programme of Stalinisation – five-year plans, forced collectivisation, the development of heavy industry, together with tighter Party control over the army and the bureaucratisation of the Party itself. To maintain discipline the satellites were made to employ a vast technology of repression.

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‘Show trials’ were used were used to reinforce terror; “justice” became an instrument of state tyranny in order to procure both public obedience and the total subservience of the local party to Soviet control. The accused were forced, by torture and deprivation, to ‘confess’ to crimes against the state. Communist Party members who showed any sign of independence or ‘Titoism’ were ruthlessly purged. The most significant of these trials was that of László Rajk in Hungary. Rajk had fought in the Spanish Civil War and had spent three years in France before joining the resistance in Hungary. After the war, he became the most popular member of the Communist leadership. Although he had led the Communist liquidation of the Catholic Church, he was now himself about to become a victim of Stalinist repression. He was Rákosi’s great opponent and so had to be eliminated by him. Under the supervision of Soviet adviser General Fyodor Byelkin, confessions were concocted to do with a Western imperialist and pro-Tito plot within the Hungarian Communist Party. Rajk was put under immense pressure, including torture, being told he must sacrifice himself for the sake of the Party. János Kádár, an old party friend and godfather to Rajk’s son, told him that he must confess to being a Titoist spy and that he and his family would be able to start a new life in Russia. Rajk agreed, but on 24th September 1949, he and two other defendants were sentenced to death and executed a month later. In the picture below, Rajk is pictured on the left, appearing at his trial.

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The Rajk confession and trial became a model for show trials across Eastern Europe. But in Hungary itself, the trial and execution of Rajk, Szebeny and General Pálffy-Oesterreicher were to ‘fatally’ undermine the Rákosi régime. Rákosi and Gerő were typical of the Communists who had lived in exile in Moscow during the war. Compared with Rajk, and the later Premier Imre Nagy, they were never popular within the Party itself, never mind the wider population. Yet, with Stalin’s support, they were enabled to remain in power until 1953, and were even, briefly, restored to power by the Kremlin in 1955. A recent publication in translation of the memoirs of the Hungarian diplomat, Domokos Szent-Iványi, has revealed how, prior to his arrest and imprisonment in 1946, he had made plans to replace them with General Pálffi-Oesterreicher, the head of the dreaded military police, who had had him arrested and placed him in ‘a very small and very dirty hole of a dungeon’ under the police headquarters:

During our conversations I did my best to convince ‘Pálfi’ that the greatest evil to the Hungarian people, to the country, and even to the Communists and the Soviet Union consisted in the policy and machinations of Rákosi and of his gang, and seemingly I succeeded in my efforts in this respect. The execution of Rajk, Szebeny and Pálffy-Oesterreicher seemingly strengthened Rákosi’s position. This, however, was not so. The ruthless liquidation of old Communist Party members was one of the main acts which some years later led to Rákosi’s downfall.

The light-mindedness of Pálffy-Oesterreicher contributed to his own downfall and put my life in peril also. It happened once that Pálffi, sending one of his collaborators, … made the grave error of instructing this man to tell me that “the pact between Pálffi and Szent-Iványi is still effective”.    

In the course of the Rajk trial, my name and that of the “conspirators” were brought up by the prosecution, and Szebeny, Rajk’s Secretary of State, made a statement to the effect that the Rajk-Pálffi group sympathised with the so-called conspirators with whom they intended to co-operate “as soon as the Rákosi gang are out of power”. Rózsa, a young man (whom Pálffy had used as a go-between with Szent-Iványi in prison) … then reported this affair to Rákosi and the consequences as we know were very grave for all parties involved.

Right after the arrest of Rajk, Szebeny, Pálffy-Oesterreicher and many of their followers, I was locked up in a single cell in the so-called “Death Section” of Gyüjtő Prison where those prisoners were kept who were to be executed. … an old Communist Party member whispered to me in the silence … that I was there due to the Rajk case. Among the many indictments brought up against Rajk and Pálfi, their contacts with me and “the conspirators” had particular weight.

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Szent-Iványi argued that the reaction to the Rajk trial, among others, demonstrated that the Hungarian people were sharply opposed to any Soviet policy which was carried out by  Rákosi, Gérő and others in the pro-Moscow leadership. Yet, until Rajk’s rehabilitation in 1955 and especially his re-burial on 6th October, which amounted to the first open demonstration against the Rákosi régime, there was little that could effectively be done to bring it down, either from inside prison or on the outside. He later reflected on the reasons for this:

This was a most distressing time, dominated by man at his most vengeful, envious and cruel.

Revenge and hatred was harboured by all kinds, prisoners and guards alike. Ex-soldiers who had endured the cruelties and horrors of battles, hated those who had lived peacefully in their own homes. … Jewish guards and Jewish prisoners hated their Gentile neighbours for their past suffering. Ex-Arrow-Cross members (fascists) were hated by Communists and Jews. It is strange that the common criminals in general hated nobody; they wanted money and ultimately did not hate their victims … but I could believe that they themselves had some kind of sympathy for their victims, like Tyrrell in Richard III.

Hatred was born of emotions and passion, and emotions had too many times intruded into Hungarian political life also, leading the country and its people to tragedy.

During my detention and prison years I had time to think and ponder over the political blunders, emotions and in particular the passions, of bygone years. Szálasi (the ‘Arrow Cross’ Premier in 1944-45) and Rákosi can be considered as typical examples of authors of such blunders. Both men felt that they were not popular in the country and that they had just a small fraction of the population behind them. In consequence they needed support from abroad. Szalási found his support in Hitlerite Germany, and in consequence adopted Nazi political principles and methods. These include Anti-Semitism and a “foreign policy” against the Allied Powers. Rákosi got the necessary support in Stalin-Beria run Soviet Russia and based his interior policy on revenge and jealousy. His vanity could not tolerate differences of opinion, whether outside the Communist Party … or inside the Party … Wherever he found opposition to his policy or to his person he set out to liquidate real or imaginary opponents.

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Above: Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria (1899-1953). When he began to think of himself as Stalin’s successor, the other members of the Politburo were alarmed that he might attempt to seize power following Stalin’s death. He was arrested, tried in his absence, and shot some time before December 1953, when his death was announced.

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The lack of popular support for Rákosi and his dependence on Stalin and Beria was clearly demonstrated by the establishment of the first Imre Nagy government following Stalin’s death in 1953. Although Moscow then replaced the initial Nagy government by one headed by Gérő and Rákosi, the latter was finally ousted by them in July 1956. Although the subsequent Uprising was put down by the invasion of the Soviet Union under Khrushchev, Szent-Iványi was at pains to point out in his memoirs that the Soviet Union finally dropped the Stalinist leadership of Hungary and that the Kádár régime (János Kádár, left) which it installed was one which was able to win the confidence of both the Hungarian people and of the Soviet Union, bringing peace to the country and its inhabitants.

Szent-Iványi reflected on how the life of the prisoners he had witnessed and experienced under the Rákosi régime, including health conditions, food, and fresh air had steadily worsened until it was impacted by these events:

The fact that some of the prisoners were able to survive was down to two causes; firstly, the honest among the jailers, in the majority of Hungarian peasant stock, did their best to alleviate the sufferings of the prisoners as well as to improve upon the harsh and very often cruel conditions imposed by Rákosi’s régime upon political prisoners; secondly, the death of Stalin and the elimination of Beria in 1953 … The most important “innovation” was that after more than a full year or so, the daily walks for prisoners as prescribed by law were resumed. Under the more humane régime of Premier Imre Nagy further improvements took place. And two years later prisoners were released in increasing numbers. By 1956 … many of the political prisoners were already outside the prison walls or were preparing to be released.Without these two factors, few prisoners would have survived the prison system after ten or twelve years of endless suffering.

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Szent-Iványi was himself released in mid-September, five weeks before what he called ‘the October Revolution’. But, contrary to the claims of the pro-Rákosi faction’s claims, neither he nor the ex-political-prisoners played a major role in the events, which I have covered in great detail elsewhere. Even the hated ÁVO, the Secret Police, admitted that none of the “Conspirators” of 1946-48 had actively participated in the Revolution and that…

… the blame has remained firmly on the shoulders of the provocateurs, the Rákosi-Hegedüs-Gerő gang which, of course, greatly contributed to the stability and success of the Kádár regime. … The dictatorship of Rákosi and his gang had no other support than the bayonets of the Red Army or rather the power of the Russian Communist Party and of the Red Army.

With real and imaginary political opponents exterminated, the next phase of Stalinisation in Czechoslovakia was a purge of the Communist Party itself. One out of every four Czechoslovak party members was removed. Stalin wanted to make an example of one highly placed ‘comrade’, Rudolf Slánsky, the general secretary of the Czech Communist Party, who was then leading a security purge within it. Stalin personally ordered Klement Gottwald, who had replaced Eduard Benes as President of the country, to arrest Slánsky. When Gottwald hesitated, Stalin sent General Alexei Beschastnov and two ‘assistants’ to Prague. Gottwald gave in. On 21 November 1951, Slánsky was arrested. In this case, there was a new ingredient in the Moscow mix: Slánsky and ten of the other high-ranking Czechoslovak party members arrested at that time were Jews.

The case against Slánsky was based on Stalin’s fear of an imagined Zionist, pro-Western conspiracy. Stalin appeared to believe that there was a conspiracy led by American Jewish capitalists and the Israeli government to dominate the world and to wage a new war against communism. This represented a complete turnaround by Stalin on Israel. The Soviet Union had supported the struggle of the Zionists against the Palestinian Arabs and had supplied them, through Czechoslovakia, with essential weapons in 1947 and 1948. The Soviet Union was the first state to recognise de jure the state of Israel, within minutes of its birth in May 1948. Two years later, perhaps fearful of Israel’s appeal to the hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews, and suspicious of its close ties to the United States, Stalin became convinced that Israel was in the vanguard of an international Jewish conspiracy against him.

011Slánsky was, in fact, a loyal Stalinist. But he was forced to confess that, due to his bourgeois and Jewish origins, he had never been a true Communist and that he was now an American spy. Slánsky and his co-accused were told that their sacrifice was for the party’s good. Their confessions were written out in detail by Soviet advisers in Prague, and each of the accused was carefully rehearsed for his “performance” at the trial to come. They had time to learn their “confessions” by heart, for preparations took a year. In November 1952, the show trial began. One by one, Slánsky and the others confessed to the most absurd charges made against them by their former associates.

Public prosecutor Josef Urvalek read out the indictment, condemning the gang of traitors and criminals who had infiltrated the Communist Party on behalf of an evil pro-Zionist, Western conspiracy. It was now time, he said, for the people’s vengeance. The accused wondered how Urvalek could fein such conviction. The ‘defence’ lawyers admitted that the evidence against their clients confirmed their guilt. In his last statement, Slánsky said, “I deserve no other end to my criminal life but that proposed by the Public Prosecutor.” Others stated, “I realise that however harsh the penalty – and whatever it is, it will be just – I will never be able to make up for the damage I have caused”; “I beg the state tribunal to appreciate and condemn my treachery with the maximum severity and firmness.” Eleven were condemned to death; three were sentenced to life imprisonment. When the sentences were announced, the court was silent. No one could be proud of what had been done. A week later, Slánsky and the other ten were executed.

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Absolute rule demanded absolute obedience, but it helped if people loved their leader rather than feared him. In the Soviet Union, the cult of Stalin was omnipresent. In the picture on the left above, Stalin appears as the ‘Father of His People’ during the Great Patriotic War, and on the right, world Communist leaders gathered in the Bolshoi Theatre to celebrate Stalin’s seventieth birthday on 21st December 1949. Stalin treated the whole of Central/Eastern Europe as his domain, with the leaders of the Communist parties as his ‘vassals’, obliged to carry out his instructions without question. When he died on March 1953, the new spirit which emerged from the Kremlin caused nervousness among the various ‘mini-Stalins’ who held power, largely due to his support. In the Soviet zone of Germany, control was in the hands of Walter Ulbricht, a hard-line Stalinist of the old school who had spent most of the era of the Third Reich in Moscow. One of Stalin’s most loyal lieutenants, he had begun, in the summer of 1952, the accelerated construction of socialism in East Germany, aimed at building a strict command economy. A huge programme of farm collectivisation was started, along with a rush towards Soviet-style industrialisation, with great emphasis on heavy industry at the expense of consumer goods. Stalin had intended to force the East German economy to complement that of the Soviet Union, to supply the USSR with iron and steel, of which it was in desperate need. Ulbricht allowed no opposition inside East Germany. His secret police, the ‘Stasi’, were everywhere, urging friends to inform on friends, workers on fellow-workers.

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Ulbricht was therefore uneasy with the changes taking place in Moscow. In May 1953, the collective leadership in the Kremlin summoned him to Moscow. For some time, the Kremlin had been considering a review of its German policy, supporting the idea of a re-unified but neutral Germany. The Soviets had no hope of controlling all of Germany, but a neutral Germany would at least prevent the western half, with its huge industrial base, from becoming a permanent part of the Western bloc. The Kremlin encouraged Ulbricht to follow a new course of liberalisation and to ease the pace of enforced industrialisation. But Ulbricht ignored the advice, and in June imposed new work quotas on industrial workers, demanding higher productivity without any increase in pay. Angry at their expectations being dashed, East German workers erupted in protests calling for a lifting of the new quotas. As their employer was the state, industrial protest over work norms soon became a political demand for free elections and a call for a general strike. The American radio station in West Berlin, RIAS, publicised the demands and reported that there would be major demonstrations the following day. On 17 June protests took place in East Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, Magdeburg, and all the major towns of East Germany.

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Over the next four days, more than 400,000 German workers took to the streets. Ulbricht and his unpopular government were terrified by this vast, spontaneous display of worker power. But the demonstrations lacked any central direction or coherent organisation. Beria called on the Soviet tank units stationed all over East Germany to confront the strikers, to prevent the Ulbricht régime from collapsing. He told the Soviet high command “not to spare bullets” in suppressing the rising, and forty workers were killed, more than four hundred wounded. When thousands of strike leaders were arrested, the demonstrations ended as suddenly as they had begun. Ulbricht had learned a lesson and in time acceded to many of the workers’ economic demands. There were also anti-government riots in Czechoslovakia, and strikes in Hungary and Romania. There was even a prisoners’ strike in Siberia.

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The Soviets saw behind these events a well-orchestrated campaign to undermine the Soviet Union and its allies, part of the “rollback” policy of the new Eisenhower administration, which had replaced the Truman Doctrine of 1947. The United States ‘suggested’ openly that it would now take the initiative in ‘rolling back’ communism wherever possible. The architect of this new, more ‘aggressive’ policy in support of ‘freedom’ movements in Eastern Europe was the new Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who proclaimed a new era of liberty, not enslavement. He added that…

… the Eisenhower era begins as the Stalin era ends. … For ten years the world has been dominated by the malignant power of Stalin. Now Stalin is dead. He cannot bequeath to anyone his prestige. 

004

The British prime minister, Winston Churchill, had written to Eisenhower suggesting a meeting with Malenkov in case both of us together or separately be called to account if no attempt were made to turn over a new leaf. But for the moment Eisenhower had ruled out any direct meeting with the new Soviet leadership. In reality, it was never clear how this new policy could be put into practice, especially in Europe, without provoking a direct confrontation. On 16 April 1953, Eisenhower had made a speech in which he called on the Kremlin to demonstrate that it had broken with Stalin’s legacy by offering “concrete evidence” of a concern for peace. He had appeared to be holding out an olive branch, hoping the Kremlin would grab it. His ‘Chance for Peace’ speech had been widely reported in the Soviet Union and throughout Central/Eastern Europe, raising hopes of ‘a thaw’ in the Cold War.

Only two days later, however, Dulles spoke in much harsher terms, declaring we are not dancing to any Russian tune. A secret report for the National Security Council had also concluded that the Soviet interest in peace was illusory, but at the same time that any military confrontation would be long drawn out. But Radio Free Europe continued to promise American assistance for resistance to Soviet control in its broadcasts into the satellite countries. In doing so, it was promising more than the West was willing or able to deliver. In Hungary in 1956, these ‘mixed messages’ were to have tragic consequences.

005

The power struggle in the Kremlin now reached a new intensity. Molotov continued to see the Cold War as an ideological conflict in which the capitalist system would ultimately destroy itself, and his diplomacy exploited the differences he perceived between the United States and its Western European allies. However, for Malenkov and Beria, the conflict was viewed in strictly practical terms.

017

First of all, the Cold War was an arms race. Stalin had quickly realized how important it was to break the US atomic monopoly and in 1945 had put Beria in charge of the Soviet atom bomb project. In the summer of 1949, several years ahead of the West’s predictions, the first Soviet bomb had been successfully tested. After Stalin’s death, Beria took more direct control of the Soviet nuclear project, ordering scientists to race ahead with developing a hydrogen bomb to rival America’s thermonuclear weapons. If Soviet strength rested on ever more powerful nuclear weapons and he was in charge of developing them, Beria calculated, then he would control the mainsprings of Soviet power. But this sort of arrogance was no longer acceptable inside the Kremlin. Within days of the quelling of the rising in East Germany, Khrushchev became convinced that Beria was preparing to make a grab for absolute power. Malenkov denounced Beria at a meeting of the Presidium. Forever tainted from heading Stalin’s terror apparatus, Beria was arrested on trumped-up charges of being a Western agent. In what to many seemed a just reversal of fate, the man who had sent hundreds to their deaths was not even allowed to attend his own trial. He was found guilty and shot. His removal marked a huge shift in the power balance within the Kremlin, but he was the only Soviet leader at this juncture whose fate was settled by a bullet.

005

During the next two years, Khrushchev simply out-manoeuvred his remaining rivals to become the new leader. In September 1954 he visited Beijing to repair the damage to Sino-Soviet relations resulting from the Korean War, agreeing to new trade terms that were far more beneficial to the Chinese than they had been under Stalin. In Europe, Khrushchev negotiated a farsighted agreement with Austria. Soviet troops, occupying part of the country since the end of the war, were withdrawn in return for an Austrian commitment to neutrality. In May 1955 a state treaty was signed in Vienna by the four occupying powers, and Austria remained neutral throughout the Cold War. In the same month, he also made a dramatic visit to Yugoslavia to try to “bury the hatchet” with Tito. However, he was not so pleased when, also in May, the Western Allies formally ended their occupation of West Germany, and the Federal Republic was admitted to NATO. The response of Moscow to this setback was the creation of the Warsaw Pact, a formal military alliance of all the ‘satellite’ states with the Soviet Union and each other. The Pact was really no more than a codification of the existing military dominance of the USSR over Central/Eastern Europe, but it did signify the completion of the division of Europe into two rival camps.

003

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The rejection of Stalinism and the widespread acceptance of the new process of reform culminated in the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow in February 1956. This was not merely a Soviet Russian affair, as delegates from throughout the Communist world, and from non-aligned movements involved in “liberation struggles” with colonial powers were invited to Moscow. In his set-piece speech, Khrushchev challenged the conventional Marxist/Leninist view that war between communism and capitalism was inevitable. Then, on the last day of the Congress, Khrushchev called all the Soviet delegates together in a closed session. For six hours, he denounced Stalin’s ‘reign of terror’ and its crimes, going back to the purges of the 1930s. The speech was never intended to remain secret; copies were immediately made available to party officials and to foreign Communist parties. News of the speech spread by word of mouth to millions of citizens within the Soviet bloc. Washington also acquired a copy of the text through the CIA and Mossad, Israeli intelligence. It was passed on to the press and appeared in Western newspapers in June 1956. The Eisenhower administration was convinced that genuine change was taking place in the Soviet Union; the Chinese, on the other hand, were deeply offended. In Eastern Europe, many Communist party leaders, gravely upset by the impact, were concerned for the continued stability of their authoritarian régimes.

002

Two months after the Party Congress, the Kremlin dissolved the Cominform, the organisation that Stalin had created in 1947 to impose his orthodoxy over the satellites. Molotov was dismissed as foreign minister and banished to Mongolia as Soviet ambassador. A loyal supporter of Stalin throughout his career, Molotov had been firmly opposed to any reconciliation with Tito, but now the door was open again. Tito made a state visit to Moscow in June 1956, amidst much pomp. Nothing could have been more symbolic of the new Soviet attitude towards Eastern Europe. But how far would the Soviets be prepared to go in relaxing its influence there?  In both Poland and Hungary, now released from the yoke of Stalinist rule after almost a decade down at heel, people wanted more control than ever over their own individual lives and their national identities and destinies.

 

Sources:

Jeremy Isaacs (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press (Transworld Publishers).

Mark Almond, Jeremy Black, et.al. (2003), The Times History of Europe. London: Times Books (Harper Collins Publishers).

Gyula Kodolányi & Nóra Szekér (eds.) (2013), Domokos Szent-Iványi: The Hungarian Independence Movement, 1939-46. Budapest: Hungarian Review Books.

 

Posted June 3, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Arab-Israeli Conflict, Austerity, Austria-Hungary, Baltic States, Britain, British history, Cartoons, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Civilization, Cold War, Communism, Conquest, decolonisation, Empire, English Language, Europe, Factories, Family, First World War, France, Gentiles, Germany, Hungarian History, Hungary, Israel, Jews, Journalism, Marxism, Mediterranean, Middle East, Mythology, Narrative, nationalisation, nationalism, Oxford, Palestine, Population, Poverty, Russia, Satire, Second World War, Serbia, terror, terrorism, tyranny, United Nations, USA, USSR, War Crimes, Warfare, World War One, World War Two, Zionism

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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!

veres-palne

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.

001

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 seven   1 comment

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5-14 November: Repression, Resistance and Refuge.

By Monday 5th November, the rising had been all but crushed by the sudden invasion and occupation of the country and its capital, but it took several months for the new régime under János Kádár to re-impose the hard-line centralised control the Soviets wanted. For the first week of this, bitter and intense fighting scarred the streets of Budapest. The 200,000-strong Soviet forces easily disarmed most of the Hungarian military. The Molotov cocktail was the street fighters’ only effective weapon against tanks. Nearly seven hundred Soviet soldiers and officers were killed and over 1,500 were wounded. George Mikes, a Hungarian exile in London, reporting for the BBC, joined the street fighters:

We have almost no weapons. People are running up to the tanks, throwing in hand-grenades and closing the windows. The Hungarian people are not afraid of death. We have just heard a rumour that American troops will get here within an hour or two.

Desperate radio appeals continued to be broadcast intermittently from ‘pirate’ radio stations:

Civilised peoples of the world! Our ship is sinking. Light is fading. The shadows grow darker over the soil of Hungary. Extend us your aid.

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But no aid came, only expressions of sympathy. US officials met several times to consider their response. President Eisenhower sent a message to Soviet Premier Marshal Nikolai Bulganin, urging the withdrawal of Soviet troops and stating that the Soviet Union should  allow the Hungarian people to enjoy the right to a government of their choice. Bulganin replied that the situation was not a matter which should concern the USA. The US restricted American travel to Hungary, and Radio Free Europe continued to broadcast appeals to the Soviet troops. Despite the appeals for American intervention, US action was primarily limited to speeches, pressure for UN action, public diplomacy (through the issue of a ‘White Book’), radio appeals and distribution of newsreels of the the bloodshed. Aside from their preoccupation with the Suez Crisis and the elections, US officials were unwilling to give up even the small improvements in superpower relations that had occurred since the death of Stalin by pressing the Soviet leadership too hard. Part of the US reaction to the crisis was designed to play down the role it had played in inciting the rebellion, so it looked less like it had abandoned it.

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Tom Leimdorfer recalls the fear and terror engendered by the occupation of Budapest by the Soviet tanks on the third day, 6 November:

On Tuesday there was an eerie quiet on the street outside. Then the shop opened and a few people went down to get bread. I said to Mami that I would get some too and ran down to join the queue. A couple of minutes later a Soviet tank turned into the street from Kossuth Square (outside the Parliament), its turret pointing straight towards us. It then raised the turret and fired a shell right above our heads at the building behind us. I rushed inside as fast as my legs could carry me to meet Mami rushing down the stairs towards me, embracing me. This was enough for her. After a phone call to Gyuri Schustek, we packed a couple of suitcases and waited till all was quiet at dusk. Then we went downstairs and surveyed the road anxiously from the Parliament Square end to Margit (Margaret) Bridge, walked slowly towards the bridge, rushed across the main boulevard and then kept close to the walls of houses till we got to the safety of our friends’ flat in Szent István (Saint Stephen) Park. There we stayed till the 7th  December, the day before we took the train to the border. 

On the following day, 7th, János Kádár entered Budapest in a Soviet armoured car with an entourage of tanks. Meanwhile, Tom and his mother settled into their new abode, which was to provide them with relative safety for the next month:

The Schustek family’s flat on the top floor of a tenement in Szent István Park was a relative haven of calm. It was only one kilometer away from our home and the shelling could be clearly heard, but it was as safe as anywhere in Budapest. It was tucked away from the main road leading to the bridge and the boulevard, in the corner of the five storey tenements bordering a small square leading to the bank of the Danube. No tanks would go down there, no freedom fighters. The flat was on the top floor; a dangerous location in places where the fighting was intense.

Our friends welcomed us with open arms and immediately re-arranged the flat to make us comfortable. Six of us lived there for the next five weeks: Gyuri Schustek, his two children Ferkó and Marika, their grandmother Sári, my mother and I. Ferkó was 16 at the time, two years older than me, and we shared a room, which was also the main living room. Marika was three months short of her twelfth birthday and she slept in the small room with her grandmother, but spent the day with Ferkó and me. Mami went to share the main bedroom with Gyuri bácsi and somehow it seemed just natural. Their room opened to the large balcony which looked across the park and the Danube to the central section of Margaret Island (Margitsziget).

We were all totally traumatised for the first few days. Fresh from the euphoria of what briefly seemed like a victorious revolution, we knew the country was facing the horrors of repression and dictatorship again. We were desperate for news. The state radio station soon reverted to the old propaganda phrases, referring to a ‘counter-revolution’ instigated by fascist elements. What first confused us, was that the newly proclaimed head of the government was János Kádár, who few days before had been a loyal member of the revolutionary government formed by Imre Nagy. He had also been a victim of Rákosi’s worst years as a dictator, spending years in prison. We could not make out how he could have betrayed Nagy and the country by forming a new government backed by a brutal Soviet invasion… There were news and rumours of summary executions of some revolutionary leaders.

We could hear sound of shelling for some days, distant sound of gunfire on the Buda side for a few days more. As these died out, an eerie calm descended on the city. No traffic, no buses or trams, few people venturing out anywhere. We heard from the Hungarian service of the BBC that there was a general strike. The state radio was urging people to return to work, but this was largely ignored. The phones were working and friends and family were pleased to know that we were safe. We heard that my grandparents had to evacuate their flat in a hurry when freedom fighters placed themselves on the roof of their block. Soon after, a shell demolished the top floor and they found refuge with their daughter’s (my aunt Juci’s) family, who lived in a quiet street. My second cousins Kati, Marika and their parents lived near the Buda Castle where there had been intense fighting, but they were alright. Nobody knew what the future would bring.

As fighting between the Soviet troops and the Hungarian resistance continued, President Eisenhower announced that the United States would take up to nine thousand refugees. On 9 November, the UN General Assembly, which had continued to meet in special session since the 4th, adopted an additional series of resolutions on the situation in Hungary. The first, sponsored by Cuba, Ireland, Italy, Pakistan and Peru, called for the Soviet withdrawal from the country, for free elections there and a UN investigation of the situation. The second, sponsored by the United States, focused on the short-term needs of the Hungarians, including the refugees. It called on the Soviet and Hungarian authorities to cooperate with agencies providing humanitarian aid, and requested that the Secretary-General direct the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to consult with governments and international agencies on emergency aid. On 10 November, the General Assembly agreed to place the Hungarian question on the agenda of its eleventh regular session. The US provided a million dollars to the UNHCR.

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Nevertheless, news of the Suez Crisis, coinciding with American elections, helped bring home the hopelessness of Hungary’s situation to the citizens of Budapest. The West continued to be preoccupied; Hungary did not matter so much. Moreover, Britain and France had given the Soviets the perfect excuse for re-occupying the country in order to ensure that it stayed within the Soviet sphere of influence. Eventually, UN peacekeepers arrived in Suez, but no UN peacekeepers came to the streets of Budapest. The city became one vast prison camp in which the internees spent long hours listening to the radio and playing cards:

In order to get relief from the news, or often the lack of it, we started to play endless card games. Ferkó and I played a good deal of chess too, but most of the time we had family games of rummy or canasta. The latter was a favourite of Sári néni and she taught it to us with all the patience of a grandmother.  Even young Marika soon played her own hand, but then she was a very bright and lively eleven year old. Mami and Gyuri bácsi went about getting us food from the shops when they opened and making contact with their friends and colleagues to try to gauge what was really happening. Although the mood was often sombre, we did notice that they also started to joke and smile more. It was partly to lift our spirits, but something else was happening too. They were finding happiness in each other’s arms at this time of crisis.

Of course, the two families were always close. My father and Gyuri were students together, the two couples kept going out together while courting, they got married within weeks of each other (both going to Venice for honeymoon) in 1938. Gyuri and Lonci lived in Romania (Transylvania) during the early years of the war and Ferkó was born there, but Marika was born in Budapest after the war. Then Gyuri was in prison for eighteen months during the dark years of communism and soon after he was released, his wife Lonci (Ilona) néni died of cancer in 1954. So there we were, two war torn, residual families sheltering from the latest storm and gradually beginning to feel like one family.

When the curfew was lifted and eventually we ventured out, we saw a drab eerie almost dead city. People walking the streets kept eyes down, did not look at each other. The contrast with the euphoria of those few days of apparent freedom could not have been be greater. There were wrecked vehicles, bombed out buildings everywhere. Many workers (including the steel works of ‘Red’ Csepel) were still on strike in spite of government instructions of return to work.

 

Fighting continued until around 12th November in Budapest. On 4 November, a delegation from the district’s Revolutionary Committee had made an unusual agreement with the invading Soviet forces whereby the Committee and the National Guard would be responsible for maintaining order. The agreement held for three days, during which time the Soviets didn’t advance into the district. On the 8th, however, the Soviets took control after heavy fighting. But although the insurgents had lost control of the streets, the factories were still in the hands of workers’ councils. In addition, the Revolutionary  Committee continued to exist, and on 12th November there was a meeting between some of its members and the re-emerging Stalinist district authority apparatus, at which the conditions for resuming normal life were discussed. The uneasy ‘partnership’ did not last long, however, as on the same day the Committee members were arrested. Two years later, their leader, Pál Kósa, and six others were condemned to death and executed.

Armed resistance in Hungary outside Budapest ended on the 14th when Soviet forces recaptured Csepel Island. Also on that day, The Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest was formed at the United Electric Factory in the Újpest district of Budapest.  It was founded as a body which aimed to represent all the workers’ councils across the city. This endeavour reveals that, for a time, not only was there continued nonviolent resistance in the form of the ‘general strike’, but also that a state of dual power continued to exist for some time after the Soviet reoccupation of the city. The meeting called to set up the Council could not, however, take place at the Town Hall as planned, due to the arrest of the members of the Újpest Revolutionary Committee, which had continued to meet there. The Town Hall was surrounded by Soviet tanks when the workers’ delegates arrived, so it had to be transferred to  United Electric, where it took place on 14 November. It decided to set up a Council and to send a delegation to negotiate with Kádár, though it withheld formal recognition of his legitimacy and that of his government.

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Sándor Bali, a tool fitter and thirteenth child of a peasant family, became a leading figure in the discussions. He had had six years of schooling before working in a Telecommunications factory after the war, becoming Chairman of its Trade Union Committee. Since the end of October he had chaired the XIth District Workers’ Council. He had been a member of the Communist Party since 1946. At the meeting, Bali argued that, while not accepting the legitimacy of the Kádár government in principle, they must build an organisation, backed by the general strike, capable of confronting Kádár’s government. This plan was backed by the other delegates, and so a Central Workers’ Council was established. The main aim was to make the factories truly collective, under workers’ control. It sent negotiators to talk with Kádár, but abandoned the idea of continuing the strike, which had, in effect, been general and continuing since 4 November. Bali argued that, in order to consolidate the factory councils, the workers needed to return to the shop floors. The founding resolution of the Council proclaimed:

We declare our firm commitment to the principles of socialism. We consider the means of production to be social property and we are ready at any time to fight to defend them.

The delegates also demanded the reinstatement of Imre Nagy as Premier; that the newly formed security services should be recruited from young revolutionaries and members of the army and police, rather than from ÁVH members; that detained freedom fighters be released; that Soviet troops be withdrawn from the country as soon as possible; that all political parties withdraw from the factories and that those arrested over the past ten days would be released.

Kádár’s response over several issues was conciliatory, though he was intransigent about the continuation of the work stoppage. Bali and the other members of the envisaged three sorts of workers’ organisations: councils, controlling the country’s economic life, trade unions defending workers’ interests; and political parties, which would be socialist. Bali commented:

We don’t want to commit the same mistake as the Party made in the past, when it was at one and the same time master of the country and of the factories, and the only organisation representing the interests of the workers. If we make the same mistake then we’ll be back where we started.

Of course, if the Council attempted to seize power from the Kádár government and the Soviet forces behind it, it could quickly find itself in serious conflict, but it did not call for ‘all power to the workers’ councils’, echoing the call in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. However, neither Kádár nor the Soviet officials attempted to destroy the Council, nor the factory councils in the way they had the Revolutionary Committee of the street fighters. From 15 November onwards the Central Workers’ Council had regular contact both with the Soviet officials on the ground and negotiated with the Kádár government in parliament. It moved from United Electric in Újpest to the city-centre building of the the Municipal Tramway Authority.

The hope of the Workers’ Council leaders was that the strength of the workers’ councils in the factories would be enough to get certain demands accepted. In the end that turned out to be an illusion, but at the start there appeared to be positive signs. One was the fact that Kádár was willing to negotiate, or at least discuss matters, with the KMT (Greater Budapest Central Workers’ Council). He appeared to be prepared to consider any and all of the Council’s demands, and an upbeat report of the first meeting appeared in Népszabadság the following day, 15 November, though the bulk of the article was given over to Kádár’s views, with little or no attention paid to those of the delegates. The sticking point was the continuation of the work stoppage, which Kádár insisted must stop before progress could be made on the other issues. It was clearly the top priority of the government to get the workers back to work. For the workers themselves, the ‘strike’ represented a dilemma since it was seriously harming the economy which they were in favour of keeping it in public hands, albeit under a more democratic form of socialism. It was therefore in danger of destroying what they called ‘the public good’. Workers ‘on strike’ could still pick up their wages at the factories, a paradoxical situation which could clearly not continue. There was also a belief that if they could demonstrate that normal production was resuming, the government and the Soviets would be less inclined to resist certain demands.

By 14 November, the fighting was over. The picture below was taken towards the end of the Battle for Budapest. It shows the ruined streets near to the Kilián barracks, and the remains of a tank, just before the rising was finally crushed.

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Time Magazine reported:

The steel-shod Russian jackboot heeled down on Hungary this week, stamping and grinding out the young democracy.

Approximately 2,500 Hungarians had been killed in the conflict in Budapest, with a further nineteen thousand wounded, and at least three thousand had been killed across the country as a whole. On the 15th, the Austrian Government was reporting that, already, more than twenty-five thousand refugees had entered Austria in the course of the previous week, and asked for help in relocating these people to third countries, as well as for financial and practical assistance.

By this time, as the historian László Kontler has recently written, János Kádár had become the most hated man in Hungary. His betrayal might well have been grounded upon a realistic appraisal of the international situation and the options they held for Hungary, deciding to intervene in order to spare it from still worse to come. Yet no-one, not even the members of the Workers’ Council, saw this as a legitimate argument at the time, though they recognised his authority de facto in order to negotiate with him. Otherwise, the new government was completely isolated in a hostile country conquered by foreign arms. Although the pockets of armed resistance had been mopped up by 10-11 November, the workers’ councils started to make an impact only after 4 November, and their success in organising in the capital was swiftly followed by an attempt to set up a nationwide network. Added to this, the intellectuals completely rejected the Kádár government, angrily demanding the restoration of the country’s sovereignty and representative government. The Pope, acting on the initiative of Cardinal Mindszenty, who had taken refuge in the American embassy, forbade the clergy to have any contact with the puppet government. After all, the true government, in the form of Imre Nagy and some of his ministers, was still taking refuge in the Yugoslav embassy, while mass arrests and deportations to the Soviet Union were well underway.

(to be continued…)

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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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