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Roots of Liberal Democracy, Part One: The Rise and Fall of Liberal Hungary, 1815-1914.   Leave a comment

Introduction: What is ‘liberal democracy’?


In his influential book, Keywords, first published in 1976 and reissued in 1988, Raymond Williams gives clear definitions of both the adjective ‘liberal’ and the noun ‘democracy’ in this much-used phrase. Leaving aside the medieval uses of the word ‘liberal’, which came into English via Latin and had a purely academic meaning,…

… the affirmation of ‘liberal’ came mainly in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century from the strong sense of ‘Liberty’ from the mid-seventeenth century. It was used in the sense of ‘open-minded’, and thence of ‘unorthodox’ from the late eighteenth century: ‘liberal opinions’ (Gibbon, 1781).

The adjective is very clear in a modern political sense in an example Williams gives from 1801, concerning the extinction of every vestige of freedom, and of every liberal idea with which they are associated. This led to the formation of the noun as a political term, proudly and even defiantly announced in the title of an 1822 periodical, The Liberal. It was then that the term acquired it more negative connotation (for some) as referring to an unorthodox political opinion of ‘foreign’ origin. There was talk of the ‘Ultras’ and ‘Liberals’ of Paris in 1820, and some early usages were in a foreign form in English, e.g. Liberales (Southey, 1816); Libereux (Scott, 1826). The term was applied as a nickname to advanced Whigs and Radicals by their opponents; it was then consciously adopted and within a generation, it had become both powerful and orthodox. Liberality, which since the fourteenth century had carried the sense of ‘generosity’, and later of open-mindedness, was joined by political Liberalism from the early nineteenth century. Libertarian in the eighteenth century indicated a believer in free will as against determinism, but from the nineteenth century, it acquired social and political senses. By the mid-twentieth century, the term libertarian socialism was coined, which was not seen as a form of ‘liberalism’, but rather a form of ‘socialism’ opposed to centralised and bureaucratic controls. Libertarians on the ‘Right’ also share this antipathy to state control, as well as wishing to uphold individual liberties above the requirements of the central state.

In the established party-political sense, the term ‘Liberal’ is clear enough. But ‘liberal’ as a term of political discourse remains complex. It has been under regular and heavy attack from conservative positions, where the senses of a lack of restraint and lack of discipline have been brought to bear, and also the sense of a weak and sentimental generosity as being endemic to liberal views and values. The sense of a lack of intellectual rigour among ‘liberals’ has also been drawn on in academic disputations. Against this kind of attack, ‘liberal’ has often been a group term for ‘progressive’ or ‘radical’ opinions, and is still clearly used in this sense, especially in the USA. But ‘liberal’ as a pejorative term has also been widely used by ‘authoritarian’ socialists and especially Marxists. This use shares the conservative sense of a lack of rigour and of shallow and over-generous beliefs and attitudes.

To this accusation, ‘liberals’ reply that they are concerned with individual liberties, and socialists are not. But socialists have countered with the rejoinder, which is supported by the burden of historical evidence, that ‘liberalism’ is a doctrine based on ‘individualist’ theories of the relationship between man and society and therefore in conflict not only with ‘socialist’ theories of that relationship but also with social democratic ones. However, as Williams points out, if ‘liberalism’ is the highest form of thought developed within ‘bourgeois’ or ‘capitalist’ society, then ‘liberal’ can be taken to refer the mixture of liberating and limiting ideas, rather than being loosely used as a ‘swear-word’. In this sense, ‘liberalism’ is a doctrine guaranteeing certain necessary kinds of freedom, but also, and essentially, a doctrine of ‘possessive individualism’. C. B. Macpherson has used this concept to describe the way in which ‘Society’ becomes a dynamic entity of free and equal individuals relating to each other as proprietors of their own capacities and of what they have acquired by their exercise. Society, therefore, consists of an exchange between proprietors.

‘Democracy’ is, of course, an ancient Greek word, Demokratia, a compound noun based on the root words demos, translated as ‘people’, and Kratos, meaning ‘rule’. It came into English in the sixteenth century, from its French form démocratie and the middle Latin word, democratia. It was defined by Elyot, with specific reference to the Greek instance, in 1531:

… another publique weal was among the people … This manner of governaunce was called in greke ‘Democratia’, in latine, ‘Popularis potentia’, in englisshe the rule of the commonaltie. 

Nevertheless, its meanings have always been complex, and everything depends on the senses which are given to ‘people’ and ‘rule’. Herodotus defined a democracy as an administration in which power was in the hands, not of the few, but of the many, and all that is opposed to despotic power has the name of democracy. Aristotle  wrote:

… a democracy is a state where the freemen and the poor, being in the majority, are invested with the power of the state.

Yet much depends here on what is meant by ‘invested with power’: whether it is ultimate sovereignty or, at the other extreme, practical and unshared rule. Plato made Socrates say that …

… democracy comes into being after the poor have conquered their opponents, slaughtering some and banishing some, while to the remainder they give an equal share of freedom and power.

This particular use, indicating a form of popular class rule, is – of course – some distance from any orthodox modern ‘Western’ definition of democracy. But it does illustrate how the range of uses, near the roots of the term, makes any simple derivation impossible. ‘Democracy’ is now often traced back to medieval precedents and a given a Greek authority. But the fact is that, with only occasional exceptions, until the late nineteenth century, the term was a strongly negative term. It is only since then that a majority of political parties and groups have united in declaring their belief in it. In 1777, the American revolutionary Hamilton observed that representative democracy was not a perfect principle but a practical process …

… when the deliberative or judicial powers are vested wholly or partly in the collective body of the people, you must expect error, confusion and instability. But a representative democracy, where the right of election is well secured and regulated (is one in which) … the exercise of the legislative executive is vested in select persons … etc.

It is from this altered American use that a dominant modern sense developed. Jeremy Bentham formulated a general sense of democracy as rule by the majority of the people and then distinguished between ‘direct democracy’ and ‘representative democracy’, recommending the latter because it provided continuity and could be extended to large societies. In the mid-twentieth century, therefore, an assertion of direct democracy could be described as ‘anti-democratic’, since the first principle of ‘democracy’ is that of rule by elected representatives. Thus, the contemporary understanding of democracy involves the right to vote for representatives rather than the older, normal sense of popular power. ‘Democracy’ was still a radical or even revolutionary term in the mid-nineteenth century, and the specialised development of ‘representative democracy’ was at least in part a reaction to this.

It is from this point that the two modern meanings of ‘democracy’ can be seen to diverge. In the socialist tradition, it continued to mean ‘popular power’: a state in which the interests of the majority of the people were paramount and in which these interests were practically exercised and controlled by the majority. In the ‘liberal tradition’, democracy meant the open election of representatives and certain conditions of ‘democratic rights’ such as free speech, which guaranteed the openness of elections and political argument, discussion and debate. These two conceptions, in their extreme forms, are diametrically opposed to each other. If the predominant criterion is popular power in the popular interest, other criteria are often taken as secondary, as in the ‘People’s Democracies’, and their influence is often characterised as ‘bourgeois democracy’. But if the predominant criteria are elections and free speech, other criteria are rejected, e.g. an attempt to exercise popular power through a General Strike is viewed as being anti-democratic since democracy has already been achieved by other means. To claim ‘economic equality’ as the essence of democracy is seen as leading to ‘chaos’ or to totalitarian rule or government by trade unions.

In one characteristic use of ‘democratic’ as referring to open argument, freedom of speech and assembly are seen as ‘democratic rights’, sufficient in themselves, without reference to the institution or character of political power. This is a limiting sense derived from the ‘liberal tradition’, which in its full form has to include election and popular sovereignty, though not popular rule. To the positive opposed senses of the socialist and liberal traditions we have to add, from the late twentieth century onwards, various populist distortions of democracy, reducing the concepts of election, representation and mandate to deliberate formalities or merely manipulated forms; reducing the concept of popular power, or government in the popular interest, to nominal slogans covering the rule of a bureaucracy or oligarchy. These manipulated forms are not real democracy, Williams suggests, but they have added to the confused contemporary nature of the concept.

Putting the two words together, therefore, it would seem that a ‘liberal democracy’ as a term in modern use can be taken to refer to a nation-state which guarantees its individual citizens equal access to an open and pluralistic political discourse. To understand how this applies to Hungary today, we need first to understand how the concept has developed in the context of the modern history of Hungary.

The Hungarian Liberal Inheritance, 1828-1848:


Recently, in Hungarian political discourse, the adjective ‘Liberális’ has been used to describe ideas which are considered to be of alien, ‘Western’ origin, and therefore found objectionable by the ruling ‘Fidesz’/ Civic Alliance Party. Yet the Hungarian word for ‘liberty’ or ‘freedom’ is ‘szabadság’, which is also taken to mean ‘independence’, and the adjectival form is ‘szabadelvű’, which is used as a synonym for ‘liberális’. In the noun form it is used to describe the purpose of the Revolution which took place in 1848, which is commemorated by a National Holiday on 15 March. As István Bart (1999) has pointed out in his ‘Dictionary’ of ‘Keywords’ relating to Hungary and the Hungarians, this forradalom (revolution)…

… is such an unequivocally uplifting and ceremonious occasion in the history of Hungary, that every government, regardles of persuasion, has tried to turn it to its advantage by interpreting it to meet its own ends.  

The current government is certainly no exception to this rule, interpreting it as a popular nationalist uprising against the ‘slavery’ imposed on Hungary by the foreign Austrian empire. Hungarian historians like László Kontler have seen it as the fruition of a half-century in which the radical and liberal ideas of the French Revolution penetrated into Central European political thinking. He has  used the word ‘liberal’ to reference the swelling liberal sentiments in  early nineteenth century Hungary, commenting that:

The experience of the three decades between the Jacobin trials and the beginning of a new contest between progressive and retrograde opinion in Hungary developed what remained of it, in terms of culture and attitudes, into a vigorous national romanticism, and in terms of sociopolitical ideas, into a programme of improvement imbued by the principles of liberalism.


The execution of Ignác Martinovics and his comrades, a water-colour by an unknown artist. On 20 May 1785, five members of the Hungarian ‘Jacobin’ movement were beheaded on the Vérmező (Bloody Meadow) in Buda. Martinovics was a Franciscan monk and philosopher. The bodies of the chief defendants in the Jacobin trial were finally uncovered in 1914, with their heads placed at their feet.

Hungarian governments began to challenge the power of the feudal nobility, and though it was a formidable task to persuade the masses of petty nobility that they would in fact gain from losing the only thing that distinguished them from the peasantry: their privileges. Although their situation exposed them to the machinations of the government, it was at least possible to win part of them over to the rest of the ‘liberal programme’; equality before the law, civil liberties, representative and responsible government. Kontler goes on to argue that the new corporate constitution and the reform projects of the 1790s at the committee sessions of 1828-1830 created a space in which the ‘liberal nobility of the Age of Reform attempted a peaceful transition to modernity’.


Count István Széchenyi was the first of the dominant personalities of that ‘age’ to appear on the ‘stage’. He was an extensive reader of the modern classics of social and political thought from Rousseau through Adam Smith to Jeremy Bentham and travels in Western Europe, Italy and the Balkans awoke him to the backwardness of his own country. Like his father, he was particularly impressed by the laws, institutions, manners and social system of England. Already by the 1820s, Széchenyi frustration with feudal Hungary had led him to become one of the founders of the Liberal Magnates Club at the Diet and a well-informed and disdainful critic of the policies of the Holy Alliance against the liberal movements and freedom fighters in Spain, Italy and Greece. He also abhorred violence and revolution, but his attempt to mediate between the court and the nation in the transition from absolute to representative government was rejected by Chancellor Metternich, who was still determined, in 1825, to work with the old reactionaries rather than the ‘new’ reformers.


A lithograph by V. Katzler, 1860. His chief project is omitted from the circle of pictures, the one to which he sacrificed most of his wealth – the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, which stands on the Pest side of the Chain Bridge, close to the Parliament House.

Within liberalism, political concepts started to diverge, which led to a gradual separation between Széchenyi and his close friend and political associate, his companion on his travels in the 1820s, the Transylvanian Baron Miklós Wesselényi. Unlike Széchenyi, Wesselényi found not only that the redemption of the serfs’ feudal obligations should take place under state supervision, but also that social change ought to be accompanied by the dismantling of absolutism – on which he laid the blame for backwardness – and the creation of a monarchy with civil liberties. In 1839, the increasingly influential opposition, now led by Ferenc Deák, insisted on putting and keeping on the Diet’s agenda the issue of freedom of expression. Deák, with the assistance of a group of liberal magnates led by in the Upper House, including, besides Széchenyi, Count Lajos Batthány, Baron József Eötvös and others, managed to secure the refusal of the Diet to discuss taxation and recruitment before the issue of freedom of expression was settled. In addition, a half-century-long process towards the emancipation of the Jews started by permitting them the (almost) free choice of their residence, trade or profession and the ownership of real estate. Laws relating to commerce, industry and banking passed in 1840 created a legal framework which stimulated the development of Hungarian capitalism for several decades.

017Ferenc Deák (1803-1876), in a painting by Bertalan Székely, 1869

In the 1840s, associations for charitable purposes, social service, self-help economic or cultural improvement proliferated and contributed to the disintegration of the barriers between the estates. The combined membership of the approximately six hundred associations in Hungary and Transylvania might have reached a hundred thousand by 1848. Some of the over two hundred ‘casinos’ and reading societies, with tens of thousands of members, became thoroughly politicised and were hotbeds of the political parties that arose in 1846 and 1847. An enthusiastic supporter of Wesselenyi, Lajos Kossúth, a young jurist and scion from a landless noble family been arrested in 1837 and spent his three years in prison reading classics of politics and economics and learning English. He emerged from captivity with strengthened determination and great charisma, launching a new liberal newspaper, Pesti Hírlap (Pest News) in January 1841. The government hoped that Kossúth’s radical enthusiasm would split the ‘liberal movement’ and that, through censorship, he could be kept under control. However, these traditional methods were fully unequipped to cope with the difficulties posed by Kossúth’s entirely new type of political journalism.


The experimental railroad at Köbánya: 1829 engraving. The first ‘real’ railroad track between Pest and Vác was completed in 1846. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Hungary was trying to catch up with other European countries intellectually and technologically. But by the end of the century, it had carved out for itself a leading in its machine industry which also served its rapidly developing electrification. The First World War brought these developments to an abrupt end.

During the first few months of the existence of Pesti Hírlap, the editorials exposed the most soaring cases of social injustice, such as the backward and humiliating practice of flogging peasants at the behest of overbearing landlords. Kossúth’s antidote was a true ‘union of interest’ through social and political emancipation, a more equitable distribution of burdens and economic modernisation, and cited examples from the experience of capitalism and political liberalism in Western Europe and America. Instead of the aristocracy, he considered the ‘nobility of middling rank’ as the vehicle of the reform process, which he found, or rather hoped, to be sufficiently imbued with an enlightened and ‘liberal spirit’ to push through his programme. Kossúth’s propaganda also resulted in the rise of local Buy Hungarian! movements and he was elected director of the National Protectionist Association established by distinguished liberal aristocrats in 1844. All this contributed to nationalist and separatist sentiments, and Pesti Hírlap encouraged the process of Magyarisation, although Kossúth also warned against the violent propagation of the Hungarian language.

004 (2)The aristocratic new conservatives (or ‘cautious progressives’ as they dubbed themselves) urged a united front of the propertied classes against the propertiless, led by Kossúth, whom they saw as intoxicated by ‘poorly digested liberal and radical maxims’, and hoped to drive a wedge between him and figures like Széchenyi (pictured right), Batthány and Deák. Széchenyi, in particular, did not need stimuli to turn against Kossúth, whom he attacked in a lengthy pamphlet, The People of the Orient, as early as 1841. The conflict between the two dominant personalities of Hungary’s transition to modernity is one of the factors which raises the process to a dramatic pitch, and naturally one of the most fruitful and often exploited topics of Hungarian historical discourse. Among other criticisms, Széchenyi berated Kossúth for what he saw as the latter’s excessive nationalism, adding that the nationalisms of the ethnic minorities were merely self-defence mechanisms in the face of Magyar dominance. These were opinions which could hardly have endeared Széchenyi to the bulk of contemporary liberals, whom he tried to win over to a ‘moderate liberal centre’, but in vain.

Széchenyi was the first to call attention to the problem of the multiple nationalisms in the Carpathian Basin, which ultimately proved to be the insoluble dilemma of Hungarian liberalism. It was a liberalism based on the concept of the extension of noble rights to non-nobles which would result in the replacement of the corporate natio Hungarica with a modern Hungarian state of emancipated citizens. Language and ethnicity were not enough, in the view of the Hungarian liberals, to constitute a nation without a historic past and a historical state. Except for the Croats, they refused to acknowledge the claim of the ethnic minorities to nationhood. Kontler has written that…

… the organising principle behind the concept of the ‘unitary Hungarian political nation’ of Hungarian liberals was that the extension of individual rights would render collective rights superfluous even in the eyes of the ethnic minorities who … would voluntarily assimilate into the Hungarian nation.

In the mid-nineteenth-century Hungarian mind, therefore, ‘liberalism’ and ‘nationalism’ went hand in glove. They were not seen as separate ideologies. The Hungarian national movement proved highly successful, especially in urban contexts, not only among the Jewish intellectuals and German burghers of Budapest but also among many Slovaks, Serbs, Greeks, Armenians and others. From the earliest times that charges of forced Magyarisation were levelled against the Hungarian political élite, there were also plenty of examples of voluntary integration as well. But as far as the views of the leading members of the movements for ‘national awakening’ among the ethnic minorities were concerned, the concept of a ‘unitary political nation’ was anathema. They stressed the role of language and ethnicity in nationhood. Hungary’s population in 1842 was nearly thirteen million, of whom under five million, less than forty per cent were ethnic Magyar. Romanians numbered 2.2 million (17%), Slovaks 1.7 million (13%), Germans 1.3 million (10%), Serbs 1.2 million (9%) , Croats 900,000 (7%), Ruthenes 450,000 (3.5%) and Jews 250,000 (2%). Only a part of each of these nationalities lived in contiguous regions or areas, the rest being inseparably intertwined with others in patchwork-like patterns, making ‘national territory’ impossible to demarcate with any precision. Against this complex background, the statement made by the Romanian historian Kogalniceanu in newly independent Moldavia in 1843 might look somewhat ominous:

I regard as my fatherland all that territory where Romanian is spoken.

The obsession with the Pan-Slav threat made the Hungarian liberals somewhat negligent of Romanian national aspirations, even though the cultivation and modernisation of the mother tongue continued under strong French and Italian influence into the second half of the nineteenth century. By the mid-1840s, the Hungarian liberal national movement seems to have emerged in full force, to some extent in competition with others in the historic Kingdom of Hungary. Opposition liberals were returned in large numbers to the Diet of 1843-1844.

004 (3)However, Metternich was able to take advantage of the differences within the liberal opposition. Frustrated with the meagre results of the diet, which however included the passing of the official status of the Hungarian language, at the end of 1843 József Eötvös offered his support for the government in return for its commitment to reform. Eötvös was probably the most politically erudite and intellectually sophisticated of the Hungarian reformers of the nineteenth century. From an aristocratic family, he had travelled widely in the West in his youth and having been bankrupted in 1840, he became a professional politician and a freelance writer, and the leader of the ‘centralist’ group of liberal reformers. With the historian László Szalay and others, he idolised English Whiggery and Alexis de Tocqueville, and advocated ‘constitutional centralisation’. In addition to these ‘defections’, a national Conservative Party was founded in November 1846 which appropriated a number of the reform proposals from the liberals.


At first, therefore, it seemed as if the Habsburg court would be able to defy the ‘liberal challenge’. The rise of parties was a prelude to elections into what turned out to be the last feudal diet in Hungary opened in Pozsony (Bratislava, pictured above in a contemporary painting) in November 1847. By February 1848, a stalemate had developed at the Diet, which was only resolved under the impact of the wave of European revolutions. The revolutions of 1848 were the outcome of a combination of factors, from the general tensions arising from the conservative international system created in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna (pictured below), through the economic and financial crisis prior to 1848, to the encouragement they mutually drew from each other in a chain-reaction of upheavals across the continent.


At the same time, these mutual effects were largely superficial and symbolic, and despite the roughly common ideology the outbreak, the goals, events and the outcome of the revolutions reflected local circumstances. Nevertheless, the Hungarian revolution fitted smoothly into the chain-reaction, preceded as it was by those in Palermo, Paris, central Italy, Piedmont and Vienna, and followed by those in Berlin, Merlin, Venice, Prague and Bucharest. The real catalyst was the events of 22-25 February in Paris and the news of the overthrow of the rule of the ‘bourgeois king’ Louis-Philippe by a combination of nouveaux riches who wanted political influence, radicals who wanted to extend suffrage, and socialists who wanted social equality. These goals were clearly at variance with those of contemporary Central European liberals, but the news of the revolution which reached Pozsony on 1 March caused great excitement.

The Liberal Revolution & War of Independence, 1848-49:



 Revolutionary leaders of the ‘Ides of March’, including Sándor Petöfi & Kossúth (front)

It is not my intention here to provide a detailed narrative of the events of the ‘Ides of March’ and the 1848 Revolution here, but my purpose is rather to highlight the role of the liberal movements in it. The Battyány government which moved to Pest on 14 April, was a coalition. The ‘court’ minister was Prince Pál Eszterházy, an experienced conservative diplomat. Lázár Mészáros, a hussar general appointed as minister for war, was politically unaffiliated, as was Széchenyi, who overcame his scepticism about Kossúth and his radical faction to become Minister of Communication and Public Works. The moderate liberals were represented by Deák, Minister of Justice, and Gábor Klauzál (Agriculture and Industry), the radicals by Kossúth (Finance) and Bertalan Szemere (Interior). The ‘centralist’ Liberals were represented by Eötvös (Education & Ecclesiastical Affairs). This was a government ‘of all the talents’ in William Pitt’s famous phrase, and one which remained in office longer than any other of the revolutionary administrations created in Europe in 1848. It was Hungary’s first modern government.


However, the Hungarian liberal constitution was silent on the subject of the collective rights of national minorities and established Magyar as the only language of legislation and administration in the country, thus denying any corporate rights, which were considered to be vestiges of the feudal past. Following the June elections, the Hungarian Parliament convened on 5 July. Nearly a quarter of its members had been deputies in the previous diet, and the electors seemed to acknowledge the political expertise and former services of the ‘liberal nobility’. Besides a handful of conservatives and about forty of the radicals, the overwhelming majority supported the government.


The execution of Lajos Batthány: a lithograph by Louis Noeli. Batthány, the ‘president’ of the Hungarian republican government was a great but enlightened landowner who supported measured opposition and progress through compromise. His execution was a juridical absurdity, the product of intimidation and vengeance.

The revolution was followed by a ‘War of Liberation’ or ‘War of Independence’ against the Austrian emperor in a year-long struggle which ended in October 1849 when the Hungarian Army was finally defeated by the Imperial Army, bolstered by Russian troops. Hungary’s fight for independence won the goodwill of the world, including the United States President. Hungarian emigrants and refugees were received with open arms by the Western liberal democracies, many of whom were themselves involved in a broad struggle with autocracy in the revolutions which swept across Europe in 1848.


The ‘bourgeois’ Revolutionary leader Lajos Kossúth was welcomed in New York, Washington and in Britain. The contemporary English poet, Matthew Arnold, penned his praises to the ‘liberal’ Hungarian leaders of 1848-49:

Hungarians! Save the World!

Renew the stories

Of men who against hope repelled the chain

And make the world’s dead spirit leap again! 


Even twenty-five years after the defeat of the Revolution, the English poet Charles Swinburne described Kossúth as the Star of the unsetting sunset, though some contemporary conservative Hungarian politicians saw him as an irresponsible radical, particularly when he opposed their Compromise with the Habsburg autocracy as “treason” in 1867. He and his fellow radicals may not always have described themselves as ‘liberals’, but this is certainly what they were in the context of European history and historiography of the period.


The Kossúth Memorial Statue in New York (1928). In the USA, the aura Kossúth obtained through his personal tour following defeat in the War of Independence was revived through the emigration that carried waves of human beings to the New World by the turn of the century. Though this emigration was chiefly rooted in economic factors, it was invigorated by patriotic nostalgia, the “1848 state of mind” and the Kossúth ‘cult’.

Neo-Absolutism & The Compromise, 1849-1869:

Political opinion in Hungary during the years of neo-absolutism which followed the War of Independence was highly stratified, with a number of competing visions about the future of the country. There was certainly a minority willing to co-operate in the creation and operation of the institutions of the new régime. The ‘old conservative’ aristocrats, the dominant figures in the government in the mid-1840s certainly did not sympathise with the vision of the new imperial leaders in Vienna, while the ‘centralist’ Liberals, while deeply pessimistic about the fight for the full liberal programme of the Age of Reform, were also abhorred by the Habsburg repression. Whereas Kemény, in his pamphlet After the Revolution (1850) and as editor of the still influential political weekly Pesti Hírlap, urged Hungarians to return to the programme of Széchenyi, Eötvös made efforts to point out to Vienna that the ‘European necessity’ of a large state in the middle of the continent could only be fulfilled by the Habsburg monarchy if the existing historic rights were adjusted to the unity of the monarchy (through federation), and other ethnic and linguistic rights were also satisfied within that framework through the granting of autonomies.

As an archetypal ‘Central European liberal’, Eötvös used his experience of competing nationalisms to enrich the views of contemporary Western liberals like Lord Acton on the inevitable tension between the ideals of liberty and equality. The ‘dominant ideas’ of the nineteenth century, Eötvös suggested, caused so much suffering because they were misinterpretations of the true notions of liberty, equality and nationality. They were all mistaken for the idea of sovereignty, which bred conflict, whereas rightly conceived they were merely devices to protect the integrity and ensure the self-fulfilment of the individual. Instead of popular sovereignty, based on the wrong ‘dominant ideas’, it was civil liberties, primarily the right of association, that would effectively safeguard the individual and the group (including ethnic groups) against the modern nation-state.


The Hungarian delegation that negotiated the Compromise with the Austrian Emperor in January and February 1867 was headed by Count Gyula Andrássy, who enjoyed the full confidence of Ferenc Deák and Hungarian liberals as well as the royal couple, even though his name was on the list of émigrés hanged in effigy in the aftermath of 1849. Having returned to Hungary in 1857, he was an experienced politician, with an instinctive skill for brilliant improvision. Andrássy was appointed Prime Minister in February 1867. Liberal commoners, as well as aristocratic magnates, were represented in his ministry, Hungary’s third. Contemporaneously, the Austrian Emperor and court well understood that the Compromise was arguably the only way to preserve its great power status. In Hungary too, it was seen by many as the only way to secure the country’s survival. After all, three out of every ten of the imperial democratic corps and four out of ten of the Dual Monarchy’s foreign ministers were subjects of the Hungarian crown. It is therefore not surprising that Hungarian nationalists were dazzled by the prospect of governing the half of the empire whose economic and demographic dynamism might soon shift the balance of power in their favour and might even compel the Habsburg dynasty to remove its main residence and seat of power from Vienna to Budapest.

The Rise of Hungarian Liberalism, 1870-1890:


The historical tarot card game: a painting by Arthur Ferraris. Under the portrait of Ferenc Deák are Kálmán Tisza (1830-1902) and the players participating in the ‘general’s’ game, including Károly Eötvös (1842-1916), the lawyer and author who successfully defended the Jews of Tiszaeszlár who were charged with the “ritual murder of children”, Mór Jókai  (1825-1904), the well-known author of prose fiction and MP. Kálmán Tisza was prime minister from 1875 to 1890, an unprecedented period in office. During this period, major political issues were settled not in parliament but at casino tables, and the political and intellectual élites were not yet separate entities.


An element of Hungary’s past cherished among liberals was the supposed parallel between the constitutional development of Hungary and that of Britain. These parallels go back at least to the time of Magna Carta, which preceded the Golden Bull of Andrew II by a mere seven years. I have written more about these links and parallels in an earlier series of articles on this site. They were popularised from the end of the eighteenth century in Hungary. At the level of domestic policy, one convincing argument in favour of the Compromise was that for the two leading nations of the Habsburg Monarchy it did represent a shift from absolutist government to liberal representative democracy, albeit with all its flaws, and for the bulk of Hungarian liberals some of these shortcomings made it more attractive than potential alternatives. Some of these limitations derived from the nature and basis of liberalism in Hungary. At its inception, it had been a ‘liberalism of noblemen’, largely directed to offset or moderate the effects of capitalist development in a predominantly rural society, priorities reflected in the way in which the dismantling of feudalism had taken place during and after the Age of Reform and the Revolution of 1848. Relations of dependence and hierarchy and traditional respect for authority were preserved in social attitudes. As Kontler has pointed out:

Liberal equality remained a fiction even within the political élite. The Compromise, which was, after all, a conservative step, checked whatever emancipationist momentum Hungarian liberalism still had. It became increasingly confined to the espousal of free enterprise, the introduction of modern infrastructure and, with considerable delay, to the secularisation of the public sphere and the regulation of state-church relations. Political power remained in the hands of the traditional élite, with which newcomers were assimilated, with roughly eighty per cent of MPs permanently drawn from the landowning classes. 

The franchise only extended to about six per cent of the population throughout the period, was acceptable at the beginning but anachronistic by 1884, the year by which Britain had achieved Universal Manhood Suffrage. Most districts remained under the patrimony of local potentates and political groups, elections were rigged and there was large-scale patronage at all levels of administration. Kontler’s view is that, if Hungary’s constitutional liberty resembled that of Britain during the time of Kalmán Tisza’s premiership from 1875 to 1890, it mainly represented the Britain of Robert Walpole’s ‘whig oligarchy’ of a century and a half earlier. Yet since the Hungarian Parliament was a largely independent institution under the crown, Hungary’s constitution was freer than that of any state east of the Rhine. In addition, there was a conspicuous case of the amalgam of liberal and conservative principles and motives was the regulation of county and municipal self-government (1870). The county and municipal assemblies were acknowledged as the legitimate bodies of political discussion outside the parliament. They were entitled to address national political issues at their sessions, to make their resolutions on these issues public, to petition the government on these issues or to remonstrate against measures they deemed illegal or unsatisfactory.


The Royal Family at Gödöllö – a lithograph, 1871. Queen Elizabeth was glad to stay in Buda after the Compromise and coronation of in 1867, and especially at Gödöllö, rebuilt as a royal summer residence.

The most unequivocally liberal in spirit and letter was the 1868 law on elementary schooling, worked out by Eötvös. The appalling literacy statistics (in 1869, 59 per cent of the male and 79 per cent of the female population over the age of six were illiterate) made new legislation urgent. Elementary education for children between the ages of six and twelve was made compulsory and was to be obtained in the mother tongue. Schools were established in every locality with over thirty school-age children and there was also provision for ‘higher elementary’ education, until the age of fifteen. Over the following two decades, more than three thousand new schools were added to the nearly fourteen thousand already existing. The proportion of school attendance increased from 50% to 81%, and illiteracy dropped to 34% among men and 53% among women.



The Tisza era saw significant ‘anti-liberal’ trends emerge in parliament, though they didn’t constitute a menace to either the Tisza government or the ascendancy of the Liberal Party. One of these was political anti-Semitism, which emerged as a nascent political party which had the potential to overtake the Independence Party by targeting its voters, those who had lost out in capitalist development, a process which seemed to benefit the Jewish middle classes. Largely through immigration from Galicia and Moravia, from a modest 83,000, or one per cent of the population at the beginning of the century, the Jewish population of Hungary rose to five million or five per cent by the eve of the First World War. Immigrant Jews established family wealth by trading in corn, wood and wool. ; their sons turned it to interest in credit institutions or industrial assets, and the grandsons of the most successful bought into the titular aristocracy. They were a tiny minority among a mass of small businessmen and professionals, and they represented no competition to the livelihood of the genteel classes, which considered the civil service as the only respectable form of employment. Nevertheless, the foreignness and capitalist success of the Jews made them viable scapegoats in the eyes of an ailing gentry, in spite of the fact that they assimilated and supported the idea of the Hungarian nation-state with great enthusiasm.


“PANEMI!”  (BREAD!) – a painting by Imre Révész (1859-1945), 1899. Following the liberation of the serfs in 1848, agrarian society in Hungary became profoundly segmented, and the land was very disproportionately distributed. Hundreds of thousands of village people emigrated, and agrarian-socialist movements were established. Despite technological innovation in agriculture elsewhere, in Hungary harvesting by hand remained the sole method until the mid-twentieth century.

At the height of the anti-Semitic agitation, in 1883, an Anti-Semitic Party was established, the stake being nothing less than bringing down Tisza, who was motivated by his liberal convictions and ties with the Jewish community to take a firm stand against the movement and the new party. The Independence Party resisted the temptation to join forces with the anti-Semites, who figured badly in the 1884 elections, and having been discredited by the outcome of a blood libel case, disappeared from the political scene by the end of the decade. The fall of Tisza was finally precipitated by his inability to work out a compromise on the reform of the defence forces. He had held the office of PM for fifteen years; in the following fifteen years, Hungary had seven PMs, struggling ever more helplessly to cope with the same problems. Even after his fall, Tisza remained as a dominant figure in the Liberal Party, convinced that the maintenance of ‘dualism’ was the only chance for the survival of historic Hungary with its many national and ethnic minorities. Regarded as stubborn, Tisza was a politician of stature and integrity unknown in Hungary since the eras of reform and revolution. Among the traditional élite, he might have been alone in recognising the full relevance of industrialisation and capitalism. His traditionalism, the paternalistic and aristocratic brand of liberalism he inherited from his father led him to turn to ‘disciplining’ the Hungarian people and awakening them to an awareness of where their true interests lay, in the consolidation of dualism.

The Decline & Death of Liberal Hungary, 1890-1914:

The limited liberal thrust of Tisza’s policies continued in the 1890s under the administrations of his former associates, Gyula Szapáry and Sándor Wekerle.

Franz Josef in Prayer

It was under the Wekerle and Szapáry governments that the reform of church-state relations was carried out. In Hungary, only a minority of the Catholic clergy was imbued with the spirit of the Christian Socialist movement associated with Pope Leo XIII. However, even the reformist Pope opposed the contemplated separation of Church and state in an encyclical specifically devoted to Hungary. The Church was also backed by a profoundly religious ruler in Franz Josef (seen at prayer on the right), who considered the Church one of the strongest pillars of the monarchy. It successfully resisted innovations that had been introduced in most of the western European countries a few decades earlier: civil marriages, state registrations of births and deaths, freedom of conscience and affiliation and the acceptance of Judaism as a ‘received’ faith.  Against a background of intensive public interest and heated debates in parliament, these reforms were finally introduced in 1894 and 1895 and became outstanding pieces of liberal legislation in Hungary. Following this high-water mark, however, when in 1903, the Habsburg ruler turned to István Tisza to secure the continuation of the dualist system, a faction of the Liberal Party led by Andrássy the younger left the government party and joined forces with the coalition of the parliamentary opposition determined to ‘improve’ that system. The ensuing violence in parliament led to its dissolution and in the January 1905 election, the coalition headed by Ferenc Kossúth, son of Lajos and leader of the Independence Party, gained a substantial majority.


In the first decade of the twentieth century, the Social Democratic Party also gained in influence, thanks to the talented orator Dezső Bokányi and intellectuals like Ervin Szabó, an original Marxist theorist of international stature. The latter kept close links with the most articulate of all those challenging the régime including the radical democrats, who ‘raised their standard’ in the social science journal Huszadik Század (Twentieth Century), launched in 1900, and in the Society for Social Science, founded in the following year. The group, whose ranks included a number of young assimilated Jews, argued on the basis of social Darwinism and Marxist sociology in favour of universal suffrage, the elimination of ‘feudal’ remnants and the promotion of the co-operative movement among the peasantry, democratic local self-government, the extension of the nationalities law, educational reform and improved insurance schemes. They had a broad network of sympathisers from dissident Independentists through to the Galilei Circle of university students and Freemasons to respected literary figures like the prophetic poet Endre Ady. They did not emerge as a distinct political party until 1914, but their programme had already been conceived by 1907 and published by their leader Oszkár Jászi in his article Towards a New Hungary, foreshadowing the ideas in his scholarly thesis of 1912 on the nationality question: that there was a way to reconcile national independence and democratic progress, ‘the Hungarian idea and free thinking’, in the historic state transformed through reform into a ‘brotherhood of nations’.


However, the dated and old-fashioned liberalism of the previous generations defied the democratic challenge, and the progressive coalition collapsed. Some of the leaders and most of the supporters of the Independence Party, frustrated by the failure of the government to achieve the ‘national goals’, had already been alienated by 1909. The party split under the leadership of Ferenc Kossúth. In January 1910, Wekerle was forced to step down, to be replaced by the old Liberal Khuen-Héderváry. István Tisza re-emerged on the political scene at the head of a party consisting mainly of haute bourgeois and land-owning supporters of the former Liberal Party. His new National Party of Work won a convincing victory in what turned out to be the last elections in the Hungary of the dualist period in June 1910. Obstruction in parliament began again, and Tisza concluded that the strengthening of dualism and of historic Hungary as he envisaged it was no longer compatible with observing the ‘niceties of parliamentarism’.


The Parliament House, on the Danube bank on the Pest side of the river, built between 1885 and 1904

His view prevailed in the party of one-time Liberals in the spring of 1912 when Kluen-Héderváry was replaced by László Lukács as PM and Tisza had himself been elected Speaker of the House of Representatives. A mass demonstration in the capital against his hardly concealed plans degenerated into street fighting and police and protesters in which six people were wounded on ‘Bloody Thursday’, 23 May.  On 4 June, the new Speaker refused to let the opposition speak, and had its protesting members removed by the police. Similar methods were used in the debate on the rather lightweight electoral reform bill, voted through in April 1913. Tisza had no doubt that there would be a major war between the Habsburg monarchy and its adversaries in the region, and laws were passed which curtailed the freedom of association, assembly and the press, prohibited republican propaganda and made it possible for the government to wield emergency powers. There were few in Hungary who recognised the dilemmas, the traps the country faced on the eve of the First World War in all their depth. As Kontler has written:

On one side of the ideological divide, Endre Ady was the greatest of them all, as he singled out with characteristic acuteness his counterpart on the other: István Tisza. In the troublesome summer of 1914, the ‘deranged man of Geszi’, as Ady called the Prime Minister after the seat of the Tisza estate, hesitated for two weeks, but in the end he gave his sanction to decisions that made inevitable the war which ultimately demolished historic Hungary in a way unwanted by any of its Hungarian critics.  


By the outbreak of the war, Tisza had effectively halted the forward march of Liberal democracy in Hungary. It didn’t resume on a continuous basis until the last decade of the twentieth century.

Sources (in addition to those fully referenced in the text):

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

Posted December 10, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in anti-Semitism, Assimilation, Austria-Hungary, Balkan Crises, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Civil Rights, Co-operativism, Compromise, democracy, Education, Elementary School, Empire, English Language, Europe, First World War, Germany, Great War, History, Hungarian History, Hungary, Immigration, Imperialism, Integration, Jews, Journalism, liberal democracy, liberalism, Literature, manufacturing, Marxism, Migration, Monarchy, Monuments, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Papacy, Population, Reconciliation, Revolution, tyranny, Uncategorized, World War One, Yugoslavia

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1956 and All That Remains: A Matter of Interpretation(s); Part Two.   Leave a comment

1989-2006: Revolution restored?…


By the Spring of 1989, there were new men and women in the leadership of the leading Communist Party, or HSWP, who were ready to accelerate the process of change and, literally, to resurrect Imre Nagy and his legacy. BBC Correspondent, John Simpson had first met Imre Pozsgay in 1983:

He talked like an Austrian socialist. On one occasion, Kádár had referred to him as ‘impertinent’… Pozsgay had avoided getting involved on either side in the 1956 uprising because he was based in a provincial town at the time… an intellectual by instinct and training, he had worked his way up through the system, until in May 1988 he and those who thought like him in the Party were strong enough to call a special congress and vote Kádár out of power.

Kádár’s place as First Secretary was taken by Károly Grósz, and Pozsgay became a member of the Politburo, and soon the dominant ‘reformer’ in the leadership. The process of political change was speeded up and, following the appointment of an historical commission in the autumn, it was Pozsgay who announced in February 1989 that the events of 1956 had been a popular uprising rather than an attempt at counter-revolution. Although Kádár had been replaced as the leading figure, he was still a figurehead, and this still remained the most delicate subject in Hungarian politics, and the Party Central Committee did not go as far as Pozsgay. However, in June 1989, permission was given to exhume the bodies of Imre Nagy and the other ministers of the revolutionary government. Their unmarked graves had been found in waste ground. On the anniversary of his execution in 1958, 16 June, their coffins lay in state in Heroes’ Square before being formally reburied. The honouring of Nagy and his colleagues in this way was a turning point in the accelerating changes of 1989-90, but it was also a matter of setting straight the historical record in the public memory, since it confirmed the ‘revolutionary’ nature of the 1956 events and expunged forever, at least from the official lexicon, the ‘counter-revolutionary’ tag far more effectively than any historical commission or mere legal rehabilitation could do. In a very public way, Hungary had at last come to terms with its past, banishing the shadow of a third of a century.


However, acts of commemoration do not, of themselves, write or rewrite history. Historians do that, and they have continued to engage with the events of 1956 in the context of Hungary’s twenty-year transition into a pluralist ‘republic’ and, more recently, the advent of an authoritarian-nationalist parliamentary ‘régime’. The primacy of politics over history is evident in the continuation of widely variant interpretations of the events, especially in the past decade between the fiftieth and the sixtieth anniversaries.

János Kádár remained as a token president until his death later that summer. Though he was not involved in any major decision-making, still no-one dared to oust him. He became seriously ill, beginning with a stroke the day after he had lost power, in May 1988, though he had always been in good health before. He had become increasingly paralysed over the following year. On 12 April 1989 there was a closed meeting of the Central Committee of the Party, where the most important issues of the reforms were to be discussed. Kádár was not supposed to be there, and Grósz even asked him not to attend, but he turned up to speak, though not even able to write down what he wanted to say. He had already been questioned for months by journalists sent to him by Grósz, about his role in the events of 1956. The speech Kádár gave at the Central Committee provides evidence of his state of mind as a tortured soul. He was allowed to speak, although it was agreed that the recording would never be made public. However, it was leaked to the press, possibly by the reform wing, or by the chairman himself. The following extracts are what can be deciphered from it. Referring to the events surrounding his disappearance from the Soviet Embassy on 1 November, he commented:

… I was at once in a company where my ‘mania’ was sure not to prevail… I don’t remember how many people there were there (in the meeting with the Soviet leaders)… I misunderstood something…

What he seems to imply by this is that he misunderstood what the Soviets were asking him when they asked him if he wanted to be the First Secretary and whether he would restore order in Hungary. After all, he had just become the effective party leader after Gérő’s departure, albeit on a temporary basis. Yet, might he not have asked what ‘restoring order’ meant? Perhaps he did, but still agreed to their proposal for fear that, if he didn’t, he would end up in Siberia, not Szolnok:

Tell me, then, what was I supposed to do… when my most important aim then was to get safely to Szolnok by any possible way… no matter who surrounded me… to get there?

And I had other duties too… I assumed responsibility for those who were staying at the (Yugoslav) Embassy… But I, naive man, I assumed responsibility because I thought that my request, that two people should make a declaration, so that legally the people of their rank could not refer to it. Historically, I see everything differently now but, according to their wish at that time… The demand of those two (Nagy and Losonczy) was that they be allowed to go home freely.  I couldn’t fulfil that because… /voice fades/.

At the time, Kádár allowed the events of the kidnapping of those seeking asylum in the Yugoslav Embassy to be explained as the sole responsibility of the Soviets. It was also the Soviets alone who had arranged the deportation of the group to Romania with the agreement of the Bucharest leaders, he claimed, and this was commonly believed to be the case into the 1990s. But, since then, historians have found this to be untrue, especially referring to Yugoslav evidence consisting of primary sources consisting of correspondence and official papers, referred to in earlier blogs. We also know that Kádár himself planned the deportations as well as the evidence to be presented at the trial of Imre Nagy. He had even made the political (central) committee vote for the death penalty for Nagy and the others who were executed. An outline of the trial had been made in Moscow, but the detail was added in Budapest, as in the previous Rajk trial.

Commenting on the definition of the Uprising as a ‘fascist’ counter-revolution, he had this to say in his ‘last speech’ of 1989:

If it was not a counter-revolution, I don’t know what we can refer to it as.

His ‘decision’ to refer to the events of 23-30 October as such was, it is now argued, also made largely under Soviet pressure, since they wanted to ensure that he could not turn round and characterise their ‘military assistance’ as an aggressive act of invasion when it suited him to change sides again and rejoin the revisionists. They knew that if he used the word ‘fascist’ the West, at a point so close to the second world war, would be given enough justification for non-intervention. However, it is also clear that Kádár believed in his statement made at the time, and continued to believe it in his final speech. Referencing the events taking place  on the streets, especially the lynchings of 30 October, what he heard on the radio, what went on at party meetings, Kádár argued that there was no other way of referring to the entire events of that week. He also pointed out that the 1957 Central Political Committee indirectly voted for the execution of Imre Nagy and others and that (somewhat improbably) those now sitting in front of him had been participants in this decision.

In making this ‘nightmarish’ speech, flitting between his limited consciousness of both 1956 and 1989, Kádár has been likened to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The forest started walking towards him and the borderline between fantasy and reality dissolved. Nevertheless, he concluded with some cogent, if jumbled, points in his own defence:

I will answer the most immediate charge, that which torments me most… why I do not speak up. My doctor tells me that I shouldn’t make this unscripted speech. But I can’t remain passive and unable to answer. I can’t stand that, it makes me sick. And what do we remember? The platform freedom-fighters… fought with arms… I declare, at my own risk, even if I do make mistakes, I will speak out because I am a very old man with many diseases, so I don’t care if I get shot…

I apologise…

It is not my fault that it’s only after thirty-two years such a question has arisen, because we have had so many party congresses and meetings. Nobody ever criticised my view that the uprising became a counter-revolution… I realised it on the 28th (October) when, irrespective of clothes, skin colour, or anything else…  unarmed people were killed in a pogrom… They were killed well before Imre Nagy and his friends…



By the end of May 1989, long sections of the fence along the Austrian border had been removed (supposedly for repair), and János Kádár had been relieved of all his offices. He died on 6 July, the same day that Imre Nagy was officially rehabilitated by the Supreme Court. Kádár was buried on 14 July, in a state funeral which reminded the same dramatist of the Danish courtiers standing by the coffin of Claudius, the usurper, who had reigned for thirty-three years.


Bob Dent, the British journalist and author of a book about 1956, originally written in English for the 2006 anniversary, and recently translated into Hungarian for the sixtieth commemoration, has also written his recollections of how the book was first received. Many of the journalists who requested interviews were interested to know how, as a foreigner, not even an émigré Magyar, he had dared to write about Hungary’s ‘sacred history’ of 1956. Of course, it was soon obvious that most of the journalists had not read the book! By examining and presenting conflicting versions of the same events, and by trying to give an appreciation of differing accounts of 1956, the book became a work about history itself and, by implication, about how history can be very selective and how, therefore, the past can be used for different purposes. In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith is made to repeat the party slogan, who controls the past controls the future. Dent re-phrases this and applies it to Hungary:

Who controls the present controls the past.

When they examine the versions of 1956 which have been produced since 1988-90, historians can witness to the truth of this statement. When I was shown around Hungary in these years, one of my hosts was a Catholic priest, who looked as if he was old enough to remember the events, being at least fifteen years older than myself (I was born in 1957). When I asked him what he remembered, he told me that if I really wanted to know what life was like, I should look no further than Orwell’s great book. That was what his Catholic family had experienced, he said. Even though I had also met previously with an underground Catholic resistance group, it was difficult to envisage the level of persecution, until I read more about the events, and talked to many other participants. Then I re-read 1984, and began to understand what Stalinism meant in 1948-56. Until 1989, the people of Eastern Europe had lost control of their own future, and with it their own past. Now they had control back over both.

The official view of 1956 during the Kádár era had focused on the atrocities which took place, especially the lynchings and shootings which took place after the siege of the Party’s headquarters in Köztársaság tér on 30 October. The entire uprising became associated with those terrible events which some argued revealed the true face of the uprising. It was powerful propaganda, constantly emphasised in books and essays.

After 1989 the view became more positive and there was a tendency to play down the atrocities of 30th. In many accounts they were simply left out, as if forgotten. They didn’t fit the new image of the new republic. They muddied the waters. They had contributed towards the ‘quick’ acceptance and consolidation of the Kádár régime, not only by the Party faithful, but also by a broad cross-section of the general population as well. The problem with this approach is that it has left the field open to those who have highlighted what went on in the square for the purposes of condemning the entire uprising negatively as a ‘counter-revolution’.


Bob Dent goes on to point out that confronting the matter head-on is, of course, not easy, involving not only the issue of ‘mass violence’, but also that of revolutionary violence itself, and that of the inherent ‘hatred’ in the uprising. In 1991, a symbolic foundation stone was placed in the square referring to all the martyrs and victims of 1956. Dent, however, argues that if any kind of monument of atonement or reconciliation is ever to be raised… the difficult issues of 1956 will have to be tackled first. On the 38th anniversary of the execution of Imre Nagy, President Árpád Göncz gave a speech in which he stated:

Everyone has the right to interpret 1956, but no-one has the right to expropriate 1956. Only the knowledge of the undistorted truth can mellow the one-time confrontation into peace.

The meaning of these words has still to sink in more than two decades later. Attempts to ‘expropriate’ 1956 have continued unabated, as exemplified by the different political parties and veterans’ organisations holding separate commemorations on 23 October on the fiftieth anniversary in 2006. Dent is convinced that we should all be wary when someone claims that his or her ’56 is the only ’56. He finds it strange that, following the multi-party elections of 1990, the newly elected members of parliament considered it to be their first duty to enact into law the historical significance of 1956 as an event that can only be compared with the anti-Habsburg struggle of 1848-9. Does it mean, he asks, that if someone were to compare 1956 with, say, the anti-Bolshevik Kronstadt uprising they would be breaking the law? He points out, with some justification, that the unfortunate result of the confusing variety of interpretations of 1956 is the withdrawal of interest, that I myself have witnessed, of the majority of those who were not directly involved, especially those  among the unborn generations. Surveys have repeatedly shown that knowledge of, and interest in, the events of 1956, is particularly low among those having no direct experience of them.

In some respect this is surprising, given the momentous nature of those events and the fact that they involved, in the main, Hungarians fighting against fellow Hungarians. There were no major engagements with Soviet forces until the second intervention of the Red Army. This indisputable fact challenges the widely accepted, yet simplistic view that 1956 can only    be understood as a struggle of the united Hungarian nation against Soviet rule. The results of a 2003 public opinion survey about attitudes to 1956 showed that sixteen per cent of respondents still held the view that the events constituted a ‘counter-revolution’, the official view of the Kádár régime, fourteen years after it was discredited. Of the other 84%, 53% were content with the term ‘revolution’, while 14% preferred the term ‘people’s uprising’ and 13% saw it as a ‘freedom struggle’. On the issue of terminology, Dent concludes that the 1956 events constituted a ‘counter-revolution’ in the Kádár era due to:

…the destruction of communist symbols and attacks on party buildings, the ‘fascist’ atrocities which took place, and the belief that the underlying orientation of the events was towards a restoration of capitalist relations of production.


None of these, in his view, can be substantiated sufficiently to warrant the label being applied overall. Though red stars and hammers and sickles were torn down from buildings and cut out from national flags and banners, many Party members participated in the events, from the rank and file among the street fighters to the workers’ councils, often neglected by recent historians, to Imre Nagy and his government ministers and generals. The attacks on the Party were attacks on its monopolies and methods, not on the basic concepts of socialism and workers’ control of the means of production. It is understandable, however, that some in the Party leadership thought that this was the case since, in line with Leninist precepts, they thought that the Party had to uphold its power as the leading representative of working class interests. Even the leaders of other parties involved in the short-lived Nagy government, like Béla Kovács, of the Smallholders’ Party, warned their supporters against any idea of a restoration of landowners and capitalists:

No-one should dream of going back to the world of aristocrats, bankers and capitalists. That world is definitely gone!

These words of Kovács, appointed minister of agriculture by Nagy, were echoed in countless proclamations issued at the time, most notably by the workers’ councils. The factory is ours and should remain so under workers’ management was a common theme. The irony here is that, although the revolutionary element in the events of October-December 1956 was best represented in many district, town and village councils, and most notably by workers’ councils, it is exactly these councils which have been ignored in the recent re-writing of the history of the uprising and resistance to Soviet control of these months. For instance, The Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents, edited by Csaba Békés et. al. (2002), contains 118 documents, not one of which is a workers’ council document, probably because the editors were primarily concerned with the issues of Hungarian national-level politics and the country’s international relations.


Interestingly, one public figure who did highlight the theme on a number of occasions before his death in 2014 was Árpád Göncz, an activist in 1956, subsequently imprisoned before becoming President in 1990. During his ten-year presidency, Göncz highlighted the role of the workers’ councils on a number of occasions. In his 1992 speech for the 36th anniversary, he included the following perceptive words:

The multi-party parliamentary system of western Europe hardly tolerates the type of direct democracy which made our revolution victorious via the directly elected workers’ and revolutionary councils controlled by workplace and residential communities.

The speech was not fully given, as Göncz was interrupted on 23 October by noisy right-wing demonstrators. As a result, however, the content of the speech was widely published in the Hungarian press, and later in a collection (by Európa Press).


Even after leaving office, Göncz continued to speak and write about the contribution the workers made through their councils, claiming that their role was ‘decisive’, adding that the demand for workers’ ownership had actually been achieved in October 1956. In an interview for Népszava on 22 October 2004, he described the formation of the workers’ councils as one of the most important steps of the revolution. For other post-1989 public figures, as well as for recent historians in Hungary and elsewhere, the paradoxical notion of the councils as ‘anti-Soviet soviets’ has been difficult to digest, so that the tendency has been to ignore them.


Dent and others have tended to avoid the issue of definition of the events of 1956 by using the contemporary English language label ‘Uprising’, which is how it was referred to in the international press and at the UN. When it became the official definition of the Party in 1989, however, as a ‘people’s uprising’, Dent coined a new term, ‘social explosion’ to describe the events. Unfortunately, the vagueness of the term means that it adds very little value to the coinage of historians, even if it helps, temporarily at least, to avoid political labelling. Progressive Hungarians, including exiles, have always referred to it by the same word used for the other ‘revolutions’  in Hungarian history (1848, 1918), forradalom. This is where I believe it belongs.

In his useful book, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976; 1988, Fontana), Raymond Williams established two key concepts related to Revolution. The first, the seventeenth-century concept, was that of the image of the wheel turning, to emphasise the turning upside-down of an established political order. The second, developing out of the revolutions of 1789-1848, was the sense of the…

… bringing about a wholly new social order… greatly strengthened by the socialist movement, and this led to some complexity in the distinction between revolutionary and evolutionary socialism. From one point of view the distinction was between violent overthrow of the old order and peaceful and constitutional change. From another point of view, which is at least equally valid, the distinction was between working for a wholly new social order… and the more limited modification or reform of an existing order. The argument about means, which has often been used to specialize revolution, is also usually an argument about ends… one of the crucial senses of the word, early and late, restorative or innovative, had been simply (to indicate) important or fundamental change. 

Interestingly, Williams does not include a reference to ‘counter-revolution’ (ellenforradalom in Hungarian), suggesting that it was purely a Stalinist construct and not one, as a Marxist himself, he considered important to include even in the definition of the main word. He does, however, include a definition of reactionary as an antonym of revolutionary since the nineteenth century. From these definitions, I believe that, from a historical perspective, it should not be so difficult to interpret the events of October 1956 as a revolution, and the reactionary measures of November-December, taken by the Soviets and its Kádár régime in Hungary, as a counter-revolution leading to the restoration of a communist dictatorship, albeit in an ultimately more benign form.

During the fiftieth anniversary of 2006, quite predictably, politicians and public figures made selective use of the collective memory of 1956 to bolster their positions and attack those of their opponents. One idea which re-emerged involved the notion that the changes of 1989-90 were the eventual realisation of the ideals of 1956. Dent challenges this view by arguing that 1989 involved elements which had not been present in 1956. What made the events of 1956 truly revolutionary was the coral growth of factory-based workers’ councils and locally based revolutionary committees all over the country. The first workers’ council to appear was established in Diósgyor, in the industrial northeast, on 22 October, the eve of the beginning of events in the capital, and the last to dissolve (itself) was at Csepel on 11 January 1957. As Göncz commented, these bodies represented a form of direct democracy which was different from both the western parliamentary systems and the centralised, monolithic system modelled by the USSR and imposed on its satellite states. This was also, above all, was what represented a new order and fashioned the events of 1956-57 into a revolution.

As an undergraduate, I remember reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, and especially her writing on the Kronstadt Uprising and the Hungarian Revolution. She described how workers’ councils, wherever they have appeared in history,

… were met with utmost hostility from the party-bureaucracies and their leaders from right to left, and with the unanimous neglect of political theorists and political scientists.

Demands for privatisation and the development of a free-market economy in 1989-90 went far beyond the demands of 1956, which were for workers’ control and ownership. Neither were the demands for a re-orientation of the country as a central European state in 1956, looking both east and west, in any way comparable with the interest in joining the European Economic Community, not even ‘born’ then. The demand for neutrality in 1956 was also a long way from envisaging future membership of NATO, though the crushing of the early bid for independence did motivate Hungarian leaders to move quickly towards full membership in the 1990s. Despite this, their aim was not achieved until 1999. The attempts to ‘merge’ past and present are well-expressed in these photos…


Secondary Sources:

Bob Dent (2006), Budapest 1956: Locations of a Drama. Budapest: Európa.

Bob Dent (2008), Inside Hungary from Outside. Budapest: Európa; especially chapter nine, My Very Own 1956.

John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades. London: Hutchinson.

John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. London: Macmillan.

Margaret Rooke (1986), The Hungarian Revolt of 1956 – János Kádár: traitor or saviour. London: Longman.



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