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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Restoration & Right-wing Ascendancy, 1920-1940:

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

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

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

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

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

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“No rebellion, but neither submission”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Territorial changes affecting Hungary, 1938-41

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

The Death Bed of Democracy, 1941-1956.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

 

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Hungary back under the heel: 1957-1968 (and beyond).   Leave a comment

The ‘Gulag’ State…

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Despite the strength of world opinion, expressed through the United Nations as well as by individual governments, the Kádár Government was determined to stick to its line that the ‘uprising’ of the previous autumn had, in fact, been counter-revolutionary. In Hungary itself, there wasn’t much room for discussion or debate about this at the beginning of 1957. On 5 January, the government introduced more stringent measures of control, threatening the death penalty for striking or agitating for a strike, as well as for anyone even disrupting normal work. The leaders of the Csepel Central Workers’ Council, the last organ of the revolution and now of resistance, were arrested. Elek Nagy was sentenced to twelve years in prison, József Bácsi to ten. The Csepel militants went back to work, defeated and disorganised. On 17 January, the Writers’ Union, one of the initial intellectual forces behind the uprising, was dissolved by the authorities. Many intellectuals were arrested and served time in prison, while many others had already managed to escape abroad.

The May Day Demonstration…

On 1 May the Kádár government held a mass demonstration in Heroes’ Square in Budapest, a traditional May Day parade, but this year also designed to show the strength of its support from among the general Hungarian population. As photographs of the event confirm, the square was filled with people, at least a hundred thousand. Some party estimates put it at four times that number. György Lítván, former director of the 1956 Institute, who was himself one of the curious onlookers, explained how…

It was a genuine demonstration by many thousands and it was at the same time forced – not in the physical sense, but maybe in some enterprises there was a bit of pressure; on the other hand many people wanted to show their new orientation, their readiness to support the new régime… It was an experience to see how swiftly people could forget their opinions, their attitude of the previous months and very quickly adjust themselves.

Probably for this reason, much of the recent writing on the events of 1956-57 has tended to ignore the rally, though one exception is the work of Békés (et al.) which asserts that by early 1957 a wave of acceptance had swept over the country and that the turnout for the traditional May Day celebrations in Budapest was simply an expression of this, of a continuity which had been broken, not supplanted, by the memory of October and November. The authors conclude that force alone could not account for the change…  but that a feeling of political apathy… had developed due to the litany of strikes, speeches, meetings and negotiations, all of which had come to nothing except the creation of a well of frustration. It was those who sought a means of expression for this who swelled the considerable ranks of the political establishment of the Rákosi-Gérő régime, members of the party and its huge bureaucracy as well as other ordinary citizens who either supported the régime of felt no particular apathy toward it. Some of these people…

… had undoubtedly felt terrorized during the revolution because of their status or sympathies, and possibly humiliated or remorseful in its aftermath… Contrary to general opinion in Hungary today, this group represented a not inconsiderable proportion of the overall population.

While these crowds may, genuinely, have celebrated a combination of liberation and victory, that does not mean, as the régime’s sources claim, that the sympathy of the entire country was demonstrated in the event. This is no more credible than the UN Special Committee’s 1957 report on Hungary which claimed that, following the Soviet intervention of 4 November, in the light of the evidence it had received, that it may safely be said that the whole population of Budapest took part in the resistance. The means by which Kádár managed, through a clever combination of stick and carrot, to generate sufficient support to establish a régime which lasted thirty-three years, is well summarised in László Kontler’s recent History of Hungary. For him, the Heroes’ Square May Day demonstration was one of…

acquiescence, if not sympathy, by the people of a capital which, after the shocks of invasion and destitution, could not but want to believe in the message of tranquility and safety that the concessions transmitted.

Party membership rose from a mere 40,000 in December 1956 to 400,000 a year later. Despite the efforts of Revai, who returned from Moscow in January 1957 and tried to arrange a reversal to ‘orthodoxy’, Kádár received assurances from Khrushchev and was confirmed in his position at the party conference in June through the election of a centralist leadership, including Marosán and others not implicated in the pre-1956 illegalities, like Ferenc Münnich, Gyula Kállai, Jenő Foch and Dezső Nemes. At the same time, the reorganised Patriotic Popular Front, whose new task was to transmit and popularise party priorities to society at large, was chaired by the hardliner, Antal Apró. After the disintegration of the Alliance of Working Youth,  the Communist Youth League was set up in March 1957 to take care of the ideological orientation of young people and ensure a supply of future cadres. Purges and voluntary resignations among the officer corps, the confirmation of first Kádár and then Münnich in the premiership, and the approval of his policies in May, all consolidated the restoration of the party at the centre of state power. In addition, the external guarantee was signed on 27 May, by which the Soviet troops were given temporary residence in Hungary. Their number became stabilised at around 80,000 once the Hungarian army was considered politically reliable.

The People’s Court…

Sándór Kopácsi, the deposed Chief of Police, later recorded the harsh system of repression to which he and the other internees of the Budapest gaol were subjected. On the morning of 6 February, 1958, the prisoners were lined up in the corridor. He met Pál Maleter again, whom he hadn’t seen since they had crossed Budapest, singing, on a Soviet half-tank a year previously. From a third cell emerged Zoltán Tildy, the former President of Hungary, and a former Protestant pastor, a minister in Nagy’s government who had negotiated the surrender of parliament to the Soviets. He had been under house arrest throughout almost the whole of the Rákosi years and was now, aged seventy, imprisoned again. They were joined by four other prisoners and then Imre Nagy himself:

He came out of the cell as if he were coming out of a meeting room, his face preoccupied. I found him a bit thinner, but the build was the same: the peasant or the sixty-year-old blacksmith, the village strongman in the most commanding period of his life. The legendary pince-nez straddled his nose as before. For an instant, he turned toward us and his glance passed us in review… He gave each of us a brief, friendly nod. Our presence seemed to reassure him… We were to be tried by the Supreme Court in order to rule out the possibility of an appeal. The judge was Zoltán Rado, a seasoned man, fat and rather friendly…

This turned out to be a rehearsal, however, though Moscow’s order to interrupt the proceedings didn’t arrive until the next day. They were all accused of having fomented a plot aimed at reversing by force the legal order of the Republic of Hungary. In addition, Nagy was accused of high treason, and Maleter and Kopácsi with mutiny. Then József Szilágyi was called forward and, when asked if he acknowledged his guilt, he replied:

In this country, the only guilty one is a traitor named János Kádár Supported by the bayonets of the Soviet imperialists, he has drowned the revolution of his people in blood.

There followed a sharp and bitter exchange between Rado and Szilágyi. Except for Nagy, the prisoners were all then returned to their cells. During the next two days of hearings, the Kremlin changed its mind four times as to what verdicts would be pronounced. Khrushchev found himself in an awkward position, since his policy of reconciliation with Tito was shaky.   At the time of its second intervention, the Kremlin was still counting on Tito’s friendship and, to begin with, he got it, but after the kidnapping of Nagy and his entourage from the Yugoslav Embassy, relations between Moscow and Belgrade deteriorated, and they had remained strained in November 1957 when Tito refused to accept the hegemony of the Soviets over the ‘fraternal parties’ at a conference of world Communist parties. When Khrushchev interrupted the Nagy trial and sent Kádár to Belgrade to negotiate with Tito, the latter leader told Kádár:

You have to do it like Gomulka: Fight to get the maximum of independence vis-à-vis the Russians and we’ll support you.

When Kádár told Khrushchev of this ‘duplicity’, he became furious, and his desire to teach Tito a lesson explains why, two years after the Hungarian Uprising had been quelled, and the population pacified, the Russians relentlessly pursued the trials and executions of the Nagy government. However, Kopácsi had saved Kádár’s life at the time of the uprising, and Kádár managed to persuade the Russians that he should not be executed, in exchange for his help in convicting Nagy. First it was Szilágyi’s turn, however. After a brief trial in which Kopácsi was a forced witness, he was sentenced to death, and his hanging was carried out on 24 April in the prison courtyard. He climbed the scaffold, head held high, declaiming, long live free and independent Hungary!

At the trial of the other defendants, the prosecution tried to prove that they had been part of a Nagy conspiracy which had begun in 1955, and that, allied to the forces of reaction, both within the country and outside they had provoked the counter-revolution to re-establish the old regime. They asked for the death sentence against Imre Nagy, Pál Maleter and Miklós Gimes, the young journalist. For Kopácsi, they requested life imprisonment. On 14 June, Nagy spoke to the court:

Twice I tried to save the honour of the word “Socialism” in the Danube River Valley: in 1953 and 1956. The first time I was thwarted by Rákosi, the second time by the armed might of the Soviet Union. Now I must give my life for ideas. I give it willingly. After what you have done with it, it’s not worth anything any more. I know that History will condemn my assassins. There is only one thing that would disgust me: if my name was rehabilitated by those who killed me.

He was followed by Pál Maleter, who said he had respected the oath of a socialist soldier and went with the people through fire and storm. Kopácsi spoke of how he had fought in northern Hungary with the Soviet Army, and that even in October 1956 he never had a Russian uniform in (his) sights. Revolution isn’t simple, he said. Neither is what follows it, whether the revolution is victorious or otherwise. The ‘People’s Court’ condemned to death Imre Nagy, Pál Maleter and Miklós Gimes. Kopácsi was sentenced to life imprisonment, Ferenc Donáth to twelve years, Ferenc Jánosi to eight years, Zoltán Tildy to six and the journalist Miklós Vásárhélyi to five. Imre Nagy refused to enter a plea for clemency, and although Maleter’s and Grimes’ lawyers made appeals on behalf of their clients, both were rejected.

The Graveless Dead…

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Cover of the 2008 film about the arrest, imprisonment, trial and execution of Imre Nagy

At 6 a.m. on Monday 16 June, Nagy, Maleter and Gimes were hanged in the yard known as the ‘little dungeon’ at the central prison. Everybody was ordered to keep away from the windows. According to the prison ‘information agency’, the Russians forced Nagy to be present while the others were executed. He stood, tottering, at the entrance to the yard. If the report is correct, this was the second time he had had to witness the execution of an innocent friend. In 1949, Rákosi had forced him to attend the hanging of Rajk, who had been personally promised by Kádár that his life would be spared and who, before dying, cried out, János, you tricked me!

The last words of Nagy and Maleter, spoken from the gallows, were the same: Long live independent and Socialist Hungary! Gimes remained silent. The Soviet authorities were apparently satisfied. Pravda described the verdicts as severe but just. Peking’s major paper carried the headline, Good news from Budapest! When Choi En-lai had visited Hungary some months previously he had complained that not enough people had been hanged. Khrushchev had demonstrated to him and Mao that his hand didn’t tremble when dealing with deviationists.

Serov, the KGB chief, however, felt that leaving Kopácsi and the others alive was a scandal. The day after the executions, he began trying to correct what he viewed as the leniency of the Budapest court. On the direct order of the Hungarian emissary of the KGB, Hungarian Politburo members Antal Apró and Karoly Kiss organised public meetings to gain support for cancelling the verdict and demanding that everyone in the Nagy group be hanged. The two men went to the large metallurgical factory, Ganz Mavag, to prime workers to push for these demands. There would be a vote taken at a general by a show of hands. The result seemed assured, but several former Resistance fighters at the factory prevented the KGB from going too far. General László Gyurkó asked to speak, having been sent by the Partisans’ Union. He briefly described the Resistance background of those who would be the victims of further death sentences. He urged the meeting to reject the idea of interfering in the verdicts already pronounced. The show of hands defeated the proposal, and with it Serov’s hard-line. The workers’ meeting demonstrated that there were different currents of opinion in Budapest, and that there was no widespread support for further retribution.

In September 1958, Sándór Kopácsi was transferred to the central prison where the executions had taken place six weeks earlier. In May 1959, the political prisoners were moved again, this time to Vác prison, fifty kilometres from Budapest, which was full of criminals. Tibor Dery, the elderly writer was thrown into a cell with a murderer who beat him badly in exchange for alcohol and tobacco from the ÁVH captain. Kopácsi intervened to stop this, and Dery survived his detention to become president of the Writers’ Union and write many more works. The police chief then found himself thrown into ‘the hold’ for two weeks before being put on ‘coal duty’, pushing a hundred kilos from a boat on the Danube for ten hours every day. He realised that this was the ÁVH’s way of finishing him off, so he asked to see the prison commandant, who was a Holocaust survivor. Kopácsi was relieved of his duties. The following year, the writers were given an amnesty, but the Imre Nagyists as they were known, were not yet released. A hunger strike went through the prison and the ÁVH imposed a total blackout. Many of the Nagyists were transferred back to Fő utca and threatened with death. Several committed suicide. The Vác prison became an ÁVH hell, with the prisoners deprived of the most elemental rights. Even the guards were beaten. Kopácsi remarked:

It would have been the end of us if our community hadn’t been what it was, a team prepared for any ordeal. It was in prison that I learned to respect strength of character, the last defence of a man in distress… What moved me most… was the ingenuousness and tenacity of the prisoners. Despite the dense network of informers, we manufactured radios that were good enough to bring in the news from Western stations. At any given time there was hardly a cell that didn’t have its own miniature receiver, the size of a coin and lacking for nothing… Thanks to the radios, gipsy music played late into the night in the ears of the poor jailbirds dreaming of the bustling life outside the prison walls.

After seven years in prison, Kopácsi and the other Nagyists finally said goodbye on 25 March, 1963, thanks to the general amnesty decreed by Khrushchev to mark the implementation of the détente he had worked out with President Kennedy after the Cuban Missile Crisis of the previous October.   

By this time, 1960s, the tone, if not the content, of the comments made from both ‘outside observers’ and exiles towards the régime had also softened somewhat. In 1962, Eric Bourne, the journalist who had written his eye-witness accounts of the uprising, commented in The Christian Science Monitor that…

Few Hungarians these days talk about the uprising… Many – with varying mental reservations – fall in with the régime’s general effort at conciliation and accept the ‘guided’ liberalisation from the top with relief. But it is evident that the liberalisation has its calculated limits and that the régime, which has gone further than any other in Eastern Europe with de-Stalinization, is concerned to keep the process from getting out of hand.

Two ‘émigré’ journalists, the first, Lászlo Tikos, exiled in the USA, and the second, George Pálóczi-Horváth, in Britain and broadcasting on the BBC, made the following optimistic comments:

Hungarians now enjoy greater personal, spiritual and political freedom, an increased measure of national independence and economic well-being, and an end to isolation from the West – all things that the 1956 revolution stood for and that are now more in evidence than at any other time since the Communist take-over. (Tikos)

When we were marching on that revolutionary protest march, if anyone had told us that in five or six years life would be in Hungary as it is now, we would have been very pleased, because it would have accomplished a great deal, if not everything we wanted to achieve. (Pálóczi-Horváth)

Perpetual Persecution…

As a former political prisoner, however, Sándór Kopácsi continued to receive the attention of the ÁVH and its network of informants. One day at work he casually remarked that on the outside he was surrounded by as many informers as he had been in prison. The remark was reported and the next day he was summoned to the Fő utca ÁVH HQ. He was told that he had broken the rule prohibiting a liberated prisoner from revealing anything he had experienced in prison. The penalty for this was a further ten years in prison, so he denied the report and agreed to sign a statement reiterating his promise not to infringe the regulation. He and his wife met dozens of other spies; on foot, on the tram, in the bus, and even on the doorstep of their apartment. They openly asked him for news about himself and others of his prison comrades he might have been in contact with. There were so many that they decided to invite the least disagreeable of them in for coffee, or got them to take them for country drives if they had cars.

Their daughter Judit’s life was made unbearable, however. From the day her father was imprisoned, she was made the object of official discrimination. At school, she was put on a list of children deemed socially alien. Her mother went to see the principal:

‘Socially alien to whom?’

‘To the workers’ state,’ the principal replied with a straight face.

‘My daughter has nothing but working-class ancestors, on her father’s side as well as her mother’s side, for four generations.’

‘Agreed,’ said the principal. But her father has betrayed the working class.’ 

Some of the children at the school took advantage of the situation to tease Judit mercilessly, possibly encouraged by the teachers and the parents. The bullying got so bad that, at the age of fourteen to fifteen, she was seriously contemplating suicide. An old social democrat, whom Kopácsi had rescued from the ÁVH in 1952 and who had subsequently escaped as a refugee in 1956, came to the family’s help. He had settled in Quebec and had become a Canadian citizen. He was visiting Hungary, and called on the Kopácsis. He and his wife offered to take charge of Judit, but her father said they could not part from her. Soon afterwards, however, Judit tried to poison herself. Kopácsi wrote to László Sárosi and six weeks later she was on the plane to Quebec. They did not see her for another six years, by which time she was a Canadian citizen. Finally frustrated by their inability to speak freely, Sándor and Ibolya Kopácsi emigrated to join their daughter, then with a family of her own, in 1974. They settled in Toronto, where Sándor ended his working life at Ontario Hydro.

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Progress and Reaction…

Later in the year that Kopácsi was released, in June 1963, the United Nations agreed to normalise relations with Hungary following the general amnesty. The US was also seeking to move towards a policy of seeking gradual change in Eastern Europe. In Hungary, some restrictions were slowly relaxed, especially in cultural spheres, and a new economic course continued to be followed. Kádár famously announced, whoever is not against us is with us, allowing a broadening of discussion and debate. Nonetheless, relations between the US, in particular, and Hungary remained strained, and were exacerbated by the actions of Hungarian troops in August 1968, when they took part in the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia to remove the reformist government of Alexander Dubcek, which had come to power in the Prague Spring. The first full US Ambassador, appointed a year before, noted Kádár’s…

… early endorsement of reformist developments in Czechoslovakia, his widely publicised meditator role, and his apparently only last-minute conversion to a need for forceful measures.

Even the man who admitted signing the request for the Soviet invasion in 1956 (three days after it happened), András Hegedűs, openly condemned the invasion of Czechoslovakia. As a result, and although he had been Rákosi’s prime minister, he was fired from his job as a statistician and expelled from the party. In Britain, too, Hungary’s part in the armed intervention led to a setback for developing cultural links. The emerging civic links between Coventry and its twin-town of Kecskemét in the midlands of Hungary had to be ‘put on ice’, and were not fully defrosted again until the Cold War entered its permanent thaw in 1989.

Re-burial and Reconciliation…

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As 1989 began, a momentous year in European history, the Hungarian Parliament passed a law allowing citizens to form independent associations, including political parties, thus paving the war for an eventual end to Communist rule. In February, a groundbreaking report prepared by a historical commission of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party officially rejected the interpretation of the 1956 Uprising as a counter-revolution. Instead, it was described as a popular uprising against the existing state power, since under Stalin, the ideal of international communism was turned into a merciless imperial programme. This was followed in June by an important step designed to heal old wounds and come to terms with the events of 1956-58. Imre Nagy, Pál Maléter and three others executed in 1958 received a public reburial and state funeral, attended by an estimated 250,000 Hungarians, broadcast nationwide on state-controlled radio and television. The ceremony also paid tribute to the hundreds of others who had died in the retribution meted out by the Kádár Government. The next day, János Kádár died. These developments led to much open public discussion about the events of 1956, for the first time. On the anniversary of the uprising on 23 October 1989, Mátyás Szűrös, the Acting President, proclaimed the new, democratic constitution of a country now called “the Republic of Hungary”, no longer the “Hungarian People’s Republic”, the ‘different’ country I had entered just a week before.      

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Sources:

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

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

Marc J Susser (ed.) (2007), The United States and Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy. Washington: US Department of State.

Sándor Kopácsi (1989), In the Name of the Working Class. London: Fontana.

October-November 1945 in Hungary: The Smallholders win the First Elections in the First Republic   1 comment

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Above: The Republican Coat of Arms of 1945

Between 1945 and 1949 Hungary’s political system altered radically and violently. The dozen or so political parties which had been revived or established in 1945 prepared to contest fair and free elections by merging themselves into four main parties, two representing the peasants and two representing the workers. The latter two, the Social Democrats and the Communists were later to merged in 1948, to form the Hungarian Working People’s Party. As in the rest of Eastern Europe, a “people’s democracy” was established which essentially promised to follow a reformist, peaceful path towards socialism, with concessions of a more revolutionary nature offered to the Communists. Gradually, but almost inexorably, these compromises, or ‘salami slices’ began to add up to the predominance of the communists within the HWPP, and to the domination of this party over all others.

Among the leaders of the Hungarian Communists, who became extraordinarily active first in Moscow and then in Debrecen and Budapest in 1944-45, Mátyás Rákosi played an essential part from the beginning. However, in the early years of the new Republic, from 1945 to 1948, those who, unlike Rákosi and his clique, had remained in Hungary and allied themselves with the loose resistance groups, engaging in ‘illegal’ activities throughout the war and in the pro-Axis period prior to it, still had some influence within the party and the provisional parliament.

Hungarian society, although struggling with hyperinflation from the middle of 1945, remained optimistic in the autumn, prior to the elections. The announcement of free elections was not only required by the Yalta agreement, but regarded as essential due to the fact that truly revolutionary transformations had already taken place in the social and political fabric of the country. Already the coat of arms and official stamp of the state and the legislative assembly had changed, representing a radical break with the monarchic and aristocratic ascendancy of the past.

However, this symbolic transition needed to be replaced by a more far-reaching transformation in the composition of both the legislative and executive branches of government. There were still many doubts about the legality of many of the changes which had been effected well before the peace settlement had been confirmed in September. Special ties had been developing between Moscow and Budapest since the overthrow of the Regency the previous autumn, and not just between comrades, as the recently published writings of Domokos Szent-Iványi, the Regent’s envoy to Moscow, confirm. An agreement on close economic co-operation and even the full resumption of full diplomatic relations, led the western powers to urge free elections in Hungary and to refrain from recognising the Provisional Government until the Soviets agreed to their being held.

The elections, by secret ballot and without census, of 4 November 1945 were the most democratic and the freest in Hungary until those of 1990. Only the leaders of the dissolved right-wing parties, volunteers in the SS, and those interned or being prosecuted by the people’s courts were barred from voting. The liberal electoral law was also supported by the Communists, who were not even bothered by their failure of their proposal to field a single list of candidates on the part of the coalition parties, which would have ensured a majority of the parties of the Left: intoxicated by their recruitment successes and misjudging the effect of the land reform on their appeal, they expected an enthralling victory by winning as much as seventy per cent of the vote. To their bitter disappointment, the result was just the opposite: the Smallholders, winning the contest in all of the sixteen districts, collected 57% of the vote, the Social Democrats scoring slightly above the Communists at 17%. The National Peasant Party won a mere 7% of the vote.

Of the many reasons for the success of the Smallholders and the failure of the Communists at the elections, one was surely the fact that Cardinal Mindszenty, infuriated at the overwhelming majority of its landed property without compensation, and at the clergy’s being excluded from the elections upon Communist initiative, condemned the Marxist evil in a pastoral letter and called the faithful to support the Smallholders. Nevertheless, the verdict of nearly 4.8 million voters, over 90% of those enfranchised, clearly showed their preference for a property-owning parliamentary democracy and market economy over a state-managed socialist economy. They hoped that this preference would be respected by the Soviets, in spite of their occupying forces, who were expected to leave once the peace treaty was signed. However, guided by the same expectation and wishing to avoid confrontation with the Soviets, the Smallholders yielded to Voroshilov, who made it plain that only a grand coalition, in which the Communists would preserve their position, would be acceptable to them.

The cabinet was formed after the debate on the form of the post-war Hungarian state decided, in spite of a vigorous monarchist campaign led by Cardinal Minszenty and some uncertainty on the issue among the Smallholders, who eventually came out in favour of a continuation of the Republic. Zoltán Tildy was elected President on 1 February 1946, with Ferenc Nagy as Prime Minister of a government in which the Smallholders held half of the offices, but with the Communists in charge of two key ministries, including the Ministry of the Interior, which controlled the police.

There was also some disagreement about whether Nagy or Tildy should be the Smallholders’ candidate for President. Some of the deputies in Parliament declared that they had only voted for a republic on the understanding that Nagy would be its Head of State. He was more popular than Tildy, but argued successfully with his party members that Tildy was older and more experienced. However, the failure of Nagy to persuade Tildy to give up his plans for the Presidency, severely weakened the potential resistance to the eventually takeover of the Communists, since the MFM (Hungarian Independence Movement), the multi-lingual diplomat Szent-Iványi among them, had hoped to monitor and influence all communications between the Head of State and the Russians. Nagy, lacking in both international experience and foreign languages, would be more dependent on Szent-Iványi as Chief Secretary to Cabinet of the Head of State.  The agreement of the two men, made behind closed doors on the night of the general election victory, to exchange roles threw this plan into disarray, as Szent-Iványi recalled in his papers:

After that scene (i.e. Nagy’s capitulation, surrender to Tildy) Saláta (a leading younger and ‘most talented’  member of the MFM) hurried to see me. He was very upset, he could not hide his emotions. ‘Unbelievable’, he began, ‘we have carried out to the letter our plan of May, and now, we have to see that all our efforts and work are destroyed by one single man’s action, an action motivated purely by sentimental reasons. Well, Nagy has proved that he is not a real politician since he is too influenced by emotions… But now, what still could be done?’

While he was talking, I was thinking of the series of misfortunes which had so often destroyed our… plans, invariably the fiasco was caused by an event or the action of one individual. So: Darányi, who was one of the pillars of the work I had been planning, dies in October 1939; Teleki, who was my main pillar and hope as far as the futures of Hungary and East Central Europe were concerned, passes away under tragic circumstances in April 1941; the failure of Nicky Horthy and even of his father in October 1944 after all our preparations. Was there anything we could still do? And hope for?

After the elections and Ferenc Nagy’s failure, a great change took place in… the leadership and activities of the MFM.

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At a time when we are remembering the contribution made by another President, Árpád Göncz, who became the first Head of State of Hungary’s Third Republic in 1990, and held the office for ten years, a decade in which he showed great statesmanship and was well-respected by the Hungarian people, it seems strange to also reflect on how different the course of Hungary’s post-war history might have been had Ferenc Nagy taken the Presidency. Perhaps it would have made little difference to the eventual outcome of the machinations of the Rákosi clique in the three years to the establishment of a Communist state in 1948, but had both Tildy and Nagy shown greater courage in their choices, Hungary’s first republican government might have been better-placed to assert its independence from Moscow’s influence and ultimate control. To fall into the trap of historical inevitability in rejecting the role played by individual choices would be to replace the humanity involved in history with another kind of fatalistic historicism, which has sometimes proved popular in post-Communist Hungary.

Sources:

István Lázár (1989), A Short History of Hungary. Budapest: Corvina Books.

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

Domokos Szent-Iványi (2013). The Hungarian Independence Movement, 1936-46. Budapest: Hungarian Review Books.

 

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