The Hungarian Soviet
Like Russia, late 19th-century Hungary was a largely agrarian country, with industries rapidly growing only in some cities. Thus, like in Russia, socialistic movements inspired by Western counterparts could rely only on a narrow working class, and conflict with peasants was preprogrammed.
Again paralleling Russia, the progress of WWI first led to a bourgeois, then a socialistic takeover, albeit under milder circumstances. The first was the so-called "Aster Revolution" in October 1918, when mass anti-war protests (also involving soldiers who put asters on their hats/in their guns) forced a government change. But the Allied powers, intent on neutering former Austria-Hungary, wanted not peace but surrender, posing an ultimatum meaning heavy territorial losses. The government was finished, and in a semi-coup, a coalition of the Social Democrats and the newly formed Soviet-inspired Communists took over, establishing a Council Republic (e.g. in theory a workplace-based democracy, more on this later).
This Hungarian Council Republic (with the Russian word for council, also called Hungarian Soviet abroad) was the most successful beyond the Soviet Union, as due to its wide-ranging social reforms, imperfect democracy and initial military successes, it was initially popular. But under the attack of superior Romanian and Czechoslovak armies, it disintegrated on the home front: hardline defense commissioner Béla Kun (a Communist with ties to Lenin's radical inner opposition) gained too much informal power, and the Red Terror pursued by a minority of commissioners (also aimed against former ruling classes and the Church, but especially against conscripts or peasants not giving all for the military effort), though of much lesser dimension than Lenin's and Trotsky's, alienated the peasantry. Thus the army collapsed, the commissioners fled while foreign armies marched in, and sometime later a right-wing coup took over (starting its own, larger-scale White Terror).
Two things would be used to differentiate Hungarian communists for the next decades: their opinion of the failed Council Republic, and their closeness to the Soviet Union.
A faction that took refuge in Moscow, led by Béla Kun, was of the opinion that failure was because they didn't apply enough Red Terror. The group gaining leadership of the re-created party at home tended to the opposite view, and emphasized a cut with the past (and Kun's wing, though the latter wasn't real).
Until WWII, Hungary was a bizarre mix of right-wing dictatorship and semi-democracy (with ever narrower voting rights). The communists operated in semi-legality until Hungary's equivalent of the Kennedy assassination, a conspiracy-theory-inspiring bomb attack on the Orient Express in 1931. Even while the real culprit was arrested in Vienna, the Hungarian government used the disaster to declare a State of Emergency, arrest communists and execute their leaders for terrorism. The party went into the underground, and was a main part of the (relative to other countries rather limited) resistance during WWII.
It was under such circumstances that the Soviet Union could eat up the international communist movement: the idealists found themselves in the frontlines between the emerging forces of fascism and Stalinism, and for leaders, emigrating to Moscow and joining in the madness of the purges became the route to survival. But once they got home, they had to fight for credibility. This involved pushing out those in the Party who weathered the storm at home, and 'proving' that they are less of a Muscovite than other Muscovites.
Stalin's Best Student
The man to take over the again legal Communist Party after WWII was Mátyás Rákosi. Like Béla Kun, he was "converted" as WWI POW, became an idealist Komintern agent working all around Europe, then was arrested and imprisoned for long years in Hungary. In 1940, he was released to the Soviet Union in a deal, where he was first shocked of what became of his dream country, but soon looked after a career under the new circumstances.
In the campaign for the first post-WWII election in 1945, the Muscovite Rákosi could claim a cut with the Council Republic heritage: Béla Kun fell victim to the Stalinist purges in 1938. However, they only got 17%, while a new force collected 57%: the Smallholders' Party. The party with the slogan "Bort, búzát, békességet!" (= "Let there be Wine, Wheat and Peacefulness!") had the right mix of redistributive policies and conservative values for the peasant masses (and also got the vote of the supporters of banned right-wing parties).
For the next two years, while Stalin had no clear idea of what to do with Hungary, Rákosi and the Communist Party tried everything to gain popularity, to destabilise the government, and to divide the Smallholders' Party. By 1947, they largely succeeded in the latter, and won new elections, but despite various tricks including fraud (whence the name "Blue Tickets' Election") still only with 22.25%. Now with increasing Soviet help, the real takeover began: one by one all other political forces and persons were banned, absorbed, hunted away, deported or killed. The 1949 one-party elections rounded this off.
|Rákosi in a wheat field. Rumour has it that one of the hands on this photo was painted, as in reality the dictator was taking a pee.|
Rákosi then went on to copy Stalin in everything (hence the subtitle): there was personal cult ("The Wiseman of the Homeland"), total propaganda, a red star on everything, megalomania (Hungary was to become "The Country of Iron and Steel" -- without supply or demand), model cities (Sztálinváros, Leninváros), total centralisation and suppressing every independent power base and right (one of the first being the right to strike), forced collectivisation, economic hardship, brutal discrimination of the old elites and middle classes, gulag (a mini-work-camp at Recsk), violent torturing secret services (ÁVO, later ÁVH), denunciation of everyone by everyone (one million, more than a tenth of all citizens were indicted, though less got to trial and even less to prison), and purges (starting with former Social Democrats).
The most famous victim of the purges was party rival László Rajk. Although he was instrumental in the takeover and organised the ÁVO, he was a non-Muscovite (and veteran of the Spanish Civil War) and thus popular as an alternative. Rákosi got him arrested at the time Stalin and Yugoslav leader Tito got at loggerheads, and he was tortured and given false promises of no death sentence until he consented to a show trial, in which he'd "admit" he met Yugoslav agents in a field-guard's hut (this line became a catchphrase).
Beyond the above listed outrages, the new regime also brought other things: unprecedented upward mobility, comprehensive education, a sense of modernity for everyone (with propagandistic campaigns like electricity to the last village). Thus, while the changes were awful for the old middle and upper classes (who happened to include most of those who write books and thus formed the big picture of the age we call history), and workers were as poor and without rights as before, millions still had an experience of progress. Hence, the Party wasn't yet totally discredited. Also, one should understand the spirit of the age by abandoning the benefit of hindsight. The crimes and mismanagement of the Rákosi regime could still be seen as excesses and derailment, rather than an error of the system, not to speak of the ideology or single ideas -- even by people in the leadership.
When Stalin died in 1953 and Khrushchev took over, there was a widespread sentiment of reform, of leaving behind the deviations and continuing with the good things. This reached Hungary, too: upon Soviet pressure, Rákosi abandoned the post of Prime Minister, and Imre Nagy took over.
Imre Nagy was another Muscovite: got into communism at the end of WWI like Kun and Rákosi, and lived in Moscow in emigration from 1930. But he was shortly demoted during Rákosi's purges for opposing forced collectivisation, and upon becoming PM, promised a new economic policy (end of mad industrialisation, re-thinking agrarian policy), review of show trials, and freedom of opinion (establishing the so-called Patriotic People's Front as forum for open criticism). Thus he became popular. His popularity only grew while Rákosi used his remaining position in the Party and his allies to block his reforms (though state terror was largely over) and ultimately remove him and exclude him from the Party (in 1955).
There were several other idealist reformists among the active and sidelined top cadre of the Party. One to name is János Kádár, a non-Muscovite, who even argued for multi-party democracy after the 1949 takeover, but who sullied his hand in the Rajk trial (it was put upon him to tell Rajk his life will be spared if he plays his role in the show trial), but who (probably for being a witness) was purged himself later (two years in prison).
Despite losing positions, the reformists' influence grew. In March 1955, some reformist youth established the Petőfi Circle (named for a hero and martyr of the 1848 revolution), a free debate club whose thoughts and talks spread far and wide despite lack of media coverage. (How free, a personal story: a relative of mine was indexed for years after 1956 for having held one dissertation before the Petőfi Circle. This person is and was a conservative by any measure.) Later, the Writers' Association and even the party daily swung behind them.
In the summer of 1956, the reformists' time came. The Soviets effected the removal of Rákosi even from his party position. Although the successor was another much-hated hardliner, Ernő Gerő, his position was weak, and the ever more popular reformists could argument and organise in the open. Meanwhile in Poland, the outrage against the bloody crushing of a workers' uprising in Poznań brought Gomułka in power, someone seen as Imre Nagy's ideological brother. Meanwhile in Austria, the Soviets pulled out their troops, leading to demands of doing the same here. Meanwhile in Yugoslavia, Tito and Khrushchev end their countries' division.
The top reformists would start to meet regularly at Imre Nagy's flat. After a wave of rehabilitations and arrest of former henchmen, on 6 October 1956, the reburial of László Rajk turned into a 200,000-strong mass demonstration. On 13 October, Imre Nagy was taken back into the Party.
A revolution is fuelled by the fiery spirit of the youth. In the autumn of 1956, the fire started in those prime engines of vertical mobility, the universities. Starting in the university of Szeged on 16 October, students formed new independent organisations, which issued demands for democratic reforms, and demands for a greater role of the reformists in the Party.
Events in Poland again proved as catalyst. The Soviet Union made threats of violence in response to Gomułka's initial reforms. On 19 October, protests started in Poland, and the students in Hungary felt moved to express sympathy. This accelerated their self-organisation. On 22 October, the different universities' student organisations started a central assembly at the Budapest Technical University. They made two decisions with weighty consequences: they announced a Poland sympathy protest for the next day, and accepted a 16-point list of demands.
To give you a sense of what they had in mind (some shall be rather surprising), what they dared to spell out openly, and to what extent they succeeded, the demands in short:
- Pull out Soviet troops!
- Let there be new elections from below within the Hungarian Workers' Party!
- Imre Nagy shall form government, the stalinist-rákosist criminals shall go!
- Public trial for Rákosi and his top henchman!
- New free multi-party elections, right for strikes!
- Relations with the Soviets and Yugoslavia on the basis of mutual non-intervention!
- Reorganise the economy with experts and for the basic interests of the People!
- Make foreign trade agreements, the data on the reparations (they robbed 10x of what was named in the peace agreement) and on Uranium mining in Hungary public!
- Review industrial norms, establish a workers' minimum wage!
- Reform the system of turn-ins [production quotas; everything was distributed by the state], private craftsmen shall get the same subsidies as collectives!
- Review all trials, free the innocent, get home POWs [kept there for work] from the Soviet Union!
- Freedom of opinion, free radio, everyone shall know his/her own files!
- Remove Stalin's statue, a 1848-49 memorial shall replace it!
- New national coat of arms, national military uniforms, days connected to 1848-49 shall become national holiday!
- Solidarity with the Polish people!
- Let there be a national students' conference to debate these demands!
Some of the latter demands already foreshadow the last chapter of this diary. But before that, let's move from the fire to the masses, from the intelligentsia to the workers' class.
The Workers' Councils
Democracy via workers' councils was a popular idea among the socialistic, Marxist movements of the early 20th century. The idea was that the place-of-residence-based election districts of parliamentary democracy would always lead to the representation of the ruling classes: with gerrymandering or other means, they could always field middle- or ruling-class candidates, and with their media power, they could ensure that only these candidates get the spotlight. So why not correct this by making democratic representation workplace-based?
Unfortunately, when the idea was put to practice at the end of WWI, it was by Bolsheviks, whose basic ideology was that for socialism to succeed, it needs direction from above from a committed core of professional revolutionaries. Which meant that workers' councils were already often initiated from above, their decisions were over-ridden, including their choices of representatives. The result was an elite even more strongly self-selecting than that of parliamentary democracy according to Marxists.
But in 1956, something different happened. In the general sense that positive changes can now be effected, workers began to organise right in the most prided locations of the regime. The two earliest and most important were the workers of the iron smelters in the Northeastern city Miskolc, and those of the model city Sztálinváros (today: Dunaújváros) -- the latter a city with a population selected for loyalty to the cause. On 16 October, the workers of Miskolc began to organise a free day for debate for the 25th, but then events accelerated. In Sztálinváros, the first workers' council was established days before the revolution.
Elsewhere, workers' councils began to be established only from the 24th, but then spread like wildfire, and played a central role in the later stages of the revolution.
Nothing shook the Party as much as the spontaneous emergence of the very thing they claimed their legitimacy stems from.
The idea of national independence was very popular in Hungary. The 1848 revolution (against the then Habsburg overlords) and its demands were the ideal to follow and the standard to measure against for all political directions (literally so: everyone from communists to fascists).
Sometimes the regime could ride nationalism, most notably sports successes, and foremost among them the successes of the "Golden Team", the Hungarian football national team that was world's best in the early fifties. The 1953 friendly at Wembley, when they defeated England 6:3, is still legendary in Hungary, and the loss of the 1954 finals to West Germany led to street riots.
It is in this context that one could understand how people could flock behind one communist against another, that Socialism was fine as long as it is Hungarian Socialism, that "Muscovite" had such an importance, and that the students made so much of national symbols.
The red star Rákosi put on everything was seen as Soviet symbol. Rákosi also made a new coat of arms with a red star, and put it on flags. The revolutionaries would cut it out, and the flag with the hole would become the symbol of the revolution:
This preserved flag stood next to the Stalin statue on 23 October 1956 (on the left, you also see the old royal coat of arms, which oddly enough is now also the coat of arms of the current republic):
Of course, this nationalism also had a darker side.
Six of the most hated communist leaders: Béla Kun, his commissioner of interior colleague in the Council Republic, Mátyás Rákosi, his minister of interior and his ÁVO/ÁVH head, and Ernő Gerő were Hungarians of Jewish origin. This was not lost on the anti-semites. In a dark irony of history, neither on the left nor on the right: while fascists and clerical-conservatives proclaimed that Bolshevism=Judaism, from Stalin's time on but especially after the establishment of Israel, the actual Soviet Bolsheviks began to eye citizens, even Party members of Jewish origin with suspicion, to purge them from the Party, and to discriminate against them. The Soviet policy to remove Rákosi et al (and not let them back after crushing the revolution) partly stemmed from this policy.
So now the actors are in their positions. What role did all of the above named forces play in the revolution, what weight did they have? I shall answer that in the next episodes.