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10: The People's Republic

<< 9: Trianon Hungary || TOC

THE end of the Second World War left Hungary facing even greater material difficulties than had its predecessor. This time the country itself had been a theatre of war, and the fighting had left a trail of devastation across it: cities -notably Buda, whic h had been stubbornly defended - in ruins, fields scorched, communications wrecked; in particular, all the vital bridges between Buda and Pest had been blown up. The retreating Germans had taken with them what even they could of the country's portable wea lth. On their heels had followed huge and disorderly Soviet armies, living off the land, and a big force of these remained encamped in the country after the fighting had ended. Already under the armistice Hungary had been assessed to pay reparations to th e value of 300 million dollars. As the U.S.S.R. took its share in kind, putting its own valuation of the objects seized, Hungary was in fact stripped of property worth far more than the stipulated sum, on this pretext alone.

But as in 1919, the material difficulties were overshadowed by the political problem: this time, the vital question whether Hungary was to belong to the West or the East. And while the next three or four years saw the healing, with gratifying rapidity, of the worst of the material damage, they saw also the steady advance of the East into what seemed to be an impregnable position.

The Soviets opened their operations with a caution imposed in part by the international situation, in part by the almost complete absence of native sympathisers with them; for effective agents they had at first to depend almost exclusively on a handful of ex-émigrés, popularly known as 'Muscovites', who had returned in the rear of the armies. They announced that the new Hungary was to be a democracy, resting on the will of all its genuinely democratic elements, and they allowed this quality to the non-Communist parties of the Left which had belonged to the 'Independence Front' during the war: the Social Democrats, the Smallholders, the National Peasants(1)

and even a group calling itself the 'Progressive Bourgeoisie'. The Provisional Government contained only two Communists (both Muscovites), and was composed for the rest of representatives of these four parties, and even of four figures closely associated with Horthy; and its programme, as read out at Debrecen, while envisaging sweep ing social changes, including a drastic land reform and the nationalisation of the mines and heavy industry, promised guarantees of democratic rights and freedoms, respect of private property as such, and the encouragement of private initiative in trade a nd small industry.

The first elections, held in November 1945 were really free, although only the parties of the coalition were allowed to contest them, and although the Communists had by now gathered a certain number of adherents, sincere and otherwise, and had further ind uced the Social Democrats to form an alliance with them, they gave an absolute majority to the Smallholders. Now, however, came the first disillusionment, for the head of the Soviet Mission insisted that the coalition form of government must continue, and backed by pressure from him, the Communists obtained the ministry of the interior, with the control of the police. The Smallholders were allowed to retain the Minister Presidency, but were forced by 'salami tactics' of pressure and blackmail to expel suc cessively their more courageous elements as 'Fascists', and the next elections, held in August 1947, reduced their vote to 15 per cent. Although this time fraud and pressure had been exerted, the vote for the 'Workers' Bloc' (Communist and Social Democrat s) had not gone up very greatly, for this time Opposition parties had been allowed to stand, and had polled 35 per cent of the total votes. But the Communists were now strong enough to deal with these without much circumlocution, and now they turned on th eir own Social Democrat allies. In June 1948 these were coerced into fusing with the Communists in a single 'Workers' Party', those who refused to do so being expelled. The next elections, in May 1949, were farcical. The voters were presented with a singl e list, on which 'Smallholders' and 'National Peasants' still figured, but the persons using these names were simply stooges. A new Constitution was now introduced, a copy, in all relevant respects, of that of the U.S.S.R. This proclaimed Hungary a 'Peopl e's Republic' (2)and although the President of the Republic and, for a while, the Minister President were still nominal Small-holders, all real power was now in the hands of the Party, which in its turn was controlled by its Secretary-General, Mátyás Rákosi, now, under Moscow, the complete boss of the country. The last act in the struggle for power was now fought out between the two wings of the Communists themselves, the 'Muscovites' or Soviet agents pure and simple, and th e 'national Communists', who had spent their lives in their own country and retained some affection for it. In October 1949 the leader of the latter group, László Rajk, was executed on a trumped-up charge. Several of his chief adherents shared his fate an d hundreds more were imprisoned.

The civil service, judiciary and army had already been purged, and the Trade Unions reduced to the role of executants of party orders. After the fall of the parties, the chief surviving ideological opposition to communism had been in the churches. On thes e the regime had begun its attack in 1948. Much of the spiritual strength of the churches lay in the large control which they still exercised: over education, and this was now also economically their Achilles' heel, since they had lost their endowments un der the land reform. The Calvinist and Lutheran churches accepted, without much difficulty, a composition under which the state took over their schools and paid the teachers' salaries, two hours religious instruction weekly being allowed, although the res t of the curriculum was laicised. The Roman Catholic church, under its obstinate and courageous leader, the Cardinal-Primate Mindszenty, stood out. In December 1948 he was arrested and condemned to life imprisonment on trumped-up charges. The Catholic sch ools were then forcibly laicised and the bulk of the Catholic Orders dissolved. All these campaigns had been carried out with Asiatic brutality. A series of mock trials of 'war criminals' (including, of course, some real criminals, but many whose only offence had been patriotism) had been followed by mass judicial murders, imprisonme nts or internment under wretched conditions, often accompanied by vile torture, of the opponents of the new order.

Meanwhile, the Sovietisation of the economic system, outside the land, had been practically completed. Industry, foreign and wholesale trade and banking were early nationalised. The nationalisation was linked with Plans for the redevelopment of the nation al economy. The first of these, introduced in August 1947, consisted chiefly of immediacy measures for repairing war damage. It was declared completed, seven months ahead of schedule, on 31 December 1949, when a more ambitious Five Years' Plan was introdu ced. The declared intention of this was to turn Hungary into a predominantly industrial country. This meant that the production of consumer goods was starved, while large sums were invested in heavy industry. Much industrialisation was carried through, so me of it beneficial, but the new industries were often planned without regard to Hungary's own resources, and with even less regard to her own needs. Many of them produced, out of raw materials imported from Russia, goods (often munitions) needed by Russi a, which overcharged for the materials and underpaid for the products. Thus while industrial production increased very largely, the benefit of the increase to Hungary was far smaller. So long as the Communists had felt it advisable to share office with the Smallholders, the peasants had been left in peace. But in 1948 Rákosi announced the collectivisation of agriculture to be his policy. Three forms were envisaged. the collective pure and simple, and a closer and a looser form of co-operative. While there was no legal compulsion, very strong pressure was applied, and peasants owning holdings above a shrinking minimum were persecuted in innumerable ways. Owing, however, to the very stub born resistance of the peasants, collectivisation made slow progress.

From 1949 to 1953 Rákosi was nearly all-powerful, except in this one field, and except that the roman catholic church had still not submitted unconditionally. After Stalin's death a period of fluctuations set in. In July 1953 Rákosi, who since 1952 had pr esided over the government as well as the Party, was deposed from the former office in favour of Imre Nagy, who was, indeed, a Muscovite, but unlike any of the rest of that group, discernibly a Magyar in his mental and even his physical characteristics, a nd consequently enjoyed some popularity, even among non-Communists. Nagy promised a new course: the forced development of heavy industry should cease, more consumer goods be produced, the peasants no longer forced into the collectives, and even allowed to leave them, more tolerance be shown in political life, especially towards the intelligentsia and the churches, political prisoners be released and the internment camps closed. Many of these reforms were really introduced, and were warmly welcomed by the country and even by a considerable fraction of the Party itself. The new course was, however, bitterly opposed by the Old Guard of Stalinists, led by Rákosi, who had retained his position at the head of the Workers' Party. It seemed that Rákosi still had Moscow's ear, for in the spring of 1955 Nagy was dismissed from his office and even expelled from the Party.

Supreme again - for the new Minister President was a nonentity - Rákosi whipped the country back onto its old course, economic and political; but this was another short-lived episode, for in July 1956 he was again dismissed, this time from all his offices , and in disgrace. Again reforms were promised, but this time the hopes which they evoked received a chilling blast. Kruschev had sacrificed Rákosi merely to appease Tito, whose personal enmity the Hungarian had occurred, and his successor as Party Secret ary was E. Ger , a man as fanatical and as detested as himself, who announced that there were to be no concessions on matters of principle, and none to Nagy and his group. Disappointment at this, embittered by grievances both old and new against the Russi ans, led to the event which once more coupled the name of Hungary with that of freedom. Nagy's new course had set stirring in the country a new life, especially among the writers and students, which the reaction of 1955 had stimulated rather than represse d, and Rákosi's second fall had given it more confidence still. On 23 October 1956 the students of Budapest staged a grand demonstration in favour of political, social and national freedom. The population flocked out to join them. An unwise and truculent speech by Ger , followed by shooting into the unarmed crowd by the hated political police, turned into revolution what had begun as a peaceable demonstration. Army depots and munition factories opened their stores; the people armed themselves and turned o n their tyrants. Soviet troops hastily summoned by the regime were driven from Budapest, and in the following days a series of kaleidoscopic political changes took place, at the end of which Nagy, for whom the people had first called, found himself headin g a genuine coalition cabinet drawn from representatives of the Smallholder, Social Democrat and National Peasant parties, which, with a 'Catholic Alliance', had reconstituted themselves as by magic. The doors of the prisons were opened to the political p risoners, and a cheering crowd brought Cardinal Mindszenty to the capital. Throughout the country local Councils sprang up, the communist bureaucracy melting away before them.

The revolution was as complete as it had been spontaneous, but it clearly could not stand up against the Soviets if they determined to crush it, and if no friend intervened. A leading popular demand was that the Soviet army of occupation should evacuate t he country, and the Soviet government promised to 'negotiate' on this. But while spinning out the conversations they had been calling up reinforcements, and on 30 October these began to enter the country, fanning out to surround Budapest and the other chi ef centres. On this, Nagy appealed for help to the United Nations, announcing Hungary's withdrawal from the 'Warsaw Pact' and asking that she be recognised as a neutral state under the protection of the Great Powers. But the West, fatally preoccupied with Suez, did not even acknowledge the appeal. The Soviets simply waited until their deployment was complete; then, at dawn on 4 November, they attacked. Simultaneously, an ex-national Communist named János Kádár announced from behind their lines the formati on of a new 'revolutionary peasant-worker government' to save Hungary from 'Fascist counter revolution'.

This time the fighting was embittered, and even after the last shots had been fired, the workers and miners maintained a long and obstinate General Strike. But in view of the odds, only one end was possible, and by the end of the year 'order' had been res tored, leaving Hungary the poorer by thousands of dead, thousands more deported to Russia, nearly 200,000 refugees who had escaped into the free world, and much material damage; the richer by another glorious name on her tattered battle-colours.

It is too early to write in any detail on what followed. In the first weeks, before it was clear that nothing more than platonic disapproval would come from the West, Kádár made many promises of reform. It is true that his regime lacked the sadism of Ráko si's. Personal freedoms were larger, more contact with the West allowed, more production of consumer goods permitted and the economic exchanges with the U.S.S.R. made less inequitable. But no concession was made on fundamentals, and the Hungarian people r emained the prisoners of that East on which they had turned their backs when Árpád led them across the Carpathians, more than 1,000 years ago.


1. A tiny group, at that time a headquarters staff without an army, which had formed itself during the war and claimed to represent the interests of the agricultural proletariat.

2. It had already been proclaimed a republic in January 1946.

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