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13: The Red and the White

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Destiny granted undeservedly to Francis Joseph I that the ruins of the Monarchy would not bury him. In 1916 he moved down into the crypt of the Viennese Capuchins, next to his wife and son. He did not outlive his third heir-apparent, another nephew of his, Charles (I as Austrian emperor, IV as Hungarian king). But this was of hardly any significance by now. Charles could have even been a genius -which he was not everyone everywhere was fed up with the Habsburgs. And the need for a monarch was experienced only in those countries in the region, like Rumania and Yugoslavia, which felt the need for this traditional requisite to national legitimacy between their new state boundaries because they were still not nations and awaited establishment.

A revolutionary wave naturally followed the loss of the war, which led to such extensive loss of life and property that society, and not just the political system, was affected. (One of the first victims was Count István Tisza; assassins gunned him down.) Nevertheless, the Hungarian revolution maintained proper order, at least to the extent that at the outset (in October 1918), Hungary was "merely" a bourgeois democracy. Its leader, Count Mihály Károlyi -from the branch of the Károlyi family that we already know from the events of 1711- was a radical left-wing aristocrat who himself was soon to distribute his estate among the landless. But while the confidence in the Károlyi government at home was not slight, it had to cope with gigantic tasks. The ragged, bitter soldiers streaming home from the collapsed fronts encountered people sunk in misery at home; nearly every family was mourning someone lost in the war or waiting for a prisoner of war to return. The radical changes in Russia had won over many of the prisoners, and thousands and thousands of them still remained in Russia, voluntarily fighting alongside the Red Army of the young Soviet state on the battlefields of the civil war.

Károlyi would have liked to see a democratic and constitutional evolution to take place, and, meanwhile, he himself also gradually shifted to the left; but his temperament was too weak for the post of "trusteeship in bankruptcy" that he inevitably had to fill at the head of the nation. He carried out the act of dethronement and became President of the Republic in January 1919. Though no peace treaty had been concluded, the armies of the "successor states" pressed forward to the lines of demarcation that Trianon largely sanctioned later. Then they marched on. The Entente's local emissaries and the distant central bodies were firm, but only with the Hungarians, who in their eyes unambiguously signified that defeated side which they did not believe capable, after achieving independence, of true revival, of breaking out of the shadows of a past tying it to the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. On the other hand, they did not act with sufficient firmness in dealing with the states of the later Little Entente. (An exception was the clash between Rumanians and Serbians in the south, in the Bácska region, over a contested -and till then Hungarian- strip of land. On this occasion, a French force separated them. The result of this incident was that Szeged and its environs also came under the occupation of French colonial -Senegalese- troops...

The growing pressure from the left and the threatening and indeed the ensuing loss of territory undermined the Károlyi regime. The communists led by Béla Kun, uniting their party with that of the social democrats, forced Károlyi to resign. The Hungarian Soviet Republic came into being on March 21, 1919, with a bloodless assumption of power. It lasted for 134 days.

Today, it is possible to analyze calmly the kind of errors rooted in objective and subjective causes that Kun -who was later one of the leaders of the Comintern in Moscow, who wrestled arduously with the idea of the People's Front, and who, in the end, was a victim of Stalin's despotism- committed on the way after the seizure of power and its organization, which began with not inconsiderable success, when Soviet Hungary linked itself so quickly and buoyantly to the trend of world revolution which the war created and which, at the time, augured much wider expansion. Instead of distributing land, he nationalized the large estates and thus, by giving priority to supplying the cities and by issuing compulsory requisitions for food products, he alienated the peasant masses; the measures taken against the actions of the opposition, the counterrevolution, were inconsistent; the broad view impairing the revolution's trustworthiness alternated with compulsory measures that appalled the middle classes, and so on. All this is true. However, this is not the issue. The Hungarian Soviet Republic; then and there, did not have a chance. Not a chance from the moment it became evident that the hoped-for, swift-moving world revolution had come to an abrupt halt at its very inception (the third revolutionary experiment of the Soviet type, the Bavarian, was even more fragile than the Hungarian), and that the Soviet Red Army could not break through on the Ukrainian front into the Carpathians to provide the assistance that Béla Kun and his supporters requested.

Yet the beginning was encouraging. Within days a Hungarian Red Army came into existence that included young workers rallying to the call-to-arms and fighting shoulder-to-shoulder against the Rumanians in the east and the Czech interventionists in the north, as well as professional and reserve veteran soldiers who were ready to enter battle under flags of any color to preserve the integrity of the country. The two most outstanding leaders of these armed forces were Jenö Landler, a Socialist and then a Communist lawyer, a former anti-militarist and antiwar strike leader, and Aurél Stromfeld, an elite member of the Monarchy's army staff. But the Entente, which if it did not trust Károlyi and his entourage, trusted Kun and his associates even less, rendered ineffective successively everything that had been achieved by military means.

And that ever-growing group of politicians and soldiers who saw the white and not the red as Hungary's future color organized in Vienna and assembled in Szeged. The Entente looked upon them with suspicion, too, but considered them by far the lesser evil. A conservative, maybe a slightly liberal restoration but strictly without the Habsburgs -this sounded much more acceptable to influential French, English, and Italian political circles than an "experimental" workers' state.

The legacy that forced Károlyi to capitulate to the Communists also swept Kun and company away. There was no power that could reconcile Hungarian public opinion to the loss of territory which the nation had already suffered and which still threatened it. In August 1919, a Social Democratic government took shape for a few days. 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 and non-commissioned officers quickly headed from Szeged in two prongs toward Budapest, which, meanwhile, had been occupied by Rumanian troops -under the Entente's authority. A brutal sequel followed the reprisals upon which the military forces of the by-then royal Rumania had already embarked. Executions, torture, corporal punishment, and anti-Jewish pogroms marked the detachment's passage to the "sinful" capital, the main seat of the Hungarian Bolsheviks.

The gray eminence of the white turn-about was Count István Bethlen, the owner of a vast estate in Transylvania. However, a soldier was needed as a leader. Why was it that among the countless commissioned officers it was a sailor, Rear Admiral Miklós Horthy of Nagybánya -the long-time aide-de-camp of Francis Joseph I and the commander-in-chief of the Austro-Hungarian battle fleet at the end of the war -who came to the forefront? He was senior in rank among the officers assembled in Szeged. In 1918, he displayed determination following the sailors' revolt at Cattaro (Kotor). He was the descendant of a pure-blooded Hungarian medium landowning family; he could not, it is true, really boast about possessing any outstanding abilities, and he spoke Hungarian poorly, and was a Calvinist... If only he would have arrived aboard a gunboat on the Danube! But, attired in a dark-blue sailor's dress cape, he entered Budapest on a white horse at the head of his detachments in November 1919. And thus began that period when Hungary was a kingdom without a king, and its ruler a sailor, even though the country had no outlet to the sea. However, the Entente accepted this strange situation, in fact supported it. It withdrew the Little Entente's and its own forces, naturally only from between the borders drawn in Trianon. Thus further dismemberment of the country was averted, and if it did remain somewhat restricted, its national sovereignty was restored.

However, when we examine the new borders, two of their characteristic features emerge:

-1. Several million Hungarians remained outside the nation's borders. Some of them were inseparably melded with other nationalities, but immediately on the other side of its borders were found regions made up entirely or almost entirely of Hungarians with which large numbers of non- Hungarian inhabitants would not have been turned over to Hungary.

-2. The new boundary lines practically crippled several areas. Many Hungarian cities close to the border but more of them beyond it in the successor states were stripped of a substantial part of their gravitational centers and economic and population bases; consequently, they were either sentenced to slow decline or condemned to a forced and therefore costly development. For example, several railway lines ended up a stone's throw from the Hungarian border; thus, they were lost to us, but, on the other hand, they could not really be utilized on the other side along the edge of the successor state either.

Though Karl Marx employed this phrase in relation to Czarist Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was once also called the "peoples' prison". Sometimes it really deserved this name. However, what replaced it became some kind of "peoples' co-tenancy", a compulsory temporary accommodation which, with requisite goodwill and compromises, could have been equipped with every modern convenience. Instead, the former "prison inmates", nursing grudges against each other, ruined the jointly used furnishings so that nothing would remain for the other party. A real catastrophe resulted. Rivalry over the ruins of the Monarchy and mutual suspicion and hatred muddled human contact and severed the most rational regional economic relations (exchange of commodities, transport, public health, etc.). Every small state in East Central Europe aspired to national self-sufficiency, though their production structure supplemented each other's very closely -it was precisely this that supplied the economic setting that made it possible to hold together somehow an otherwise most heterogeneous Monarchy! -furthermore, these states were forced into and shipped to distant and costlier markets. (It was at this time, for example, that the Hungarian flour-milling industry collapsed.)

The following is not an evasion but an explanation of the fact that the chief and, at times, the only rallying cry heard during the quarter century of the Horthy period concerned the enlargement of the country, rectification of its borders: "Dismembered Hungary is not a country, undivided Hungary is heaven." But if national borders had followed the true ethnic borders more closely, then who would have actually listened to Hungarians with large estates who employed only non-Hungarian field hands on lands that had ended up in a foreign state? Thus again, the harsh illogic of the borders rendered the grievance nationwide. Those who resettled so that they could remain within Hungary's borders only enhanced the prevailing mood -they were predominantly state officials and people in the middle levels- and they were obliged to live for years in rail cars pushed onto the side rails of shunting depots.

From the very first moment, Horthy and his White Army made efforts to revise the borders. The sole, small success, as it happened, was achieved in the west. The city of Sopron and its environs had been awarded to Burgenland, Austria. But a guerilla-like assault forced the weak Austrian troops to flee, and later it became possible to put the question of the region's future to a local referendum. Sopron remained Hungarian, and thus gained the name of City of Loyalty. But this action attracted attention not so much because it succeeded but because it typified how much the peace treaty failed to establish future political security and, instead, meted out punishment for the past. In what way? Even if we consider ridiculous the fact that the former national territory of Hungary had also been mutilated for Austria's benefit, that does not wash away the enormous responsibility of Hungarians for World War I. Though a significant segment of the inhabitants of Sopron and its vicinity was German-speaking, the majority of them were not, however. And at the time of the plebiscite, even a part of these favored belonging to Hungary.

Horthy had to tack about. The detachments that had raised him to the peak of power with such strong, bloody hands became too much for him. Their brutality and independence compromised him in the eyes of the Entente and the European bankers and even the citizens and capitalists indispensable to the consolidation of Hungary. Horthy was a military man, but he did not want to establish a junta. He would not share power. Not even with a king. Seemingly, or according to his statements -he never stopped emphasizing this- he was faithful to the oath that bound him to the Habsburg throne. He proved this by legally reestablishing the institution of royalty. But why did he not go further? A significant proportion of his military and political base wanted him to do so. So much so, that Charles, who, driven from the country, had fled to Switzerland, twice entered the country at summons from the monarchists and with their complicity, claiming the throne lawfully for himself. His second attempt was noteworthy on account of the fact that it was, perhaps, the first hijacking of an airplane in the world: loyal supporters, former pilots, stole a plane and conveyed him to Hungarian soil from Switzerland: a daring air feat at the time.

At the head of an army joining him in Transdanubia, Charles IV reached the city limits of Budapest, where Horthy stopped him with a small army consisting, in part, of hastily armed university students. The Entente unanimously supported Horthy, and an English war vessel coming up the Danube took the captured Charles IV aboard and carried him into exile on the Island of Madeira. (He soon died. His son, Otto, is today a well-known political personality, as a citizen in Western Europe.)

Foreign countries had to be pacified once and for all-and also runaway inflation at home. Count István Bethlen was the unruffled father of the consolidation. Count Pál Teleki was the first prime minister -he, too, was an owner of a large estate in Transylvania, and otherwise an important geographer who was chiefly an authority on ethnic groups and economic geography; as such he participated, by invitation, in the first demarcation of the state borders of modern Iraq in 1924-25. Then Bethlen himself became the head of the government.

In the mid-1920s, Hungary was a bourgeois state living in relative peace, with a functioning parliament. The Communist Party was illegal. The Social Democratic Party, in order to be able to function in the cities and among the workers, renounced, in a pact, agitation among the majority agrarian population. The nation's social structure contained numerous obsolete accessories and irritating features; these were distributing factors, but they did not obstruct some modernization in the spirit of conservatism and liberalism. Public education and public health improved and there were many technical courses offered in the villages; an extensive network of marketing cooperatives developed under the name of Hangya (Ant).

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