Bela Kun and Hungarian Soviet Republic: 1918-1919

By Isabella Y Liu

 

“March 22, 1919

…A chemist’s shop was open: that was the only concession. My head was on fire and my chest torn with coughing. I went in. Many people were waiting for their prescriptions. Two people whispered to each other: ‘The resignation of the Government was simply a sham to frighten the Entente into re-establishing the old lines of demarcation.’ ‘Goodness no, my dear sir, there has been too much of Karolyi’s cowardly pacifism. The Bolsheviks want to reconquer the whole of Hungary.’ A lean young man standing by began to gesticulate wildly: ‘If that is so, every Hungarian ought to stand by them.’ The others nodded: ‘We shall soon go home to Pressburg…’[1]

——– Cecile Tormay, An Outlaw’s Diary: The Commune[2]

The above diary excerpt is from a book I found at an extremely dusty stack on the second floor of Swem Library. By that time, I was still researching on my topic for the World War I project, and I found this thrilling paragraph together with some other literature on the Hungary Communist Revolution in 1918-1919, which I almost knew nothing about back then.

So why not start by understanding that paragraph first? What did the Bolsheviks have to do with Hungary? Who is Karolyi? Where were the lines of demarcation? Who resigned from the Hungarian government?

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Bela Kun (1886-1938)

Blowing off the spider webs from the book covers, I first started searching for what I was most curious about – the connections between the Bolsheviks and the post-WWI Hungary. Luckily, I found an essay by Richard Lowenthal, which gathered some ideas on the Hungarian revolution in 1919 and its impact on international communist movements.[3] According to Lowenthal, Bela Kun, the forefront leader of this revolution, was Lenin’s good comrade and received training from Soviet Russia to lead communist revolutions in Eastern Europe. However, Bela Kun did not receive a very high praise from Lowenthal – instead, the latter described Kun as “a provincial political primitive who was content to see himself as the manipulator of the Hungarian revolution.”

Did Bela Kun really manipulate the revolution? If so, how did he achieve that?

First, let us look into the pre-revolution period. Istvan Deak’s essay: “The Decline and Fall of Habsburg Hungary, 1914-1918” gives us some every good background information on Hungary’s broken economic system during and even before the First World War.[4] In fact, Deak argues that the Hungarian economy was in a very good shape (almost the same growth rates as those seen in Western Europe!) before WWI, but everything was destroyed by a law named “Emergency Measures in Case of War,” which introduced wartime economic control measures over crucial resources and the pricing scheme. To get things worse, the Dual Monarchy almost bankrupted Hungary by installing trade barriers (In other words, the flow of commodities from Hungary to Austria was counted as a foreign export). The industrial output of Hungary fell into a stagnant exhaustion after 1918, and the entire economy, together with most of Eastern European nations, followed a long and slow path of recovery since then.

Generally speaking, when the economy turns slow, people are always less happy about their life, which opens the door for potential social conflicts. The 1918 Hungary of course was not an exception. Joseph Held listed a chain of causes for us: the uneven distribution of land pushed the landless, unskilled peasants to pursue jobs in the urban area, while the urban worker who were better educated and more skilled earned more wages than those from the countryside.[5] That is the first level of conflict within the proletariat class. Nevertheless, the multi-ethnicity problem in Hungary was utterly outstanding from many other nations, therefore the Rumanians, Serbians and Czechs living in Hungary all demanded for their own privileges. Hence, this cycle of ethnic hybridity plus income divergence within the Hungarian lower class made the social conflicts a rather complex problem to solve. Therefore, as Held explains in his essay, it is not surprising that when the Social Democratic regime under Prime Minister Tisza failed to control inflation during the post-war aftermath, nationalism reached its peak in Hungary, and all non-Magyar ethnic groups (including Jews, Serbians, Croatians, Romanians, etc.) were all under attack.

Given what we just saw from above, Hungary was on the edge of a civil war. And that’s when Bela Kun showed up – fully aware of the over-heating social conflicts, Kun together with other revolutionaries took advantage of the crisis and turned it into the communist campaign promises. In Gyorgy Borsanyi’s biography of Bela Kun, the revolutionary leader threw out a handful of promises on the reform of land distribution systems directly to the heart of the lower class.[6] Moreover, the high tide of Borsanyi’s story came in when Kun directed a stunning drama of himself being almost beaten to death by the police to win over support from the general public (Not sure if he received any acting training from his supporter, Dracula actor Bela Lugosi).

Successfully as he did, the entire Hungarian society turned in favor of Kun overnight, including the powerful worker’s council and other unions.

Now that Bela Kun gained full support from the people by getting hit in the scalp, another issue came into picture – the Entente’s demand of a new demarcation line.

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“The Vix and the Other Demarcation Lines.” Map in Revolutions and Interventions in Hungary and Its Neighbor States, 1918-1919, edited by Peter Paster, 527. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Gabor Vermes discusses the details of the new neutral zone and truce lines in his essay, and the reasons why the Social Democrat government under Karolyi decided to resign and leave the government to the Communists.[7] You may now want to go back to the top of this page and re-read the paragraph describing this triumph, when the author overheard conversations in downtown Budapest (and herself felt exactly the opposite).

According to Borsanyi, Bela Kun also kept in good touch with Lenin in person throughout the entire revolution process, even though they disagreed on maintaining the joint cabinet with the former Socialist Democrats. Kun was fully confident about the revolution, and imagined a “Europe without borders, consisting of a uniformly red block spreading all the way from the Urals to the Atlantic Ocean.”[8]

However, the reality did not play out like what Bela Kun imagined. A great piece by Frank Eckelt went through the internal policies of the newly born Hungarian Soviet Republic, and pointed out a number of significant errors being made under Kun’s regime, ranging from social welfare and education to political and religious policies.[9] One of the examples Eckelt used is the standard wages system, which regulated on the wage differences between gender (men /women), and geographical locations (Budapest/non-Budapest regions). Another interesting source I found is a table of leaflet categories distributed by the HSR, where the top three subjects are “foreign propaganda and the nationality question,” “national defence and the Hungarian Red Army,” and “art, literature, press, theatre, music, movies.”[10] It seems that HSR did place nationalism and international communist movement as its chief doctrine emphasis, supported by the cultural package serving revolutionary needs.

IMG_1324

Tokes, Rudolf L. “Appendix I: Propaganda Leaflets and Handbills Published by the People’s Commissariat for Public Education, March 21 to Aug. 2, 1919.” In Bela Kun and the Hungarian Soviet Republic: The Origins and Role of the Communist Party of Hungary in the Revolutions of 1918-1919, 248. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, 1967.

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“Communist-paramilitary commander József Cserny (center) with members of the Lenin Boys (background).” The Orange Files. Accessed December 4, 2014.

Another controversial policy from the HSR is the assassination missions against the anti-revolutionaries. Then group of two hundred young killers were called “Lenin Boys” which reported directly to Tibor Szamuely who was in charge of the “Red Terror” in Hungary.

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Tibor Szamuely (1890-1919)

 

On August 3, 1919, without the military support from Soviet Russia who was busy fighting the Russian Civil War, the Hungarian Soviet Republic fell to Romanian forces, marking the failure of the first communist revolution in Hungarian history.[11]

Tropas-rumanas-ocupan-budapest-1919--outlawsdiary02tormuoft

“Rumanian Troops Occupying Budapest.” Photo from An Outlaw’s Diary: The Commune, 214. Hawthorne, CA: Christian Book Club of America, 1969.

The story ends here for the 133-day communist regime in Hungary. Bela Kun exiled to Russia for the rest of his life, and shifted his attention away from Europe to the East, including the young Soviet China. He died during Stalin’s Great Purge in 1938.



[1] “Pressburg” is the German name of Bratislava, today’s capital city of Slovakia.

[2] Tormay, Cecile. An Outlaw’s Diary: The Commune, 13. Hawthorne, CA: Christian Book Club of America, 1969.This book was written in the form of a personal diary, starting on the night of the first day of the Hungarian Communist Revolution (21st March, 1919). According to Wikipedia, the author is a right-wing intellectual who is anti-communist and anti-Semitic. As there is a very limited number of narrative primary sources in English available regarding this Revolution, I included this book simply as a reference related to my story, without endorsing any of the opinions expressed or guaranteeing the accuracy of the narratives.

[3] Loventhal, Richard. “The Hungarian Soviet and International Communism.” In Revolution in Perspective: Essays on the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, edited by Andrew C. Janos and William B. Slottman, 173-181. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.

[4] Deak, Istvan. The Decline and Fall of Habsburg Hungary.” In Hungary in Revolution: Nine Essays, 1918-1919, edited by Ivan Volgyes, 10-30. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971.

[5] Held, Joseph. “The Heritage of the Past: Hungary before World War I.” Hungary in Revolution: Nine Essays, 1918-1919, edited by Ivan Volgyes, 1-9. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971.

[6] Borsanyi, Gyorgy. The Life of A Communist Revolutionary, Bela Kun, 113-118. Translated by Mario D. Fenyo. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

[7] Vermes, Gabor. “The October Revolution in Hungary: From Karolyi to Kun.” In Hungary in Revolution: Nine Essays, 1918-1919, edited by Ivan Volgyes, 31-60. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971.

[8] Borsanyi, The Life of A Communist Revolutionary, Bela Kun, 143-146.

[9] Eckelt, Frank. “The Internal Policies of the Hungarian Soviet Republic.” In Hungary in Revolution: Nine Essays, 1918-1919, edited by Ivan Volgyes, 61-88. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971.

[10] Tokes, Rudolf L. “Appendix I: Propaganda Leaflets and Handbills Published by the People’s Commissariat for Public Education, March 21 to Aug. 2, 1919.” In Bela Kun and the Hungarian Soviet Republic: The Origins and Role of the Communist Party of Hungary in the Revolutions of 1918-1919, 248. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, 1967.

[11] The Orange Files. “The Hungarian Soviet Republic.” Accessed December 4, 2014. http://theorangefiles.hu/the-hungarian-soviet-republic/#page.