The Evolution of Stalinism in Hungary
During World War II in Hungary, purging of Jews and combat fatalities claimed the lives of nearly a million citizens. In autumn 1944, a surge of hope marched in with the Soviet army, driving the Nazi forces out of Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, while Britain and the U.S. liberated the Western occupied countries. The Potsdam Treaty restored peace, and Europe could once again breathe free of terror and begin to rebuild.
In Soviet occupied territories, this breath of freedom was only short prelude to another suffocation of economy, rights, and dignity.
Stalinism in Hungary began within the antifascist movement, slowly gaining support in the original multi-party government, waiting for the right moment to cast its full shadow over the nation. László Rajk, whom Stalin freed from fifteen years of imprisonment, began to mobilize the indigenous Hungarian Communists, a small movement comprised mostly of students. The Soviets appointed Mátyás Rákosi to lead, and most leadership positions were given to other prominent Muscovite (trained in Moscow) communists.
The party takeover began with simple goals. In 1944 Imre Nagy became the agricultural minister. The communists hoped to receive support from the peasantry due to their policies of land reform, allocating portions of large estates to those without property. Many members of the elite class were relocated from Budapest to farming communities. In 1946 Imre Nagy moved on to the Interior, a position which included control over the political police. This position was eventually ceded to Rajk who implemented the final stage of Communist domination: that all anticommunist “reactionaries” should be removed. Under Stalin’s plan, Rakosi supported a slow and deliberate deportation/imprisonment of reactionaries, but Rajk’s plan involved a radical search and seizureof anyone who could have been even a potential threat to the party’s success. This disparity added to the rising opposition within the party.
I want to tell you, friend, I say with my eyes. I want to tell you how they took my father away. See my pain; share my pain with me because it is more than I can bear alone. But you know we must all bear it alone. So it has been for many months. As I look at you I can almost remember what it is like to smile, to trust. There is a new kinship between us now; uncertainties, anger, fear.
A wide variety of “anticommunist reactionaries” were shipped off to work prisons in Siberia in 1946 and 1947. The police became adept at manufacturing evidence to serve the Party’s purposes. In this way, the Smallholder’s Party, which accounted for 57% of the vote, was virtually eliminated in 1948. Neighbors and friends distrusted one another for fear they would be turned in to the authorities if they voiced their concerns. Children were encouraged to reveal their parents’ secrets. Stalinist ideals were glorified in schools and Russian courses were made mandatory. Hungarian history was left out of the curriculum; children didn’t learn it unless parents risked teaching it to them. Religious education was frowned upon. All young people were members of the Communist Youth Organization, encouraged to conform through bribes and through fear of the empty boxcars that stood in the train station awaiting their human cargo: those who disobeyed or even disagreed with Soviet policies.
The police came last night. They searched our apartment while my mother held my brother and I, squeezing our hands as if everything would be all right. She closed her eyes and listened as they tore through the closets, not allowing the men to hear her silent prayer. They looked behind the drapes and under the beds, in every drawer and all the kitchen cupboards, spilled coins from a small jar on the counter into their pockets. They paused briefly to admire the picture on the mantle, our father, our brother; his stoic face gazed coldly over the room day after day, watching our every move. Stalin, he was called. Love him, they said, in the schools, on the radio, on the streets.
As soon as we were sure the footsteps had disappeared, my mother moved carefully to her dresser and removed the bottom board, revealing a book, some family photographs, two gold bracelets and a diamond-studded rosary. She held it close to her and allowed her tears to fall, whispering miért, miért…why?
Rajk’s police force also managed to eliminate the Social Democratic party. Police pressure led to the expulsion of Party leadership. A forced merger between the Social Democrats and the Communist Party ensued, leaving a single list of candidates for the next May 1949 election. Intraparty purges eliminated rising opposition; an estimated 200,000 Party members were sent to prison by 1951, including Rajk, who was beaten at his own game and hung as a fascist spy. In 1953, Stalin died and was replaced by Nikita Khruschev. The following year many of the original purges were reversed and prisoners released (31), creating further instability in the Party. Rapid Industrialization and forced collectivization caused Hungary’s economy to plummet. The standard of living went down, prices went up, and wages weren’t enough to live on. More than 300,000 agricultural workers had been shifted toward the growing industry; the peasants who remained became overwhelmed with their efforts to feed the country, often lacking in equipment and skills to farm the land, frustrated by the demands that accompanied collectivization. As a result, the Russians lost faith in Rakosi’s leadership abilities and recalled him to Moscow.
Imre Nagy became Prime Minister in 1953. Through his “New Course” policies, he sought to end collectivization, slow industrialization, place greater emphasis on consumer goods, restore personal rights, and free the victims of police terror. He was a symbol of change. The peasantry felt the chains of the harsh communist rule lifting and took matters into their own hands, dividing up land, equipment, and livestock, and taking control over production (46). Two years later Rakosi and his cohorts returned to Hungary, armed with new Russian political demands. The brief era of reform under Nagy was reversed, and consumer production again focused on military manufacture (52).
The Revolution Begins
Petofi’s Circle, the center of political opposition, was revealed to the public in March of 1956, though it had been in existence since Imre Nagy was removed as Premier (Zinner 194). It began as a sanctuary for free expression of public opinion on social, economic, and political issues within the intellectual sphere, but preceding the revolution gathered those from all spheres, especially young people.
Quietly we gathered in the back room after class, filtering in one by one and ever cautious of followers. Some of the young men I recognized, some I knew, some I do not believe I had seen before but three things were true: we had been oppressed, we were scared, and we were Hungarian.
I saw you there, friend, and I cried with delight and embraced you in this sacred space. I knew then that all had not been lost.
Hushed voices began our list of grievances against Soviet occupation, eyes and hands danced together in excitement, a shroud of silence had been lifted and one could feel the energy coursing through the room, circulating in a frenzy from one bright young scholar to the next until we were all ablaze with righteousness and indignation. We will march tomorrow, all who are brave and willing! We will allow the poetry of Petofi to fill our hearts and give us courage. Talpra Magyar, hi a haza! Rise up, Maygars, the country calls!
On October 23, 1956, students from Petofi’s circle posted their 16-point list of demands in Budapest, and marched in the streets to support their cause: freedom for countries under Russian control. The mass of protestors grew rapidly; students and workers came from all over Budapest and outlying areas, responding to fliers that championed the 16 point demands or simply following the energy of the crowd.
I woke early for breakfast after a fitful sleep and tried to hide my apprehension. I found myself empowered by the simple picture of my mother helping my brother get ready for school. In a free Hungary, we would have money to buy her a new dress and we would all have fresh oranges at breakfast, and every day Dobos Torta after dinner. My brother would go to college and learn our history, not late at night by candlelight but celebrated in all of its glory.
Plunged into a sea of people I marched side by side with my true friend, onward through the streets of Budapest. The workers had joined us, and we were strong in numbers and in spirit. Szabadság! Freedom! I cried with my countrymen until I could cry no more, and my feet could march no further. The late hour and sleepless night left me wearied and hungry, and so I soon turned, jubilant, toward my home to rest and dream of a new life.
A large statue of Stalin was reduced to empty boots, over which a Hungary flag flew proudly for all to see, inciting waves of cheering in the exuberant crowd. But the joyful day would see a perilous end. The AVO secret police shot into the mass of people, and thus began the first bloody battle of the revolution. Frenzied marchers raided police stations and army depots for weapons to retaliate with. Others created Molotov cocktails and plunked them into tanks as they rolled laboriously past, destroying people and buildings, only adding fuel to the spirit of revolt.
The next morning I awoke as the predawn light just barely reached my pillow through a crack in the shades. The building was alive with a distant rumble, humming and vibrating ever so slight to be audible and noticeable. Mother was at the window, peering from behind the drape with one hand covering her mouth and the other hugging her heart. The national radio droned a slow, melancholy processional. Mi az? What is it?
Two Russian tanks commanded the tree-lined street below, their long guns, dark and menacing, pointed up to each window. Search and destroy, it seemed to say. Was it searching for me?
The next 7 days were filled with courage and heroism. The fighting became, for the first time, not Axis vs. Allies, not anticommunist, but Hungary vs. Russia. Nearly all of the Hungarian citizens who were considered “good communists,” fought against their regime. Nearly all of the children who had been indoctrinated with Stalinist ideals joined the fight on the side of their country. Police officers tore off their badges and shared their weapons with their fellow citizens. In addition, workers went on strike throughout the nation, and communist books, symbols, and files were burned. On October 30, after nearly a week of fighting in the street, the exhausted survivors, for the first time in a long time, felt patriotism, camaraderie, and jubilance. After the Russian retreat, Imre Nagy stepped up to lead the new government. Though he was a communist himself, his social policies from before earned him respect and devotion. His first political actions included abolishing the secret police, ordering Soviet military withdrawal, and reinstating the multi-party system. Cardinal Mindszenty emerged from prison and spoke to nourish hopes for the nation’s revival.
On November 4, 1956, the Soviets returned in full force and crushed the last of the revolutionaries, leaving a path of destruction in their wake. Appeals for U.N. assistance were left unanswered as world’s attention focused on the Suez Crisis in the Middle East. An estimated 200,000, realizing the battle was lost, escaped to Austria. Others fought bravely to the bitter end and lost their lives in a futile attempt to gain independence for their people. Those who remained alive could only hope to see the end of Communism, which didn’t come until 1989.
The Path of the Refugees
You must not take much, mother cautioned. The burden may be yours to carry for many miles. I chose a change of clothes and folded them neatly, placing them in my rucksack. Hungary is not safe for you anymore, she had said. Go, my father had agreed, and seek a new life in the west. It will be filled with opportunity. But leaving the two people who had ensured my safety for 16 years of my life did not make me feel secure. As I kissed them goodbye, my mother pressed two gold bracelets in my hand. Take these to a jeweler in Vienna. Use the money wisely. I shook my head, to which she replied, They are precious to me, but you are more so.
The Bridge at Andau is an unassuming wooden passageway, over which 2% of the population of Hungary fled to Austria. The entire border was once patrolled by AVO police and soldiers, but the exhausted forces gathered in Budapest to fight the revolutionaries. Many people took advantage of the safer window of opportunity. The Red Cross station across the bridge treated the sick, wounded, and exhausted, many of whom had walked over 100 miles.
Refugee camps were set up around Vienna, predominantly at the University. The escapees were fed and clothed, offered German and English classes and a place to sleep while the rest of the world helped determine their final destinations. 40,000 were admitted to the United States, and many more to Canada, England, Switzerland, France, and Germany. The refugees from Hungary became not a burden, but an asset to their new countries. The group was comprised of University faculty and students, musicians, artists, dancers, mechanics, engineers, scientists, doctors, and one other very important group: the writers, who could warn the rest of the world about what they had lived through.
You will never know the joy of choosing a newspaper. You will never know the privilege of the multiparty system of government. You will never know the thrill of waking up to freedom each morning and returning to it each night until it has been taken from you. The AVO took our way of life, exploited our resources, and instilled fear and loathing in our hearts. They exposed us to such indecent tortures, physically through imprisonment and mentally by removing all avenues of expression and all trust in our fellow man. But at the end of the day, the AVO police were only human, too. So take care and recognize the signs. The other way of life is not as far away as you might think.
-Anonymous. Personal Interview. March 27, 2004.
-Kecskemeti, Paul. The Unexpected Revolution: Social Forces in the Hungarian Uprising. The RAND Corporation; Stanford University Press. Stanford, CA 1961
-Michener, James A. The Bridge at Andau. Random House. NY, NY 1957
-Szabo, Tamas. Boy on the Rooftop. Opera Mundi. Paris, France. 1957.
-Web search: “Hungarian society between 1945 and 1956.” . 3/2/04
-Zinner, Paul E. Revolution in Hungary. Columbia University Press. New York and London. 1962
other helpful nodes: Stalinism is not Communism. Warsaw Pact