A great Hungarian liberal political thinker is reported to have said he wanted the following epitaph on his gravestone: “Here lies István Bibó, lived, 1945-1948."1 He meant to express the great hope and excitement he had experienced in those years, when it seemed possible that his nation had turned away from its feudal past and a better future could be forged on its nascent liberalism. A superficial look at the immediate postwar years makes Bibó’s retrospective fondness for this period appear very strange indeed. After all, the war had caused extraordinary devastation: people lived in unheated apartments on the verge of starvation. The soldiers of an occupying army removed much that was movable, raped, and often behaved brutally. The country suffered the worst inflation the world had ever seen. Most important, the ever-growing power of the Communist Party and the lawless behavior of the Communist-dominated political police must have given concern to many for the future of a democratic order in Hungary. In this book, I describe the tumultuous events of the immediate postwar years and explain why Bibó even in retrospect recalled these years fondly. My task is to describe how and why the hopes for a democratic Hungary were gradually extinguished and a Communist regime was installed.
I argue three main points: 1. What happened in Hungary was decided elsewhere, primarily in Moscow. Soviet policy was a series of improvisations, and it developed gradually between the end of the war and the imposition of complete Communist control. 2. The main issue among non-Communist politicians was how best to resist full-scale Sovietization. I argue that those who sought compromise and attempted to get along with the Soviet occupiers were not knaves and fools, but people who had legitimate reasons to hope that some degree of Hungarian democracy could be saved. 3. As a result of Soviet conquest, a social and political revolution was carried out in Hungary. This revolution could have been accomplished at a lower cost in human suffering; nevertheless, it was a much-needed revolution.
The Hungarian story must be looked at in the context of the origin of the cold war. It was neither the first nor the last time that the fate of the small countries in Eastern Europe was determined elsewhere. The ultimate outcome depended not on what the Hungarians, Romanians, Poles, and so forth would or would not do but on decisions made in world capitals. Postwar international affairs and internal Soviet developments were more responsible than any Hungarian political decisions for the establishment of a Communist regime there. It is easy to answer the question of why in 1948 the Communists came to power. That happened because people in Moscow decided that this was in the best interest of the Soviet Union, and the West was not in a position to prevent it.
The central political issue of the second half of the twentieth century was the confrontation between the West, led by the United States, and the Soviet Union and its satellites. It is understandable that an enormous literature exists on the history of the origins of that great struggle.2 A major dividing line in that literature concerns the evaluation of Soviet intentions. Did Stalin have a plan? Did he foresee the creation of a Soviet-controlled bloc in a Europe divided into two hostile spheres? Did he just wait for the right moment to carry out his plan? Did he envisage the conquest of Eastern Europe simply as the first stage in the creation of a Communist world? There can be no absolutely convincing answers to these questions, and we are unlikely ever to find archival documents that would resolve them. Stalin did not confide his innermost thoughts to others or put his plans on paper. All we can do is attribute motives and plans on the basis of his actions.
In this book, I side with those historians who have described Soviet policy in these years as fluid. It appears to me that Stalin in 1944 did not foresee the emergence of two irreconcilably hostile blocs in Europe. I suspect Stalin imagined that powerful countries in the future would compete for influence just as they had before the war; however, he clearly intended that the role of the Red Army in the defeat of Hitler would give the Soviet Union much greater influence and leverage than it had ever possessed before. He apparently hoped at first that the Soviet Union would have a say in Western European politics through the Italian and French Communist Parties. The expectation of a fluid Europe presupposed a situation in which the Soviet Union could prevent the emergence of hostile regimes on its most sensitive Western borders but would refrain, at least for the time being, from openly imposing satellite regimes on the occupied countries. In order to hope to have influence in Western Europe, the Soviet Union would have to make concessions to the Allies in the east of the continent.
Internal developments determined Soviet foreign policy. By the fall of 1946, Stalin and his fellow leaders decided to reimpose the harshest controls on Soviet society after the relative liberalism of the war years. Rightly or wrongly, they feared for the stability of their regime after the dreadful devastation of the war. The war had necessitated the lessening of some forms of repression: the regime had to allow a degree of freedom for peasants on the collective farms; religion was treated more respectfully and even regarded as an ally; artists to a greater extent than before could express genuine sentiments. Perhaps most disturbingly from the point of view of the leaders of the regime, millions of Soviet citizens as soldiers, as prisoners of war, or as slave laborers had come into contact with the more advanced, capitalist West. Soviet leaders saw such contacts with westerners as a form of subversion, and they decided that it had to be stopped. (At the same time, they lost hope for the future of Communism in the immediate future in Western Europe.) The rigid controls and merciless oppression necessitated cutting ties with the outside world, especially the Western allies. For Soviet foreign policy makers that meant that by the middle of 1947 they no longer concerned themselves with Western responses to their actions in Eastern Europe. Imposing uniformity on the bloc of satellites was a corollary of the most deadly conformity at home. The people in the Eastern European satellites, among them Hungarians, came to be victims of Stalinism as much as the people of the Soviet Union. The immediate postwar period is an important and interesting part of Hungarian history, but it can also be regarded as a case study of Soviet behavior in the early stages of the cold war.
A great deal follows from how we evaluate Soviet intentions. For those historians who believe that the Soviets were already determined at the end of the war to transform this region into a group of satellite states, the postwar years do not form a particular unit. It is characteristic, for example, that in his excellent and well-researched book László Borhi treats the entire period of 1945–1956 as one, moving back and forth in discussing different issues.3 It is my assumption, by contrast, that these three or four years form a particular and interesting period in the nation’s history, years which were very different both from what preceded and from what would follow. I see the 1944–1947 period as a time of imperfect pluralism, a time when different points of view could still be articulated, when newspapers pointed to Communist wrongdoings, and political parties presented genuine alternatives from which voters could choose. It was imperfect pluralism, because from the outset the Communists benefited from the presence of the Red Army and could prevail in matters that seemed decisively important to them.
In retrospect, it is evident that nothing the non-Communist politicians could have done would have prevented the demise of democracy. This is not to say that the future was predetermined and that everything could not have happened differently. A change in the character of Soviet politics or a different turn in East-West relations would have influenced the development of Hungarian politics, but the future was not in the hands of those who had most to lose. To contemporaries, however, this was not immediately apparent. Although many people at the time had serious concerns about the future, it was not at all naive to believe that at the conclusion of the peace treaty Soviet troops would leave Hungary, and then a democratic regime might let roots down and firmly establish itself. The non-Communist parties based their policies on this expectation, and the Communists feared that their opponents might be right, in which case they would have the frightening prospect of being left without Soviet protection. After a great conflagration, people often assume that life cannot simply return to what had existed before. They think that the old way of thinking is discredited by the misfortunes it has caused, and now there is a possibility for something profoundly different and better to be built. In Hungary, too, there was a sense, not shared by everyone to be sure, that a new and better life would begin. The optimism that prevailed at least in some circles does matter in the history of this period because it explains the behavior of many contemporaries.
We will never know what kind of politics would have developed if the Red Army had withdrawn in 1948, as Soviet leaders had repeatedly promised. Although in the immediate postwar years conservatives and nationalists were in retreat, most likely they would have reemerged once again within a few years as a major current in politics. As it was, only József Cardinal Mindszenty and the courageous Catholic nun, Margit Slachta, dared to speak up for an unabashedly conservative and even legitimist position. The liberal consensus that seemed to exist at the end of the war probably would not have lasted. Quite likely, bitter political divisions would have reemerged. It is, however, evident that genuine democrats were in a strong position, and it seems likely that the Hungarians, left to themselves, would have established a far more decent system than the one that was imposed on them by the Soviet-supported Communists. Greece, for example, which had the good fortune to escape Communist rule, experienced repression and civil war in the postwar period and a semifascist military regime for a time; nevertheless, it far outstripped Hungary in the speed of economic development and finally established a democratic regime much earlier than the ex-satellites were able to do.
Among the non-Communist politicians, the recurring issue remained of what attitude to take about the increasing Communist domination. Should the Communists be resisted every step of the way, or, on the contrary, should liberals be looking for a modus vivendi and preserve as much freedom and democracy as they could under the difficult circumstances? Neither side was right, and neither side was wrong, because the ultimate fate of the country was decided elsewhere; nevertheless, those who did everything within their power to find a compromise deserve credit rather than blame. There were some politicians within the leadership of the National Peasant Party (NPP) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) who at the outset were willing to support Communist policies and, as loyal members of the so-called left-wing bloc, time and again helped the Communist position to prevail within the discussions of the governing coalition. However, many of these people came to be disillusioned by Communist behavior and ultimately ended up within the right wings of their parties. Antal Bán, for example, who took the place of the right-wing Social Democrat Ágoston Valentiny in 1945 as minister of justice, two years later came to be one of those Socialists who were determined to resist the Communists.
The history of the postwar years must be understood not only within the context of the developing cold war but also within the long span of Hungarian history. Hungarians, unlike Croatians, Romanians, and Serbs, for example, belong to a nation with a long history. For more than ten centuries, the country has had an almost continuous existence as a sovereign (or semisovereign) state. The upper classes, although ethnically mixed, proudly regarded themselves as Hungarians, possessed political rights, and exploited a multilingual peasantry. (In 1914, only about half of the population spoke Hungarian as a native language.) In the course of its thousand-year history, the country accumulated a rich and mixed tradition that included dark spots of repression of national minorities but also liberalism and tolerance. Unlike Croatia and Slovakia, which had existed before the 1990s as independent states only as German satellites and were without democratic traditions, Hungary in the twentieth century could have built on a democratic heritage. Between 1867 and 1918, as a part of the Habsburg Monarchy, the country enjoyed spectacular economic growth, although it remained primarily agricultural. Advanced, industrial Budapest, then one of the fastest growing cities in the world with its lively intellectual and artistic life, coexisted with a backward countryside where a multinational peasantry lived in material circumstances not much better than peasants living in the Russian empire. One need not idealize the Austro-Hungarian Empire and remember that the Hungarians terribly mistreated the national minorities, yet still point out that it was a time of optimism.
The period of 1918–1919 was a great dividing line in Hungarian history. The loss in the First World War had more disastrous consequences for Hungary than for any other land. In October 1918, a revolution separated Hungary from the Monarchy and created a republic, headed by Count Michael Károlyi. This liberal government remained in office for less than five months. On March 20, 1919, the Entente made known its decision concerning the line of demarcation between the Hungarian and Romanian troops, implying the future territorial division. The next day, Károlyi was compelled to resign in favor of a Communist-Socialist coalition, in which the Communists played the dominant role. Károlyi’s government could neither accept Allied demands nor successfully resist them. Ironically, it was only the nominally internationalist Communists who were willing to fight for the national interest because they expected that Soviet Russia would come to their aid. The Hungarian Soviet Republic remained in existence for only 133 days, in the course of which it carried out a mindlessly radical policy with terror. It failed to gain the allegiance of the peasantry by nationalizing rather than distributing land. All through its existence, the Soviet republic was fighting Czechoslovak and Romanian armies. Ultimately, it failed not because of domestic opposition, though counterrevolution was gathering strength, but because of military defeat by armies supported by the Allies.
The treaty concluded with Hungary at Trianon in 1920 was part of the Versailles settlements. The country lost two-thirds of its territory and more than half of its population, leaving more than 3 million Hungarian speakers just beyond the newly drawn borders. It is indisputable that the terms of the treaty that Hungarians were forced to sign were not only unfair but also unwise. The desire to regain all or at least some of the lost territories came to dominate and therefore poison Hungarian politics. Ironically, Admiral Nicholas Horthy, who became “governor” and regent in 1920 and pursued a nationalist policy, came to power with the aid of foreigners and was compelled to accept peace terms that the internationalist revolutionaries would not accept. Nevertheless, remarkably, he and his supporters succeeded in the completely preposterous pretense that it was the liberals, Socialists, and Communists who were responsible for the defeat in the war and therefore the great territorial losses. The country remained a kingdom, without a king. The surrounding countries, all of them beneficiaries of the collapse of the Monarchy, would not accept a Habsburg restoration, and for the Hungarian political class a republic appeared too revolutionary.
Interwar Hungary was profoundly different from what it had been before 1914. As a part of the Monarchy, the government in Budapest had administered a country of more than 18 million people, and now it was reduced to a population of less than 8 million. The multinational empire was no more, and instead Hungary became the most ethnically homogeneous country in the area. The perceived injustice of the Trianon treaty determined the character of Hungarian politics in the interwar period. Revisionism alienated Hungary from its neighbors and justified a socially repressive policy in the name of national interest. A small landed aristocracy still possessed much of the land and controlled the government. After the war in Eastern Europe, the new countries carried out meaningful land reform, but not Hungary. Only about 8 percent of the land was distributed and that in such small parcels that many of the new owners soon lost their land; consequently, in the 1920s and 1930s about a third of the peasantry was landless. The defeat of the Soviet Republic was followed by a White Terror that claimed at least as many victims as the previous Red Terror. Aside from Communists and left-wing Socialists, Jews suffered in particular. Although prewar Hungary made possible and even encouraged Jewish assimilation, in the changed circumstances a new Hungarian middle class resented Jewish domination in the nation’s intellectual and economic life. Before the war, Jews were recognized as Hungarians and the nationalists were glad to count them as such, for they improved the demographic balance. After the Trianon treaty, there was no need for them. The fact that Jews had played a disproportionately large role in the Soviet Republic gave justification for a new wave of anti-Semitism. Hungary was the first country in postwar Europe to introduce anti-Semitic legislation in the form of limits on the percentage of Jews admitted to the universities.
During the interwar period, the left wing played only a small role in the political life of the nation. The SDP was allowed to organize workers but not landless peasants. The Communist Party was outlawed, but in any case it had been compromised by the unhappy memory of the 1919 Soviet Republic and by association with the profoundly unpopular Soviet Union. Whatever opposition there was to the outdated social structure came from the ever-stronger, radical right wing. The realistic choice for a politically minded Hungarian was between a government in the hands of conservatives, serving the interests of a landed aristocracy while retaining some of the restraints imposed by a certain type of liberalism, and a government of the extreme right, socially radical but very much attracted first to the example of Italian fascism and later to German National Socialism.
That Hungary would end up on the German side in the developing international conflict was overdetermined. Nazi war plans promised to overthrow the Versailles settlement, something that Hungarians deeply desired. In addition, Hungary, like other countries in the region, was deeply hurt by the economic crisis and could be helped only by ties to the rapidly reviving German economy. Hungary needed the German market. Allied policies, as represented by the Munich agreement, made it clear to the people of Eastern Europe that they had no choice but to come to terms with a resurgent Germany. The Germans rewarded the Hungarians for their friendship, first by returning a part of Slovakia and in 1940 by giving back to Hungary the northern part of Transylvania.
Prime Minister László Bárdossy declared war on the Soviet Union immediately after German troops crossed the Soviet border. This war also turned out to be a disaster for the country. The 200,000-strong Second Hungarian Army was destroyed on the Don in 1943. After it became clear that the Germans were unlikely to win, ruling circles under a new premier, Miklós Kállay, attempted by various means to contact the Allies in the hope that the country would be liberated by Anglo-American forces rather than by the Soviet army. Given strategic and geographic realities, such plans were utterly unrealistic. On March 19, 1944, the German army occupied Hungary, in spite of the fact that Hungary was an ally. The German High Command feared that Hungary might follow the Italian example and seek a separate peace, and such a development, if successful, would have had disastrous consequences for the German lines of communication. The occupiers forced Horthy to dismiss Kállay and replace him with the pro-Nazi Döme Sztojay. At this point, the Hungarian Jewry, up to this time the largest still intact in the German sphere of interest, became subject to deportations to Auschwitz.
The war, which up to that point had been fought in distant lands, was now brought home with all its horrors.