• The Hungarian Soviet Republic – Revolutionary Movements in Hungary in 1918-1919

  • By Lajos Csoma | 19 Apr 18
  • I

    The wave of world revolution between 1917 and 1923 that swept through the entire globe was a fundamental event of the twentieth century. The Russian Revolution in February 1917 proved to be the spark that initiated a series of revolutionary movements all over the world in the years to follow. Revolts, uprisings, and land and factory occupations took place from Canada to Argentina, from Siberia to Italy, and from Egypt to China, and various revolutionary governments emerged. All these developments mutually reinforced each other and formed a coherent tendency. The establishment of a new society appeared to be a realistic alternative for wide segments of society. As Thomas Mann put it in one of his letters at the time, ‘“Communism” as I understand it, contains much that is good and human. Its goal is ultimately the total dissolution of the state (which will always be dedicated to power), the humanization and purification of the world by de- politicalizing it. At bottom, who would be against that?’1

    The revolts in Bulgaria and in Hamburg, Germany of 1923 can be regarded as the closing of the revolutionary wave, though significant events also occurred in the years to follow. If World War I is often taken as the closing of the nineteenth century, then the wave of world revolution can be considered as the beginning of the twentieth century. The first half of the twentieth century was dominated by fascism, which evolved from the counter-revolutionary terror, while the second half was characterised by the Cold War, the bipolar world, where the Soviet Union – which emerged from the revolutionary movements – stood for one of the poles.

    The ending of the world war was the most visible achievement of the world revolution. The military defeat of the Central Powers was hardly debatable by autumn of 1918, yet it was the uprisings within the armed forces of Germany and Austria-Hungary that ended the military operations. After the world war, for several years fierce clashes took place between the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces; moreover, great empires disappeared from the map of Europe, new states were established, and various revolutionary governments emerged. The focus of the conflict was in Central and Eastern Europe.2

    Then, after years of serious struggle, the wave of revolutions subsided. The Hungarian Council Republic of 1919 was an integral part of the international revolutionary movement; it was a significant but not unique episode of the 1917-1923 period.

    II

    The Kingdom of Hungary had been fully incorporated into the Habsburg Empire by the eighteenth century, and in 1867 it became a ‘member state’ of the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy. Hungary was integrated into the larger economic framework of the Monarchy after 1867, which brought about rapid industrialisation and the emergence of modern big cities and industrial centres. Although the proportion of those employed in agriculture remained high (more than 60 percent), the proportion of those employed in industry and commerce exceeded 20 per cent, and the proportion of industrial workers made up 15 per cent. Hungary was a multi-ethnic country, with more than 50 per cent of its 20 million-strong population belonging to an ethnic group other than Hungarian in 1914. The emergence of nation-states took place only after World War I in East Central Europe, and after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy a considerable part of the population of Hungary sympathised with the idea of becoming citizens of a nation-state because the Hungarian ruling class had earlier strictly opposed the rights of ethnic minorities. The nationalist sentiment turned out to be an important factor in repressing the revolutionary movement, and, eventually, nationalism gained the upper hand over internationalism.

    The imperialist interests of the Hungarian ruling class also played a role in the outbreak of World War I since Serbia blocked all further expansion in the Balkans and supported those southern Slavic ethnic groups which wanted to secede from the Monarchy. However, the world war had unexpected consequences: the Habsburg Empire not only ended on the losing side but its economy went bankrupt.

    The revolt of the military preceded the complete debacle. By that time the anti-war movement had grown stronger due to the Russian Revolution. General strikes were organised with more than half a million participants in Hungary in January 1918, and then in June. Illegal workers’ councils were set up in many factories as well as soldiers’ councils within the military units. Desertion and non-compliance with military orders became prevalent. By the autumn of 1918 discipline could no longer be maintained on the fronts, nor could the government control the hinterland.

    III

    In October 1918 a new government, the so-called National Council, was established in Budapest, headed by Mihály Károlyi, a popular anti-war liberal politician. Massive demonstrations filled the streets of Budapest on 31 October, while the soldiers’ council disarmed the military units, and the King appointed Károlyi as Prime Minister of Hungary. Two weeks later the republic was proclaimed. The Social Democratic Party, which had a considerable influence on industrial workers at the time, also joined the new government. In the countryside, soldiers returning from the war became leaders of the revolutionary movement; stores and aristocrats’ palaces were looted, and the lives of the representatives of the previous regime endangered. It took several weeks and some heavy fighting for the National Guard – which was hastily established – to restore order.

    Though the new administration introduced several social measures, the dynamics of the revolutionary movement made the workers increasingly radical. The workers occupied many factories, discharged the general directors, and the workers’ councils took over. In the countryside the local workers’ councils often took charge of the local administration, ensuring provision and supplies for the public. The government issued a decree on partial land reform, but it benefited only a few. At the same time land was occupied by force in many places, and agricultural cooperatives were even organised in some counties with the support of the Budapest Workers’ Council.

    The Communist Party of Hungary (CPH) was established in November 1918, merging left-wing Social Democrats and other left-wing groups. The bourgeois-democratic government tried to restrain the revolutionary movement, arresting the leaders of the CPH on 20 February 1919, but this only made the Communists more popular. The government did not dare consign the leaders to strict confinement, so their prisons cells soon began to operate like party offices. The masses were not satisfied with the implemented reforms and demanded more. One of the cabinet ministers described the situation as follows: ‘By March the Socialist and Bolshevik masses demonstrated together on the streets of Budapest, and all differences between them have disappeared. This could readily be seen in their demands concerning material benefits, which were first raised by the Communists, but by then the entire proletariat was backing these demands.’3 The same process was highlighted by President Károlyi who later wrote that ‘the actual power had already been exclusively in the hands of organised labour for months by that time’.4 In that situation the two parties, the Social Democrats and the Communists, merged, and took over the government. This is how the 133-day story of the Hungarian Council Republic began on 21 March 1919.

    At that time the Central European entente allies, mainly Romania and the emerging Czechoslovakia, whose armies were stronger than that of Hungary, were interested in the greatest feasible expansion of their territories. Defence from foreign intervention was a major challenge for the Hungarian Council Republic all through its existence, and the intervention was a principal cause of its collapse.

    The major question for the Hungarian Social Democratic Party in the spring of 1919 was whether to follow the example of Lenin or Noske.5 The Social Democrats were a mass party not just in Germany but also in the Habsburg Empire already before the world war. The revolutionary moment in 1918 opened a great window of opportunity for the Social Democrats whose response differed from country to country. Social Democracy grew increasingly revolutionary the further East one looked. The German Social Democratic Party joined forces with the counter-revolutionary military and participated in repressing the revolution.6 In Austria, the Social Democrats successfully stabilised parliamentary democracy, while in Hungary they supported the proletarian revolution. In Russia, they took the lead in advancing the revolution.

    The left wing of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party was ready to embrace socialism. The party’s centrists were realistic enough to see that with the downfall of the bourgeois-democratic government only the proletarian parties had an adequate social base for assuming the responsibilities of government. Though the centrist politicians participated in establishing the Revolutionary Council of Government, by summer they began to entertain the idea that they could govern without the Communists. The right wing of the party stepped back from this, but they started to develop plans for the future, for the period after the Council Republic.

    IV

    The Hungarian Council Republic was established by a coalition of Communists and Social Democrats, and this meant that its government programme was complex and sometimes contradictory.

    Local left groups together with former Hungarian prisoners of war returning from Russia established the Communist Party of Hungary (CPH) in Budapest on 24 November 1918. Its basic strategy was to radicalise the revolutionary movement, and its main objective was to accomplish the dictatorship of the proletariat, but it lacked a clear idea of exactly what the dictatorship of the proletariat should look like. The Red Journal, the daily paper of the CPH, advocated the self-administration of workers and called on industrial workers to occupy the factories; however, when in government, the Communists approached the autonomy of the workers in a different way.

    During the months following the Revolution in October 1918 the workers’ councils became increasingly powerful; in many factories they discharged the managing directors or even assumed ownership of the factory. In smaller settlements, the workers’ councils took over the tasks of public administration. The composition of these local workers’ councils varied from region to region. For instance, in western Hungary the better- off farmers and middle landowners were in charge in many places, while the more radical landless peasants took the lead in poorer regions. In the industrial regions, the radical left-wing workers became the leaders of the workers’ councils. The bourgeois-democratic government did not succeed in reducing the influence of the workers’ councils, even though in January 1919 they issued a decree excluding Communist members from the workers’ councils, which in most places, however, was not implemented.

    The Communists were gaining ever more control over the Soldiers’ Council, which was the most important leading body of the military. It became the executive centre of the entire defence force as the wartime military leadership dissolved in autumn of 1918, and it remained the top military body until the creation of the Council Republic government.

    Parliamentary elections had been announced for April 1919, but the Revolutionary Council of Government cancelled them and decided to hold council elections instead. Following these, the local councils sent delegates to the National Council. In each settlement the executive power was in the hands of the so-called Direktorium whose operation was supported by the local workers’ council. Direktoriums had already been formed before 21 March in many places, and they took over the administration. The franchise was further enlarged – it had been extended by the previous government after October 1918 – giving all adults over 18 the right to vote but excluding factory owners, large shareholders, and priests. In fact, the 500 members of the Central Workers’ Council in Budapest possessed the real power because the National Assembly of Councils held sessions only for a short period. The Central Workers’ Council, just like the Revolutionary Council of Government, was a locus of party rivalry. The centrist Social Democrats tried to slacken the pace of events, while the radical Communists tried to accelerate social changes. At the centre stood Béla Kun, leader of the Communist party, who was much more of an authoritarian politician and intriguer than a revolutionary. He succeeded in preventing the radical elements within the Communist party from launching an organisation on their own.

    The Revolutionary Council of Government sought to gain control over the workers’ councils and therefore appointed production commissioners to the larger factories. One of the first decrees of the council government nationalised factories employing more than 20 workers.7 After this the workers in smaller factories began to demand nationalisation of their plants; in some cases, the workers simply took over control of the factory. All stores – except for food stores and pharmacies – were closed down, and their stocks were nationalised and then centrally distributed. This led to serious shortages; at the same time furniture was distributed to those in need as part of the government’s social policy. The government tried to improve the food supply among other ways by selling hens and geese directly to industrial workers. The landed peasantry was unwilling to accept the official banknotes issued by the Council Republic,8 which made the food shortage even worse. Apartment buildings were also nationalised, and rents were decreased by 20 percent. Large apartments were broken up into smaller ones, so that workers’ families could move into middle-class homes and fancy villas. A decree was issued ordering those who had a bathroom in their apartments to share it with others; they were also instructed to provide soap and towels if necessary. A complete ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages was introduced, which was relaxed only during the summer. Important measures were also introduced in the fields of culture and education. Museums, theatres, and private collections were made accessible to all, and private parks were opened to the public. Compulsory school attendance age was raised to 14, then to 18 years. Centrally organised summer holiday tours were offered to workers’ children.

    The agricultural policy of the Council Republic was contradictory. Although the new government after the world war proclaimed that the latifundia were to be divided up, the Revolutionary Council of Government did not understand that for the peasants, land reform was a fundamental goal. In line with the prevailing Social Democratic conception, the revolutionary government nationalised all landed property larger than 100 acres, aiming at establishing agricultural cooperatives in the belief that collective property was superior to private property. The newly established agricultural cooperatives were centrally directed so that they actually operated like state farms. Despite this central initiative to set up cooperatives, the latifundia were parcelled out to peasants in places where the locals strongly asked for this and were backed up by the local council. The revolutionary government issued a confidential decree to the effect that the landed property of large landowners could be parcelled out if local peasants very strongly demanded it but that each family could obtain five acres at most. Altogether around 10 or 20 thousand peasants received agricultural land in this way. The government’s central control of agricultural production actually resulted in the former landowner becoming in effect the production commissioner, and so the landowners’ former managers remained in place.

    The peasants with medium-sized landed property – who hoped to possess even more land – were mostly hostile to the revolutionary government, and they were among the major supporters of counter-revolutionary armed action. The smallholders wavered but tended to accept the political leadership of the wealthy peasants because they regarded private property as a cornerstone of society. However, many among the landless peasants joined the agricultural cooperatives.

    In 1918, following the world war, the new government repressed the peasants’ revolution with firing squads. In 1919, the Council Republic used centralisation as a tool for blocking the peasant’s movement for self- determination. The spontaneous anarchism of the poverty-stricken peasants could only partially join forces with the Communist labour movement.

    A significant part of the intelligentsia was in favour of the Council Republic in the beginning. It was obvious for politically informed public opinion that the Kingdom of Hungary was a thing of the past, and it was conceivable that a new historical period would have to emerge. Many of the lower-rank intelligentsia, such as young school teachers and engineers, supported the revolutionary government. Even more accepted was the government’s cultural policy measures, such as the extension of public education and state subsidy for culture. However, the restrictions imposed on freedom of the press – with the justification that the paper shortage did not permit the publication of bourgeois newspapers – and the policy of religious intolerance alienated many intellectuals. The petty bourgeoisie was also distrustful of the new regime because nationalisation was also extended to their small shops and workshops.

    When the Hungarian Council Republic was proclaimed on 21 March, the foreign policy situation was hopeless for Hungary because the Central European allies of the entente demanded ever more territory. The council government proclaimed the project of ‘revolutionary home defence’. For the working class and the landless peasants this meant the defence of the revolution, while for the middle class and the military officers it meant national defence. The Hungarian Red Army, which was established in only a few weeks, achieved significant successes at first. It pushed back the Romanian army to the eastern side of the Tisza River in eastern Hungary, and in June drove out the Czechoslovak forces from the northern part of the former Kingdom of Hungary (which was largely inhabited by Slovaks). However, the revolutionary government was not able to convert military success into political success. The entente powers promised to withdraw from eastern Hungary in exchange for the Hungarian Red Army giving back the northern, would-be Czechoslovak territory. The Red Army withdrew from the north – and with that the short-lived Slovak Council Republic fell – but the Romanian troops did not move. Then in July, Red Army troops crossed the Tisza River to attack the Romanian forces, but by that time the morale of the revolutionary army had languished due to the fiasco in the north. It took many by surprise that, especially in the beginning, a large number of professional military officers joined the Red Army; actually, their motivation was to defend the historical boundaries of Hungary and they thought that they had no other choice but to join forces with the Council Republic. However, most of the military officers had turned away from the revolutionary government by July. Their morale was so low that secret information was leaked even from the General Staff of the Red Army to the Romanian generals. Distrust was spreading on all levels of the military, and supply for the combat troops was hindered even by some of the highest-ranking officers.

    The working class and the landless peasantry, which made up the main base of the Council Republic, were losing their faith. The four-year-long world war had already inflicted serious losses on them, and they grew tired of fighting more wars. Some of the Social Democrats openly criticised the Council Republic, claiming that if the Communists were expelled from the government the entente would recognise a full Social Democratic cabinet. They suggested that this would end the armed conflict, their government would still represent the workers, and life would improve.

    The industrial as well as the agrarian proletariat were disappointed. The peasants did not receive agricultural land, and workers’ control over the factories was not complete; production was faltering and even basic needs were not met. The leadership of the Council Republic became more and more divided in the course of the summer. Some Social Democrats initiated talks with the entente powers, while the radicals among the Communists wanted the removal of Béla Kun and the Social Democrats from government and the introduction of ‘a genuine dictatorship of the proletariat’. Favouritism was widespread, which many members of the top leadership, including Béla Kun, were inclined to practise. By and large, it can be said that quite a few leaders in the Revolutionary Council of Government acted like standard politicians. Genuine revolutionary enthusiasm was more characteristic of the lower levels of leadership and of the local Direktoriums. These activists, who used to be Social Democrats for the most part, truly believed that the time of socialism had come, and that a new age had begun in the history of humankind.9

    V

    The social base of the Council Republic was diminishing, the conflicts within the leadership became irreconcilable, and opposition to the regime grew stronger and stronger, but it was the foreign military intervention that caused the fall of the regime. The Romanian forces were able to stop the offensive of the Hungarian Red Army because the military plan for the offensive was leaked to them; then they launched a counterattack. This fiasco completely demoralised the Red Army soldiers, and consequently the Hungarian forces fell apart; the road was open to Budapest. The majority in the Revolutionary Council of Government was in favour of giving up the struggle, and so the revolutionary government resigned on 1 August. Its leading politicians, along with several thousand left-wing activists, fled to Austria. The right-wing Social Democrats formed a new cabinet, but a coup soon removed them. When the Romanian troops left Budapest in November, Admiral Miklós Horthy and his followers gained actual control over the state administration. Horthy and his military officers initiated a vengeance campaign against the activists of the Council Republic. There is no reliable data, but it is estimated that more than a thousand people were killed by the white terror in 1919. Which of the two terrors, red or white, was bloodier in Hungary is an ongoing debate, but in general historical experience the number of victims tends to be much higher in counter- revolutionary atrocities than in revolutionary ones.

    The number of Hungarian casualties in the First World War reached 600 thousand, not counting the injured. Some dozens from the elite of the Habsburg Empire were killed in October 1918, but the forces of order of the new bourgeois government murdered several hundred people, particularly in villages. The Romanian occupying forces were responsible for the death of another few hundred. The number of those killed for political reasons during the Council Republic was about 100 to 200 persons; they were the victims of red terror. The number of those executed by Miklós Horthy and his followers – who proudly labelled themselves’counter-revolutionary’ – was much higher. Thousands were imprisoned or sent to detention camps, and thousands emigrated for political reasons.10

    Miklós Horthy was elected Governor of Hungary on 1 March 1920, and the entente powers also recognised him as the legitimate head of government. It was the Horthy regime that signed the peace treaty, as a result of which several parts of Hungary with a majority Hungarian population were transferred to the neighbouring countries. The Hungarian right-wing ‘national mythology’ has always blamed the revolutionary governments of 1918-1919 for the loss of territories, ignoring that the secession of non- Hungarian ethnic groups from the Kingdom of Hungary was an inevitable process inherent in the establishment of nation-states.

    VI

    The 1918-1919 Revolution has never occupied the place it deserves in Hungarian historical memory. The anti-Communist and anti-Semitic authoritarian regime of the interwar period based its legitimacy on the repression of the 1918-1919 Revolution. When Hungary became a part of the Soviet bloc after 1945, the Council Republic was largely ignored because many of its leaders had fallen victim to the Stalinist terror in the Soviet Union. After 1956, under the government led by János Kádár, a distorted picture was projected of this historical period. Although the regime considered its predecessor to be ‘the Council Republic led by Communists’, it wanted to conceal its real revolutionary substance. Historical perception rapidly shifted to the right after 1990, and the official views soon revived the attitude of the interwar Horthy-government towards the Revolution. This attitude has remained dominant up to the present day.


    Notes

    1. Letter to Josef Ponten, Munich, March 29, 1919, The Letters of Thomas Mann: 1899-1955, selected and translated by Richard and Clara Winston, New York: Vintage Books, 1975, p. 86.
    2. A summary overview of these developments can be found in F.L. Carsten, Revolution in Central Europe 1918-1919, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972.
    3. Tibor Hajdu, A Magyarországi Tanácsköztársaság, Budapest: Kossuth Könyvkiadó, 1969, p. 21.
    4. Hajdu, p. 411.
    5. Gustav Noske, one of the leaders of the German SPD, was willing to ‘play the role of bloodhound’ in directing the repression of the Berlin revolt in January 1919, in cooperation with the Freikorps.
    6. Sebastian Haffner accurately describes the role of German Social Democracy during the revolution in his ruthless essay Die verratene Revolution Deutschland 1918/19, Munich: Scherz, 1969.
    7. The economic policy of the Hungarian Council Republic was presented by the renowned economist and former people’s commissioner, Eugen (Jenő) Varga in his Die wirtschaftspolitischen Probleme der proletarischen Diktatur, Hamburg: Verlag der Kommunistischen Internationale, Carl Hoym Nachf., 1921.
    8. These banknotes were called ‘white money’ because only one side was printed due to ink shortages.
    9. This optimism was well described by the Communist writer, Ervin Sinkó, who held various positions during the Council Republic, in his novel The Optimists, which was set in the period of the Hungarian Council Republic.
    10. Like Béla Lugosi, a leader of the actors’ trade union, who later became a Hollywood star in the role of Dracula.