Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Berlin Wall Series: Hungary

Of the countries in the former Eastern bloc, Hungary was the first which unshackled itself progressively from Stalinist dictatorship, but was also one of the first to rise up against it in the 1950s. Hungarians didn’t want the imperialist dictatorship foisted upon them by Moscow, so it took little sign from Moscow that it would not intervene for Hungarians to organise, to challenge the Party, and for the Party to know that, in the hearts and minds of so many, it had already lost.

Stalin punished Hungary for being on the side of the Axis in World War 2. Hungary had been granted territory under the Munich Agreement and supported Nazi Germany, until serious setbacks in 1943 caused the Hungarian government to seek peace with the Allies. As a result, Germany staged a coup planting the particularly nasty fascist nationalist Ferenc Szalasi in power, who with great aplomb shipped hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to extermination camps, whilst ruthlessly persecuting opposition. However, the Red Army swept into the east of Hungary in the following year, equally ruthlessly taking land, murdering and raping civilians in their way. By this time Hungary was effectively a satellite of Berlin, so surrender by Germany was surrender by Hungary. Hungary lost all territory acquired under the Munich agreement, and some more to the USSR (now Ukraine), and half of the German minority living in Hungary were deported to Germany.

Initially Hungary was left to hold free elections, as Stalin believed Hungarian peasants would embrace communism. However, with only 17% of the vote, it became clear that “people power” would need to be imposed, so by 1948 the Red Army had coerced the government to accept more communist influence, set up the ruthless AVH (secret police) to occupy the former headquarters of Szalasi’s fascist Arrow Cross Party, with no hint of irony.

Stalin’s strongman was Matyas Rakosi, who terrorised the Social Democratic Party into merging with the Communist Party, to create a fa├žade of “national unity” government with the so called Hungarian Workers’ Party. However, Rakosi was a loyal follower of Stalin, equally as ruthless and lives on as the man who invented the term “salami tactics” to describe how to deal with the opposition.

Rakosi executed 2000 and imprisoned over 100,000 over his time of rule, establishing primitive concentration camps and a cult of personality. The economy was bankrupted in part due to Soviet enforced reparation payments and also the forced collectivisation of the economy, with reports that by 1952 the average disposable income had dropped by one-third in three years.


However, the death of Stalin saw a power struggle between Rakosi and the reformist Prime Minister Imre Nagy, who sought more openness and less state control of the media and the economy. He advocated freedom of speech, more private sector involvement in the economy, and after the Treaty of Austria advocated a similar position for Hungary. Austria had been granted neutrality, and he sought the same for Hungary, meaning withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. Moscow promptly arranged for his comrades to put him out of his job.

Yet sparks had lit flames in the minds of some Hungarians, prompting the 1956 Revolution. For a brief period, Nagy led a reformist government, introducing a multi-party system, with freedom of speech, assembly and association, and declared withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. That was, until the USSR crushed it with tanks and guns. Thousands were killed and afterwards tens of thousands imprisoned for “crimes” of counter revolutionary behaviour. Imre Nagy was secretly tried and executed.

However, Hungarians would not forget. For over many years they could tune secretly to Radio Free Europe, BBC World Service and Voice of America. The new leader, Janos Kadar would reimpose authoritarian order, but not on the scale of Rakosi. Indeed, Hungarian communism would long be seen as more moderate than that of others with the view of Kadar that “those who are not against us are for us”, so the assumption was being that citizens were supportive of the government, unless the demonstrated otherwise. There was no longer Stalinist control of the arts and culture, and no personality cult surrounded Kadar. Collective economic units had more freedom to operate in different fields, and collective farms were permitted to have substantial privately owned plots. As a result, Hungary was better off economically than most other eastern bloc states. There is little doubt that this (relative) moderation, helped stem tension, but similarly when Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the USSR went further, moderates in the Hungarian Workers’ Party saw their chance at reform.

By 1988, Kadar had aged, and was succeeded by Karoly Grosz who sought to undertake moderate reforms, but he himself was overshadowed as protests emerged, foreign travel restrictions lifted and the iron curtain was first removed, as barbed wire was taken down between Austria and Hungary. There were open calls for multi party elections, withdrawal of Soviet troops and in October 1989 the Hungarian Workers’ Party finally agreed to abolish its monopoly on political power. Most notably in June 1989, Imre Nagy was reburied and the 1956 Revolution was finally seen for what it was – Hungarians standing up against tyranny, and then murdered by the USSR with the complicity of their own.

Since then, Hungary has joined NATO and the European Union, and has not looked back. Today in Budapest you can visit the former headquarters of the AVH and Arrow Cross Party. It is the House of Terror, where the story of Hungary under both fascist and communist tyranny is told. At the outskirts in the hills, is Memento Park, where you can see the grotesque statues that used to populate parks and corners in Budapest, extolling communism.

Hungary has clearly not looked back from being one of the laboratories of socialism.

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