Hungary, one of the oldest states in Central and Eastern Europe, had its first communist experience in 1919 when attempts to impose a communist regime spread chaos and brought the country to the verge of disaster.
The following two decades of peaceful development ended when the Soviet Union occupied Hungary in World War II and used military threats to set up a communist government. Any resistance to communist authorities was met with violence. In 1945–46, some 35,000 people were arrested on political grounds and 1,000 of them executed or tortured to death. Another 55,000 were detained in concentration camps.
Communist command economy was established, hindering the country’s development. The Church suffered heavily. During the 1956 revolution, Hungary tried to break from the Soviet sphere of influence and restore democracy, but the uprising was crushed by Soviet tanks. At least 2,500 Hungarians died in clashes and 200,000 fled the country. Communist authorities arrested some 26,000 people and 350 were executed. Hungary’s communist regime fell simultaneously with the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, setting the country on a path of recovery.
The loss of the Central Powers in World War I meant the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In November 1918 Béla Kun, who a few months earlier created the Hungarian section of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks), returned to Hungary with a group of comrades, financially supported by the Bolsheviks. They established the Party of Communists in Hungary (Kommunisták Magyarországi Pártja, KMP). On 21 March 1919 it merged with the radical social democracy movement, on the same day the Hungarian Soviet Republic was proclaimed.
The new government promised to keep the Hungarian borders with Russian support, but that support never came. A land reform and nationalization of main branches of industry was effected. The newly created Red Army took over a part of Slovakia, where the Slovak Soviet Republic was proclaimed. Discontent was gradually growing, the special unit known as Lenin Boys (Lenin-fiúk) made efforts to suppress it. About 600 people fell victim to them. Red terror increased after the attempted coup of June 1919. The Hungarian Soviet Republic fell in August 1919, when Budapest was taken by Romanian army. During the “white terror” period, as much as a thousand communists and their supporters were killed.
In February 1920 Hungary was again proclaimed a kingdom, ruled by the regent admiral Miklós Horthy. In June 1920 he was forced to sign the Trianon peace treaty in Versailles. As a result, Hungary lost 72% of territory and 64% of the population (including 1/3 of ethnic Hungarians).
Horthy’s rule was a dictatorial one. The KMP couldn’t operate legally, until the middle of the 30s its headquarters was in Vienna. In the years 1924-1928 it operated in the country under the guise of a socialist party, later its base were trade unions. It was led by Comintern agents, Mátyás Rákosi for the longest time. Communists’ influence was limited, and their number negligible. In the beginning of the 30s a wave of repressions resulted in two leadership members being executed. In 1936 the party was dissolved by the Comintern, and many of its members, including Kun, were killed during the Great Purge. Communist activities in Hungary were continued and led directly from Moscow. The united front tactic was implemented with limited success, obtaining the Smallholders Party’s cooperation. Some influence was gained among the youth and intelligentsia.
The desire to rewrite the Trianon treaty led to an alliance with Germany. With their support, Hungary gained a part of Slovakia and Romania. In return the Hungarian military fought against the USRR. In autumn 1940 Comintern ordered the KMP to resume activity, in the beginning of 1941 a new leadership was appointed. The communists tried to build an alliance with the anti-German forces. Mass arrests of 1942 paralyzed the party. The new leader János Kádár dissolved the party and established the Peace Party, which was supposed to limit the repressions.
Hungary looked for a way to withdraw from the war. It led to the country being taken over by German military in March 1944, and to Horthy’s removal and establishment of the fascist Arrow Cross Party regime in October. At the same time the communists dropped their „disguise” and changed their name to the Hungarian Communist Party (Magyar Kommunista Párt, MKP). It’s first leader was Mátyás Rákosi, remaining in the Soviet Union since 1940.
In December 1944 the Provisional National Assembly and a government were established, with significant communist participation, on the territories gained by the Red Army, specifically in Debrecen. After the Germans were pushed out and the Arrow Cross forces destroyed in March 1945, all of Hungary fell under Soviet occupation, the pre-1938 borders were reinstated. Human losses during the war totalled over 400 thous., material ones were severe as well. Under the 1947 peace treaty Hungary relinquished 40 km2 of land to Czechoslovakia, a partial population exchange was also made. After displacing Germans, the population was 9 million, the area of the country was 90 030 km2.
The communist party, counting a few thousand members, quickly became a mass party – in January 1946 it passed 600 thous. members. However, it did not mean it had wider social support – in the election of November 1945 the MKP got 16,9% votes, less than the social democrats (17,4%). It was won by the peasant Independent Smallholders’ Party (Független Kisgazdapárt, FKgP) with 57% of votes. Due to pressure from the Soviet occupation administration a coalition government was maintained, with the communists staffing, among others, the internal affairs ministry.
In the following years, the MKP used the “salami tactic” (term forged by László Rajk) – gradual weakening, splitting and eliminating of independent forces, most importantly the FKgP. This process culminated in 1947, when the prime minister threatened with arrest, Ferenc Nagy, remained abroad, and the new election improved the MKP’s position in the government. In June 1948 the MKP absorbed the social democratic party, the Hungarian Working People's Party (Magyar Dolgozók Pártja, MDP), led by Rákosi, was established. In 1949, after the new Stalinistic constitution was adopted, the Hungarian People's Republic (Magyar Népköztársaság) was established.
The toughest period of communism lasted until the middle of 1953, when pressure from Moscow caused a looser economic policy and repression, Imre Nagy became the new prime minister. However, he lost the position in April 1955. A return to the hard course wasn’t possible. The society livened, a huge impression was made by the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Rákosi tried to stop the forming opposition, by, among others, liquidating the Petöfi Club established by intellectuals. Fearing an upheaval, Moscow removed the dictator.
However, the explosion of discontent couldn’t be avoided. On 6 October 1956 Rajk and other party activists executed with him in 1949 were buried ceremonially. On 23 October a manifestation of solidarity with Poland turned into an anti-communist uprising. Soviet units called for help didn’t manage to put down the riot. Nagy returned to power, reinstated the multiparty system, declared neutrality and leaving the Warsaw Pact. The MDP was transformed into the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party (Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt, MSzMP), led by Kádár, who was imprisoned a short time before.
The revolution was ended by a second Soviet intervention, which started on 4 November. Altogether 2700 Hungarians were killed, over a dozen thousand were wounded, 200 thousand escaped abroad. The new government was led by Kádár. Signs of resistance, strikes and manifestations were suppressed for many months. Mass repressions lasted until 1961.
In the 60s Kádár loosened the cultural policies, and then the economic ones. Despite the partial withdrawal from reforms in the following decade, “Goulash Communism” persisted in Hungary. Relatively high living standards and the memories of the bloody suppression of the revolution weakened the resistance against the system. Sporadic demonstrations appeared (e.g. 1973). In the late 70s and early 80s organized opposition began forming, underground publishing appeared.
The opposition grew in the middle 80s. In 1987 the Hungarian Democratic Forum (Magyar Demokrata Fórum, MDF) was established, in 1988 the Alliance of Young Democrats (Fiatal Demokraták Szövetségei, Fidesz) and Alliance of Free Democrats (Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége, SzDSz) followed. At the same time changes inside the MSzMP were made, in May 1988 Kádár abdicated. The majority in the leadership was gained by reformers, interpretation of the events of 1956 was changed.
In June 1989 the ceremonial funeral of Imre Nagy took place, the triangle table talks, including representatives of the opposition, government and social organizations, started. They ended in September. The multiparty system and the country name from 1946 (Hungarian Republic, Magyar Köztársaság) were reinstated. The free election of 1990 was won by MDF and SzDSz. József Antall became prime minister, Árpád Göncz became president.
The first wave of repressions, at the turn of 1944/1945, was organized by the Soviet NKVD and Smiersz. The most famous victim is Raul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews during the war, he disappeared in Lubyanka. At the same time, tens of thousands of civilians were deported into the Soviet Union, along with prisoners of war. Many people were imprisoned in internment camps in Hungary (40 thousand in 1948). Moreover, forced labour camps were operational in 1059-1953.
In 1945-1949 59 thousand people were put on trial before people’s courts that judged war criminals, collaborators with Germany etc., 27 thousand were sentenced. There were victims of political repressions among them, but the scale of fake accusations is impossible to assess. In 1946 a decree on protection of the democratic system in the state was adopted, until 1956 it provided the base to start legal proceedings against 42 thousand people.
Political opponents of communists, especially FKgP activists, were the first to fall victim to repressions. The discovery of the secret organization “Hungarian Commonwealth” in 1946 was a pretext for broad persecutions. Soon Churches were targeted, especially the Catholic Church – in 1949 the primate József Mindszenty was sentenced to life in prison. As part of intra-party manoeuvring, Rajk was tried and executed. Preparations for a façade trial of the “Zionists” were interrupted by Stalin’s death. Peasants, resisting collectivization, were the most persecuted group. Altogether, 400 thousand people were punished in various ways. In 1951 members of the “former owning classes” were deported from cities (15 thousand from Budapest alone). The total number of repression victims is estimated at 600 thousand. 485 executions were performed after political trials.
An amnesty was proclaimed in spring 1956, over 11 000 political prisoners were released.
The State Protection Authority (Államvédelmi Hatóság, ÁVH), existing in 1948-1953, became a symbol of the repressions. Over a million people were subjected to various forms of control. Despite its later incorporation into the internal affairs ministry, the ÁVH became a symbol, and the functionaries were lynched during the revolution.
After the revolution was suppressed, the repressions lasting until 1961 included 228 death sentences (including Imre Nagy), 26 thousand imprisonments, 13 thousand internments. In 1959 and 1960 partial amnesty was proclaimed, a full one in 1963, but the last prisoners weren’t released until the 1970s.
As the situation calmed, the security apparatus reduced the number of people deemed “hostile”. In 1960 it fell from 600 thousand to 160 thousand, including 6 thousand permanently invigilated. At the end of the decade there were less than a thousand political investigations started yearly, ten years later 200-300 people were tried yearly. In the beginning of the 80s 185 thousand people were in the hostiles list, in 1989 - 164 thousand. The number of actively invigilated dropped from over 6 thousand in 1968 to 2200 in 1985.
The number of victims of subsequent political purges is unknown. Until 1950 about 120 thousand people, mostly FKgP supporters, were removed from the state apparatus.
The Hungarian economy was damaged in the final stage of the war, farming, industry, and transportation took considerable losses. The significant (300 million USD) reparations to the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were an additional burden. Soviets exploited some goods (e.g. uranium ore) using joint venture. A huge inflation ravaged the country, it was stopped by the monetary reform of August 1946 (the pengö was replaced by the forint).
In 1945 a land reform, which was a matter of dispute between the MKP and the FKgP was introduced. The communist model was chosen – main beneficiaries were the 400 thousand landless peasants, and not the farmers owning (often small) farms. In 1946 mines were nationalized, in 1948 all enterprises employing over 100 people followed, and a year later the limit was lowered to 10 people. From 1950 private craftsmen could employ up to 3 people in their workshops.
In 1947 the three years plan was initiated, soviet-style planning was fully introduced in 1949. Workers were motivated using propaganda (including a Stakhanovite movement) and terror (penalties for introduced for, among others, leaving work, underperformance and production sabotage). Heavy industry (including arms industry) was developed at the cost of light industry and consumption. The markers of production growth were significantly raised already in 1951, a year after the five-years introducing them was started.
In 1948 farming collectivization was proclaimed. Joining the kolkhozes was “encouraged” by growing taxes and compulsory deliveries, direct coercion and repressions were used as well. By the half of 1953 26% of arable land was collectivized, over 5 thousand kolkhozes were created. As a result of the liberalization started by Nagy’s government over 2 thousand of them were dissolved. After the revolution of 1956 1600 collective farms remained (holding 7,2% of land), some of the liquidated ones were soon reestablished. The final wave of collectivization came in 1958-1961. Overall, 85% of arable land was held by collectives, altogether the government controlled 95%. The number of individual farmers fell from 1 600 000 in 1949 to 145 000 in 1962.
The industrialization and collectivization caused a quick flow of people from villages to cities. In 1949 52% of the population worked in farming, in 1960 38%, in 1970 27%, in 1980 20%. At the same time the mean age of village populace grew rapidly.
Few shops and restaurants were owned by private entrepreneurs (in 1970 respectively 9043 and 682, in 1980 – 9946 and 1457).
In the mid-60s an economic crisis accreted, dependence on import grew, among others in the food sector. In response, the New Economic Mechanism was introduced in 1968. Management was decentralized, larger combines were divided, elements of free market were introduced, especially in inter-enterprise relations. Prices of selected goods were partially freed.
Despite the effects of the programme, it was slowly retracted starting from 1974. Central planning was reinstated in industry. Production collectives and state farms were merge into big (and mostly inefficient) units.
New reforms were attempted in 1978, e.g. foreign investments were supported. However, they didn’t bring significant results, in 1982 foreign debt reached 9 billion USD. In the same year Hungary joined the International Monetary Fund. In 1984 facilitations for small private enterprises (about 16 thousand existed at this point) were introduced. In 1985 almost 20 thousand shops and over 5 thousand restaurants operated. In 1988 the rights of all economic sectors were made equal and a VAT was introduced. The share of the private sector in the GDP increased from 3% (1970) to about 25% in 1989. In 1989 63% of all prices were regulated.
Society and culture
Communism brought a deep change to the social structure of Hungary. In 1949 almost a half of the society consisted of individual farmers (46,7%), in 1980 they were only 0,6%. The number of farmworkers also decreased (after an initial increase from 6,9% in 1949 to 21,9% in 1970) to 15,8% in 1980 and 11,6% in 1990. The number of workers grew significantly – from 28,5% in 1949 to 51,7% in 1980, the percentage of qualified workers grew faster. The percentage of officials among all employees had by far the fastest increase rate – from 8% in 1949 to 22,5% in 1980. The percentage of managers grew in a similar fashion – from 1,8% to 7,8% (to 11% in 1990). The share of craftsmen and merchants decreased – from 8,1% in 1949 to 1,5% in 1980.
Hungary was one of the first countries in Europe to experience the birth rate breakdown. Already in 1958 the net cohort reproduction rate fell below 1,0 (to 0,852 in 1988), and the mean family size fell from 3,29 people in 1949 to 2,92 in 1984. From the mid-80s, the population of Hungary began to decrease. Life expectancy of men grew until 1966, reaching 67,5 years (59,3 in 1949), by 1989 it fell to 65,4. For women, it systematically grew from 63,4 in 1949 to 74 in 1988.
The 80s brought a culmination of negative social phenomena that had been accruing for years. The most serious were alcoholism, high suicide rate (in 1980 it was 44,9 per 100 thous., one of the highest in Europe) and low birth rate.
The changes in religious structure were relatively low. In 1949 there were 70,5% Catholics, 21,9% Calvinists and 5,2% Lutherans among the Hungarians. The percentage of the former was rapidly falling until 1980 (53,9%), only to rise to 70,6% again in 1988. The highest percentage of atheists was recorded in 1980 (23,2%), only 3,7% in 1988. This data suggests that as the atheization pressure from the state decreased, the amount of people identifying with a religion grew.
In the first years after the war Hungarian culture could develop relatively freely. During the Stalinism period it was subjected to total control, the only doctrine was socialist realism. Similarly Marxism-Leninism ruled in science. Repressions following the suppression of the 1956 revolution severely affected artistic circles. Many artists were sentenced, the Hungarian Writers' Union was dissolved. A livening of culture didn’t come before the break of the 60s and the 70s, however independent artists were repressed for their activities – e.g. Miklós Haraszti (1973) or György Konrád (1974). Creators of culture were active members of the relatively not numerous opposition of the late 70s and the early 80s.
After the Arrow Cross Party’s coup, a part of the Hungarian army joined the Soviets. The remaining units fought until breakdown or capitulation. The armed forces were recreated in 1946, in the beginning their numbers were kept low, around 20 thousand soldiers.
The peace treaty limited the numbers of Hungarian army to 70 thousand soldiers (land and air forces). Along with the gradual development of the military, political control grew, purges and repressions becoming more often (they were particularly focused on officers serving before 1945 – only in 1949-1950 over 1100 officers were removed). From 1948 Soviet advisors started appearing, and Hungarian officers began studying in the USRR. In 1951 a new name was introduced - Hungarian People’s Army (Magyar Néphadsereg, MN). The quick expansion of the army caused the military expenses to reach 13,9% of the gross national income in 1950 and as much as 24,3% in 1953 (it decreased in the following years). At its maximum size, the army consisted of 250 thousand soldiers and officers. In 1955 Hungary joined the Warsaw Pact.
During the revolution of 1956 the MN didn’t play a significant role, a few units assisted the insurgents fighting the Soviets. The minister of defence from Nagy’s government was arrested, sentenced, and executed. After the insurrection was suppressed, a purge was carried out to remove many officers, the number of soldiers was temporarily reduced as well – in 1959 there were 84 thousand.
After the revolution was pacified the MSzMP set up paramilitary units under its command armed with light weapons – the Workers’ Militia (Munkásőrség). In the beginning it counted about 20 thousand members, in the end of the 80s it was 60 thousand. It was dissolved in October 1989.
Despite Kádár distancing himself from the plans of solving the crisis in Czechoslovakia by force, the MN took part in the Warsaw Pact military intervention with about 20 thousand soldiers. The Hungarian units were withdrawn by the end of October 1968.
In the mid-80s the MN counted around 105 thousand soldiers and officers. The armaments were outdated, e.g. next to 1200 T54/55 tanks it had only 60 modern T-22.
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