A conference was held in the European Parliament on the 9 May with the title “Occupation after Liberation”. This is a somewhat expanded version of my contribution .
Hungary was a German ally in the Second World War from 1941 and took major losses – around 100,000 casualties – at Voronezh. In exchange, as it were, it received back some of the (mostly) Hungarian-inhabited territories that it had lost under the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. At the same time, Hungary was not a Nazi state. While constrained to undertake forced labour and subjected to other forms of discrimination, Jews were not threatened with extermination. More remarkably, the Social Democrats were still sitting Parliament and, given wartime conditions, the press remained relatively free. Clandestine negotiations with the Allies continued and was a source of growing irritation to the Germans. In March 1944, they occupied Hungary, launched the extermination of the Jews that claimed over half a million victims and eventually allowed a Hungarian Nazi regime (the Arrow Cross) to take power (October 1944).
The Red Army entered Hungary in the same month, began the siege of Budapest in December, and ended hostilities on Hungarian soil in April 1945. There were enormous losses and terrible devastation.
The Hungarian communists were weak with perhaps 800 members at the end of the war. They had the unique distinction of having run the only failed communist regime, the 133 days of the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, to look back on, hence it had to rely very extensively on Soviet backing to achieve its aims. The Allied Control Commission was largely run by the Kremlin and was a primary actor in this process. The communists’ appetite grew with the eating. They began expecting a major success in the November 1945 elections, but gained only 17 percent.
A kind of partial democracy existed until 1947, though it was constantly attacked by the communists with the active support of the Soviets. The 1945 coalition government was a decidedly strange institution in that it included its own opposition, the left. The communists did what they could to destabilise the government from within, above all to destroy the unity of the majority Smallholders – this was the so-called “salami tactics”, destroying the Smallholders slice by slice. The communists simultaneously took control of the machinery of state when and where they could and repeatedly sabotaged the policies of the democratic forces. The communists had two further advantages – they were untainted by the failures of the interwar years and, equally, given their association with the Soviet Union, they basked in the reflected glory of being on the winning side in the Second World War, something which could not be said of the right. Their actions were marked by great dynamism, unscrupulousness and a readiness to employ terror against their opponents.
As against this, strategically, Hungary was of secondary significance to the Kremlin and probably it had not definitively decided what future Hungary (and Czechoslovakia) should have in the communist system. This allowed the non-communists some hope that they could survive as political forces. It was not to be.
By late 1947, it was made clear (at Szklarska Poręba) that full communist control in the Stalinist mode was to be the future. This situation was exacerbated by the breach with Tito in 1948 (Hungary was the front line against Jugoslavia and a planned invasion would have used Hungarian territory). The Social Democrats were “merged” with the CP in 1948 and other parties, not least those which had performed well in the 1947 elections, were banned. The CP itself was purged, Moscow style, beginning in 1949 with classical show trials, torture, confessions, executions, the lot – they can be seen as a purification ritual, carrying the message that the party was omnipotent and omniscient. The brief encounter with democracy was well and truly over.
Stalinisation followed rapidly, with Soviet advisors to lend a hand when and where the Hungarian comrades were proving inadequate. From 1950 onwards, the bourgeoisie was deported to the countryside in appalling conditions (many died). Collectivisation drove tens of thousands of peasants into newly established factories, again in appalling conditions and coercion continued to be the CP’s primary instrument of power. Between 1952 and 1955 (four years), 1.1 million people were interrogated by the forces of coercion, and some 450,000 were interned or imprisoned, i.e. 5 percent of the population.
There is no time to examine how 1956 Revolution came about, but the event was, indeed, revolutionary. Its objectives were the rejection of all previous systems, the creation of new institutions (like the workers’ councils) and mass participation. The revolution was committed to freedom and to democracy through multiparty elections, though without any return to capitalism. It’s another question whether this would have worked. The Red Army returned to suppress the revolution, trials and executions followed (c.500 people), and around 250,000 persons left the country (c.100,000) returned. This was the third communist takeover in Hungary ((1919, 1948, 1956) and the fourth time that a Russian army invaded the country (1849, 1915, 1944, 1956).
But the revolution, though it had failed, left a deep mark on Hungary. It set up limits for both rulers and the ruled. The party was thoroughly traumatised by its evident collapse as an institution and the realisation that the people – workers, peasants, intellectuals – were utterly hostile to communism. Hungarian society, on the other hand, understood that it was powerless against communism as long as the USSR was prepared to use the Red Army (cf. Czechoslovakia 1968). Change came only in the 1980s when Gorbachev signalled that the Red Army would no longer shield the CP against the people.
The communist mindset, however, lives on, it influences the communist successor party (the rebranded socialists) and takes the form of not accepting alternative views of the world, as well as regarding power as something to be monopolised. At the same time, the fact that the Western left has unthinkingly embraced the former communists means that the Western left has uncritically accepted the communist past and mindset.