Hungary Table of Contents

In the aftermath of World War II, a victorious Soviet Union succeeded in forcing its political, social, and economic system on Eastern Europe, including Hungary. But the Hungarians never reconciled themselves to Soviet hegemony over their country and rebelled against the Soviet Union and its Hungarian vassals in 1956. That revolution was crushed by Soviet tanks, but it brought to power Janos Kadar, who then attempted to institute a milder form of communist rule.

Coalition Government and Communist Takeover

The Hungarian Communist Party (HCP) enjoyed scant popular support after the toppling of Bela Kun's short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919 and the subsequent white terror. During World War II, a communist cell headed by Laszlo Rajk, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and a former student communist leader, operated underground within the country. Matyas Rakosi led a second, Moscow-based group whose members were later called the "Muscovites." After the Soviet Red Army invaded Hungary in September 1944, Rajk's organization emerged from hiding, and the Muscovites returned to their homeland. Rakosi's close ties with the Soviet occupiers enhanced his influence within the party, and a rivalry developed between the Muscovites and Rajk's followers. Between the invasion and the end of the war, party membership rose significantly. Although party rolls listed only about 3,000 names in November 1944, membership had swelled to about 500,000 by October 1945.

Hungary's postwar political order began to take shape even before Germany's surrender. In October 1944, Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Foreign Minister Anthony Eden agreed with Stalin that after the war the Soviet Union would enjoy a 75 percent to 80 percent influence in Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania, while the British would have a 20 percent to 25 percent share. On December 22, 1944, a provisional government emerged in Debrecen that was made up of the Provisional National Assembly, in which communist representatives outnumbered those of the other "antifascist" parties, and a cabinet, whose members included a general and two other military officers of the old regime, two communists, two Social Democrats, two members of the Independent Smallholders' Party, one member of the National Peasant Party, and one unaffiliated member. The provisional government concluded an armistice with the Soviet Union on January 20, 1945, while fighting still raged in the western part of the country. The armistice established the Allied Control Commission, with Soviet, American, and British representatives, which held complete sovereignty over the country. The commission's chairman, Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, a member of Stalin's inner circle, exercised absolute control.

Stalin decided against an immediate communist seizure of power in Hungary; rather, he instructed HCP leaders to take a gradualist approach and share power with other parties in freely elected coalition governments. Stalin informed Rakosi that a communist takeover would be delayed ten to fifteen years in order to deflect Western criticism of rapid communist takeovers in Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Soviet zone of Germany. Stalin desired a quick return to normal economic activity to rebuild the Soviet Union and sought to avoid a confrontation with the Allies, who still had troops in Europe. The members of the HCP who had worked underground during the war opposed Stalin's gradualist approach and argued for immediate establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat.

In April 1945, after Soviet troops had rid Hungary of the Nazis, the government moved from Debreceu to Budapest, and a second, expanded Provisional National Assembly was chosen. With the support of representatives of the trade unions and the Social Democratic Party, the HCP enjoyed an absolute majority of the assembly's 495 seats. The provisional government remained in power until November 15, 1945, when voters dealt the HCP an unexpected setback in a free election. The Independent Smallholders' Party won 245 seats in the National Assembly; the HCP, 70; the Social Democratic Party, 69; the National Peasant Party, 21; and the Civic Democratic Party, 2. The National Assembly proclaimed the Hungarian Republic on February 1, 1946, and two Smallholder-led coalitions under Zoltan Tildy and Ferenc Nagy governed the country until May 1947.

The HCP soon formed a leftist alliance with the Social Democratic Party and the National Peasant Party and gained control of several key offices, including the leadership of the security police and the army general staff. Voroshilov vetoed an agreement reached by the coalition members to name a member of the Independent Smallholders' Party to head the Ministry of Interior. A National Peasant Party member loyal to the HCP won the post and made the police a powerful tool of the communists. The National Assembly undermined freedoms guaranteed in Hungary's constitution when it banned statements that could be interpreted as hostile to the democratic order or the country's international esteem. Later, as Hungary's democratic order became identified with HCP policies, the law was used to silence legitimate opponents.

In the immediate postwar period, the government pursued economic reconstruction and land reform. Hungary had been devastated in the last years of World War II. About 24 percent of its industrial base was destroyed. Many of the large landowners and industrialists fled Hungary in advance of the Soviet Red Army. Reconstruction proceeded rapidly, expedited by gradual nationalization of mines, electric plants, the four largest concerns in heavy industry, and the ten largest banks. In 1945 the government also carried out a radical land reform, expropriating all holdings larger than fifty-seven hectares and distributing them to the country's poorest peasants. Nevertheless, the peasants received portions barely large enough for self-sufficiency. Finally, the government introduced a new currency--the forint--to help curb high inflation.

Using methods Rakosi later called "salami tactics," the HCP strengthened its position in the coalition by discrediting leaders of rival parties as "reactionaries" or "antidemocratic," forcing their resignation from the government and sometimes prompting their arrest. In 1945 ex-members of Horthy's regime lost their positions. A year later, members of the Smallholders' Party and the Social Democratic Party were ousted from power. In late 1946, leaders of the Smallholders' Party were arrested. In 1947 the Soviet Union ordered the arrest of Bela Kovacs, the secretary general of the Independent Smallholders' Party, on the false charge of plotting to overthrow the government. The Independent Smallholders' Party was dissolved after Ferenc Nagy resigned his position as prime minister. The leftist bloc gained a small lead over its rivals in the 1947 general elections. The HCP tallied only 22 percent of the vote, but fraud tainted the election, and suspicions arose that the party actually enjoyed less support.

The Treaty of Paris, signed on February 10, 1947, required Hungary to pay US$200 million in reparations to the Soviet Union, US$50 million to Czechoslovakia, and US$50 million to Yugoslavia. Hungary also had to transfer a piece of territory to Czechoslovakia, leaving Hungary with slightly less territory than it had had after the Treaty of Trianon. Stalin had already returned Transylvania to the Romanians to reinforce the position of the procommunist Prime Minister Petru Groza. Thereafter, the Romanians' treatment of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania became an irritant in relations between the two countries.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress