It was not in a train with firmly locked doors that on 16 November 1918 the thirty-two-years old Béla Kun returned to Hungary with a few companions. He had left the country three years earlier as a soldier of Franz Joseph of Habsburg, and at the Russian front he had earned his officer stripes. When he was taken prisoner he could have feared that his captivity would last a long time. However the popular revolution in March 1917 and the subsequent Bolshevik coup the following November not only set him free but provided him with several unforeseen opportunities both pleasant and exciting. Before the war he had been an obscure journalist and a Socialist propagandist, but, in the light of the events that he had lived through in Russia, his old Socialism appeared inconclusive, unable to really change the structures of society. In contrast, the Russian Social Democratic (Bolshevik) Party had not limited itself to producing articles and speeches to prepare itself for future useless elections; instead, under the guidance of Trotsky and Lenin, it had created the first true workers’ state. Kun had immediately joined that party with other former Hungarian prisoners. He not only became their leader, but also took part in discussions among his Russian comrades on the important choices they were facing. In January 1918 three groups formed within the Bolshevik leadership regarding the issue of peace with the Central Powers: Lenin’s, Trotsky’s and Bukharin’s. Kun sided with the latter, whose position was that the conditions imposed by the Germans and Austrians had to be rejected and the “capitalist war” should be transformed from a national into an international struggle, thus making it a revolutionary war. Had the French revolutionaries not done so 130 years before, in order to export their ideas throughout Europe? Trotsky’s thesis was more naive: it consisted in not signing an unjust peace, without continuing the war, wanted by the capitalists. Trotsky thought that by doing so German and Austro-Hungarian troops would follow the example of the Russian soldiers, and that consequently the conflict would simply be extinguished by the reluctance of all the warriors, as well as by the “noble” attitude of the Russians. In other words the enemies would renounce their intention to occupy Ukraine and the Russian territory and give up their aim of cutting them into small satellite states. Finally Lenin imposed his willingness to make peace, whatever the territorial losses, convinced that this was the only way that the revolution could be saved: “Losing space to gain time” was his motto. But the romantic and unrealistic position of the Hungarian partisan of Bukharin had not escaped the attention of Lenin, who – we do not know whether out of amusement or irritation – said the following about him: “We can see that this man comes from a country of poets and dreamers.”1 Kun was still in Russia when the Allied victory, rendering irrelevant the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, confirmed that Lenin’s position was correct.
Soon after that Béla Kun went back to Hungary, where his mission and firm intention was to repeat the feat that had been accomplished by the Bolsheviks in Russia. He was sure that, armed with “Marxist science” and following the example of Lenin, he would seize power, not for himself but for the whole proletariat. The same day of his return to Budapest the Republic was proclaimed. The President was, somewhat by self-appointment, Count Mihály Károlyi, who the last emperor-king, Charles of Habsburg, had appointed as Prime Minister of Hungary (now split from Austria) shortly before leaving for exile. Károlyi, strongly influenced by his wife Katinka Andrássy, had always been a man of progressive ideas. Even during the World War he had made no secret of his pro-Western sympathies. Naively he believed therefore that the grateful winners would be well-disposed towards a country now led by him. Also, over and above his illusions, he nourished a great ambition, which was nevertheless not supported by any firmness of purpose. He had allowed in his Government members of the Socialist Party, intending to make a policy of social openings, in particular towards the peasants, undoubtedly the most sacrificed class and the one that had suffered most because of the war. Kun saw in him a bourgeois pro-Socialist, a kind of Kerensky. At that time he did not yet have a strong Communist Party behind him. But he did not see that as a problem: in November of the previous year Lenin himself could not rely on a large party either, and yet he had proved that to take power one did not need great battalions, just a group of decided men.
The party Kun had founded with a few companions in Russia the previous March was officially re-launched eight days after his return to Budapest. The real difficulty consisted, if anything, in the numerical strength of the Socialists. As they participated in the government of Károlyi, the “Red Count”, they inevitably supported “bourgeois” policies. It was against them that the first haggard Communist groups and newspapers created by Kun began to fight, accusing them of betraying the working class, of lack of class consciousness, of not wanting to continue the expropriation of large domains and the big capital. His tactic was, he thought, the same followed by Lenin, which consisted in patronising the demands of all the malcontents, unemployed, pensioners, veterans, employees, in untiringly denouncing the Government and the parties that supported it. He also had to penetrate the trade unions, discredit their executives, and undermine the Socialist Party by dividing the moderate leaders and the more radical ones. This tactic was almost an early example of the “salami” policy that would be applied thirty years later by his follower, Mátyás Rákosi. Yet, despite the intensive application of this tactic, the Hungarian Communist Party was still far from attaining the final goal. In early February 1919 the capitalist fortress was not conquered and the Socialist Party was still the strongest and the most numerous. How was it possible that the “Leninist science” did not work? Why did the masses remain faithful to their social-bourgeois leaders? The upcoming elections, if they were carried out, would constitute a serious failure for Kun and his party that had fewer than 30,000 members, compared with the 700,000 of the Socialists. It was therefore necessary that the elections not be held and that new events would turn the situation around.
In particular, Kun hoped that he would be able to recreate an episode similar to the one related to Russian General Lavr Georgiyevich Kornilov, whose alleged counter-revolutionary aims in August 1917 allowed the Bolsheviks to be credited as the saviours of the Republic and enabled them to seize power. Despite the lack of such a general in Hungary, the Communist press launched a campaign against a nonexistent reactionary conspiracy that the Károlyi government, though being formed by Socialists and radicals, did not know about or did not want to fight in order to crush the supposed coup. It was in this atmosphere of hysterical accusations and complaints that the Communists invaded and devastated the headquarters of the Socialist daily on 20 February 1919. There were a few dead and many injured people, mostly among the police who had tried to oppose the aggression. Kun and 67 other Communist leaders were arrested. The adventure had apparently ended in a complete defeat. However two events of a different nature reversed the situation in a matter of weeks. The first event was related to the considerable publicity that the press gave to the ill-treatment to which the imprisoned Communists were allegedly submitted by some members of the police force that supposedly wanted to avenge the death of their colleagues. That the ill-treatment was true or only amplified did not really matter as the behaviour of the police was strongly condemned even by “bourgeois newspapers”. The press coverage also emphasised the courageous attitude of prisoner Béla Kun, a man little known earlier outside the circle of his followers, but now he suddenly turned extremely popular. Worried about this unintended change in the public opinion, the government gave orders that while in prison Kun be allowed to carry out any political activity he wished. There were days in which Kun received up to four hundred visitors. They were mainly left-wing Socialists who apparently were sensitive to the charm of their comrade, haloed by the prestige of having participated in the Bolshevik adventure and now also considered a martyr. In Hungary you could, or rather you had to act as in Russia, argued Kun to his visitors. The only obstacles were those “right-wingers” in the Károlyi government who were “puppets of the bourgeoisie”, soi-disant progressive but actually incapable of solving the problems of the workers.
Even this propaganda would have achieved little results if another set of issues relative to the national question had not arisen over and above the dramatic social situation. The World War winners, unmoved by the democratic and pro- Western merits of Károlyi, had virtually given a free hand to the Romanians, Czechs and Serbs to occupy parts of the territory of Hungary, well beyond their ethnic borders. On 20 March 1919, on behalf of the Allied armistice commission French lieutenant colonel Fernand Vix enjoined the Budapest government to clear the areas of Debrecen and Makó. Károlyi resigned perhaps in order not to link his name to the acceptance of that imposition, and soon after a proclamation was made public in his name stating that he had voluntarily given up his powers to a “new government of the proletariat”. In the following years Károlyi maintained that the statement was apocryphal. The fact remains that at the time of publication he had not wanted to disavow it, and that, after his retirement from office, he remained quietly in Hungary for a while. In his Memoirs he argued that if in the following years he did not disavow that proclamation, it was because he did not wish to harm those (i.e. the Communists) “who were already serving in the prisons of Horthy for their mistakes”. Kun, released from prison and directly brought to power, was convinced that he was really following the footsteps of Lenin: he had even found a more docile Kerensky than his Russian comrades.
The “government of the proletariat” immediately made of Hungary a “Republic of Councils” with the textual translation of the Russian word soviet, even if it was not chosen by councils. Its nominal head was a Socialist leader whose name, Sándor Garbai, is somewhat difficult to find in the annals of history.
In practice the strong man in the government was Kun, although officially he was only People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, and then from April 1919 also People’s Commissar for Defence. In the meantime, the Socialists had merged with the Communists. Despite the fact that the Socialists were by far more numerous, they had passively accepted the leadership and the programme of the Communists summarised in the slogan “dictatorship of the proletariat”. The “Republic of Councils” was thus born, but certainly not in the way Marx had foreseen it, as the “objective conditions” did not actually exist in Hungary after the war. It was rather the “subjective conditions” that prevailed resulting from the merger of the Socialist Party with the Communist Party, the former being burdened with an inferiority complex towards the latter, which was much smaller but far more active and determined.
The Communists, it was expected, would find a way out of at least the most dramatic and immediate problem, i.e. the dismemberment of the country coveted by hungry neighbours who enjoyed the support of France. The Socialists and other opinion groups in fact hoped that the new government, thanks to its bonds with the Russians, would convince them to send the Red Army. After being victorious against the “Whites” it would come to the aid of Hungary and save it from further amputations. Kun, however, had other intentions in mind, such as the possibility of having the very “revolutionary war” that Lenin had refused to wage a little more than a year before. This divergence on the real goals of the two groups within the government constituted one of the major misunderstandings, and certainly not the only one.
In the hope of meeting the wishes of the new Hungarian regime, the victorious Entente did not seem averse to bringing the military demarcation to the line specified by the armistice of Belgrade the previous November, stating however that it would have no relevance to the final clauses of the peace treaty. This gesture was an undeniable success for the Socialist-Communist government which was thus offered some badly needed breathing space. However Kun rejected the proposal, advancing in turn some counter-proposals. As he declared it during a rally on 19 April: “Comrades, we do not profess the doctrine of territorial integrity, but we want to live, and this is why we did not accept that our freed proletarian brothers living in the neutralised zone be rejected under the yoke of capitalism.2 To do so would deprive the Hungarian proletariat of the physical means necessary to live. […] It is a matter, therefore, which concerns the struggle between the international revolution and the international counter-revolution.”
In his memoirs Károlyi insinuates that Kun’s decision involved some degree of nationalist sentimentality, or perhaps the fear of being considered not a good Hungarian by his compatriots. This suspicion seems belied by the tone of excusatio non petita of a letter that Kun addressed to Lenin a few days later, on 22 April: “Whatever happens, all our actions will be dictated by the interests of the world revolution. We do not think even for a moment to sacrifice the interests of the world revolution to those of one of its components. Even if we were obliged to sign a peace ‘à la Brest-Litovsk’, we would do it with the clear conscience which inspired you when you made the Brest-Litovsk peace, concluded against my will and against the will of the Left Communists.” But Kun had already been offered the chance to sign his Brest-Litovsk and, as we have seen, he had refused to do so.
Whereas the “dictatorship of the proletariat” could be proclaimed as a result of international political events which weighed heavily on the whole affair, the fall of “the Republic of Councils” did not occur because of the intervention of the reactionary circles of the Entente or of the “White” Hungarian counter- revolution (as a Communist legend maintains and is still affirmed by some partisan historians), but because of its inherent weaknesses, the consequence of its internal, social and economic policies. In fact, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was characterised from almost the beginning not only by measures against the old ruling classes, but also against the peasants. These measures did not give land to them but rather nationalised them, while entrusting them to their former owners, transformed into state commissars. The workers who had hoped for an improvement in their standard of living obviously felt betrayed. Furthermore, the first measures of the government in the military field consisted in the elimination of non-proletarians from the Army, the abolition of conscription and the introduction of voluntary recruitment. All that caused a total catastrophe: in three weeks only 5,000 “workers” had asked to enlist. Equally ineffective were the social measures, beginning with the reduction of the rental fees and the wage increases immediately thwarted by inflation. The failures of the Communists in economic issues meant that in three weeks they were totally excluded from economic affairs by the ex-Socialists. The Communists, however, retained control of the political police. They let loose terror gangs of thugs called the “Lenin boys” who went hunting for “bourgeois” and “counter-revolutionaries”, and committed armed robberies, kidnappings, shootings and hangings.
To oppose these excesses, the sole representative of the victorious powers in Budapest was the Italian lieutenant colonel Guido Romanelli. (The members of the French, British and American military missions had actually preferred to follow the Hungarian events from Vienna, a far more comfortable and less dangerous location.) Romanelli enjoined Kun to halt the executions of alleged “counter-revolutionaries”. He specifically wrote in one of his official letters that they had to be considered combatants and treated according to international conventions. Béla Kun answered: “Whichever action carried out by my government would prove less inhumane than that of the bourgeois governments which have committed the barbarity of war.” Romanelli severely replied that Kun and his ministers would be “held personally responsible for any violence that had been committed”. This indiscriminate terror, in which Kun’s friends,3 Tibor Szamuely and Ottó Korvin in particular distinguished themselves, had the effect of splitting the government and dividing the Communists themselves, some of whom were truly doubtful of the usefulness of the atrocities committed. Béla Kun also gave evidence of not knowing how to maintain discipline among his followers; his “leftism” paled compared with that of his “comrades” Jancsik, Münnich, Szamuely and Rákosi. To block their initiatives, at one point some members of the government gave a firm ultimatum to Kun: he either stopped the atrocities of his men or he would have to face the hostility of organised workers and unions. Kun then sent his friends as political commissars to the front where, however, things were not going much better. The Romanians had indeed launched an offensive on 17 April 1919 and at the end of the month they were only 60 kilometres from Budapest. On 26 April Kun was forced to admit publicly that he had made a mistake in rejecting the proposals of the Western victors and also spoke of resignation. It was the leaders of the unions still controlled by ex-Socialists that recruited an army of 50,000 men who managed to block the Romanians and to reoccupy the most important centres which had been lost, including those on the Slovak front. At that point things seemed to be getting better also because some Hungarian Communist agents were planning to prepare an insurrection in neighbouring Austria. However the Austrian police discovered the plot and arrested the organisers the day before the planned coup. As to victory in Slovakia, it had legitimately been attributed to the People’ Commissar for Defence, Vilmos Böhm and to his soldiers, all coming from the Socialist Party, and certainly not to the political commissars, the Communist Rákosi and Münnich. In the second half of June, faced with a memorandum of Clemenceau that promised a cessation of hostilities of the Entente against an immediate evacuation of Slovakia by the Hungarian Army, Kun reconsidered his point of view, and this time he wisely accepted the Allied proposals. “The imperialist peace that we are forced to conclude” – he consoled himself in a speech – “will not last longer than that of Brest-Litovsk, because of the revolution that will inevitably burst out in other European countries.”4
By that time however the domestic situation was rapidly worsening as a result of the government’s measures. The circle of opponents was increasing every day: the former army officers and the Catholic and Protestant clergy were joined by the workers themselves. They were disappointed with the vacuous demagoguery of the government, the Red Army deserters, the executions committed by the “Lenin boys” and other irregular police. On 24 June, an attempted uprising in Budapest was suffocated after twenty hours of fighting in the streets.
The last phase of the adventure, the “extremist one” – which began right after the failed uprising – was characterised by the definitive withdrawal from the government of the Socialists. By then the disorder had reached a climax and the existence of a “crisis of power, economy and morale” was admitted in mid-July by Béla Kun himself. An anarchist conspiracy – discovered and ended with the shooting of the organisers – also took place at that time in Budapest and other cities, as well as the reappearance of the “Lenin boys” who arrested and shot real or alleged opponents.
At the end of July the Romanian troops crossed the Tisza River where they met virtually no opposition. However, the downfall of the Hungarian Republic of Councils was precipitated by other forces. The peasants were increasingly disillusioned due to the unfulfilled promise of land distribution and by the decision of the government to pay for agricultural products in a new paper currency that they did not trust. Even more decisive was the hostility of the workers, the “industrial proletariat” in whose name the dictatorship had been established. Their opposition was admitted by Kun on 1 August, a few hours before his flight to Austria. In what was to become his last speech in Hungary – given during the plenary session of the “council of deputies of workers and soldiers” in Budapest – he stated: “The Hungarian proletariat betrayed not their leaders but itself. […] If there had been in Hungary a proletariat with the consciousness of the dictatorship of the proletariat it would not collapse in this way […] I would have liked to see the proletariat fighting on the barricades declaring that it would rather die than give up power. […] The proletariat which continued to shout in factories, ‘Down with the dictatorship of the proletariat’, will be even less satisfied with any future government.”5 It was a compromising and embarrassing recognition of the reasons for total failure. Kun later had to try to forget this speech and find other explanations for the fall of his government. The fact, however, remains that the Republic of Councils, born out of foreign influence, died because of the shortcomings of domestic policies.
But it was the invasion of the Romanian troops that signed the death certificate of the regime. The workers, who refused to defend a cause that they did not consider as their own at all and to which indeed they were opposed, had already emptied the “Soviet experiment” of any meaning and any chance of survival. In fact, the only hopes of saving the Republic of Councils had been pinned on the military intervention of the Red Army or on a revolution in one or more other European countries. The fact that Kun had ultimately bet on these two improbable cards shows the limits of his sense of reality. After he fled to Austria, the Western Powers swiftly secured the evacuation of the Romanian troops from Hungary and two months later, in October, they allowed the establishment of a government headed by Admiral Miklós Horthy.
Kun thus began the life of a failed dictator. After visiting a number of European countries to receive words of praise for his exploits by some comrades, he returned to Russia where he participated as a political commissar in the Civil War on the southern front, distinguished by his particular cruelty. His time of adventure however was far from over. Kun remained in the Comintern, the institution that was supposed to keep the flame of the permanent revolution alive in various countries. Its main objective at the time was Germany, a highly developed country where the revolution would give the final blow to world capitalism, as predicted by Marx. Russia, which was about to become the USSR, was merely considered a springboard.
In 1921, as a representative of the Comintern and against the opinion of the German Communists, Kun decided that the moment had come when he could take personal revenge for his Hungarian defeat. By that time he considered himself an expert, as he did not realise that in March 1919 he had gained power in Budapest not because of his tactical skills or for having applied the “scientific laws of Marxism- Leninism”, but rather because of a series of fortunate circumstances. What would be called the “March Action” in Germany ended in total failure. Once again Kun was not followed by the workers. “Shame on the workers” – wrote the Communist newspaper Die Rote Fahne commenting on the episode – “who do not know where their interests lie and keep away from the revolution.” That meant virtually everyone. As a Trotskyist historian commented, not without malice: “[w]e do not know if Kun said or thought of the German workers what he had said of the Hungarians, i.e. that they lacked courage and class consciousness”. Instead it was precisely Die Rote Fahne which wrote about his opinion: “It is the fault of the working masses who have not given the answer they should have given […].”
In the following years the former dictator took part in the life, or rather in the disputes within the three bodies that should have been, but in reality were not, distinct: the Hungarian Communist Party in exile in the USSR, the Comintern, and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The struggle for power within the latter, between Stalin and other “comrades of Lenin”, concerned the first two organisations, which had become its appendices.
Probably it dawned on Kun himself that his relentless decline had begun in July l935, when at the 7th Congress of the Comintern – which would be the last – he was no longer included in the Presidium. He tried to appeal to Stalin, who refused to receive him. What had happened? Stalin was informed that he had met Zinoviev, already expelled from the Communist Party, a left-wing opponent, and Russian historian Viktor Dalin, who would later spend twenty years in a Gulag prison-camp. But his faults, he was made to understand, dated many years back, at least to 1926 when he had not opposed Trotsky firmly enough and had spent the last day of that year in the house of Kamenev. Yet for a few months more he maintained his position within the Hungarian Communist Party in exile and in the Comintern. According to the Finnish Arvo Tuominen, a turning point came on 5 September 1936, when he was called before the Presidium of that organ in the presence of its secretaries: the Bulgarian Georgi Dimitrov, the German Friedrich Wilhelm Pieck, the Czech Klement Gottwald and the Italian Palmiro Togliatti. The “speaker” on his case, Dmitriy Zakharovych Manuilski, apparently accused him of being the author of a circular to the illegal Hungarian Communist Party in which he defamed the Soviet representatives in the Comintern. Manuilski asked him whether Stalin was a bad Communist. Kun tried to justify himself by saying that in the circular he had not alluded to Stalin, whom indeed he considered “one of the best existing Communists”. According to Tuominen, at this point Manuilski declared the session closed, and once Kun was out of the room he was apparently grabbed by three members of the GPU and taken away.
In fact, the truth was somewhat more complex. For about a year, he – at the head of the Hungarian Communist Party in exile – had been reluctant to apply the new policy of “popular fronts” decided by the Comintern: he believed that one could not trust the Social Democrats with whom, according to the orders of the Comintern, his party should have formed an alliance. It was true that it would have been in any case only a theoretical alliance, since the Communist Party (but not the Socialist one) was outlawed in Hungary; but for him it was obviously a matter of principle: Kun believed he had been betrayed by the Social Democrats sixteen years before. Some members of his party whom he had ousted by the Secretariat denounced him to the Comintern. As a result, a “procedure” was opened against him, the first act of which was a meeting, chaired by Togliatti, during which he made a partial self-criticism. It was not enough however. A secret resolution of the Secretariat of the Comintern judged his policy “stupidly sectarian” and prescribed further investigations to decide whether to expel him also from the international organisation.
Once again at the meeting mentioned by Tuominen he was forced to make a public confession of his sins. He asked to be put to the test in any lesser charge in his party and in the Comintern, even “in a remote province, far from Moscow”. All was to no avail: he was included in a list of people with right-wing tendencies and Trotskyists. On 28 June 1937 he was arrested on charges of belonging to a “counter-revolutionary organisation created among Hungarians emigrated to the USSR, inspired by the Hungarian espionage organs”. Then he disappeared, having been sent to the Gulag. For a long time after his rehabilitation at the hands of Khrushchev in 1956, contradictory news spread about the date and the circumstances of his murder. Only in February 1989 did the Soviet authorities release the information that “convicted by the High Court on 29 August 1938, he had been executed by a firing squad on the same day”.
Who knows if in the long months of his captivity he thought of the two Italians whom he had met during his journey: Palmiro Togliatti, who had interrogated and judged him with the other secretaries of the Comintern, and lieutenant colonel Guido Romanelli, who twenty years before had invoked the laws of humanity and the respect for prisoners – such as he himself then turned out to be – in the few weeks in which he had felt himself a kind of miniature Lenin in Budapest that he had never come to see again, and that had given the name of Romanelli to one of its squares.
(The present chapter edited by Hungarian Review is from Alberto Indelicato, Utopisti, idealisti, e politici del XX secolo, Apice Libri, 2016; the translation is the author’s own.)
1 L. Fischer, The Life of Lenin, London, 1965, p. 197.
2 Béla Kun et la République Hongroise des Conseils. Rome, 1969, p. 129.
3 G. M. Sangiorgi, L’Ungheria dalla Repubblica di Károlyi alla Reggenza di Horthy, Bologna, 1927, p. 54.
4 Béla Kun, La République hongroise des conseils, Budapest, 1962, p. 218.
5 Rudolf R. Tőkés, Béla Kun and the Hungarian Soviet Republic: The Origins and Role of the Communist Party of Hungary in the Revolution of 1918–1919. New York, 1967.