RED TERROR AND PURGES IN HUNGARY, 1945-1956
Excerpt from “The Black Book of Communism”
(Harward / 1997)
Ehrhart Neubert*, Joachim Gauck*
… In Hungary, there were 140,000 military losses and more than 300,000 civilian deaths…
But the great terror of the war did not come to an end with the German defeat. With the arrival of the Red Army, the fighting arm of the Communist regime, populations underwent "national cleansing," which had a quite specific character in this region. Political commissars and counterintelligence units in this army, under SMERSH and the NKVD, were deeply involved in such operations. The repression was especially severe in the countries that had sent troops to fight against the Soviet Union — Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia — where the NKVD deported hundreds of thousands to the Soviet gulags. Their exact number is still being calculated.
According to new studies in Hungary and Russia published since the opening of the archives — studies that are quite conservative regarding the exact figures — hundreds of thousands of people were deported: soldiers and civilians, children as young as thirteen, and old men of eighty.
Approximately 40,000 were taken to the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine, which had belonged to Czechoslovakia but was occupied by Hungary in 1939 in accordance with the 1938 Munich agreement and then annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944. From Hungary, which had a population of about 9 million in 1944, more than 600,000 people were deported (the Soviet figure of 526,604 is based on the number of people who arrived at the camps; it does not take into account those who died in transit camps in Romania). There were camps in Brasov, Timisoara, Sighet Marmatiel, Moldavia, Bessarabia, and Sambor; around 75 percent of all deportees passed through these. Among the deportees were Jews who had been engaged in the work battalions of the Hungarian army. Two-thirds of these prisoners were sent to forced-labor camps and one-third to prison camps, where the mortality rate, as a result of epidemics, was twice as high. Current estimates suggest that around 200,000 of these deportees from Hungary — including people belonging to the German minority, Russians who had arrived after 1920, and French and Poles who were living in Hungary — never returned.
Some of these purges were carried out by "popular" or "extraordinary" courts. At the end of the war, and in the first months of the postwar period, violent extrajudicial action was common, including executions, assassinations, torture, and the taking of hostages. This was facilitated by the absence of, or the failure to respect, international conventions regarding prisoners of war or the civilian population.
Purges under the influence of the Red Army brought about a generalized fear in the societies concerned. The purges affected not only those who had actively supported the Nazis or the local fascists, but also many others who were innocent or had simply refused to take sides.
The Communist parties were instrumental in the new violence. Their leaders and disciples were often faithful followers of the Bolshevik doctrine, "enriched' 1 in the Soviet Union under the leadership of Stalin. As we have seen in previous chapters, the goal of all their actions was quite clear: to ensure by any means necessary that the Communist Party had a monopoly on power, and that the Party played the same leading role that it did in the Soviet Union.
There was never any attempt at power-sharing, political pluralism, or parliamentary democracy, even if the parliamentary system was formally retained. The doctrine in place at the time presented the Soviet Union as the glorious victor in the struggle against Nazi Germany and its allies, and the principal force and universal guide toward worldwide revolution. Naturally, local Communist forces were expected to coordinate and subordinate their activities to the center of world Communism, in Moscow, and its chief, Stalin.
In other countries in Central and Southeastern Europe, with the exception of Czechoslovakia, the prewar Communist parties had been marginal forces, with only a few thousand members. In Bulgaria, for instance, the Party had been an important force from 1919 to 192.1 and had then been forced underground (although it did play an important role in the resistance). Throughout the region, Party leaders were convinced that the moment was right and that they had the support of the Red Army. They quickly emerged as an important political force and joined the new governments. Almost everywhere Communists took charge of the ministries in charge of repression (the internal affairs and justice ministries) and of those that might be used in a similar manner, such as the defense ministries. In 1944-45 Communist parties held the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania; the Ministry of Justice in Bulgaria and Romania; and the Ministry of Defense in Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. The ministers of defense in both Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, Generals Ludvik Svoboda and Darnian Velchev, were crypto-Communists. Communists were also in charge ot the state security or secret police (the Durzhavna Sigurnost in Bulgaria, and the Allamvedelmi Osztaly, or AYO — later the Allamvedelmi Hatosag, or AY hi — in Hungary) and of the intelligence services in the armed forces.
Everywhere the Communists strengthened their grip on the apparatus of terror, The need for absolute control of the AYO was stressed by Matyas Rakosi, the secretary general of the Hungarian Workers (Communist) Party: "This is the only institution of which we must keep total control, categorically refusing to share it with any other parties in the coalition, regardless of the proportion of our respective forces."*
In Central and Southeastern Europe this strategy was identical with the Bolshevik practices used in Russia in 1917, and repression followed the tried ami tested Soviet pattern. In the same manner that the Bolsheviks had eliminated their initial allies such as the Socialist Revolutionaries, the Central and East European Communist parties eliminated their coalition partners. Analysts have discussed the "process of Sovietization" in these countries, and the strategic plan laid out in Moscow. It was Stalin himself who ordered the rejection of the Marshall Plan in the summer of 1947, and who instigated the creation of the Communist Information Bureau (the Cominform) in September 1947 to increase his control of the parties in power.
There were, of course, many differences in the trajectory of events in these various countries. But everywhere it was the aim of the Communist parties to eliminate their actual or potential adversaries and to crush all political, ideological, and spiritual competitors. Marxist-Leninist doctrine demanded that therivals be wiped out for good, and all means to that end were considered legitimate, including death sentences, execution, long prison sentences, and forced exile in the West. The last of these options was a less cruel procedure, but it was very effective at breaking down resistance, and its importance has been generally underestimated in the analysis of the history of these countries. After all, the right of abode and the right to a home are fundamental human rights. In addition, in 1944-45 tens of thousands of Hungarians, Slovaks, Poles, and other nationals fled their countries in fear of the Red Army.
The first tool used in the panoply of repression was the political trial of non-Communist leaders, many of whom had been resistance fighters and had suffered in the prisons and camps of the Nazis or fascists. Under the direct control of the Red Army, the trials began first in the countries that had been allies of Nazi Germany, notably Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. In the interAllied commissions that were created in 1944 and existed until 1947, the Soviet military was a dominant force and often forcibly imposed its own point of view.
In Hungary the Smallholders Party, which had been the great victor in the 1945 elections, gaining 57 percent of the vote, became the target not only of considerable political wrangling but also of large-scale police operations. In January 1947 the Ministry of Internal Affairs, under the control of the Communist Laszlo Rajk, who had fought in the International Brigades in Spain and been a leader of the resistance toward the end of the war, announced the discovery of a plot against the state involving the Hungarian "Community" group, which had been set up in secret during the war to fight the Nazi invaders. The police arrested a minister and several deputies from the Smallholders' Party; the alleged ringleader, Gyorgy Donath, was sentenced to death and executed; the others received long prison sentences.
In February 1947 Bela Kovacs, the secretary general of the Smallholders, was arrested by the Soviet authorities for "plotting against the security of the Red Army. He was detained in the Soviet Union until 1956. The number of victims rose rapidly, for in Hungary, as everywhere else, the Communist secret police believed that every plot must include a large number of people.
The result of all this was that two years after the end of the war what had been the most important party in Hungary was ''decapitated and decimated. Like Bela Kovacs, its main representatives — Ferenc Nagy, the president of its council; Zoltan Tildy, his predecessor; Bela Varga, president of the National Assembly; Jozsef Kovago, the mayor of Budapest — and dozens of deputies and other party members were all either in prison or in exile. Between late 1947 and early 1949, both the Independence Party and the People's Democratic Party were dissolved. In what was known as the salami tactics 11 later recommended by Matyas Rakosi, the secretary general of the Hungarian Workers Party, who had returned from Moscow with the Red Army, opponents, such as the Smallholders 1 Party, were eliminated in successive slices. The belief was that a few slices at a time would never result in violent indigestion.
Matyas Rakosi, ca. 1936
In February 1948 the persecution of the Social Democrats in Hungary continued with the arrest of Justus Kelemen, under secretary of state to the minister of industry.
In Hungary violent confrontations between the government and the Catholic Church began in the summer of 1948, with the nationalization of numerous religious schools. 12 Five priests were sentenced in July, and more in August. Joszef Cardinal Mindszenty, the indomitable primate of Hungary, was arrested on 26 December 1948 and sentenced to life imprisonment on 5 February 1949. He was accused of plotting with various accomplices against the state and of espionage for foreign imperial powers, including the United States.
A year later the government occupied most convents and monasteries, expelling the majority of the twelve thousand monks and nuns. In June 1951 Monsignor Jozsef Grosz, the archbishop of Kalocsa, leader of the episcopate and a close friend of Mindszenty, met the same fate as the primate. Persecution of the churches and religious orders in Hungary did not affect only Catholics. The Lutheran and Calvinist churches were considerably less numerous but were also affected and also lost pastors and bishops, including an eminent Calvinist, Bishop Laszlo Ravasz.
In Hungary several hundred thousand people were prosecuted in 1948 - 1953, and, according to different estimates, between 700,000 and 800,000 were convicted. Most cases were trials for "crimes against state property." Here, as in other countries, administrative internments carried out by the secret police should also be included in the figures.
This mass terror cannot be explained as "natural for those times," or as part of the Cold War that began in 1947 and reached its height with the Korean war of 1950-1953. The opponents of Communist power inside these countries, despite their huge majority, demonstrated almost no interest in violent or armed struggle (Poland is a notable exception, and there were also armed groups in Bulgaria and Romania). Their opposition was often spontaneous, unorganized, and quite democratic. Some of the politicians who had not immediately emigrated believed that the repression would be short-lived. Armed resistance was rare, and when it did occur it was usually a case of the secret services settling grudges, or of underworld killings being passed off as political murders, rather than a result of genuine political opposition.
Thus there is no way to explain the violence of the repression by pointing to violence in society or the scale of opposition. The "class struggle" was highly orchestrated, and opposition networks were sometimes deliberately established by agents provocateurs from the secret police. Occasionally those agents were in turn killed by the secret services.
People still try to explain away the history of Communism with reference to the "spirit of the moment" or the "context of the time." But such attempts are part of a specifically ideological approach to history and a revisionism that does not correspond to the facts as they have now come to light. Scholars and others should pay closer attention to the social dimensions of the repression, and concentrate more on the persecution of ordinary people.
The Trials of Communist Leaders
The persecution of fellow Communists is one of the most important episodes in the history of repression in Central and Southeastern Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. Neither the international Communist movement nor any of its local branches ever ceased to denounce "bourgeois justice and legality" and fascist and Nazi repression. Undoubtedly, there were thousands of militant Communists who died as victims of Nazi and fascist repression during World War II.
But the persecution of Communists did not stop with the progressive installation of "people's democracies," when the "dictatorship of the proletariat" took over from the "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie".
In Hungary in 1945 the secret police imprisoned Pal Demeny, Jozsef Skolnik, and a number of their friends. All considered themselves to be Communists, and it was under that label that they had led underground resistance groups, to which they had often recruited young people and workers. In the industrial centers, membership in their groups was higher than that of Communist groups who had sworn allegiance to Moscow, and who considered competitors like Demeny to be Trotskyites or "deviationists." When the moment of liberation finally arrived, Demeny met the same fate that befell those he had fought against, and he was imprisoned until 1957.
A second show-trial in the anti-Tito series took place in September 1949 in Budapest. The accused was Laslo Rajk, who had fought in the International Brigades in Spain. Rajk had been one of the heads of the resistance and as a minister of internal affairs had carried out severe repressions of non-Communist democrats before being made minister of foreign affairs. After his arrest in May 1949, Rajk was tortured and blackmailed by his previous colleagues, who told him that he would not be killed if he helped the Party. He was ordered to confess in court and to reel off a string of accusations against Tito and the Yugoslavs as "enemies of people's democracy." The verdict of the Hungarian court was reached on 24 September, with no right to appeal: Laslo Rajk, Tibor Szonyi, and Andras Szalai were condemned to death, and the Yugoslav Lazar Brankov and the Social Democrat Pal Justus were given life sentences. Rajk was executed on 16 October. In a subsequent trial a military court condemned four high-ranking officers to death.
In the repressions following the Rajk trial, 94 people in Hungary were arrested, sentenced, and interned; 15 were executed; 11 others died in prison; and 50 of the accused received prison sentences of more than ten years. The total number of deaths in this affair was about 60, including a number of suicides among prisoners, their relatives, and judges and police officers caught up in the affair.
Animosities within the leadership, and the zeal of the general secretary of the Party, Matyas Rakosi, and the chiefs of the secret police, influenced the choice of victims and their leader, Laszlo Rajk. These and other factors, however, should not obscure the essential fact that many of the main decisions were made in Moscow by, among others, the heads of the security forces and intelligence services responsible for Central and Western Europe. This had been the case since the earliest waves of repression. Soviet leaders were preoccupied with discovering a huge international anti-Soviet conspiracy. The Rajk trial played a key role, particularly through its main witness, the American Noel Field, who was secretly a Communist and helped the Soviet Union, as has recently been proved in the archives.
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