Stalinism in Hungary did not exist in isolation. There could be no doubt that the country had become a peripheral part of a world system or empire, the Soviet empire, and had no immediate hope of becoming anything else. Every communist-party leader of the period in Central and Eastern Europe regarded the Soviet policy of the 1920s and 1930s as the pattern to follow. This included forced industrialization based on heavy industry for making the means of production and on huge development of the arms industry, and a forced rate of collectivization into kolkhoz-like cooperatives of the smallholdings that made up most of agriculture. It encompassed a debasement of education and culture into weapons of daily political indoctrination, an irrational cult of personality focused on the country´s leader, and a ritual, demeaning reiteration of loyalty to the Soviets and their example.


The new Hungarian steel town of Sztálinváros
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


The war psychosis it engendered was out of all proportion to the scale of the international tensions. This led to a constant search for enemies and to showdowns and other campaigns, which inevitably wrought a police state out of the heightened oppressive force of the Interior-Ministry and judicial bureaucracies. Meanwhile the pursuit of irrational, legally imposed economic targets caused a rapid fall in living standards. The destitution and terror aroused tensions, followed by mass discontent, so that the totalitarian dictatorship effectively jeopardized its own ability to operate.

The Soviet political will was imposed on all issues deemed in Moscow to affect the military and security interests of the Soviet Union and its shorter or longer-term political criteria. Hungarian policy still had room to manoeuvre so long as its efforts were made within that system of relations, in accordance with it, or perhaps alongside it. Wherever the two conflicted, Soviet interests enjoyed absolute priority. Furthermore, any departure from the Soviet model came to be seen in Moscow as a risk factor as the Cold War heightened. However, the Hungarian side in 1949 was given a free hand to transform the country in line with the Soviet pattern. Stalin may not have needed to give Rákosi any instructions in the initial period of 1948-50. The Hungarian party leaders were all good specimens of `Comintern man´, controlled by their ideological and cultural instincts and their fear of Moscow and Stalin. They were familiar with the Soviet method of social organization, and felt as alien and antagonistic all other types of system.

The early stage of the Soviet system in Hungary can also be called a system of suspicion and fear. These were found not only in society, afraid of what blow might be struck at it any day, but in Rákosi and his fellow leaders. They feared popular resistance and still more the anger of Moscow, which could produce purges if some mistake was made. The head of the Soviet empire trusted in nobody, least of all Rákosi and his henchmen, whom he would be quite willing to destroy, as several examples show. The same suspicion and fear help to explain why the Soviet Union, in 1948-50, built up in Hungary and other satellite states an extensive apparatus of control. The occupation army remained, along with the `normal´ level of diplomatic representation. Inter-party relations grew more brisk, while the Soviet deployed in the state apparatus, the big factories and the Hungarian army and state security system legally authorized advisers and illegally deployed secret agents. Stalin did not see to or direct the operation of the machines, motors and screws in Hungary´s case either. Such tasks were done by people inspired by the schematic patterns, ideological interests and cultural terms intrinsic to the Bolshevik movement. The Soviet advisers had acquired that culture, augmented by military discipline and a sense of Soviet superiority. Deep national grievance caused by Sovietization was the most general public sentiment felt in Hungary in the early 1950s. This compounded and even exceeded the shock caused by the Soviet occupiers in 1944-5 and the lost post-war hope of a free and democratic system. So obvious and aggressive, slavish and self-denying was the adoption of the alien pattern that it was too much even for those who would otherwise have supported the communist system for one reason or another. As for the majority, opposed to the regime, they were prepared for evil consequences, but what actually happened exceeded their wildest nightmares.

The most important feature of the last third of the 1940s to derive from the Soviet occupation was the imposition of the Soviet pattern on the social, political and economic system. From the outset, the workings of Hungarian society and the system of institutions running it showed the primacy of politics. The political leadership decided everything. However, the Soviet-style totalitarian system applied in full only for the brief period from 1949 to 1953. Some of the sub-systems were entirely or almost entirely subservient to the Soviets, such as defence. This subservience was not institutionalized until the Warsaw Pact was concluded in 1955. However, the Hungarian army was placed under Soviet military command by the 1948 Hungarian-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Assistance and by a system of progressively seconding Soviet advisers to it. The treaty also ended Hungary´s independence in foreign policy, as the Soviets insisted it should stipulate the common response to any threat from any direction, not just from Germany. (This followed a pattern set by Soviet treaties with the other countries in the region.)

The Stalinist political system in Hungary developed in several stages in 1948-50. Its symbolic starting point can be seen as the removal from office of President Zoltán Tildy, the last public dignitary committed to the coalition. His successor as president of the republic was Árpád Szakasits, chairman of the Hungarian Workers´ Party (HWP), which had resulted from the `fusion´ of the Communist and Social Democratic parties. He did not represent any political line at variance with the intentions of the communists. A multiparty parliament continued to exist formally for a few more months, but it sat ever more rarely and took ever longer recesses. After sessions of a week each in July and August 1948, Parliament did not meet again until mid-November, when it sat for three weeks and finished its work for the year. There were only 20 sittings in the first three-and-a-half months of 1949. In January, it debated, more or less in line with parliamentary procedure, the budget for 1949. Thereafter the members came together only to discuss exclusions and resignations of members and questions of parliamentary exemption from prosecution. The sittings became progressively shorter, lasting only half an hour on some days. Finally, on April 12, 1949, one of the parliamentary recorders read out an edict from the president of the republic dissolving Parliament and calling new elections for early June. The degree to which the Communists, as controllers of the country´s political life, no longer required Parliament is symbolized by a small incident. At the end of every Tuesday sitting, there would be read out the questions recorded in the interpellation book, which the House was to discuss on Wednesday. On March 22, 1949, the last Tuesday sitting but one, the recorder stated in answer to Imre Nagy, the speaker of Parliament, that not a single question had been entered.

Meanwhile the composition of Parliament changed substantially between the 1947 general elections and 1949. The total number of members fell by 47 in 1947, when the Hungarian Independence Party seats were abolished. The Independent Smallholders´ Party retained only 33 of its original 68 members. Even a dozen of the original Hungarian Communist Party members had resigned, or rather been forced to resign. The Social Democratic Party had lost no less than 40 of its 67 elected members, as well as its status as a parliamentary group (fraction). Seven of the 36 National Peasants´ Party members had departed. As for the opposition parties, they had largely vanished. The Democratic People´s Party had lost 17 members and two of the three Citizens´ Democratic Party representatives had resigned from the party. One member from the Hungarian Radical Party (Béla Zsolt) had died and two had left the party, one emigrating (Károly Peyer) and one joining another party. Four members from the Independent Hungarian Democratic Party had resigned their seats. The single representative of the Christian Women´s Camp, Margit Schlachta, was suspended from Parliament for a year at the June 1948 session. Two other members had been remanded in custody. It was not simply that the total number of members had shrunk. Of the 364 members remaining, 120 were new faces by 1949, due to a rate of turnover unprecedented in Hungarian parliamentary history.

In February 1949, the Hungarian National Independent People´s Front was established, with Mátyás Rákosi as president and László Rajk as secretary. Its advertised purpose was to `bind together´ the communists´ coalition partners, but in the event, it became the instrument for ensuring that they atrophied. The allegiances of the party politicians who cooperated with the communists in the People´s Front soon paled, so that they turned into mere fellow travellers. There were no party lists any more for the general elections on May 15, 1949, just a single People´s Front list. This was the first of several occasions during the Hungarian communist period when the election turnout was almost total (96 per cent) and the People´s Front list received a positive vote from 96.2 per cent of the voters. The press proclaimed a `victory´, although the results showed merely that the electorate had noticed that nothing was at stake in the poll, but deemed it more expedient to vote than to stay away. The new Parliament met only three or four times a year for sessions of a couple of days, in which it debated, briefly and formally, legislation drafted for it by the leading bodies of the HWP , and passed it unanimously.

Those were the conditions in June 1949, when a new government formed under István Dobi, once a left-wing politician in the Smallholders´ Party.


The members of István Dobi´s first government
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


Dobi willingly served the communists in all things. The meetings of the Council of Ministers, as the government were chaired by Ernő Gerő, head of the People´s Economic Council, which had replaced the Supreme Economic Council, or by Rákosi, as deputy prime ministers. On August 18, 1949, Parliament adopted a new national constitution, which was promulgated on August 20. (Incidentally, this was the country´s first written constitution to be incorporated in a single document.) The date was significant, because it allowed the traditional feast of St Stephen, Hungary´s first king and patron saint, to be `made over´ as a celebration of the new socialist constitution.

The document declared Hungary to be a people´s republic, in which `all power belongs to the working people.´ Although the text mentioned a set of basic democratic rights (right of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of worship), there were no institutional guarantees for these. The same applied to the codified social rights (rights to work or to recreation). The constitution did not specify the means of political representation or that of other interests, although it laid down that the Hungarian Workers´ Party was to be the leading force in the country and society. The constitution repealed the 1946 act on the president of the republic, along with the presidency as an institution. It was replaced by a Presidential Council, of which Szakasits, the last president of the republic, became president. The competence of the Presidential Council remained largely symbolic, but it included the right to issue statutory decrees, which in practice meant that the legislative work of Parliament became superfluous. The constitution had nothing to say about the law as a regulator of state activity. That silence foreshadowed the practice of the next 40 years, when many of the rights enshrined in the law did not apply in practice. The Kossuth coat of arms in official use since 1946 (the traditional coat of arms of the Kingdom of Hungary, less the surmounting Crown of St Stephen) was replaced by a design reminiscent of the Soviet one.

The transformation of the political structure was completed in December 1949 by a reorganization of the county system. Using a government order, a remarkably lowly form of legislative instrument for the purpose, the 25 counties in existence since the Treaty of Trianon were replaced by 19 counties more even in their area and population. The same procedure was used to incorporate several adjacent towns and villages into Budapest, some of them still quite rural, with an agricultural population. In May 1950, the Councils Act renamed the local- government authorities councils (tanács), a name seen as more apposite, because it corresponded with the expression soviet current in the Soviet Union. The first council elections did not take place until October 1950. (These were the first local elections in the post-war period, except in Budapest, where local-government elections had been held in October 1945.)

The political system of the Stalinist period was complete, but that did not mean it was run by the system of institutions created. From 1949 onwards, there operated a system known as the party-state, in which organizations of the communist party appeared alongside the state structures at every territorial level and in every field. The party-state meant that all operative decisions were prepared and debated by a party organization. The state organizations simply had to implement them or assist in preparing for decision-making at lower levels. Nor was the omnipotence of the party confined to the workings of the state. Party direction extended to formally independent institutions such as local government, economic actors or the press. By the end of 1949, nationalization had extended to all industrial units employing more than ten workers and in some cases even fewer. The authority of the state and the single party covered all economic and social areas except agriculture.


The Standard factory after nationalization.
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


Although there was nothing to legitimate this party authority except a passing mention of it in the constitution, it was applied with unyielding consistency. However, there were no explicit, enunciated rules for decision-making within the party either. For instance, the HWP conformed with the practice of other communist parties in stating that the supreme decision-making body was its Congress, and between congresses, the Central Committee (known in the HWP as the Central Leadership). The practice in these years (and essentially up to 1988-9) was quite different. These two bodies would adopt without essential debate the `recommendations´ made for them by much smaller bodies of party leaders: the 10 to 15-member Political Committee, or in the 1950s, more often the 7 to 11-member Secretariat. Indeed the decisive say in the 1949-53 period was with the paramount leaders. Absolute power was in the hands of Mátyás Rákosi as general secretary,


A speech from Mátyás Rákosi is heard over the people´s radio in Dunaharaszti
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


flanked by Ernő Gerő for economic affairs, Mihály Farkas for military matters,


Mihály Farkas, Gábor Péter, Sándor Rónai and Károly Kiss inspect an exhibition entitled `Hungarian Soldiers for Freedom´
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


and József Révai for intellectual concerns. This party leadership exhibited concurrently, between 1949 and 1953, signs of indissoluble unity and extreme division. Even reports of any political debate within the broader or narrower leadership of the HWP only leaked out very rarely. They too were confined to 1948-9, when the public learnt that certain party leaders and functionaries (such as Imre Nagy and György Lukács) held different views on certain aspects of the way Hungarian society was being transformed. How their views differed did not usually transpire, since the reports took the form of condemnation or self-criticism, or subsequent announcements that the offenders had been expelled from the party. In analysing the political events since 1944, the critics known as the Pathfinders took the view that the transition to `socialism´ in Hungary would not be a sudden one lasting one or two years, but a slow process over several decades. In that way, they considered, it would be possible to avoid the sufferings undergone by Soviet society at the turn of the 1920s and 1930s, after Stalin had obtained absolute power (terror, forced industrialization and violent collectivization of peasant agriculture). Especially important was the idea advanced by Imre Nagy of allowing peasant private ownership and small-scale agricultural production to remain in the longer term and gathering them into cooperatives only slowly and gradually. This would have had great significance in Hungary, where half the population still lived by agriculture. However, Nagy was defeated in the debate and sidelined.

The same happened to the notable communist philosopher György Lukács, who rejected obliquely Soviet-style `socialist realist´ literature, with its formulaic, propagandist character.

The `four-in-hand´ leadership of the country and their immediate colleagues seemed outwardly united (except on a few occasions), but the period from the early summer of 1949 to early 1953 was punctuated by purges. These feuds cost the lives of almost a hundred members of the political elite.

Several disputes arose among the Hungarian communist leaders after 1944. Indeed, some scores had been settled between the wars, when certain communists (Pál Demény and Aladár Weishaus) were accused of factionalism. The party, before and after taking power, had direct control over the state security system—the State Defence Department (ÁVO) and the State Defence Authority (ÁVH), within the Interior Ministry and then as a separate body. Its strategic positions in these bodies had been used mainly against real or supposed opponents of Soviet-style transformation, but in May 1949, a new phase began. The ÁVH began by detaining two senior members of the HWP Cadre Department. Subsequent arrests of several dozen functionaries culminated with the imprisonment of László Rajk, who was foreign minister at the time.


György Pálffy and László Rajk in court
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


The Soviet pattern was being followed again in this purge among the party leadership and the elite in general. Several younger party leaders in the Soviet Union had been arrested in 1948, in the Leningrad Affair, which initiated a wave of terror on a scale not seen since 1939. By that time, Hungary was too close to the Soviet Union for the Hungarian leaders to stand by as such a political upheaval occurred. They too had to begin a search for enemies inside the HWP and its leadership. Who would be identified as an enemy and how depended on several factors. Some people and groups had attention drawn to them by Soviet representatives at various levels. For instance, a report on Mátyás Rákosi himself, equal in value to several denunciations, was sent back to Moscow in the early months of 1949. Ultimately, the choice of first target was affected mainly by the personal and political relations among the Hungarian communists. Rajk was seen as a possible heir to Rákosi. Although he did not hold separate opinions, he was watched with envy and distaste by the powerful leaders in the Interior Ministry and state securityGábor Péter and János Kádár — and still more by Mihály Farkas, another possible successor.

Rajk´s case took on a momentum of its own after his arrest. The charges preferred would have been enough to execute him three times over if proven. Eventually the foreign-policy side came to the fore, with Soviet collaboration. The suspects were accused of planning to take power by force in Hungary, in an anti-communist coup, as `lackeys´ to the Americans and the Yugoslavs. The charges were signed by Rákosi himself, having finalized the text with Stalin at the end of August 1949. Most of the accused pleaded guilty to these preposterous charges, out of devotion to the party or because they saw their prospects were hopeless in any case. When the show trial ensued in September 1949, they repeated word-perfect the confessions drummed into them by their interrogators. Rajk and several associates were then executed. Hungary´s relations with neighbouring Yugoslavia sank understandably to a low point after the trial and there were active preparations for war along the border between them. According to some sources, the Soviet military command had already drawn up plans for an assault on Yugoslavia. However, although Stalin thought war was inevitable, he shrank from starting one and the order to carry out the plan never came.

Further purges followed in subsequent years. In 1950, the upper and middle levels of party leadership were purged of former Social Democrats, of whom several hundred were arrested. This affected not only the faithful Social Democrats, such as Anna Kéthly, but Árpád Szakasits and György Marosán, who had been loyal to the communists and prominent in dissolving their own party. They and most of the other Social Democrats arrested were accused of espionage. In fact, the psychoses of the Cold War cast suspicion on all those with a current position, however lowly, who had lived in Hungary before 1944 (rather than in exile). The generals executed, for instance, had been junior officers (lieutenant and second lieutenant) in Horthy´s army. The turn came in 1951 of the party leaders who had joined the HWP leadership from the Hungarian underground communist movement (Kádár, Ferenc Donáth and Géza Losonczy). They were charged mainly with making statements about the movement and their comrades after being arrested by the Horthy police, which qualified them as informers. One purge had already swept through the state-security organization in 1950, but in the early days of 1953, Lieutenant General Gábor Péter, commander-in-chief of the ÁVH, was arrested, along with several others. The charge was the same as with the other homegrown communists. However, Péter´s case would probably have heralded another, broader showdown, more extensive than ever before. Rákosi had no faith in anyone except himself and Ernő Gerő, whom he considered the most important agent of the Soviets. He had wanted to remove Farkas and Péter back in 1951, but Stalin had restrained him. However, the Soviet dictator had developed such a persecution complex in his final years that he was probably preparing for a great purge himself. The overture may well have been the anti-Semitic campaign that broke out at the turn of 1952 and 1953 and spread through the Soviet empire. Its victims ranged from the Jewish doctors of the Kremlin hospital to Rudolf Slánsky, former general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Among them was Gábor Péter, who had taken his orders direct from Rákosi, but bore grave personal responsibility for the crimes of the organization he headed. Many others would probably have shared his fate if Stalin had not died of a severe stroke on March 5, 1953.


An improvised meeting of mourning for Stalin at the Chervenkov agricultural cooperative in Üröm
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


The terror was not confined to the communist elite, which contributed only a small number of the many suspects and victims. Charges were fabricated against all kinds of real and assumed enemies of the system, not just communists. Countless trials for spying, conspiracy, sabotage and similar crimes took place from 1949 onwards. They were held in camera without any publicity, as were all the trials of the communists and social democrats except the Rajk trial, including many that ended in death sentences. Political activity in Hungary and the other Soviet-bloc countries was stifled, so that expressing support for the declared objectives and immediate campaigns of the regime became the sole permitted form. Any other political views were to be suppressed, as were any manifestations of political activity in public and private life, since these were suspect and suppressible for pre-emptive reasons. Rákosi and his group declared a veritable war on society when they took power, so that ostensible enemies could be identified simply from socio-political criteria.

The churches were dealt several severe blows. The Mindszenty trial was followed by that of the Evangelical (Lutheran) Bishop Lajos Ordass, and in 1951, that of the Catholic József Grősz, archbishop of Kalocsa.


Archbishop József Grősz before the court
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


The persecution continued, even though the churches concluded agreements with the state and their clergy took oaths on the constitution. The State Office for Church Affairs was founded ostensibly to govern relations between church and state, but in fact it kept the churches under surveillance and worked to break them up from within. Signals from the Office led in the early 1950s to hundreds of clergy and Christian activists being arrested and interned or obliged to leave their homes, workplaces or parishes. The state authorities targeted the more active and zealous groups and tried to paralyse the religious and other teaching they did. Compulsory divinity classes in schools ceased in 1949 and great pressure was applied to parents not to put their children down for the optional religious instruction. The political persecution, coupled with the secularization processes present in Hungarian society for some time, reduced the attendance for primary-school religious instruction to less than 25 per cent. Alternative forms of religious education were rapidly organized in parish offices and private homes, but these were relentlessly persecuted by the state. All the religious orders in Hungary except a few teaching orders were dissolved under the 1950 agreement between the state and the Catholic Church. However, the Catholics were still permitted to run four theological colleges (seminaries) and eight secondary schools.

The aristocracy and political, economic and military elite of the pre-war period and the old upper-middle class also counted as prime enemies in Hungary in the early 1950s. The numbers in these groups had been sharply reduced by waves of emigration in 1945 and 1947-8, and the land reform and nationalization had largely destroyed the bases of their prosperity, but they were still persecuted. In May 1951, almost 15,000 people were deported from Budapest as `former exploiters´ and their dependants, using powers under a pre-war Interior Ministry order. Most of them were billeted on remote villages and farms, in the houses of rich peasants, another persecuted group. Some 7000 of them did what amounted to forced labour, in camps set up on the Hortobágy puszta.

The peasantry was still the largest social group in Hungary in the early 1950s. The land reform had greatly increased the number of poor peasants farming less than five hold, reinforced the middle peasantry (5-15 hold, 2.85-8.55 hectares), and left plenty of rich, commodity-producing peasants as well. Rákosi had announced a programme for the collectivization of agriculture in August 1948, but the time-scale was left doubtful at that stage. In 1949, he concluded that the rich-peasant or kulak stratum (to use the Soviet Russian expression) would act as a reserve for the enemy in the case of war. The general notion developed that small farms `replicate capitalism day by day.´ Peasant private property and the free market both counted as factors alien to the system. The organization of cooperative farms was therefore accelerated. Huge campaigns of political pressure, violent agitation and intimidation were launched to `convince´ the Hungarian peasantry to put their land into collective ownership. On the other hand, those classed as kulaks were excluded from the cooperatives.


Workers of the Ady agricultural cooperative in Hungary celebrate the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU)
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


A still more effective way for the regime to have its political and ideological way with the peasantry was the system of compulsory agricultural deliveries left over from the Second World War. The levies made by the state differed according to the size of holding, so that larger farms delivered a higher proportion of their output to the state at fixed prices that far from covered their production costs.


Police inspection of the attic of a peasant farmhouse
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


The levies on the kulaks were impossible to meet. Most of them gave up farming and fled into industry and the towns. To combat that tendency, it was made compulsory at the beginning of 1953 for peasants to till the land they held. Those who did not do so and escaped into the towns were fined. The state was trying to impose a system for tying people to their land that was reminiscent of serfdom, but it was too late. The peasantry had been leaving the land in huge numbers for several years, because it was not providing them with a livelihood. Between 1949 and 1952, almost 180,000 people vacated 1.8 million cadastral hold (1 million hectares) of land, of which only 1 million hold (570,000 hectares) consisted of kulak land. Much of this vast expanse remained unfarmed, as did the `reserve areas´ (uncertain in ownership, unproductive or hitherto uncultivated), which exceeded 800,000 hold (456,000 hectares) at the end of 1952. Those who tried to carry on farming, despite all the hardships, could still expect to clash with the state authorities eventually. From 1951, the delivery orders included sanctions, for instance for `the offence of endangering public supplies´, later upgraded into a crime. Several hundred thousand peasants were charged with this and there were 193,826 convictions for it between 1948 and 1956, of which over 120,000 occurred in 1951-3.


The public prosecutor and a member of the district police force search the attic of Károly Takács, an ostensible kulak undergoing prosecution
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


The political thinking behind this was to point up the high costs of individual farming, compared with the benefits of collective farming. The latter would then look attractive to the poor peasants and to the middle peasants, who had sunk to the same level of penury. This objective could not be achieved by the delivery system, by other, auxiliary sub-systems, or even by the harsh collectivization campaigns of 1951-3. One of the many reasons was that the delivery system, having offered the collective farms some initial advantages, burdened them at least as heavily as it did the private farmers.


Surplus wheat is distributed at the Béke (Peace) agricultural cooperative, Mesterszállás. `Gergely Kiss and his family received 43 hundredweight (2150 kg) of wheat´
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


The low efficacy of the campaigns is clear from the fact that the cooperative sector still farmed only 26 per cent of the arable land in 1953 and employed less than a fifth of the agricultural labour. The private peasant farmers (68 per cent of the manpower) retained 56 per cent of the arable land.

The system of compulsory deliveries derived from the communist notion that the nationalized industrial sector had to obtain funds for its development from the capitalist sectors, above all agriculture. These funds were needed for the type of forced economic growth typical of the Stalinist system. Such growth was remarkable for a very low level of consumption and a very high level of investment. One of the main sources of extensive development was to increase the labour force. (About 300,000 peasants are estimated to have switched to more or less industrial employment in the first half of the 1950s.) This called for heavy sacrifices from several groups and strata in society, so that it could only be sustained for a short time. Despite the repression, the tolerance threshold of the public eventually became one of the constraints on forced growth. The classical period of forced growth in Hungary covered the f irst three-and-a-half years of the first five-year plan (1950-54), of which the peasants were among the main losers. The extremely low living standards of 1952-3, which fell sharply even compared with the post-war reconstruction period, were lowest of all in the villages. Then there were psychological effects of the complex social experiences in the early 1950s, which affected the Hungarian peasantry particularly strongly. `Sweeping the attic´ (being forced to deliver every scrap of produce to the state), `kulak lists´, `collectivization´ and criminalization through `public-supply´ crimes and misdemeanours left scars for the rest of people´s lives. (It emerged in the 1980s that some of these marks had been inherited by later generations, not even alive at the time.)


Police inspect the compulsory produce delivery accounts
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


Communist propaganda identified the working class as the ruling class in a socialist state. Paradoxically, the state paid more heed to the workers in 1948-9, before this tenet was proclaimed, than it did after workers´ power had ostensibly prevailed in the country. The workers were the first (and more or less the only) social class whose wages recovered to pre-war levels, but of course pre-war working-class living standards had been modest except in a few elite trades. During the hardest years of Stalinism, factory workers saw little except slogans to tell them that everything was being done for their benefit. The most talented among them or most loyal to the party might be picked out and turned into factory managers and ministry officials, but this affected a tiny minority, who soon forgot as functionaries where they had come from.

Those who remained workers had little for which to thank the new system. After performance-related pay systems had been introduced in most workplaces at the end of the 1940s, norms were constantly being raised, to squeeze as much production as possible out of the workers. One technique used to raise the quantity and intensity of the work done was to hold work competitions.


Tablet in honour of Mátyás Rákosi in a machine-tool factory
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


Such competitions had been held after 1945, but for specific reconstruction purposes. After Stalin´s 70th birthday in 1949, they became associated instead with political goals. Similar functions were played by the socialist brigades and the Stakhanovite and other movements, designed to elicit ostensibly voluntary offers of more intensive or unpaid work. As the demands on the workers increased, their wages fell, and not only in relative terms. What were actually compulsory contributions to the country´s industrialization (the plan loan and later the peace loan) were levied mainly on wage earners, especially workers in large-scale industry.


Local dignitaries at Gyón subscribe for the second of the peace loans
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


Working conditions deteriorated almost everywhere. Except in a few great showcase investments by the state, the basic requirements of hygiene and labour safety were neglected in the 1950s. As workforces rose everywhere, most new workshops and factories started up without the changing rooms, showers or even toilets required. No attention was paid to possibly harmful emissions or noise levels. The right to recreation remained largely on paper, as the tense economic plans could be met only by constant compulsory overtime. The situation of the working class resembled that of the proletariat in the pioneer years of capitalism and primary accumulation, and had nothing to do with the ideal picture of a `worker state´. The only positive development was that the sizeable unemployment of the late 1940s was soaked up by the extra labour demands of forced industrialization. Conversely, the increase in the workforce provided the main motive force behind the economic growth. By 1952, the standard of living was 20 per cent lower than it had been in 1949.

The traditional form of working-class protest was to go on strike, but in nationalized industry, this now counted as a conspiracy against the state. The workers had to seek other ways of offsetting the deterioration in their position, but these too were pursued with draconian rigor by the state authorities. Absenteeism and failure to meet the inflated work norms were branded as `crimes against the plan´, if not `sabotage´. In 1951, it also became a punishable offence to switch workplaces without permission, as the authorities tried to prevent workers from increasing their wages in the last way open to them. Although several thousand people were prosecuted for `arbitrary resignation´ from their jobs in these years, secret statistics show that the number of those changing jobs without permission was many times greater.

The intelligentsia and the old middle class were certainly suspect, if not enemies under the Stalinist system. The only exception was the `new´ intelligentsia of `popular origin´, whose members had completed their studies under the new regime, under a reorganized system of education steeped in ideology. These still accounted for a relatively large number of the communist system´s supporters at the turn of the 1940s and 1950s, but their subsequent disillusionment was all the greater. On the other hand, the Stalinist system could not do without most of the intelligentsia and the old middle class. The nationalized, centralized economy generated a vast bureaucracy, and there was no way to train up an army of expert officials from one year to the next. The system confined itself to trying to prevent the old intelligentsia from reproducing itself. Measures were taken to limit the chances of university or college entrance for those not of working-class or poor-peasant origin. As higher education became difficult or impossible for those from other backgrounds to obtain, masses of students of worker and peasant origin gained places at universities without the usual educational qualifications (through a system known as specialist matriculation). Many of these dropped out of their courses, unable to cope even with the reduced study requirements. Young people from the old middle class could sense in these years that the system offered them no future. They therefore supplied most of those who tried to flee abroad illegally or took part in sporadic acts of opposition. They were sent to prisons and internment camps in large numbers.

Yet the new system had its supporters, even at the height of the terror. People flowed in large numbers into the new economic, administrative and party apparatuses, onto the army, police and state-security staffs, and into the new cultural organizations. A minority of such recruits had held left-wing views before the war, even if they were not communists. The number of communist cadres returning from Moscow was tiny, but they had survived Stalin´s purges and therefore counted as extremely reliable. They gained the most confidential leading positions. Many survivors of Arrow-Cross or Nazi persecution for their Jewish origins or political convictions supported the regime and were seen as a reserve of cadres. Finally, the largest blocks of support came from young people trained up on accelerated courses after 1948 (mainly in party schools), from careerists who would support any regime, and from those who had been passed by previously.


The first congress of the League of Working Youth (DISZ). A banner is held by two young people
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


However, this appreciable multitude (numbered in hundreds of thousands at least) did not feel secure either. They were in the front line of the war against society, but all but the most naďve of them were afraid as well. The purges in the party leadership sent shock waves down the hierarchy, so that the fall of one man at the top could send several other people tumbling after him. Party membership offered hardly any protection, for the HWP had more than a million members by 1953. Most party members felt no commitment to the party. They were simply trying to camouflage themselves. This uneasy situation encouraged the party leadership to order repeated purges and membership inspections. Those who had been expelled from the party were branded. The uncertainty was enhanced because cadres were always being moved from post to post, due to the constant reorganization in the Stalinist years. Someone landing a job in a provincial guard or with a local council could never know how long it would last, or rather, could be sure that duty would call to a different town, village, post or job before long.

The ÁVH and the police in the early 1950s held files on almost 1.3 million people. The regular judiciary and the special courts (administrative, police etc.) convicted 387,000 people. Of these, 30,000 convictions were for acts `against the state and 120,000 for endangering public supplies. Almost 500 people (discounting war criminals) were executed for political reasons in the same period.

Priority among the authorities´ political objectives went to the economic goal of fulfilling the first five-year plan (1950-54). This was to turn Hungary from an agricultural country into an industrial one, or according to the slogan of the time, into `the country of iron and steel´. The unspoken purpose was to prepare for war. The vast investments in mining, metallurgy, iron, steel and engineering that featured in the 1949 and 1950 versions of the plan were to provide the foundations for arms production to match a massive development of the country´s armed forces.

Stalin briefed his European satellites on the military aspects of the international situation, at a meeting in Moscow on January 8, 1951. According to Soviet intelligence, NATO would be thoroughly prepared for a new war by the end of 1953. The armed forces of the socialist countries had to develop sufficiently to offset that threat. Hungary was to have an army of 150,000 in nine divisions by then. The other countries complained understandably that the time was too short and were obviously afraid of the burdens these targets would impose. Not so Rákosi. He, characteristically, was dissatisfied with the role assigned to Hungary in these grandiose preparations and with his consequent degree of personal prestige. In the end, the meeting adopted a resolution in favour of the Soviet proposals.

Even before that decision, the version of Hungary´s first five-year plan already in force for a year had envisaged a development rate for heavy industry that far exceeded the country´s capabilities. The plan devised in 1949 had radically altered the development trends inherent in the economy. The January 1951 resolution meant that a forced pace of industrialization would have to accelerate further and the plan figures would have to rise again, especially in heavy industry and armaments. No appreciable Soviet help could be expected with this. The injection of capital into military expansion would have to come at the expense of agriculture and living standards.

The Moscow meeting set up a so-called Coordination Committee, to supervise the economic and military sides of the development. This committee can be seen as a direct antecedent of the Warsaw Pact. Ernő Gerő, the economic supremo, and Mihály Farkas, the defence minister, became the Hungarian members. At the end of February 1951, the Second Congress of the HWP met to adopt, amidst scenes of theatrical fervour, the further, utterly unrealistic hike in the targets of the five-year plan.


The second congress of the Hungarian Workers´ Party (MDP). József Révai on the rostrum
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


Indeed, this increase pushed the Hungarian economy into an almost immediate crisis. Rationing returned later in 1951, bringing back with it baneful wartime memories. Although the system of coupons was withdrawn again a year later, it was replaced by sharp price increases. Extremely bad weather in 1952 contributed to a weak harvest, so that the grave food shortages became chronic, extending even to the plundered Hungarian villages. It became obvious that the ideas and targets of the plan had to be re-examined, although Rákosi still refused to acknowledge this and even wanted to see them exceeded. He could not tolerate the idea that Hungary´s army should be smaller than Bulgaria´s. His efforts succeeded early in 1953 in the sense that the strength of the army climbed above 200,000. Rákosi had also taken over as prime minister in the summer of 1952 and set about reshuffling the inner party leadership.


Parliament elects Mátyás Rákosi as prime minister
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


He lost confidence at this point in Révai, Mihály Farkas and perhaps Gerő as well. To succeed them in the longer term, he brought into the leadership several younger cadres in their twenties and thirties, notable for their utter fidelity to him, but otherwise lacking in party experience.

Most people in Hungary found these years intolerable, with full justification. The general degree of freedom was incomparably lower than it was in the Western democracies or had been in Hungary between the wars (for instance, in terms of freedom of the press). There had been no precedent for such tyranny in Hungary for centuries. The daily life of society and individuals was controlled by the country´s membership of the Soviet zone. Certain questions could not be raised and certain answers could not be formulated. People´s social, spatial and intellectual movements were restricted to an unparalleled extent. But even more was expected. Everyone, collectively and individually, was supposed to treat the conditions of slavery and tyranny as if they were something of a higher order, voluntarily borne, even a kind of freedom. Cheerful , even fairground colours dominated in the media in the darkest years. The press and the radio, under tight party control, spoke only of success. They uttered nothing but feelings of gratitude and love for the party, Stalin and Rákosi, in an unprecedented display of unity, because no dissonant note could escape the control and the terror.


Members of the Pioneer movement greet Mátyás Rákosi on his 60th birthday
(Hungarian National Museum, Historical Photograph Archives) 


However, cunning inspired by fear did not predominate in Hungary completely, despite the terror, the ÁVH and the party supervision. Although people were afraid, they had no thought of adopting communist ideology. It was still not generally believed, in the early, most difficult years, that the regime was barricading itself in for long periods to come. Society learnt the language of communist ideology, `understood´ the festive speeches and official commentaries it heard, and took note of what it was permissible to say, when and to whom. People accepted that the debate higher up took place in such terms, but elsewhere, they tried to preserve their own language, culture and collective memory. They looked scornfully on the system that broke them and caused them to despair, but they hoped for some kind of turn for the better. Perhaps Stalin would die. Perhaps the Soviet Union collapse, or the Americans arrive. Until then, they would grin and bear it.

Mentalities and efforts diametrically opposed to communist ideology remained in Hungary in the early 1950s. Everything was influenced and distorted by the lack of freedom, but the vast majority of Hungarian society remained united in healthy resistance to the tyranny. That resistance did not take the form of conspicuous sabotage, `white´ partisan warfare or conspiratorial organizations. The few sporadic incidents of that kind were discovered early and may even have been provoked by the ÁVH. Far more important were the tokens of resistance offered by very large numbers of people. They would go to church, resist the formation of collective farms, or join the many people illegally changing their jobs. These acts pointed to the underlying health of a society capable not only of survival, but of making life harder for the regime and they indicated society´s antipathy to it. The terror reinforced, rather than exhausted people´s solidarity with each other. The resolve that society built up in the Stalinist years was one reason why Hungarian society was able to formulate political programmes and stand up for them boldly and collectively, when the first opportunity came in 1956. The short period from 1949 to 1953 left a very strong mark on Hungary. Luckily, what was begun had to be abandoned soon after, but remnants of it survive to this day (such as vast heavy-industrial installations). The net effect of almost everything done was strongly detrimental. Human dignity was perhaps the only thing the system failed to destroy.

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This page was created: Friday, 5-Dec-2003
Last updated: Friday, 5-Dec-2003
Copyright © 2003 The Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

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