History of Hungary

Political and Economic Life, 1905-19

Tisza directed the Liberal government until 1890, and for fourteen years thereafter a number of Liberal prime ministers held office. Agricultural decline continued, and the bureaucracy could no longer absorb all of the pauperized lesser nobles and educated people who could not find work elsewhere. This group gave its political support to the Party of Independence and the Party of Forty-Eight, which became part of the "national" opposition that forced a coalition with the Liberals in 1905. The Party of Independence resigned itself to the existence of the Dual Monarchy and sought to enhance Hungary's position within it; the Party of Forty-Eight, however, deplored the Compromise of 1867, argued that Hungary remained an Austrian colony, and pushed for formation of a Hungarian national bank and an independent customs zone.

Franz Joseph refused to appoint members of the coalition to the government until they renounced their demands for concessions from Austria concerning the military. When the coalition finally gained power in 1906, the leaders retreated from their opposition to the compromise of 1867 and followed the Liberal Party's economic policies. Istvan Tisza--Kalman Tisza's son and prime minister from 1903 to 1905--formed the new Party of Work, which in 1910 won a large majority in the parliament. Tisza became prime minister for a second time in 1912 after labor strife erupted over an unsuccessful attempt to expand voting rights.

World War I

On June 28, 1914, a Bosnian Serb assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne. Within days AustriaHungary presented Serbia with an ultimatum that made war inevitable. Tisza initially opposed the ultimatum but changed his mind when Germany supported Austria-Hungary. By late August, all the great European powers were at war. Bands playing military music and patriotic demonstrators expecting a quick, easy victory took to Budapest's streets after the declaration of war. However, Hungary, was ill prepared to fight. The country's armaments were obsolete, and its industries were not prepared for a war economy. In 1915 and 1916, Hungary felt the full impact of the war. Inflation ran rampant, wages were frozen, food shortages developed, and the government banned export of grain even to Austria. Franz Joseph died in 1916, and Karl IV (1916-18) became Hungary's new king. Before being crowned, however, Karl insisted that Hungarians has expanded voting rights. Tisza resigned in response. By 1917 the Hungarian government was slowly losing domestic control in the face of mounting popular dissatisfaction caused by the war. Of the 3.6 million soldiers Hungary sent to war, 2.1 million became casualties. By late 1918, Hungary's farms and factories were producing only half of what they did in 1913, and the war-weary people had abandoned hope of victory.

On October 31, 1918, smoldering unrest burst into revolution in Budapest, and roving soldiers assassinated Istvan Tisza. Pressured by the popular uprising and the refusal of Hungarian troops to quell disturbances, King Karl was compelled to appoint the "Red Count," Mihaly Karolyi, a pro-Entente liberal and leader of the Party of Independence, to the post of prime minister. Chrysanthemum-waving crowds poured into the streets shouting their approval. Karolyi formed a new cabinet, whose members were drawn from the new National Council, composed of representatives of the Party of Independence, the Social Democratic Party, and a group of bourgeoisie radicals. After suing for a separate peace, the new government dissolved the parliament, pronounced Hungary an independent republic with Karolyi as provisional president, and proclaimed universal suffrage and freedom of the press and assembly. The government launched preparations for land reform and promised elections, but neither goal was carried out. On November 13, 1918, Karl IV surrendered his powers as king of Hungary; however, he did not abdicate, a technicality that made a return to the throne possible.

The Karolyi government's measures failed to stem popular discontent, especially when the Entente powers began distributing slices of Hungary's traditional territory to Romania, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. The new government and its supporters had pinned their hopes for maintaining Hungary's territorial integrity on abandoning Austria and Germany, securing a separate peace, and exploiting Karolyi's close connections in France. The Entente, however, chose to consider Hungary a partner in the defeated Dual Monarchy and dashed the Hungarians' hopes with the delivery of each new diplomatic note demanding surrender of more land. On March 19, 1919, the French head of the Entente mission in Budapest handed Karolyi a note delineating final postwar boundaries, which were unacceptable to all Hungarians. Karolyi resigned and turned power over to a coalition of Social Democrats and communists, who promised that Soviet Russia would help Hungary restore its original borders. Although the Social Democrats held a majority in the coalition, the communists under Bela Kun immediately seized control and announced the establishment of the Hungarian Soviet Republic.

Hungarian Soviet Republic

The rise of the Hungarian Communist Party (HCP) to power was swift. The party was organized in a Moscow hotel on November 4, 1918, when a group of Hungarian prisoners of war and communist sympathizers formed a Central Committee and dispatched members to Hungary to recruit new members, propagate the party's ideas, and radicalize Karolyi's government. By February 1919, the party numbered 30,000 to 40,000 members, including many unemployed ex-soldiers, young intellectuals, and Jews. In the same month, Kun was imprisoned for incitement to riot, but his popularity skyrocketed when a journalist reported that he had been beaten by the police. Kun emerged from jail triumphant when the Social Democrats handed power to a government of "People's Commissars," who proclaimed the Hungarian Soviet Republic on March 21, 1919.

The communists wrote a temporary constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech and assembly; free education, language and cultural rights to minorities; and other rights. It also provided for suffrage for people over eighteen years of age except clergy, "former exploiters," and certain others. Single-list elections took place in April, but members of the parliament were selected indirectly by popularly elected committees. On June 25, Kun's government proclaimed a dictatorship of the proletariat, nationalized industrial and commercial enterprises, and socialized housing, transport, banking, medicine, cultural institutions, and all landholdings of more than 40.5 hectares. Kun undertook these measures even though the Hungarian communists were relatively few, and the support they enjoyed was based far more on their program to restore Hungary's borders than on their revolutionary agenda. Kun hoped that the Soviet Russian government would intervene on Hungary's behalf and that a worldwide workers' revolution was imminent. In an effort to secure its rule in the interim, the communist government resorted to arbitrary violence. Revolutionary tribunals ordered about 590 executions, including some for "crimes against the revolution." The government also used "red terror" to expropriate grain from peasants. This violence and the regime's moves against the clergy also shocked many Hungarians.

In late May, Kun attempted to fulfill his promise to restore Hungary's borders. The Hungarian Red Army marched northward and reoccupied part of Slovakia. Despite initial military success, however, Kun withdrew his troops about three weeks later when the French threatened to intervene. This concession shook his popular support. Kun then unsuccessfully turned the Hungarian Red Army on the Romanians, who broke through Hungarian lines on July 30, occupied and looted Budapest, and ousted Kun's Soviet Republic on August 1, 1919. Kun fled first to Vienna and then to Soviet Russia, where he was executed during Stalin's purge of foreign communists in the late 1930s.

Counterrevolution

A militantly anticommunist authoritarian government composed of military officers entered Budapest on the heels of the Romanians. A "white terror" ensued that led to the imprisonment, torture, and execution without trial of communists, socialists, Jews, leftist intellectuals, sympathizers with the Karolyi and Kun regimes, and others who threatened the traditional Hungarian political order that the officers sought to reestablish. Estimates placed the number of executions at approximately 5,000. In addition, about 75,000 people were jailed. In particular, the Hungarian right wing and the Romanian forces targeted Jews for retribution. Ultimately, the white terror forced nearly 100,000 people to leave the country, most of them socialists, intellectuals, and middle-class Jews.

Hungary History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress