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8: Revolution in Hungary: From Michael Károlyi to Béla Kun

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Revolution in Hungary: From Michael Károlyi to Béla Kun

The phenomena of disintegration in the Austro-Hungarian fleet described in the preceding chapter were only a part of the great upheaval. It radiated from the Empire of the Tsars since 1917, which gripped the Central Powers and led to the overthrow of the monarchy in Austria-Hungary, Germany and Turkey, and to the abdication of King Ferdinand in Bulgaria. The forces of nationalist and social revolution, nurtured by the tribulations, hunger and privations of the war years, had been working partly in the same and partly in opposed directions. Hungary, the target for underground propaganda levelled by the Allied Powers at the various nationalities, was heavily involved. I refer particularly to the report, already mentioned, drawn up by Count Tisza after his journey to Bosnia. The Rumanians and the Serbs also wished to break away and found a greater Rumania and a pan-South Slav state respectively. Meanwhile, the Czechs were planning to incorporate the Slovaks into a Czechoslovak state. The efforts of His Majesty, Emperor-and-King Charles to extricate his realm from the war as soon as possible must be considered against this background, as must also his proposed reforms in home politics.

For Hungary, His Majesty insisted that Count Tisza, the Prime Minister, should introduce a far-reaching extension of the parliamentary franchise. The difficulties which arose over that reform proved insurmountable. In consequence, in May, 1917, Tisza handed in his resignation and thereby introduced the era of short-lived Cabinets. After the fall of Tisza, first Count Moritz Esterházy(1) and then Alexander Wekerle(2), an experienced politician, became Premier. But though, in his manifesto of October 17th, 1918, His Majesty granted Hungary full political independence and empowered Premier Wekerle to announce that the union de facto of Austria and Hungary would be replaced by a union in nomine in which there would no longer be joint Ministries, the Wekerle Government could not withstand the pressure of events. After the resignation of Wekerle, His Majesty entrusted Count Hadik(3) with the formation of a coalition government. It never came into being, however, as power had already been seized by the 'National Council'.

This National Council was composed of Count Michael Károlyi(4), his adherents and a number of extra-parliamentary left-wing radicals. On bad advice, His Majesty decided to appoint Károlyi Prime Minister, not realizing that he had no intention of opposing the revolution but regarded himself as its protagonist.

By the time the old Emperor died, Károlyi had become the leader of the rapidly growing party of defeatists in Hungary whose aims he hoped, as Prime Minister, to realize.

Soon after his appointment to the Premiership, Count Károlyi, wishing to have a free hand, asked His Majesty to accept his resignation and that of his Cabinet. His request was granted and the revolution, led by unscrupulous left-wing radicals and socialists of every shade, hastened on its unchecked career. King Charles even went so far as to agree that the Hungarian troops should be released from their oath of loyalty. Károlyi immediately made them swear a new oath of fealty to the National Council. On the Russian model, they organized themselves into Soldiers' Councils, i.e. Soviets, furthering the forces of disorder and anarchy. One of the first victims of this rule of anarchy was Count Tisza. With complete distortion of the truth, for in July, 1914, he had emphatically pronounced against a declaration of war, he was now decried throughout the country as an instigator of the war. Loyal to his monarch, Count Tisza had remained silent; in silence he now submitted to the accusations made against him and fearlessly faced four revolutionary soldiers who, on October 31st, entered his villa. Though fully aware of his danger, he confronted his murderers unarmed. His wife and Countess Almássy(5) were spectators of the scene and later wrote down what was said, words that a dramatist could use unchanged for the overpowering climax of a tragedy. Count Tisza's death was the symbol of defeat.

Michael Károlyi, however, continued to follow the path he had chosen, or rather to slide down the slope to Bolshevist chaos, a process that was impossible to halt.

To demonstrate the independence of Hungary from Austria, Károlyi, after he had seized power, wished to conclude a separate Hungarian armistice, though, in North Italy, an armistice, leaving the Hungarian territorial position unchanged, had been negotiated for all the parts of the monarchy(6). It was a fateful step for Károlyi to take. Accompanied by fellow members of the National Council, he travelled to Belgrade to meet General Franchet d'Esperey, the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied troops in the Balkans, who had hurried there from Constantinople. When Károlyi presented his request for an armistice, the General asked him in whose name he was speaking. Károlyi replied that there had been a total revolution in Hungary, that he was the spokesman of the National Council and Soldiers' Councils which had taken over the command of the Army. Franchet d'Esperey's contemptuous response to this has become famous: "Vous ętes, déjŕ tombés si bas?" (Have you sank that low already?)

The terms of the armistice opened the way for the entry of the Serbs into the Bácska district and of the Rumanians into Transylvania. The dismemberment of Hungary had begun. General Field Marshal von Mackensen(7), under whose command German, Austrian and Hungarian troops had defeated Rumania in 1916 by a series of brilliant victories(8), was interned upon the orders of Károlyi, and the return of his army to Germany was prevented. Similarly, Károlyi had the Hungarian troops which had returned from the front disarmed and disbanded. Instead, however, of gaining the goodwill of the victors by these measures and by his protestation of strongly democratic and pacifist views, Károlyi merely succeeded in strengthening the arrogance of Hungary's neighbours, from which his country was before long to feel the bitter effects.

Turning to domestic policy, Károlyi, to win over the returning soldiery, had Barna Búza(9), the Minister of Agriculture, announce a radical policy of agrarian reform, which was destined never to be carried out, for the second wave of the revolution swept Károlyi himself away.

The first to march into our country were the Czechs. In December, the Hungarian Government was informed by the military representatives of the Allies in Budapest that the claims of Masaryk(10) on Pozsony, the Slovak region, Kassa and Upper Hungary had been allowed. Simultaneously, the Rumanian minority of Transylvania declared their allegiance to Rumania, and Rumanian troops occupied the country as far as Kolozsvár(11), which was formally annexed to Rumania on December 27th. On the strength of the Belgrade Convention which Károlyi had signed, the Serbs entered the Banat and the Bácska, while Croatia joined the newly created Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

The Károlyi Government(12) supinely watched this vivisection of their country. They even forbade the troops to oppose the Rumanian advance. Politically, the Government was moving further and further to the left. In January, a new Cabinet was formed, the Social Democrat members of which were in sympathy with the radical-wing, Austro-Marxist views of Otto Bauer(13) and Viktor Adler. On January 11th, 1919, King Charles IV and Queen Zita in their coronation robes as King and Queen of Hungary, Károlyi was proclaimed President of the Republic of Hungary. In the newspapers, however, the name of Béla Kun(14) was appearing with increasing frequency. Béla Kun (Kohn) was a Hungarian Jew who, while serving in an Austrian regiment, had been convicted of theft from his comrades and had deserted to the Russians, returning from Moscow to Hungary in November, 1918. He and his friends were inciting the masses and in their Vörös Ujság ('Red Paper') the armed intervention of the proletariat was threatened. On Match 19th, 1919, the French Colonel Vyx(15) demanded, in the name of the Allies, that the Hungarian troops be withdrawn to the line of the Tisza. Rightly or wrongly the Hungarians understood that the line was to constitute the definite frontier between Hungary and Rumania, the price, it was rumoured, for their renunciation of the Tripartite alliance. The Hungarian Social-Democrats fused with the Communists. Károlyi, in a proclamation dated March 21st, 1919, turned 'to the world proletariat for justice and help', resigned from office, and relinquished power 'to the proletariat of the Hungarian peoples'. The Paris Peace Conference, which opened on February 16th, 1919, and by which it was decided that almost all Hungarian territory should be occupied by the troops of Hungary's neighbours, paved the way for the Bolshevik Revolution, in the name of which Béla Kun launched his bloodthirsty regime of terror.

"Hungary," writes the English author, Owen Rutter, "would never have gone Bolshevik if the Allies had restrained the Succession States from pre-empting their rights under the coming peace treaty. Much of the mischief was caused by the extraordinary influence secured in Paris by the Czech leaders, who not only obtained the reversion of Slovakia, but also permission to occupy it before the treaty which was to regulate the cession was either published or signed, while the em>Rumanians and Yugoslavs secured similar advantages at Hungary's expense." ( Regent of Hungary, London, 1939, p. 160)

The atrocities of the Bolshevists filled the land with horror. Their agitators penetrated even into our hitherto peaceful district. The peasants were terrorized by groups of men who went from village to village, held courts martial, and with sadistic pleasure hanged all those who in the war had been awarded the gold medal for bravery.(16) "Terror is the principal weapon of our regime," boasted Tibor Szamuely(17), a close collaborator of Béla Kun, whose main function was that of an executioner. The Jews who had long been settled among us were the first to reprobate the crimes of their co-religionists, in whose hands the new regime almost exclusively(18) rested.

Béla Kun attempted to raise an army. From resentment at the advance of the Czechs, Rumanians and Serbs, or from sheer distress, a number of demobilized officers joined it, and these troops fought some successful actions against the Czechs, not so much because they were activated by loyalty to the Béla Kun regime but because they were fired by their ancient Hungarian patriotism.

The Rumanians made the Bolshevization of Hungary an excuse to advance yet further with their well-armed forces, plundering as they went; train-loads of loot rolled eastward. Our finest breeding cattle were driven off, among them the best stock on my estate. We were deeply moved a month after this pillage to find three of the brood mares standing outside the stable door, one with the saddle hanging under her belly, another with a harness dangling round her neck and the third without even a halter. Where they had come from, how they had escaped, they could not tell us, but they must have covered at least three hundred miles to return to their home.

Pressure was bound to set up counter-pressure. The best elements in the land could be counted on to gather around those determined men who had made up their minds to free the country from the Bolshevist reign of terror and to appeal to the Great Powers to restrain the conquering ardour of our victorious neighbours. Soon after the Commune had been proclaimed in Hungary, Count Stephen Bethlen(19) gathered around him in Vienna a number of expatriate politicians. At the same time and independently of Bethlen, for travel was virtually impossible and news spread slowly and uncertainly, Count Julius Károlyi(20) in the second half of April was forming an opposition government in Arad, then occupied by French troops, whose Commander, General de Gondrecourt, promised Károlyi help and support. The Rumanians, fearing that the excuse for their occupation of Hungary would vanish with the overthrow of the Communist regime, were perturbed by this development. They advanced on Arad and Károlyi decided to move to Szeged, whereupon the Rumanians, disregarding the passes issued by General de Gondrecourt(21) , arrested him and his colleagues as they passed through Rumanian-occupied territory. They were held prisoners for several days.


1. Count Moritz Esterházy, 1881-1960. Later he returned to politics, elected MP in 1931 and 1939. One of the confidential advisors of Horthy during WW2.

2. Alexander Wekerle (1848-1921) was finance minister between 1889 and 1895. From 1892 to 1895 he was Hungary's first prime minister without aristocratic roots. He established modern, sound governmental fiscal policies, balanced budgets, introduction of gold standard in Hungary. Introduced liberal laws on matters of religion.

3. Count János Hadik (1863-1933). Major landowner, politician, after 1919 he was active in agrarian organizations.

4. Count Mihály Károlyi, 1875-1955, was member of parliament from 1905 on behalf of the Indepencence Party. In the Summer of 1919 he emigrated to France. In July, 1944, he offered his services to the Soviet embassy in London to organize a Hungarian brigade from prisoners of war to fight the Nazis. He was refused. (Gosztonyi, P.: Air Raid, Budapest!, Budapest: Népszava, 1989. P. 37, in Hung.)

5. Tisza's niece, Countess Denise Almássy, 1890-1950.

6. On November 3, 1918, representatives of the High-Command of the Allied Forces in Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Army Command signed a cease-fire agreement in Padua. This defined a line of demarcation only along the south-western front, and allowed the entente forces to cross or occupy any part of the Monarchy.

7. August von Mackensen, 1849-1945.

8. Horthy is too sparse with details. On August 27, 1916, Rumania attacked Austria-Hungary on the day when Rumanian Premier Bratianu (1864-1927) assured Ambassador Count Czernin of Rumania's neutrality. A Rumanian force of 440 thousand entered deep into Transylvania that night. Axis forces counter-attacked on October 4th, under the command of German general Mackensen. By December 6 Bucharest was taken. An armistice was signed at Focsani on December 9, 1917. The Peace Treaty of Bucharest was signed on May 7, 1918. Secretly encouraged by the French who promised Transylvania and Eastern Hungary to the Tisza River after the war, Rumania reentered the war on November 9, 1918. As part of the Allied Forces, she occupied, and thoroughly looted, eastern Hungary.

9. Barna Buza, politician, 1873-1944.

10. Tomás Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937), Czech Nationalist writer, philosopher, and politician, founder and first president of Czechoslovakia.

11. Cluj, in Romanian.

12. One of the ministers of this government was Oscar Jászi. Horthy did not mention his name specifically. Nevertheless, Jászi's corrosive propaganda against Hungary is pervasive even today. After the revolution Jászi immigrated to the USA and became a professor at Oberlin College. His books, particularly his Revolution-Counterrevolution, are still quoted quite often.

13. Otto Bauer (1881-1938), Viktor Adler (1852-1918);Austrian socialist politicians.

14. Béla Kun (1886-1939) in 1914 he worked for the Laborer's Insurance Company in Kolozsvár. Charged with misappropriating some funds, he returned the money and the case was dropped. Serving on the Russian front in the spring of 1916 he became a prisoner of war. He was Lenin's emissary to Hungary. After the 1919 revolution he spent his life in the Soviet Union. He was ordered shot by Stalin in 1939.

15. Fernand Vix (1876-1941), Mission head of the Allied Forces.

16. There were several peasant rebellions against the Communist regime during its 133 days. One of the ministers of the 1949 - 1956 Communist reign of terror, Zoltán Vas, who himself sat in Horthy's prisons for over 16 years, reports that anti-Communist peasant rebellions had to be suppressed in Trans-Danubia, also in twenty villages in the Kalocsa region, as well as in Budapest. These counter-revolutionary rebellions took Szamuely's "Lenin Boys" several days to suppress. (Vas, Zoltán: Horthy, 3rd ed., Budapest: Szépirodalmi, 1977.)

17. Tibor Szamuely (1890-1919), Communist newspaperman, chairman of the roving martial law enforcer "Lenin Boys" behind the front.

18. Of the 34 member Hungarian Supreme Soviet, 23 were Jewish.

19. Count István Bethlen (1874-1946), organized the Anti-Bolshevik Committee in Vienna, he was to became prime minister later, arrested by the KGB in 1945 and died in a Soviet prison.

20. Count Gyula Károlyi (1871-1947), landowner, politician. One of Horthy's close confidant during the whole period.

21. French general, commander of Allied forces in Hungary in 1919.


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