Background in History


The Crown Prince of the Monarchy, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. By August, Europe was up in arms; the world’s first all-out modern war had begun. The Central Powers, the Entente, and their allies mobilized 20 million troops in the first month of the war. Enthusiastic crowds cheered in the streets of the capitals in the hopes of a swift and decisive victory, but their optimism faded quickly as soldiers began to fall by the thousands following the first battles. The people of Europe, along with their political and military leaders, had to realize that this conflict had opened a new chapter in history. By the time the guns fell silent, Europe had become a very different place from what it had been four years earlier. The fires of war consumed the historic states of Central and Eastern Europe, leaving behind a legacy of hatred, violence, and ultimately another, more devastating worldwide conflagration. The period between 1914 and 1920 was certainly one of the most dramatic chapters in Hungary’s history. The Hungarian Soviet Republic and Trianon marked a particular turning point, largely determining the course of subsequent historical developments.


Over a period of four years, nearly 3.5 million soldiers were mobilized from the Kingdom of Hungary, almost one-fifth of the total population. The number of the dead amounted to 661 000, with more than twice as many wounded, missing, or prisoners of war. Across Europe, the greatest loss of blood was suffered by young men between the ages of 18 and 35: a whole generation of fathers, sons, and husbands never returned home or were physically or mentally disabled. The hinterland got affected on an unprecedented scale: in Budapest, as early as 1915, people stood in long queues in front of grocery stores, tickets in hand, waiting for their rations to be redeemed. By the middle of 1918, the hinterland and the army had exhausted their final reserves, the dualist state was on the verge of collapse. The situation was further aggravated by the spread of the Spanish flu, an unfolding worldwide pandemic. By November, the First World War was over, but Europe was far from a final farewell to arms .

  1. Between October 28, and 30, 1918, mass demonstrations took place in the streets of Budapest. People wanted Mihály Károlyi, the leader of the parliamentary opposition, and an early opponent of the war, to become prime minister. At the same time, the disintegration of the Monarchy’s state structure began. In October 1918, the Czechoslovak state was proclaimed. In the following weeks, the Croats, Serbs, Romanians, Transylvanian Saxons, and Ruthenians declared their secession from Hungary. De facto, the historic Hungarian state of a thousand years no longer existed .

In Budapest, the so-called Aster Revolution was victorious: the emperor, Charles IV, appointed Károlyi as prime minister on October 31. On the same day, István Tisza, who had been declared responsible for the war, was assassinated by unknown perpetrators. A fragile national consensus was formed around Károlyi’s person, involving liberal and nationalist parties, as well as internationalist, socialist parties, and bourgeois radical intellectuals. Among their goals were the introduction of universal and secret suffrage, including for women, the abolition of press censorship, freedom of assembly, land distribution, and various social measures. The legitimacy of the Károlyi government came from the Hungarian king, and the majority of the political elite conceived a parliamentary monarchy. Yet, over the next two weeks, events in November led to the proclamation of the Hungarian People’s Republic in Budapest.


Between 31 October 1918 and 21 March 1919, Károlyi had to deal with an impossible situation. While a significant part of the country was under Czech, Romanian, and Serbo-French occupation, the Spanish flu, which had claimed 20-100 million victims worldwide, struck. The influx of refugees from occupied territories began. Hungary’s independence was not recognized by the Entente, the economic and military situation continued to deteriorate, law and order were disrupted in numerous places, and public administration disintegrated in large parts of the country. The Hungarian state descended into chaos. Right-wing groups, as well as communists, led by Béla Kun, attacked the government. The popularity of the new regime quickly evaporated. The Entente-friendly foreign policy, based on Wilsonian principles, ended in failure since only the Hungarian side respected the demarcation lines. It became evident that the occupation was not a temporary measure and that Hungary could expect nothing good from the peace conference.

Károlyi saw the only solution in the Social Democrats, who were supported by the masses. The Social Democrats accepted the invitation to the government but at the same time, unbeknownst to Károlyi, they made a compromise with the then-imprisoned communists. The Social Democrat and the Communist Parties merged, and although Béla Kun enjoyed negligible support at the time, he seized control in the following months. “The Hungarian Soviet Republic was formed out of a national panic,” as Zsigmond Kunfi, a leading figure in the party later explained the Social Democrats’ decision.

  1. By 22 March 1919, red flags were waving on the buildings of Budapest, and the manifesto titled “To All” proclaimed the proletarian dictatorship: the Hungarian Soviet Republic, the second Bolshevik state in the world after Soviet Russia, had been established. Leftist Jewish intellectuals were taking part in the communist government in great numbers. Kun Béla was also of Jewish origin, although like others, as a communist revolutionary, he did not regard himself as Jewish. Martial law was introduced, revolutionary violence was proclaimed and the Soviet-style reorganization of the country began: factories, banks, schools, hospitals, housing, and land were nationalized. Despite the demands of the peasantry, the regime intended to carry out collectivization instead of land distribution. Social and child welfare decrees were adopted, to help the poor and the working class, including the 8-hour workdays, a ban on child labor, the housing of proletarian families in bourgeois homes, and workers’ vacations.

Behind the Hungarian Soviet Republic marched the entire spectrum of Hungarian intellectuals: Babits, Kosztolányi, Móricz, Kassák, Márai, Gárdonyi, Karinthy, and many others. The philosopher György Lukács played an important role in the direction of the cultural policy of the revolutionary government. In educational policy, there was a combination of justified and forward-looking aspirations (for example the plan for a general reform of the school system, openness to modern intellectual trends) and violently radical steps out of touch with reality (the abolition of university autonomy, declaration of the supremacy of Marxist ideology, the fight against „clericalism”, the dismissal of „bourgeois” and „reactionary” professors). Death squads led by József Cserny, Tibor Szamuely, and Ottó Korvin were responsible for the revolutionary „red” terror which resulted in about 600 deaths and hostage-taking estimated at a number of 1400 .


The fall of the proletarian dictatorship was inevitable. The peasantry demanded land redistribution, a significant part of the intellectuals became disillusioned by the violent anarchy, and even the workers went on strike. The Red Army directed by the communists attempted to defend the country’s territory, but despite its successes in June and July, it stood no chance against the overwhelming Romanian forces. On August 1, the Hungarian soviet government resigned, the leadership fled, and the vast majority of people’s commissars evaded prosecution. In Budapest, the trade union government led by Gyula Peidl awaited the arrival of the Romanian troops.

Counter-revolutionary forces in Hungary blamed the communists and the Jews for the disintegration of the army and the country. Hundreds of innocent civilians fell victim to the retaliatory campaigns of the right-wing detachments led by Antal Lehár, Iván Héjjas, and Pál Prónay. The White Terror initially unfolded in Szeged, where the counter-government plotted to overthrow the Hungarian Soviet Republic. It was here that the „Szeged idea”, the ideological core of the counter-revolution (anticommunism, nationalism, antisemitism) was formulated. It was from here that the counter-government’s self-appointed war minister, Miklós Horthy, moved to Siófok, spreading the retaliatory actions to the Transdanubian region. The White Terror claimed between 1000 and 2000 lives in Hungary.

  1. On August 10, 1919, the minister of religion and public education annulled all public education regulations of the soviet republic. Disciplinary proceedings were instituted, and those involved in the implementation of the proletarian dictatorship’s education policy had to justify their activities. Many were suspended and forced to retire.

On November 16, 1919, the entry of Navy Admiral Miklós Horthy on a white horse into Budapest (by that time abandoned by the Romanians), marked the beginning of consolidation. By this time, the National Army under his command had become the deciding political factor. After Horthy assured the conservative aristocracy and Sir George Russell Clerk, the representative of the Entente mission that violence would stop, the path was cleared for the seizure of political power over the country. A new coalition government was formed, the first internationally recognized government of independent Hungary in more than a year. On December 1, 1919, Hungary was invited to the peace conference that had been meeting for 11 months.Historic Hungary paid for the war with its statehood. When the time came to attend the peace conference, the partitioning of the country was already decided. Prague claimed the entire northern part of the country, Bucharest the eastern part and Belgrade the southern part. Even Austria claimed the border areas. The Hungarian government had no illusions about the severity of the peace terms.

The peace delegation left Keleti Railway Station in January 1920, led by Albert Apponyi. The peace terms, which were even more severe than expected, were received shortly after their arrival. Apponyi’s famous speech, the last attempt of historic Hungary to defend itself, moved many of those present but it could not change the situation. The peace treaty had to be signed, which took away two-thirds of the country’s territory and population (from 21 million to 7.615 million). 3.3 million Hungarians became inhabitants of a foreign country by the stroke of a pen, most of them living in closed blocks along the new borders. The document was signed by the two commissioners on June 4, 1920, they left without a word. The Trianon peace treaty created a hopeless economic and social situation, which was made worse by a particularly harsh winter. The scale of deprivation was immense due to the lack of food, firewood, and fuel.

The situation was exacerbated by the influx of more than 350,000 Hungarian refugees from the annexed territories, most of them intellectuals and civil servants, who were forced to leave their homeland by the new authorities and were often housed with their families in railway wagons for years.

Overall, however, the six years of hardship between 1914 and 1920 had come to an end, and now-independent Hungary could begin to create the conditions for its survival and integration into the new Europe.


The first great wave of emigration started after 1880 and lasted until the First World War. Over a million, mostly rural peasants, sought a better livelihood in America, fleeing poverty at home. Immediately after the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, people of left-wing sentiment left the country as political refugees. The rise of numerus clausus and antisemitism in the 1920s led to the departure of a number of young Jewish intellectuals of outstanding talent, who subsequently made a name for themselves abroad, including Mihály Polányi, Leó Szilárd, Jenő Wigner, Ede Teller, and János Neumann.


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