Background in History


During 1944 and 1945 Hungary became a battlefield: the Red Army gradually occupied the entire country and Budapest was taken after a devastating siege. The Red Army was both a liberating and occupying force, putting an end to Nazi and Arrow Cross rule, but at the same time, occupying the country as an enemy land. Soviet soldiers committed mass violence against the civilian population and were indiscriminate in their methods of combat. After the war, Hungary remained in the Soviet Union’s domain of influence, bringing a Stalinist regime to power with support from Moscow. State socialism persisted until its collapse in 1989, the so-called regime change.


The post-World War II. coalition system saw the start of verification and war crime trials. After a brief transitional period, the communists, led by party general secretary Mátyás Rákosi and supported by Moscow, took power and quickly established a totalitarian dictatorship. Rákosi was already in a dominant position in 1945, but the emerging democratic and parliamentary tendency was not eliminated completely until 1948. In this process, all parties that threatened their hegemony were gradually eliminated. By then, the Sovietization of the country was complete. The main features of this one-party system were the imposition of Marxist-Leninist ideology, the nationalization of the economy, culture, and education, total control over public life, a personality cult around the leader, the rule of the secret police, and general terror and intimidation. Between 1950 and 1953, secret internment camps were set up, nearly one million people were prosecuted, 40,000 were incarcerated for political reasons, and nearly 2500 families were relocated from Budapest because of their social classification as „class enemies”. A series of high-profile show trials (e.g. the Mindszenty trial, and the Rajk trial) “exposed” the „enemies of the people”, and also cracked down on the rivals within the Communist Party.


From the beginning, education was considered by the communists as a means of replacing the old elite with cadres of the working class. Schools were nationalized in 1948, and the resistance of the Church – a former player in education – was crushed, symbolized by the arrest and life imprisonment of Prince-Primate József Mindszenty. Other institutions suffered a similar fate: the so-called „People’s Collages”, which taught thousands of children with poor peasant backgrounds, as well as the elite Eötvös Collegium were disbanded. The autonomy of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences was eradicated. By the start of the new decade, the entire intellectual life had been taken over by the party state. Actually, all institutions were under strict Party control. The “iron curtain” descended on the Western border, preventing not only travel but also the influx of intellectual influences. Many people, such as Albert Szent-Györgyi, psychologists like Pál Harkai Schiller, and the later Nobel Prize winner György Békésy, chose to emigrate.

In higher education professors deemed “reactionary” were removed. Undesirable books and passages were eliminated from libraries and encyclopedias. Departments of Marxism-Leninism were set up in all universities, while psychology was abolished on the grounds of being a „bourgeois science”. Institutional autonomy was completely abolished and the powers of rectors and deans were taken over by communist party committees. At the same time, the number of universities almost doubled in a few years and the number of students increased by 50 percent. In the admission process, class origin became an important consideration. Marxist-Leninist ideological training was compulsory in all workplaces. Any dissent from Stalinist orthodoxy was silenced. Silencing also applied to many intellectuals who were explicitly communists, such as Lajos Kassák, Tibor Déry, Ferenc Mérei, or even György Lukács.


Following Stalin’s death in March 1953, Rákosi’s position weakened. Imre Nagy, also a communist, became prime minister and introduced reform measures: amnesty to the wrongfully imprisoned and the abolition of internment camps (although released prisoners were forbidden to talk about their captivity under penalty of imprisonment). The reorganized intellectual community formed the Writers’ Union. Reformists took over the editorship of the party’s daily newspaper, and the Petőfi Circle, a youth debating club, was founded. Rákosi’s successful efforts to oust Imre Nagy led to a retrogression to the Stalinist way. In the summer of 1956, disgraced in Moscow, Rákosi was replaced by Ernő Gerő. By then, however, reformist intellectuals demanded the return of Imre Nagy. Sentiments were expressed by tens of thousands of people attending the reburial of László Rajk, a former victim of the regime (himself also a communist), on October 6, 1956. The situation, which had been tense to the point of explosion, finally culminated in a revolution. The suppression of the revolution by Soviet tanks in November opened a new chapter for the country.


János Kádár was a communist leader who served as interior minister between 1948 and 1950 but was imprisoned by Mátyás Rákosi. In the events of 1956, he started out alongside Imre Nagy but later on, he emerged as a leader who was backed by Moscow to crush the revolution by inviting the Soviet army to „create order”. Kádár achieved the consolidation of power through harsh retaliation. In 1958, the trial against Imre Nagy and his associates was launched, resulting in the death sentences of Imre Nagy, Paul Maléter, and Miklós Gimes, all communists who participated in the revolution. which were carried out. More than 20,000 people were imprisoned and more than 200 were executed. In 1963, some of the convicted were given amnesty and released, but the political trials of persons related to the church continued, and the secret police and its informer system continued to operate throughout the Kadar era.

Kádár recognized the need to move on and establish a new basis for the party rule. To this end, he changed policies and proclaimed that “those who are not against us are with us”. This meant that people did not have to actively declare their support for the party anymore, it was acceptable just not to engage in oppositional activities or criticism. In return, people were left living in peace. The living standard increased and beginning in the 1970’s travel to the West was increasingly possible. Official censorship categorized intellectual productions as „Forbidden”, „Tolerated” or „Supported”. A special kind of state socialism, “Goulash communism” was born. However, alcoholism, the decline in male life expectancy, and suicide were ongoing social problems.


By the 1980s, state socialism was weakening. Critical views of the regime spread through the illegal distribution of samizdat literature. The only way to maintain living standards, with an inefficient state-controlled economy, was to go into Western debt, creating a situation nearing bankruptcy. In parallel with the economic difficulties, political opposition to the socialist system took shape. The decisive impetus came from the changes in the Soviet Union. Soviet party general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev introduced far-reaching reforms from 1985 onwards, but the process led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. This paved the way for peaceful regime change in Hungary. By the end of the decade, a succession of parties had been formed, breaking the monopoly of the state party. The elderly Kádár was deposed in 1988. He died a year later on the day of Imre Nagy’s reburial, one of the most symbolic coincidences in Hungarian history. By then, regime change was an irreversible process, and it was sealed by the democratic elections of 1990.


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