János Kádár, Gyula Thürmer, Béla Király and Imre Del Medico

One could ask: what? Why are these four names lumped together? Yes, we know who János Kádár was and perhaps even who Gyula Thürmer and Béla Király are, but who is this Imre Del Medico? Del Medico is perhaps the most prolific and best known author of letters to the editor. He is an older man who is disabled and therefore spends most of his time reading, researching and writing. He is a fountain of factual knowledge and has a sharp eye for finding mistakes, inaccuracies. In any case, lately a sharp exchange took place between Király and Del Medico over the role of János Kádár.


It all started with a short opinion piece by Béla Király, former commander-in-chief of the National Guard formed in the last days of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (Népszava, July 17). Without going into details concerning the career of Béla Király, it might be worth mentioning that in 1956 he escaped and lived in the United States until 1990. Király, originally a professional soldier, received his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University and taught until his retirement at Brooklyn College. He wrote and edited a number of books on Hungarian history and was the editor-in-chief of a series on East European history. In 1990 he returned to Hungary where he successfully ran for parliament representing a district in his hometown of Kaposvár. He ran again in 1994 but didn’t manage to get a seat. By now Béla Király is 96 years old but still active.


Király wrote a short piece on the occasion of a visit by some faithful communists, headed by Gyula Thürmer, president of the Hungarian Workers’ Party, to János Kádár’s grave on the anniversary of his death. Thürmer said some laudatory words about János Kádár and then compared him to Ferenc Gyurcsány. According to him “János Kádár told the people, fill your bellies because you only live once, while Ferenc Gyurcsány tells the people that they should die of hunger because it is cheaper for the government, cheaper for the country. This is the difference between the two men. That’s why people come to the cemetery to his grave and what’s why János Kádár’s prestige and respect keeps growing in Hungarian society.”


One could argue about the truthfulness of this statement, but this is not what Király objected to. Király was upset that Thürmer didn’t talk about the wave of terrror that Kádár initiated between 1956 and 1963. One shouldn’t be surprised that Türmer didn’t talk about the darker side of Kádár’s career. Király mentioned in this piece that 230 people were condemned to death, something that had not happened in Hungary since 1849.


Enters Del Medico who this time I believe is off target (Népszava, July 22). First of all, he corrects Király’s statement that the reprisals after 1956 were so horrendous that they could only be compared to the vengeance of the crown against the rebels of 1848-49. Del Medico brings up as another example the red and white terrors of 1919. However, I don’t think that the actions carried out by Tibor Szamuelly and József Cserni, communist terrorists, against the “enemies of the people” or the arbitrary hanging of communist collaborators by detachments of the national army can be compared to official, judicial proceedings by the central authority. These left- and right-wing extremists acted more or less on their own. They moved from village to village, hanging a few people in one village and then moving on and killing a few more in another. They hanged their victims on trees or shot them dead. By contrast, after the 1848-49 revolution the punitive actions were administered by military and civilian courts. The same was the case after 1956. Whatever we may think of these court proceedings, they cannot be compared to arbitrary lynchings by groups of maniacal ideologues.


Del Medico then makes another mistake, at least in my opinion. He compares János Kádár favorably with Franz Joseph and Miklós Horthy because, according to him, Kádár was guilt ridden all his life while neither Franz Joseph nor Miklós Horthy showed the slightest remorse. Let’s leave out Miklós Horthy because I already dismissed the white terror as not comparable to 1848-49 or 1956. When it comes to Franz Joseph, I am sure that he didn’t feel any remorse because he was convinced that his action was both just and justifiable. As far as he was concerned he was the annointed ruler of the empire, and his subjects had risen up against him, ruler by the grace of God. The military men (for example the Martyrs of Arad) swore allegiance to him and promised to defend the empire. Instead they turned against him. They were traitors. And legally, constitutionally speaking, he was most likely right. I’m sure that he didn’t feel guilty. On the contrary, he must have felt virtuous saving the empire. From his own point of view, he was right.


Whether Kádár was guilt ridden all his life as Del Medico claims I find hard to believe. Del Medico bases this opinion on the last confusing speech Kádár made before the party’s Central Committee. His brain wasn’t functioning properly and it is very difficult to make sense of it, but I read the speech as an attempt at self-justification. He tried to explain why he did what he did. He asked for understanding: under the circumstances he couldn’t do anything else. Tibor Huszár in his excellent two-volume biography of Kádár began the part of the book dealing with this last speech with a quotation from the speech: “I am a scapegoat in the biblical sense.” This is not someone who is asking for forgiveness, but someone who thinks that he is a victim.


Király, again in my opinion, doesn’t answer Del Medico well (Népszava, July 24). He keeps repeating that his aim was not to give a history of Hungarian waves of terror but simply to point out the sins of Kádár. Király signs his piece as professor emeritus of history, but he is so close to the topic, so personally involved that he cannot be objective. He accuses Del Medico of worshipping Kádár, and therefore “he deserves [Király’s] contempt.” I’m sure, after reading many of Del Medico’s letters, that he doesn’t worship Kádár. He simply had a different reading of a very difficult text. He may also have the rather typical dislike of the Habsburgs without realizing Franz Joseph’s position and worldview.

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Sandor
Guest

One small side issue:
The officers of the Hungarian military could not have sworn fealty to Franz Jozef, and couldn’t have broken their oath to him, because he was declared emperor only in December 1848.
(This was a Del Medico style note.)

Adrian
Guest

Small but interesting point, Sandor.
Was there something in the oath – or the legal status of the oath – that implied it applies to the legal successor of the Emperor? British army officers still swear allegience to the Queen , but I can’t imagine they would have to be re-sworn upon her demise.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Adrian: “British army officers still swear allegience to the Queen , but I can’t imagine they would have to be re-sworn upon her demise.”
Exactly. It is not the person but the crown, the institution that is important.

Sandor
Guest

It takes too much work to find the text of the oath, and I have no doubt that it is to the crown and not to the person. Yet, Franz Jozef had still no claim, because he wasn’t wearing the crown when the oath was taken.
However, even if the oath were binding, the martirs of Arad hasn’t broken it, because they didn’t support an enemy, but their own government. It would have required quite a bit of legal acrobatics if the case were tried in a court. “Luckily,” Haynau removed this inconvenience from the process by summarily executing them.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Sandor: “Yet, Franz Jozef had still no claim, because he wasn’t wearing the crown when the oath was taken.”
I’m not at all sure whether you’re right or not. One ought to ask, for example, András Gerő (perhaps I will!) because he is an expert on Habsburg affairs while I’m not. However, I emphasized in my blog that “from Franz Joseph’s point of view” he didn’t think that there was anything to apologize for. I’m certain that he felt justified.

Sandor
Guest

Of course, you are correct as far as his feelings were concerned.
Do you therefore, think it justified that the 13 of Arad were executed without due process, based on personal umbrage?

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Sandor, I did add: “Whatever we may think of these court proceedings, they cannot be compared to arbitrary lynchings by groups of maniacal ideologues.” There were courts and decisions, but they have little to do how Franz Joseph felt. Del Medico was talking about feeling of guilt and not about due process.

Doug Rees
Guest

Let me play “devil’s advocate” for a moment. What choice did Kadar really have in 1956? Well, he could have chosen not to cooperate with the Russians–in which case the Soviets would have picked someone else (Rakosi and Gero come to mind). Kadar might have been hung himself, or he might merely have been demoted, but he would have had little influence over subsequent events. In any case, Hungary was in for a long spell of brutal repression. My guess is that the repression was less severe–and less prolonged–because Kadar took the job.

Joe Simon
Guest

If I remeber correctly, Franz Joseph did feel guilty or at least he must have felt pangs of his conscience. He became very
reflective and introspective upon the death of Kossuth. He felt isolated and lonely. He forgave his arch-rival Kossuth,
he said, but no one forgives him. There is a historical passage describing his musings, almost a monologue, etc.
Joe Simon

Joe Simon
Guest

Actually Kádár was the driving force behind the execution of Nagy Imre and others. Chou En Lai who visited Hungary in early 1957 cautioned him about making a
martyr of Nagy. Kadár had the audacity to disagree. Also, he was very coy in replying to Gomulka, who expressed some sympathy toward Nagy. WE now know from documents that it was not so much the Soviets but Kádár himself who insisted on the brutal repression. He wanted to stand on Nagy Imre’s dead body so as to appear taller.

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