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.