It was exactly twenty years ago that János Kádár died. Whatever we think of him politically he was, as János M. Rainer, director of the 56-Institute, said a few days ago, "one of the most outstanding and important personalities of the political history of the twentieth century." In his own lifetime a historical period was named for him: Kádár-korszak (the age of Kádár). He is a controversial man. Some of his former subjects remember him and his age with affection and nostalgia while others consider him a cruel murderer. Both assessments are gross simplifications of a very complex and controversial life. After 1956 he was the man responsible for the death of hundreds and the imprisonment of thousands. But that phase of his rule ended by the mid-1960s, and from there on he managed to make Hungary the "happiest barracks of the Soviet bloc." At his funeral there were as many people following his coffin as paid tribute to Imre Nagy at his burial.
Kádár was the illegitimate son of Borbála Czermanik (or Csermanek) who worked as a maid at Villa Austria in then Abbázia, today Opatija, a fancy seaside resort. She was born in today's Slovakia in the county of Komárom/Komárno and went to school for only three years. Getting from this little village to a hotel at the other end of the country shows an enterprising spirit, although it is true that at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century Hungary experienced unusually high mobility. According to some sources about 600,000 Hungarians moved from their place of origin, mostly villages, to cities, especially to Budapest. This was especially true of the area that is Slovakia today. Kádár's father was most likely János Krezinger from the county of Somogy who spent his military service in an infantry regiment stationed in Fiume (today Rijeka). Kádár didn't know who his father was until the late 1950s, but then he met Krezinger and three of his presumed half brothers.
The baby was left with foster parents in a village not very far from where the Krezinger family lived. Kádár to his dying day spoke in a dialect used in that region. At the age of six he joined his mother in Budapest where he finished four years of elementary school and four years of middle school (polgári). He was an excellent student but further study was out of the question. At the age of fourteen he learned a trade: fixing typewriters. That was a relatively "elegant" and well-paid profession. However, he didn't feel at home among these "aristocratic" workers and a few months before he would have gotten his papers he quit.
It was at this time, in 1930, when he was eighteen years old that he became involved with the "movement." His destination wasn't the social democratic party but the illegal party of the communists (KMP) or rather its youth branch. The communist movement was very small, but the authorities paid a lot of attention to their activities. Kádár, then still called Csermanek, ended up in jail several times. By 1942 he was among the important leaders of the illegal communist movement. He was one of the homegrown communists, as opposed to the Muscovite branch of Mátyás Rákosi, Ernő Gerő, and Mihály Farkas who arrived with the Soviet troops in 1944-45. He changed his name to Kádár (meaning cooper in Hungarian). Without going into all the details, eventually all the homegrown communists became suspect and one after the other fell victim to Mátyás Rákosi's ruthless elimination of all who, in his opinion, could be his rival. (An exception to this division between Muscovites and locals was Imre Nagy, who spent about fifteen years in the Soviet Union.) In 1949 Kádár played a shameful role in the arrest and show trial of László Rajk. Two years later he himself ended up in jail and was released only in 1954. Thus in 1956 a lot of people felt that Kádár was one of the "good guys." As it turned out, however, he was cautious when it came to choosing sides.
During the revolution it looked as if Kádár were on the side of the revolution. He became the secretary of the newly formed communist party and seemed to have accepted multi-party democracy. On November 1, however, Kádár ended up in Moscow and soon enough came back with the Soviet troops. Apparently he was more or less kidnapped. Once he agreed to "consolidate" the Hungarian situation, he accepted a role that inevitably led to political suppression and the murder of many, including Imre Nagy. Kádár was "immensely ambitious and didn't shrink back even from violence because he felt that he had a mission." This mission, as he saw it, was to save the Hungarian people from "the horrors of the Horthy regime." According to historians of the period, Kádár wasn't really a reformer. He kept the regime firmly within the Soviet mold. But he managed to get as much out of the system as was humanly possible. Mind you, by the 1970s only through foreign loans. The problems that became obvious by the 1970s could perhaps have been avoided if in 1968 Kádár had allowed the country's reform economists to make the necessary changes. But he refused to admit that the Hungarian economy was floundering.
By the mid-1980s Kádár was experiencing severe mental problems. Most likely cerebral sclerosis. Near the end of his life, against his doctors' advice, he went to the April 12, 1989, meeting of the Central Committee and delivered a speech. Among his incoherent sentences the recurring theme was the murder of Imre Nagy, though he never mentioned him by name. The speech can be read in the original here: http://www.kornismihaly.hu/a_kadar_beszed.pdf Kádár sought forgiveness: "I committed a mistake … and what follows from that. Forgive me!" He said that his churning mind keeps returning to one thing, that he cannot stop thinking about that one thing. He claimed that the people present could have no idea what a difficult situation he was in.
Apparently at the end he foresaw that the regime he created was going to crumble and he was truly afraid for his life. He was afraid that perhaps he would suffer the same fate as his nemesis, Imre Nagy. I'm sure that if Kádár hadn't died in 1989 he would have lived his remaining years in peace. In fact, his grave is one of the most often visited in the cemetery reserved for the famous men of Hungarian history. But his remains suffered what he didn't. Kádár's grave was vandalized on May 2, 2007; a number of his bones, including his skull, were stolen, along with his wife Mária Tamáska's urn. A message reading "murderers and traitors may not rest in holy ground 1956-2006" was written nearby. The perpetrators have never been found.
I think one reason the majority of Hungarians prior to 1989 liked Kádár was that, contrary to some of the other communist leaders, he lived a simple life. He detested the personal aggrandisement so widespread in the communist world. He and his wife lived in a modest house, and they even raised chickens. He kept to himself; he had no close friends with whom he felt free to share his thoughts. Perhaps his thoughts were too painful. From his illegitimacy to his role in the revolution and his part in Imre Nagy's murder. He did play chess with György Aczél, another high level party apparatchik who was in charge of cultural matters. Apparently he didn't call anyone by his first name and didn't use the familiar form in talking to anyone. Behind his back his co-workers called him "az Öreg," the Old One. Several books were written about him. I especially enjoyed Tibor Huszár's Kádár János: Politikai életrajza, 1912-1989 2 vols. (Budapest, 2001-2003).