Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1968: Kádár and Dubček

Because there have been so many references recently to Hungarian participation in the August 21, 1968, occupation of Czechoslovakia I decided to take a look at János Kádár's role in this whole drama. My source is Tibor Huszár, Kádár János: Politikai életrajz, 2 vols. (Budapest: 2001-2003). The second volume deals with the period between November 1957 and June 1989.

Alexander Dubček and János Kádár first met two weeks before Dubček's visit to Moscow on January 29-30, 1968. The private meeting took place in a hunting lodge in Topolčany in Eastern Slovakia. Kádár later described the meeting this way: "The atmosphere was very good. Comrade Dubček even said that there are no two other people in the whole world with whom he could talk in such a way and about such things as he could with me. The reasons are obvious." Dubček's situation within the party wasn't easy because Antonín Novotný, the general secretary of the Czechoslovak party before Dubček, stayed on as president. Moreover Novotný's men continued to hold important positions in the party and in the army. Kádár in response to Dubček's description of the situation expressed his hope that the reform wing of the party could be strengthened, but at the same time he pointed to the divisions among the reformers as a source of future problems. Kádár apparently tried to bolster Dubček's resolve to act forcefully. But Kádár was a faithful party man; he immediately phoned Leonid Brezhnev and told him about the conversation.

Telephone calls were frequent between Brezhnev and Kádár in those days. Mostly Brezhnev called with dire predictions about the Czechoslovak situation. Kádár was led by pragmatic considerations: can the Czechoslovak events be kept within bounds? What he tried to do at least initially was to make sure that  no "counterrevolution" would break out in Czechoslovakia that would necessitate a Soviet intervention similar to what happened in Hungary in 1956. That's why he took upon himself the "role of cautious defender of the new Czechoslovak leadership in the spring of 1968." However, the Soviets were growing increasingly impatient. As it later became obvious, already in March Brezhnev and the Soviet leadership considered Dubček a man whose days were numbered. That became crystal clear in Dresden where there was a summit of the leaderships of six socialist countries. Gomułka and Ulbricht delivered harsh speeches while Kádár "tried to loosen the isolation of the Czechoslovaks" with a moderate speech.

Kádár continued his support of the Czechoslovaks even in May when there was another summit that the Czechoslovaks decided to boycott. Here he was even clearer in his opposition to "hasty decisions." He emphasized that under the circumstances the most important task was "a sound assessment of the situation." Kádár rather bravely announced that it was Novotný who was primarily responsible for the Czechoslovak situation. "If we condemn anyone, although it is not our business, first Comrade Novotný should be criticized and only after him Comrade Dubček." He would not bend even under pressure: "At the moment we have to support Dubček. Our assistance . . . is very important now." He continued: "We cannot solve the problem merely by arms because these are complicated political questions. . . . Removing Dubček can mean the collapse of the Czechoslovak party in the current situation."

But then Kádár started having doubts. According to Tibor Huszár they began to surface on June 13, 1968, the very day that Dubček arrived in Budapest. On that day an article appeared in Literárni noviny entitled "Also an Anniversary." It was about the tenth anniversary of the execution of Imre Nagy. Kádár was offended. We know from his somewhat incoherent final speech that Kádár was fixated on and could never escape feeling guilty about the execution of Imre Nagy. By mid-June Kádár told the members of the Hungarian Central Committee that if a situation similar to 1956 developed in Czechoslovakia he "would immediately vote with both hands for the occupation of the country by the willing and active members of the Warsaw Pact because the socialist world cannot lose Czechoslovakia." But, barring such a "counterrevolution," he still preferred a non-military solution.

On June 27, 1968, Kádár and the Hungarian delegation arrived in Moscow. On the very same day a piece appeared in Prague entitled "Two Thousand Words." Until then Kádár had believed that the Dubček-led group within the party enjoyed the support of the reform-minded elite in Czechoslovakia. But it was clear that the authors of "Dva tisíce slov" were promulgating a multi-party system that was completely unacceptable to Kádár. He no longer knew whether supporting Dubček and the reform communists made any sense. The Soviet leadership most likely noticed Kádár's hesitation and decided to test his stand on the issue. The Budapest representative of the Warsaw Pact forces showed up at the office of the Hungarian minister of defense announcing a joint military exercise, adding that "Comrade Brezhnev already discussed this with Comrade Kádár who agreed." It was clear that this military exercise would be a rehearsal for the occupation of Czechoslovakia. The Hungarian minister of defense expressed his surprise because he had talked to Kádár only a couple of hours before and Kádár hadn't mentioned anything about a military exercise. It turned out to be a Soviet ruse. The minister of defense wrote back: "There must be some misunderstanding. Comrade Kádár doesn't understand the reference to any such conversation." In fact, even as late as July 12 when the Politburo had only one item on the agenda, the political situation in Czechoslovakia, the Hungarians decided that "a political solution must be found . . . and we must caution our sister parties against military intervention."

A day later, on July 13, Kádár met Dubček again in Komárom. Kádár was very upset because he didn't approve of the Czechoslovak decision to meet the sister parties only individually, refusing to meet them together. Dubček and Oldřich Černýk who was also present were surprised at Kádár's behavior "and at this point they completely broke down, they even wept. In their agony they said that they realized now that all doors are closed in front of them." It was after this encounter that the socialist parties met in Warsaw. Kádár maintained that in Czechoslovakia "there is still no counterrevolution" but added that "there are signs of a transformation of the Czechoslovak party to a Yugoslav model." And that would bring "the danger of counterrevolution closer." Ulbright got up and said, "we are warning Comrade Kádár that the next strike might be against Hungary." In the end Kádár gave in and joined the others in the decision to invade Czechoslovakia.

The Hungarian Communist party's highest body, the Politburo, hadn't authorized Kádár to agree to take part in a military "solution" to the Czechoslovak "problem." Perhaps Ulbricht's warning that after Czechoslovakia Hungary would be next made an impression on him. The reluctant Kádár gave in. However, although he might have been better than Brezhnev, Ulbricht or Gomułka, in the final analysis it really didn't matter. The whole incident reminds me of István Tisza, prime minister of Hungary from 1903 to 1905 and again from 1913 to 1917, whose agreement was necessary for declaration of war in 1914. Tisza hesitated for a very long time but in the end he gave his nod. Hungarians like to point out that the Hungarian prime minister was a reluctant participant and somehow this is supposed to be a plus. But in the final analysis it made no difference.