Hungarian émigrés and the Kádár regime

During the weekends when there is a bit of a lull in the political scene I have more time to read a bit. I usually pick up books or articles, mostly history. This time I decided to take a look at the latest issue of Múltunk (2009/2), a periodical that deals with history of the twentieth century. I immediately found two interesting studies, Tamás Kovács's "The genesis of the political policing of the counter-revolutionary regime, 1919-1921," pp. 64-92, and Juliet Szabó, "Decentralising policy in the Kádár era. The propaganda activity of the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party (MSZMP) between 1958 and 1963," pp. 180-221.

The first one interested me because I began my scholarly activities with exactly this period that the author calls "the most complex and at the same time most disastrous period of Hungarian history." The author is a Ph.D. candidate who is writing his dissertation under the supervision of Mária Ormos, who has spent a lot of time on these early years of the post-World War I era. Kovács concentrates primarily on the activities of the National Army of Miklós Horthy and, although I know a great deal about these years, I learned some the details about the military's usurpation of the civilian courts' role in punishing the communists. Who was a communist or who wasn't was the military's decision.

The other study's English title is a bit confusing. There is nothing here about "decentralizing policy" in the article; it deals with "softening," "relaxation," or "tempering." That is how the regime tried to break up the alleged cohesion of Hungarians living abroad. It is basically an analysis of how the regime handled the different waves of émigrés and how they tried to use their attachment to their birthplace. The regime used a "soft approach." For example, with a few exceptions, those who left after the revolution were not stripped of their citizenship. Although surely the government spot-checked letters going back and forth between family members, relatives of the émigrés did not suffer discrimination. That wasn't the case in the Rákosi regime where people were afraid to correspond with friends and relatives who lived abroad. I specifically remember that it was only after Stalin's death that one of my classmates suddenly appeared with a picture of a handsome little house with geraniums in the windows belonging to an aunt or uncle in the United States. Before that she certainly wasn't going to brag about her American relatives.

There were of course favored groups who were considered to be "progressive." Many of these people, perhaps 10,000, were left-wing émigrés between the two world wars or old social democratic workers from earlier periods. The people who left after 1945 were considered to be fascists pure and simple. Szabó goes into the relationship between the 1945 and the 1956 groups that eventually wasn't the best. At first, the older group rejoiced at the appearance of the newcomers but soon enough they decided that these young people's political outlook was very different from their own. They were, according to the older generation, "contaminated by socialism." I remember how our mentors on arrival tried to convince us that Miklós Horthy was a great guy and told us to read his memoirs that appeared in print about this time. We couldn't be convinced. (Actually the Horthy memoirs are fairly useless as a historical source.) The older group spent years in refugee camps in Austria or Germany before they were allowed to enter the countries of the victorious side. The older generation, civil servants with law degrees or owners of large estates, didn't have marketable skills while the newcomers had professions or trades. The 56-ers were greeted as heroes and all help was extended to them. The difference in our status was striking. Again, a personal experience. While I managed to get an office job almost immediately, my landlord, a wealthy landowner, was working in a laundry at minimum wage that in those days was one dollar an hour. He soon enough lost the job because, of all things, the former landowner wanted to unionize the laundry! Eventually, it was I who managed to find him a respectable job in a store selling Danish furniture, very fashionable in those days. There his German accent (he was born in Germany and ended up in Hungary only at the age of 18) actually came in handy!

Szabó writes quite a bit about the role of Magyarok Világszövetsége (World Federation of Hungarians) and its publication, a biweekly called Magyar Hírek. The paper was published in 50,000 copies and free of charge it was mailed out everywhere in the world. The author thinks that Magyar Hírek was sent to people who "were attached emotionally to their birthplace." That may be, but in my case this so-called emotional attachment was no more than my ordering history books from Kultura Export-Import Company. I needed them for my research. Another topic that needs refining is "homesickness." Sure, there is such a thing as homesickness, but in most cases it is a temporary state that occurs in the first five or six years when one is forbidden to visit the country of one's birth. However, I can assure everyone that this homesickness disappeared from the heart of most 56-ers when they first set foot in Hungary in 1963 and shortly after. It was a grim place. I personally felt suffocated and it was with relief that I sat down in the plane leaving the country and at last could read The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune. Therefore, Magyar Hírek, at least for me, wasn't some kind of cleverly manipulated propaganda piece that appealed to my emotions but simply a source of news about Hungary that was not as easily available then as it is now.

One more footnote to all this. In the first couple of years the regime couldn't quite decide whether to use a soft or a tough approach. They began with the tough one. For example, my parents couldn't send me an English-Hungarian, Hungarian-English dictionary. It was forbidden to send one out of the country. Let's make their lives difficult. Or when I needed a copy of my matriculation and my mother went to my old gymnasium to ask for one, she was told that it is also forbidden to provide a copy for a "disszidens" or illegal émigré. It took them a little time to come to the conclusion that this approach may be counterproductive. Moreover, the Hungarian government desperately tried to break out from the diplomatic quarantine it found itself in after the revolution.

It is fun to read "histories" of the events one was actually part of. There are quite a few books and articles that appeared in the last fifteen years or so about the 56 émigrés and I found most of them quite enlightening.

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Having just read articles in the “Katolikus Vasarnapja” pouring vitriol over Nagy Ferenc and other emigre’s who supported the return of the crown of St Stephen in 1978, I do not think the Kadar regime needed to do much to divide and rule in the emigre community.


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