János Kádár (May 26, 1912 – July 6, 1989)

It was one hundred years ago today that János Kádár (originally János József Csermanek) was born as the illegitimate child of Borbála Csermanek, a chambermaid in the fashionable seaside resort of Fiume, today Rijeka. He died at the age of 77 on July 6, 1989, the same day the Hungarian Supreme Court announced the rehabilitation of Imre Nagy and his closest collaborators during the 1956 revolution.  His burial was attended by tens of thousands of Hungarians, whose grief seemed genuine.

A few days later Imre Nagy, the victim of Kádár, was reburied. It is estimated that Kádár’s funeral was just as well attended as those of the martyrs of 1956.

Yes, János Kádár was popular, and his popularity has only grown since his death. By 2010 two-thirds of Hungary’s adult population considered the Kádár era the golden age of the twentieth century. The majority of Hungarians who lived under the rule of János Kádár remember those years as an era when they were left alone to build their lives (however modest), when there was relatively little difference between rich and poor, and when they didn’t have to worry about what will happen to their jobs the next day.

Of course, many of the better educated people wanted to have more than relative material well being. They yearned for democracy in which they would have unlimited possibilities for self-fulfillment, including freedom of speech and travel. But let’s face it, they were in the minority. The vast majority would have been quite happy to live in the Kádár regime as long as their standard of living kept going up.

Politicians like to rewrite history, especially recent political events, and the Orbán government’s favorite pastime is talking about the last eight years in a way that makes them barely recognizable. Only recently we heard that Hungary was in worse shape in 2010 than Greece is today.

The rewriting of the “eight years” when Fidesz was in opposition is understandable, but a wholesale rewriting of history is also under way. The history of the entire twentieth century is being rewritten and those who have more than an average knowledge of history are watching what’s going on with growing trepidation.  At the moment the Horthy regime is being rehabilitated, along with Hungary’s role in the Holocaust. The post-1945 period is viewed as one gelatinous mass.

We are talking abut 45 years of varied history yet everything is described as a communist dictatorship, pure and simple. Even within the Kádár regime it is customary to distinguish between the period of retribution for 1956 and the later period of consolidation after 1963. But according to the official Fidesz interpretation of history, the whole period between 1945 and 1989 is  “a criminal period.” Consequently, anyone who played a substantial part in the maintenance of that regime is a criminal and should be punished, including the current Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) as a successor to Kádár’s MSZMP.

János Kádár at the May 1, 1957 celebrations

The Institute of Political History organized a two-day conference on Kádár’s heritage this weekend. The speakers included Iván Szelényi (currently teaching at Yale University); György Földes, the director of the Institute; Ignác Romsics, professor of history at ELTE;  Zoltán Ripp, researcher at the Institute; M. János Rainer of the 56-Institute; and István Feitl, deputy director of the Institute. These scholars tried to place Kádár in a historical context and to come to grips with his heritage.

On the first day most of the speakers talked about Kádár’s successful period, especially the era between 1963 and the early 1970s. By the mid-1970s and especially by the 1980s János Kádár became inflexible and increasingly conservative. He fiercely resisted any attempt to loosen the economic shackles of the planned economy, so by that time only foreign loans could maintain the steady rise in living standards that was essential to keeping up the Hungarian gulash communism.

While sociologists and historians are trying to find Kádár’s place in history, Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció categorically rejects the view that the relative mildness of the Kádár regime was János Kádár’s doing. According Péter Niedermüller, deputy chairman of DK, it was the result of 1956. Kádár knew how far he could go. So, the debate continues.

Meanwhile, the real communists unveiled János Kádár’s bust in the cemetery next to Kádár’s grave. The unveiling was done by the writer György Moldova, a devotee of Kádár. Moldova called the former general secretary of MSZMP “a proletarian saint.” He added that “this country is not worthy of the memory of János Kádár” because it abandoned the regime Kádár built.

One thing is sure: the Kádár era left an undeniable imprint on Hungarian society. How often we read about “the people of Kádár” (Kádár népe). It is a disparaging way of describing people who are not ready to stand up for their own rights, who follow the leaders blindly, who want to have the state care for them. In brief, they behave like sheep.

Just as Miklós Horthy’s twenty-five years left a strong imprint on the Hungarian psyche so did Kádár’s thirty-three. Fidesz’s effort to find the guilty ones who propped up the Kádár regime is a waste of time. Kádár is in the very fabric of Hungarian society even today.

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Guest
Eva, you wrote about the 80s: “so by that time only foreign loans could maintain the steady rise in living standards that was essential to keeping up the Hungarian gulash communism.” I know that East Germany also only survived on massive amounts of money from West Germany, Yugoslavia was in a similar situation – I went there on holiday several times a year, we had a caravan as a kind of summer home and I still remember vividly the inflation of almost 1000 %/year. The money which would buy you a meal one dyear would just be good enough for a drink the next … I’ve heard that the whole Communist Block was in danger of breaking apart – the economy was going down the drain, the ecological situation was unbearable (red sludge!) and Gorbachov must have realised it, that’s why he started Perestroika … Did people, especially in Hungary, generally realise that or were they just as naive as many in the West who really believed that Eastern Europe was catching up ? In reality the gap between East and West was getting bigger, but it seems no one was interested in the truth. Just two examples from the… Read more »
Member
In the country of the 7 million Christians (Hungary, no kidding) some reporters asked random people on the street if they know what holiday is tomorrow. Some had no idea but was happy that Monday is a day off. Whoever knew it’s Pentecost was asked if they knew what’s it about. Don’t look it up – I tell you. Christians celebrate the decent of the Holy Spirit onto the 12 disciples. My bad 11. No reason the descend on Judas. Anyway, most of the good Hungarian Christian folks had absolutely no idea. It may seem I digress but here is how comrade Kadar comes into the picture. A few days ago random young Hungarians were asked on the street if they knew who Kadar was. Well, they knew pretty much nothing. They had some foggy memories from the high school history classes but the ones who remembered the fellow weren’t exactly sure if he was a bad guy or a good guy. A few days ago high school students were asked about Horthy the same questions. They were protesting the protesters who protested the Horthy memorial in Horthy’s high school (we love to protest). Yup. They had no idea. The… Read more »
petofi
Guest
Muttdamon: “…they knew pretty much nothing….I don’t know if this is good or bad..” It’s bad. But fear not, in this respect Hungary is not that far off world standard: in Canada they no longer teach ‘history’–they teach a melange called ‘social science’. Well, that’s in line with the market mentality of the advertising reality–only what’s new counts; the past is rubbish and useless. Not quite. For instance, if you don’t know history you’ll fail to see the similarities between the Garda and the early brownshirts of Germany. We know where that led, but only if you know a smidgen of 1930’s German history. Not useless. There was a hugely informative interview on Kalman Olga last Friday with a fellow who warned about the increasing leniency toward Jobbik actions and declarations and how easily that can turn to serious, uncontrollable developments. Worth a look. But, back to History. As a subject I remember how badly it was taught–memorization of dates and names and battles. History should be the discovery of evolving situations and how the past impacts on the present and the future. You’d be lucky if you could get a teacher to lead you along that path.
An
Guest

I was always amazed at how some Hungarian historical characters, who started they careers with bloody retributions after failed revolutions, like Franz Joseph, and Kadar, were essentially “forgiven” later and mellowed into a good old fatherly figure by old age. A lot of people called Kadar “Kadar Apank” (our father, Kadar), half-jokingly but actually half seriously in the 80s. The man was revered in the 80s by many (not like Stalin or Rakosi, but more like a good old father or grandpa).

dvhr
Guest

The picture shows not Kadar’s but Kossuth’s funeral procession, from 1894.

Ron
Guest

dvhr yes you are right. Here are the various pictures taken at the funeral of Kadar in 1989.

http://www.mult-kor.hu/20120526_egy_korszak_vege_kadar_janos_temetese

And going back to the statue war. A few years ago. They took some of the bones of Kadar. It is assumed it was ultra right. But they never found these guys.

Odin's Lost eye
Guest

Mikhail Gorbachev who had accepted on coming to power introduced the idea of ‘gospriyomka’ (state acceptance of production). This was the state approval of ‘goods’ in an effort to maintain quality control and combat inferior manufacturing. During his day long visit to Brize Norton in the U.K. in 1984 for talks with Thatcher his wife Raisa was taken to the local village school. Her U.K. minders noticed how fascinated she was with the little electronic games many of the children had in their pockets. They sent to the nearest town and bought a selection. These were given to Raisa when she and Mikhail flew home. The story is that at one PolitBuaro meeting Gorbachev put one of the toys on the table and growled at the others “The west put better chips in their children’s toy than we can make”.

stevve
Guest

Sorry, there is no room to rehabilitate Kadar. Just, let us label him as one more of those who sold out their people to foreign bidders.

And let us appreciate the flawless characters, like Ferenc Deak, Istvan Szechenyi, who have made mistakes, but never crossed critical moral boundaries.

GW
Guest
Stevve, there’s no question of “rehabilitating Kádár”, the question is of present-day Hungary coming to terms with the unwritten contract that prevailed during the Kádár era, in which Hungarians recognized the limits to Hungary set largely by the external constraints Eva mentions and, in many areas of life, had a certain amount of freedom in comparison with other East Block countries, in return for compliance and at least minimal support of that state. (Thus we saw, for example, Hungarian support for putting down the Prague Spring, a wound which has still not healed in either Prague or Bratislava with regard to their relationship to Budapest.) Today in Hungary, citizens — and, in particular, politicians — across the present party political system above a certain age were all compliant and supportive, and most benefit directly from their compliance and support. Coming to terms with this past could be thought of as a way, then, of Hungary “rehabilitating” itself, but it will not happen until the extent and nature of the system is laid open and, in particular, it is made clear exactly what privileges and benefits were received. Unfortunately, i do not expect this form of rehabilitation to take place. The… Read more »
Thomas
Guest

You write:
“It is estimated that Kádár’s funeral was just as well attended as those of the martyrs of 1956.

Yes, János Kádár was popular, and his popularity has only grown since his death. By 2010 two-thirds of Hungary’s adult population considered the Kádár era the golden age of the twentieth century. The majority of Hungarians who lived under the rule of János Kádár remember those years as an era when they were left alone to build their lives (however modest), when there was relatively little difference between rich and poor, and when they didn’t have to worry about what will happen to their jobs the next day.”
Normally these assertions should be based on research. Is there any reliable research that you know of that backs these numbers, the two third who considered the era golden age?

Thomas
Guest

not that i have not heard the same numbers before!

Sackhoes Contyributor
Guest
Sackhoes Contyributor
Having the (dis)advantage of being old enough to have personal memories of Kadar, I find it difficult to simply set aside his sins against the Hungarian nation. First of all, he was a member of Rakosi regime, responsible for many atrocities as Minister of Interior, in charge of the dreaded AVH. He was responsible for the arrest and execution of Laszlo Rajk, until Rakosi had Kadar arrested as well. He survived his prison term and reemerged, as one of Rakosi’s victims, a candidate of hopeful change. In 1956, during the Revolution, he became the Secretary of the Communist Party and as such supported Imre Nagy, becoming again Minister of Interior in the Nagy government. Two days before the return of the brutal Soviet Army, he abandoned his post, betrayed his government and his country and went to the Soviet Union to expedite the Soviet invasion by forming an illegal, pro-Soviet government. Simple treason. Once he established himself in the reoccupied Parliament, he gave false promises for safe conduct to Imre Nagy and his fellow asylum seekers, who took refuge in the Yugoslav Embassy. Instead of being transported to their homes, as promised by Kadar, they were taken prisoner and transported… Read more »
Kirsten
Guest
Sackhoes Contributor, for me you describe exactly the problem that Hungarians have to face when thinking about their Communist past. These observations – the actions of Janos Kadar that preceded the stabilisation of the Communist regime AND the rather wide support that the Kadar regime had in the 1970s and 1980s AND the fact that this relative prosperity was the outcome of Communists liberalising and opening up the country towards the West including taking out loans in hard currency – are all valid at the same time. Certainly the emigrants did not have to have a positive relation to the relatively liberal Kadar regime (compared with East Germany or Czechoslovakia), although probably also among them there were people who may not have disliked this relatively better position of Hungary (again compared with the other Communist countries). But for people who lived in Hungary in the 1970s or 1980s, and who were quite content with the Kadar regime, even if it came after 1956, it is more difficult to find only fault in the Kadar regime or in Janos Kadar. And above all it is very insincere to call the whole period “criminal” if the current officials of Hungary are often… Read more »
Sackhoes Contributor
Guest

KIrsten, I agree with your comments. My comments were simply an attempt to give balance to our view of Kadar.

It has been said that Kadar’s long tenure had similarities to Franz Joseph’s. Both ended up mostly respected, beneficient, elder rulers. Both came to power fighting Hungarian independence, invited Russian military assistance, executed the Prime Ministers, hunted down and imprisioned those who took part in the war for independence. Both eventually reversed their course and became a positive force for progress and economic growth. (I well recognize I thread on dangerous grounds, for historical comparison are never quite exact).

Still, I hold Kadar more reprehensible. Franz Jospeh was an Austrian, trying his best to hold onto his foreign asset, Kadar, as a Hungarian, was murdering anfd betraying his own.

Mercifully, both ended up on the positive side.

Member
Sackhoes Contyributor : First of all, he was a member of Rakosi regime, responsible for many atrocities as Minister of Interior, in charge of the dreaded AVH. He was responsible for the arrest and execution of Laszlo Rajk, until Rakosi had Kadar arrested as well. …. following 1956 he systematically hunted down, imprisoned and in some cases executed Hungarian citizens, whose crime was support for the same government (Imre Nagy) to which Kadar himself swore loyalty, before betraying it. In the reign of terror following 1956 over 200,000 Hungarians became refugees. I just felt that his hideous, heinous side should be presented as well, not just the adulation he and his memory apparently enjoys in Hungary. I think you provided a very true description of Kadar. When we try to explain his popularity, it is obvious that is not based on the “horror” he dragged Hungary into. As much as I admire the heroes of 1956, please do not forget that there were not only heros amongst those who were protesting. WWII only ended nine years prior, and many of the nazi collaborators were still walking free. (My father actually run into one of them. They knew each other even… Read more »
Louis Kovach
Guest

@SC. Thank you for the facts…which can always be expressed in fewer words than the guesses for the number of Kadars’ adulators.

Kirsten
Guest

I just happened to read the comment of Ozzysmith on the typepad side. On the one hand I am impressed that it can be described so neatly why “pessimism is so deeply rooted” in Hungary but on the other hand I wish the same effort could be directed to the investigation of 1) how this conviction may already contribute to the unfortunate results (through “disillusionment”, passivity and cooperation), and 2) whether other nations may not face or have faced similar adversities (“prosperity does not come with hard work but through shady dealings and at the expense of others”) and how they deal or have dealt with it. It may sound strange but in some respects people of other nations are not so different and the experience of other nations not useless.

John Marie
Guest

Thank God this man is dead, how shameful you glorify a dictator, you are a sad lot….

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