The true story of Béla Király, the hero of the 1956 revolution. Part I

The other day a friend from Hungary sent me a brief e-mail with a link: “What do you think? For me this is too bizarre, especially because of Berkesi.” The link was to a Pesti Srácok article written by a certain Gábor Mező, who is apparently an associate of the Hamvas Institute, whose website is singularly short on any information about the institute’s activities. Mező claims that while doing research on an unrelated topic, he happened upon copies of documents that prove that Béla Király, the hero of the 1956 revolution, was an agent of the so-called Military Political Department (Katonai politikai osztály/KPO) of the Ministry of Defense. It was there that he found a statement by András Berkesi attesting to the fact that Király was his recruit and that Király dutifully reported to him on his fellow officers. András Berkesi did work for the KPO between 1945 and 1950, when he was arrested and sentenced. Yet he remained a loyal communist and fought, defending the regime, during the 1956 revolution. He became famous in the sixties as a celebrated author of crime novels.

According to these documents, former high-ranking officers, by that time in emigration, approached Király, who dutifully reported all the information he received from abroad and subsequently cooperated with KPO. As a result of his activities a fellow officer, Jenő Czebe, was uncovered. While trying to escape, he was shot. According to the document, Czebe’s fate was sealed by Király’s work as an agent.

Although I knew Béla Király quite well when we both belonged to a small association of Hungarian historians in the United States, by the mid-80s we lost touch. Of course, I knew that Béla returned to Hungary in 1990, where he ran for parliament as a candidate from the district of his hometown, Kaposvár. Occasionally I read short news items about his activities, which indicated a rather complicated series of political moves. At first he was an independent, but soon enough he moved over to the ruling, right-of-center MDF. It didn’t take long for him to become a member of the liberal SZDSZ. Király’s political career ended with him serving as a military adviser to Viktor Orbán (1998-2002).

Béla Király at the time of the 1956 revolution

Our fellow historian, Peter Pastor of Montclair University, was much closer to Béla than I was, and I decided to forward the e-mail with the link to him. Perhaps, I thought, he can shed light on that story. And indeed, Peter immediately answered and with only slight modifications authenticated the story. At the same time he promised me several articles that he had published on Béla Király, who died in 2009 and was buried with full military honors. Peter expressed his sorrow that the true story of Béla Király so far has been told by people on the right. It would be time, he said, for the left to face the fact that Béla Király was a fake who served every regime he ever encountered, including those of Ferenc Szálasi and Mátyás Rákosi.

I could hardly put down the material Peter sent me. Perhaps the most comprehensive summary of Király’s career, including a short description of his involvement in the events of the 1956 revolution, was Peter’s article “Béla Király in the light of his autobiographies,” which appeared in Memoirs and History (2012). I was mesmerized–and dismayed–by what I read. How could I have been so misled by this man? Both Peter and I had considered him a friend. But what is more important, how could he mislead a whole country?

The material I received covers Király’s career from 1912, when he was born, to 1956. During this period Hungary had a turbulent history. It seems that Király was the epitome of the survivor. His career was studded with betrayal and deceit. And yet, it is difficult to be a successful liar, especially if you live your life in the limelight and feel compelled to write and rewrite your life story. What Peter Pastor did was to compare his many published autobiographical writings and interviews and test them against what we know to be verifiable historical facts.

One must admire Király’s miraculously smooth move, within a few months, from being a faithful follower of the Hungarist/Nazi Ferenc Szálasi to being a secret communist party member in the military political department of the ministry of defense. When I call him a Szálasi loyalist I don’t use the term lightly. In January 1945 he received the high decoration of the military cross of the order of merit (Magyar Érdemrend Tiszti Keresztje). By that time Szálasi and his fellow Nazis, including Király, had moved to Kőszeg on the Austro-Hungarian border. Two months later, in March 1945, he was inducted into the Vitézi Rend, which became infamous recently because of Sebastian Gorka’s membership in the order. Keep in mind that by March 1945 Budapest was occupied by Soviet troops and that the war in Europe was rapidly coming to an end.

It was during his time in Kőszeg that Király began plotting his political survival; it was there that he decided to desert and go over to the Soviets. Of course, in his several descriptions, he greatly embellished his role in the events that took place there. Almost everything he wrote about the taking of Kőszeg by the Soviets was an outright lie. He was not the leader of the brigade defending the city, and he didn’t save Kőszeg from bombardment. Moreover, what he neglected to tell was that he stole the military vehicle of his superior officer and drove over to the Soviets, taking with him the documents of the military command.

Anyone who is familiar with the history of the post-war years cannot help but wonder how it was possible for Király to become a full-fledged member of the communist party. My very first thought was: “But there were the ‘denazification commissions.’ How did he manage to pass?” Well, there is an explanation. At this time the so-called people’s courts were investigating cases of war crimes, and one of the many hundreds of people under investigation was Károly Beregfy, minister of defense in the Szálasi government. The prosecution needed more evidence against Beregfy when “unexpected help came.” As Pál Kornis, former party secretary of the military political department of the ministry of defense at the time, reports in a book titled I appear as a witness, published in 1988, “a civilian showed up from Kaposvár who was a direct subordinate of Beregfy and was ready to give information on Beregfy’s activities as minister of defense. Béla Király was an impressive, good-looking and a very well-prepared officer. It was with his assistance that we managed to close the case of Károly Beregfy.” Beregfy was condemned to death in March 1946. As Kornis puts it, Király “managed this way to get a transfer ticket to the new army.”

Király in his memoirs written in 1981 and 1986, i.e. before the appearance of Kornis’s book, maintained that it was Beregfy’s defense that called him as a witness. However, after 1988 he had to have an explanation for Kornis’s allegations. In the 2004 version of his life he admitted that he had been interrogated by Kornis on October 23, 1945 but adds that the information he provided was not substantial enough to call him to the witness stand. A little more than a month later, on December 2, 1945, Király sailed through the investigation by the ministry’s denazification commission.

To be continued

August 27, 2017
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Istvan
Guest

I look forward to reading the next essay on Béla Király. Because Király was supposedly an anticommunist 56 veteran his association with the Arrow Cross and Ferenc Szálasi would have actually been a positive for the CIA assuming they were aware of it. As we know today the CIA saw these fascists in some case as allies against Communism, in fact the predecessor of the CIA the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and part of its immediate successor agency the US Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research probably knew full well that numerous Central European anti-communists admitted to the USA were in fact direct collaborators with the fascists.

They did not know however that some were in some cases also double agents for the Communists. Case in point being Zoltan Szabo who served in the US Army before his retirement ( see https://web.archive.org/web/20060206083126/http://www.dss.mil/training/espionage/Army2.htm#CONRAD,%20CLYDE%20LEE and https://web.archive.org/web/20041118170243/http://www.stripes.com/article.asp?section=126&article=19881&archive=true and http://www.nytimes.com/1989/03/10/world/ex-us-sergeant-s-spy-case-is-said-to-grow-in-seriousness.html ).

Zoltan Szabo eventually disappeared during the last days of the Kadar regime, maybe he is drinking vodka in Moscow now with his old KGB friends. Also see my post on Szabo on March 9, 2015 on Eva’s blog http://hungarianspectrum.org/2015/03/08/viktor-orban-is-accused-of-being-an-agent-for-kadars-security-network/ .

Andrew Endrey
Guest

Interesting that Szabo served in Vietnam. There was a well-known Hungarian officer who fought with the Australian Army in Vietnam in 1965-67, Captain Felix Fazekas, earning the high medal for valour, the Military Cross. He apparently also took part in the defence of Budapest in 1945 as a teenager.

Guest

This again reminds me of “A Tanú” – what Pelikán might have been on another level in another world …
We’ve had similar stories in Germany after WW2 – people making a “smooth transition” from one dictatorship to the next, regardless of ideology.

PS:
Wasn’t that the rule in older times too?
“The king is dead – long live the king!”

Gretchen
Guest

Also the famous Vicar of Bray. An English folk song.

tappanch
Guest

The 2009 NYT obituary fails to mention Kiraly’s Nyilas connections, but it has the following fancy story:

“Captured by the Russians in 1945, Mr. Kiraly was sent to Siberia. He and two dozen of his men managed to escape from the train carrying them there and walked over the Carpathian Mountains back to Hungary. Mr. Kiraly was made a general in 1950 and appointed leader of the military academy in Budapest.”

Escaped from Soviet Siberia on foot, then appointed to be a general of the army of the Communist state during Stalin’s life? Unbelievable, but NYT accepted it.

Is the next passage from the obituary true or false ?

“During the war, Mr. Kiraly commanded a battalion of 400 Jewish slave laborers at the Ukrainian front. Disobeying orders from his superiors, as The Jerusalem Post wrote in 1993, he “put the 400 men under his command into Hungarian uniforms and treated them humanely.” For his actions, he was honored in 1993 as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem”

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/08/world/europe/08kiraly.html

tappanch
Guest
Michael Kaplan
Guest

Shocking article, but sadly not a surprise to someone age 70 such as myself. Imagine my surprise in reading about Nagy Imre and his anti Semitism, let alone knowing what he did in both Moscow and Hungary prior to 1956. And now this about a man I thought a real hero. It brings tears to my eyes. Thank you once again for great reporting.

Member

Kiraly’s book, “Hungary in the Late 18th Century,” was one of several books bequeathed to me by my grandparents. Now I am wondering whether I can trust Kiraly’s scholarship.

wrfree
Guest

‘The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing’
Socrates

I need to go back and read all the letters Mr. Kiraly wrote to the NY Times. In my recollection whenever the paper had a piece on ’56 he would send in a reply that was published. The Times prints histories. And it would appear Mr. Kiraly made them molded for posterity.

Member

I am hugely grateful for this article and look forward to Part II. I met Béla Király in around 2004 in Mátyásföld thanks to my great (and now sadly late) friends Frank and Klara Györgyey from Yale/New Haven. Béla even sent me Christmas cards for a few years. I did suspect his past wasn’t quite as great as he made out. Recently I saw his grave at the plot for heroes at the Újköztemető.

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