Yesterday’s post on the career of Béla Király, the hero of the 1956 revolution, ended with his practically overnight metamorphosis from Ferenc Szálasi’s faithful follower to chief of staff of the First Infantry Division of the Hungarian Army. At the time of his appointment, he received the rank of major, but a few months later he was promoted to lieutenant colonel. He was nominated to the position by György Pálffy (1909-1949), lieutenant general and head of the military political department (KPO). Three years later Pálffy was to become one of the victims of the infamous Rajk trials. Király, who obviously didn’t want to call attention to his association with the military political department, asserted in his reminiscences that he came to know Pálffy only in 1948 when Pálffy became the inspector-general of the Hungarian Army. In an unpublished interview, however, he slipped and said that “Pálffy nominated and Jenő Tombor appointed me” to lead the first infantry division. Jenő Tombor was minister of defense for a very short period of time. He was appointed on February 4, 1946 and died a few months later, on July 25.
The most reliable source on this period of Béla Király’s life is Ferenc Kubinyi’s Fekete lexikon, which was published in Thousand Oaks, California in 1994. Apparently Király was on friendly terms with Pálffy while he served as one of his counter-intelligence officers. Yet in September 1949, in the course of the Rajk trial, Király called Pálffy a traitor and demanded a life sentence for him at a public forum. This incident was reported in Magyar Nemzet at the time, and years later, in 2000, the journalist István Stefka asked him about the episode in an interview. He claimed not to remember, but, as he said, “under the circumstances one had to say something.” And, in any case, he added, his remarks made no difference as far as the fate of Pálffy was concerned.
One of the most uncomfortable moments in Béla Király’s life had to be in March 1990, shortly after he moved back to Hungary. Ferenc Kubinyi published an article in the March 21 issue of a weekly called Ring in which the author retold the story of Jenő Czebe, a lieutenant colonel working in the ministry of defense, who was arrested in February 1949. Kubinyi published Király’s incriminating testimony against Czebe, which Király called a forgery. But Kubinyi refused to back down, and his initial article was followed a few months later by another one in which further details of the affair were revelealed. In 1996 Kubinyi wrote a whole book on the subject (A katonapolitika regénye) from which we learn that, on behalf of the KPO, Király invited Jenő Czebe and his brother Valér to his apartment, where he initiated a conversation that led straight to their arrest. Naturally, the conversation was secretly recorded. Czebe, while attempting to escape, was shot dead; his brother Valér ended up in Recsk, the infamous secret concentration camp where thousands lost their lives because of the inhumane conditions. Király never managed to give a satisfactory explanation for the Czebe affair, which may have been the reason for Prime Minister József Antall’s suspicion of Király’s past. The case was definitely discussed between the two men in early 1990 because Király mentioned the encounter in his 2004 autobiographical book. He claimed that Antall tried to blackmail him with the Czebe story.
Fate eventually caught up with Király when he himself was arrested and sentenced to death in 1951. On appeal, the sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. In jail he felt isolated: the right-wing political and military leaders who were imprisoned after 1945 despised him because he joined the communists, while the democratically-minded prisoners didn’t trust him. He described his prison term as being in a ghetto.
Király was freed on September 7, 1956, after which, according to his recollections of 1981, he was approached by three of his former fellow soldiers who called themselves pro-Imre Nagy reformers. They invited him to join their group, which was supposed to be Imre Nagy’s military contingent. This whole episode is the figment of Király’s imagination. First of all, there was no such military group among supporters of the future prime minister. Over the years Király desperately tried to come up with stories that would prove that Imre Nagy viewed him as someone he could rely on in times of need. At one point he concocted a conversation with Imre Nagy at the reburial of László Rajk and his fellow victims on October 13, 1956. According to this story, Imre Nagy recognized him and seemed to know that he had been in the hospital. Again, Király cannot keep his stories straight. He didn’t go to the hospital until October 17. Moreover, László Gyurkó’s book on 1956, published in 1986, quotes Imre Nagy during his trial as stating that “I didn’t know Béla Király, didn’t hear about him either directly or indirectly” prior to the revolutionary days.
October 23, the outbreak of the revolution, found Király in the central military hospital, where he had had a minor operation. It looks as if he was in no hurry to leave the peace and quiet of the hospital and that he decided to wait out the turbulent first few days. On October 28 he emerged from the hospital, even though the political situation at that time was still extremely volatile. By the next day, however, the situation was looking more promising. The most compromised political leaders were sent to Moscow, and Imre Nagy moved into the parliament building instead of using the party headquarters. Negotiations began with the Soviet leaders about troop withdrawals. It was at that point that Király decided to join the revolution. Within a day he was chairman of the Revolutionary Committee of Armed Forces, commander of the National Guard, and commander of the city of Budapest. What Király did after November 4 is another story.
To be continued