The Hungarian Soviet Republic from a century-long perspective

An opening speech at the international conference for the centenary of the Hungarian Soviet Republic.

The politics of memory and the falsification of history

The memory of the Hungarian Soviet Republic has been systematically and consistently dishonoured in the national collective consciousness over the past 30 years. The once “glorious 133 days of the Soviet Republic” has been reinterpreted as the “red tyranny of a grim memory”, which serves as a starting point for the new politics of memory. The machinery involved in the production of fake news is directly under the control of the government, whose ideologists and propagandists have only one aim: to create hatred against the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic. One of the exhibitiouns organised by this machinery represents the Republic as the tyranny of bloodthirsty people, who shamed the country with the great Hungarian poets of the 20th century Endre Ady and Attila József, and the famous writers Gyula Illyés and István Örkény. The ideologists of the neo-Horthyist regime, whether liberals or conservatives, deny almost all the progressive messages of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, as though they never existed. They seek to prove and even celebrate, even after 100 years, that nationalism has defeated socialism. The majority of contemporary authors dispute or outright deny the possibility of a more global interpretation, that the Hungarian experiment was part of a revolutionary wave. This interpretation sees the Hungarian experiment as trying to find an alternative after the bloodshed of the First World War, which led to one of the deepest crises of the capitalist system. It also views this alternative as a historical experiment in terms of people’s self-determination and self-government: the revolt of the victims of capitalism.

In reality, the Russian Revolution was the starting point, the standout and the most important impetus for the whole European revolutionary wave, mainly in defeated countries. It demonstrated that under the collapse of the capitalist system, working people were capable of destroying the structures of the old gentry world and the order of the privileged classes, which had existed for many centuries. It is therefore understandable that, with the triumph of the counter-revolution led by Miklós Horthy, the restored gentry could only speak of the Republic with deep hatred rooted in fear. This “memory” could and should be contrasted with the essentially positive images that were conveyed by a wide range of progressive Hungarian intellectuals: Gyula Juhász, Lajos Nagy and Ferenc Móra, Béla Balázs and Andor Gábor, Lajos Kassák and Aladár Komját, and József Lengyel and Tibor Déry, amongst others.

All these examples are intended to do more than just encourage progressive thinkers, activists and left-wing people. We all know that the ideological and propaganda apparatuses of the ruling classes are driven by an embedded (class) hatred today as well. Their aim is the same: to uproot any progressive heritage of the Republic, whose key aims and provisions pointed towards an anti-capitalist organisation of society. Specifically, what was the essence and legacy of the Hungarian Soviet Republic? The demand for social justice, collective ownership, free education and healthcare, and the abolition of class oppression. Its concrete measures were in line with this overall social programme:  the introduction of the eight-hour workday, the reduction of flat rents by 20%, the movement of proletarian families to large bourgeois flats, the increase of wages by 10-80%, the expansion of social security, the defence of children and trainees, and the declaration of female emancipation. The Hungarian Soviet Republic also legally abolished all forms of oppression of minorities. It banned prostitution, established the first sanatorium for lung diseases and introduced free entry to Margitsziget (Margaret Island), the list goes on.

1918 to 1919 was the first time in Hungarian history when the lower social classes, the “unknown” workers and peasants, became the forgers of history. They defended both their class interests and the national cause during the battles in Upper Hungary (contemporary Slovakia) and against the Romanian army supported by the Allied forces.[1] The counter-revolution, which referred to the nation in its propaganda and the old gentry, could only re-establish its rule in Hungary with the help of the Allied powers and the Romanian armed forces. In fact, by supporting the war, it was the old gentry who paved the way for the Treaty of Trianon and who eventually signed it.

Even in the works of established Hungarian scholars there is little, if any, recognition of the historical responsibility of the ruling classes for the destructive war, the bloodshed and genocide, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. There is even less recognition of the class war. As a result, it is no wonder that, for this stream of literature, the history of the 1918-1919 revolutions is just a bloody episode in the aftermath of the tragedy of the Great War. Accordingly, these authors seek to represent the imperialist world war as a “national war” in the manner of the former “governmental patriots” and white terrorists. They place the blame on the oppressed classes or the political elite of neighbouring countries but mostly, of course, on the Hungarian Soviet Republic for the consequences of the lost war.

We have heard this story in Hungary many times. The lack of imagination in the government’s propaganda cannot conceal the fact that the basic aim of the neo-Horthyist ideological and cultural restoration and manipulation is to discredit any socialist, left-wing historical development and experiment. This is for the sake of whitewashing and “upgrading” the Horthy regime, which is the historical predecessor of the present system. The prime minister even referred to Miklós Horthy, the leader of the counter-revolution, who bore responsibility for the White Terror and later, at the time of the Second World War, for the death of one million Hungarian people, as a “great statesman”. This propaganda, however, lacks not only imagination but also a basic historical insight. This is because its representatives fail to understand that there was no viable, bourgeois, liberal alternative to the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Such an alternative has been missing ever since in East-Central Europe.

Thus, the Republic could rely on great internal forces and serious pressure from below – on “real national forces” to use contemporary Hungarian terminology. Its fall occurred as a result of external forces and intervention (the politics of the Allied powers and the Romanian military attack).

The controversial experiences of the Hungarian Soviet Republic

“The old trash” – to cite Marx – has been reproduced in Hungary in spite of the fact that the history of the Republic was a well-researched topic under the previous regime. The theoretical and historical works devoted to the Republic’s 133 days number many thousands. The majority of these works were, of course, written during the Kádár regime. After a while, this regime started to see the Hungarian Soviet Republic as part of its legitimating ideology and as a prehistory of state socialism. Thus, on the one hand, these works broke the silence on certain issues and outright falsifications characteristic of the Rákosi era. However, on the other hand, they sought to silence the “self-organising” tradition of workers’ councils and spontaneous socialist and collectivist movements. After 1956, the Hungarian Soviet Republic was also an important point of reference for left-wing theoretical directions, which sought an alternative to both capitalism and state socialism. We all remember the “Marxist renaissance” of the 1960s. It provided for a new, democratic, philosophical grounding of socialism, first in the work of György Lukács, then later in the work of his émigré disciple, István Mészáros. In this context, we can also recall one characteristic cultural episode of this era: the film Agitators (1969, based on Ervin Sinkó’s famous novel about the Republic, entitled Optimists) triggered unrest among the youth (the revolutionary “afterlife” of 1968). In turn, this led to the repressive measures of power (the film was eventually banned).

No historian would seriously doubt that the Hungarian Soviet Republic triumphed as part of the European revolutionary wave and that its fall was related to the period of the Russian military retreat of the revolution. The spring of 1919 was a fatal time for Soviet Russia, when its mere existence was at stake. In the general revolutionary situation after the war, Hungary’s identity lay in the fact that the “Russian virus”, the “virus” of a socialist revolution and the “ghost of Communism” appeared on a European scale, which was also symbolised by the establishment of the Communist International.

On the other hand, however, the brutal murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht already indicated the limitations of the revolutionary wave and the triumph of the counter-revolutions. The murders were the “forerunner” of the White Terror in Hungary under Horthy and the rise of Nazism.

Meanwhile, Lenin considered the possibility that, thanks to the more “civilised” nature of the Hungarian development compared to Russia’s, the revolution would trigger less violence in Hungary. He believed it would be possible to achieve the same Soviet power in a more peaceful way. Although Lenin thought that the Hungarian example would be decisive precisely because of this civilised advantage,[2] in reality, this “greater civilisation” failed to have an impact on the revolutionary development. External conditions were also unfavourable since the Allied powers and the internal counter-revolutionary forces sought to destroy the new regime from the first day of its establishment.

In another famous document (Greetings to the Hungarian workers), Lenin also considered it a very positive development that in the case of Hungary – contrary to Russia – the various socialist formations were “immediately” united (he was referring to the union between the Communist and Social Democratic Parties). Later, in July 1920, at the Second Congress of the Comintern, Lenin examined the experiences and lessons of the Hungarian Soviet Republic and its fall. He analysed the relationship between the Hungarian economic and political measures from the perspective of the so-called “alliance policy”. Lenin referred to the book by Jenő Varga, who emigrated from Hungary and became the commissar of the Soviet Council of People’s economy. He stressed the significance of the division of great estates (latifundium) because, without the distribution of land, nothing changed in Hungarian villages: “the day-labourers noticed nothing and the small peasantry did not receive anything”.[3] The alliance with the peasantry was easier in the history of the Russian Revolution. In 1917, the peasants simply seized the land. The Hungarian peasantry was less “keen” to follow this example, despite the tradition formulated by Ady. However, the relationship between the national question and the social question was decisive across the whole region, from Budapest to Moscow, as an all-national, all-regional and all-European problem. The counter-revolution organised restoration under the banner of nationalism everywhere.

In Russia, the intertwining of the national and social questions in the womb of the disintegrating empires was accompanied by severe contradictions. This is because the Soviet power had to defend itself precisely against “patriotism” as it had to sacrifice almost the entire Ukraine to stop the German military advance, which threatened the revolution. Meanwhile, the Hungarian Soviet Republic was engaged in a patriotic war in Upper Hungary and along the Tisza river. Lenin considered the Hungarian Soviet Republic lucky because it was not established and did not have to defend against patriotism but could unite the class struggle with the national cause. However, this national self-defence did not violate the interests of other peoples, the propagated internationalism.[4] It was a different type of contradiction, but it also refers to the complicated development of the internal conditions within the Hungarian Soviet Republic. While it was a very progressive step to radically divide the state from the church, the restrictions on the practice of religion were counterproductive. However, we cannot disregard the barely “coded” anti-Semitic interpretations of the contemporary historiography. The traditional anti-Semitic, racist interpretation seeks to establish a “relationship” between the “religious composition” of the council government and the “Red Terror”. In reality, however, according to the calculations of Albert Váry, the chief military prosecutor of the counter-revolutionary retribution, under the rule of the council government, which was later held to be “Jewish”, out of the 570 people who were sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Court (Forradalmi Törvényszék), 44 of them were Jewish. This is a higher percentage than the percentage of Jews in the contemporary Hungarian society. This clearly shows the class character of the so-called Red Terror. Although alongside the terror there were also several instances of abuse of power, which we cannot and would not deny, the four years of bloodshed, destruction and demoralisation were also reflected in the thinking and actions of wide masses of the people, including the new power apparatuses.

The Hungarian Soviet Republic was a very “modern” phenomenon (also) in this field. It followed a path that presupposed power based on the “communal occupation” and collective ownership of the workplaces. As a condition of survival, its leaders started out from the assumption that the Republic was part of the “socialist world revolution”, in the spirit of international cooperation of the peoples. Although the assumed alternative was defeated, and it may well have been seen as illusory in the aftermath of the war destruction and the general atmosphere of disintegration, we should not forget the fact that the capitalist alternative, supported by the Western powers, meant a capitalism that was burdened with feudal elements and structures as well as outdated social and economic privileges. The real significance of this retreat became clear when, after the defeat of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, the old gentry world was restored. This eventually led Hungary to the Second World War, as an ally of Nazi Germany.

The formation of collective consciousness and the “politics of memory” have their own significance and a relatively independent role in historical development. It is, therefore, our duty to preserve the positive legacy of the Hungarian Soviet Republic and the model of a society organised from below. It is part of our own humanist tradition, as a historical experiment, to overthrow the oppressive power structures that are detached from society and provide an example of socialist self-organisation and self-government.

Raquel Varela


Sebastian Zehetmair


Savas Mihail-Matsas


[1] The Hungarian Red Army also supported the Slovakian Soviet Republic.

[2] Lenin Magyarországról. Kossuth, 1965. Előadói beszéd a Moszkvai Szovjet ülésén 1919. április 3. 87-88.

[3] Ibid. 133-134.

[4] Krausz Tamás: Lenin és a Magyarországi Tanácsköztársaság. In: 1919 – A Magyarországi Tanácsköztársaság és a kelet-európai forradalmak. Bp., ELTE Kelet-Európa Története Tanszék-L’Harmattan, 2019., Kelet-Európa-Tanulmányok  5. (Szerk.: Krausz T. Vértes J.) 35-45.o.