I’ve written several times about András Nyerges’s excellent column, “Color Separation,” that compares today’s right wing to their interwar counterparts. His articles–originally published in Magyar Hírlap when it was a liberal paper and, after Gábor Széles made it a mouthpiece of the far right, in Élet és Irodalom–were reprinted in a two-volume collection. Inspired by some recent topics of discussion, I went back to these books. Today I’ll focus on two articles that are especially on target. One deals with the Romanian occupation of Budapest in August 1919 and even mentions Cécile Tormay by name. The other, published in 2002, is about Fidesz’s “reinterpretation” of Mihály Károlyi and the First Republic.
First to Tormay and the Romanians. I took a look at the last few pages of Cécile Tormay’s second volume in which she discusses the events between August 1 and August 8, 1919. During this time Tormay was hiding from the Budapest terrorists in a border town between Slovakia and Hungary, Balassagyarmat. It turned out to be a bad choice: Balassagyarmat was swarming with local terrorists who planned to kill practically all the better-off people in town even after the fall of Béla Kun. At least according to Tormay.
It is here that Tormay learned that the Romanians had occupied Budapest. She immediately came up with a conspiracy theory. That’s why the Entente representative refused to negotiate with “us, Hungarians” and instead turned to “William Böhm, Kunfi and with Károlyi’s henchman, Garami.” I guess it doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone that all three happened to be of Jewish origin. The Entente didn’t allow the Hungarian troops stationed in French-occupied Szeged to liberate Hungary because “the occupation of Budapest was reserved by the Great Powers for the Rumanians so that the city might become their prey and they might still act the role of deliverers.”
Well, it seems from Nyerges’s article that there were alternative theories about the arrival of the Romanian troops. One of the very few liberal members of parliament in 1922 inquired from István Bethlen, by then prime minister, whether he was planning to set up a committee to investigate “who those traitors were who, against the expressed wishes of the Entente, asked the Romanians to occupy the capital city.” The committee was indeed set up and those members of parliament who in one way or the other were involved in the coup d’état against the social democratic government that took over after the fall of Béla Kun loudly protested, although no one accused them of anything. They all denied complicity. As usual with investigative committees in Hungary then or now, no one became any the wiser as a result of the hearings.
Outside the House, however, rumors didn’t die down. A Romanian politician, Ioan Erdeli (in Hungarian sources he is referred to as Erdélyi János) who was involved in the secret Hungarian-Romanian negotiations during September-October 1919, gave an interview in a Cluj (Kolozsvár) paper in 1922 in which he said that there were indeed several delegations to the Romanian army asking for the occupation of Budapest. He was not at liberty to disclose names, “but they were mostly aristocrats and important representatives of industry.” But a journalist close to government circles had already mentioned in late 1919 two important people who were allegedly involved: István Friedrich, prime minister in 1919, and General Ferenc Schnetzer, his minister of defense. There is no real proof of their complicity, but what we can say for sure is that the fall of Béla Kun and the arrival of the Romanians was greeted with relief. In fact, the Romanians’ reception in Budapest was more than cordial; the disillusioned Hungarians welcomed the soldiers with a shower of late summer flowers. Tormay was “longingly waiting for the arrival of the occupiers” because communism meant the death of the nation. Foreign occupation was only humiliating.
And since we were just talking about the White Terror, mostly conducted by Miklós Horthy’s officers stationed in Siófok at Lake Balaton, here is Tormay’s account. “In Western Hungary the peasants are arresting the hiding butchers of the dictatorship and delivering them up to the justice of the crowd. They are executed by those whose father, mother, husband or child they have murdered.” This is how people rewrite history according to their own political views. Surely, true Hungarian officers couldn’t possibly murder the Jews and riff-raff whom Tormay loathed; this task had to fall to the aggrieved peasant masses.
Nyerges’s second article deals with the reevaluation of the 1918-1919 period. Nyerges wrote it in 2002 after reading a work by a historian of decidedly right-wing views. This work as well as many other studies of the period try to portray the period in black and white. All the good men were on the right; those who supported Mihály Károlyi, and especially the Hungarian Soviet Republic, were “the garbage of Hungarian society.” This is still the case, says the unnamed historian, “even if some well known intellectuals enthusiastically spoke of the communist system and the arrival of the Red God and for a while served the regime. That was only their error or rather their shame.”
But life is never that simple. Combing through the contemporary conservative press Nyerges found plenty from the other side who enthusiastically supported the Károlyi regime. Here is an editorial (December 24, 1918) from Alkotmány (Constitution), the official paper of the Katolikus Néppárt (Catholic People’s Party). “We can take it for granted, based on Mihály Károlyi’s political past, and he himself certainly has the right to claim that every word of his comes from inner conviction. We don’t believe that the ship of state would be heading in better direction than in his hands.” The militantly conservative Budapesti Hírlap on February 25, 1919 wrote in connection with the land reform that “regardless of how it will end, it is leading toward true democratization. … As the Romans said: Quod bonum, faustum, felix fortunatumque sit (May the outcome be good, propitious, lucky and successful.)” But this very same newspaper on October 7, 1919 wrote: “Károlyi and his conniving accomplices killed Hungary!” A few weeks later the Budapesti Hírlap thought that the stupefied people didn’t realize that the October 1918 revolution “was not national but a Bolshevik revolution. Every thinking man in the very first week, at the time Barna Buza announced the land reform, should have seen that.” But if that was the case, why did the same newspaper say on February 22, 1919 that Buza “clearly stated that the land reform means not only a right but a responsibility.” The conservative Élet (Life), a literary magazine, wrote: “Károlyi is a martyr. A well meaning man who is ready to negotiate with the enemy and who received real promises.” In another article, the literary weekly admitted that under the circumstances the socialists became the backbone of society. Moreover, they are real patriots because “the socialists fought for the integrity of Greater Hungary” at the meeting of the Bern International in February 1919.”We were reading their speeches with great excitement at home. We applauded and cheered.” And the very last example, which is really telling: the Alkotmány (Catholic People’s Party) wrote on March 23, two days after the declaration of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, that “when pacifism and the pro-Entente politics failed, the hand of the proletariat was raised. The Hungarian Soviet Republic was born in order to save the integrity of Hungary.” “During the war years the enemy called the Hungarian soldier ‘the red devil.’ The enemy will certainly hear in the future about the Red Army.” So, not only duped, ill-informed, naive people were enthusiastic about the revolutionary events of 1918-1919.
After the arrival of the counterrevolutionaries the history of these years was rewritten. And today the rewriting of history is again proceeding apace. Black (or red) and white, evil and good, non-Christian and Christian, international (and by implication treasonous) and national. But a binary history is a false history, whichever side writes it.