Anna M. Cienciala (
History 557 Lecture Notes
Spring 2002 (Revised Fall 2003;, fall 2007)
  Lecture 13

Hungary: Defeat and Revolution, 1918-1921.

I. Hungary during the First World War.

In 1914, Premier Istvan [Stephen] Tisza objected to anyAustro-Hungarian annexation of Serbian territory, for this would mean more Slavs in the Empire, and he warned against war. However, when war broke out, he declared that it was absolutely necessary.In fact, Hungary had no choice.

The opposition parties in parliament supported the war. The Social Democrats, who were not represented, also supported the war, as they did in other countries, because they all viewed Tsarist Russia as an oppressive police state. (In comparison with other European countries of the pre-1914 period, its government was more arbitrary, though reforms begun in 1906 had brought about considerable change for the better). In 1914, the Hungarian Social Democrats told the workers to obey the government.

However, attitudes changed as the war continued. Although Hungary was not a battlefield, it lost about 1,500,000 dead, wounded, prisoners, and missing. Of course; these included men of all the nationalities of the Kingdom. The war absorbed the country's manpower, so there were not enough people to work on the land. This meant that food prices went up, which hurt the workers in the cities.

Emperor Charles, who succeeded the aged Francis Joseph in 1916, wanted to save at least the Austrian part of the Empire as a federation of autonomous national units. This was opposed by most Magyar politicians except Michael Karolyi (1875-1955) a great magnate and leader of the liberal Independence Party, which stood for complete Hungarian independence as well as democratic and social-economic reforms. Karolyi worked for a separate peace. He hoped to save the historic Kingdom of Hungary by transforming it into a federation of nationalities, each with extensive cultural rights.

In June 1917, Tisza resigned as Premier. In the fall of 1917, there was a wave of workers' strikes. These were caused by shortages and inflation, but were sparked by news of the Russian revolution. At this time, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) split into right and left wings. The government repressed the strikes.

 In June 1918, there was a general strike throughout the country. At this time, the Social Democratic Party and the Trade Union Council established a common organ: "The Workers' Council," modeled on the Supreme Soviet in Petrograd (the Russian word: Soviet means Council). At the same time, "Soldiers' Councils" sprang up all over Hungary; they were made up mostly of soldiers who had returned from prisoner- of- war camps in Russia. (In late 1918, Soldiers' Councils sprang up in the German army and there were a few such Polish Councils as well, though they did not last very long).

II. The Hungarian Revolution and the "Council Republic," Oct. 25 1918-March 20, 1919.

[contemporary press photo].

On October 16, 1918, Emperor Charles issued a manifesto proposing the federalization of the Austrian part of the Empire. However, it was too little and too late, and the nationalities of the Austrian part of the Empire went their separate ways.

In Hungary, Karolyi and other Liberals demanded complete independence as well as immediate political and social reforms.with extensive concessions to non-Magyars in the Kingdom of Hungary.

On Oct. 25, 1918, Karolyi established a Hungarian National Council; it was composed of Karolyi's Independence Party as well as members of the SDP and the Radical Party. The Council issued a manifesto, which demanded: 1. the resignation of the government; 2. the dissolution of parliament; 3. new elections based on universal manhood suffrage; 4. national self-determination within Hungary; 5. freedom of speech, press, and association; 6. a general amnesty for political prisoners; 7. a separate peace between Hungary and the Entente Powers.

Karolyi's goal was to save the historic Kingdom of Hungary. He wanted to show the Entente Powers that Hungary was now a democratic state, and thus merited better peace terms than the old Hungary, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
(Note: The new German Social Democratic government formed in Berlin in early November 1918 had similar hopes).

The Karolyi Manifesto marked the beginning of revolution in Hungary. The workers gave their support to the National Council, as did the Soldiers' Councils. Emperor Charles tried to preserve the link between Austria and Hungary by transferring his powers as King of Hungary to Archduke Joseph. However, on October 28 there was fighting in Budapest and the army joined the people.

On October 30, came the news that an Austrian Republic had been proclaimed in Vienna. This was a spur to the revolutionaries in Budapest. A mob burst into former Hungarian Premier Tisza's house and he was murdered. (It is said that he could have escaped, but did not try). Archduke Joseph resigned on October 31, and transferred government powers to Karolyi. On November 13, Charles abdicated as Emperor.

On November 16, 1918, the National Council proclaimed Hungary a Republic, with Karolyi as President.

Karolyi sent a Magyar delegation to the HQ of the Allied Expeditionary Corps, which had landed in Saloniki and was now in Belgrade, Serbia. They were to give the French Commander-in-Chief, Marshal Louis Franchet d'Esperey (1856-1942), a memorandum stating that the war had been the work of the Dual Monarchy so the present Hungarian government could not be held responsible for it. The new government would introduce democratic reforms and break the alliance with Germany. It was ready to recognize the new Kingdom of the South Slavs (later called Yugoslavia), but requested that the new borders be decided at the Peace Conference. Finally, the memorandum stated that Hungary was now a neutral and friendly state.

However, Franchet d’Esperey rejected the memorandum. He dictated armistice conditions to the Magyars, treating Hungary as a defeated enemy country. He established a demarcation line between Hungary and Yugoslavia, which favored the latter. Indeed, he could hardly have done otherwise, for he was in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, which had fought on the Entente side and was considered an ally. Also, the Serbian army had to be taken into account.

The demarcation line dictated in Belgrade also ran between Hungary and Romania, and between Hungary and Czechoslovakia. (For Hungarian territorial losses, see Map below]. Romania had fought briefly on the side of the Entente, while the new Czechoslovak state was viewed as a future ally of France, so the Hungarians did not stand a chance.

Meanwhile, the Karolyi government tried desperately to persuade the Slovaks, also the Romanians of Transylvania, to stay within the old Kingdom of Hungary. Oscar Jaszi, a Sociologist and supporter of Karolyi, drew up a nationalities' program which was to make Hungary a "Switzerland of the East" (compare Benes statement on Czechoslovakia).

However, only a few pro-Hungarian politicians in Subcarpathian Ruthenia - part of which the allied demarcation line left in Hungary - showed interest in remaining in Hungary. The Hungarian talks with Romanian leaders in Transylvania failed and the majority of the people, who were Romanian-speaking, voted for union with the Kingdom of Rumania, though with autonomy for Transylvania..

At this time, the Karolyi government split into right and left wings. The right wanted to stop social reforms, eg. land reform, and to reorganize the army, while the left wanted radical social-economic reforms.

Karolyi resigned as President on January 11, 1919, but agreed to become a provisional president. The new coalition government had a strong right-wing Social Democratic component and proceeded to arrest many radical politicians, including the Communist Bela Kun (of whom more later). It announced a moderate land reform, ie. the parceling of estates above 285 hectares (l hectare = 2.7 acres). This was not enough for the peasants, but too much for the landlords.

The government still hoped that the Entente Powers would take a more favorable attitude toward Hungary. However, on March 20, 1919, an Entente ultimatum was delivered in Budapest by the French Lt. Colonel Ferdinand Vix (sometimes spelled Vyx). Now, the Allies demanded the evacuation of more territory claimed by Romania in Transylvania, and set a new demarcation line much less favorable to Hungary.

Hungarian historians fault the Entente Powers for imposing such harsh conditions on Hungary. However, we must bear in mind that the prewar policy of Magyarization led the former non-Magyar nationalities of the Kingdom of Hungary to opt out of Hungary into their own national states. Furthermore, even if the Entente Powers had wished to spare Hungary some of these losses, they did not have sufficient armed forces in place to pressure the Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians and Serbs to give up their claims. They could not even uphold their own demarcation lines which left a sliver of southern Slovakia, part of Subcarpathian Ruthenia, and part of Transylvania in Hungary.

In the face of this Entente policy, Karolyi resigned as provisional President on March 20. He said he saw no option but to entrust the defense of Hungary to the Proletariat (workers).

III. The Hungarian Soviet Republic: March 21 - July 31, 1919.

[from: Revolution in Perspective. Essays on the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, Edited by
Andrew C. Janos and William B. Slotterman, Berkeley, C.A., 1971].

When Karolyi resigned, the Social Democrats sought the cooperation of the Hungarian Communists led by Bela Kun.

Who was Bela Kun? Born in 1886 into a Jewish-Hungarian family in Transylvania, he was a left-wing journalist before 1914. Drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army he was taken prisoner in Russia, where he became a Communist. He began his political career by making propaganda speeches in favor of Communism to Hungarians in Russian prisoner- of- war camps. This brought him to the attention of Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders.

Scenes from Hungary, 1919.

Thus it was that on November 6 1917, the day before the Bolshevik seizure of power, Bela Kun became a founding member of the Hungarian Section of the Russian Communist Party. In July 1918, just after the oubreak of the Russian Civil War, he led Communist Latvian and Hungarian soldiers against the opponents of Lenin, the right-wing Social Revolutionaries (Russian peasant party). On October 25, 1918, he was active in Moscow in establishing the Union of Communists of Hungary, which was transformed on November 4, 1918 into the Communist Party of Hungary.

Kun was well liked by Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders such as Grigory Y. Zinoviev (1883-1936)and Nikolai I. Bukharin (1888-1938). We know that he went to Hungary with Lenin's blessing, and his promise that the Red Army would help the Hungarian Communists. But this turned out to be impossible because of the Russian Civil War.

The Hungarian Soviet Republic.

On March 21 1919, the Hungarian Social Democratic and Communist Parties declared their union in the Hungarian Socialist Party. On the same day, the new government proclaimed the Hungarian Soviet Republic. The government called itself the Revolutionary Council. Bela Kun became Commissar (Minister) of Foreign Affairs.

According to the constitution of 2 April 1919, all power belonged to the Supreme Workers' Soldiers and Peasants' Council (the equivalent of the Supreme Soviet in Russia). As in Bolshevik Russia, this Council was made up of delegates elected by countryside and town assemblies. We should also note that the constitution granted non-Magyars the right of self-determination. However, government propaganda spoke of the union of free states in a federal Hungary. Thus, the Hungarian Communist program was copied in part from Bolshevik Russia.

But programs and declarations could not solve the problems facing Hungary at this time, and economic problems in particular. After four years of war, production had gone down by 40% and inflation was rampant. The peasants would not supply food to the towns because they could not buy what they needed with depreciated currency. At the same time, the workers would not work for grossly inadequate wages.

At this time and later, Bela Kun was viewed by non-Communists as a Bolshevik agent acting on the orders of Moscow. However, beginning with the 1970's, Hungarian historians at home and abroad began to portray him as adapting the Bolshevik model to Hungarian needs as he saw them, and often acting pretty much on his own initiative.

Thus, sometimes he strayed quite far from the Bolshevik model in Russia. For e.g. in land reform, Kun decided to go much further than Lenin  did in the first revolutionary period up to May 1918. Kun proclaimed that the peasants would not be given land, but were to join "cooperatives." These cooperatives were very often the same as the old landed estates, and sometimes were even managed by the old landlords, now under government control. This system could have been more productive than  small family farms if it had not alienated the peasants from the Soviet Hungarian regime. They wanted to own their land, not work for previous masters, ieven if they served a new regime.

[NOTE: In Russia, Lenin at first adopted the old Socialist Revolutionary program of letting peasants take enough land for each family, while the state owned it. However, during the Civil War, which broke out in May 1918, he adopted "War Communism," i.e. forcible confiscation of produce from the peasants to feed the army and the workers in the towns. In the face of widespread peasant revolts he abandoned this system in March 1921 and replaced it with the "New Economic Policy," a mixture of private property and state capitalism; Stalin ended NEP in 1928].

In the towns, Kun allowed Mattyas Rakosi [1892-1971] * to close down all private shops and businesses and to abolish all private property - except for grocery stores, pharmacies and tobacco shops. (Obviously, the communists were unwilling to have these key businesses shut down). The decree was soon revoked, but the damage was done for it alienated the middle class.

*[Rakosi lived in USSR from late 1919 to 1945; he was the Communist ruler of Hungary in 1947-53, 1955-56; and then retired to the USSR.]

Kun also alienated the workers by refusing to let them run the factories - most of them in Budapest. [Lenin also refused this demand from Russian workers after they had run the factories for their own benefit instead of the state].

Finally, many people were alienated by the "Red Terror," i.e. the killing of political opponents and those suspected of opposition.

Kun refused allied proposals of better peace terms and negotiations, which the South African general Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870-1950) presented to him in the name of the Entente Powers in April 1919. Smuts, was sent to Budapest  to see whether the Hungarian revolution could be stopped from spreading west, and to have British influence balance French influence in Central Europe. He offered some concessions, which included moving the demarcation line set by Vix about 16 miles further east, giving Hungary a small part of Transylvania.

But Kun doubted these proposals were made in good faith, and believed that Lenin would send military help to Soviet Hungary. Therefore, he proposed a meeting in either Vienna or Paris at which Hungarian, Czechoslovak, Romanian, Yugoslav, Austrian and German representatives would discuss borders and economic relations under the presidency of Smuts. The latter refused to discuss this proposal, but on his return to Paris suggested that if Kun accepted the proposed demarcation line, the Allies would lift the economic blockade they had imposed on Hungary. However, there was no interest in this, so the French encouraged the Romanians to move up to the demarcation line.

[For an eye-witness account of Smuts’ trip to Budapest and the talks with Bela Kun, see Harold Nicolson, Peacemaking 1919, London, 1943, University Paperbacks, London, 1964 and 1967, ch.VI. "April 1- April 9, (1919). Communist Interlude." Nicolson was then a member of the British Foreign Office and these are his diary entries during the trip. His book is a strong condemnation of the Versailles Treaty, showing no comprehension of the grounds on which demands were made on Germany and decisions made. On these, see Lec.Notes 10 D] .

The Hungarian army, now called the Red Army,  faced both Romanian and Czech forces. It had some success at first in Slovakia in May-June 1919. In early June, French Premier Georges Clemenceau sent two notes to the Soviet Hungarian government: the first threatened allied intervention and the second declared that the borders of Romania and Czechoslovakia were settled, so the Hungarian army should withdraw.

In fact, that army was then in Slovakia but Hungarian railwaymen went on strike and this cut off supplies to the army. At the same time, the peasants and workers were turning against the government. The peasants wanted land, while the workers wanted to run the factories, and all were tired of war and economic hardship. Finally, they manifested anti-semitism, sparked by the fact that half of the commissars (ministers) in the Hungarian Soviet government were Jewish.

Meanwhile, the right-wing opposition was organizing itself. An anti-Bolshevik Committee existed in Vienna and an anti-Communist government was formed, first in Arad and then in Szeged, with vice-admiral Miklos [Nicholas] de Nagabanya Horthy (1868-1957, head of the former Austro-Hungarian navy) as Foreign Minister. He began to organize an army and soon took over the leadership of this government.

The Hungarian Red Army crossed the Tisza river on July 23 to attack the Romanians, but it was encircled by the latter and capitulated a few days later. The death blow to Soviet Hungary was delivered by the Czech and Romanian armies at the end of July 1919. On 31 July, Kun said the situation was hopeless and the Revolutionary Council resigned on August 1. Romanian troops occupied Budapest on August 3.
Bela Kun fled to Vienna and then to Soviet Russia - where he died a victim of the Stalin purges in 1937. (His fate was sealed by his close ties with the old Bolshevik leaders, Zinoviev and Bukharin, whom Stalin executed after rigged trials).

We should bear in mind that Hungary was a side-show for Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Their main hope was a revolution in Germany, which would lead to  the establishment of a socialist (read: communist) Germany and thus the transfer of German industrial know-how to revolutionary Russia, as well as a military alliance between the two countries.

Lenin believed that all this was necessary to save the revolution in Russia. Therefore, he sent Karl B. Radek (1885-1939) to Germany to help establish a strong German Communist Party. Lenin sent financial aid and advice to Bela Kun, but that was all. The Soviet Red Army could not help Soviet Hungary in 1919, because it did not gain the upper hand over the White armies in the Civil War until September of that year. By that time, the Soviet Hungarian Republic had collapsed. (Radek, like Zinoviev and Bukharin and many other old Bolsheviks, was a victim of Stalin's purge of the Soviet communist party in 1935-38, though some who were arrested died later).

Similarities and Differences between the Russian and Hungarian Revolutions.

There were some similarities between the Hungarian Revolution of October 1918 and the first Russian Revolution of March 1917:

(a) In both cases, revolution came as the result of defeat in war and consequent economic breakdown at home.

(b) In both cases, the new leaders were at first middle and upper class Liberals, who wanted to have democracy as well as keep or restore the prewar boundaries.

(c) In both cases, the new governments at first existed side by side with Soldiers', Workers' and Peasants' Councils.

(d) In both cases, after communists took power, many former imperial officers served in the new Red Armies out of patriotism, to defend the homeland.

However, there were also great differences:

(a) In Russia, there was a complete breakdown of the old political and social structures, and a widespread peasant movement to seize and divide up the great estates. This did not occur to any significant extent in Hungary, though the peasants turned against the Karolyi government because its land reform was not sufficient for them.

(b) In Russia, there was a well organized Bolshevik Party, whose leader, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924), proved to be not only the most ruthless but also the greatest political strategist in Russia in 1917-21. He led the Bolsheviks to victory in November 1917; he made peace with Germany and Austria-Hungary at Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 in order for the Bolsheviks to remain in power and, with great help from Leon Trotsky, the War Commissar, he led the Bolsheviks to victory in the Civil War of 1918-21.

In Hungary, there was no strong Communist Party; on the contrary, Kun had to make compromises with the Social Democrats. But the major reason for his defeat was the joint attack by Czechoslovak and Romanian armies.

IV. The Birth of "White" Hungary.

The new Hungarian government was authoritarian, but we should bear in mind that it had  widespread popular support, also the support of the two strongest parties in the country: the Small Holders' Party, which represented wealthy and medium farmers, and the Christian National Union, a conservative, middle class party. These two parties dominated the new parliament, which declared on March 1 1920, that Hungary was a monarchy, and elected  Miklos Horthy as Regent. These actions were designed to preserve historical continuity and keep the door open for the restoration of old Hungary..

A Hungarian delegation went to Paris. It had to accept the Treaty of Trianon (signed on June 4 1920), which reduced Hungary to its ethnic Magyar core but left about 3 million Hungarians outside the new borders. This was certainly a violation of the principle of ethnic self-determination, as Hungarian historians never tire of reminding their readers at home and abroad. However, it was the natural result of two factors: (a) Hungary's military weakness, and (b) the old policy of discrimination against non-Magyars which alienated the non-Magyar nationalities of Old Hungary

TRIANON HUNGARY 1920-1939, showing losses of prewar lands.

Of course, it was natural  that most Maygars bitterly resented the peace treaty. Their slogan was: "Nem, nem, soha!" (Never, never, not ever!) Thus, the constant goal of interwar Hungarian governments was to regain all, or at least most of the lost territories, in particular Transylvania, which had played such an important role in Hungarian history, and which had a minority Magyar population numbering at least 1 million. There were also about 700,000 Magyars in southern Slovakia, while yet others were in the Banat and Voevodina, included in the new state of Yugolsavia.

Magyars are still numerous in all of these regions and sometimes their relations with the non-Magyar authorities are tense even today. In all these cases, tens of thousands of Magyars moved to Hungary, where they joined the ranks of the embittered and the unemployed.


The Soviet Hungarian Republic was a precedent for the communist Hungary established in 1947/48. One of its leaders, Mattyas Rakosi,  who was active in Soviet Hungary in 1919,was again to be a leader in postwar Hungary. (In 1956, he left for the USSR and died there.)

What is more important, the reduction of Hungary to a small country, while leaving  about 3,000,000 Maygars outside it under foreign rule, was unacceptable to the majority of Hungarians.This led to a Hungarian rapprochement with Nazi Germany and finally alliance with the latter during World War II.

It should be noted, however, that given the military weakness of Hungary and the strength of her neighbors, the Czechs, Romanians, and Serbs, there was no way that the Allied powers could have prevented this situation in 1919-20, even if they wished to do so.  Furthermore, the Hungarians not only wanted the return of specific areas with Hungarian majorities, but the reconstitution of the old Hungary in which the non-Magyars, who formed the majority, had not enjoyed  basic cultural rights let alone adequate representation in the Budapest legislature.

Bibliographic Note:

a. Brief treatments of the period:

Peter F. Sugar et al., eds., A History of Hungary, Bloomington, IN, 1990, ch. XVI, and Jurgen Hoensch, A History of Modern Hungary, 1867-1986, New York, 1986, revised edition 1996, ch.3.

b. Monograph Studies.

Andrew C. Janos and William B. Slottman, eds., Revolution in Perspective: Essays on the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, Berkeley, Ca., 1971.

Oskar Jaszi, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Hungary, London, 1924 and reprints (personal account of O.J. who was Karolyi's Minister of Nationalities).

Mihaly Karolyi, Memoirs of Michael Karolyi: Faith without Illusion, London, 1924; revised edition, 1956.

Alred D. Low, The Soviet Hungarian Republic and the Paris Peace Conference, Philadelphia, American Philosophical Society, 1963.

Peter Pastor, Hungary Between Wilson and Lenin: the Hungarian Revolution of 1918-1919 and the Big Three, New York, 1976 (valuable study written from a Hungarian point of view).

Andras Siklos, Revolution in Hungary and the Dissolution of the Multinational State, 1918, Budapest, Akademiai Kiado (Academy of Sciences), 1988.

Sandor Szilassy, Revolutionary Hungary (1918-1921), Danubian Press, Astor Park, Florida, 1971.

Rudolf Tokes, Bela Kun and Hungarian Soviet Republic: the Origins and Role of the Communist Party of Hungary in the revolutions of 1918-1919, New York, 1967.

Gabor Vermes, "The Agony of Federalism in Hungary under the Karolyi Regime, 1918/19," East European Quarterly, vol. VI, no. 4, pp. 487-503.

Ivan Volgyes, ed., Hungary in Revolution, 1918-1919: Nine Essays, Lincoln, Neb., 1971.

same: The Hungarian Soviet Republic, 1919: An Evaluation and a Bibliography, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, Ca., 1970].

                                    (see also Bibliography part II)