For a few months in early 1919 a workers' government ruled in Hungary.
In 1896 Hungarians celebrated a thousand years of the founding of their nation and Budapest staged a Millennium Exhibition to rival anything seen in Paris or London. As one half of the 18th century Habsburg 'Dual Monarchy', Hungary shared control and administration over the largest dominion in Europe. Eighteen million people lived within the borders of the area controlled by Hungary, almost half of them non-Hungarians. In fact 'Greater Hungary' was an unstable patchwork quilt of nationalities including Northern Romania (Transylvania), Southern Slovakia, Ruthenia,Western Ukraine, Croatia, the Banat, Slovenia, and Northern Serbia (Vojvodinia).
However impressive as the Millennium Exhibition was, nothing could cover the brutal fact that Hungary was primarily a peasant society with a backward and partly feudal social and economic infrastructure. Industry was almost solely concentrated in Budapest and, although the city could boast of Europe's first underground railway, something like one third of Greater Hungary's population was illiterate.
The outbreak of the First World War was soon to expose Hungary's backwardness. Leon Trotsky, at that time living in Vienna, remarked on the enthusiasm of the crowds when war was announced and there is no doubt that his reaction would have been the same had he been in Budapest.
However, fervour for war was short-lived; the war dragged on, casualties mounted and rationing was soon introduced. By 1918 discontent with the war reached a peak, Republican sentiment was growing and there were mutinies in the armed services and strikes at home. As the monarchy began to crumble, a National Council, led by a progressive aristocrat, Count Mihaly Karolyi, was formed in Budapest and became the focus for anti-war, pro-Republican sentiment.
On 3 November 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire signed a peace armistice at Padua in Italy, shortly thereafter the Hungarian National Council broke away from Vienna. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, 'the Prison House of Nations', was no more.
Confusingly referred to as the 'October Revolution' (or the gourgeois-democratic revolution) the events of 1918 confronted the National Council, now transformed into a National Government, with enormous problems.
Returning soldiers formed a Soldiers' Council in Budapest, alongside workers' councils formed by the half-starved factory workers. In the countryside the peasants agitated for land reform. They all wanted change and constantly pressured the National Government to take ever more radical steps, such as introducing a shorter working week.
The National Government tried desperately to hang on to 'Greater Hungary' but the surrounding nationalities had no desire to maintain any links with a country they saw as an imperial oppressor. Supported by the victorious Entente powers (France and Britain) they mobilised forces to claim what they believed was their territory.
Exhausted and almost destroyed by the 'war to end all wars', Hungary found itself attacked from the North by a Czech-Slovak army, from the South by the Serbs, while the Romanian army was making rapid advances into Transylvania.
Things came to a head in February and March, 1919. On its left the National Government was opposed by the newly formed Hungarian Communist Party, formed only four months previously and headed by former journalist, Béla Kun, who, like many of his comrades, had been recruited to the cause of revolution while a prisoner of war in Russia.
After a demonstration outside the offices of Népszava (People's Voice), the newspaper of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party (a major partner in the National Government), Kun and many of the leading HCP cadre were arrested and imprisoned and publication of the Communist paper, Vörös Újság (Red News) was banned.
Just a month later, with Kun and most of the HCP leadership still in prison, Karolyi was handed an ultimatum by Colonel Vyx commander of the French forces in the area (France regarded Eastern Europe as its 'sphere of influence' and had stationed an army in eastern Hungary). The ultimatum stated that Hungary must immediately withdraw to demarcation lines drawn up by the allies. Karolyi had no desire to accede to the French demand which would have meant the end of 'Greater Hungary' but he had no support with which to mount any opposition. He then asked the Social Democrats to form a Government.
The Hungarian SDP was, without a doubt, the most influential party in the National Government, claiming strong support from both the Soldiers' Council and the Workers' Council, although many activists were turning to the Communists. However, the SDP baulked at taking over the reins of power. The Hungarian SDP was a mirror image of the Austrian SDP and shared the same evolutionary, cautious, step-by-step approach to the struggle for socialism. In a sense they needed 'cover', some organisation that could take the risks and the blame should things go wrong. They also needed the increasing popularity and energy of the Communists.
Béla Kun must therefore have been somewhat bemused when a delegation from the SDP, the very people who earlier had thrown him in prison, visited him in his cell and proposed that the two parties share power in a new government. The outcome was a hastily arranged amalgamation between the Communists and the left of the Social Democrats (the right wing withdrew) to form the Hungarian Socialist Party. Without a single shot being fired, with no fighting, not even a street demonstration, power passed from the Karolyi government to a Revolutionary Governing Soviet (with Kun at its head). The populace of Budapest woke on the morning of 22 March 1919 to find the Red Flag flying from the Parliament Building and the bourgeois democratic revolution transformed into a proletarian revolution!
The Republic of Councils (Tanácsköztarsaság) found itself in a very difficult situation and some within its ranks must surely have thought that to have power, literally, dumped in their laps, was a mixed blessing. The country was exhausted by the war, industrial production was at a low level, the cities were starving as food supplies from the countryside were disrupted, the peasants wanted land, a counter-revolutionary army was in the process of formation in the east, and everywhere they were surrounded by hostile forces. Their major hope was that the Red Army in the Ukraine could break through and link up with them. Unfortunately, although this was, at one point, a real possibility, it never happened. Military reversals in the Ukraine meant that the Red Army was always too stretched to offer the Republic of Councils any assistance.
Some of the policies pursued by the Republic of Councils made this unfavourable situation even worse. Although Kun was in constant communication with Lenin via telegraph links or couriers he ignored important advice. Particularly crucial was the agrarian policy of the new regime.
The Republic of Councils nationalised the estates of the Hungarian aristocracy but instead of distributing the land to the peasants they tried to force them into collectivisation. The peasants were reluctant and not ready to make this enormous leap. Ignoring the Russian experience, Kun and his collaborators, tried to 'jump' a stage. In doing so they ignored the extremely difficult circumstances in the countryside and the level of consciousness of the peasants. Food supplies to the cities became even worse and eventually the revolutionary regime requisitioned food by force which only increased hostility in the countryside.
Given the kaleidoscope of nationalities and ethnicities that was Greater Hungary it was inevitable that the so-called nationalities question would loom large. To the Croats, Slovaks and others, Hungary was a former imperial power, all connections had to be broken, and national self-determination was the order of the day. The Republic of Councils, probably at Kun's insistence, ignored this sentiment (and again Russian advice) opting instead for a meaningless, abstract approach based around the slogan 'proletarian self-determination'.
Other ideas were floated, for example, a Danube Federation, but this made little impact in the nations now pushing for their independence. Concretely, this meant that, for example, Romanian or Slovak Communists were increasingly isolated as they tried to build support for the revolution in Budapest.
Domestically, the policies of the Republic of Councils were an interesting mix of the innovative and the disastrous. An overly-rigorous policy of nationalisation meant that even barbershops were immediately brought under state control and a national minimum wage was introduced but without the means of paying it. Inflation was rampant, but this was met by simply printing more money (so-called 'white money' - the notes being blank on one side) which soon became useless.
The film industry and the theatres were nationalised, the first in the world. Some later famous names participated - Mihaly Kertész, later known as Michael Curtiz, made films for the Councils, Sándor (later Sir Alexander) Korda was head of the Film Directorate and one Béla Blaskó - the future Bela Lugosi - was president of the actors' union.
Those in charge of cultural policy, including György Lukács, were particularly concerned about the needs of children; sex education was introduced in schools. Children were banned from going to cinema (a policy which probably reflected a general concern about the supposed detrimental effect of the still new medium) and it was planned to set aside a number of cinemas to show only children's films. In an attempt to push up literacy, mass readings of children's stories were organised and Lukács, the future author of the seminal History and Class Consciousness, read Hungarian folk tales to mass audiences of children in Budapest's parks. However interesting these experiments may have been the broader situation continued to go from bad to worse.
A Hungarian Red Army was raised and despite some initial success against invading Slovak and Czech forces in the north another ultimatum from the French forced Kun, despite much internal opposition, to withdraw their forces. Now demoralised and overstretched, a further offensive against the Romanian army failed within a few days and the remnants of the Red Army fell back to Budapest.
Faced with disaster, with no help coming from Russia, the Revolutionary Governing Soviet resigned, Kun and most of the leadership escaping to Vienna. The Republic of Councils had lasted 133 days. Those who could not escape now paid a terrible price. Three days later the Romanian army occupied Budapest, to be replaced in November by the counter-revolutionary army of Miklós Horthy, the man who shortly became Regent of Hungary.
The Horthy regime instituted a reign of terror and many on the left were imprisoned and executed. Anti-semitism grew, fuelled partly by the perception, encouraged by the far right, that most of the revolutionaries were of Jewish origin. On 4 June 1920, Hungary signed the Treaty of Trianon which confirmed the dismemberment of 'Greater Hungary', reducing its territory by approximately two thirds to something like its present day borders.
The Hungarian Communists were driven underground and could only operate illegally. Memories of the Workers' Councils however were revived in 1956 when their organisational form and principles were adopted by factory workers during the 1956 uprising.