James Felak. East European Quarterly. Volume 34, Issue 1. Spring 2000.
On April 4, 1945, the last Nazi combatants were driven out of Hungary by the Soviet Red Army, marking the end of more than a decade of Hungarian cooperation with Nazi Germany as well as thirteen months of German occupation of Hungary. Behind the Hungarians stood six months of fierce combat, as the front between the Nazi and Soviet behemoths passed through their country from one end to the other. Ahead of the Hungarians stood the daunting task of reconstructing a political, social, and economic order in the face of serious material and moral devastation, social turmoil, and occupation by a traditionally hostile foreign power. The relief and hope felt by many Hungarians at war’s end was tempered by an anxiety over just what sort of Hungary might emerge from the recent cataclysm, and at what price.
One place where popular hopes and anxieties focussed at this time was the Left end of the political spectrum. At the time of her liberation, Hungary had, for the first time since 1919, a legal Communist Party. With their reputation enhanced by their role in the struggle against fascism, their confidence bolstered by the Soviet occupation of their country, their numbers swelled by a very successful membership recruitment drive, and their hopes raised by the collapse of the old regime and public pressure for serious social, economic, and political reform, the Communists were a force to be reckoned with. Their partisans hoped and their adversaries feared that the Hungarian Communist Party (MKP) would take advantage of the situation by seizing power and installing a Soviet-style dictatorship of the proletariat. The Communists were not alone on the Hungarian Left, however. Alongside them were the Hungarian Social Democrats, whose party could compete with them effectively for support among the Hungarian working class. Just how these two parties would get along was a major question. Would the Communists re-adopt their policy of the 1920s and early 1930s, when they sought to isolate and undermine the Social Democrats by contemptuously branding them as “social fascists” and treating them as their greatest enemy? Or would they adhere to the party line of 1934 to 1944, when they attempted to woo the Social Democratic Party (SDP) into cooperation on a broad front against the common fascist adversary? Would the Communists respect the right of the SDP to exist as an independent Marxist party, or would they seek to dominate it or even absorb it into some sort of Communist-controlled “party of worker’s unity?” And what about the Social Democrats? Would they retain the deep-rooted suspicion of the Communists that characterized their party for the past quarter century? Or would the new post-war situation lead them toward genuine cooperation with the MKP in pursuit of common goals in the face of common opponents?
This article will examine the issue of Social Democratic cooperation with the Communists in Hungary throughout the course of 1945, examining its context, implications, and consequences. It will endeavor to place the relationship between the two parties into an historical perspective as well as within the context of post-war developments in Hungary. This relationship will be examined in connection with developments within the parties themselves, relations between Hungary’s Marxist and non-Marxist parties, and the policies of the Great Powers, namely the Soviet Union, the United States, and Great Britain, towards Hungary. The focus will be on the period from the liberation of Hungary in the early months of 1945 through November 1945, when Hungary held her first post-war elections and named a permanent government in their wake. The relationship that developed during this time, in terms of its motivations, problems, implications, and consequences, set the tone for much of Social-Democratic-Communist interaction through to the Communist destruction of the SDP and establishment of a one-party dictatorship in 1948.
There were a number of sources of cooperation between the Communists and Social Democrats in Hungary. First, there were important similarities between the two parties. Both professed to be Marxist in orientation, and while their respective interpretations of Marx differed, they did share a belief in the socialization of property as the necessary cure of society’s ills. Both parties appealed primarily, if not exclusively, to the industrial working class, and professed to speak and act in its interest. And both wanted fundamental social and economic changes in Hungary, changes which struck at the pillars of the old order—the landed aristocracy, the industrial, commercial, and financial elites, the civil and military bureaucracies, and the clergy. However, these similarities were not necessarily grounds for cooperation. In fact they could be, and in fact often were, reasons for conflict—ideological attacks over whose brand of Marxism was most authentic; mutual competition for votes, members, and support from among the working class; sharp differences over the means to be employed to reach socialist ends.
It was other factors that played the critical role in bringing the two parties on the Hungarian Left into official cooperation in the closing months of the Second World War. Several factors helped determine the policies adopted at that time by the respective leaders of the MKP and the SDP. For the MKP, of paramount importance was the line coming from Moscow. Soviet policy toward Eastern Europe in 1945 was characterized by the so-called “Polish trade-off.” Stalin’s top priority at this time with respect to Eastern Europe was Soviet control of Poland, which lay in a geostrategically important position between the Soviet Union and Germany. He was also interested in dominating Romania and Bulgaria, states on the Soviet Union’s southwestern border that Stalin was in effect promised by Great Britain in the Percentages Agreement of October 1944. Thus Hungary (with Czechoslovakia) was regarded as a lower priority by Moscow. For this reason, the Soviets did not want excessive Communist aggression in Hungary and Czechoslovakia to jeopardize their more important objectives elsewhere by provoking the Western Powers to respond with greater vigilance or intransigence to Soviet moves. For the Hungarian Communists, the Polish trade-off meant that even though the Soviet Red Army occupied their country, they would have to share power indefinitely with Hungary’s other “non-fascist” political parties in a genuine coalition government. Occupation by the Red Army did not mean for Hungary what it meant for Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria—an almost immediate and heavy-handed imposition of Communist authority.
Domestic factors also affected Moscow’s attitude toward the Hungarian situation. The MKP, having been small, weak, and marginalized in interwar and wartime Hungary, was not strong enough to take charge on its own. The SDP, though in disarray due to a crackdown by the fascist government in 1944, remained a force to be reckoned with, having strong support among the Hungarian working class, in particular skilled workers, and deep roots in the trade union movement. An outright Communist putsch at this point could well have resulted in an unwelcome fratricidal struggle on the Left. In the immediate post-war situation, cooperation with the Social Democrats made sense, especially at a time when broad social unity was needed for post-war reconstruction. Cooperation was also made more attractive and its costs for the Communists lower, thanks to some important changes that the SDP underwent in the course of the Second World War.
The wartime experience represented for the SDP a changing of the guard at the top levels of party leadership. When the SDP was outlawed after the Nazi occupation of Hungary in March 1944, most of the party’s leadership was arrested. These included prominent and well-respected Social Democrats, notably party chief Karoly Peyer, Anna Kethly, and Illes Monus, all of whom stood firmly in the party’s anti-Communist tradition. While Peyer sat in Mauthausen, Arpad Szakasits, who had been the editor of the Social Democratic daily Nepszava, became de facto leader of the party. Under Szakasits, a younger generation of cadres rose to fill the vacant positions in the party’s leadership. This younger generation, influenced more by the immediate experience of wartime collaboration with the MKP against fascism than by the interwar combat with Communism that had shaped their elders, was much more sympathetic to the MKP. Some of them, radicalized by the Great Depression and the War, were open to employing more revolutionary means for social and political change than had been the tradition in their reformist, evolutionary party. Other Social Democrats, young and old alike, were attracted to the MKP more out of opportunism than conviction. As it became clearer and clearer that Hungary would be occupied by the Soviet Red Army, and that this fact would considerably bolster Communist influence in Hungary, some leading Social Democrats saw personal and political benefits in cooperation with them. As Szakasits told the American representative in Budapest, the “radiance” of the Red Army had compelled the SDP to cooperate with the Communists. In April 1945, Szakasits admitted to the Americans that he was pursuing an opportunistic line. A further factor working in favor of SDP cooperation with the MKP was the former’s fear that a divided labor movement would play into the hands of the Fascists. Long-time leading Social Democrat Vilmos Bohm remarked in his memoirs that this understanding was accepted as axiomatic in his party. A final factor influencing the choices of Social Democrats at this time was Communist blackmail. Szakasits, for example, had written some anti-Soviet articles during the war, which could potentially be used against him now that Hungary was in the Russian rather than the German sphere of influence.
Cooperation between Communists and Social Democrats formally began in 1944, when the Social Democrats joined the Communists in illegality and in resistance against the then Nazi-dominated Hungarian regime. On October 10, 1944, Szakasits and the Communist Gyula Kallay signed what came to be known as the unity document. The document’s expressed goal was to achieve working class unity in an effort to conclude the war against Hitler quickly and victoriously and build an “independent, democratic, free Hungary” as preconditions for what both parties saw as their ultimate aim, a socialist Hungary. As a means to these goals, the two parties were to “cooperate politically and organizationally as closely as possible,” to establish a common newspaper aimed at promoting cooperation between Communists and Social Democrats, and to unify their trade union and youth movements. The document foresaw the eventual merger of the MKP and the SDP into a single party, though it allowed that the present moment was inopportune for such a step. In the meantime, the two parties would maintain their organizational independence and freedom to exercise a “benevolent, sincere, and constructive” criticism of each other.
As the Red Army began to drive the Nazis and their Hungarian fascist allies from Hungary, the political institutions of a reborn Hungary began to be constituted, largely at Soviet instigation and under Soviet direction. On December 3, the representatives of Hungary’s five anti-fascist political parties founded the Hungarian National Independence Front, an organization intended to show the social breadth of opposition to fascism as well as coordinate the policies of its member parties. Alongside the Communists and Social Democrats, the Front consisted of: the Smallholders Party (SHP), ostensibly a party of peasant farmers but in fact a catch-all for those Hungarians who wanted nothing to do with a Marxist party, and as such potentially the largest party in the country; the National Peasant Party (NPP), a Communist-influenced party that sought, without much success, to woo peasants leftwards away from the Smallholders; and the Bourgeois Democratic Party, a small middle-class party that was later ostracized by the other parties and dropped from the Front. On December 22, representatives from these parties, as well as from the newly-reconstituted trade unions, set up a Provisional National Assembly, which authorized the creation of a provisional government. The latter, under the premiership of General Bela Dalnoki-Miklos, consisted of three Communists, two Social Democrats, two Smallholders, and one National Peasant, as well as some members not affiliated with any party, including two additional generals. Hungarian political parties also began to reorganize themselves at this time. In accordance with Soviet desires for a multi-party coalition, Hungarian Communists, aided by the Red Army, helped the other parties reconstitute themselves.
Soon after the MKP and the SDP were legalized in conjunction with the liberation of Hungary from Nazi rule, they reaffirmed their intention to cooperate. On January 21, 1945, the leadership of both parties agreed to establish a joint committee, consisting of three delegates from each party, whose task it was to “enable and ensure a similar position by the two parties on the political and economic questions of consequence that are emerging.” The parties pledged to respect each other’s programmatic and organizational independence. On February 6 it was announced that the joint committee would “work in the interest of the realization of the harmonious cooperation insured by the interparty agreement of October 10, 1944.” Over the following weeks, Communist and Social Democratic leaders on a number of occasions publicly expressed the desire to cooperate. Szakasits, for example, speaking at a rally in Debrecen on March 12, said that the future of Hungary was dependent upon the indivisibility of the Communist and Social Democratic parties. He foresaw a merger of the two parties, the foundation for which in his view had already been laid. The MKP’s boss, General Secretary Matyas Rakosi, also spoke favorably of Communist cooperation with the Social Democrats. Not long after a meeting with Szakasits on February 21, he affirmed the long-term nature of MKP-SDP cooperation, rebuking as “not only wrong but dangerous” the view that it was only a tactical arrangement, with each side trying to gain an advantage over the other from it.
Cooperation was facilitated by the fact that Communists and Social Democrats were without any significant programmatic differences, mainly because the Communists moderated their program. This Communist moderation reflected not only Soviet policy toward Hungary, but also lessons drawn from the MKP’s own past experiences. The regime of the Communist Bela Kun, which ruled Hungary from March to July 1919, had failed in part because it alienated many Hungarians with its radical slogans and policies. The party now sought to avoid a similar mistake by playing up ideas with broad social appeal, such as patriotism, democracy, reconstruction and “unity with the forces of peaceful progress” and playing down revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat and intentionally distancing itself from the Bela Kun fiasco. For its part, the Soviet Union warmly praised Hungary’s Provisional Government and its program, and even appeared to discourage Hungarian Communists from agitating against the government.
In an attempt to display their cooperation publicly, the SDP and the MKP agreed to hold a joint May Day parade in Budapest. A commission of Social Democrats and Communists was set up to organize and coordinate the parade. A week before, joint rallies were held in a number of provincial towns, and on April 27, the two parties issued an open letter on their cooperation. The letter, among other things, pointed to the situations in Italy and France as positive examples of Communist-Social Democratic cooperation. A major theme of the letter was the argument that disunity on the Left plays into the hands of the Right. It stated that “Nothing is more encouraging to the Right than when the representatives of the two workers’ parties vote against each other. This should be avoided in all circumstances.” It went on to criticize those Social Democrats and Communists who were unable to overcome the traditional hostility between their parties as doing harm “not only to the workers’ movement, but to the whole nation as well.” The letter spoke in a similar vein about those Social Democrats and Communists who consider their parties’ cooperation as merely short-term and tactical. Although the May 1 parade went off without a hitch, it is worth noting that the marchers, grouped according to factories, marched behind separate banners and with separate slogans, depending upon on whether they were Communist or Social Democratic.
Despite efforts by the MKP and SDP leaderships to reverse twenty-five years of mutual suspicion and conflict through the institution and implementation of cooperation, serious tensions remained and even intensified between the two parties. First, there was the quite natural and probably unavoidable struggle for political spoils that engaged all of Hungary’s political parties, not least those on the Left, once the old regime was swept away. Second, aggressive, highhanded, and even violent behavior on the part of the Communists alienated and aggravated many Social Democrats, reaffirming their view of the correctness of past Social Democratic suspicions of the MKP. Finally, the way the Communists and Social Democrats understood the experiences of the Bela Kun regime and the 1920s and 1930s brought the interwar past to bear on the post-war situation.
Although the MKP, in accordance with Soviet wishes and the exigencies of the Hungarian situation, accepted a power-sharing arrangement in a multi-party coalition, it nevertheless tried to concentrate a disproportionately large amount of power in its own hands. Communists sought both to increase their representation in the established institutions such as the bureaucracy, army, and police, as well as to set up ad hoc institutions that they could dominate. This two-track approach can be seen in Communist efforts in the realms of administration, organization of industrial workers, and law enforcement.
As Hungary was freed from Nazi control, the question of administration naturally arose. In the areas liberated from fascist rule, the MKP set up so-called national councils (nemzeti tanacsok), that is, local committees, composed of representatives of the political parties, that were responsible for local administration. At the same time, the Communists sought to establish themselves in the state bureaucracy, gaining positions through the purging of civil servants left over from the interwar and wartime period. No party pressed for administrative purges as aggressively as the MKP. The Communists charged the government, and in particular the Social Democratic Minister of Justice Agoston Valentiny, with not moving fast enough with the purges. In both the national committees and the bureaucracy, the Communists were able to make gains in excess of their numerical strength, a fact which brought them into conflict with the Social Democrats and Smallholders, who likewise coveted administrative posts.
A larger and more serious battleground on the Left was the factories, where Communists sought to create and dominate ad hoc factory committees (uzemi bizottsagok), while at the same time reorganizing the trade unions in an effort to enhance Communist influence. It should come as no surprise that parties which professed to represent the industrial working class would see trade unions as vitally important, especially during a period of economic turmoil, social upheaval, and political transition. Hungary’s trade unions had traditionally been part of the Social Democratic establishment, with interconnected leaderships. The German invasion of March 1944 resulted in the dissolution of the Social Democratic trade unions, along with the party itself. When the trade unions were reestablished in December 1944, the Communists were in a position to insist on cosponsoring them, on the principle of parity with the Social Democrats. The reestablished trade union organization, named the National Alliance of Hungarian Free Trade Unions (Magyar Szabad Szakszervezetek Orszagos Svovetsege, or MSSOSz), was a joint Communist-Social Democrat enterprise. By May 1945, it had 400,000 members, growing to one million by the end of the year. Both parties were aware of the importance of a strong, unified trade union movement for Hungarian politics. The Left, in fact, managed to gain for the trade unions equal status with the political parties. This meant that union representatives would sit on the national committees, in local and municipal governments, and in the Provisional Parliament, where the thirty-eight trade union representatives enabled the Left to increase its majority.
Communist inroads into the SDP-dominated trade union movement were considerable. A Communist, Istvan Kossa, became the chairman of the MSSOSz, and Communists received the top positions in the new unions founded in those branches of the economy, such as the railroads and the state munitions factories, where unionization had been forbidden under the old regime. The parity principle was very difficult to put in practice, particularly in those unions where one or the other party had an overwhelming majority (for example, the printers’ union for Social Democrats, or the miners’ union for Communists). For this reason, there was constant quarrelling between the Social Democrats, trying to hold on to their traditional positions, and the Communists, seeking to dominate the movement. Friction also resulted from a difference in conception over what the proper role of a trade union should be—Communists believed that trade unions should play an explicitly political role; Social Democrats tended to favor limiting them to addressing the economic grievances of the workers. In addition to trade unions, the MKP sought to influence the working class outside the traditional establishment via the new factory committees. These bodies, the majority of which were controlled by Communists, gave the MKP additional influence in personnel and economic questions on the factory level.
Though Communists and Social Democrats vied with each other seriously and strenuously for influence over the working class, on no battleground was the conflict more bitter, or the stakes higher, than in the realm of law enforcement. Although the MKP apparently could live with a considerable amount of Social Democrat influence in the trade union movement, a relatively slow purging of the bureaucracy, and the absorption of some of the ad hoc bodies that it had established and controlled into the traditional state structures, there was little room for compromise with regard to the issue of the police. As the most important instrument of power besides the Red Army, the MKP sought to control and pack the police to the greatest degree possible. At immediate issue was the post of the Minister of the Interior, who was in charge of the state’s police, including the important political police. When the Provisional Government was named in December 1944, the MKP faced a dilemma. On the one hand, it wanted control of the ministry; on the other hand, it realized that naming a Communist as Interior Minister would antagonize some key members of the Cabinet, including the Smallholders and the generals. Adamant that the post not go to a Smallholder, the Communists prevailed upon Ferenc Erdei, a leader of the NPP’s left-wing, to accept the position. Erdei was a Communist sympathizer, and under him, Communist infiltration into the police, and in particular its political and economic sections, was considerable. One contemporary estimated that Communists held around 52% of all police posts in Hungary. By March 1945, Social Democrat concern over this situation prompted Szakasits to appeal to Social Democrat workers to join the police force. Though ostensibly aimed at “democratizing” the police force by replacing Rightist elements, Szakasits’ appeal, according to Minister of Justice Valentiny, was in fact a response to pressures within his own party seeking to counteract the preponderance of Communists in the police at that time.
Control of the police was key for Communist strategy. Since the party was sharing political power with non-Communists, the police became all the more crucial for any long-term success in increasing and consolidating its influence in Hungary. No instrument, besides the Red Army, could be more effectively used against the Communists’ political opponents. In their propaganda, the Communists pointed to the fact that they had suffered greater political persecution under the old regime than any other political party, thereby having a greater right and a greater capacity to find and root out the fascist danger. Problematic for interparty relations, however, was the MKP’s practice of defining “fascist” much more broadly than its rival parties.
Similar arguments were used to defend the second track of Communist engagement in law enforcement, the so-called Judgment of the People (nepitelet). This institution consisted of ad hoc tribunals set up locally to try, condemn, and sentence alleged fascists. They served mainly as a Communist instrument to menace and liquidate real or potential opposition. As such, they were a cause for concern among most non-Communists.
The excesses of the Judgment of the People was only one aspect of a countrywide barrage of Communist violence, aggression, and intimidation in post-war Hungary. By Spring 1945, the Social Democrats, as well as the other political parties, had a long list of complaints against Communist behavior. First of all, there were a considerable amount of atrocities committed by the Red Army after the war, particularly in large-scale looting and raping. In July, Szakasits complained privately to the American representative that misbehavior by the Soviet troops was hurting the SDP’s efforts to promote friendliness toward the Soviet Union among Hungarians. However, the behavior of the Hungarian Communists caused the SDP much greater concern. Social Democrats complained of the corruption of Communists who were benefiting from Red Army connections and of the favoritism shown to those workers who switched their allegiance from the SDP to the MKP. They were also troubled by a number of ways in which Communists were violating the spirit and letter of the cooperation agreements between the two parties. This was especially acute in the countryside, and at the lower and middle levels of the SDP, where sympathy for the MKP was much weaker than at the top. These violations included vigorous, coercive membership drives that included aggressive proselytizing activity among Social Democrat workers. A leading Social Democrat complaint was that the MKP was obstructing their organizational work in the provinces. Local administrative or police apparatuses, under Communist influence, hindered SDP activity in a number of places. There was also a problem of Communists dealing with Social Democrats in an arrogant, high-handed manner. Some Social Democrats were particularly aggravated by the open assertion of some local Communist activists that the MKP would soon absorb the SDP.
It should be noted that many Hungarians were especially galled at this time by the fact that former members of the Arrow Cross, the pro-Nazi Hungarian fascist movement that ruled Hungary with much viciousness under Nazi auspices during the final months of the war, continued to play a role in Hungarian political life, mainly as low-level members of legal political parties. Most frequently such former fascists found their way into the MKP. Now donning a crossed hammer-and-sickle instead of crossed arrows, these political adventurers continued to menace the population, though now in the name of a different totalizing ideology.
That there were bad feelings between Social Democrats and Communists in post-war Hungary can be attributed to something in addition to aggressive Communist actions and a competition for political power, namely, the experience of these two parties over the previous quarter century. Certain past developments helped to poison Communist-Social Democratic relations in a way that for many partisans could not be overcome regardless of the official position their respective leadership took on the issue. First and foremost of these developments was the regime of Bela Kun.
When Hungary’s old order collapsed at the end of the First World War, a new regime of liberals and Social Democrats, led by Count Mihaly Karolyi, took charge of the radically truncated state. At around the same time, the MKP was founded by a combination of Hungarian prisoners of war who had imbibed Marxist-Leninist doctrine while in Russia and left-wing Social Democrats back home. The MKP presented itself as a radical, revolutionary alternative to the SDP, whose moderate evolutionary socialism and patriotism it condemned as a betrayal of the proletariat. Though the two Marxist parties had hostile relations over the next few months, in March they joined together in a single party to produce the Hungarian Soviet Republic, a Marxist-Leninist regime headed by MKP chief Kun. This regime, lasting for only 133 days, was doomed from the start, as it faced the hostility of Hungary’s neighbors and the Entente Powers. This fact, combined with a chaotic economic situation and imprudent policies, including egregious economic mismanagement and terror, turned Hungary’s brief experiment with Bolshevism into a fiasco. When the regime collapsed in July, all but the Communists and left-wing Social Democrats had turned against it. Brief though it was, however, the Kun regime left some important legacies for post-World War II Hungary.
First, Communists inherited a deep suspicion of fusing with the SDP without first being sure they had the upper hand. In March 1919, Kun and the Communists needed the SDP in order to rule. The latter not only had a much larger membership than the MKP but also an infrastructure and body of trained administrators of which the Communists could only dream. For this reason, the Communist-Social Democratic combination was anything but Leninist and the Communists at times were hamstrung in their efforts to forge a genuine Soviet republic out of the post-war Hungarian chaos. This experience figured in the Communist decision in 1944 to put off their goal of fusion with the SDP indefinitely. Second, Communists, as mentioned above, learned to eschew the sort of radical slogans and policies that were sure to alienate most Hungarians and instead, for tactical reasons, adopt a more popular, relatively moderate line. The MKP did not repeat the error of Kun, whose hostility to private land ownership, religion, and patriotism proved counter-productive. Finally, the Kun regime left a great bitterness by many Communists toward the Social Democrats, whom they regarded as more of an obstruction than a help to their efforts to turn Hungary into a revolutionary workers’ republic. In a postmortem on the Revolution of 1919, Lenin spoke of the allegedly faint-hearted and wavering Social Democrats as traitors, while Comintern Chairman Grigori Zinoviev summed up the Communist attitude when he wrote that “the old official social democracy is our mortal foe. That is the lesson to be derived from the Hungarian events.”
The Kun period drove a wedge between Communists and Social Democrats in another way as well. Since the failure of the liberal Karolyi regime to deal successfully with Hungary’s urgent domestic and international crisis in the late autumn and winter of 1918-1919 paved the way for the Left’s accession to power, the Hungarian Soviet Republic discredited not only Communism and Social Democracy, but even Liberalism in the eyes of most Hungarians. In order to have a political future in a post-revolutionary Hungary that was imbued with a very conservative spirit, the SDP’s leadership felt compelled to distance itself as much as possible from the Kun fiasco. At this time Karoly Peyer, a leading figure on the Social Democratic right-wing, rose to the top of the party. Peyer had impeccable anti-Communist credentials. In January 1919, as secretary of the Social Democratic miners’ union, he restored order over a Communist-instigated strike in Salgotarjan at the cost of at least sixteen lives. Under the Kun regime, Peyer used his position as trade union leader to head the opposition to the Communists and was among the first Social Democrats to look for a way to extricate their party from the misalliance with the MKP. Under Peyer, the SDP leadership consistently and completely resisted all overtures for cooperation by the MKP, including repeated offers from 1935 onward, when Communist policy worldwide was to build so-called popular fronts, that is, alliances with Social Democrats and other anti-fascist forces. It was not until 1944, when Peyer and most of the other top SDP leaders were in German prison camps, that the party, with Szakasits appropriating the right to speak in its name, began to cooperate officially with the MKP.
Social Democratic hostility to the MKP was understandable. The beatings, tortures, arrests, and nearly six hundred executions of the Kun regime, not to mention the developments in Soviet Russia since 1917, exposed the Communist propensity for dictatorship and terror. The SDP under Peyer regarded parliamentary democracy and its attendant liberties as fundamental goals of Social Democracy, not as mere instruments to be employed or discarded to the extent that they served or did not serve revolutionary ends. The SDP also had to contend throughout the interwar period with ceaseless Communist efforts to infiltrate, split, or manipulate it, and, until 1935, with virulent rhetorical attacks. (Communists routinely referred to Social Democrats as “social fascists”; Social Democrats responded in kind). When Communists ceased such attacks with the inauguration of the popular front policy, it was clear that they were doing so for tactical considerations in accordance with the Comintern’s line, not out of any new-found affinity or respect for the SDP.
Anti-Communism was not enough, however, to win tolerance for the SDP in an atmosphere of hostility toward the Left. The ruling elements of the interwar Hungarian regime of Admiral Miklos Horthy were leery not only of Communism, but of any Marxist-influenced efforts that claimed to assert the prerogatives of Hungary’s lower classes against the elites who dominated her politics, economy, and culture. In order to win a place for the SDP in the Hungarian political system in the face of official persecution, Peyer made a secret deal with Count Istvan Bethlen, Hungary’s prime minister from 1921 to 1931 and the architect of interwar Hungary’s political system. In the so-called Bethlen-Peyer pact of December 22, 1921, the government agreed that the SDP could function as a legal political party, maintain trade unions for industrial workers, and freely publish its own newspapers. SDP property confiscated after the collapse of the Kun regime was returned and Social Democrats who were serving prison sentences for political offenses were amnestied. In exchange, the SDP agreed to refrain from organizing in rural areas and among civil servants and railroad workers, to limit strikes to economic and not political issues, and to support the regime’s foreign policy, which was aimed at revising the post-war borders in Hungary’s favor.
The Bethlen-Peyer pact proved to be a great embarrassment to the Social Democrats, who at first denied its existence, then confessed to it and repudiated it in words if not very much in deeds. The SDP’s backroom deal with a very conservative regime not only confirmed Communists in their view of it as a petty bourgeois, reformist party that betrayed the proletariat, but also gave the MKP a useful propaganda tool with which to clobber their socialist rival.
With contradictory forces for cooperation and conflict operating within the Hungarian Left, it is no surprise that both the MKP and SDP experienced factional divisions over the issue of mutual cooperation. Divisions were less serious in the MKP, due to its stronger party discipline and greater sense of security thanks to the Red Army occupation. Moreover, cooperation for the Communists came at a much lower price. Nevertheless, for many Communist activists, their party’s policy of cooperation in a multi-party coalition did not make sense. They were eager to exploit the post-war social and economic turmoil and the Red Army occupation in order to realize a dictatorship of the proletariat at once. They also lacked understanding for the MKP’s relatively moderated program. On several occasions, Rakosi publicly asserted his party’s official conciliatory line in the face of what he deemed left-wing extremism in his own party. At the MKP’s party conference of May 20 and 21, he addressed the issue at length. In his concluding address, Rakosi stressed that close cooperation with the SDP was the pivot of the MKP’s policy of national unity, and Communists all over Hungary were instructed to strive for the best possible relations with the Social Democrats. At the party conference, he condemned those zealots who obstructed or poisoned such relations, who by intimidation or bossiness deviated from a party line they did not understand. Rakosi attributed the anti-Social Democratic activities of such Communists to a number of causes: the inability of former activists of the Kun period to adapt to a changed situation; the legacy of twenty-five years of conflict with the Social Democrats; and the fact that the MKP, as the first party to reactivate itself in post-Nazi Hungary, got used to holding authority in the administration, police, and other local bodies and had a hard time accepting the need to share some of that authority with non-Communists. Communist resentment at having to make room for a second working class party, which many of them regarded as a prop of the bourgeoisie and right-wing forces, also figured in the conflict.
What effect the excesses of local Communist activists would have on official cooperation between the MKP and the SDP depended a great deal on the position taken by the SDP’s leadership. That leadership was bitterly divided over the question of cooperation, an issue which, far more than anything else, defined the party’s main factions.
The left-wing of the SDP favored extremely close cooperation with the MKP. Its leader, party chairman Szakasits, had long been inclined toward a Social Democratic rapprochement with the Communists. Though sometimes troubled by Communist excesses, if only because they increased the pressure on him from within his own party to take a harder line toward the MKP, he took great pains to see that the SDP marched in step with the Communists. Some left-wingers were so closely connected to the MKP that they received instructions from its leaders and divulged the proceedings of secret Social Democratic meetings to them. The chief Social Democratic organizer in Miskolc, Sandor Ronai, had even begged to be admitted to the MKP, but was told that he would be of greater use to the Communists if he remained in the SDP. With few exceptions, the Social Democratic left-wing acted as a branch of the MKP. The only serious issue of division among the Social Democratic left-wingers was over the question of fusion with the MKP. Szakasits and his supporters favored it; the moderate Left favored the closest cooperation with the MKP, but opposed fusion. Antal Ban, a top Social Democratic leader, was the most prominent representative of this latter current, supported by those Social Democrats who, unlike the group around Szakasits, valued the long-term institutional preservation of their party and insisted on complete equality in its dealings with the Communists.
On the Right were those Social Democrats who continued their party’s tradition of staunch anti-Communism. They had hopes that the SDP would become the central core around which a democratic Hungary would be built, the middle course between the dictatorial alternatives of Communists on the Left and supporters of the old regime on the Right. As such, they looked to the British Labour Party as their model and inspiration. Though realizing that some degree of cooperation with the MKP was unavoidable given the circumstances, they favored better relations with the SHP. The leading figure of the right-wing was Peyer, who returned to Hungary only in the summer of 1945 and in poor health. In his absence, Minister of Justice Valentiny and Ferenc Szeder carried the torch for their faction.
Between the SDP’s two wings stood the bulk of the party’s membership, including the middle and lower-ranking leadership. This not particularly well-defined SDP Center was nevertheless characterized by an anxiety about Communist intentions and an uneasiness about cooperating too closely with them. At the same time, however, it also exhibited a wariness of the Hungarian Right and a fear of upsetting the Soviet Union by going it alone or in conjunction with the non-Communist parties. The SDP right-wing needed the Center’s support in order to counter the Left effectively; the left-wing needed only the passive of acquiescence of the Center in its policies.
The dramatically changed political situation that developed in 1944 and 1945, namely the Red Army’s occupation of Hungary and the ascendancy of the MKP for the first time since 1919, altered the balance of power in the SDP. When the SDP reconstituted itself in early 1945, it included representatives of each of the currents discussed above were represented, but the Left was dominant. Nevertheless, it still had to face certain constraints. First, the Right too was represented at the top level of the SDP, and there was the prospect of Peyer returning and making his influence felt. Second, while the Left could gain the upper hand at the party’s peak, the Right remained stronger at the middle and lower levels and in the trade union establishment. Finally, Communist abuses upset a great part of the party and were a growing threat to the official policy of cooperation.
In May, the SDP held a series of important party conferences where cooperation with the Communists was reaffirmed. This decision came, however, only after much turbulent debate. The rightwing, attacking Szakasits’ policy of cooperation with the MKP in practice though not in principle, pointed to Communist abuses and argued that only the SDP was keeping its end of the cooperation agreement. Valentiny remarked that “the other side is proclaiming a program that no one among them is following…they want democracy, but don’t do democracy.” The Szakasits faction countered that the Communists were not the only ones to blame for the conflicts and stressed the political necessity of cooperation, even if it meant that the SDP would have to make sacrifices. As one of Szakasits’ allies stated, “It would be impossible to do otherwise than we are doing now…there is only one way that we can go…if the party deviates from this policy, it would be tantamount to suicide.” The left-wing view carried the day, as the conference resolution affirmed cooperation with the MKP.
Although the May conferences of both parties, with Rakosi denouncing Communist “leftist sectarianism” and Szakasits getting his party to affirm his policy of cooperation despite recent Communist transgressions, cemented the relationship between the MKP and the Social Democratic left-wing, the conflict between both of these groups and the right-wing Social Democrats intensified. At issue was the police. Not only the Social Democratic right-wing, but also the Smallholders and the Bourgeois Democrats were alarmed by Communist control of the police. By May, some Smallholders took the lead in openly challenging the MKP on this issue. The Communists met this challenge by making the SHP, or more specifically its right-wing, the target of an attack that would culminate in a blow against those Smallholders and Social Democrats who dared to obstruct Communist aggrandizement.
The Communists regarded the SHP as both threatening and vulnerable at the same time. It was a threat because of its broad social appeal. Not only did it attract the most peasants in what was a largely agricultural country, it had also became the favorite party of the Hungarian middle class. With the once popular right-wing of the political spectrum outlawed by the occupying powers, the SHP was the party of choice for conservative supporters of the old regime as well as for liberals and agrarian reformers. The fact that the party became a catch-all for non-Marxists, however, was at least as much a source of weakness as of strength. It was simply too diverse to function as a cohesive organization. Like the SDP, it had a left-wing that was sympathetic to cooperation with the MKP and a right-wing that regarded such cooperation with great suspicion. Unfortunately for the SHP, the party leadership was weak and not especially impressive. Zoltan Tildy, who headed the party through the course of 1945, was rather easily enticed or intimidated into doing the MKP’s bidding. The party, because it was Hungary’s only major non-Leftist party, was also vulnerable to being branded as rightist by the MKP and SDP leaders every time it sought to resist the Left. While the MKP and SDP ostensibly welcomed cooperation with the SHP in the Hungarian National Independence Front and the coalition government, they repeatedly let it be known that they would not tolerate any “reaction” from that quarter.
Efforts by the Smallholders and others to confront the MKP over the issue of the police fit the Communist definition of reaction, which meant, practically speaking, resistance to the MKP. Though the MKP was willing, as a concession to the SDP, to share some positions in the police with the Social Democrats, albeit primarily the left-wing ones, it was absolutely opposed to any genuine power sharing in control over the police. When pressure against this intransigence began to mount from the middle of May onward, with members of the right-wings of the SHP, SDP, and NPP raising the issue, the Communists saw occasion for their first major attack on their opponents in the coalition. Ominously, the MKP began to complain of having been too conciliatory by focusing its energies on economic reconstruction at the expense of vigilance against reaction. In early July, when Smallholder Bela Varga insinuated at a local rally that the present system in Hungary was not a true democracy, Communists instigated a riot. The MKP at this time was pursuing a policy of participating in and supporting the coalition with the other political parties while at the same time working to undermine any potential resistance to the Communists from those parties by isolating and eliminating their anti-Communist wings. Using what came to be known as “salami tactics,” the MKP sought to slice off its opposition bit-by-bit, exploiting divisions within the non-Communist parties to their advantage. As Laszlo Rajk, a top-ranking Communist, told a conference of party leaders,
If you have five enemies, you should ally yourselves with them; arrange to incite four of them against the fifth, then three against the fourth, and so on until you have only one enemy left in the alliance; you can the liquidate him yourselves and kick him out of the alliance.
The crisis which resulted in the Communists’ cutting a few rightwing Smallholders and Social Democrats from the salami reached its climax in early July. At that time, frustration had mounted because of the political police’s refusal to investigate abuses in its ranks, including reports of the summary execution of twenty-six people in the village of Gyomro and the widespread use of torture in Kecskemet. To remedy the situation, Justice Minister Valentiny proposed that his ministry be given the authority to conduct an investigation of its own, using police officers that would be transferred to it from the Ministry of the Interior. The Cabinet, which had a non-Leftist majority, accepted Valentiny’s proposal. The showdown with the MKP had come. The Communists, supported by NPP leader Erdei and the Social Democrat Ban, opposed the proposal and demanded that it be rescinded. At this point, the Social Democratic left-wing came to the MKP’s aid. On Communist instigation, the SDP withdrew its support for Valentiny and forced him to resign, replacing him with the leftist Istvan Ries. As part of the deal, the MKP promised the left-wing Social Democrats that they would get an additional cabinet position if General Faragho could be removed from office as well. Thus, after Valentiny’s resignation, the MKP and Social Democratic left-wing immediately turned the brunt of their attack against Faragho and the Smallholder Imre Vasary, men who as Ministers of Supplies and Finance, respectively, had been instrumental in organizing resistance to Communist moves. In response, some right-wing Smallholders proposed that their party break with the Left altogether and form a rightist-bloc, comprised of anti-Communist elements from the SDP, SHP, and NPP camps. The SHP leadership nixed this plan, however. On July 11, the party announced that two of its members had been expelled for making anti-Communist statements in public. The next day, Tildy stated that the SHP leadership would take action against any other members who pursued a policy contrary to the coalition’s unity. Anxious to avoid any rupture of interparty relations that might jeopardize the upcoming elections or give the Left cause for placing the onus for a collapse of the coalition on the SHP, Tildy acquiesced in the Left’s effort at ministerial reorganization.
On July 21, several cabinet changes were effected. Vasary, of the SHP’s right-wing, was replaced by the left-leaning Smallholder Odon Kishazy, an ally of Tildy’s, as Minister of Finance. General Faragho resigned in favor of Ronai, a far-Left Social Democrat. Along with Ries, these men gave the left a majority in the government for the first time. The MKP and the Social Democratic Left were enthused by the changes. The Communist Revai said that the MKP regarded this government as its own. New Justice Minister Ries, while promising to pursue a reform of the Judgment of the People and the police, proclaimed that his primary duty was to fight implacably against any form of reaction.
The Left’s success in the July crisis was facilitated to a considerable degree by the situation in mid-1945 with respect to Great Power politics. Soviet policy toward Hungary entailed, as discussed above, official support for the multi-party coalition government on the one hand, and Soviet support to the Communist component of that coalition on the other. The most forceful assertion of support for the MKP came with Soviet insistence that the instruments of police power, such as the political police and the border guards, be under Communist control. The Soviet Union also provided a considerably greater degree of logistical support to the MKP than to the other parties. The Red Army controlled access to jeeps, gasoline, newsprint, and other things that were in short supply but valuable for party political life. Finally, the Soviet presence gave the MKP a big psychological boost. Hungarians were acutely aware that their country’s future lay to a large extent in the hands of the occupying power. Fear of antagonizing the Soviet Union, whose cooperation Hungary needed for a favorable post-war peace treaty as well, figured in the policies of Tildy, Szakasits, and Ban.
Also important for Hungary’s future was the stand taken by the Western Powers. Although the Allied Control Commissions that were established in the capitals of every liberated country consisted of a representative from each of the victorious powers, it was standard practice for the Western states to defer to the Soviet Union in the places where the Red Army was in occupation. American interest in Hungary was not expressed with as much clarity or forthrightness in 1945 as democrats in Hungary would have liked. Although the U.S. did express its dissatisfaction with Soviet pressure at times (see below, page 122) there was a marked reluctance on the part of the Americans to get involved in Hungarian domestic politics. The chief of the United States diplomatic representation in Budapest, Schoenfeld, repeatedly declined the appeals of non-Communist Hungarian political leaders, including Smallholders and right-wing Social Democrats, for financial and political support. Schoenfeld also urged the Hungarian government to avoid anything that would complicate relations between the Allied powers, which can be taken to mean the avoidance of antagonizing the MKP. There was a certain measure of arrogance in the American response to requests for help from non-Communist Hungarians. Schoenfeld, in a report to the U.S. Secretary of State, recounts the reply he gave to a prominent Hungarian banker who visited him on August 21, asking for American financial support for the Smallholders, who feared being outspent in the upcoming election by the Soviet-supported MKP. Schoenfeld writes:
I explained that Americans thought of [the] democratic process as involving [an] effort to overcome obstacles by necessary personal sacrifice. Since [the] time of [the] Magna Carta freedom had been won by [the] vigorous assertion of popular rights and willingness to fight for them when necessary …. Democracy [in Hungary] would have to be secured by similar qualities of character on [the] part of the Hungarians ….
If non-Communist Hungarians were going to find the courage to assert their rights in the face of growing Leftist pressure, they would have to look to Britain, not America, for encouragement. The British attitude toward the Hungarian situation differed from that of the U.S. in some important ways. First of all, the electoral victory of the British Labour Party in July 1945 had a strong resonance in Hungarian politics. The Left, initially fearing a Conservative victory, were nonetheless not particularly relieved when Labour captured Parliament. For one thing, Labour’s victory emboldened and enthused the SDP’s right-wing, who looked on their British counterpart as ideological kin. Furthermore, new Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, in an address to Parliament on August 20, made the sharpest attack on the Hungarian government yet to be heard. Commenting on the governments of Romania and Bulgaria as well as Hungary, he said:
The Governments which have been set up do not, in our view, represent the majority of the people, and the impression we get from recent developments is that one kind of totalitarianism is being replaced by another. This is not what we understand by that very overworked word “democracy” which appears to need definition, and the forms of government which have been set up as a result do not impress us as being sufficiently representative to meet the requirements of diplomatic relations.
Nevertheless, despite expressed British concern over the situation in Hungary, it soon became clear that His Majesty’s government, Socialist or not, did not regard Hungary as a vital interest and was not prepared to follow up its words with forceful actions on behalf of the pro-Western political groups in Hungary. Although non-Leftists in the government, particularly those on the Social Democratic right-wing, sought British support, it was not long before they became disillusioned. Britain’s encouraging rhetoric proved no more propitious to democrats in Soviet-occupied Hungary than America’s relative reticence.
In the weeks after the settlement of the July crisis and the concomitant strengthening of the Left’s position in the government, the Social Democratic left-wing continued to promote cooperation with the MKP. Szakasits wrote in Nepszava that “The Social Democratic party is fully aware that close cooperation with the Communist party is in the primary interest of the working class and the whole country.” At the same time, Communist abuses, including aggressive recruitment of Social Democratic workers, continued. Communist conflict with the SHP continued as well, Tildy’s efforts to be forthcoming notwithstanding. A bitter clash ensued over the question of the peasants’ right to strike. The opposition of the MKP to vesting peasants with a right that was accorded to industrial workers angered and alienated not only the SHP’s right-wing, but its Center as well. Also, Smallholders were unhappy with continuing terror by the Communist-controlled political police in the countryside, complaining that around one thousand SHP members were under arbitrary and unlawful arrest.
On August 18, the SDP opened its 34th Party Congress. The question of cooperation with the MKP promised to be a burning one, especially after the Communists, shortly before the congress opened, appealed to the Social Democrats to form a common electoral list with them in the Budapest municipal and Hungarian parliamentary elections scheduled for the upcoming autumn. The left-wing hoped to maintain a majority in the party’s leading organs and get the assembly to ratify past, present, and future cooperation with the MKP. The right-wing, emboldened by the Labour victory in Britain, Bevin’s speech, and Peyer’s recent return to Hungary, hoped to regain control of the party and cool the cooperation with the Communists. In this test of strength, Szakasits came out the winner, with the left-wing receiving a slight majority in the twenty-one member Executive Policy Committee that was chosen at the congress. Significantly, Peyer failed to be elected to the committee, a big blow for the rightwing. Although many of the 400-odd delegates, especially those from the provinces, expressed anti-Communist sentiments, the majority was unwilling to take the risk that putting those sentiments into practice would entail. Cooperation with the MKP was confirmed.
The SDP’s party congress also adopted the slogan “Democracy today, Socialism tomorrow.” Vague enough to accommodate the conflicting currents in the SDP, it also reflected some disturbing ambiguities. Undefined was democracy itself. Did the party mean the parliamentary democracy that it traditionally advocated and supported as fundamental to social democracy, or the Orwellian definition of the MKP whereby democracy means dictatorship? Moreover, if parliamentary democracy was what the party had in mind, was it to be regarded as an essential component of the ultimate goal of socialism (the traditional Social Democratic view) or instead as an instrument to be used in the process of achieving that goal out of necessity but discarded afterward (the Communist view)?
The controversy over whether to form a common list in the upcoming elections could not be resolved at the congress. For the next week or so, both Left and Right lobbied furiously on behalf of their respective views on the question. On August 28, the SDP-MKP joint committee met to discuss the issue. Ultimately, the proponents of the common list won out. On August 29, Nepszava announced that the SDP’s leadership had voted to accept the common list, though only for the Budapest municipal elections in October. The question was left open for the parliamentary election in November. Peyer and Valentiny immediately circulated a protest letter among SDP members, in which they argued that the leadership’s decision regarding the common list was contrary to the wishes of the majority of the party membership. Asserting that running with the MKP in the upcoming election would damage the SDP, Peyer and Valentiny called for the matter of the common list to be submitted to a vote of the party’s entire membership. Party headquarters was flooded with letters and telegrams supporting the protest letter. The SDP’s Political Committee responded by condemning the action by Peyer and Valentiny, accusing Peyer of turning against the SDP out of personal grievance over his recent political defeats, and threatening to take action against any future such moves.
This open protest was not the only action taken by Peyer and Valentiny at this time. As the controversy over the common list brewed in mid- and late-August, the two men began exploring a possible secession from the SDP and formation of a bloc with the Small-holders and the Bourgeois Democratic Party, should the common list become a reality. On August 27, they discussed such a move with the American diplomatic representative, getting no encouragement. Lack of foreign support, meager resources, and fears for their personal safety ultimately kept those inclined toward such a bloc from carrying out their plan.
The Social Democratic right-wing was anything but enthusiastic during the fall election campaign. Though not coming out publicly against their party, they apparently urged Social Democrats either to abstain from voting or vote for the SHP. During the campaign, MKP attacks on the SHP, not only its right-wing but its center as well, were aggressive. The SHP complained that Communist rowdies were disrupting their campaign activities, while the police made no effort to maintain order in such instances. On September 15, for example, four SHP rallies were broken up by armed men thought to be Communists. The MKP responded by threatening to expel such zealots from the party, while the Interior Minister appealed to the political police to fulfill their function of combating rowdyism. A few days after the above incidents, the MKP signed an agreement with the other parties pledging to eschew negative press attacks on each other during the campaign. Leftist press attacks on the SHP’s right-wing, however, continued.
The elections, held on October 7, were a defeat for the Left. The SHP carried an astounding 50.39% of Budapest, as opposed to only 42.77% for the common list of the MKP and SDP. Unable to carry a majority in the center of Hungarian industry and long-time bastion of Social Democratic support, the Left’s prospects did not look bright for the countrywide parliamentary elections slated for November 4. The Social Democratic right-wing was encouraged by this apparent show of the folly of a common list. Non-Socialist groups were emboldened as well, even daring to hold an anti-Left demonstration in Budapest soon after the election.
In the aftermath of the municipal elections, the SDP, for the first time since it began its post-war relationship with the MKP, took steps to distance itself from the Communists. The SDP leadership voted overwhelmingly to reject Communist appeals to extend the common list into the November 4 elections. Social Democratic propaganda also began to reflect a wariness of being identified too closely with their partner on the Left. On November 13, Nepszava wrote that the SDP must stand in the center between the two extremes: “Western and Eastern democracy must be harmonized and only the SDP is capable of doing this.” Szakasits, also writing in Nepszava, said that Hungary must become a bridge, not an iron curtain, between East and West.
At the same time, cooperation between the MKP and SDP did continue. While right-wing Social Democrats showed considerable sympathy for the Smallholders, the left-wing Social Democrats continued to cooperate with the Communists in attacks on them. In addition to a joint declaration against reaction, which could be taken as a veiled threat to the SHP, the two Leftist parties kept the pressure on the Smallholders through press attacks. Right-wing elements in the SHP were blamed for the Left’s electoral defeat in October. Nepszava remarked that the two Marxist parties had been too lenient in dealing with fascist traitors, many of whom were able to vote in the election due to generous electoral laws. It went on to blame the lurking reaction in the SHP and the votes of women, newly enfranchised, for the SDP defeat.
The Soviet authorities were alarmed by the MKP’s poor showing in the Budapest municipal elections and by the refusal of the SDP to carry the common list over into the upcoming parliamentary elections. Soviet Marshal Voroshilov, the head of the Allied Control Commission in Hungary, intimated to Tildy in mid-October that all parties of the Hungarian National Independence Front run on a single list in November. This arrangement would assure the Communists a place in the government and thus maintenance of their control over the police. Though Voroshilov agreed to allot the SHP only 47.5% of the seats in parliament after such single-list elections, Tildy was open to his suggestion. There was considerable resistance to it, however, both in his own party and in the SDP. Some Smallholders looked for support from the American representation in Budapest in resisting the call for a single list. Though Schoenfeld’s personal response was evasive, the U.S. and British representations did make it clear to the Soviets that an election based on a single list did not meet the requirement for free elections stipulated by the Yalta Agreement. Ultimately, the SHP and SDP held their ground and ran separately in November, with the understanding that the coalition would continue regardless of the outcome.
Not surprisingly, November 4 brought another defeat for the Left. The SHP took 57.03% of the vote and 245 seats, the MKP 16.95% and 70 seats, the SDP 17.41% and 69 seats, and the other parties less than 10% and 25 seats. Some Smallholders were uneasy about their party’s success. Tildy was likened to someone who had won a lion in a lottery and was afraid to bring it home. The right-wing Social Democrats, hoping that the rejection of a common list would result in a windfall for the SDP, were disappointed that their party seemed to do no better than it did in October. Nevertheless, the fact that the SDP received as many votes as the MKP encouraged some Social Democratic leaders to insist on parity with the Communists in the holding of positions of political power. Those positions, however, largely were to go to those left-wing Social Democrats for whom close cooperation with the Communists was axiomatic.
On November 15, Hungary’s first permanent (that is, non-provisional) government was named. Tildy became the Prime Minister, presiding over a government consisting of eight Smallholders (in addition to Tildy), four Communists, four Social Democrats, and one National Peasant. All four Social Democratic ministers were from the party’s left-wing, with Ban representing the most moderate of a group that included Szakasits, Ronai, and Ries. Soviet desires to see MKP control of the police preserved were met when the Communist Imre Nagy replaced Erdei as the Minister of the Interior in the new government. Soviet pressure, and the lack of counter-pressure from the West, prompted the Smallholders to relinquish to the Communists this crucial post upon which they had set their sights. Thus, the MKP emerged from an electoral defeat with its main objectives intact, namely control of the police, cooperation with a sympathetic SDP, and disproportionately high representation in a multi-party coalition government. The resolve that the SDP had shown after the October elections in rejecting both a common list with the MKP and a single all-party list for the parliamentary elections proved to be short-lived. With respect to MKP-SDP relations, it was back to business as usual.
With her first parliamentary elections and the naming of her first permanent, as opposed to provisional, post-war government, Hungary’s turbulent period of transition had seemingly come to an end. However, the Red Army was still in occupation, and the MKP controlled the police and had a role in politics far out of proportion to its meager showing in the fall elections. For the partisans of Hungarian parliamentary democracy, the best-case scenario would have been for the opponents of Communism to hold the line in hopes that the MKP would be weakened by an eventual withdrawal of Soviet troops, expected to come once Hungary concluded a peace treaty with the Allied powers. In a more realistic scenario, and the one that in fact was played out, the Communists would continue to slice away their opposition like salami.
Imagine the position of a Social Democrat in late 1945 who was committed both to socialism and parliamentary democracy. His country was occupied by the army of a traditionally hostile foreign power that was backing his greatest enemy. The United States, remaining aloof, offered little in the way of material or moral support. Nor could he find much assistance from Britain which, though ruled by a Social Democratic government, was on the wane internationally and not making Hungary a priority. Not only did he have to deal with a confident and formidable Communist party, but with a strong pro-Communist current in his own party, where even the Center was willing to go along, if grudgingly, with a policy of close cooperation with the MKP. His faction could not even get the votes to elect Peyer to the party’s Executive Committee. The only other political party capable of mounting a challenge to the MKP, the SHP, was under weak leadership and clearly afraid of the Communists. Over the past year, he had witnessed the establishment of the Communists’ control over the police, their advance in the bureaucracy, trade union apparatus, and other important social and governmental institutions, and the heavy-handed employment of their newly-acquired power against political rivals. Most troubling of all, he had seen how, despite repeated Communist abuses against Social Democrats and others, despite a history of animosity between his party and theirs, and despite the systematic destruction of Social Democratic parties already underway in most other East European countries, his own party leadership, whether out of conviction, opportunism, or fear, held consistently to close cooperation with the MKP.
There were Communists as well who opposed the official policy of cooperation. How sincere was Rakosi in combating their excesses against the SDP? Certainly, as Stalin’s man in Budapest, he had good reason to make sure that the Soviet-backed policy of cooperation between Communists and Social Democrats was not foiled by Communist excesses. Furthermore, as a good Stalinist he certainly wanted to maintain party discipline and keep local zealots of any stripe from getting out of line. At the same time, however, Rakosi’s verbal denunciations of Communist excesses against Social Democrats do not appear to have been followed by effective disciplinary actions. For the MKP under Rakosi, official cooperation with the SDP did not mean a retreat in the bitter struggle for control of political, administrative, trade union, factory council, and police positions. To the extent that Communists were willing to share power with the SDP in these institutions, it was with the left-wing of the Social Democrats only. What developed on the Communist side of Communist-Social Democratic relations was a de facto good cop-bad cop routine, with Rakosi assuaging the Social Democratic leadership about anti-SDP excesses, while other Communists continued to commit those excesses. This situation was beneficial for the Communists, for it allowed them to maintain their policy of cooperation while at the same time making gains through strong-arming their rivals. It also helped deepen divisions within the SDP between those who favored cooperation with the MKP and those who did not. This practice of attacking one wing of a party or organization while wooing its other wing stood at the heart of salami tactics.
A crucial element in the success of the MKP’s policy was the response of the SDP’s leadership itself, who for the most part exhibited great patience if not indulgence towards the Communists. The SDP was willing to put up with a lot, in part because some leading Social Democrats were by conviction very close to the Communists and supported almost any Communist moves, even those aimed at destroying their own party; in part because some Social Democrats, hostile to the non-Marxist parties and fearing the Right, saw the alliance with the MKP as the only legitimate option for a Marxist; in part because some Social Democrats regarded a Communist takeover as inevitable and sought, opportunistically, to bring their politics in line with their fatalistic assumptions; and in part because many Social Democrats, not without good reason, succumbed to fear, intimidation, or extortion.
For the MKP, cooperation with the SDP, or with any other autonomous political party, institution or organization, could only be temporary and tactical. The situation of the interwar period, where Peyer could find a niche, albeit tightly circumscribed, for his SDP within a hostile political environment, was not a viable long-term option for the Social Democrats after the Second World War. Anything short of total political and social control was regarded by the Communists as a provisional concession to be recalled when the domestic and international situation shifted more towards their favor. The party’s left and right wings seemed to understand this better than its rather amorphous and less dogmatic center. Those Social Democrats who regarded parliamentary democracy as a mere instrument in the pursuit of socialism rather than as a fundamental part of Social Democracy were themselves to become instruments of the MKP in its efforts to dominate post-war Hungary.
In 1945 (and right through to 1948, when the SDP was swallowed by the MKP), cooperation cost the Communists very little. For the SDP, the price was exorbitant. For the Social Democrats, cooperation meant, simply, cooperation in the Communist takeover of Hungary, a takeover which brought the imposition of a regime that left no room even for a vitiated SDP let alone for Social Democracy.