1946: Laszlo Bardossy, former Prime Minister

2 comments January 10th, 2016 Headsman

Laszlo Bardossy, one of Hungary’s several wartime Prime Ministers, was shot on this date in 1946.

Bardossy was a longtime diplomat who had become Minister of Foreign Affairs under Pal Teleki — the Count fate tragically cast to lead Hungary into the Second World War’s meatgrinder.

An esteemed geographer in his non-political life, Teleki foresaw the whirlwind Hungary might reap should she ally herself with Germany. But the conservative governments he affiliated with drew much of its vitality from a restive irredentist movement wishing to retrieve for “Little Hungary” remnants of its historical empire that had been stripped away after World War I.

Under Teleki’s predecessor Bela Imredy, Hungary gratefully reclaimed sovereignty over parts of Slovakia and Ruthenia as its price for supporting Hitler’s seizure of Czechoslovakia in 1938; two years later, German arbitrators returned northern Transylvania from Romania to Hungary.


(Via)

These were halcyon days for Hungary: for the pleasure of doubling its territory it had not been required to accept German occupation or political direction.

But those days changed for Teleki, whose ministry from 1941-1942 was characterized by an increasingly uphill struggle to maintain a free hand in the shadow of Berlin’s growing strength. In the end he couldn’t manage it, and when (with the support of Hungary’s regent and many of his peers in government) Germany marched into Hungary in 1941 en route to invading Yugoslavia, a country Hungary had a peace treaty with, Teleki shot himself and left behind an anguished note: “We broke our word, out of cowardice … we have thrown away our nation’s honor. We have allied ourselves to scoundrels … We will become body-snatchers! A nation of trash. I did not hold you back. I am guilty.”

With Teleki’s death, Hungary now became a firm partner of the Axis powers — a move personified by the immediate elevation of our man Bardossy.

His first order of business was joining the invasion of Yugoslavia, once again snatching back a piece of territory Budapest considered rightfully hers. He also tightened Hungary’s anti-Semitic laws — Bardossy’s Third Jewish Law basically attempted to cut Jews out of the economic life of the kingdom — and began approving deportations to Germany and direct massacres by Hungarian troops.

The enthusiasm of Bardossy’s participation in Germany’s project might have been his undoing — in the immediate political sense as well as his eventual fate. By the next spring, with Hungarian troops taking casualties as the junior associates in a dangerous invasion of the Soviet Union, Prince Regent Miklos Horthy was again looking to put some daylight between Hungarian policy and German, and he sacked Bardossy. Bardossy joined the leadership of a fascist party that eventually supported the pro-Nazi government installed by German invasion in 1944.

He was arrested after the war and tried as a war criminal by a People’s Court for war crimes and collaboration.

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1947: Gyorgy Donath, Hungarian anti-communist

1 comment October 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1947, Hungarian politician Gyorgy Donath was executed for treason as the Hungarian state came into the hands of the Communists.


Gyorgy Donath awaits hanging in the courtyard of a Budapest prison on October 23, 1947. (Source)

Donath (Hungarian Wikipedia link) stood among the ranks of Eastern European politicians purged by Soviet-directed Communist parties behind the Iron Curtain in the first years of the Cold War — years when Stalin still called the shots for the Communist bloc.

Donath had been a wartime parliamentarian under the banner of Bela Imredy‘s right-wing Party of Hungarian Life.

Had Hungary’s postwar direction been determined by orderly ballot-boxing rather than great power machinations, Donath would have had a voice in it — for it was a conservative party, the Independent Smallholders Party, who won a big hold on government with 57% of the votes in the 1945 elections.

Though the Communists polled just 17% (with a similar tally for the Social Democrats), the General Secretary of the postwar party, Matyas Rakosi,* predicted that the putative defeat would “not play an important role in Communist plans.” And he was right.

Rakosi named his policy in response to the Smallholders “salami tactics” — as in slicing down the opposition piece by piece.

1947 was the knife’s edge.

From their post within the ensuing governing coalition — an outsized foothold relative to their electoral returns, as compelled by the presence of the still-occupying Red Army — the minority Communists in January 1947 announced the discovery of a conspiracy of “small agrarians,” and set about reducing the Smallholders and allies through a series of police raids and show trials.** Donath’s prominence in an irredentist fraternity, the Hungarian Community organization, was denounced the ringleader of the treasonable conspiracy.

He was hanged on October 23 — just eight weeks after a heavily rigged 1947 election put Hungary formally into the Communist camp.

Over the subsequent two years, independent and opposition parties were generally reduced to irrelevance, forced to take the Communist line, or dissolved entirely.

* Rakosi was the man whom Imre Nagy would eventually displace. The more moderate Nagy willingly swept himself up in Hungary’s abortive 1956 revolution against Communist domination. Soviet tanks crushed that revolution; Nagy hanged.

** In neighboring Romania and Bulgaria, similar tragedies were unfolding.

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1948: Kiralyfalvi Miklos, Hungarian Catholic

Add comment June 11th, 2014 Headsman

London Times, June 9, 1948:

SCHOOLS DISPUTE IN HUNGARY
CARDINAL’S REPLY TO MINISTER
CATHOLICS’ CONCERN

BUDAPEST, June 8
The village priest and other persons held responsible for the murder of a policeman and the wounding of two others in a village in north-east Hungary last Sunday will be tried in Budapest on Thursday.

The letter of protest from the Minister of Education to the Primate, Cardinal Mindszenthy, says that the villagers had clearly been aroused to violence by the priest’s sermon, in which he spoke against the projected nationalization of the schools. They went straight from church to the mayor’s house and the municipal buildings, where the council had voted by a majority in favour of the nationalization, and the policeman was killed while trying to protect the mayor. The Minister asked the Cardinal to put an end “by central decree” to this pulpit agitation, adding: “If not, the responsibility will be shifted where it belongs, and the law will be evoked upon all who continue it or direct it.”

The Cardinal, in his reply, says that he knows no more of the incident than is contained in the Minister’s letter, and therefore can take no stand upon it. He adds that the idea of nationalization is still causing great excitement among Catholics all over the country, an that the only way to end the excitement is to abandon nationalization. He denies that the agitation is directed centrally (that is, by himself), and puts the responsibility on those who “insist on putting forward such provocative measures.”

Church’s Divine Right

The Primate has already refused to follow the example of the Protestant churches, which have agreed with the State that nationalization shall go through, but that their ancient seminaries shall be excluded and the teaching of religion in the schools continued, and that the State shall grant them a large annual payment, gradually decreasing, for 25 years. On the contrary, in his third pastoral letter, which was read in all Catholic churches on Sunday, the Cardinal said that nationalization violated natural law and the Church’s divine right.

People were saying, the pastoral letter continued, that it was now time for the State to take over; but certain principles, among them the ten Commandments, were timeless. It called upon the faithful “to pray for strength to resist with all their might this violation of the immortal soul.” Never had the shameful misleading of the people been so great in Hungary as now. The faithful must refuse to allow their families to read the newspapers of those who opposed their faith, and must offer a Novena to God that the “Satan prowling among us like a roving lion may be driven away.”

It is in this guise that the Cardinal sees the Communists. They see him as an inflexible survivor of the Middle Ages.

It was in the village of Pocspetri that all the trouble went down: a march to the local municipal building to protest school nationalization. For years after, Pocspetri would be shorthand (Hungarian link, as is the next) in the official press for any clerical backlash — something right out of the Middle Ages.

Kiralyfalvi, at his trial

At the end of this march, a policeman was dead. It’s alleged now — in anti-communist post-Cold War Hungary — that what really happened was that one of the policemen deployed for crowd control accidentally triggered his own gun and killed himself with it.

Whatever occurred in the march, it was a productive incident for Hungarian communists then executing their political takeover of Hungary. The resulting show trial (more Hungarian) is sometimes seen as one of the signal events in a concomitant crackdown on organized religion — a potential pole of opposition to the Soviet-backed state. The victim, of course, enjoyed the fallen cop’s prerogative, a fast-track beatification by the propaganda ministry. (No need for Hungarian to get the point of the pictures in this pdf.) Miklos Kiralyfalvi got the death sentence, but the prerogatives the church was focused on — those were the real prize.

London Times, June 12, 1948:

MURDERED HUNGARIAN POLICEMAN
PRIEST SENTENCED TO DEATH

BUDAPEST,June 11
Janos Astezlos, the priest whose trial on a charge of inciting his villagers to the murder of a policeman began here yesterday, was sentenced to death this afternoon. The villager who actually killed the policeman was also condemned to death, and of the other four who took part one received life imprisonment and the other three 12 years.

Such, five days after it happened, is the end of this affair, though not of the dispute that lies behind it. In this week’s edition of the Catholic weekly Hazank Mr. Barankovics, head of the Catholic Party in Parliament, which has at least 16 per cent of the country’s votes, writes that a true Christian is bound to defend the right of the Catholic Church to keep the schools, because once they were lost the Church would have nothing left to do but celebrate Mass, and its whole cultural influence would be gone. “Whoever is our leader,” he says, referring to rumours that he disagrees with the Cardinal, “we are bound to act in the same way.” Of the murder the newspaper writes that the Church never counselled violence and regrets deeply what happened.


BUDAPEST, June 11. — The villager accused of killing the policeman was hanged here tonight. -Reuter.

(The priest’s sentence was commuted to a prison term. Only Kiralyfalvi was executed for the Pocspetri murder.)

On St. Stephen‘s Day 1948, Cardinal Mindszenty himself was arrested for treason. This was old hat for the cardinal; he’d been arrested for opposing Bela Kun‘s interwar people’s republic, and arrested again by the Nazi collaborationist government in 1944.

This time, he copped a life sentence.

Briefly released during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Mindszenty fled to the American embassy as Soviet tanks subdued the country. He would live on the embassy grounds for the next 15 years, a potent symbol of living martyrdom against communism until he was finally released to Vienna.

If your Magyar is up to snuff, this documentary on the Pocspetri incident might be enjoyable.

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1795: Ignac Martinovics and the Magyar Jacobins

Add comment May 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1795, Ignac Martinovics was beheaded in Budapest with other leaders of a Hungarian Jacobin conspiracy.

A true Renaissance man, Ignac (Ignatius) Martinovics (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Hungarian) earned doctorates from the University of Vienna as both a scientist and a theologian.

He ditched a youthful commitment to the Franciscan order and went on a European tour with a Galician noble named Count Potoczki,* rubbing shoulders with the likes of Lalande and Condorcet.**

This journey stoked Martinovics’s political interests along with his scientific ones.

After spending the 1780s as a university instructor at Lwow, the ambitious scholar became the Austrian emperor’s “court chemist” — a position that got pegged back almost immediately upon Martinovics taking it by the 1792 death of the scientifically inclined Emperor Leopold II.

This at least gave Martinovics ample time to devote to his interest in the political secret societies coalescing in sympathy with the French Revolution. Despite his authorship of tracts such as Catechism of People and Citizens, his overall stance in this movement is debatable; Martinovics was also a secret police informant, and some view him as more adventurer than firebrand.

But the adventures would worry the Hapsburg crown enough for martyrs’ laurels.

Tiring of whatever gambit he was running in the imperial capital, Martinovics returned to Hungary and marshaled a revolutionary conspiracy by fraudulently representing himself as the emissary of the Parisian Jacobins.

About fifty Hungarian conspirators were arrested when this plot was broken up, resulting in seven executions. These “Magyar Jacobins” are still honored at Budapest’s Kerepesi cemetery.


(cc) image from Dr Varga József.

* A much later Count Potoczki was assassinated by a Ukrainian student named Miroslav Sziczynski (Sichinsky) in 1908, who was in turn death-sentenced for the murder. Sziczynski won a commutation, and was eventually released from prison, emigrated to the United States, and became a respectable statesman for the Ukrainian national cause.

** See Zoltan Szokefalvi-Nagy in “Ignatius Martinovics: 18th century chemist and political agitator,” Journal of Chemical Education, 41, no. 8 (1964).

† Martinovics’s chemistry experimentation in this period led him to oppose Lavoisier‘s theories of combustion. The two shared the same fate, whatever their differing hypotheses.

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1938: Bela Kun, Hungarian Communist leader

2 comments August 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1938 — so the Soviet government finally announced in 1989, after decades of opacity — the Hungarian Communist leader Bela Kun was secretly shot by firing squad in the gulag.

The pudgy and pugnacious* onetime journalist whose capture by the Russians during World War I enabled him to get in on the ground floor with the Bolshevik Revolution became the de facto leader of the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic. For a few months in 1919, it was the world’s second Soviet state after Russia itself.

Bela Kun’s moment in the sun was particularly notorious for his advocacy late in the Soviet Republic’s brief life of a Red Terror against internal opposition. Several hundred people were killed over the last few weeks of the state’s existence, until a Romanian invasion toppled the reds and sent Bela Kun fleeing back to the Soviets. There, he’s supposed to have brought his gift for wholesale murder to surrendered White prisoners in the Crimea.

Still, Hungary was an insurrectionary success next to most everywhere else, and Bela Kun was detailed to Germany to revive the flagging fortunes of a revolution that the Bolsheviks thought would be critical to sustaining their own. Modeling on Lenin’s own coup d’etat in 1917, Kun pushed the Germans to go all-in on an aggressive 1921 “March Action” offensive to capture state power — which backfired catastrophically, essentially marking the end of the post-World War I revolutionary window. Vladimir Ilyich gave his Magyar counterpart a dressing-down for that gambit at that summer’s Comintern summit.

He’d become associated in this time with Zinoviev, an Old Bolshevik whose comradeship would blow an ill wind come the killing time of the 1930s. Kun himself was long past his sell-by date at this stage, knocking around Moscow feuding with other Hungarian exiles.

Stalin eventually had him arrested for “Trotskyism”, and he disappeared into the Gulag never to be seen again.

Like many purge victims, Bela Kun was rehabilitated under Khrushchev, which also made him fitting source material for statuary congenial to the post-World War II Hungary, situated (however unhappily) within Moscow’s sphere. Some of the detritus of this age can be found at Budapest’s Mememto Park outdoor fairgrounds of discarded Communist kitsch.


Bela Kun, marshaling the Magyar masses. The streetlamp behind him (a literary symbol of hanging) alludes to his martyrdom. Wider views of the entire monument: 1 | 2

* He had a rep in his youth for fighting duels.

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1944: Hannah Szenes, who gambled on what mattered most

2 comments November 7th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1944, Hannah Szenes was shot by the Nazis in her native city of Budapest — a city she had left five years before, and to which she had returned as a British special operative.

Hannah Szenes (alternatively, “Chana Senesh” or “Hannah Senesh”) grew up in interwar Hungary.

Reaching adulthood in a period of rising anti-semitism in the late 1930’s, she became a Zionist and emigrated to British-controlled Palestine.

But with the onset of war, she signed up with the British Special Operations Executive and was parachuted behind German lines in March 1944.

Her brief: to save both Jews and downed Allied pilots. It is often described as the only military expedition to relieve European Jewry during World War II.

And it was as dangerous as it sounds.

Hannah was nabbed crossing into Hungary on a mission that her colleagues (rightly, it seems) deemed too perilous to attempt, and withstood months of torture without divulging her codes.

By the time she went in the dock for treason, Nazi control of Hungary was collapsing and judicial administration itself was breaking down to the timpani of falling shells. Her sentencing November 4 was postponed; on November 7, an officer peremptorily informed her that she had been condemned to death. It’s believed that she was actually never formally sentenced, merely mopped up ahead of the unstoppable Red Army, which on this very day first entered Budapest’s suburbs.

A writer as well as a fighter, Szenes’ poetry survived as her monument to life — like the present-day Israeli standard “Blessed is the Match”, also the title of the documentary excerpted above; and, her “Halikha LeKesariya” (“A Walk to Caesarea”), also known as “Eli, Eli” (“My God, My God”). Here it is sung by Regina Spektor.

These lines were reportedly her last-known verses from prison:

One – two – three … eight feet long
Two strides across, the rest is dark …
Life is a fleeting question mark
One – two – three … maybe another week.
Or the next month may still find me here,
But death, I feel is very near.
I could have been 23 next July
I gambled on what mattered most, the dice were cast. I lost.

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1849: Lajos Batthyány and the 13 Martyrs of Arad

4 comments October 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1849, the shining lights of Hungary’s 1848 revolution met the Austrian Empire’s firing squadsexecutioners. (Correction: Most were hanged, not shot. See comments.)

Probably no polity in Europe stood more fundamentally in danger from the wave of 1848 revolutions than the Habsburg Empire. While governments would be overthrown and power renegotiated across the continent, the Austrian state’s dynastically welded hodgepodge of mingled ethnicities appeared existentially at odds with the nationalist stirrings afoot.

And none of those ethnicities answering to Vienna stirred as vigorously as the Hungarians.

The Hungarian Diet established a national government under Lajos Batthyány (English Wikipedia page | Hungarian) (or Louis Batthyani) in the spring of 1848* and soon pushed for more self-determination than Austria was prepared to countenance.

When Austrian troops turned on Hungary, the aspiring nation issued an 1849 declaration of independence full of vituperation for the ancient noble line.

[T]he house of Hapsburg-Lorraine, as perjured in the sight of God and man, has forfeited its right to the Hungarian throne …

Three hundred years have passed since the Hungarian nation, by free election, placed the house of Austria upon its throne, in accordance with stipulations made on both sides, and ratified by treaty. These three hundred years have been, for the country, a period of uninterrupted suffering.

This dynasty … which can at no epoch point to a ruler who based his power on the freedom of the people, adopted a course toward this nation from father to son, which deserves the appellation of perjury.

The house of Austria has publicly used every effort to deprive the country of its legitimate independence and constitution, designing to reduce it to a level with the other provinces long since deprived of all freedom, and to unite all in a common link of slavery.

Guess how that turned out.

Lajos Batthyany portrait by Hungarian painter Miklos Barabas.

It wasn’t much of a contest in the field, leaving this day’s doings the shooting of Batthyany at Pest (the city later merged with Buda and Obuda to form Budapest) and 13 Hungarian generals — the so-called 13 martyrs of Arad — in a Translyvanian city that is today part of Romania.

This was not, however, the last the Habsburg dynasty would hear of Hungary’s frustrated national aspirations.

Three years later, a Hungarian nationalist attempted to assassinate the youthful Emperor Franz Joseph,** and the strength of the Magyar lands’ self-determination movements would eventually drive a formal ratification of Hungarian privileges that rechristened the state as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or simply Austria-Hungary.

All that stuff we said about you Habsburgs? Bygones.

While becoming half of a dual capital opposite Vienna meant a late 19th-century renaissance for Budapest, this cure by the Empire for its internal pressures proved almost as harmful as the disease. The pressures immediately discharged would pale in comparison to the conflicts Hungarians’ now-privileged status helped provoke with Slavs and other ethnic minorities (exacerbated by Hungarians’ ability to block Austrian foreign policy). In an early preview of a now-familiar pattern, the proto-nation-state of Hungary was a nastier piece of work for its ethnic minorities than the decadent old melting-pot ruled from Vienna … and the road from this day’s executions to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise ran straight on to 1914 Sarajevo and the graveyard of Habsburg history.

As for the executions this day, Batthyany was saluted by the great Hungarian composer Franz Liszt in his Funerailles:

More prosaically and much more pervasively, a legend that Austrians were jovially toasting the death of the 13 Martyrs as they were being executed translated into a still-active tradition against clinking beer glasses in Hungary.


The Martyrs of Arad (Sixth of October) by Janos Thorma

* Hungary’s March 15 National Day derives from this period.

** Franz Joseph was no mere abstract emblem of imperial absolutism: he had assumed the Austrian throne in December 1848 upon the abdication of his feebleminded uncle specifically to free the crown from the oaths his predecessor had taken to various reforms. From the Hungarian perspective — and the declaration excerpted above dwells at length on the perfidy of this maneuver — he was installed to crush the revolution.

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1958: Imre Nagy, former Prime Minister of Hungary

5 comments June 16th, 2008 Headsman

Fifty years ago today, the onetime Hungarian Prime Minister and three others associated with the country’s shattered 1956 revolution were hanged in Budapest for treason by the Soviet-backed Hungarian government.

A moderate Communist, Imre Nagy assumed leadership of Hungary from 1953 to 1955, a period of ideological thawing after the death of Joseph Stalin.

Nagy charted a “new course” towards Austrian-style neutrality or Yugoslavian-style “national Communism” not yoked to Moscow, opposed domestically by his predecessor and rival Matyas Rakosi, who eventually ousted the reform-minded minister.

But Nagy’s anti-Soviet credentials saw him elevated back to the office by popular acclamation during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution — an interval of the nation’s history still deeply cherished in Hungary today. Here’s a recollection by newsreel montage to the strains of Beethoven’s salute to the national martyrs of another time and place.

Nagy held the office for only ten days before Soviet intervention crushed the revolution. He issued this radio appeal to the world (in Hungarian, followed by the English version at about 0:34) on November 4, 1956:

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It was an appeal against all geopolitical realities; Hungary was the Soviet Union’s sphere, and western counter-intervention could have precipitated World War III. Verbal outrage abounded, of course:

But Khrushchev gibed that the United States had “supported” the revolution “in the nature of the support that the rope gives to a hanged man.”

For all that, the abortive revolution has won the benediction of history: still venerated in Hungary, and arguably a turning point in the postwar world when the Soviet Union set itself unmistakably and, eventually, fatally against the legitimate aspirations of its subjects.

Nagy’s statue in Budapest’s Martyrs’ Square. Creative Commons photo by Martin Ujlaki.

Less the leader of this stirring movement than carried along by it, Nagy nevertheless embraced the revolution fully.

His government hardly had the opportunity to implement any sort of programme, but it gestured towards multiparty parliamentary democracy. Nagy attempted to withdraw Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. And to the fame of his memory, he refused Soviet blandishments after his capture to recant and accede publicly to the new Hungarian government.

For these principles, Nagy, his defense minister Pal Maleter, and revolutionary officials Miklos Gimes and Jozsef Szilagyi underwent a weeklong trial June 9 to 15, culminating in execution on this date — all strictly hush-hush, and not announced until the bodies were cold.

Though secret, the trial was tape-recorded in its entirety. This past week, to coincide with the anniversary of the affair, the full 52 hours of audio were publicly aired for the first time — over the same June 9-15 span, and at the location of the original trial. The recordings are held by the Open Society Archives, which maintains a wealth of information on the 1956 revolution (such as, topically, this ‘death circular’ issued by anti-Soviet Hungarians). Formerly held under lock and key, the audio files are not yet published for public distribution at this point, but one would expect that it’s only a matter of time.

Nagy and his companions were officially rehabilitated and, on this date in 1989, reburied with honors; tens of thousands turned out to pay respects that had been officially prohibited for 33 years. In this chaotic period as Soviet domination of eastern Europe crumbled, their fellow-traveler Bela Kiraly (who gives a fascinating account from the inside of the Revolution in this 1996 interview) returned from exile for the reinternment ceremony and found that he was technically still under the sentence of death he had received in absentia at Nagy’s trial.

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