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Chapter 6
Refugee Participation in the Revolution and
Counterrevolution, October 1918-August 1919

The disintegration of the old order stunned and temporarily paralyzed the old ruling classes of Hungary. The revolution, led by Mihály Károlyi, triumphed virtually without bloodshed. One of the few bullets fired in anger, however, felled Count István Tisza. His death was a momentous event. According to Tibor Hajdu: "In Hungary there was no man more hated than Tisza: he grew to become the symbol of the war, of the rule of Vienna, thus his murder was also a symbolic act. His blood saved the other representatives of the old regime, since the thirst of the people for revenge was quenched with the death of Tisza." ' Tisza was the symbol of the old social order. He personified the strength of the gentry, their obstinate endurance, and their domination of all the political instruments of the state. The announcement of his assassination was greeted by crowds on the streets of Budapest with jubilation. But the gentry and the aristocracy viewed his death not only as the closing of a chapter in the long history of the nobility, but also as a portentous sign of impending disaster.

To the nobility resistance to the forces of revolution seemed both futile and impossible. Public opinion was overwhelmingly in favor of the new regime of Károlyi. Budapest was thoroughly revolutionized and controlled by opponents of the old regime. In rural areas, swept by peasant revolts, power passed, without resistance, to the revolutionary councils. The right was further weakened by an increasingly apparent division within its own ranks. The conservative right, drawn from the landed aristocracy, gentry, members of the upper bureaucracy, and the church, favored an outright restoration of the prewar social system but felt powerless to do so. The radical right, representing the dispossessed lesser nobility, junior officers, the younger generation, members of the new middle class, and the ever present refugees, were willing to contemplate a reshaping of society by force, though their program of change was poorly articulated and the group was still disorganized. The first instinct of both groups, therefore, was to find an accommodation with the new regime and, if possible, to coopt the revolution. Many subsequent leaders of the counterrevolutionary movement. in these early stages of the revolution, suddenly discovered their liberal loyalties and rushed to take oath to the revolutionary government. Bishops, counts, princes, bank directors, presidents of commercial and agricultural societies, according to Károlyi, besieged the new government "begging permission to take the oath of fidelity."[2]

During the first month of the revolution an overwhelming majority of the population gave its support to the new government. Each group and each class looked to the government for fulfillment of their economic and political programs. Workers expected a socialist transformation of society, peasants a great land reform, and the progressive intelligentsia hoped for a democratization of society. Supporters of the old order could not resist the combined strength of the nation. The cause of social revolution appeared irresistible and the victory of democratic Hungary complete. The only course remaining open to the members of the old ruling elite was to try to save their positions individually.

The initial strength of the new regime was largely due to its moral superiority over the old and to the fact that momentarily it was able to unite the aspirations of all those who demanded significant social change. However, this unity of the nation and, therefore, the power of the Károlyi government was fragile. The chaos, which accompanied the collapse of the empire and which initially aided the revolution, hindered efforts of the new regime to gain control of events and to give a moderate direction to the revolution. By September 1918 some 400,000 soldiers deserted and more during October. Of the 2.1-million AustroHungarian prisoners of war in Russia, about 725,000 returned by the fall of 1918. Of these an estimated 152,000 were Hungarians.[3] By the end of November about 700,000 Hungarian soldiers returned from the front and by the end of December about 1,200,000, or perhaps as many as 1,500,000, were demobilized.[4] Disturbances caused by these soldiers combined with the peasant uprisings forced the government to concentrate on restoration of order and protection of life and property. The moderate elements in society refused to participate in the restoration of order, whereas rightist officers often resorted to the use of excessive force. This was doubly damaging to the regime. It helped the political right and alienated some of the would-be supporters of the regime. Preoccupation with restoration of order also postponed immediate implementation of planned reforms. Yet, to restore order was judged to be necessary for reasons of foreign policy: the regime wished to demonstrate to the West that it was in full control of the situation and to counter demands by some of the Successor States for an immediate occupation of Hungary to prevent the spread of chaos and Bolshevism.[5] Reflecting upon the difficult choices his government faced in repressing the peasant revolt, Károlyi subsequently wrote: "We feared that 'Jacqueries' would break out and that we might lose control." And he added: "I have often wondered if it would not have been wiser to refrain from keeping down the passions of discontent during the first weeks and let them loose, as victorious generals allow their enemies to run wild for a couple of days. The peasants would then have taken possession of the long coveted land as they did in 1944 and would, thus, have been firmly linked to our new order. This would have avoided the regime of Béla Kun as well as the Counter-Revolution. We chose instead the road of legality and order, discarding that of social justice."[6]

[]The vulnerability of the Károlyi regime soon became apparent. Its weaknesses were due to an absence of an organized mass base of support; to an imperfect control of political institutions; to a lack of military and police force; and finally, to ineffectiveness of the government in the field of foreign policy.

As the euphoria born out of the sudden victory over the old regime began to dissipate, it became increasingly evident that the rapidly expanding political spectrum was becoming too broad to be bridged by the moderate democratic program of Károlyi. That program fell far short of the expectations of precisely those groups which were most responsible for the victory of the revolution. The working class and the Social Democratic Party were increasingly dissatisfied with the slow pace of social reforms, hence their support for the government was at times no more than lukewarm. The prevailing political anarchy and the disastrous economic conditions, shortage of food, fuel, and all necessities of life, rapidly radicalized a large number of workers and intellectuals. Although these groups were originally supporters of the regime, they were no longer willing to accept a moderate program and further delays; they demanded an immediate realization of all the goals of the revolution. Postponement of land reform and the sporadic violent repressive measures disillusioned the impatient peasantry; radicalization of society and the lackluster leadership of Károlyi lost for the government some of its original middle-class supporters.

Soon it became apparent that the transfer of political power from the hands of the gentry to the new regime was far less complete than it was originally imagined and planned. Although personnel in key military and government posts changed, the entire state and county apparatus remained shot through with men who, in the past, had faithfully served the old regime. It was not possible to expect that these men would carry out with any degree of enthusiasm the radical reforms that were demanded or even those minimal reforms that were necessary to save the regime. Even in those areas where office holders changed, dedication and loyalty of the new men to the principles of Károlyi were often suspect. Adventurers, demobilized officers, refugees, opportunists of incredibly varied political and social backgrounds surfaced and assumed posts often without any qualification or even authorization. They saw in the revolution an opportunity to advance, and they were determined to carve out for themselves a new status and a new role that was equal or superior to their old. To these men ideological consistency meant little; they swam with the tide of events; some of them turned sharply to the left and rose to even more prominent positions during the Hungarian Soviet Republic, while others became sworn enemies of the Károlyi regime and ultimately attached themselves to one or another of the counterrevolutionary groups.

The third weakness of the Károlyi regime, one even more important than the unreliability of the state apparatus, consisted of its inability to develop its coercive forces. The Károlyi government owed its existence to the daring of rebellious solider groups, who in October 1918 took it upon themselves to overthrow the old regime. These groups were never integrated into a revolutionary army, an army committed to the preservation of democracy, but remained semi-autonomous and semi-military units. "In these bands of soldiers," according to Oszkár Jászi, Károlyi's minister of nationalities, "it was not always the serious and responsible elements, but frequently the desperadoes of the front who had taken the lead, and who now hastened to present their accounts to the revolutionary government.." These groups at times were, in fact, more dangerous to the government than the enemies of the revolution. Commenting on the extreme vulnerability of the regime to these soldiers, Jászi continued: "Often enough when we retired to rest, we found ourselves wondering which of the dissatisfied condottieri would put the whole government under arrest in the course of the night. " [7] It is indicative of the degree of disintegration of the old army that the minister of war, on November 6, 1918, was unable to provide a few dozen reliable soldiers to escort Károlyi and his entourage to Belgrade. Only gendarmes, the border guards, a few units of the People's Guard, plus one or two half-demobilized battalions could the government count on to respond in case of a domestic disturbance.[8]

Despite repeated appeals to the population, it proved impossible to find volunteers to increase the size of the army. Many of the demobilized soldiers found it far more attractive to serve on the Soldiers' Councils in the hope of some political gains, or to join some of the semi-military, semi-private groups, or for the workers to join the Social Democratic Party-controlled People's Guards than to endure the discipline, boredom, or, perhaps, dangers of regular army life. The vast majority of the demobilized soldiers were only too happy to shed their uniforms and to return to their homes. Pacifist and antimilitarist sentiment, resulting from the extreme hardships of the war, also made recruitment of a new army in defense of the new democratic government nearly impossible. It was this military weakness that was the Achilles heel of the Károlyi regime. As Jászi has written:

We knew that our situation would sooner or later become untenable without a reliable, well organized military force in sympathy with democratic aims. There has probably never been a government so entirely dependent on moral force as the Károlyi government, which for months was absolutely without a military arm. It was impossible to prevent the dissolution of the old army; the men streamed away from all military units like wine from a burst cask. The few who remained were not the sort of human material on which the democratic and revolutionary government could have relied.[9]


Thus the Károlyi government was faced with the unattractive choice of dependence for support on the old officers, corps or on the Social Democratic party, the only two groups capable of organizing a military force sufficient for ending the postwar anarchy. It was in fact a choice between either the continuation of the revolution or a counterrevolution. Károlyi never hesitated on this point: an alliance with the officers' corps would have destroyed all his achievements; a socialist partnership, provided that the radical or Communist faction was held in check, should have been able to guarantee the success of both the democratic and social revolutions. That this coalition failed to fulfil Károlyi's hopes was not entirely his fault; responsibility rests equally on the shoulders of the Social Democratic Party.

The impotence of the Károlyi government was nowhere more pro- nounced than in the field of foreign affairs. Károlyi had no illusions about the the possibility of preserving the territorial integrity of prewar Hungary. But he misjudged the sincerity of the proclaimed war aims of the Western Powers. He anticipated the inflated territorial demands of the Successor States, but he believed that ultimately the cooler counsels of President Wilson would prevail and that the Allies would be as persevering in enforcing the Wilsonian principles as they were prosecuting the war.[10]

Károlyi also assumed that the Western Allies were familiar with the affairs of East Central Europe, if not in detail at least in broad principles, and therefore, that they understood the origins and complex nature of the national minorities' grievances. To him those were not the result of oppression by one nation of another, but the consequence of an antiquated political and social system in which the nobility had oppressed with equal severity both the Hungarian and non-Hungarian working and peasant masses. In other words, he believed, and correctly, that the nationality question was first and foremost social and political in nature. and only secondarily national. Consequently, he held that the remedy for these problems had to be also social and political. combined with complete guarantees of the cultural rights of the minorities.

Jászi's plan for reorganizing Hungary along the Swiss model seemed to fulfill all these requirements;'' it was logical and accurate assessment but no longer practical.

Károlyi had also hoped that he would succeed in dissociating his government from responsibility for the war, and that by demonstrating the genuine democratic and pacifist sympathies of his regime, he would be able to gain recognition for his government and negotiate a just peace. According to Jászi:

We had confidence in the democratic and pacifist quality of public opinion in the Entente states and especially in the policy of President Wilson, a policy which stood higher than any mere nationalism. We did not deceive ourselves for a moment with thoughts of preserving the territorial integrity of Hungary in the geographic sense; but we were convinced that the conquering allies would show the utmost goodwill to her pacifist and anti-militarist government, and especially to Károlyi, who had so often stood with unexampled courage for the policy of the Entente.[12]

At first these hopes were widely shared by the population. It was generally believed that Károlyi was perhaps the only man who could gain the trust of the Western Powers and save Hungary from total dismemberment. A policy of cooperation with the Allies, therefore, seemed to be the only logical course. It was also in harmony with the prevailing pacifist mood of the country. The energies of the population were exhausted in the war. No amount of propaganda in the first months of the revolution could rekindle the patriotic spirit; not even the extreme danger of territorial dismemberment of Hungary could galvanize the nation into action to fight a new war. Thus at first everyone was willing to pin hopes on the success of the course followed by Károlyi. Hopes of a fair treatment, however, soon faded as it became clear that, though they considered Károlyi the best man to lead Hungary, the Allies refused even to recognize and negotiate with his government about the future of Hungary.[l3] Instead the occupation of the country by foreign troops began; the dream of the Danubian Federation and the policy of reconciliation became meaningless. As the weakness of the Károlyi regime became more and more accentuated, supporters of the old regime regained their nerves and, along with the radical left, began to capitalize on the popular disillusionment. They joined hands with each other to erode the power of the moderate center and propelled the revolution into its radical phase. Though poles apart in ideology and in goals, both the left and the right agreed in rejecting Károlyi's pacifist, democratic and moderate course. They were further united by their belief that only extreme measures could extricate Hungary from its difficult position.

The failure of Károlyi's foreign policy, combined with his government's inability to carry out the promised social revolution during the first enthusiastic weeks of the October Revolution, brought about a collapse of the regime's credibility and the loss of support of those who wished for a radical transformation of the country through democratic means. Every reform had to be postponed, Károlyi believed, until the election of a new parliament, yet he permitted interminable delays in calling these elections, mostly because of his conscientiousness for absolute fairness and legality. From the time of the assassination of Count Tisza, his archenemy, Károlyi, it seems, suffered from a paralysis of will--the fiery radical, the titan killer, as many viewed Károlyi, was incapable of resolving upon action once he seized the office that Tisza had made so powerful. The Károlyi regime, therefore, stood doomed to failure, among other more forceful causes, by its own inability to bring about a social revolution through revolutionary means.

Károlyi was ripe for replacement by a more radical leadership that was willing to act and use every method to achieve its goals. The five months during which Károlyi held power may seem to be a relatively short period of time. The country that had been waiting for decades for democratization and land reform perhaps should have granted to a well-meaning government more time to organize these reforms. Revolutionary times, however, defy the passage of time measured by the clock. Change crowds upon change and its accelerating pace becomes the rule of society. Károlyi proved to be a failure as the helmsman of this change, and the revolution passed him by. A great humanitarian, a man with a keen sense of justice, endowed with a high moral purpose, passed from the scene of history without notice. Few heeded his last-minute appeal to the public to show their support for his regime by joining the military forces of his government. This should be contrasted with the greatly successful recruiting efforts of the Hungarian Soviet Republic a short time later. Not only the Communist workers but old officers and soldiers, intellectuals and even some of the peasantry responded to the call of the Soviet posters crying;" To Arms! To Arms!" Hungary had chosen a more radical course.

Waning popular support for Károlyi paralyzed his regime. He never had a mass party of his own. The success of his regime always depended upon the preservation of a coalition embracing the progressive bourgeoisie, the intelligentsia, and the Social Democratic Party. His position became totally untenable after the" Vix note" was delivered on March 20, 1919. That note spelled out for the first time the terms of the severe territorial settlement contemplated for Hungary. [14] At this point, desertion of the Social Democrats was crucial. Without their support Károlyi no longer felt able to carry on his work and resigned from office, leaving the door open for the establishment of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. It fell to the new Communist government to face up to the consequences of the rejection of the "Vix note." Béla Kun's tough stand, however, forced the Paris Peace Conference to moderate its demands and to dispatch General Smuts to Hungary with the mission of negotiating with Kun. This fact later led Károlyi to write bitterly: "So what my Government had not been able to obtain in five months was granted to the Communists after a week, proving that the idea of standing up to the West was not such a bad one.[15]

Thus in the end it was the constant pressure on the frontiers that brought down the Károlyi regime. Danger to the territorial integrity of the country was most responsible for the radicalization of the population, for the growing popularity of the course offered by the Communists. The same pressures also brought to life the Hungarian counterrevolutionary movement.

The first of these counterrevolutionary groups, as we have seen, were formed in the most exposed frontier regions. As soon as occupation of Upper Hungary and Transylvania began scores of small, independent or semi-independent political and military organizations sprang up in the endangered areas. They aimed to resist the invading forces, regardless of official government policies. These groups were generally led by politicians of the old regime, by county or local officials, or by demobilized officers. Whereas the Károlyi government believed that loss of some territories was inevitable, these men would not acquiesce in amputation of the even predominantly non-Hungarian areas. They were soon forced to the realization that without an aggressive government in Budapest, willing to organize the military resistance, their efforts were doomed to failure. At first, these groups attempted to press the government into active military opposition. Failing in this they tried to mobilize the conservative and patriotic elements in the country against the regime. Aside from those in the immediately exposed areas, however, the response was extremely feeble. Leaders of these groups generally succeeded in gathering only a few dozen men willing to risk their lives in this hopeless enterprise. Aside from the Székely Division, which, as we have seen, did put up a determined fight, these groups could offer but a token resistance. They were easily pushed aside by the regular army units of the Successor States and were forced to withdraw to Budapest or to other cities of inner Hungary. There they joined other refugees in their loud denunciation of the Károlyi regime's cowardice.

In 1919 few among the refugees believed that their departure was permanent: they may have lost a battle but not the war. The idea of forceful resistance for the moment had to be abandoned, but only until the entire Hungarian nation should be awakened to the enormity of the crimes perpetrated against Hungary. The population's attention. therefore, had to be deflected from the heady dream of social revolution back to the true dangers which threatened the very existence of the nation. In other words, priorities of the refugees were temporarily reversed: for the moment reconquest of the lost territories had to be abandoned in favor of counterrevolution. These changes in priorities made possible the merger of the refugee and conservative opponents of the revolution into a single movement.

With rapid increase of the number of refugees in inner Hungary, the counterrevolutionary movement accelerated its momentum. In the refugees the movement found a group of reckless, radicalized men, willing to serve as its shock troops. During the last two months of 1918 alone, nearly 60,000 officially registered refugees arrived in inner Hungary. By the end of March 1919, when the flood of refugees temporarily slowed as a result of the establishment of the Hungary Soviet Republic their number was over 150,000. In addition, there were large numbers of civilians, soldiers, officers, and returning prisoners of war who were born in the lost territories but were caught by the collapse away from their homes and found their way home blocked by the occupying troops. 16

In the major cities, especially along the new lines of demarcation, large refugee colonies began to appear, in Sopron, Györ, Komárom, Miskolc, Debrecen, Szeged, and, most importantly, in Budapest. In some of these towns the size of the population suddenly increased by as much as twenty to forty percent. With the country's economy in ruins, local authorities were totally incapable of dealing with this influx of people. Perhaps the worst conditions prevailed in Budapest, where the prewar population nearly doubled during the war and revolution. There only the wealthier refugees were able to find decent accommodations and, thus, be spared the deprivations the majority had to endure. Others, yet still the more fortunate, were crowded into the small apartments of tenement houses; thousands were totally unable to find any shelter for themselves. These unfortunates had to live, often for years, in the boxcars in which they arrived, at times three or four families per freight car, shoved to some abandoned track of a rail yard.[17] Others lived in converted schools, abandoned barracks used earlier as military hospitals, or in the hastily erected shanty towns which suddenly mushroomed around the capital, where refugee families survived often without even the most rudimentary heating or hygienic facilities.

Some families, especially the first arrivals, who departed in haste, panic-stricken, brought with them only their most essential and most valuable possessions. Even those who had adequate time to pack most of their belongings faced enormous deprivations. Without regular income, at a time of great food and fuel shortage when these items could be purchased only on the black market at inflated prices, they were forced to part with their valuables; one by one family jewels, paintings, rugs, and, finally, even furniture and clothing were sold or bartered away on the black market for food or fuel. The refugees also packed all public places, clubs, meeting halls, where for the price of a cup of coffee they could spend a day in warmth, and where they could commiserate with men of similar fate and similar background.

In view of these conditions, it is understandable that in the unstable and radical chemistry of Budapest the refugees acted as a catalyst agent, forming one of the most volatile and politically active groups. They were ready to support nearly any radical cause that promised to attack their enemies. At the time of their arrival they expected a warm welcome by their compatriots as victims of a common national tragedy. Also, as members of the old ruling class they were accustomed to deferential treatment. Now they were received at best with indifference or even hostility, mostly because the widespread misery caused by the war exhausted everyone's emotional and material resources. They responded with a deep resentment, which, at times, broke into destructive rage against the nation and government which passively watched the conquest of their homelands. They held the entire Hungarian nation responsible for the destruction of their lives and felt that the nation as a whole, therefore, owed them compensation for their sufferings and losses. Their minds were filled with righteous indignation and self-pity. They were quick to fix blame, ready to lash out against anyone or against any group which stood in their way, and eager to punish all those who they believed were guilty.

Under pressure of events, their old narrow class ideology disintegrated. No longer it could offer to the refugees a sense of direction or a solution to their grievances. These grievances cut across social and political lines: the refugees shared some of their tribulations with the conservative aristocracy of inner Hungary, some with the gentry, with the nationalists, or with the destitute middle class, but also with the unemployed masses of the country. It was a familiar sight to see large numbers of refugees participating in the nearly daily demonstrations, supporting every conceivable radical political, social, or economic cause, from the causes of the radical right to those of the extreme left: demonstrating for increased benefits to war veterans, for officers, for disabled soldiers, jobs for refugee civil servants, for national awakening, for a spiritual renaissance, or for the more mundane demands of food shoes, clothing, or even for the release of arrested Communists.

Middle-class refugees, who were genuine supporters of the left, were a minority. Many joined the Socialist trade unions and even the Social Democratic Party, mostly out of opportunism. The majority of the refugees gravitated toward the right and the radical right. Many of the right-wing or counterrevolutionary organizations that sprang up during 1918 and early 1919 were originally regional associations of the refugees, though membership was generally open to anyone willing to support their cause. In these organizations refugees occupied most positions of leadership, but even in nonregional organizations refugees played an important and, at times, determining role. Many of these groups, though not all, were extremely small, at times consisting of not more than a leader and a few principal officers, but all had impressive patriotic organizational titles, inflated membership claims, and ambitious plans.

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