BELA KUN: THE 133 DAYS

by  J. I. D. P.

For one hundred and thirty-three days, from 21st March to 1st August 1919 Bela Kun and his associates held the Hungarian people in a state of abject terror that has rarely been surpassed for cruelty and horror. Hungary has often suffered at the hands of foreign invaders, but by a strange paradox her worst suffering was at the hands of a countryman.

Aaron Cohen, alias Bela Kun, was the son of the notary of a village near the town of Nagyvarad. In his early youth he became a reporter on a small newspaper in that town, but was imprisoned for making a seditious speech. After his release he became secretary to a working-men's institute in Kolozsvar, in which position he was subsequently accused of embezzling a considerable amount of money. Dismissed from his appointment, it was only the intercession of friends that saved him from trial and a further period of imprisonment. Shortly afterwards the Great War broke out, and he joined the colours as a non-commissioned officer. He is said to have fought well in the trenches, but was soon taken prisoner by the Russians. Always a socialist, Bela Kun found himself in his spiritual home in the Russia of 1917, and when he was released by the Revolution he quickly made friends with Kerensky and later with Lenin. The latter appointed him head of a School of Propaganda in Moscow, and from there he directed the process of bolshevizing the Hungarian soldiers still in Russia. In 1918 he was sent back to Hungary to prepare for the coming world revolution.

So well did Bela Kun acquit himself that he soon became leader of an early Popular Front, which rapidly attracted the morally confused and disillusioned of the nation. One of his first crimes was the murder of the aged Count Tisza, for the sole reason that he was the only statesman of sufficient stature to be capable of guiding Hungary through the chaos that threatened her. The successor to Count Tisza, Count Karolyi, proved totally unfit to cope with an ever-deteriorating situation of strikes and riots, which were being deliberately caused by returning prisoners-of-war spreading the then unknown evangel of communism throughout the country. Something of a mystic, and obsessed with the idea that he was destined to be a second Moses who would lead the masses to a New Jerusalem, he soon came under the influence of the increasingly powerful Bela Kun. After six months of hopeless muddle, and in the face of drastic demands made by the Allied Powers for the surrender of Hungarian territory, [1] Count Karolyi resigned on 21st March 1919 and made over the government to Bela Kun, whose only Fatherland was the proletariat. The aftermath was catastrophe.

His first act as Head of Government was a proclamation to the Hungarian people to "initiate the work of expropriating the robber-knight system of capitalism". The work of initiation quickly followed. The jails were immediately opened, and all prisoners who had been guilty of such capitalist crimes as robbery or theft were liberated. Courts of law were suspended and revolutionary tribunals were set up in their place with power of life and death, which was frequently exercised after a trial in which the accused was allowed exactly one minute for his defence by the judge's watch. Private houses were declared to be the property of the State; no adult was allowed more than one room, and no family more than three. Bourgeois householders had reliable proletarians quartered on their premises. Banks were placed under direct government control, and an embargo was laid on safe deposits. More than a million pounds in foreign currency was sent abroad for the purpose of propaganda. Weapons were seized in private houses by persons who described themselves as authorised by the Hungarian Soviet to search for them. Some of the searchers were children, others were criminals; women and children were maltreated, and not only weapons but anything else of value was taken.

Soon a levy of hostages began, amongst whom were six former ministers, several bishops, and many leading business men. "There is nothing to be obtained without blood," exclaimed Bela Vago, one of the judges of the Revolutionary Tribunal. "Without blood there is no terror, and without terror there is no dictatorship." Bela Kun was of the same mind; "We must inspire the revolution with the blood of the bourgeois exploiters," he cried. In May 1919 the army was "democratised" (i.e., the officers were shot and agents of Moscow put in their place), while the teaching of patriotism was abolished from schools. Religion was derided and blasphemed. Priests were murdered in the streets, and the Host was spat upon by young communists when it was being carried through the streets of Old Buda on the day of Corpus Christi in 1918. The press became a purveyor of filth, the following being a specimen of "proletarian poetry": –

Europe fat slimy
Whore with whisky eyes
The sweat of perfume factories
Christ pants between your breasts
Sailors stroke your belly
Freedom Equality Motherhood
A host of priests spring from your thighs
And crosses blossom in the shade of cows. [2]

In the last few months of the regime, the technique of terror grew worse. While Bela Kun remained in Budapest terrorizing the unfortunate inhabitants of the capital, his principal lieutenants were sent further afield to spread the gospel of the "Proletarian Revolution". They blazed a trail of horror wherever their journeys took them. It was the special task of Szamuelly – self-styled Hungarian Soviet Kommissar of Agriculture – to frighten the recalcitrant peasants into submission. He travelled in a train painted a brilliant red, from whose windows victims were thrown after their executioners had grown tired of torturing them. Peasants condemned to death were compelled to dig their own graves and then jump off a table with a noose round their necks, often in the presence of their family. If they hesitated, Szamuelly's men prodded them with bayonets. A woman who refused to reveal details of an alleged counter-revolutionary plot had her teeth dug out with a chisel; another had a nail hammered into her skull and yet another had her tongue sewn to the end of her nose for refusing to submit to violation. In Szolnok, Szamuelly hung twenty-four people (including the President of the Court of Chancery) without even the semblance of a trial, and shot dead a schoolboy whom he overheard saying that "these people are wild beasts, not men". It was little wonder that Baron Kaas described Szamuelly as "haggard and of corpse-like pallor". Nor were the others any better. Joseph Pogany, Kommissar of Education, who led a notoriously profligate life, made no attempt to carry out his responsibilities, and apart from a decree forbidding on pain of death the use of "reactionary bourgeois" text books in schools (which meant in effect that children were not allowed the use of any educational aids whatsoever), but concentrated his talents on other things. He is believed himself to have killed a total of a hundred and fifty people, mostly schoolteachers, during his "educational" tours of inspection.

Sigismond Kunfi was a man of different mettle; clever, bold, ambitious, and an inveterate turn-coat, he was first a Jew, then a Protestant, and finally a militant atheist. Originally he called himself a Social Democrat, but he never had any doubt about his hatred of society. "Your efforts on behalf of your workmen," he said, in an unusual outburst of sincerity to an employer of Budapest, "are just what we don't want, for they frustrate the class war. What we want is a discontented mass of labourers." And Kunfi concentrated his attention on deliberately making the masses discontented. Possessed of the gift of oratory, his frenzied inflaming of the lowest passions was responsible for the sickening massacres that took place in many of the large towns. His speeches were as embittered as the writings of Marx.

The Chief of the Political Investigation Department was a hunchback by the name of Otto Korvin-Klein. He was of a vindictive nature, and his favourite pastime was to push a ruler down the throat of his victim during an interrogation. He had himself been a bourgeois, and in former days had owned a sawmill and timber depot in the north of Hungary, where he exploited and half-starved his employees. It is said that thousands lost their lives through his merciless investigations on behalf of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.

But it soon became clear that a crash was coming. A Provisional Government of true Hungarians was constituted at Szeged, and slowly but surely the Allied Powers came to realise that it was Szeged, and not Budapest, that represented the will of the majority of the Hungarian people. But how could they remove Bela Kun? They did not want to attack him themselves, for Bolshevism was an infectious disease and greatly feared in all the capitals of Europe. The issue was resolved by the Rumanian Army. Experiencing the beginning of the same symptoms that had ravaged Hungary, Rumania suddenly decided to march on Budapest and put an end to the propaganda of Bela Kun once and for all.

On 31st July, Bela Kun issued a manifesto demanding the support of the workers of the world for Hungary; but next day there were tears in his eyes and his words came with difficulty, when he spoke for the last time before his flight. "I should have liked the Proletariat to fight it out on the barricades and to declare that it would sooner die than give up power. I have asked myself: 'Shall we mount the barricades ourselves, with no masses at our back?' We would gladly sacrifice ourselves, but would such a sacrifice benefit the cause of the International Proletarian Revolution?" Without undue delay he decided against the barricades, and after transferring fifty thousand pounds to Basle, he fled with his principle lieutenants to Vienna on 1st August. [3] So ended the hundred and thirty-three days of terror.

Hungary today – with the rest of Eastern Europe – lies at the mercy of the Russian conqueror. What news has filtered through leads us to believe that the disciples of Bela Kun are still carrying on his infamies, but this time under the protection of the Red Army. It is quite within the bounds of probability that the last ten years have seen the virtual extinction of a thousand years of Hungarian culture. But one day a new political idea, a new approach to world problems, will set the ancient lands of Europe free again, among them the land of Stephen the Holy. Once more the region of Sopron, where Francis Liszt was born, will be Hungarian; Czenk, where the builder of modern Hungarian culture, Count Stephen Szechenyi, lies buried, will be revered; the ancient town of Pressburg will echo with the traditional cry of Hungarian fidelity Moriamur pro rege nostro!

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Notes

[1] By the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary was deprived of two-thirds of her land. Rumania received more Hungarian land (103, 000 square kilometres) than was left to Hungary herself (93, 000 square kilometres).

[2] Bolshevism in Hungary, by Baron Albert Kaas and Fedor de Lazarovics.

[3] Bela Kun's subsequent history is obscure. After a period of comfortable internment in Austria, he was freed by his Social Democrat friends and returned to his masters in Moscow. In 1936 he was sent to Barcelona, but was a failure there, and is believed to have died in a Russian lunatic asylum soon afterwards.

Source: The European, June 1955, #28, pp. 26-30.