Béla Kun (1886–1938), born Béla Kohn, was a Hungarian revolutionary who led the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919. Following the fall of the Hungarian revolution, Kun emigrated to the Soviet Union, where he worked as a functionary in the Communist International bureaucracy.
During the Great Terror of the late 1930s, Kun was arrested, interrogated, tried, and executed in quick succession. He was posthumously rehabilitated in 1956, following the death of Joseph Stalin and the critical reassessment of Stalinism.
Béla Kohn, later known as Béla Kun, was born on 20 February 1886 in the village of Lele, located near Szilágycseh, Transylvania, Austria-Hungary (today Lelei, Romania). His father, a village notary, was Jewish, and his mother was a former Protestant.
The storming rage of Petőfi's soul… turned against the privileged classes, against the people's oppressor… and confronted them with revolutionary abandon. Petőfi felt that the country would not be saved through moderation, but through the use of the most extreme means available. He detested even the thought of cowardice… Petőfi's vision was correct. There is no room for prudence in revolutions whose fate and eventual success is always decided by boldness and raw courage… this is why Petőfi condemned his compatriots for the sin of opportunism and hesitation when faced with the great problems of their age… Petőfi's works must be regarded as the law of the Hungarian soul… and of the… love of the country".
Béla Magyarized his birth surname, Kohn, to Kun in 1904, although the almanac of the University of Kolozsvár still referred to him in print by his former name as late as 1909. There is no archival evidence as to the exact date the name was legally changed, although it is clear that from 1904 all those around him referred to him as Béla Kun rather than Kohn, and he likewise made the Magyar variant his signature.
Before the First World War, he was a muck-raking journalist with sympathies for the Hungarian Social Democratic Party in Kolozsvár. In addition, Kun served on the Kolozsvár Social Insurance Board, from which he was later to be accused of embezzling. He had a fiery reputation and was involved in duels several times. In May 1913 he married Iren Gal, a music teacher of middle-class background.
Early career in left politics movement
Kun fought for Austria-Hungary in World War I, and was captured and made a prisoner of war in 1916 by the Russians. He was sent to a POW camp in the Urals, where he became a Communist. In 1917, he was caught up in what he regarded as the romance of the Russian Revolution, the idea of which fulfilled for him certain spiritual needs previously unsatisfied. Paradoxically, he held Russians to a certain degree in contempt, feeling that Communism was much better suited to "civilized" nations such as Hungary rather than "barbaric" Russia. During his time in Russia, he became fluent in Russian (he was also fluent in German and competent in English).
In March 1918, in Moscow, Kun co-founded the Hungarian Group of the Russian Communist Party (the predecessor to the Hungarian Communist Party). He travelled widely, including to Petrograd and Moscow. He came to know Vladimir Lenin there, but inside the party he promoted ultra-radical left-wing political opposition to Lenin and the mainstream Bolsheviks. Kun and his friends (such as the Italian Umberto Terracini and the Hungarian Mátyás Rákosi), aggregated around Grigory Zinoviev or Karl Radek; instead of Lenin's pragmatism, they espoused and advertised the politics of "revolutionary offensive by any means". Lenin often called them "kunerists".
In the Russian Civil War in 1918, Kun fought for the Bolsheviks. During this time, he first started to make detailed plans for exporting Communism to Hungary. In November 1918, with at least several hundred other Hungarian Communists and with a lot of money given to him by the Soviets, he returned to Hungary.
To the Soviet Republic
In Hungary, the resources of a shattered government were further strained by refugees from lands lost to the Allies during the war and that were due to be lost permanently under the projected Treaty of Trianon. Rampant inflation, housing shortages, mass unemployment, food shortages and coal shortages further weakened the economy and stimulated widespread protests. In October 1918, the so-called "Aster Revolution" established a shaky democratic coalition government. Kun founded the Hungarian Communist Party in Budapest on 4 November 1918.
He immediately began a highly energetic propaganda campaign against the government: he and his followers engaged in attacks against the President, Count Mihály Károlyi and his Social Democratic allies.
His speeches had a considerable impact on his audiences. One who heard such a speech wrote in his diary:
Yesterday I heard Kun speak… it was an audacious, hateful, enthusiastic oratory. He is a hard-looking man with a head of a bull, thick hair and moustache; not so much Jewish but peasant features would best describe his face… He knows his audience and rules over them… Factory workers long at odds with the Social Democratic Party leaders, young intellectuals, teachers, doctors, lawyers, clerks who came to his room… meet Kun and Marxism.
In addition, the Communists held frequent marches and rallies and organized strikes. Desiring to foment a revolution in Hungary, he communicated by telegraph with Vladimir Lenin to garner support from the Bolsheviks which would ultimately not materialize. Kun acquired a sizable following although the Social Democrats, Hungary's largest party at the time, continued to dwarf the Communists.
On 19 March 1919 French Lt-Col Fernand Vix presented the "Vix Note", ordering Hungarian forces to be pulled back further from where they were stationed. It was assumed that the military lines would be the new frontiers that would be established by the peace conference between Hungary and the Allies. The Vix Note created a huge upsurge of nationalist outrage, and the Hungarians resolved to fight the Allies rather than accept the national borders. Károlyi resigned from office ceding power to the Social Democrats, who realized that Hungary needed allies for the coming war and in their view, the only ally that offered Hungary anything was Soviet Russia. As Kun was known to be friendly with Lenin, it was assumed that including him in the government would bring Soviet aid for war against the Allies.
The Social Democrats first approached Kun on the subject of a coalition government. Such was the desperation for them to have Kun receive promised Soviet support that it was Kun, a captive, who dictated the terms to his captors. This was despite the Red Army's full involvement in the Russian Civil War and the unlikelihood that it could be of any direct military assistance.
Kun demanded the merger of the Social Democrat and Communist parties, the proclamation of a Soviet Republic and a host of other radical measures. The Social Democrats agreed to all his demands. On 21 March 1919 a Soviet Republic was announced; the Social Democrats and Communists were merged under the interim name Hungarian Socialist Party, and Béla Kun was released from prison and sworn into office.
The Social Democrats continued to hold the majority of seats in government. Of the thirty-three People's Commissars of the Revolutionary Governing Council that ruled the Soviet Republic, fourteen were former Communists, seventeen were former Social Democrats and two had no party affiliation. With the exception of Kun, every Commissar was a former Social Democrat and every Deputy Commissar a former Communist.
The Soviet Republic, 1919
The Hungarian Soviet Republic, the second Communist government in Europe after Russia itself, was established on 21 March 1919. In the Soviet Republic, Kun served as Commissar for Foreign Affairs but was the dominant personality in the government during its brief existence. As he told Lenin, "My personal influence in the Revolutionary Governing Council is such that the dictatorship of the proletariat is firmly established, since the masses are backing me".
The first act of the new government was to nationalize virtually all private property in Hungary. Contrary to advice from Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Béla Kun's government refused to redistribute land to the peasantry, thereby alienating the majority of their support in Hungary. Instead, Kun declared that all land was to be converted into collective farms and former estate owners, managers and bailiffs were to be retained as the new collective farm managers. This resulted in the dissolution of the balance of power between the old elite and the peasantry which made up the majority of Kun's support.
In an effort to win peasant support, Kun cancelled all taxes in rural areas. To provide food for the cities, the Soviet Republic resorted to food requisitioning in the countryside through a red militia known as the Lenin Boys. This caused further conflict between Kun and his supporters in the countryside.
Within the Socialist Party, there was a bitter dispute over the permanent name of the party, which may have reflected underlying tensions between the two merged parties. The former Social Democrats preferred "Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party", while former Communists wanted "Hungarian Socialist Communist Workers' Party" instead. Within the ranks of the former Communists themselves, a split developed between the rural and urban factions.
After a failed anticommunist coup attempt on 24 June, Kun organized a response in the form of the Red Terror via the secret police, revolutionary tribunals and semiregular detachments like Tibor Szamuely's bodyguards, the Lenin Boys. Their victims were estimated to range in number from 370 to about 600 persons executed; most sources list 590 proven killings. It has been argued that the major limiting factor on this repression were the former Social Democrats such as József Pogány, relatively moderate supports of Kun.
Opposition appeared to be centered on the city of Szeged and around Rear Admiral Miklós Horthy, who formed a National Army to fight the Soviet Republic. But the National Army never saw action and marched on Budapest only after the Romanians withdrew in November, while the Horthy regime staged a White Terror in 1919–20.
The Soviet government lasted for 133 days, falling on 1 August 1919. The Soviet Republic had been formed to resist the Vix Note, and created the Hungarian Red Army to do so. Given the disparity in power between Hungary and the Allies, Hungarian chances for victory were slim at best. To buy time, Kun tried to negotiate with the Allies, meeting the South African Prime Minister, General Jan Smuts at a summit in Budapest in April. Agreement proved impossible, and Hungary was soon at war later in April with the Kingdom of Romania and Czechoslovakia, both aided by France. The Hungarian Red Army achieved some success against the Czechoslovaks, taking much of Slovakia by June.
The Hungarians were repeatedly defeated by the Romanians, however. By the middle of July 1919, Kun decided to stake everything on an offensive against the Romanians. The Allied Commander in the Balkans, the French Marshal Louis Franchet d'Esperey wrote to Marshal Ferdinand Foch on 21 July 1919: "We are convinced that the Hungarian offensive will collapse of its own accord... When the Hungarian offensive is launched, we shall retreat to the line of demaracation and launch the counteroffensive from that line. Two Romanian brigades will march from Romania to the front in the coming days, according to General Fertianu's promise. You see, Marshal, we have nothing to fear from the Hungarian army. I can assure you that the Hungarian Soviets will last no more than two or three weeks. And should our offensive not bring the Kun regime down, its untenable internal situation surely will.
The Soviets promised to invade Romania and link up with Kun and were on verge of doing so, but military reversals suffered by the Red Army in Ukraine stopped the invasion of Romania before it began. The Romanians then invaded Hungary, took Budapest, crushed the Communists and on 1 August 1919 forced them to hand over power to the Social Democratic party.
Activity in Austria and Crimea
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Béla Kun then went into exile in Vienna, then controlled by the Social Democratic Party of Austria. He was captured and interned in Austria, but was released in exchange for Austrian prisoners in Russia in July 1920.
The "March Action" in Germany
Kun became a leading figure in the Comintern as an ally of Grigory Zinoviev. In March 1921, he was sent to Germany to advise the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and encouraged the KPD to follow the "Theory of the Offensive" as supported by Zinoviev and other Kunerists.
On 27 March, German Communist Party leaders decided to launch a revolutionary offensive in support of miners in central Germany. Kun was the driving force behind the German Communist attempted revolutionary campaign known as "Märzaktion" ("March Action"), which ended in complete failure.
In the end, Lenin blamed himself for appointing Kun and charged him with responsibility for the failure of the German revolution. He was considerably angered by Kun's actions and his failure to secure a general uprising in Germany. In a closed Congress of the Operative Committee - as Victor Serge writes - Lenin called his actions idiotic ("les bêtises de Béla Kun"). But Kun did not lose his membership in the Operative Committee, and the closing document accepted at the end of the sitting formally acknowledged the "battle spirit" of the German Communists.
Kun was not stripped of his Party offices, but the March Action was the end of the radical opposition and of the theory of "Permanent Offensive":
"The final analysis of things shows that Levi was politically right in many ways. The thesis of Thallheimer and Béla Kun is politically totally false. Phrases and bare attending, playing the radical leftist.".
Throughout the 1920s Kun was a prominent Comintern operative, serving mostly in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, but his notoriety ultimately made him useless for undercover work.
Kun's final undercover assignment ended in 1928 when he was arrested in Vienna by the local police for travelling on a forged passport. Back in Moscow, he spent much of his time feuding with other Hungarian Communist émigrés, several of whom he denounced to the Soviet secret police, the OGPU, which arrested and imprisoned them in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Death and legacy
During the Great Purge of the late 1930s, Kun was accused of Trotskyism and arrested on 28 June 1937. Little was known about his subsequent fate beyond the fact that he never returned, with even an official Hungarian Communist biographer with official access to the Communist International's archives in Moscow denied information during the middle 1970s.
Only some time after the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of certain sensitive archives in the aftermath was information on Kun's fate collected and published. It was then at last revealed that after a brief period of incarceration and interrogation, Kun was hauled before a judicial troika on charges of having acted as the leader of a "counter-revolutionary terrorist organization." Kun was found guilty and sentenced to death at the end of this brief secret judicial proceeding. The sentence was carried out later the same day.
When Kun was politically rehabilitated in 1956, as part of the de-Stalinization process, the Soviet party told its Hungarian counterpart that Kun had died in prison on 30 November 1939. In 1989, the Soviet government announced that Kun had actually been executed in the Gulag more than a year earlier than that, on 29 August 1938.
It is difficult to overstate the impact of Kun's brief and failed regime on Hungarian history. Though the executions meted out in the Red Terror were, by contrast to other such upheavals, relatively few, shock and horror at Kun's excesses remained deeply imprinted on the consciousness of sectors of the middle and upper classes for years to come.
One bitter repercussion was the association of Hungary's Jews with the suffering inflicted by the Communists; since Kun and most of his colleagues were clearly Jewish, many Hungarians recognized a Jewish element in the Bolshevist conspiracy afoot in central Europe. As Louis Birinyi observed,
The personnel of the "government" were selected from the ranks of the agitators, about 95% of "whose names tell us that they were of Jewish origin." The country then was divided into districts, and a commissar was installed as the head of each district. It was not uncommon for the Bolsheviks to appoint janitors of Jewish synagogues as commissar with power over life or death of the people in their districts. Terror squads were organized, and the "red terror" was in full swing.
Another was the severe rightward direction of post-Kun Hungary. The election of admiral Miklós Horthy, the chief of the National Army, as Hungary's regent was a stark political about-face, and the heat of Horthy's anticommunist feelings was legendary. It was partly to keep the "Asiatic barbarians" of Soviet Communism at bay that Horthy gradually helped steer his country into an alliance with Adolf Hitler. It was a fatal partnership; Hitler would eventually crush Horthy's regime, invade Hungary and install a puppet government which helped the Nazis deport between 450,000 and 606,000 Hungarian Jews and an estimated 28,000 Hungarian Roma to the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Camp under the antisemitic racial laws.
Hitler's grasp on Hungary was finally loosened by the Red Army. After the war Horthy remained in exile, while the Soviets inaugurated a Communist regime under the leadership of Mátyás Rákosi, one of Kun's few surviving colleagues from the 1919 coup.
- György Borsányi, The Life of a Communist Revolutionary: Béla Kun. Mario D. Fenyo, trans. Boulder, CO: Social Science Monographs/Atlantic Research and Publications, 1993; pg. 1.
- Reeves, Zane T. Shoes Along the Danube: Based on a True Story. Durham: Strategic Book Group, 2011.
- Tokes, Rudolf Béla Kun: The Man and the Revolutionary pp. 170–207, from Hungary in Revolution edited by Ivan Volgyes, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971 p. 173.
- Borsányi, The Life of a Communist Revolutionary, pg. 2.
- Tokes, Rudolf Béla Kun and the Hungarian Soviet Republic New York: F.A. Praeger, 1967 pp. 111–2.
- Borsanyi, Gyorgy The life of a Communist revolutionary, Béla Kun Boulder, Colo: Social Science Monographs; 1993, pp. 146–7.
- Janos, Andrew, The Politics of Backwardness in Hungary, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982, p. 197.
- Borsanyi, Gyorgy The life of a Communist revolutionary pp. 197–8.
- Borsanyi, Gyorgy The life of a Communist revolutionary, pp. 435–6.
- Lenin's letter to G. Zinoviev
- L.I. Shvetsova, et al. (eds.), Rasstrel'nye spiski: Moskva, 1937-1941: ... Kniga pamiati zhertv politicheskii repressii. (The Execution List: Moscow, 1937-1941: ... Book of remembrances of the victims of political repression). Moscow: Memorial Society, Zven'ia Publishing House, 2000; pg. 229.
- See: Borsányi, The Life of a Communist Revolutionary, pp. x, 436.
- "New information about death of Bela Kun," from BBC transmission of Hungarian Telegraph Agency in English, 14 February 1989
- Hanebrink, Paul A. (2006). In defense of Christian Hungary: religion, nationalism and antisemitism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. pp. 84–86.
- The Tragedy of Hungary, An Appeal for World Peace Birinyi, Louis: The Tragedy of Hungary, An Appeal for World Peace. Cleveland, 1924
- Dawidowicz, Lucy. The War Against the Jews, Bantam, 1986, p. 403; Randolph Braham, A Magyarországi Holokauszt Földrajzi Enciklopediája (The Geographic Encyclopedia of the Holocaust in Hungary), Park Publishing, 2006, Vol 1, p. 91.
- Crowe, David. “The Roma Holocaust,” in Barnard Schwartz and Frederick DeCoste, eds., The Holocaust's Ghost: Writings on Art, Politics, Law and Education, University of Alberta Press, 2000, pp. 178–210.
- György Borsányi, The life of a Communist revolutionary, Béla Kun translated by Mario Fenyo, Boulder, Colorado: Social Science Monographs; New York: Distributed by Columbia University Press, 1993.
- Andrew C. Janos and William Slottman (eds.), Revolution in perspective: essays on the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919: Published for the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Slavic and East European Studies, Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1971.
- Andrew Janos, The Politics of Backwardness In Hungary 1825–1945 Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.
- Béla Menczer, Béla Kun and the Hungarian Revolution of 1919 pages 299–309 from History Today, Volume XIX, Issue #5, London: History Today Inc., May 1969.
- Rudolf Tőkés, Béla Kun and the Hungarian Soviet Republic: the origins and role of the Communist Party of Hungary in the revolutions of 1918–1919 New York: published for the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, Stanford, California, by F. A. Praeger, 1967.
- Iván Völgyes, (ed.), Hungary in Revolution, 1918–19: nine essays Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971.
- Louis Birinyi, The Tragedy of Hungary, An Appeal for World Peace Cleveland, 1924.
- Béla Kun Internet Archive at Marxists Internet Archive.
- Wireless Message to Béla Kun, 23 March 1919.
- Crimean government on the ethnic cleansing among Crimean Turks.
- Marxist interpretation of the March Action.
|Leader of the Hungarian Soviet Republic
|People's Commissar of Foreign Affairs
|People's Commissar of Foreign Affairs