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Bloody Spectre

The short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic remains a key example of the spread of communism after the Russian Revolution. Its leading figure was Béla Kun, a man whose complex identity would influence his politics throughout his life.

April 11, 2024 - Alex Gordon - History and Memory

Béla Kun, leader of the 1919 Hungarian Revolution. Wikimedia.org

The future Hungarian communist leader Béla Kun, a subject of Austria-Hungary, was born on February 20th 1886 in the village of Lele near Transylvania, then part of Hungary. His father, an assimilated Jew and village notary, was named Moritz Kohn. Béla’s mother Rosalia Goldberg was a baptized Jew. The majority of Hungary’s Christian population was Catholic, while Rosalia belonged to the minority of Protestant Calvinists. Young Béla was subjected to ridicule and humiliation by children on the street and at school because of the background and religion of both his parents.

Kun, who turned the Jewish surname of Kohn into a Hungarian surname, became a Hungarian patriot and militant who challenged the German teachers of his gymnasium. He refused to learn German as a symbol of Hungary’s oppression by the Habsburg Empire. Béla attended the Calvinist gymnasium in Kolozsvár (now Cluj-Napoca, Romania), considered one of the best in Hungary. He was more of a Hungarian patriot than many Hungarians. This heightened nationalism of the Jew seemed like a masquerade to Hungarians. In reality, Kun was more of a radical Marxist than a patriot of the country.

Kun spent three years at the law faculty of the University of Kolozsvár. He had little interest in his studies. He then became a journalist. His articles in the local newspaper in 1905 welcomed the Russian Revolution: “The palace of the Tsar is crumbling and on the ruins of the aristocracy will be erected the kingdom of freedom!” He joined a group of young, assimilated Jews who sympathized with the Social Democratic Party. A provincial radical journalist, Kun attracted attention with his scandalous publications. In 1907 he was imprisoned for six months for organizing a strike. By this time Kun’s temper had become clear. He was a sharp, rude and stubborn man.

After his release from prison, Kun lived in Kolozsvár, worked as a secretary of a labour insurance fund, and continued to write articles for the leftist press. In December 1908, he was elected to the executive committee of the Transylvanian district council of the Social Democratic Party of Hungary. Between 1909 and 1912, Kun was a regular participant in rallies against both militarism and the conservative Hungarian government. At the end of 1914 he was mobilized into the Austro-Hungarian army, where he became a lieutenant and was sent to the Russian front. In the summer of 1915, he was severely concussed and hospitalized. In the summer of 1916, during the Russian army’s offensive near Lutsk, Kun, along with thousands of other Hungarian soldiers, was taken prisoner. He was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in the Siberian city of Tomsk. There he became the leader of a group of radicalized compatriots, young junior officers opposed to the war, and joined the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. He studied the Russian language intensively. In September 1917, Kun became a Bolshevik. At the end of 1917, Kun wrote articles about “exporting the revolution” to Hungary. In January 1918, he met the Bolshevik leaders Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Sverdlov in Petrograd. Trotsky arranged for him to work in the propaganda department of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs, which published revolutionary newspapers in all the world’s languages. Kun participated in the publication of the Bolshevik newspaper in Hungarian, The International Socialist. On the basis of this newspaper, a circle of Hungarian socialists and former prisoners of war was formed in Petrograd. Tibor Samueli, who came from a wealthy Jewish family, stood out among them. Two other former prisoners of war, the Jew Matyas Rakosi (Rosenfeld) and the Hungarian József Czerny, were engaged in forming units of Hungarian communist fighters in support of Soviet power. Kun would also join one of these units, urging prisoners of war to defend the “homeland of socialism”. This detachment went to the defence of Petrograd against German attack. On March 24th 1918, Kun and his associates announced the formation of the Hungarian Communist Group, which was preparing for a revolution in the country. He translated Lenin’s major works into Hungarian and wrote Bolshevik pamphlets. Speaking at the All-Russian Congress of Prisoners of War on April 18th 1918, Kun addressed his Hungarian comrades: “Come back home and set fire to the whole country from edge to edge!”

Taking power

On October 31st 1918, with the active participation of the Social Democratic Party, the power of the viceroy of the emperor was overthrown in Budapest. On November 3th 1918, Austria-Hungary capitulated to the Entente. On November 24th 1918, Béla Kun held the founding conference of the Communist Party of Hungary in Budapest, where a 15-member central committee was elected. On December 7th 1918, the communists began publishing a Hungarian-language newspaper called the Red Gazette. Tibor Samueli, who had come from Russia, was this publication’s editor-in-chief. The first issue of the newspaper published a call for an armed coup. On March 22nd 1919 Hungary was proclaimed a “Soviet Republic”. The revolution’s real leader was Béla Kun, who took the post of People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs. At the same time, Matyas Rakosi would become the People’s Commissar of Public Production. Samueli became Deputy People’s Commissar of War and he later became head of the coup’s Revolutionary Tribunal. The Hungarian Extraordinary Commission (Cheka), or secret police, was headed by the bank clerk Otto Corvin (Klein). György Lukács became People’s Commissar of Education, and the economist Jenő Varga, later an academician of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and winner of the Lenin Prize, headed the People’s Commissariat of Finance and the Supreme Council of National Economy. All of them were Jews. Of the 49 people’s commissars of the new government, 31 were Jews, and of the 202 high-ranking officials, 161 were Jews.

On March 26th 1919, all small enterprises were nationalized in Hungary. Later, housing was nationalized. There was to be one room per person, and three per family was considered the norm. The forced “sealing of the bourgeoisie” had also begun. April 4th was followed by a decree on the nationalization of land. Peasants became dissatisfied with attacks on the church, temples were closed, and lessons on religious law in schools were banned. Many attributed this anti-clerical policy to the fact that the majority in the government were “enemies of Christ”. The revolutionary tribunals headed by Samueli, who travelled around the country in a special train and organized demonstrative massacres of the enemies of the revolution, took care of those dissatisfied with the authorities. Samueli’s “Lenin” unit had a special train assigned to it. The crews of the train and the accompanying car had two machine guns, while all its 32 members dressed in leather jackets. At a meeting of the Communist Party leadership in April 1919, Samueli said: “Those who want to restore the old order should simply be hanged. We must not be afraid of blood, it is like steel – it strengthens the hearts and will of the proletariat. We will kill the entire bourgeoisie if necessary.” All of the listed Hungarian communists, except Czerny, were Jews. Rakosi even joked that a non-Jewish head of government was needed to sign death sentences on Saturdays.

The invasion of the Romanian army caused a rise in patriotism among the Hungarians, and on this wave a “Red Army” began to form. Its successes forced US President Woodrow Wilson to invite Kun to the post-war peace conference as Hungary’s representative. On June 24th, an uprising of military academy students, supported by right-wing Social Democrats, took place in Budapest. In response, Kun and his supporters launched a massive “Red Terror” and 590 rioters were executed. When Romanian troops launched an offensive on Budapest, the Red Army began to scatter. On August 1st, the Hungarian Soviet government resigned. On the same day, Kun and his closest associates fled to Austria.

After the defeat of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, a new “White Terror”, which took on an antisemitic character, was rampant in the country. Tibor Samueli was murdered without trial, while József Czerny and the head of the Hungarian Cheka, Otto Corvin, were hanged on the verdict of a military field court. The Hungarian Soviet Republic existed for 133 days. The population perceived Soviet power in the country as the power of the Jews. The revolt against the communists was violent, bloody and antisemitic in nature. Jewish pogroms in Hungary, which began after the defeat of the revolution, continued until 1921. Hungarians took revenge on ordinary Jews, who had no connection with the revolutionary events, for the deeds of the communist government. On August 11th 1920, Kun fled Austria for Petrograd.

Time in Crimea

On October 1st Béla Kun became a member of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Southern Front. The Red Army wanted to seize Crimea from the White Russian Baron Wrangel’s troops. On November 11th and 12th, Front Commander Mikhail Frunze and members of the Front Council, with Kun among them, addressed Wrangel’s army by radio, calling for surrender, promising immunity and guarantees of departure from the country. Lenin, having learned of the terms of surrender sent a telegram to Frunze along with a copy to Trotsky: “I have just learned of your offer to Wrangel. Extremely surprised at the exorbitant concessions of the terms. If the enemy will not accept them, it is necessary to really ensure the capture of the fleet and not to release a single ship, if even the enemy will not accept these conditions, then, in my opinion, it is impossible to repeat them and it is necessary to deal with him mercilessly.”

On November 16th 1920, Béla Kun was appointed head of the Crimean Revolutionary Committee, effectively full dictator of Crimea. Adept of world revolution, Kun considered the Hungarian and Crimean events as links in the same chain and believed that it was necessary to take revenge on the Hungarian Whites by killing their counterparts in Russia: “The dictatorship of the proletariat must be carried out in full measure and by the most ruthless means, this obliges […] to sink the bourgeois counter-revolution in blood.” The day after Kun’s appointment as dictator of Crimea, his order to register all officers and soldiers of Wrangel’s army was announced. The commandants of the towns received instructions, signed by Kun, to shoot all registered officers and military officials. On the first night, 1800 people were executed in Simferopol, while 420 were killed in Feodosia and 1300 in Kerch. In the heat of terror, the Bolsheviks shot even proletarians – port workers who helped in the evacuation of Wrangel’s army, and some local socialists. In violation of the Geneva Convention ratified by the Soviet government, the Reds destroyed wounded officers in hospitals, along with medical personnel. In Kerch, White Guard prisoners were loaded onto barges, taken out to sea and flooded. The Black Sea turned red. Eyewitnesses said: “The outskirts of Simferopol were full of stench from the decomposing corpses of the executed, which were not even buried in the ground. Pits behind the Vorontsov garden and greenhouses in the Krymtaev estate were full of the corpses of the executed, slightly covered with earth, […] and the red commanders, went a mile and a half from their barracks to knock out the stones and gold teeth from the mouths of the executed… In Alupka, the Cheka shot 272 sick and wounded, subjecting them to torture: healing wounds received at the front were opened and covered with salt, dirty earth or lime, as well as with poured alcohol and kerosene. The Chekists, not limiting themselves to shooting the captured Sisters of Mercy, preliminarily raped them, and the sisters stocked up on poison to avoid dishonour. The Tatar population, stunned by such a horrible massacre, saw in it the punishment of God and imposed on themselves a voluntary three-day fast.” The scale that the terror in Crimea took on generated a wave of protests from the local population and even local Soviet and Bolshevik workers. Kun was recalled from Crimea.

A bloody legacy

The two-time “red terrorist” fell victim to red terror himself. On September 5th 1936, at a meeting of the Secretariat of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, Kun was expelled from that committee and removed from his post as head of the Hungarian Communist Party. He was blamed for pursuing an erroneous policy in the international communist movement and for the collapse of the Hungarian Communist Party. In August 1936, at an open Moscow trial, the former Communist International leaders, the Jews Zinoviev and Kamenev, confessed to heinous crimes against the country they had created and were executed. Trotsky was effectively declared to be the devil and the foreign leader of the conspiracy against the USSR. On June 29th 1937 Kun was arrested. He was declared the head of the “Trotskyist conspiracy” within the Communist International.

Walter Krivitsky (Samuel Ginzberg), a high-ranking state security officer, and employee of the Foreign Department of the Soviet secret police agency, fled abroad in 1937. He published a book titled I was an agent of Stalin, in which he wrote about Kun’s fate: “Béla Kun was taken for interrogation and kept longer than other prisoners. He had to stand on his feet for 10-20 hours until he fainted. When he was brought back to his cell, his legs were so swollen that he could not stand. After each interrogation, his condition worsened. The guards treated him with particular cruelty. Kun refused to admit guilt for a long time, enduring torture and abuse, but his brutal nature broke down and he confessed.” On August 29th 1938, a year after his arrest, he was brought before the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR, which sentenced him to death. He was shot the same day. Ten of the 16 members of the first Central Committee of the Hungarian Communist Party and 11 of the 20 People’s Commissars of the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919 were exterminated. What the Hungarian right failed to accomplish, the Soviets managed to accomplish. The Red Jewish commissars who had eluded the White authorities in Hungary were exterminated by their fellow Bolsheviks.

Kun wrote that “Workers have no fatherland. […] They recognize only one internationalism.” In the terminology of the Polish-born English historian and Trotskyist Isaac Deutscher, Kun belonged to the “non-Jewish Jews”. This term refers to a type of Jew who has borrowed from the universal image of a man who rises above the “insignificance” of Jewish problems and discards Jewish identity in order to achieve global, often revolutionary goals.

Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto reads, “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism.” “The spectre of communism” certainly haunted Europe, leaving a bloody trail. Béla Kun was clearly one of its representatives. In history, he is associated with the methods of the bloody realization of the communist idea, particularly the “Red Terror” of the Bolsheviks. For some, he is also seen as the leader of a violent revolution perpetrated by Jews. The Budapest and Crimean ramparts of terror led by Kun swept thousands of people off the face of the earth. He became one of the symbols of radicalism, as well as the “bloody rule” by Jews for those inclined to antisemitism. Kun changed his surname to eliminate traces of his Jewish origin but his pseudonym did not conceal his Jewishness or his destructive activities “for the benefit of the working people”.

Alex Gordon is a native of Kyiv and graduate of the Kyiv State University and Haifa Technion (Doctor of Philosophy and Doctor of Science). Full Professor (Emeritus) of Physics in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of Haifa and at Oranim, the Academic College of Education, Israel. Author of 10 books and about 900 articles, was published in 91 journals in 17 countries in Ukrainian, Russian, Hebrew, English, French and German.

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