The catastrophe of the First World War plays a significant role both in the counter-revolutionary regime established after 1919, both in the legitimacy of the Hungarian Communist Party (MKP)’s gradual gaining of power after 1945. While pursuant to some of the right-wing interpretations Hungary lost the world war owing to the “left-wing mine work” –
and representatives of these views primarily blamed Mihály Károlyi for losing two-thirds of the country –, the left held the selfish and narrow-minded policy of the Hungarian ruling class between 1867 and 1918 responsible for the catastrophe of the Hungarian people. The sample wording for the latter interpretation can be found in the publication of the party’s school, published in 1947 by Szikra Kiadó, entitled Hungary in the First World War, written by Zsigmond Pál Pach historian of economics, one of the most significant historians of “the people’s democracy” after 1945.
Let us see what they taught from the First World War in the schools of parties – perhaps known for many by the excellent Hungarian film from 1979 entitled Angi Vera. The author, Zsigmond Pál Pach was the high school teacher of two major historians, Iván T. Berendi and György Ránki, and became the professor of the Department of Economic History of the newly established Karl Marx University of Economic Sciences. His booklet published in the series entitled “Library of Work and Knowledge” found István Tisza – heroized in the Horthy system, even his statue was erected on Kossuth square in 1934 – the most guilty. In Pach’s interpretation, István Tisza knew it well that both victory, both defeat were disadvantageous for Hungary. It must have been clear for everyone with the exception of “the most blinded” that the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy could not have had any other fate but “collapse, fragmentation and destruction“. (This opinion was only represented publicly by the Social Democrats during the month prior to the war.) While the victory of central powers threatened with the strengthening Germany “implementing Drang nach Osten, organizing Eastern Europe under its own influence, sinking Hungary into a German state of armour, when even its being as an independent state might become controversial”.
Thereby, if Tisza had considered the interests of the nation, he should have tried to avoid the Monarchy from sending an ultimatum to Serbia even at the expense of his failure. However, István Tisza, who represented the ruling power and was concerned for their authority, had no choice but to accept war – as Pach argued: “When Emperor Wilhelm II threatened with the dissolution of the military alliance should the ultimatum not be sent, he could do nothing but, as a servant of German imperialism, enter the country into a terrible, devastating and hopeless war. Since, for Hungarian lords, only the alliance with the Imperial Germany could ensure holding down the masses of people, just like the enforcement of Hungarian superiority over nationalities”. That is, insistence on the domination of the feudal class and the oppression of nationalities led Hungary into the world war.
Exploited classes did not step up against the war policy serving the interests of the ruling class because chauvinism, present everywhere, “befogged” class conflicts, public opinion was driven by “chauvinistic voices”, and party conflicts determining the era of dualism also disappeared in the summer of 1914. With the exception of the grouping around Károlyi, “the entire Parliament approved the war message”, but initially the parties outside the Parliament did not engage in significant anti-war activities either – as written by Pach, who was awarded the Kossuth Prize later.
The publication of the party’s school found it a mistake that Tisza’s opposition gathered around the issue of the electoral law during the world war rather than demanding peace. Mihály Károlyi was the only to question the necessity of Hungary’s participation in the war, and declared in May 1915 that the Hungarian people did not want war and the alliance with Germany was against their interest. However, Károlyi did not have any allies in the Parliament: the Independence Party led by Albert Apponyi and the 67′ moderate opposition led by the younger Gyula Andrássy continued to insist on “Hungarian Imperialism“. This opposition led to the break of the Independence Party in 1916. Pach described it symbolical that, while Apponyi and Andrássy supported the unrestricted submarine war, Károlyi (and let us add that the Social Democratic Party too) condemned it.
Károlyi struggled alone “against an entire world” until 1917 – to quote the title of his memoir from 1923, idealizing his own political struggles. By this time, however, the protracted war and economic difficulties increased the dissatisfaction of the masses. Pach reported that food problems were caused by “Hungary providing almost all food supplies for the Monarchy during the war”. The mood of the workforce became revolutionary, with the exception of Károlyi’s small group in favour of peace, however, civilian parties – Jászi’s civil radicals, Vázsonyi’s civil democrats – and Social Democrats continued to fight for the reform of the electoral law rather than making a definite claim for peace. “In such circumstances, the road for tactics and bargaining was opened again for Hungarian ruling classes.” That is why – after Tisza’s fall and Móric Esterházy’s transitional government – Sándor Wekerle, “the master of tactics” was re-elected.
“Revolutionary mood frightened some of the Hungarian lords, who began to fear from the complete loss of their class domination […].“ Therefore a part of the ruling class accepted the reform of the electoral law in order to retain their power, but Tisza resisted, which led to his fall. The new ruler, Charles IV realized that he could only keep his throne if he listened to the democratic and nationalistic demands and “he sacrificed Tisza’s rule to protect his own one and that of a class.”
“Leading circles” made Tisza the scapegoat and sought to reach a compromise with democratic forces. As a result, the Electoral Block was born, which soon turned out to “not serve democratic progress but was the counter-manoeuvre of the lords to maintain their authority“. The fact that in reality real electoral reform was not at all in the government’s interest was clear since “almost everything demanded initially by the democratic parties was left out” from the electoral law voted on in July 1918.
Meanwhile, Pach believed that the government had done nothing for reaching peace and solving the issue of nationalities. It was in vein that the Hungarian working class demanded peace in early 1918 and that the Entente made satisfying the demands of nationalities a general war aim in the spring of 1918: “the ruling Hungarian proprietary classes insisted blindly on maintaining the system of oppression and on continuing the war, quoting the phrases of the »territorial integrity of the Holy Crown countries« and its »being as a historical nation state«.
Therefore national aspirations, just like democratic transformation, could only be realized with the military collapse in the autumn of 1918. On October 17, 1918, István Tisza also had to recognize that “we have lost this war“. The people’s government, lead by Mihály Károlyi, coming to power through the civil revolution, and even more “the Council Government, consistently representing the Hungarian workers“, “tried to find good peace and at the same time create Hungarian independence and democracy“, but such a short time was not sufficient to remedy “the long decades of the policy of national devastation“.
So the booklet written by Zsigmond Pál Pach, entitled Hungary in the First World War, blamed the reactionary policy of the Hungarian ruling classes and the “counter-revolutionary betrayal” sabotaging the struggles of the Red Army for the peace in Trianon. The publication, which served as a textbook of MKP’s school, was closed with the following indoctrinating lesson:
„”Hungary’s participation in the first world war ultimately led to the catastrophe of the country. […] And why all this happened? Why did Hungary take part in the First World War? The reasons are clear: preserving the power of feudalism to post-1867 times, the continued political rule of big landowners after the Compromise, the unfolding of the Hungarian capitalist development during the influence and rule of feudalism, the abstention from real civic transformation and in close relation with all of the above, the chauvinistic propaganda misleading the masses, the persistent insistence on the system of oppression of nationalities, and the resulting nation-losing foreign policy, the unconditional serving of the interests of the German »friend«, much more dangerous than the enemy – these were the reasons that led Hungary into the First World War, the catastrophe.
These lessons also provide the lessons of the First World War. And the Horthy regime has since then hurried the oppressed and deceived Hungarian people into the Second World War, a second catastrophe as well, the Hungarian workers can now see clearly that only the permanent elimination of feudal remains, the consistent fight for democracy, the complete elimination of chauvinistic hatred and the abandonment of the fatal foreign policy without any back-door intent can guarantee that no similar catastrophe strikes our nation.”
Berend T. Iván: A történelem – ahogyan megéltem. Budapest, 1997.
Pach Zsigmond Pál: Magyarország az első világháborúban. Budapest, 1947.
Romsics Ignác: Clio bűvöletében – Magyar történetírás a 19-20. században – nemzetközi kitekintéssel. Budapest, 2011.
Written by: Csunderlik Péter