Vilmos Vázsonyi, 1968-1926 (wikipedia)

Paper Ban on the Front and Jew Bashing under the pretext of Censorship

Troops of the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy showed signs of disintegration in May-July 1918. News of protests – would – have been received from Judenburg to Pécs, from Rimaszombat to Rumburg – if the press was allowed to report it. But “simple” order refusals, shooting officers (even regimental commanders) from trains, looting and desertion also grew in number. Nationality movements were activated, Bolshevik and Socialist propaganda was spread, to which the military leadership responded with the ban on the distribution of papers on the front in June 1918, while the debate in the Parliament in Pest on the freedom of press degenerated into insults against Népszava and Jew bashing. 

“Military authorities banned the distribution of more than 20, mainly opposition and nationality papers on the fronts “in order to prevent the moral disintegration of the army”. Népszava was also on the list of these papers”, as written in chronology of regarding the regulation of July 11, 1918. Prior to the measure, Hungarian press already reported on the new press policy of the Wekerle government, which was clearly a reaction on the fact that the army of the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy was shaken several times in a row by riots and protests in May and June. (We will discuss the changes in government resolutions regarding censorship later.)

Slovenians, Serbians, Hungarians, Poles, Germans and almost all other nations of the Monarchy participated in the riots. One should also consider that dissatisfaction was a general phenomenon in the last year of the world war in Austria and Hungary as well, practically regardless of the nationality, and meanwhile Socialistic philosophical movements had a strong effect (not necessarily the Bolshevik movement, but left-wing views, the Socialist propaganda had a traceable effect in the majority of protests).

Soldier revolts spread primarily after the arrival of Russian prisoners of war home, so pursuant to András Siklós, Csorna, Judenburg, Rimaszombat, Murau, Pécs, Rumburg, Lublin, Radkersburg, Mährisch-Schönberg, Miskolc, Kragujevac, Pozsony, Sanok, Zamość, Lemberg saw the largest riots between April 11 and July 16, 1918. The number of order refusals grew, sometimes soldiers shot officers from trains – this even happened on the station of the military headquarters of the Monarchy, Baden; sometimes even regimental commanders were aimed at by the soldiers. The number of looting and desertion also grew – we have already detailed them in our article on protests.

The leadership of the Monarchy’s army had already recognized that the situation was unsustainable, but at that time, in the summer of 1918, hardly anything could be done. The military leadership decided on ideological manipulation before the larger protests shaking the land forces, but after themutiny of sailors at Cattaro, introducing patriotic education following the German model. They decided on the establishment of a FASt (German abbreviation), i.e. an “Enemy Propaganda Defence Agency” already at the end of March in 1918. The new response body started its operations on May 9, under the leadership of Baron Egon von Waldstätten lieutenant colonel. The FASt was concerned with the launch of patriotic education, for which education referees were trained on 14-day courses. Lecturers of the central training included Gyula Gömbös subsequent Hungarian Prime minister as well, then as a staff captain. Local referees of the propaganda response body included Count István Bethlen, who was the Prime Minister of Hungary between 1921 and 1931, who worked as an intelligence agent in Máramarossziget in 1918 and could thereby be concerned with patriotic education as well.

However, cramming courses of Gömbös and Bethlen did not solve nationality and social problems, which dragged the entire Monarchy toward disintegration. In June, authorities sought to restrict information to front soldiers through a “more drastic” measure, banning the distribution of Világ, Népszava andArbeiter-Zeitung among combating forces for the demand of AOK, the higher command of the imperial and royal army – but it did not bring about a solution either. Népszava and Arbeiter-Zeitung were sister papers, being published by Hungarian and Austrian Social Democratic parties.

Censorship increased already owing to the Bolshevik takeover of power in 1917, directly after the events in November, which was further tightened after the great strike in Budapest in January. “The resistance of papers strengthened” against these measures, they often “sharply criticized the preponderant censorship”. However, the situation continued to escalate, censorship was strengthened by Vilmos Vázsonyi, a minister of the Wekerle Government in various positions including the Ministry of Justice, previously in the opposition, fighting for the extension of rights and liberties. For the judgment and opposition of papers, “as a response, the press committee asked the editorial offices on January 21, 1918  »emphatically« to »refrain from any judgment and comments regarding censorship and its operation«”, as written by Mucsi, adding: authorities could qualify judgments as “violating the interests of warfare”. Thereby such behaviour of the papers “may lead to potentially strong punitive actions”, pursuant to the resolution of the press committee in January. Retribution followed soon indeed: “with the exception of some papers supporting the government directly, there were hardly any papers that were not banned from the front, placed under preliminary censorship for a few days or even several weeks, or were not seized.”

László Fényes, a colleague of Az Est, who also got into the parliament as a member in 1917, strongly criticized the press politics of the Wekerle Government in February 1918: “we are now heading backwards on the way of democracy with seven-leagued boots”, quoted Róbert Takács in his recent study published in a volume on everyday war life. In the press, at this time, mostly Vázsonyi was ridiculed, depicted as an unfaithful lover, having left his former sweetheart, “the Freedom of Press”, and leading “Power” to the altar instead.

However, Vázsonyi could not transfer his will in spite of several trade-off proposals in the electoral law, and left the Cabinet after the government crisis at the end of April – beginning of May. Afterwards, the press politics of the government started to change, at least this is what seemed to happen in June 1918, as already mentioned in the introduction. Pesti Hírlap welcomed the change. Its editorial on June 6, entitled “The censorship”, started as follows, referring back to the title: “Our readers must be surprised to see the title of our editorial. What? Censorship? But at the time when Vázsonyi was the Minister of Justice, it was even forbidden to write down the word censorship.” With this move, the paper sought to throw all responsibility to the politician who failed to implement the reform of the electoral law, and was laud in praises about Wekerle and his current government, closer to the conservatives of Count István Tisza. But before all this, Pesti Hírlap also allowed itself a huge exaggeration: so huge that even Wekerle contradicted it later. Vázsonyi wrote that “no one in Hungarian public life abused his power as much as he did, and perhaps Tisza, when he was still the speaker and made the police turn members out of the parliament”. That is, the paper drew a parallel between Vázsonyi, rising to be a minister from the anti-Tisza opposition in 1917, and Count István Tisza, the Prime Minister fallen in 1917, breaking the opposition before the First World War with harsh violence. The paper meant that censorship was really “effective” in terms of internal politics, therefore the article judging Vázsonyi could not be published. (This was, of course, an exaggeration, as pointed out by Takács when writing about the press ridiculing Vázsonyi.) Tisza was even praised in this respect by Pesti Hírlap: “But at least Tisza tolerated being attacked and never stemmed the criticism against his person.”

Afterwards, Pesti Hírlap wrote “with relief” that Vázsonyi’s reign “is luckily a matter of the past”, and summarized the new press politics from June of the Wekerle Government, reformed in May. Pursuant to the editorial, Wekerle stated that „he gave to the proesuctor and censorship the order that the control of press is from now on allowed only for military purposes, otherwise they should refrain from any intervention in the internal political life and they should not stem the press from criticising the operation of censorship.”

The change was greeted by Pesti Hírlap, especially the fact that the control of censorship was taken out of the hand of the ministry of justice, and that “from now on censorship cannot be touch-me-not”. “We shall not deny its existence”, added the author. However, at the end of the article, he railed against “pacifist”, “Entente-friendly” or “Bolshevik” propaganda conquering the press and“public mouth contaminating social order in this country to the pleasure of the Entente”.

Népszava was less happy about the new press policy, also reacting to the article of Pesti Hírlap quite harshly. First of all, they responded to Géza Polónyi, railing against the paper in previous days, who qualified the article of Népszava at Easter entitled Messiah (published on March 31, 1918) as incitement against Christianity in the Lower House. Pursuant to a speech of Polónyi – a Minister of Justice who had failed many years ago – in the Parliament in early June, this article reviled Christianity. In response to this, Zoltán Meskó, who had just joined the Lower House, interrupted the Parliamentary debate: “Christians shall leave the country!”. (He also started openly abusing Jews regarding Meskó when speaking against woman suffragette in the parliamentary debates in the summer of 1918, later, in the early 30s, he established the first Arrow Cross party in Hungary.)

Polónyi also attacked Vilmos Vázsonyi in his speech, held (in theory) about the freedom of press. Polónyi’s attack fitted into a kind of covert anti-Semitism – though the ex-minister did not say such in the debate –, since it was well-known that Vázsonyi, who had failed not long ago, was the first Minister of Israelite origin of the Hungarian part of the Monarchy. Polónyi attached Vázsonyi, following him many years later as the Minister of Justice, for allowing Népszava publish their anti-Christian article, but preventing the publication of an article praising Christianity in Pesti Napló. In response, Zoltán Ugron intervened: “He put Hungarian prosecutors to Jewish yoke.”

It can be seen that, getting closer to the fall, among the Elite of the Hungarian part of the Monarchy, more and more started to wake up anti-Semitism, and strived to put the responsibility on Vázsonyi, who acted for censorship for a short time, but then resigned soon, while for example Vázsonyi’s “boss”, Wekerle remained in power until the fall of the Monarchy – not only as a minister but also as prime minister.

Eventually Polónyi asked the Prime Minister whether or not he allows censorship to be used to serve party interests in the future. This is when Wekerle intervened and pointed out: Vázsonyi never gave an order for the deletion of articles about him, and he himself allowed the publication of the articles attacking him. (The interposing László Fényes disputed this, shouting that Vázsonyi  “always made arrangements via phone”.) Nevertheless, we can lay it down that Wekerle at least tried to protect Vázsonyi, not like Pesti Hírlap and Polónyi.

However, Wekerle also announced that court proceedings have been launched against Népszava due to the article entitled Messiah, because he also found the article offensive. (The article attacked the Church indeed. The paper of Social Democrats wrote at the last Easter of the First World War that “they bless guns in the name of Jesus”. Pursuant to the editorial published on 31 March  – though the author even doubted the existence of Jesus – Christ is a “rebellious agitator”, “could be a leader of some small group of proletarians”, and “the revolution of Jesus did not bring salvation to anyone and anything”. However, it stressed: “If ever, humankind needs a Messiah now more than ever. But this Messiah cannot be either Jesus of Nazareth, or the Christian Church, this huge power machine”. According to the author, “the salvation of humanity can only be an act of humanity”, “if it does not break into classes, if it does not fall apart into a world of rich and poor, mighty and small, oppressors and oppressed.” The incriminated writing was closed with the following words: “The salvation of humanity from war, exploitation, injustice can only be the society of humanity, i.e. Socialism.”)

However, in early June, Wekerle confirmed in his response to Polónyi – repeating himself three times pursuant to Népszava – that “practising the control of press shall happen exclusively in the interest of warfare. This is the order I have given to the prosecution and the press committee, namely that the exercise of press control should be carried out solely in the interest of warfare, that they shall refrain from any interference in internal politics from the perspective of party politics or the protection of the government’s policy, and press control should be strictly exercised, but according to the principle of equal treatment and only in the interests of warfare. ” That is, Népszava reported on the event – at least in this respect – like Pesti Hírlap.

Népszava reacted to the debates of the previous days on June 7. In his latest editorial, he repeated that Polónyi in fact did not talk about the freedom of press but rather attacked Népszava. Then the editorial brought charges against Polónyi that were equal to libel, stating that “he plays a role in public life (…) by the grace of bordelers”, “made a fortune in the dirtiest way” and “does not serve public interest in his speeches but pays being tolerated among honourable people”. However, Népszava also noted that Polónyi “did valuable service for freedom of press without his knowledge and will by provoking Wekerle to speak, who announced to treat censorship impartially”. Then the paper quoted the mantra of the Prime Minister about censorship “for the benefit of warfare”. However, the article of Népszava on June 7 also notes that censorship clearly did not take into account Wekerle’s orders, and deletes parts from articles on internal politics that “do not affect the interests of warfare, and the procedure regarding publications on economic movements of workers is absurd”. Thereby the paper wrote that “confidential notices force papers to submit any news about all economic movements to censor. We believe that some movements, including primarily the movements of workers of war equipment factories, can be connected to the interests of warfare. However, we are looking forward to the response why economic movements of linen cleaners, chimney sweepers, waiters and other professions who cannot affect the interests of warfare are found dangerous by censorship, and why we are forbidden to report on these movements?”

The paper continued as follows: “This would be one of our questions to censorship. The other is why Népszava is not allowed to publish the articles of the Austrian Arbeiter-Zeitung.” This is about the sister paper issued by Austrian Social Democrats in Vienna. Earlier articles of this paper were translated and published by the Hungarian  Népszava without problems. However, the tide has turned by June 1918: “Now, however, translated articles are deleted almost without exception.” That is, the paper sought to find out why topics allowed by the Ausrian censorship, i.e. hardly dangerous from the aspect of warfare, are not allowed to be published in Hungary. By the way, let us remember that it was precisely on June 11 that the distribution of both Népszava and Arbeiter-Zeitung was banned on the fronts. The Népszava-editorial afterwards wrote as follows: “That is, warfare is shared, it is therefore strange and beyond all understanding why censorship is treated differently and sad that it is treated in a more reactionary in Hungary than in Austria.” The article ended with an attack against Pesti Hírlap. The civil newspaper encouraged the censorship authorities against Entente-friendly and Bolshevik propaganda appearing on the pretext of press freedom. Népszava reacted as follows: “If Wekerle had told this explanation, press freedom allowing only the protection of war mongering and ruling classes should be still refused with indignation. However, it is not the prime minister, but the newspaper that explains such freedom of the press, which can thank millions pocketed by Légrády and his group to its connections with governments and that made hundreds of thousands by spreading prostitution and thereby became the favourite paper of petty bourgeois. We should not wonder that there is no freedom of press in Hungary. If there are press bandits who are also fed up with the freedom of others, we cannot demand from the class parliament to go further than demanded from so-called liberal papers.”

All of this clearly shows that Népszava and Pesti Hírlap had got to the two sides of the barricade by this time, and among the two Pest papers, the civil one supported the government, while Népszava got more and more radical as the leading organ of the opposition outside the Parliament. Thereby they attacked, among others, Ottó Légrády and Imre Légrády, co-owners of the printing plant of the Légrády Brothers, who issued Pesti Hírlap. All this shows how fragmentation increased also in this respect before the fall of the Monarchy and how compromise solutions have fallen into the background. This was primarily the responsibility of the ruling political elite, but at this time, Népszava‘s tone did not support compromise either, but rather foreshadowed social explosion.

Messiás = Népszava, 1918. március 31.
Polónyi és Vázsonyi = Népszava, 1918. június 6.
A cenzúra = Pesti Hírlap, 1918. június 6.
A sajtószabadságról = Népszava, 1918. június 7.
Takács Róbert: Sajtó és propaganda a háború idején = Háborús mindennapok – mindennapok háborúja. Magyarország és a Nagy Háború – ahogy a sajtó látta (1914–1918). (Szerk.: Kaba Eszter), Budapest, 2017.
Siklós András: A Habsburg-birodalom felbomlása, 1918. Budapest, 1987.
Mucsi Ferenc: Sajtó, cenzúra Magyarországon az első világháború idején. Történelmi Szemle, 1984/1–2. 192-202.

Written by: Iván Miklós Szegő