One of the “Little Stalins” installed to power in the wake of the Red Army’s march toward Germany during the closing months of World War II, Mátyás Rákosi certainly shared his sponsor’s brutality. Crude in his behavior, a trait he nurtured as a badge of his lower-class status, Rákosi helped fashion Hungary’s Socialist catastrophe. Employing identity politics and “salami tactics” Rákosi slowly sliced away all those opposed to collectivism. Fear, intimidation, and death were considered necessary tools in his effort to build a classless society. From his rise to leadership in 1945 to his forced exile in 1956 hundreds of thousands of Hungarians were either imprisoned or executed.
Born on March 9, 1892, Mátyás Rákosi’s family was known for political activism. His grandfather participated in the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 and his father supported the Party of Independence and ’48. Mátyás was the fourth of twelve children. His father, József Rosenfeld, was an unsuccessful merchant and the family struggled financially. Rejecting their Jewish heritage, József changed the family name to Rákosi in 1903. Though he was aware of his ancestry, Anti-Semitism became a feature of his public life.
Mátyás embraced left wing politics early and his education brought opportunities for activism. A good student, he studied abroad in both Hamburg and London. In 1910 he joined the Hungarian Social Democratic Party (MSZDP) and became a member of the Galilei Circle (an activist student group). During World War I Rákosi served in the Austro-Hungarian Army and was captured on the Eastern Front in 1915. He was imprisoned in Russia when the revolutions of 1917 lead to a breakdown of civil order. Exploiting the chaos, he escaped from his POW camp making his way to St Petersburg. There he integrated into the Communist network. Returning home, he worked to establish the Hungarian Communist Party in 1918.
Post-war Hungary was in turmoil. Following World War I, the Entente nations were determined to dismantle the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Austro- Hungarian Dual Monarchy was an empire ruled by one royal family that held two monarchical crowns. Many of the new nations that the post-war treaty sought to create had existed as regions attached to the Hungarian Crown. If the proposed treaty were implemented, Hungary would see huge territorial losses. Many Hungarians believed that the treaty would throttle their new nation’s post-war development. With the national economy in ruins the communists sought to gain power by further destabilizing the country. They staged strikes and demonstrations which frequently turned violent. Béla Kun, leader of the Hungarian Communist Party, promised Hungarians that his party could maintain Hungary’s traditional borders in the face of Entente demands.
With the situation in Hungary deteriorating, Kun and the Communists reached an agreement with the Social Democrats in March of 1919, an act that established the first socialist government outside of Russia. Mátyás Rákosi played prominent roles in the Hungarian Soviet Republic, including that of Commander in Chief of the Red Guard. In its short history, 133 days, the Hungarian Soviet Republic employed repressive tactics to maintain control. Rákosi’s Red Guard was just one of several governmental bodies whose mission was repression. These organizations executed perceived opponents without trial and violently suppressed religious services. When the communists failed in their efforts to restore Hungary’s historic borders, the regime collapsed. Rákosi and many other communists (including Béla Kun) escaped to Vienna. Rákosi eventually made his way back to Russia. Unfortunately, Béla Kun’s communist government represents just one chapter in Hungary’s experience with authoritarianism and Mátyás Rákosi played central roles in many of those chapters.
Admiral Miklós Horthy became head of a new Hungarian government in 1920. Horthy was a staunch anti-communist and forced the remaining Hungarian communists into hiding. Stalin dispatched Rákosi back to Hungary in 1924 to rebuild the Hungarian Communist Party. His efforts were short-lived. Arrested in 1924, Rákosi was eventually sentenced to prison in 1927. His sentence was be cut short in 1940, when the Soviet Union exchanged him for national banners captured by Russian troops during Hungary’s 1848 revolution.
Once again Rákosi found refuge in Russia. There, he joined a group of exiles, most of whom were associated with the Comintern. Stalin groomed these groups to be trusted, pure communists, untainted by contact with rival ideologies. As Red Army troops advanced through Hungary, the Soviet trained political exiles were returned home. Rákosi returned in January 1945. He was tasked with establishing a provisional government. Technically, Hungary’s provisional government was subject to Allied oversight. However, the Red Army under Marshal Voroshilov exercised near complete control of Hungary’s political activity. Four parties were granted legal status: MKP (Communist), SZDP (Social Democrats), the Smallholders’ Party, and the Peasants Party. While the MKP had very few members they received a large portion of all appointments. Mátyás Rákosi was appointed Deputy Prime Minister. He was appointed as the General Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party. Despite only polling 17% to the Smallholders Party’s 57% in the 1945 election, the communists were awarded control of most major ministries.
Initially, the communists made appearances of working within a democratic system. The ruse was short lived as the communists successfully eliminated all threats to their authority. Rákosi utilized the AVO (the Hungarian Secret Police) to persecute all potential opponents. Religious organizations, universities, political parties, discussion groups, athletic clubs, and former resistance fighters were all targeted. In July of 1945 more than 1,500 organizations were banned. Declaring all opposition as “Fascist”, regardless of the victim’s actual political affiliations, the communists quickly dismantled traditional Hungarian institutions. Examples include the trial and execution of Father Kiss in 1946 and the imprisonment and torture of Cardinal Mindszenty in 1948. Leaders of opposition parties were jailed. With the Social Democrat’s forced merger into the Communist Party in 1948 opposition parties ceased to exist. Proprietors whose businesses fostered networks of loyal customers were persecuted. Retailers, distributors, and tobacconists were targeted and driven out of business. Independent tradesmen were deemed “capitalists” and forced to close their businesses. Anyone who had actively resisted the German occupation was suspect regardless of their political affiliation. Many still possessed weapons and resistance fighters were, after all… fighters. All forms of potential armed resistance needed to be eliminated.
Perhaps the best measure of Mátyás Rákosi’s oppression is in the numbers. Hungary was a nation of approximately 10 million people. It is estimated that a one point 40% of Hungarians were AVO informants. Approximately 850,000 farmers were fined for not meeting their quotas. Estimates place the number of political persecutions at 1.6 million, finding 700,000 guilty with nearly 2,000 executed. Many were sent to internal prisons or to the Soviet gulags. Acceptable forms of torture included dipping suspects in vats of acid and genital mutilation. Like other Communist systems, they even ate their own. Rákosi was involved in show trials of several key members of the Hungarian Communist Party. The trial and execution of his Hungary’s Interior Minister László Rajk proved problematic for Rákosi. Although Rajk was one of Rákosi’s ardent followers, and who had committed in many atrocities, his death made him a victim of the regime and a martyr. Rajk’s widow lead his funeral which morphed into an open critique of Rákosi and government. Here began the slow burn that culminated in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.
Rajk’s trial and execution was one of several factors that contributed to Rákosi’s downfall. A failing economy, coupled with years of severe repression, brought the Hungarian people to openly challenge their leaders. Hungary’s economy was collapsing as nationalization and collectivization a severe economic decline. Products were scarce and food lines were long. Though he was removed from power a few months before the 1956 Revolution, the economic desperation his leadership produced was evidenced when people died in food lines as the battle raged around them. Joseph Stalin’s death was the final event that contributed to Rákosi’s downfall. Nikita Khrushchev’s purge of Stalinists within the Soviet Union and across Eastern Europe brought Rákosi’s leadership to an end. First, he was replaced as General Secretary of the Party in June of 1956 and then was removed from Hungary by the Soviets to exile to the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic. Hungarians were told that Rákosi left to receive medical treatment. He never returned to Hungary. Mátyás Rákosi died on February 5, 1971.
Applebaum, Anne. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956. New York: Doubleday, 2012.
Korda, Michael. Journey to a Revolution: A Personal Memoir and History of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. New York: Success Research Corporation, 2006.
Kontler, László. A History of Hungary: Millennium in Central Europe. New York: Palgrave MacMillen, 2002.