The Lenin Boys Go To War – Hungarian Soviet Republic I THE GREAT WAR 1919

It’s March 1919, and Europe continues to
boil with both revolutionary and nationalist fervour. In Hungary, a fragile republican government
tries desperately to govern an unstable country and hold onto its territory when suddenly,
crisis strikes and a revolutionary movement seizes power. There is now a second Communist state on the
map of Europe – the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Hi, I’m Jesse Alexander and welcome to the
Great War. In the spring of 1919 Central Europe was still
in the grip of uncertainty – no one yet knew where the new borders would be drawn,
or whether the Bolshevism would spread outwards from Russia. In Hungary, there was a dramatic answer to
these two questions, in the form of yet another revolution and the proclamation of a second
Communist state in Europe, the Hungarian Soviet Republic – a new state that was soon plunged
into war with its neighbours. Now since there was no lack of would-be revolutionaries
in many different countries, let’s take a moment to start off with a basic question:
why Hungary? Well the answer, as usual 100 years ago, goes
back to November 1918 and the collapse of Austria-Hungary. Since 1867, the Kingdom of Hungary had formed
half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but as the state fell apart in October 1918, the
so-called Chrysanthemum Revolution broke out, and brought a democratic government to power
under Count Mihaly Karolyi. But just because the new Hungarian Republic
had left the empire, that didn’t mean its situation was stable. The biggest problem plaguing the country was
the question of ethnic minorities and state borders. The pre-1918 borders of the Kingdom of Hungary
had included lands inhabited by many peoples, not just ethnic Hungarians, or Magyars. The largest minorities were the Romanians,
Slovaks, and Croatians but there were also many Serbs, Germans, Jews and Ukrainians as
well. Under the Austro-Hungarian system, ethnic
Hungarians and the Hungarian language enjoyed a dominant position which was reinforced by
a policy of Magyarization. The defeat of the Central Powers made the
border question into a real sword of Damocles hanging over the head of the new republic. Many of the minorities resented the past dominance
of the ethnic Hungarians and now looked to neighbouring Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia
for their salvation from what one historian has termed “Magyar imperialism.” The Romanian question was particularly thorny,
since Romania had fought on the Allied side during the war but were defeated by the Central
Powers in May 1918 and signed the Treaty of Bucharest. But the country rebuilt its army and re-entered
the war on November 10, 1918, just one day before the armistice on the Western Front. The Romanian Army invaded the mostly Romanian
speaking region of Transylvania, hoping to occupy as much territory as possible before
the borders could be settled at the coming peace conference. Romanians viewed this a critical part of their
nation-building, but to Hungarians it was a violation of their borders and an unacceptable
fate for the large Hungarian-speaking minority there. In fact, Romania didn’t only claim Transylvania,
it also wanted the province of Bukovina. The Czechs and Slovaks had their eyes on the
ethnically mixed region of Upper Hungary. And of course, the new Yugoslav Kingdom viewed
Croatia and the Banat as its part of the pie. The Allies, especially the French, were keen
to support Hungary’s neighbours as part of a Cordon Sanitaire to hem in Bolshevik
Russia. As a country on the losing side in an ethnically
mixed Central Europe, Hungary was in the crosshairs. Karolyi and his new government hoped to limit
Hungary’s losses and adopted a policy of concessions to the Entente. Karolyi accepted he would lose some territory
but hoped that the principle of self-determination in Wilson’s 14 points would preserve as
much land as possible for Hungary. At the same time, the Czechoslovaks, Yugoslavs
and Romanians felt the 14 points meant more generous borders for them too, and they held
more sway at the Peace Conference. In any case, to help his cause he regularly
reminded the Allies that he had led an anti-war faction in the Hungarian Parliament during
the war. His options were limited, since the terms
of the armistice had limited Hungary’s army to just 6 divisions, which was not enough
to defend against an attack. On November 13 the Hungarians and the Entente
signed an agreement in Belgrade, which set out demarcation lines to which the forces
of Hungary’s new neighbours and the French would advance. The Hungarians accepted that much of Transylvania
would be occupied by Romania and that Croatia and most of the Banat would be occupied by
the Serbs and the French. There was a bit of unfinished business here
though, since French General Franchet D’Esperey had taken a somewhat softer line than his
political superiors in Paris, who wanted an even firmer stance against Hungary. Even after the Belgrade ceasefire, the situation
remained tense as all sides waited for decisions about where the borders would ultimately lie. To make matters worse, Transylvanian refugees
fleeing to Hungary stretched an already meagre food supply to its limit and by January 1919,
Romanian troops had pushed beyond the agreed lines and the Romanian authorities began to
incorporate the occupied territory into their country in violation of the terms of the Belgrade
agreement. A clash seemed more and more likely, since
although Karolyi was trying to win over the Allies by concessions, he was also determined
to retain as much territory for Hungary as possible. On March 2 he addressed Hungarian soldiers
in Transylvania “I will never accept the dismemberment of Hungary! The world must understand that if the Paris
Peace Conference decides against the right of popular self-determination based on mutual
agreements, then as an extreme necessity we will liberate our country with arms in our
hands.” So by spring 1919 the fragile new Hungarian
Karolyi government was facing incredible pressure from neighbours looking to expand at Hungary’s
expense. As if that wasn’t challenging enough, the
situation inside Hungary was extremely unstable as well. Throughout the winter of 1918-1919 the Hungarian
government was also trying to reform the country and establish a democracy, but given the external
pressures and political conditions in the country this would prove next to impossible. You see, at this point the political landscape
in Hungary was polarized and radicalized for several different reasons. Wartime tensions and shortages contributed
to Hungarians’ frustration, as did the question of land reform. Hungary was a largely peasant country dominated
by a small number of gentry, who owned most of the land and held most of the political
power. In fact, the largest 1000 landowners alone
laid claim to 30% of all forest, farmland and pasture in the country. This meant the young republic was caught between
the peasants, who wanted to have their share of the land, and the conservative gentry,
who did not want to give up their dominant role. Now even though Count Karolyi broke up his
own private estates in February, he still couldn’t please either side. On an interesting side note, Sigmund Freud
was not a fan of Karolyi’s either. From Vienna he wrote to a Hungarian friend
in November 1918: “I was certainly no adherent of the ancien régime, but it seems doubtful
to me whether it is a sign of political shrewdness to beat to death the smartest of the many
counts and to make the stupidest one president.” As if the domestic political scene were not
complicated enough already, enter the Bolsheviks. Now during the Great War, hundreds of thousands
of Hungarians had been captured in battle and many spent years in prisoner of war camps
in Russia. When the Russian revolution broke out in 1917,
many of them joined the revolutionary side. One who did was former cavalry officer Bela
Kun, a pre-war socialist Hungarian of Jewish origin who had been in a Siberian POW camp
since 1916. Once Kun was released, he was put in charge
of the Hungarian Group of the Bolshevik Party and actually met Bolshevik leader Vladimir
Ilyich Lenin. When the war between the Great Powers ended
in 1918, the Hungarian Bolsheviks in Russia saw their chance. In November, they founded the Hungarian Communist
Party and returned to Budapest to see whether Hungary was ripe for revolution. In January they were joined by another Hungarian
Communist, Tibor Szamuely, who had returned from Germany, where he had been on a mission
to the Spartacus League in Berlin. So, during the winter of 1918-1919 there were
regular strikes and violent clashes between Communist supporters and the police, often
over the government shutdown of Red newspapers. The New York Times even reported in January
that in Budapest: “The Russian epidemic of Bolshevism has reached the virulent stage. Famine and freezing are its active allies. New Year’s was celebrated with riot and
murder in the city’s streets.” The violence continued, and on February 21
most of the Communist leaders were put in jail. Somewhat surprisingly, they were allowed to
continue some party activities from prison, which would prove quite handy when the storm
finally broke. All this meant Hungary’s transition to a
stable and independent democracy was stalled by a chaotic deadlock. This explosive cocktail of pressure from outside
and instability inside came to a head on March 20, 1919. On that day, French liaison officer Colonel
Vix presented the Hungarian government with an ultimatum from the Entente: Hungarian forces
were to withdraw to new demarcation lines up to 100km farther inside the country than
those agreed in Belgrade to allow a further Romanian advance. With this demand, the Allies had broken the
terms of the armistice and plunged President Karolyi’s government into a crisis. Prime Minister Denes Berinkey resigned immediately,
and Karolyi desperately planned for a new coalition. He wanted to appoint a Social Democrat government,
but they had other ideas and secretly contacted Communist leaders, who were still in jail. Why would the Social Democrats, who were more
numerous and more influential than the Communists, take such a radical step? Well, the radicalized political climate, the
loss of trust in the Entente-controlled postwar order, and the hope of support from Russia
– where Kun had prestigious connections – made it seem worthwhile to them to take
the plunge and go all in on social revolution. The Social Democrats met with the Communists
in their prison cells, and the parties agreed to merge and set the wheels of revolution
in motion together. The next day, the prisoners were released
and the Hungarian Soviet Republic was declared, joining the Russian Soviet Republic as the
only two revolutionary states in the world. The new leader, Sandor Garbai, made the situation
clear to the Workers’ Council: “The imperialists of the Entente took democracy and national
self-determination as their slogans, but since victory they have acted differently. Our hope for peace was destroyed by the ukase
from Colonel Vix. There is no longer any doubt that those gentlemen
in Paris wish to give us an imperialist peace…From now on we must look to the east for justice,
as it has been denied us in the west.” Karolyi’s resignation was announced without
his knowledge and he was imprisoned. The people were then informed: “The party
will immediately seize full power in the name of the proletariat. The dictatorship of the proletariat will be
exercised by the Councils of Workers, Peasants and Soldiers. For this reason, the proposed elections to
the National Assembly will obviously be shelved. A proletarian army will have to be established
to disarm the bourgeoisie. To ensure the power of the proletariat and
also to oppose the imperialism of the Entente, the fullest and closest military and spiritual
alliance must be concluded with the Soviet Russian government.” So a high pressure combination of foreign
and internal pressures had given birth to a revolutionary Hungarian state that rejected
Allied demands on the all-important border question. Now let’s take a closer look at what kind
of state it was and how Bela Kun would try to succeed where Karolyi had failed. Now on paper the revolutionary government
was led by Social Democrat Sandor Garbai, but in practice Bela Kun, the Commissar for
Foreign Affairs, was calling the shots since as one historian put it, he was “the only
Hungarian Communist with charisma”. As foreign minister, Kun knew the Soviet Republic
couldn’t face its enemies alone, but it also had very few friends. With hostile neighbours and the Entente fearing
the spread of the revolution, Bolshevik Russia seemed to offer the only hope for help. The Hungarians hoped the Russians would be
able to attack Romania in the East and open a land connection to Hungary, which would
secure the Hungarian Soviet’s future. This wasn’t necessarily a far-fetched plan,
since in March and April the Russian Red Army advanced deep into Ukraine and eventually
stood just a few hundred kilometres from Hungary. Kun explained his thinking in the weeks following
the coup: “When we founded the proletarian dictatorship in Hungary we did not base our
calculations on our ability to confront the troops of the Entente militarily. We did not believe that the six divisions
authorized for the Soviet Republic by the armistice agreement would be sufficient to
halt the offensive which threatens us from all sides. We emphasized and still emphasize that the
fate of the Hungarian Soviet Republic depends on the international proletarian revolution.” Kun used his Russian connections and the relatively
new technology of radio to establish contact with Lenin in Moscow, and the two would remain
in contact for the next few months. He also hoped for some support from revolutionaries
in Austria, but a Hungarian-supported coup attempt in Vienna on April 17 was foiled by
the Austrian police. But in the tense days of March and April 1919,
it remained to be seen what, if anything, the Russian Bolsheviks would do to help the
isolated Hungarian Soviet Republic. In any case the Hungarian Communists had their
hands full with domestic politics as well. Now although the Social Democrats were a much
larger party, the Communists in the government actually held most of the power — and they
certainly had ambitious goals. They attempted to collectivize the ownership
of land, nationalize industry, confiscate church property, ban alcohol, and abolish
aristocratic titles. The soldiers and workers councils were even
given the responsibilities of the judicial branch of government. In an attempt to convince the Allies to limit
the breakup of the country, Kun also proposed new rights for minority groups as well. Though at least one historian has called the
Hungarian Soviet Republic “milder, more social democratic version” of Bolshevism
in which there was actual debate about policy, political violence was a key part of its approach. Take Commissar for Culture and Education George
Lukács. He did call on workers to make education the
“prime objective of their lives,” a laudable goal, but he also wrote that “if blood will
be shed – and who would argue that such a thing is out of the question – then we
are within our rights to shed it…we must take full responsibility for the blood that
will be shed. We must also offer to shed our own blood…In
short, terror and bloodletting are a moral obligation, or more simply put, our virtue.” Having heard that it will come as no surprise
that there was indeed a Red Terror in Soviet Hungary. Much of the terrorizing was carried out by
a paramilitary group of about 500 men known as the Lenin Boys, under Commissar for Military
Affairs Tibor Szamuely – the same guy who was on the Spartakus mission in Berlin. His Lenin Boys even used an armoured train
to root out counter-revolutionaries in the countryside, and ended up killing about 600
people. The Communists’ main problem internally
was that most Hungarians simply didn’t like their policies, and their only reliable support
came from the workers in Budapest. The peasants in the countryside were not happy
with forced requisitions of food and the attack on the church, and the landowners were fiercely
opposed to giving up their property. The Kun government also suffered from the
perception that it was not really Hungarian enough. Some felt this way because of the international
volunteers in the new Hungarian Red Army, the high proportion of Hungarian Jews within
the leadership, the conciliatory policy towards minorities and the connection to Bolshevik
Russia. So at this point let’s recap. In a Hungary facing the threat of dismemberment
by its neighbours and internal divisions, the Communists were able to take power. But if as we have seen, they had so many enemies
abroad and so few friends at home, how were they able to stay in control? Well, the answer lies partially with old fashioned
nationalism. Now, you might think that in terms of ideology,
Bolshevism and Hungarian nationalism might not be an obvious match, and you’d be right. But the existential crisis facing Hungary
after the Allied ultimatum of March 20 was grave enough to bring many to support the
Soviet Republic for reasons of national pride. Austrian politician Otto Bauer called the
Soviet Republic “a dictatorship of desperation,” and historian Jörn Leonhard has referred
to it as a “self-defence reaction” or “means to an end.” The national revolutions and social revolutions
sweeping Europe ended up, in March 1919 at least, merging into a form of “national
Bolshevism in Soviet Hungary”. Kun purposely framed the impending war with
Hungary’s neighbours as a national struggle to defend the homeland from foreign invaders. Many Hungarians heeded the call and joined
the Red Army, particularly those from threatened border regions. For them, it wasn’t about a about social
revolution, it was a matter of national survival. Lieutenant-Colonel Ferenc Julier wrote years
later: “Everyone hoped that the change in regime would bring about general mobilization
and the immediate initiation of military operations. Our notions at the time may appear naïve
to some today, but in March 1919 we could not have known how far the situation would
degenerate. All we could see then was that the country
was in agony and that we must grab whatever means were available to make her recover…All
my officers spoke to the effect that we must remain at our post for the sake of the fatherland.” So the Allied ultimatum had broken the ceasefire
terms and helped the Communists take power in Hungary with the support of socialists
and some nationalists. Now let’s see how the crisis would play
out. The Hungarians knew their chances in a firefight
were slim, so Kun tried to buy time in case the Russians decided to intervene. He invited the Peace Conference to send a
delegation to Budapest, and South African General Jan Smuts and British diplomat Harold
Nicolson duly made the trip. In the end their two-day visit on April 4th
and 5th did not bring much in the way of results, other than Nicolson’s characterization of
Kun in his diary as a “sulky and uncertain criminal” with “shifty and suspicious
eyes.” All sides now expected fighting to break out. The Hungarians were determined to protect
what they saw as their legitimate borders, and the Entente meant to impose the March
20 demarcation lines. In addition, the Romanians and French feared
that if the revolution in Hungary were to survive, Romania might well be surrounded
by Red forces in Hungary and Russia, with which it shared a border in the east. The Romanians began to mobilize on April 1. They recruited Romanian-speakers into an Army
of Transylvania, which consisted mostly of veterans who had served in the Austro-Hungarian
army who still wore their Austrian uniforms and used German as their language of command
. Combined with regular troops, the Romanians had twice as many infantry, three times as
much artillery, and twenty times as much cavalry as the Hungarian Red Army. The Hungarian troops were a bit of a patchwork
– there were some regular army units who were fighting for reasons of national pride,
there were revolutionary Red Guard units, and international brigades of foreign communists,
notably from Austria and Russia. This kind of motley crew would not be necessarily
be easy to control in the fighting to come. The dam broke on April 16, when the Romanians
launched their offensive with the tacit approval of the Allies. The outgunned and outnumbered Hungarian troops
began to retreat later that morning, having been outflanked by Romanian cavalry. Some Red Army units resisted, but others simply
broke and fled the field. After a just few days of fighting, Hungarian
discipline was crumbling, the professional soldiers and Communist political officers
were at each other’s throats, and some units had basically disintegrated. One Red Guard unit in Debrecen refused to
obey orders until an international brigade was brought in to put down the mutiny and
Bela Kun’s parents were even captured by Romanian troops on April 18. They were later released in exchange for the
family of a Romanian diplomat. The crisis at the front caused the Hungarian
government to issue a desperate call for mobilization. Scratch units of factory workers like the
Csepel Foundry Workers’ Battalion were raised and quickly thrown into the fighting, but
could not stem the tide and the Romanians captured the city of Debrecen on April 23. The last week in April brought complete catastrophe
for the Hungarian Red Army. The Czechoslovaks attacked in the north, under
the guidance of Italian officers. A counter-revolutionary revolt broke out in
the town of Munkacs. 2000 Hungarians surrendered in single day
of fighting, and on April 26 most of the Hungarian Transylvania Division, not be confused with
the Romanian Army of Transylvania, surrendered. The next day the Serbs and French advanced
from their positions in the south as well, and occupied several villages and towns. By May 1, the Romanians had reached the Tisza
river, deep inside Hungary. They linked up with the Czechoslovaks in the
north, and with the Serbs and French in the south. But Soviet Hungary still held out hope that
Bolshevik Russia would come to its aid. Assistant Commissar for Foreign Affairs Peter
Agoston wrote in his diary on April 27: “The Entente…meant to reserve Budapest for the
Czechs, who were on good terms with the Italians. They suggested we allow the Czechs in…Kun
and I both rejected this proposal. Our view today is that the Russians will finally
declare war on Romania, and then our situation would become easier. We already have their promise to that effect.” So by the spring of 1919, a second Soviet
Republic had sprung up in the heart of Europe, but its future, and that of the world revolution,
still hung in the balance, and it was unclear if Bolshevik Russia could free itself from
Civil War to save its sister state, or whether Hungary’s neighbours would fulfil their
national dreams at its expense. Now that we’ve followed the fateful events
of the Hungarian Soviet Republic that spring, it’s time for our Roundup segment where
we take a look at what else is going on in March 1919. Let’s start in Russia, where as we saw in
our last episode a brutal Civil War was raging. On March 2, the Bolsheviks founded the 3rd
Communist International in Moscow to help spread the revolution abroad. Non-Europeans were also invited under the
slogan: “Colonial slaves of Africa and Asia! The hour of the dictatorship of the proletariat
in Europe will also be the hour of your liberation!” That same day, Bolshevik troops in southern
Ukraine began clearing French intervention forces from Kherson province, and the French
would soon withdraw from Ukraine entirely. On the 3rd, a peasant uprising known as the
Chapan War broke out against Soviet power in the Volga region until it was put down
by 13,000 Red troops. In a sign of the confusion reigning in the
country, the rebels rose under the slogan “Long live the Bolsheviks, down with the
Communists.” And finally, on the 4th, a counter-revolutionary
White offensive began in Siberia, which pushed back the Red Army and captured the city of
Ufa. Turning to Germany, on March 2nd the foreign
ministers of Germany and Austria signed an agreement stating that Austria should become
a part of Germany. Unsurprisingly, this proposal was rejected
by the Allies. On the 3rd, a general strike over food and
wages led to another Spartacist uprising in Berlin. The government declared a state of siege and
brought in 30,000 government and Freikorps troops. By the time the uprising was put down after
10 days of heavy fighting, including the use of combat aircraft, about 1000 people had
been killed, mostly in the neighbourhood around our studio. And in the middle of the month, US General
John Pershing visited American troops with the Army of Occupation in the Rhineland, in
Western Germany. In Italy, on the 23rd, Benito Mussolini inaugurated
his fascist movement in front of a crowd of Arditi and disgruntled socialists. In non-European news, on March 1 a series
of demonstrations began in Korea, demanding independence from Japan. The movement would continue for the next year
until it was crushed by Japanese troops. On the 8th, British colonial authorities in
Egypt, which the British had occupied since 1882, arrested prominent independence activist
Saad Zughlul, who had been agitating for Egyptian representation at the Paris Peace Conference. His arrest set off a series of riots that
would mark the beginning of the Egyptian revolution. And finally, on March 23rd in Brisbane, Australia,
hundreds of pro-Bolshevik and pro-British demonstrators clashed with each other and
with police in what became known as the Red Flag Riots. The next day, 8000 anti-Russian ex-servicemen
attempted to force their way to the Russian Workers Association building but were held
back by police – 100 rioters suffered bayonet wounds in the violence. So, those were some of the main developments
around the world in March 1919 – and for many citizens of that world, peace still seemed
as far away as it had during the dark days of the Great War. As one monk in Galicia recorded in a monastic
chronicle: “Thus after the Great War arises a new war of nations.” A big thanks to Dora Fauszt for helping us
with this episode. Two of my main sources for this episode were
Peter Pastor’s Revolutions and Interventions in Hungary and its Neighbor States and Jörn
Leonhard’s Versailles: der überforderte Frieden. You can find all our sources for this episode
in the video description, including links to amazon. If you buy through these links, we do get
a small commission which helps the channel, and of course you can also support us on Patreon
or by clicking the join button below so you can get access to our Supporter Podcast and
other perks. We’ve also got some new merchandise available,
including Great War stickers, so have a look at the selection beneath this video. I’m Jesse Alexander and this is The Great
War 1919, a production of Real Time History and the only Youtube history channel that
does not make any Dracula jokes when talking about Transylvania.

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