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The Soviet Union and the Hungarian Question

Francois Fejto

Several different periods can be distinguished in the Soviet Union's attitude toward Hungary and the Hungarian question in general. It evolved within the framework of Soviet external politics, beginning with revolutionary internationalism and ending up in naked realpolitik of imperialism. The factors shaping these changes are intertwined with four stages of Soviet policy.


At the beginning, there was the ideological tradition of socialism. Lenin, too, embraced among his doctrines the "right of nations to self-determination," as it emerged from the passionate discussions on the "national question" in 1908-9 among the contemporary Socialists, particularly Rosa Luxemburg, Otto Bauer, and Karl Kautsky. Lenin took Kautsky's side without hesitation when he warned his comrades against "underestimation of the tendency of all nations to form a state of their own."

In his treatise, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, written just before World War I, Lenin contrasted Austria-Hungary with tsarist Russia, viewing the former more favorably than the latter. The Habsburg Empire, he wrote, could transform itself from a dual monarchy into a "trialist" state with three centers: a German, a Hungarian, and a Slav. In his view, the nations of the Habsburg Empire had a common interest in federating themselves, particularly in order to


defend their independence against "more rapacious and stronger neighbors." In tsarist Russia, on the other hand, the non-Russian peoples (57 percent of the population), as long as they remained forcibly united with the Great Russians, could look only, in Lenin's view, to ever greater oppression.1

By championing, during World War I, self-deterrnination and a federal system (somewhat in spite of himself, given his temperament favoring centralization, indeed etatism), Lenin had no doubt that he might save the Russian empire from dissolution. Meanwhile, he also saw quite clearly that, thanks to wartime French diplomacy and to the subversive activities and intrigues of exiles, the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy might be broken up and its successor states might become, as they indeed did, easy victims of "more rapacious and stronger neighbors."

In any case, Hungary's dismemberment envisaged by the separatist nationalities of the Habsburg Monarchy was very far from the thinking of Lenin and his circle.2 No doubt the latter also had in mind the judgment of Marx and Engels which was favorable to the Hungarians in view of their war against Austria in 1848-49 which placed them among the "advanced great nations." At the same time, Lenin and his circle thought that the Czechs, Slovaks, and others might just as well stay where they were, within Austria-Hungary, that is, once the empire evolved into a fully democratic federated regime.


The Soviet Union's favorable predisposition toward Hungary was reinforced by the events of 1917-19. It should not be forgotten that a large number of Hungarian prisoners-of-war in Russia played an important role in the revolutionary struggles on the side of the Bolsheviks, in sharp contrast to the Czech Legion. Furthermore, under the leadership of Bela Kun - a disciple and, indeed, a friend of Lenin - the young Hungarian Communist party succeeded in establishing, in 1919, the first Soviet republic outside of Russia.

Thus, the enemies of Bela Kun's republic - the Romanians, Czecho-Slovaks, Yugoslavs, all allied with the Entente powers-became enemies of Soviet Russia itself. In fact, they offered themselves, in line with French design, to be part of a cordon sanitaire against the Russian Soviet republic. All this contributed to turning the Soviet

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Union into a sworn enemy of the Versailles settlements and into a bitter critic of the unitary, centralizing nature of the successor states. The Comintern and the Soviet press never ceased to emphasize the artificial, annexationist character of these countries and their oppressive behavior toward their minorities (including Hungarian minorities). Hence the support the Comintern gave to the struggle of the minority peoples against national oppression, in conjunction with the struggle against "the imperialistic bourgeoisie, victorious in the war." This thesis was then developed in the Comintern resolution of 1924 on the "National Question in Central Europe and the Balkans." (See pertinent excerpts below.)

This internationalist, antichauvinistic stance of the Comintern also explains the large proportion of minority elements in Central and Eastern European Communist parties (Hungarians, Jews, Ukrainians, and others), especially in leadership capacity.


A new phase of Soviet policy toward Central and Eastern Europe (this time rather unfavorable to Hungarians) began with the ascendancy of Hitler, which placed Europe's reorganization on the agenda of international affairs. In view of the new situation, the Soviet Union, in an about-face, came to the defense of the Versailles settlement. To stand up against Nazi expansionism appeared to the Soviet leaders to be more important than opposition to the nationalism of the successor states. In Moscow's judgment, the collapse of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia - which would have profited the Soviet Union in the 1920s - would have now benefited Germany. Consequently, Soviet foreign policy was completely reversed. The non-aggression pact concluded with France in 1935 opened the way to a series of agreements, signaling attempts at rapprochement with France's allies.

The few tentative Soviet gestures toward Hungary received no response, however. The Hungarians persisted in their alliance with the Italians and later with the Germans. Thus, the Czech, Yugoslav, and Romanian Communist parties were instructed, from 1935 onward, to drop their internationalist, antichauvinist party line - until then hostile to the centralizing, unitary "bourgeois" regimes - and to work toward an alliance with the bourgeois nationalist parties, in order to defend national independence. At the same time, in the Soviet Union


itself, a shift occurred toward realpolitik, virtually a renewal of the nationalistic traditions of tsarism, with a view to taking advantage of the destabilization of Europe and ensuring Soviet participation in the reshaping of spheres of influence following the expected collapse of the Versailles system. The recasting of Soviet foreign policy coincided with the purge of "cosmopolitan" leading personalities from the Communist party. There were many Hungarians among them, well established in the Soviet party apparatus following the civil war. This was coupled with an equally severe purge of the Communist parties in exile; the Hungarian Bela Kun was one of the victims.

The oppressed nationalities were now forgotten. Their cause was taken into account only if it corresponded with the interests of the Soviet Union at any given moment. The principles of sovereignty, of self-determination, came to be subordinated to the selfish interests of the Soviet empire.


After the interlude of the Soviet-German pact (which allowed the Russians to take part in the dismemberment of Poland, but also obliged them to accept the breaking up of Czechoslovakia and the destruction of Yugoslavia), the 1935 party line was reinstated. Henceforward the Soviet Union supported the Allied objective of restoring the successor states, with the explicit or implicit reservation that the Soviet Union was striving for the annexation of eastern Poland, the Carpatho-Ukraine, and Bessarabia.

The Hungarians, as Nazi Germany's allies, fought the Soviet forces and attempted to join the victors only after it was too late. The Soviet Union had no reason to look on Hungarian requests for frontier revisions with favor, although the Russians admitted now and then that--in theory - the Hungarian claims were not without foundation. Yet, it was not only Hungary's alliance with Germany, pure and simple, which made the Soviet leaders consistently anti-Hungarian at the Peace Conference. One can ask, for example, why did the Soviet Union support with such persistence the inhuman plan of Czechoslovakia to expel all Hungarians living within its frontiers? (See extracts from Andrei Vyshinskii's speech at the Paris Peace Conference in 1946, below). And why did the Soviet Union favor the Romanians

The Soviet Union and the Hungarian Question 93

another erstwhile ally of Hitler - against the Hungarians in the dispute over Transylvania?

As to the first question, Khrushchev gave the key answer in his conversation with Tito in 1956: "The Soviet Union cannot but be illdisposed toward the Hungarians; after all, Hungary fought in two world wars against Russia, in alliance with the West."3 Indeed, public opinion in Hungary had been traditionally Western-oriented. The Czechs, on the other hand, panting with revenge, were more pro-Russian than ever. Moreover, the Hungarian Communist party was weak. The Communist party received only 16 percent of the votes at a relatively free election in 1945. The Communist party in Czechoslovakia, on the other hand, gained considerable strength following the end of the war. Hungary's new government was certainly not pro-Soviet while Benes founded his foreign policy on unquestioning loyalty to Moscow.

Under these conditions, it was in the interest of the Soviet Union to appear as the protector of Czech nationalism and to support the Czechs and the Slovaks in their determination to humiliate the Hungarians, the ruling ethnic group of yesteryear. And, besides, it was in the Soviet interest to egg on the Czechs to do things that could not but displease Western public opinion. The brutal treatment meted out to the German and Hungarian minorities was a sad disavowal of the humanism of Tomas G. Masaryk.

As to the question of support of Romania there were several reasons for Soviet action. The incorporation of Transylvania in its entirety into the Romanian state was a kind of compensation for the Russian annexation of Bessarabia. After the war, it seems, Stalin did not immediately make a final decision on the fate of Hungary. Hungary may have appeared to him as a useful object of bargaining in any future haggles with the Western powers. However, Romania was already considered by him to belong definitively to the Soviet sphere of influence. Thus, the Soviet Union had good reason to flatter Romanian nationalism and, at the same time, also slip a few aces in the power game to the tiny Communist party in Romania, led by Ana Pauker and Gheorghiu Dej.

Finally, an intriguing question remains: why did the Red Army initially render a conspicuous, albeit temporary, protection to the Hungarian minority against atrocities committed by Romanian nationalists in Transylvania after it was reconquered by the Romanians?


The answer, if we exclude humanitarian considerations, as we must, lies probably in the Soviet aim of weakening Romanian resistance over the question of Bessarabia by waving the "Hungarian card" and, at the same time, reinforcing Romanian dependence on Soviet goodwill concerning the reintegration of Transylvania into "Greater Romania."


1. Lenin's Selected Works (Moscow, French edition), 6:476.

2. On the issue of the peoples of the Habsburg Monarchy, Lenin's thinking was duly reflected in the Soviet manifesto "To the Workers, Peasants, and Soldiers of the Former Austro-Hunganan Empire," November 3, 1918, which appealed for "an alliance of the proletanat of all nations" and lashed out against "an alliance with the national bourgeoisie", carving out from the defunct Monarchy nation-states. The manifesto stated: "We are deeply convinced that when the German, Czech, Croat, Hungarian, Slovene workers, soldiers, and peasants take power into their hands and complete the work of the entire national liberation, they will conclude a brotherly alliance of free peoples and with united forces they will defeat the capitalists." And it concluded: "Long live the freedom of the peoples of Austria; the Hungarians, Czechs, Slovenes, Ruthenians. Long live the Councils of the Workers', Soldiers', Peasants' Deputies of Austria-Hungary! Long live the alliance between them and the Soviets of Russia for the common struggle!" For the full text of the manifesto, see Jane Degras, ed., Soviet Documents on Foreign Policy (London, 1951-53), 1:120-23.

3. V. Micunovic, Journees de Moscou, 195S1958, ed. Robert Laffont (Pans, 1979), 72-78, passim.

Annex I

Excerpts from a Resolution of the Fifth Comintern Congress, 1924, in Support of National

Self-Determination *

(* ~Excerpts from the "Resolution on the National Question in Central Europe & Balkans," Communist International 7 (December 1924-January 1925): 93-99)

The imperialist war, into which the bourgeoisie drew the workers by hypocritical slogans about the defense of small nationalities, and the

The Soviet Union and the Hungarian Question 95

right to self-determination, actually led to the intensification of national antagonism as a result of the victory of one of the groups of capitalist powers and national oppression in Central Europe and in the Balkans.

The Saint-Germain, Versailles and subsequent treaties dictated by the victorious Entente powers, created a number of new small imperialist states - Poland, Czecho-Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Rumania, Greece - as a means of fighting against proletarian revolution. These states were formed by the annexation of large territories with foreign populations and have become centres of national oppression and social reaction. . . .

The national question has thus attained new importance since the war, and has become at the present time one of the essential political questions of Central Europe and the Balkans. At the same time the struggle of the oppressed peoples against national oppression has become a struggle against the power of the imperialistic bourgeoisie who were victorious in the World War, since the strengthening of these new imperialist powers means the strengthening of the forces of world imperialism.

The importance of the struggle against national oppression is still further augmented by the fact that the nationalities oppressed by Poland, Czecho-Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Rumania, and Greece, in their social composition, are largely peasants, and the struggle for their national liberation is at the same time the struggle of the peasant masses against foreign landlords and capitalists.

In view of these facts, the Communist Parties of Central Europe and the Balkans are confronted with the task of giving full support to the national revolutionary movement among the oppressed nationalities.

The slogan "the right of every nation to self-determination, even to the extent of separation" in the present pre-revolutionary period must be expressed in the case of these newly arisen imperialist states in the more definite slogan, "the political separation of the oppressed peoples from Poland, Rumania, Czecho-Slovakia, Yugoslavia, and Greece. . . ."

The Congress charges all the Communist Parties of Central Europe and the Balkans with the task of giving complete support to the national revolutionary movements of the oppressed peoples against the power of the ruling bourgeoisie, and of organising Communist nuclei


in the national revolutionary organisations, in order to win the leadership of the national revolutionary movement of the oppressed peoples, and to direct it along the clear and definite path of revolutionary struggle against the power of the bourgeoisie, on the basis of the close solidarity of all workers and their common struggle for a workers' and peasants' government in every country.

Only by a union of the Communist elements within the national revolutionary organisations can the former secure priority for the toiling masses in the latter, as a counter-poise to the bourgeois landowning and adventurous elements, which frequently used these organisations for their own class aims, or converted them into tools for imperialist aims in the various capitalist States.

The Congress imposes on all the Communist Parties the obligation of carrying on an energetic struggle against the provocation of national hatred and chauvinism by the bourgeois and the social-traitor parties, and of explaining to the working masses of both the oppressed and oppressing nationalities, the social character of national oppression and the national revolutionary struggle and the dependence of this struggle on the struggle of the world proletariat for the complete social and national emancipation of the workers. . . .

The Congress notes the counter-revolutionary significance of the colonising of these small imperialist powers carried on by the ruling classes, leading to an aggravation of the national differences. The Congress charges the Communist Parties of Poland, Rumania, Yugoslavia, Czecho-Slovakia, and Greece, with the obligation of conducting a vigorous campaign against this colonising policy.

The Congress approves of the slogan launched by the Communist Parties of the Balkan countries advocating a Balkan Federation of equal and independent Workers, and Peasants' Republics....

As regards the particular national questions of the different countries of Central Europe and the Balkans, the Congress considers the position to be as follows: . . .


The Magyar Question

The Congress considers it essential to intensify the Communist work among the Magyar population of those territories annexed by Czecho-Slovakia, Rumania, and Yugoslavia, and that the Communist Parties

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of these countries should launch the slogan of the right of these Magyars to self-determination, even to separation from the States that annexed them.


The Transylvanian and Dobrudja Questions

The Congress approves of the slogans advanced by the Communist Party of Rumania for the separation of Transylvania and Dobrudja from Rumania and forming independent regions of them.

Annex II

Excerpts from Andrei Vyshinskii's Speech at the Paris Peare Gnference, 1946, in Support of Population

Transfers *

(*Excerpts from a speech by the delegate of the USSR, Andrei Vyshinskii, at the session of the Political and Territorial Commission for Hungary, Conference of Paris, September 20, 1946, as published in Hungary and the Conference of Pans (Budapest, 1947), 4:72-78. Official English version, C.P. (H/P) Doc. 16.)

The Soviet Government has wide experience in the solution of problems of nationality, as well as of questions of national minorities. The settlement of these questions is assured in the Soviet Union, by the soundness of the radical policy which is applied in the Soviet Union and which is based on the high principles of the teachings of Lenin-Stalin. In turn, inspired by high ideals of equality and fraternity, in the full meaning of the word, the Soviet foreign policy, as well as its internal radical policy, are guided by the principle of respect of equality of races, and on the principle of self-determination of nations. The Lenin-Stalin radical policy guarantees the successful development of the economic life of the innumerable nationalities which populate our country, and the bright dawn of radical culture, in the broad sense of the word, the dawn, thanks to which creative forces which were slumbering in the depths of the sixteen Soviet Socialist Republics and the peoples who populate these Republics, have developed with brilliance and wealth, which have turned out to be a worthy recompense for


the leaders of the Soviet State, for their practical participation in the Socialist construction. It is on the basis of respect for the principles of national self-determination, the principle of respect for the equality of races, that the Soviet foreign policy is based. And it enables the Soviet Union to consider itself competent to participate in the questions which are at present occupying the attention of this distinguished gathering. This is the basis upon which internal treaties of the Soviet Union and agreements with other nations are founded. It is on this foundation that the Soviet Union bases its economic agreements, political and other agreements, signed by the Soviet Union, and which are analogous with the problems which our Commission is considering. I am referring to agreements which concern the question of the transfer of populations, repatriation, option and of all questions relating to the solution of these difficult problems, because the questions of option, nationality, repatriation, and the transfer of populations, is not an easy problem. As an example, I would like to cite a document such as the Soviet-Polish agreement of 6 July, 1945 as a result of which over a million people were transferred from the Soviet Union to Poland, over a period of 18 months; and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Russians and people of many other nationalities were transferred from Poland to the USSR. This agreement was based on the principles I have just referred to, and it is therefore natural that the Soviet Government should welcome, on the part of governments of other nations, any efforts which would lead to the realisation or accomplishment of the same principles of mutual respect and an effort at fraternal co-operation. . . .

The Soviet Government considers that one of the possible solutions of the national problem when faced with conflicting national interests is to free one of the countries of persons of the nationality of the other country and to settle these persons at home, that is in their own country. This is the way the question stands before us and no one can deny that it is well founded. I think that it is hardly possible to approve the stand of the Government of any country which far from doing all in its power to bring back its children from abroad, tries to turn the children of its race into step-children, marooning them abroad. . . .

The right is on the side of Czechoslovakia. . . . Our commission decided to include in Article 4 of the Draft Peace Treaty with Hungary an addition forbidding revisionist propaganda. . . . This means that the revisionist tendencies in Hungary and amidst the Hungarian

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population are still alive, that we here have a menace to peace, to peaceful relations. . . . These revisionist tendencies and trends, this constant revanche-like smouldering of public opinion is a cause of danger and cannot be tolerated....

The transfer is called 'forced.' . . . It is certainly a serious measure, but it has become unavoidable, it is brought about by the development of events.... We are told that this measure spells catastrophe for Hungary. ... The Hungarian Government contends that there is no place for them in Hungary. Is there room for them or not? . . . 500,000 Germans from Hungary must be transferred to the American zone in Gerrnany. . . . This is the plan approved by the Control Council for Germany. ... If these 500,000 people are transferred from Hungary to Germany, will there be room enough left in Hungary for 200,000 Hungarians, transferred from Czechoslovakia? I think there will be. . . . These measures are described as an 'inhumane' act! . . . It is clear that there is nothing 'inhumane' in this plan.

The Story of the "200,000 Hungarians"


In the speech quoted above, Andrei Vyshinskii was arguing in support of the Czechoslovak demand to transfer the remaining "200,000 Hungarians" from Czechoslovakia to Hungary. This was a misleading figure. The story behind it has never been pieced together with all of its ramifications although it is one of the most intriguing maneuvers of Benes's diplomacy.

President Benes, originator of the expulsion policy of the national minorities, had been successful during the war in gaining East-West approval, confirmed at Potsdam, for the expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia but had met with Western opposition to the expulsion of the Hungarians. In the spirit of the then flourishing Pan-Slav brotherhood, only the Russians supported, in principle, Benes's attempt to transfer the Hungarians (see excerpts from the Jaromir Smutny documents in Annex I of Chapter 11, below). Undaunted, Bened, resorted to intricate moves to maneuver the Western powers into approving his plan.

In 1945, in a memorandum on the problems of national minorities submitted to the Potsdam Conference, Czechoslovakia requested the "transfer" of Hungary's Germans, as well as "population exchange" as means of solving remaining national minority problems. Both de-


mands were approved at Potsdam, presumably with Soviet support. (For additional references on the Potsdam expulsion clauses, see note 38 in Chapter 4, above.) The connection between the two demands was revealed at the Paris Peace Conference. The Czechoslovaks argued - supported by Vyshinskii's speech quoted above - that, since the expulsion of the Germans from Hungary had already been approved at Potsdam, there would be room for the "remaining" 200,000 Hungarians from Czechoslovakia.

The figure of 200,000 "remaining" Hungarians, earmarked for that particular transfer, had been arrived at by the following calculations:

(1) Czechoslovakia claimed that 200,000 of its Hungarians would be transferred in exchange for the same number of Slovaks from Hungary in the course of the "population exchange" between Hungary and Czechoslovakia already approved at Potsdam.

(2) Another 200,000 Hungarians living in Czechoslovakia would "re-Slovakize," the assumption being that they were actually "Magyarized" Slovaks.

(3) Thus, there would be only 200,000 Hungarians left, and they should be transferred since there would be plenty of room for them after the Potsdam-approved transfer of Germans from Hungary.

Actually, despite Czechoslovak propaganda efforts promising free land and furnished houses, only 59,774 Slovaks were willing to take advantage of the population exchange and leave Hungary for Slovakia. As for the "re-Slovakized" Hungarians, almost all of them renounced their newly-found Slovak nationality as soon as the postwar anti-Hungarian terror subsided. And at the Peace Conference, the American-led opposition foiled the Soviet-backed Czechoslovak plan to expel the "remaining" 200,000 Hungarians from Slovakia.

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