Bob Dent searches for some missing history
When I first came to Budapest in the 1980s there was a memorial plaque on the façade of the M?csarnok or Hall of Arts in Heroes’ Square. The plaque commemorated a massive workers’ demonstration of 1 September 1930. The marchers had passed through Heroes’ Square on their way to City Park. In recent years it has struck me that the plaque is no longer there.
Just over 18 months ago, out of curiosity, I wrote to the director of the M?csarnok – which today in its English-language publications prefers to describe itself using the German term Kunsthalle – asking if he could tell me the whereabouts of the plaque. He replied quickly, saying he knew nothing about the matter himself, but he put me in touch with a colleague whom he said might be able to help. She in turn passed me on to someone else. And so it went.
My attempt to discover the fate of the memorial plaque developed in the manner of a detective story. The search took me through the Kunsthalle itself, its former directors, the city council, the district council, the municipal archives and other institutions. The consensus seemed to be that the plaque had disappeared in the early 1990s during major renovation of the building, but no one seemed to know anything for sure. Nor was I able to find any documentary evidence concerning exactly when the plaque was removed, who made the decision and why, not to mention what happened to it.
Work and Bread!
The demonstration which the plaque had commemorated was the largest mass protest seen in Hungary during the period between the two world wars. It was a demonstration of about 100,000 workers, employed and unemployed, under the slogan ‘Work and Bread!’. Setting out on foot from the outlying industrial districts, demonstrators converged on the city centre and then marched along Andrássy út and into City Park.
One of the participants was János Kádár, who would later become a prominent Communist and eventually Hungary’s political leader from 1957 to 1988. At the time he was a simple, non-party apprentice and got involved in the demonstration almost by chance. As it turned out, he ended up exchanging blows with some other workers who were refusing to join the protest.
Another participant, already well-known at the time, was the poet Attila József. In the immediate aftermath József wrote his poem Tömeg (Multitude), which contains repeated references to a mass of people on the move, ready to make history.
In the course of the demonstration there were serious clashes with the police who used their swords and at one point in City Park fired into the crowd. Many were seriously injured and one person was killed, a 28-year-old scaffolder called János Darnyik who lived in the village of Galgahéviz but regularly came to Budapest in search of work.
The event caused an outrage – not the killing but the demonstration itself. The press screamed “revolution” and berated the relatively mild labour movement leaders for fomenting rebellion. The fact was they had been pushed into organising the demonstration following a year of protests and discontent arising out of the increased unemployment, which Hungary was suffering due to the international economic crisis sparked off by the Wall Street crash in October 1929.
Ironically, one of the reasons why the 1 September 1930 demonstration was well-attended was that prior to the event one of the largest employers’ federations declared that the factories of all its members would be shut for the day on 1 September. The idea was to avoid what might have turned into a general strike, but the effect was that even those who would have been willing to work throughout the day were free to join the protest – what did they have to lose?
Communists take undeserved credit
The demonstration of 1 September 1930 was officially organised by the Social Democratic Party of Hungary and its associated trade unions, but after 1945 the Communists claimed the demonstration as their own, appropriating its history and fusing it, quite wrongly, with the history of the Hungarian Communist Party, even though in 1930 the Party was a tiny, ineffectual, illegal organisation.
After the war, each round-figure anniversary of the demonstration was marked in the press with lengthy articles singing the praises of the Party. The 1 September 1950 issue of Szabad Nép, for example, had a long section under the heading “Communists lead the struggles”. Here we are told that in 1930 it was communists who played leading roles in the formation of various organisations of the unemployed and it was they, too, who most firmly agitated for solidarity between the employed and the unemployed.
The militancy which emerged on the day – meaning the fighting between demonstrators and police – was attributed to the Party’s influence. “Before the entire Hungarian working class the Communist Party of Hungary accepts responsibility for the events of 1 September …” Szabad Nép proclaimed bombastically.
As if to press the message home in a more permanent form, the tone, content and perspective of the 1950 article in Szabad Nép were all repeated in a small, pocket-size book published in the same year and reissued in 1952. Written by Aladárné Balla and entitled simply 1 September 1930, it emphasised the same message as the newspaper – the Social Democrats were actually traitors, while the Communist Party was “the only consistent representative of the Hungarian workers and poor peasants”.
In addition, Balla’s book made a remarkable claim about János Darnyik, the man shot and killed during the demonstration. It described him as “an enthusiastic member of the Communist Party”. There is no evidence at all for that statement, though the assertion about his Party membership would be repeated on other occasions when his name was mentioned in the Party press.
The 25th anniversary of the demonstration occurred in 1955 and again the Party press went to town, reporting about a large anniversary meeting held in the Budapest Sports Hall at which János Darnyik’s widow was a “star guest”. The papers reproduced a picture of her at the meeting. There is a black peasant headscarf on her head and a look of bewilderment on her face.
Rhetoric rolled back
The following major anniversaries, in 1960, 1970 and 1980 all saw lengthy articles in the press, though now the Party newspaper was called Népszabadság. Interestingly, after 1956 the tone in the Party media slowly began to change. The former vitriolic criticism of the Social Democrats was modified and it was acknowledged that they had played a major role in 1930. The notion that János Darnyik had been a Communist Party member was quietly dropped. The 1980 article stated that the number of Party members in 1930 was miniscule compared with the number of demonstrators in Budapest on 1 September.
The sixtieth anniversary of the 1 September 1930 demonstration fell in 1990. That was the year which witnessed a multi-party, parliamentary general election in Hungary in which the successor of the old Party, now called the Hungarian Socialist Party, was thrown out of office. There was much talk in the air of rendszerváltás (literally ‘change of system’), as if everything was being turned upside down, even if it was not. So perhaps it is no wonder that the issue of Népszabadság published on 1 September 1990 contained absolutely nothing about the 1930 events, despite the fact that the masthead of the paper proclaimed itself as still being a “Socialist Daily Newspaper”. Nor was there anything in Népszava, which at the time called itself the “Newspaper of the Hungarian Trade Unions”.
Ten years later, in 2000, the silence about the demonstration of 1930 was also deafening. Neither in Népszabadság (now a “National Daily Newspaper”) nor Népszava (which now simply proclaimed: “Founded in 1873”) did one word appear about the 1930 events. Will anything be said this year, on the 80th anniversary?
Baby thrown out with the bathwater
Such silence is understandable, but regrettable. It is understandable because people associate labour history with Communist Party history, which they want to forget. But the two are not the same. It is regrettable that posthumously, so to say, the manipulated propaganda, history and ideology as presented by the Party still has its effect today. Surely the time has come to recognise the falsities of that and to give an independent appreciation of labour history its rightful place.
Last December I again wrote to the director of the Kunsthalle asking if he might consider replacing the missing plaque this year to mark the 80th anniversary of the 1930 demonstration. It wouldn’t have to be exactly the same plaque and I suggested that for the Kunsthalle it could even incorporate something artistic, perhaps part of a work by Gyula Derkovits, an artist who participated in the demonstration and later produced some line drawings about the clashes with the police.
I am still waiting for a response.
– Bob Dent is looking for a publisher for his book Hungary 1930 and the Forgotten History of a Mass Protest.