Review: Chess Game for Democracy by Mária Palasik
One of the most commonly held assumptions about Hungary is that the country must have become a dictatorial, one-party state immediately following the end of the Second World War. After all, there was the presence of Soviet troops and the various agreements between the allied powers, both during the war and after, in effect ensured that Hungary would remain in the Soviet sphere of influence.
However, the assumption is mistaken! There was a period of about three years that witnessed political pluralism, the implementation of democratic electoral processes, parliamentary procedures and a coalition government, in which the Communist Party did not have a majority.
Hungary’s general election in November 1945 was regarded by participants and international observers alike as undoubtedly free and fair. On the basis of universal adult suffrage with secret balloting – introduced for the first time – the Independent Smallholders Party secured 57 per cent of the votes, while the two largest among the other parties, the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party, scored only 17 per cent each. A coalition government was formed with the parties controlling ministries roughly in proportion to the votes they had gained. It proceeded to implement a new Constitution that had all the classic hallmarks associated with civil liberties and political freedom.
Yet by 1948-49 Hungary had indeed become a one-party state with a ruthless, Stalinist dictatorship. How did that come about? This is the theme of Mária Palasik’s book.
Using sources discovered during years of archival research, Palasik describes in great detail how the Communist Party under its very intelligent yet manipulative leader, Mátyás Rákosi, undermined the position of the Smallholders Party by cynically associating it with a small, right-wing conspiracy, seemingly aimed at overthrowing the new republic. Some of the participants had connections with the Smallholders and that was used to condemn the leaders of the party by means of constant propaganda, arrests and torture to extract "confessions".
Those who resisted were dealt with in a variety of ways. One of the most prominent cases, examined at length in Palasik’s book, was that of the party’s secretary, Béla Kovács, a popular, charismatic and by no means right-wing politician, who "disappeared" in early 1947 and spent several years as a prisoner in the Soviet gulag system.
Of key importance was that the communists, despite being in minority in both Parliament and the government, had control of the police and, in particular, its political sections, which it used ruthlessly. In the background, of course, was the Soviet Union, which occasionally intervened, directly and indirectly, in Hungarian affairs. The USA and Britain, the Soviet Union’s former allies and officially members of the international control commission set up after the war to monitor the changeover to democracy in Hungary, did very little to prevent the communists’ onslaught. Unwillingness to help the country because it was a former wartime enemy seems to have played a part.
Arrests, denunciations and forcing people to withdraw from politics or even emigrate eventually took their toll on the Smallholders. Dealing with their different elements one after the other infamously came to be known at Rákosi’s "salami tactics", cutting off bits one slice at a time.
Mária Palasik deals with all this in a factual manner. Her book is densely packed with information and at times is not an easy read. Nevertheless, it is an important book about this "forgotten" early period of Hungary’s post-war history. What happened to the Smallholders, who won the election of 1945 outright, is the central theme. It’s an important issue but equally relevant is what happened to the Social Democratic Party, which could look back on a decades-long tradition of being the main political representative of workers and their trade unions. In the end the party "disappeared" after a manipulated merger with the communists in mid-1948 – a development that in effect finally turned Hungary into a one-party state.
Palasik’s book does deal with the Social Democrats and how the merger came about. The familiar means of denunciations and arrests were involved. It’s a pity, however, that relatively little space is devoted to their fate compared with that of the Smallholders. It arguably makes this fascinating work not quite as comprehensive as perhaps it could have been.
Buy the book
Chess Game for Democracy. Hungary Between East and West, 1944-1947
By Mária Palasik,
Paperback, 230 pages
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011, USD 32.95)