Last Saturday some 3,000 marched down Andrássy Avenue in the annual Budapest Pride Parade with its train of music and colours. For anyone living or passing by, the signs that something was happening could not be missed, the side streets blocked by police in riot gear, some on horseback, and parallel Király utca almost barren of traffic except for police vans. Groups of shaven-headed protesters in black T-shirts milled around, apparently waiting to cause trouble.
On other days, it is the very same far-right protesters whose marches lead to traffic deviations, or the Hare Krishna community, or cyclists celebrating Critical Mass day, or one of the numerous street events put on to entertain those stuck in the capital on hot weekend afternoons.
Marching back in time
Turn back 82 years, to 1 September 1930. It is not sure how many walked along Andrássy Avenue’s pavement on that day, but certainly many more than last Saturday afternoon’s 3,000: contemporary officials and newspapers spoke of somewhere between 15,000 and 100,000 demonstrators thronging not only the city’s main artery but also, throughout the day, the roads leading from the industrial quarters to the centre, the City Park at the end of Andrássy, and the streets on either side of the avenue.
At any rate, the number was so large that both police and the demonstration’s organisers – the Social Democratic Party – were taken by surprise.
Among the demonstrators were the (now) famous, such as poet Attila József, artist Gyula Derkovits and János Kádár, an unknown store man in a carpet shop before rising through Communist Party ranks and ruling Hungary from 1956 until 1988.
The large majority’s names, however, remain unknown.
János Darnyik, a construction worker who had travelled from one of the outlying villages in search of work, would have remained part of the anonymous mass had he not been the one person to die, shot near Vajdahunyad Castle.
There were other casualties from policemen’s firearms and swords though few made it to hospitals, fearing retribution.
The scale of the demonstration, if not its violence, made it the largest protest to take place in interwar Hungary.
That the Social Democratic Party – and the Communist Party – were mostly sidelined in the world of parliamentary politics during the conservative regency of Admiral Horthy – if not downright outlawed after the short-lived but disastrous Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919 in the case of the communists – also contributed to the demonstration’s inordinate character.
Yet it only gets short thrift in nowadays’ history books and memorials.
This is precisely where Bob Dent’s well-researched and highly readable book opens: a long-term Budapest resident, foreign correspondent and sometime contributor to this newspaper, he takes as a starting point his quasi-detective search for a plaque marking the demonstration, glimpsed in 1986 on the Heroes’ Square Kunsthalle but now disappeared.
The protest is approached through the lens of the Hungarian labour movement as organised by the Social Democratic Party, whose development from the late 19th century is sketched in the opening chapter.
Dent weaves the party’s history with that of Hungary and Budapest’s own development, at a time when the emergence of a large industrial sector in a country led by conservative land-owners resulted in the establishment of a large, poor and disenfranchised working class.
War, flirtation with communism, the struggle for employment and voting rights, and the Wall Street crash whose worldwide ripples hit Hungary in early 1930, provided further grounds for the emergence of organised working class movements.
Yet the political conditions Dent describes are such as to rather restrict these movements from carrying out the types of recruitment, agitation and large-scale street protests that marked other European countries in the interwar period – until the 1 September 1930 protest.
View from the left
Dent, no enemy to socialist ideas himself and clearly well-versed in the movement’s history, chooses to write about the build-up to the protest primarily from the Social Democratic Party’s point of view, providing a wealth of information on the party’s political and strategic choices that explains in part why the protest happened at all.
At the same time, a more thorough discussion of the ruling parties’ take on the Social Democratic Party and the workers’ demands would give the story more dimension and help illuminate the extent to which it may have shaped the timing and nature of the confrontation.
The gap is particularly obvious when Dent sets out to find out what happened on the day of the demonstration by referring to the more or less comprehensive accounts delivered by three newspapers – two commercial newspapers and Népszava, the Social Democratic Party’s mouthpiece – in the early days of September 1930.
If the size of the demonstration was a surprise for organisers and observers alike, what did the government and government newspapers make of it?
What was their version of the story?
And what was its effect, if any, on government policies?
The Social Democratic Party itself, Dent writes later, very quickly turned its back on grass-roots protests, and there were no new large-scale demonstrations until the Second World War.
The remaining chapters shift focus, from the demonstration itself to an examination of how events can be appropriated by the ruling actors of later periods and ignored by others, shaping how history is remembered.
Among these actors is the Communist Party, whose leaders’ relations with the Social Democratic Party and its ideals, sometimes more and sometimes less conflictual, led them to adopt different readings of the 1 September 1930 events.
That the demonstration even occurred, and its significance, have generally slid into oblivion since the change of regime, and Dent rightly closes with a call for its importance to be reassessed, not in its version celebrated by the Communist Party but as an episode of Hungarian labour history in its own right.
Buy the book
Hungary 1930 and the Forgotten History of a Mass Protest
By Bob Dent
Merlin Press, 2012.
180 pages. Paperback, GBP 13.95.