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National traditions and the leader cult in communist Hungary in the early cold war years.

One of the most remarkable phenomena of early cold war culture was the rapid spawning of communist leader cults in the region that was to be labelled the Soviet bloc. The takeover of communist parties, which was catalysed by Soviet imperial concerns and the beginning of the cold war, meant the onset of sovietisation and--as a part of this process--the adoption of the Stalin cult in the local political arena. The Stalin cult, however, also served as a model of self-representation for the satellite party leaders, who advocated the construction of their own cults as well. Despite the fact that the cults of satellite leaders mostly recycled the essential building blocks of Stalin's imagery, they also displayed a substantial amount of specificity. The extent to which such leader cults were based on the mechanical copying of the Soviet model, and the extent to which they were rooted in specific local traditions, and imbued with national characteristics, is one of the most intriguing aspects of this process.

The Stalin cult was originally invented in the Soviet Union and it was later exported to Eastern Europe, where it had to be implemented in different environments and political cultures. Because of the transference of the Soviet-type cult to different contexts, the leader cult acquired a trans-national character. The local variations of the Stalin cult and the differences in the veneration of local party secretaries offer a revealing indicator of the willingness of the countries of the Soviet Bloc to proceed with the sovietisation project and to adopt Soviet cultural values.

Although the dominance of the Soviet import remains unquestionable, many of the cults sought to establish a link between the leader of the party and national traditions. With the aim of assisting the party's legitimation strategy, local communist parties--most remarkably the Czech, the Polish and the Hungarian--portrayed themselves as heirs to the traditions of the nation. (1) They pursued national policies; they adopted national symbols and celebrated traditional national holidays. Communist leaders were often compared to historical figures and in some cases national traditions became organic parts of the initially foreign (Soviet) leader cult that surrounded the party secretary.

As part of the Sovietisation project, the Hungarian Communist Party (MKP) also fully adopted the leader cult phenomenon, following the stalinist pattern. By 1949, the public adoration of the party secretary, Matyas Rakosi, reached a magnitude unparalleled in the Hungarian political scene. Although Rakosi's position at the apex of the party (and cult) hierarchy was already evident in 1945, the degree of his veneration reached unprecedented heights from 1949 to 1953. Photographs and portraits of the leader dominated the public sphere, paintings and busts created the image of Rakosi's omnipresence, the press was flooded with articles extolling his merits, and literary works of art also contributed to the exaltation of the leader. The most monumental project of communist propaganda in the process of cult construction was the campaign launched for the celebration of Rakosi's sixtieth birthday in 1952, modelled entirely on the festivities for Stalin's seventieth birthday three years earlier. The waves of orchestrated enthusiasm diminished somewhat during the mourning period following Stalin's death in March 1953, but as the weeks of mourning elapsed the tides of panegyrics began to re-emerge, and the cult of Rakosi regained its previous magnitude. It was only toned down after the introduction of the 'New Course' in June 1953, and was eventually wiped out during the October Uprising in 1956.

National traditions and the Hungarian communists

The post-war period saw a remarkable emergence of nationalist tendencies in the ideology of Eastern European communist parties. Driven by the motivation to achieve wider popular support and broader legitimacy, communist parties in the region started to flirt with national traditions, which resulted in an ideological marriage of marxism-leninism with local nationalisms. Modelling the Soviet example, the communist parties in the area drew historical parallels between past and present, with the aim of portraying themselves as heirs to the great traditions of their respective nations. (2) Besides acknowledging the importance of national traditions, however, Eastern European communist parties performed a symbolic break with the past, through the radical reinterpretation of the nation's history; the rearrangement of the canon of historical figures; and the introduction of new events to commemorate, along with new rituals. Given that the acceptance and reshaping of national traditions, was accompanied by the restructuring of society, the weakening of old traditions followed by popular demand for a new interpretation of the old, the communist parties' appeal to national sentiments seems to fit well into what Eric Hobsbawm described as 'the invention of tradition'. (3) Nonetheless, as many of the traditions 'invented' by the communists were in fact radical reinterpretations of older, well established traditions, the term 're-invention of tradition' seems more fitting for describing the actual process. (4)

The MKP, just like many of its fellow communist parties in the zone of Soviet influence, realised the potential of the legitimating power of nationalism, and consciously incorporated elements of the nationalist discourse into its ideology, pursued policies of national interest, and exploited the most significant national symbols. Being a party that professed ideas that were alien to Hungarian political and cultural traditions, the MKP accentuated its national roots, in order to attain additional popularity. The nationalist tendencies in the MKP's ideology were already apparent in 1945, but because the takeover process coincided with the centenary of the 'Revolution' and 'War of Independence of 1848-49', an exceptional opportunity was available for the MKP to add further emphasis to its national allures, and to leverage the commemorations for political purposes. In fact, the centenary of 1848 became the ideological framework of the legitimisation process. (5) Its annexing for propaganda purposes meant that the Hungarian Communist Party used one of the most important building blocks of Hungarian national identity to justify its exclusive political status and the initiation of a Soviet-type political system.

The MKP's conception of the national question was based predominantly on two pillars: national independence and the 'progressive traditions' in Hungarian history. (6) According to the guidelines of Jozsef Revai, the leading party theorist, communist historians and ideologists rehabilitated struggles for plebeian freedom in Hungarian history, labelling them 'progressive movements', and attempted to establish continuities between such movements and the ideology of the communist party. As a result of such intellectual endeavours, the communist party established a line of continuity with Hungarian 'progressive' traditions, beginning with the peasant revolt of Gyorgy Dozsa in 1514, and including the Jacobin conspiracy in the late eighteenth century, the 'plebeian democratic' trends of the 1848 revolution, and--naturally--the Soviet Republic of 1919. (7) In this framework the communists also worked out their own interpretation of the revolution of 1848, which they heavily utilised at the time of the takeover.

Besides the formation of a historical meta-narrative, the communist party appealed to national sentiments in various other--more popular--ways. According to the Moscow briefing in August 1944 concerning the party's political strategy, the MKP made heavy use of national symbols in the coalition era. (8) The tricolour national flag dominated festivities--on national holidays as well as communist celebrations (such as 7 November)--at the expense of the red banner; the national anthem and the Szozat were sung by the audience before the Internationale; the party's name included the word 'Hungarian'; and the party emblem was decorated with red, white and green colours instead of a politically didactic plain red. The decoration of celebrations and political demonstrations mirrored the tendency to turn towards national images. The posters of the MKP exploited national symbols and portrayed heroes such as Ferenc Rakoczi, Lajos Kossuth and Sandor Pet[??]fi, and the participants of political meetings also carried the portraits of Hungarian historical figures, alongside pictures of the party's leaders.

Besides the utilisation of national symbolism, communist propaganda showed remarkable sensitivity towards the celebration of traditional national holidays, such as the day of the outbreak of the revolution in Budapest in 1848 (15 March), the day of the execution of the thirteen generals in 1849 (6 October), and the date of the foundation of the state (20 August). At the same time, the MKP tried to present socialist holidays (1 May and 7 November) as national festivities. (9) After 1949, the sovietisation, or the 'reinvention' of traditional national holidays included a decrease in the symbolic value of such celebrations and entailed changes in their format as well. The holiday of Saint Stephen and the foundation of the state, 20 August, for example, became the Day of the Constitution after 1949, and it was turned into a fertility feast at the same time, when harvest and the baking of 'new bread' was meant to be celebrated.

In addition to the national colouring of political symbolism and communist celebrations, rhetoric and ideology, the MKP also pictured itself as a representative of national interests. The party advocated so-called 'national policies' such as: land reform; the return of prisoners of war from the Soviet Union; the resettlement of Hungarian refuges from Slovakia; the introduction of the new currency; and the proclamation of the republic. The MKP also promoted folk poetry and folk art, and became one of the main sponsors of the national sport--football. (10) In the coalition era, even the elastic concept of 'people's democracy' was usually defined as some sort of national way to socialism. Through acknowledging and respecting the essential building blocks of Hungarian national consciousness, the MKP strove to satisfy the basic national needs of society and, through that, to acquire popular support. Although the construction of a national facade did not help them to win the elections of 1945, the party maintained its self-image of being heirs to the great traditions of the nation; a political force that would realise the unsuccessful attempts at political and social reform of pre-war revolutionaries and freedom fighters.

Reinventing the revolution of 1848-49

Among the constituents of the national tradition, the revolution and War of Independence of 1848-1849 emerged as the dominant theme in communist ideology. 1848 gained a central position in the MKP's system of ideas, due to the national and revolutionary character of the events; the generally repressed nature of commemorations before 1945; the approach of the centennial celebrations; and the need for a legitimising theory for the communist takeover. (11) Just like all the pre-1945 political systems, communist ideologists and historians tried to incorporate the traditions of the revolution and War of Independence into their party's political programme. In order to use the myth of 1848 for legitimisation purposes they modified the traditional view of the revolution and provided a radically new interpretation of the events of 1848-49.

Even before the end of the Second World War in Hungarian territory, the communist party had already laid a special emphasis on connecting its ideology to the spiritual heritage of 1848-9. The party presented a readymade interpretation of the revolutionary events to the public in 1945, and during the first post-war 15 March celebrations it became explicit that the MKP's primary aspiration was to portray itself as the 'true heir' and sole interpreter of the glorious traditions of the revolution. The slogan 'The heir of Kossuth, Pet[??]fi and Tancsics is the Hungarian Communist Party!', which appeared also on posters with Rakoczi replacing Mihaly Tancsics, was ubiquitous at the time.

The general communist explanation of the 1848-9 revolution and War of Independence became an essential step in creating revolutionary continuity with the past and legitimising the new power relations. The goals of the MKP concerning the centennial celebrations was made clear by Rakosi himself in his new year's speech on the first day of January, 1948:
   We should use the centenary of 1848 in order to demonstrate through
   action, that it is we in Hungarian democracy, who most consistently
   and most successfully realise the ideals and desires of Kossuth,
   Pet[??]fi and Tancsics: the creation of a free, powerful and
   prosperous people's Hungary. (12)

As Rakosi's words suggest, the primary object of the MKP was not the worthy celebration of the anniversary of 1848, but the exploitation of the centenary in order to advance the party's political aspirations. (13) The party's main objective was to prove that the communists were the true spiritual heirs of the revolution of 1848, and the communist party was the only political force able to accomplish its unfinished reforms. This fundamental idea remained central to all of communist propaganda during the year of the centenary. Historical interpretations identified the specific characteristics of 1848 that could constitute a link between the revolution and the people's democracy, and could be claimed by the communists as their spiritual heritage. By creating potent historical parallels, the communist party tried to prove that the people's democracy had since 1945 resolved a number of problems that had been left unsettled in 1848 and the following hundred years. Such parallels were meant to prove that 'the people's democracy in Hungary ... is the modern successor of the Hungarian war of independence.' (14) In order to establish continuity with the past, communist propaganda, following Jozsef Revai's guidelines, significantly altered the interpretation of the revolution of 1848. (15) The parallels had been chosen in a way to justify the existence of the Hungarian people's democracy and, through that, the MKP's policy and its ideology since 1945, portraying the communists as the unproblematic 'heirs' of 1948. In an effort to monopolise the historical narrative, these 'heirs' sought to discredit all other previous and contemporary interpretations as 'historical falsifications'.

The communists, represented as the bearers of revolutionary continuity, claimed that they had always acted according to the spirit of 1848. From this point of view, the task of rebuilding, the 'three year plan', the union of the two labour parties, the nationalisation of factories, mines, and banks and even the cadre policy of the party was rooted in the spiritual soil of 1848. Consequently, the Hungarian people's democracy portrayed itself as not only accomplishing the goals of the revolution but also developing them further. Revai and other communist ideologues also called for a continuing evolution and development of these achievements, in order to ensure their survival in the face of a 'permanent external threat'. Following the logic of their thinking, the constant protection of the aims of the revolution of 1848, which were portrayed as only being realised after 1945, made inevitable the passage from the transitional period of people's democracy towards socialism. Thus, 'the spirit of 48' did not just simply justify the policy of the MKP after 1945: it also foreshadowed the future; with socialism as the only possible political system that could ultimately deliver the aspirations of the 1848 revolution.

Rakosi, the ultimate freedom fighter

The image of Rakosi displayed notable national traits from the beginning of 1945. Since the MKP tended to personify the achievements of the party, as well as the country, Rakosi was often portrayed as the sole representative of the national policies the party was pursuing in the coalition era. The leader of the communist party was depicted as a defender of national interests. For example his name was associated with land-reform (together with Imre Nagy); he was labelled as the 'father of the forint'; he was said to have negotiated with Stalin for the return of the prisoners of war; and to have engaged in diplomatic fights with the Czechoslovak government concerning the deportation of Hungarians from Czechoslovakia.

Besides incorporating the image of a national politician, the cult absorbed national traditions in various other ways. The 'Rakosiana' recycled several components of the most significant hero cults in Hungarian history, and added them to the core imagery of the communist party leader. Through the adoption of a set of common Hungarian, as well as European--folklore--tropes, the Rakosi cult made a significant step towards the adaptation of the principally Soviet leader cult to local conditions. Despite the reprocessing of such traditions, however, the figure of the Hungarian party leader never became part of Hungarian folklore traditions, and the efforts of the agitprop department to enforce such a cultural fusion remained insignificant when compared to similar endeavours in the Soviet Union with regard to Lenin and Stalin. (16)

One of the curious features of the Rakosi cult was that the representations of the leader's persona very rarely involved references to significant statesmen in Hungarian history. Although the persona of the state-founding King Stephen I, for example, would have provided a ready parallel for the Rakosi cult, widespread reverence for the first king among the Hungarian population was scarcely played upon by the communist regime. Unlike Stalin worship, which from the mid-1930s operated through the creation of close historical analogies with great state-building rulers--Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, to name just the two most important of them--the cult of Rakosi was not backed up substantially by comparisons with significant Hungarian kings, such as Bela IV ('The Second State-Founder'), or Mathias Corvinus, who were widely known for their state-building, state-managing or state-reconstructing talents. (17) As for the lack of significant attempts to link King Stephen and Rakosi, this is most likely explained by the fact that the state-founder's cult was largely discredited in the inter-war period. The myth of Stephen, because of its focus on Hungarian statehood and territorial integrity, had been deeply incorporated, and substantially modified, by the cult of revisionism and irredentism, the dominant ideological trends of the Horthy era. The idea of Saint Stephen's state (Greater Hungary), coupled with the cult of Stephen's crown, was the dominant element of propaganda at the time, and it primarily served as the spiritual justification of revisionist ideology. The communist party abandoned the tainted Stephen cult after 1945, and rarely used the myth of the first Hungarian king for substantiating the party leader's image--although the positive evaluation of the first Christian ruler remained intact. Even the symbolic content of Saint Stephen's day--the traditional national holiday--was reformatted, providing a fine example of the generally ambiguous attitude of the communists to the founder of the state.

The symbolic field of reference of 20 August, which included the celebration of the foundation of the state, gradually withered away. The definitive attempt to diminish Saint Stephen's significance in the national pantheon was marked by the nomination of 20 August as the Day of the Constitution in 1949. The celebration of the day when the stalinist constitution was ratified remained a principal holiday of the communist regime until 1989, which resulted in the banishing of Saint Stephen from the mainstream of Hungarian history for about forty years.

Among the few historical parallels drawn with Hungarian monarchs, those established between King Mathias Corvinus and the Hungarian party leader were the most remarkable. Such associations usually exploited the fact that the first names of the two figures were identical (Mathias is the Latin form of Matyas). This was the case, for example, in the caricature published by Ludas Matyi, which depicted Arpad Szakasits and Rakosi on Heroes' Square, with the statues of Mathias 'the Righteous' and the leader of the seven captains, Arpad, appearing in the background. In this historical context, the leader of the land-taking Hungarian tribes and the late-medieval king look down with pride on the two politicians, who are celebrating the unification of the MKP and the Social Democratic Party. (18) The subtitle of the picture reads: 'Matyas the Righteous and Captain Arpad: We could be proud of our namesakes.' (19) The resemblance of King Mathias to the secretary of the communist party was also invoked through the attachment to him of the standard epithets of the renaissance ruler. Rakosi was called 'Matyas, the Righteous' on occasion, which had been exclusively attached to King Mathias before, but the title 'Matyas, the Liberator of Prisoners' (fogolyszabadito Matyas), which was affixed to the MKP secretary at the time of the return of the prisoners of war, could also evoke popular associations with images of the medieval king. Communist propaganda generally avoided laying extraordinary emphasis on analogies between Rakosi and King Mathias, however, and such a correlation seems to have triggered few affirmative responses. One 'peace-priest', for example, in a letter addressed to the party leader in June 1950, claimed that the loss of legality and truth after King Mathias's death was finally restored by Rakosi:
   I have been trying to compare our Matyas Rakosi to Matyas Hunyadi,
   since if truth had gone with the latter, with You this long
   lamented truth has finally returned to our nation's life! I'm sorry
   for writing down my contemplations, but why should I hide and hold
   back the expressions of my love and appreciation from those with
   whom I sympathise! (20)

Occasionally, communist propaganda appealed to traditions of naive monarchism when suggesting similarities between the renaissance ruler and the leader of the communist party. The image of Rakosi as a benevolent father-figure walking among the people and listening to their complaints was to some extent resonant with the folkloristic representations of King Mathias that portrayed the ruler as a wanderer, meandering about the country in disguise, paying attention to the hardships of ordinary people.

The profile of national etatist traditions in the process of sculpting the Hungarian party leader's persona was countervailed by the cult's reliance on revolutionary traditions, and the tendency to construct parallels between the party secretary and freedom fighters or rebel figures of the past. For example, some of the major constituents of the myth of Ferenc Rakoczi, the leader of the eighteenth century anti-Habsburg uprising, resurfaced with regard to Rakosi, enriching the cult of the party leader with another layer of national character. Although the tales of Rakoczi's legendary hair could not have been applied to the MDP leader for obvious reasons (he was completely bald), several other components of the Rakoczi cult nevertheless arose in connection with Rakosi. The narratives of Rakosi's speech that supposedly changed the course of events in the battle of Salgotarjan in 1919 generally emphasised the fact that the oration took place under Rakoczi's tree, planted by the legendary prince. As well as the obvious allusion to the cult of trees, which had remained a vital component of the Rakoczi myth in earlier centuries, Rakosi worship also appropriated some other holy places of the Rakoczi cult. The biographies of the communist leader all emphasised the fact that the Rakosi family lived for a time in the courtyard of the inn in Sopron, where Rakoczi had also stayed two hundred years before. (21) The re-sanctification of places in the Rakosi cult was primarily meant to emphasise continuity and physical proximity between the two leaders, and through this it aimed to confer absolute spiritual authority onto the secretary of the communist party. The early phase of the Rakosi cult also witnessed the recurrence of the 'bell' motif that remained a pregnant element of the Rakoczi myth after the end of the War of Independence of 1703-11. In the years of post-war reconstruction, Rakosi--similarly to Rakoczi--was portrayed several times as a caring leader, who personally retrieved a lost church bell, or granted a new one to a particular religious community.

Among the revolutionary traditions reprocessed by the communist party, the myth of 1848 became the most characteristic component of the Rakosicult. The historical interpretation of 1848 as articulated by Revai and his companions, besides justifying post-war communist policy and the takeover in 1948, contributed to new national building blocks to the representation of communist leaders, and therefore had a crucial effect on the evolving cult of the First Secretary. The official historical interpretation of 1848-9 assigned much significance to the role of leading figures in 1848.

A significant number of contemporary studies, essays, newspaper articles, and other materials, tried to underline this suggestion by means of comparing and appraising communist and revolutionary leaders in one way or another. The most remarkable of such comparisons were those that attempted to construct continuity between Lajos Kossuth, governor of the War of Independence in 1848-1849 and Matyas Rakosi, first secretary of the communist party.

Beyond the shadow of doubt, Lajos Kossuth was the perfect figure with whom to establish continuity. Due to his enormous popularity in Hungarian society in 1848-49, his figure became an essential part of Hungarian folklore soon after the collapse of the revolution, and this turned him into one of the most legendary characters of Hungarian history. Kossuth, as a symbol of independence and social reform, had not been appreciated by the primarily conservative or authoritarian political systems before the Second World War, and therefore a new evaluation of his character was expected by substantial segments of Hungarian society. In order to be able to present Kossuth as the spiritual ancestor of the Hungarian people's democracy, and to establish a parallel between him and Rakosi, the figure of the governor had to be radically reinterpreted. Revai, the chief ideologue of the time, in 1948 commented on Kossuth's significance on several occasions, but the new image of Kossuth was also fudged by the communist press, and there were a number of academic reassessments of his political activity and his impact on Hungarian historical development--phrased mostly by party affiliated historians. (22) The evaluations of the governor's personality and his political aspirations fundamentally altered the picture of the revolutionary leader. Through creating historical parallels--mostly by applying the patterns of Rakosi's representation to Kossuth--the figure of the previous governor was significantly reshaped.

An essential component of the communist Kossuth cult was the 'betrayal myth'. A large number of folk tales about Rakoczi, for example, narrate the betrayal of the Prince, either by his mythical daughter, or by Sandor Karolyi, one of his generals, who had agreed to lay down his arms against the Austrian troops. In a similar way, Artur Gorgey was portrayed as a traitor to the cause of the War of Independence, because he did not cross the Leitha river while chasing Austrian troops in October 1848, and started the siege of Buda in May 1849 instead of heading for Vienna; he also arrived 'late' to the Temesvar battle, and furthermore it was Gorgey who gave the order to lay down arms against the Russian army in August 1849. (23) Although Kossuth personally had a great input in constructing the image of Gorgey as a traitor after 1849--which in fact also contributed to the emergence of representations of Karolyi as Rakoczi's traitor--the betrayal myth became a part of Hungarian folkloric tradition, and was also adopted by the communist historical narrative, as well as the party's everyday political rhetoric. Political failures, military fiascos, and in general everything regarded as negative, were blamed on 'internal enemies', 'opportunists' or 'traitors', and scapegoats were usually found, sometimes within the party leadership. The pattern of creating an antithesis to the essentially positive leader, through the formulation of a conspiracy theory, was indeed an essential part of cult-building in the era of stalinism. Most of the people, who fell victim to the Great Purges in the Soviet Union were depicted as the negative counterpoints of Stalin. The practice occurred also in Hungary, when in 1949 Laszlo Rajk, one of the most influential communist leaders, and a former Minister of Internal Affairs, was arrested and sentenced to death for 'anti-state conspiracy'. Rajk, who was blamed for all crises and political failures, played the role of the traitor next to the positive leader Rakosi, in the same way that Gorgey stood as a traitor to Kossuth. (24)

The tendency to personify failure was not the only common pattern that linked the myth of Kossuth and the cult of Rakosi. The attempts of communist historians to attribute all political and military successes of 1848-49 exclusively to Kossuth, for example, resonated with the claims of communist propaganda after 1945 asserting Rakosi's sole responsibility for all achievements in the country. Apart from that, the establishment of continuity between the governor of 1848 and the party secretary was also sought by correlating the originally diverse political goals and aspirations of the two political leaders. According to communist historians, Kossuth's policy had three cornerstones: the 'policy of national unity', which referred to Kossuth's attempt to form an alliance with 'rural and urban workers'; the 'peace-policy', which, according to communist historians at least, meant the constant readiness to repel external aggression; and finally 'foreign policy', which was based on the alliance of small nations against 'reactionary' great powers. (25) It is apparent that the three political principles attributed to Kossuth referred to the ideological predisposition of the party, and the actual aspirations of communist politics after 1945. The equivalent term of Kossuth's 'policy of national unity' in 1948 was the 'worker-peasant unity', whereas the historical parallels to the governor's peace policy were the concepts of 'capitalist encirclement' and permanent 'peace fight'. As regards Kossuth's foreign policy, its obvious contemporary analogy was the series of mutual assistance treaties, signed with the Soviet Union and the neighbouring 'people's democracies'. It seems that the political endeavours of the communist party considerably shaped the historical interpretation of Kossuth. Communist historians transferred the political principles of their own age through time, and presented these principles as the ideals of Kossuth. Through projecting contemporary ideas, political aspirations and values on to the past, communist historical representation of Kossuth tried to suggest that the political measures initiated by the communist party since 1945 were in fact the realisation of Kossuth's unfulfilled political desires.

According to the logic of the leader cult, successes were to be attributed to the leader of the party. Consequently, Matyas Rakosi was postulated as the leader who possessed the potential to realise Kossuth's dreams. Communist propaganda suggested that Rakosi, through accepting the heritage of Kossuth and the Hungarian War of Independence, and managing to accomplish their unachieved aims, had fulfilled the quest of his spiritual forefathers. Thus he could at last enter the pantheon of national heroes.

The Kossuth-Rakosi relationship as described by ideologists, historians, journalists and so on captured the alleged spiritual continuity in a more or less indirect way. A similar indirect link between the two individuals was expressed in paintings that portrayed Rakosi in an orator's pose, while delivering a recruitment speech in 1919--a typical image of Kossuth in late nineteenth-century romantic paintings. (26) The connection between the two leaders, however, was also represented in a more comprehensible way in literary works of art. In short stories and poems that attempted to dilute Hungarian folklore with communist revolutionary traditions, Kossuth was portrayed as the spiritual forefather of the Hungarian communist leader. The short story, A nep remenysege (The hope of the people), by Sandor Nagy, was one of the most prominent examples of the effort to establish a firm line of continuity between Kossuth and Rakosi. The protagonist of the plot is an old man, a veteran of 1848-49, who has spent his entire life, ever since the fall of the revolution, believing that governor Kossuth would some day return. Excited by the rumour in 1919 that Kossuth had come home and arrived in Szeged, the old man sets off with his grandson to see the legendary governor one last time. On their arrival in Szeged they enter a mass meeting, and witness a heated debate between the speaker on the platform and two sceptics in the audience. The speech of the orator, whom the old man cannot yet see in the crowd, convinces the veteran that the leader of the revolution of 1848 has finally come home. Touched by the speech, the grandfather wants to shake the hand of the speaker, at which point he realises that the orator is an unknown young man, not Kossuth. The old man is not, however, disappointed after meeting Rakosi--who was of course the mysterious speaker--he believes that if their goals are aligned there would be no difference between the two leaders: 'he was called Kossuth before, his name is Rakosi now!' (27)

The plot of Nagy's novella was primarily built upon a vibrant tradition of Hungarian folklore, namely the longing for the return of Kossuth. As a review of the anthology in which the piece was published remarked, the short story shows how 'the waiting for the return of Kossuth by the simple sons of our people turns into a fulfilment of joy when Matyas Rakosi appears.' (28) The belief in the return of the hero, who will bring about salvation on his return, is a well-known wandering trope of Hungarian, as well as European, folklore traditions (the King Arthur legend, for example). The leitmotif also had remarkable antecedents in ancient religious belief systems (the ever-dying and resurrecting Gods in Mesopotamia), and in christian faith. The folklore variant of the myth, as also expressed in Hungarian folk-tales, is based on the popular belief in the immortality of the hero, suggesting that certain kings or freedom fighters do not die, but only go to sleep in a secret location--usually in a cave under the hill, where their beard keeps on growing--and will return to fight for their people in case of dire need. Similar narratives have been recorded with regard to Saint Stephen, Saint Ladislaus (who was, in fact, alleged to have returned once) and King Mathias. The tales about Mathias's hide-out in a cave even involve a certain global messianic element, suggesting that once the Buda hills open up to release the king he will become the ruler of the world, and bring about redemption not only to the Hungarians but to the entire human race. The traditional belief in the return of the hero was also emphatically manifest in the myth of Rakoczi, as well as in the legends of Kossuth. Popular convictions concerning the leader's return were already expressed soon after each went into exile (Rakoczi in 1711, Kossuth in 1849), and such beliefs remained essential constituents of the cults of these revolutionaries. In the mid-nineteenth century, the myths of the two undying anti-Habsburg rebel heroes often overlapped, and the revived Rakoczi cult overshadowed the emerging Kossuth worship. Incidents when Kossuth was described as the re-embodiment of Rakoczi, or Rakoczi himself, were often recorded at the time of the War of Independence in 1849. An old man in the neighbourhood of Szeged, for example, was reported to have expressed his faith in the immortality of Rakoczi to the Commissioner of Southern Hungary:
   But, my lord, Rakoczi is not dead. When he left the country for
   exile, he swore that he would return once. And so he did. But you,
   my lords, could call him Kossuth if you will, he is Rakoczi still.

Whether the short story of Nagy was actually inspired by this episode is uncertain, although the location--Szeged--is identical in both narratives, and the monologue of the veteran in Nagy's story is suspiciously similar to the description of Rakoczi and Kossuth in the earlier anecdote. Whatever the case, Nagy's short story reinvented an important component of Hungarian folk tradition in order to establish a firm continuity between Kossuth--at one point called 'socialist' by the author--and Rakosi. Instead of the legendary ex-governor, Rakosi appears on the scene, providing a greater spiritual fulfilment and a feeling of redemption. The figure of Kossuth and Rakosi thus merges into one; into the all-encompassing image of the ideal-typical freedom fighter.

A similar tendency to depict Rakosi as the personification, the ultimate outcome, and the accomplishment, of 1000 years of Hungarian history, and its freedom fighter traditions, can be observed in a poem by Endre Veszi. Pet[??]fi and Kossuth are described by the author as Rakosi's precursors, whose spirit endured and was re-embodied in the figure of the MDP secretary. (30) A different poet, Endre Darazs, linked Rakosi's figure to the Hungarian national freedom fighter traditions in a similar way in his poem Rolad beszelunk (We are talking about you). The first two stanzas of the composition compare the journey into exile of Rakoczi, Kossuth and Rakosi. Although Rakosi left the country under the worst conditions, so the poem claims, he was the only one to return; and he is thus proved to have possessed the capacity to accomplish what his predecessors could not achieve for three hundred years. (31)

Literary works of art that addressed the issue of continuity between Hungarian freedom fighter traditions and Rakosi's persona suggest the existence of an ideal-typical image of the 'hero of the people', subsisting in an abstract sphere; their avatars, or earthly embodiments, are the great individuals of Hungarian history that became incorporated into the communist historical canon (Dozsa, Rakoczi, Pet[??]fi, Kossuth, etc). Rakosi was portrayed as the heir to this tradition, but he was also depicted as the one who had accomplished what his predecessors could not. As Tibor Meray remarked in the Szabad Nep in an appraisal of Rakosi's election speech of 10 May 1953:
   The people of a new Hungary, those who realised the most beautiful
   dreams of the past, have come here to meet the greatest son of the
   Homeland, who has accomplished and continued the work of Rakoczi,
   Kossuth and 1919: comrade Rakosi. (32)

The idea that Rakosi realised everything the nation had ever fought for lent a certain supreme and timeless aspect to his image, and posited the party secretary as the fulfilment of the course of Hungarian history. The attempt to integrate the leader into the national pantheon was backed up by official biographies that portrayed the life of Rakosi as a salvation story. The depiction of Rakosi as the ultimate freedom fighter, who would bring redemption to the people of the country, emerged as a strong element of the cult, and maintained a somewhat unique Hungarian colour. Although Stalin remained the supreme messiah for the peoples of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, this image of the Soviet dictator was constructed through the heavy use of orthodox religious rhetoric, the myth of the Second World War and the exploitation of Russian state-building traditions. On the other hand, Rakosi's claim for a position as a lesser messiah was linked to an attempt to integrate him into the Hungarian national pantheon, and to portray him as the terminus of the nation's history.

The main motivation for adding a national dimension to the predominantly Soviet-type leader cult was the attempt to place Rakosi as a national hero, and through that to legitimise the rule of the party and the position of its leader. In the process of incorporating elements of the national tradition into the texture of the cult, communist propaganda exploited revolutionary traditions, recycled common folkloristic tropes, created historical parallels, and constructed continuities between the leader of the party and important historical figures. Rakosi received the label 'our father' (apank), alongside Stalin; a title which only two figures had previously earned: Captain Arpad and Kossuth.

The party's effort to insert its leading politicians into the pantheon was also expressed through visual means. As early as 1945, portraits of the leaders of the MKP frequently appeared alongside pictures of prominent national characters. During the 1 May demonstrations in 1947, for example, images of Rakosi, Ern[??] Ger[??] and Rajk were accompanied by those of Kossuth, Dozsa and Rakoczi. (33) And at the time of the centenary celebrations the visual juxtaposition of national and communist figures became more apparent. During the celebrations of the hundredth anniversary of the dethronement of the Habsburgs in Debrecen (14 April 1849), the main street of the town leading from the station up to the church, where Kossuth had delivered the dethronement speech, was decorated with pictures of Kossuth, Pet[??]fi and Tancsics, side by side with portraits of communist politicians such as Lenin, Stalin and Rakosi. (34) The choice of the locations of communist political demonstrations and festivities was also meant to reinforce the alleged connection between the leaders of the party and prominent individuals from Hungary's past. Heroes' Square--with the Millennium Memorial--marshalled the entire Hungarian historical pantheon as background for the regime's most important holidays, whilst in Kossuth Square, in front of the Parliament, the party leadership appeared between the statues of Rakoczi and Kossuth--erected on the two sides of the square--during political demonstrations or election meetings. As well as the placement and staging of socialist rituals in physical proximity to the monuments of historical figures, the attempt to integrate the heroes of the communist movement into the national credo was also manifest in the idea of creating a burial place for communist martyrs in the Kerepesi Cemetery, among the mausoleums of Count Lajos Batthyany and Kossuth. (35) The pantheon of working-class heroes was eventually built after the revolution of 1956 (in 1959), however; the cult of the heroic dead remained less vigorous during the Rakosi era.


Although to claim that the cult of Rakosi was based predominantly on specific Hungarian traditions would be misleading, the apparent presence of elements of these traditions should nevertheless be acknowledged. However, the communist leader cult in Hungary--in terms of visual appearance, rituals and rhetoric--remained for the most part a Soviet import. On the other hand, the re-invention of the traditions of 1848 at the time of the centenary celebrations did influence representations of Rakosi, and altered his evolving cult to a considerable extent. The attempt to portray the Hungarian party leader as a Kossuth-like national hero extended the scope of the Rakosi cult, and the phenomenon moved beyond the borders of the communist party. With the help of national leverage, as well as various other factors (such as the centralisation of propaganda activities), the cult of Rakosi was transferred to the public sphere, and its audience became the entire population. By forging a national hero out of the party secretary, and by inserting him into the freedom fighter traditions of Hungarian history, the party hoped to deal yet another blow to those who accused the MDP of consisting of 'rootless cosmopolitans.'

The mixing of the Soviet-type leader cult with elements from Hungarian history and culture--especially at the time of the centenary celebrations--was an integral part of the party's general strategy to achieve popular support. Through sounding the chords of what Max Weber described as traditional legitimisation, (36) communist ideologists strove to construct a credible national facade for the party, which could enhance the prospects of maintaining its dominant position on the political scene. The legitimisation of the party and its leaders through traditional means were intertwined, and its ideological framework was mostly provided by the communist interpretation of the revolution of 1848-49. The party's representation of the past was a hybrid mixture of marxist historical views and popular perceptions of the War of Independence and its leading figures. The historical interpretation provided by the 'true heirs' was used to justify the achievements of post-war communist policy, and that of the people's democracy, which was described as the only possible political system standing upon the spiritual ground of 1848. In this framework Rakosi was represented as the new Kossuth, who--similarly to his predecessor--would lead the nation to a better future. But Rakosi also came to be represented as the culmination of the nation's past historical struggles.

The emphasis on national traditions--1848-49 in particular--in the party's propaganda was toned down to a certain extent after the takeover, primarily because of the CPSU's criticism in 1948 of the 'nationalist deviations' of the Hungarian Communist Party's ideology. (37) The commemorations of 15 March gradually became overshadowed by the celebrations of 4 April and 1 May, and 15 March even became a normal working-day by the end of the Rakosi era. Nevertheless, despite the later decrease in the symbolic value of the commemorations of 1848, the reinvented myth of the revolution retained an important status in communist propaganda during the years of 'high stalinism' in Hungary.

Whether the national constituents of the Rakosi cult triggered a generally more sympathetic attitude to the Hungarian party leader or towards the regime is a matter for future research. It seems appropriate to posit, however, that the majority of society regarded the national facade of the communist party as a cynical propaganda strategy, or as an abuse of national traditions. In spite of the dubious success of the national communist appeal, the reports of the agitprop department reveal continuing enthusiasm about the efficacy of agitation campaigns involving a major national component. After the 1949 elections, for example, an evaluation of the party's propaganda work in the countryside proudly reported to the centre that the popularity of the party and Rakosi had increased substantially as a result of the systematic exploitation of national traditions and the cult of Kossuth in particular. (38)

Regardless of the efforts of communist propaganda to emphasise the national features of the party's leaders, however, the fundamental internationalist predisposition of the party's ideology, and the subordinate status of the country to Soviet political will, seems to have overshadowed the national aspects of the MDP and its leaders in the minds of the population. Despite the claim of Revai, uttered at the congress of the Hungarian-Soviet Society in 1953, that loyalty to the Soviet Union necessarily entailed loyalty to the Hungarian nation, (39) the communist party was generally perceived as the advocate of foreign interests, and the cult of Rakosi was usually regarded as an essentially Soviet phenomenon.


(1.) On the rise of nationalist tendencies in Eastern European communist parties (mostly the Czechoslovakian one) see Walter Kemp, Nationalism and Communism in Eastern Europe. A Basic Contradiction?, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999; and Bradley F. Abrams, The Struggle for the Soul of a Nation: Czech Culture and the Rise of Communism, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. The relationship of the Hungarian communists to the national question is analysed in detail by Martin Mevius, Agents of Moscow. The Hungarian Communist Party and the Origins of Socialist Patriotism 1941-1953, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

(2.) On the national shift in communist propaganda in the Soviet Union see David Brandenberger, National Bolshevism. Stalinist Mass Culture and the Formation of Modern Russian National Identity, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

(3.) Eric Hobsbawm, 'Introduction: Inventing Traditions', in Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds), The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, pp1-14.

(4.) As also suggested by Brandenberger, National Bolshevism, p92.

(5.) Andras Ger[??], Az allamositott forradalom. 1848 centenariuma, Budapest: Uj Mandatum, 1998, p15.

(6.) Miklos Szabo, 'Magyar nemzettudat-problemak a huszadik szazad masodik feleben,' in Szabo, Politikai kultura Magyarorszagon 1896-1986, Budapest: ELTE, 1989, pp230-1.

(7.) On the cult of history in Hungarian political culture see Arpad von Klimo, Nation, Konfession, Geschichte: zur nationalen Geschichtskultur Ungarns im europaischen Kontext (1860-1948), Munchen: Oldenburg, 2003.

(8.) Charles Gati, Magyarorszag a Kreml arnyekaban, Budapest: Szazadveg, 1990, pp40-3.

(9.) Robert Szabo, 'Partok, politikai propaganda, tortenelmi unnepek Magyarorszagon 1945-1948,' Sic Itur Ad Astra 2-4, 1993, pp261-71, Szabo, 'Politikai propaganda--tortenelmi unnepek 1945-1956', PhD dissertation, Eotvos Lorand Tudomanyegyetem, Budapest, 1988; Vilmos Voigt, 'Eljen es viragozzek... (A budapesti majus elsejekr[??]l)', Budapesti Negyed 1, 1994, special issue: 'Kultuszok es kultuszhelyek', pp166-86.

(10.) Eva Standeisky, 'A kigyo b[??]re. Ideologia es Politika,' in Standeisky, Gyula Kozak, Gabor Pataki and Janos Rainer, eds, A fordulat evei. Politika, kepz[??]m[??]veszet, epiteszet, Budapest: 1956-os Intezet, 1998, p162.

(11.) On the history of the commemorations of 15 March, and its significance in the formation of Hungarian national identity see Gyarmati Gyorgy, Marcius hatalma--A hatalom marciusa. Fejezetek marcius 15. unneplesenek torteneteb[??]l, Budapest: Paginarium, 1998; Andras Ger[??], 'March the Fifteenth,' in Ger[??], Modern Hungarian Society in the Making. The Unfinished Experience, Budapest: CEU Press, 1995, pp238-49.

(12.) Szabad Nep, 1 January 1948.

(13.) Ger[??], Az allamositott forradalom, p15. On the centenary celebrations see Robert Szabo, 'Politikai propaganda es tortenelmi unnep. Adalekok az 1848. marciusi centenariumi unnepsegek tortenetehez', Tortenelmi Szemle, 3-4, 1998, pp215-27.

(14.) Szabad Nep, 18 March 1948.

(15.) For a collection of Revai's essays on the topic, see Jozsef Revai, 48 utjan, Budapest: Szikra, 1948. Similar ideological material was included in 1848-49. Szaz ev a szabadsagert, Budapest, 1948.

(16.) On stalinist folklore see Frank J. Miller, Folklore for Stalin. Russian Folklore and Pseudofolklore in the Stalin Era, New York and London: M. E. Sharpe, 1990.

(17.) On the function of the image of Ivan the Terrible in the Soviet Union Maureen Perrie, The Cult of Ivan the Terrible in Stalin's Russia, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001.

(18.) The united party was named Hungarian Workers' Party (MDP).

(19.) Janos Botos, Politikai humor, 1945-1948, Budapest: Reflektor, 1989, p114.

(20.) Andras K[??] and Lambert Nagy J., eds., Levelek Rakosihoz, Budapest: Maecenas, 2002, pp71-2.

(21.) Bela Illes, Nepunk szabadsagaert, Budapest: Szikra, 1952, p4.

(22.) For the historical interpretation of Kossuth see Gyorgy Spira, Kossuth Lajos a szabadsagharc vezere, Budapest: M[??]velt Nep, 1952; and Emlekkonyv Kossuth Lajos szuletesenek 150. evfordulojara vols. 1-2, Budapest: Akademiai Kiado, 1952.

(23.) Gorgey was one of the most influential officers of the revolution and war of independence. At different times he was commander-in-chief of the Hungarian army, Secretary of War and dictator with full power in the last days of the revolution. He nonetheless disagreed with Kossuth on both military, as well as political questions on numerous occasions. Their ambiguous relationship worsened after 1849, and it was Kossuth, who first labelled Gorgey as a traitor, after the collapse of the revolution. Hungarian historiography has elucidated the general's role only recently.

(24.) Tha Rajk-trial has been analysed by Tibor Hajdu, 'A Rajk-per hattere es fazisai,' Tarsadalmi Szemle, 11, 1992, pp17-36.

(25.) As outlined in Spira, Kossuth Lajos a szabadsagharc vezere.

(26.) Laszlo Bencze's painting 'Comrade Rakosi delivering a recruitment speech in Vermez[??] in 1919' is a typical example of the type. Stalin and Lenin also appeared in such postures on socialist realist paintings.

(27.) Sandor Nagy, 'A nep remenysege' in Pal Rez, and Istvan Vas (eds), Magyar Irok Rakosi Matyasrol, Budapest: Szepirodalmi Kiado, 1952, p63.

(28.) Kis Ujsag, 6 April 1952.

(29.) Cited Zoltan Magyar, Rakoczi a nephagyomanyban, Budapest: Osiris, 2000, 196.

(30.) 'He was created by thousand years / Pet[??]fi and Kossuth passed over / their hearts and their words to him / thus they continued to exist.' Cited Laszlo Kardos, 'Rakosi Matyas alakja a magyar kolteszetben,' Irodalomtortenet, 2, 1952, p138.

(31.) 'Rakoczi looked back one last time / the horses were impatient / and took their knight / with his head turned down far away, never to return. / Kossuth was also taken to his doom / by the slow boat at Orsova. / The third one held his head high / at the border in between two bayonets. The first one left in a nice gown, / the second was already poor, / the third took the most: / the sufferings of his prison. / Besides that, all the three took / the bitterness of their people, weighty as a stone, / three men of three centuries / carried the repressed strength of the nation.' Endre Darazs, 'Rolad beszelunk' in Magyar Irok Rakosi Matyasrol, p138.

(32.) Szabad Nep, 11 May 1953.

(33.) Politikatorteneti Intezet Leveltara, 274. fond 21/64.

(34.) Magyar Orszagos Leveltar (MOL), 276. fond 108/26.

(35.) The construction of the pantheon of the working class movement is analysed by Peter Apor, 'The eternal body: the birth of the pantheon of the labor movement in Budapest,' East Central Europe/L'Europe du Centre Est, 1, 2004, pp23-42.

(36.) Max Weber, 'The Types of Legitimate Domination,' in Weber (ed. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich), Economy and Society. An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978, pp212-301.

(37.) 'Az SZK(b)P KV Kulugyi Osztalyanak jelentese a Magyar Kommunista Part vezetesenek nacionalista hibairol es a magyar kommunista sajtoban ervenyesul[??] burzsoa befolyasrol', in A fordulat evei 1947-1949, pp205-8. The context and the effect of the CPSU's and the Comintern's critique is discussed by Mevius, Agents of Moscow, pp213-236, and by Zoltan Ripp, 'Peldakepb[??]l ellenseg. A magyar kommunistak viszonya Jugoszlaviahoz, 1947-1948' in A fordulat evei 1947-1949, pp45-62.

(38.) MOL, 276. fond 108/11.

(39.) Szabad Nep, 15 February 1953.
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Author:Apor, Balazs
Publication:Twentieth Century Communism
Geographic Code:4EXHU
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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