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The New International, Spring 1957

Stan Grey

Books in Review

Karolyi’s Aspirations and Failures


From The New International, Vol. XXIII No. 2, Spring 1957, pp. 105–110.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Memoirs of Michael Karolyi
translated by Catherine Karolyi
E.P. Dutton and Co., Inc. 1957.

In Karolyi’s life were reflected three important stages of our era. He was importantly involved in the period of revolution and counterrevolution after World War I which saw the overthrow of monarchy; he was exiled for a quarter of a century while Horthyite fascism tyrannized his native Hungary; and he returned to Hungary and experienced its Stalinist rule. An active life spanning such tremendous events are the stuff of which magnificent memoirs can be shaped. If Karolyi’s style and theoretical sweep fall far short of the magnificent, he has nevertheless fashioned an earnest document as interesting as the events involved. The record of Karolyi’s own political evolution, symptomatic as it is of an era, and the events he describes as a participant make his work as indispensable to an understanding of Hungarian history as it is interesting as a personal testament.

THE FIRST SECTION OF THE book is a marvelously detailed and dramatic account of the corrupt and cynical feudal aristocracy, the fall of the Hapsburg monarchy, the October Republic and the unique revolution of 1919. Karolyi himself was one of the richest landowners in all of Hungary. Flesh of the flesh of the Hungarian aristocracy, he developed a supreme contempt for his own class. His sense of personal responsibility and moral involvement is illustrated by his enlistment in the army despite his opposition to the war. Being over-age, of precarious health and an owner of property, he could have honorably stayed out of the war. Yet he felt that he must share the experience of the soldiers if he was to get to know the people and play a role in any future democratic Hungary. His picture of the life of the aristocratic officer class in the army shows life doing a fair imitation of burlesque:

Brother Joseph, who in civil life possessed a wardrobe of 860 suits, brought with him all his “indispensable” belongings, such as Persian carpets, a dozen special uniforms, hot-water bottles, electric contraptions and his cook. Each time headquarters moved, the large private van with my brother’s belongings followed. General Apor, who preferred fresh milk to tinned, had a pet cow for his own and his favorite’s supply. It was like a family party but defeated the purpose for which I had joined the army.

Revolted by this situation, Karolyi volunteered for the front to the dismay of his colleagues and family. But

Even in the trenches, living in mud and snow, we members of Parliament were not in as much danger as the others, for each time an offensive started, Parliament was convoked and we were automatically given leave.

The accounts of anti-Semitism in the Army, the picture of fraternization between the Hungarian and Russian soldiers make an engrossing story.

It was the impact of Wilsonian idealism which started Karolyi in the direction of socialist thinking. “His pacifism and his Fourteen Points determined our internal struggles, just as later his defeat decided the fate of Hungary ... His failure proved that on the present social basis every pacifist effort must fail. People came to realize that responsibility for war did not rest on one nation only, and that capitalism and imperialism were among its causes.” His loathing for the old social order led him in the direction of “Marxism.” It was with this generalized socialistic orientation to politics that he entered the fateful postwar periods of revolution and counter-revolution.

The monarchy was overthrown by that leaderless, spontaneous uprising of people which never fails to terrify its liberal opponents by its thoroughness and seriousness. Having toppled the old order with magnificent timing and spirit, the people yield the initiative to the parties at hand that strive to place themselves at its head, or in some instances, are dragged by the masses to head the movement. Thus the leadership of the Republic was formed out of a “half-hearted alliance between the Karolyi Party and the Social Democrats.” Having been sucked into power by the vacuum of leadership, these parties were doomed to failure for having neither plan nor determination to solve the problem of the revolution. The revolution followed the classic pattern of irresistible confidence and power of the masses matched only by the fearful vacillation of the liberals. Karolyi writes:

At 5:30 a.m. on the morning of the 30th I was awakened by an unknown officer who declared himself to be the President of the Soldier’s Council, an association recently formed and having nothing to do with the National Council. He informed me that they would seize all the public buildings, occupy the town and demand my appointment. The sailors of the “men-of-war” were ready to fire on the Archducal palace. I had the greatest difficulty in dissuading him from this project. We were not yet prepared to take over under revolutionary conditions.

Late in the afternoon of the same day we got the news that the garrisons had been seized by the Soldiers’ Council. We were appalled. Events were moving independently of us. By the evening the Revolution had gained momentum. One after the other, the garrison posts, the public buildings, the barracks, the General Post Office were occupied without the slightest resistance.

The mutinous soldiers, after occupying the garrison headquarters, brought the commander, General Varkonyi, prisoner to the Astoria. The General stood stiffly saluting before me and with a theatrical gesture unbuckled his sword, with the intention of handing it over to me. I told him there was no such necessity. Suddenly there came a bang, followed by several others. The General’s face lit up and, turning to his aide-de-camp, who had been arrested with him, he said: “The troops are on their way to set us free. There is no deceiving my practised ear. I can tell machine-gun fire from a long way off.” The bangs proved to be the slamming of doors – the General seemed not to have heard much gunfire during the five years of war!

If the rumor was correct that the army could not be relied on to shoot at the people, we had won the battle; if not, we were lost and would most probably be court-martialled next morning. The deserting soldiers had taken the initiative and we were now forced to follow. We had not sufficient armed forces at our disposal to resist Lukasic’s regular troops. We could not call on the workers until the following morning as they had by now left their factories and workshops.

Few members of the Council were aware of the critical situation. Most of them had returned home and only a small bunch of us remained, waiting for the incalculable morrow. About 1 a.m. I returned to the Egyetem utca with some sailors to mount guard over my children and my wife, who had just returned from Vienna. A machine-gun was placed in one of the windows of the ballroom. I asked the officer in charge if the fleet on the Danube was reliable? The sailor clicked his heels, and saluting martially, said: “Yes, sir. Sailors are in all circumstances on the side of rebellion.”

Two hours later, a pale and breathless messenger brought the alarming news that the telephone exchange had tapped a conversation between Lukasics and the King, in which the General asked for permission to attack the Astoria with his troops. Immediately I rang up the Archduke, requesting him to prevent Lukasics from carrying out his intention and reminded him that all over the Monarchy the independent National States had been formed without bloodshed. He promised to talk to Lukasics without delay and to let me know the result.

I hurried back to the Astoria with Katus, who refused to stay at home. Approaching the Astoria, we were met with a volley of rifle fire. The nearer we came, the more violent grew the firing and we were convinced that the dreaded attack had started. The darkness and the dense fog made it impossible to see what was actually going on. A mass of people in panic, yelling and cursing, were pushing at the revolving door of the Astoria, which, getting jammed, let none in. Eventually we discovered that a battalion of soldiers, ordered to leave for the front had turned back at the station and marched to the Astoria, shooting off their guns in an ecstasy of joy. Upstairs the remaining members of the Council sat dejected and weary, resolved to hold out to the last. Professor Jaszi, Louis Hatvany and Keri declared the battle lost. It was raining incessantly; the small garrison gradually dwindled, more and more of the men stealing home. We sat silently, waiting for the dawn of October 31st. Suddenly the telephone rang. The Prime Minister was ready to see me. We all breathed again.

Thus the revolution which made Karolyi Prime Minister and forced the abdication of the last Habsburg in the next two weeks. But revolution only makes possible and does not guarantee the solution of old problems. Pacifism and philosophical liberalism do not solve the problems of bread and land. Karolyi, unlike Kerensky who is convinced of the correctness of all that he did and the perversity of history which interfered with him, is remarkably candid and objective in his self-appraisal. This evaluation is no doubt due to his subsequent involvement with socialist thought. He says:

Aware that the majority of the country had granted its help to us on the basis of our peace programme, and counting on the support of the historical classes of Hungary, we dared not adopt revolutionary tactics. Our Manifesto was strictly constitutional, and had not even the courage to mention what the peasantry was expecting, to hear – that the land was to be theirs. It declared instead: “We have won the battle, we have obtained everything we desired, we have no reason to continue to fight. We are preparing a law on universal suffrage.”

This attitude was typical of a bourgeois uprising which, as soon as power has changed hands, endeavors to stop the revolution before it has even started on its programme, and to restore the old-time order.

The failure of the new government to attack the tasks of the revolution led to what was certainly a unique development in that era of revolutionary uprisings. The Social Democrats requested that the Communists take power. This was not due to any sudden conversion of Social Democracy to Bolshevism but rather to the recognition of the overwhelming fact in the relationship of forces that the people could be restrained only by a revolutionary government. The forces of reaction had not yet mustered enough strength to force the issue of power. This was to come after the Kun interlude. One of the more fascinating details of the account is how the:

“Social Democrat executive, the leaders, scared by the heated atmosphere of the country and fearing that the Communist revolution would break out and sweep them away, sent a delegation to the Marko utca prison, to open negotiations with Bela Kun. The prisoner, who still bore on his body the marks of police cudgels, was now the dictator and the Socialist Ministers took his orders ... Bela Kun, as he admitted later, was completely taken aback by this unexpected victory. He had demanded the maximum but had never expected to get it. Power fell into his lap.”

While Karolyi himself disclaims responsibility for this, he does concede that his policy was to hand over power to the Social Democrats. The Kun government succeeded no better than the Republic in meeting the needs of the country nor did it chart any road for such a development. Some credit for this failure, though not all by any means, can be given to the extraordinarily unstable, clinically neurotic personality of Kun of which Karolyi gives ample illustration. Some responsibility must also be allocated to the Big Four powers, who having just finished a war to save the world for democracy conspired to see the defeat of any liberal or socialistic regime in Hungary.

The United States food relief under Herbert Hoover and the food relief of Holland were denied to the entire country as long as the Liberals, Social Democrats or Communists were in power. Later under the Horthy Dictatorship ... food relief was denied to any organization or party which could be accused of left-wing tendencies.

The victory of the Horthy regime and the White Terror ended the first period in Karolyi’s life as it marked the end of a chapter in Hungarian history. Karolyi went into an exile that was to last twenty-six years. The middle section of these memoirs tells many an interesting tale of his experiences in many countries. His political activity consisted in carrying on propaganda and continuous negotiations with all accessible sympathetic diplomats for eventual establishment of a Danubian Federation as the only solution to the problems of Eastern Europe. While these chapters speak a great deal for the political naivete of Karolyi, they do highlight Karolyi’s personal courage, his perseverance under the most oppressive of personal situations and the subordination of all other interests to the realization of his political ideal. There is no gainsaying this heroic idealism, but any appreciation of Karolyi would be terribly distorted if it did not account for the decisive fact that this idealism fell into the historic trap of Stalinism and became its ardent supporter.

A RIDER OF EVENTS RATHER THAN their shaper, a man who chose among the forces that were rather than strove to create forces of his own, a Realpolitiker whose essential methods were conversation and negotiation at the top, Karolyi saw the might of Russia as the overriding single fact in Europe and decisive for the future of Eastern Europe:

In the controversy between Trotsky and Stalin, I agreed with Stalin, since I cherished no illusions about the strength of the working classes in the West ... As far as human suffering was concerned, was that not inevitably linked up with progress? And why did those who assailed the Soviets on grounds of inhumanity accept the cruelty of modern warfare?

This point of view expressed in 1931, remained relatively intact despite momentary shocks due to the tremendous pressures of Stalinism’s great crimes. He became a full-fledged fellow traveler, among the first ranks of the apologists of Stalinism. “The Soviets seemed to have solved the intricate problem of minorities.” There is a laudatory tribute to Duranty who “helped to dispel existing prejudices.” Under the general attitude of praise and support there “were disquieting symptoms,” but this disquietude never led to criticism or failure to support Russia. He adhered to the position that “Russia was all-important because it was the only ‘Worker’s State’ and could properly “sacrifice international labor rather than let Russia run risks.” The Moscow Trials moved him to write a letter to Romain Rolland “unfolding to him my deeply felt objections” but he still did not abandon support of Russia. With the Nazi- Soviet Pact, he became:

“... more critical of Stalinism and convinced that Western Socialism had to find a new way, emancipating itself from Russian leadership. Trotsky’s warnings had seemed to me, until then, the exaggeration of a vain and bitter man. I thought that his so-called Thermidor was a mighty over-statement. But now everything seemed to crumble ... The purge trials and now the pact made me realize more than ever how right I had been not to join the party, for there was a time when I had come very near doing so ... the best elements in the worker’s movements were bewildered and many lost their faith in Russia.”

But despite this confession of distress, Karolyi still does not indicate that he had lost faith in Russia. As with so many others, the rationale of Stalinism reasserted itself. “Our grudge against Stalin’s methods, which did not accomplish Socialism in our fashion had to be stored up for later on” and what justified this was the “industrialization of such a vast continent in such a short time.” Thus the staple ideological premises of Stalinism remained Karolyi’s mainstay, Moscow Trials and Pact notwithstanding.

WHEN THE STALINISTS TOOK OVER Hungary after the war, Karolyi’s political function assumed a special form. “All through the years I had never attacked the Soviet Union in spite of continual prompting of my followers to do so.” One should pause at this for a moment to realize that this highly moral and sensitive idealist who had been moved to private doubts and letter writing by the monstrous mutilations of socialism and the extermination of socialists in Russia for over two decades had the will and fortitude to resist the pressure of even his own followers. To emerge after all those years politically clean! “I was persona grata to the Soviets.” This is indeed a triumph, especially for a person who is given to posing problems in moral terms, but a triumph of what?

He returned to Hungary in 1946, a national hero. “Some urged me to form a party, a request I categorically refused. I had made up my mind to keep a free hand and not touch party politics.” While he does not specify what he hoped to do with this “free hand,” is soon became obvious. The population of Hungary, Karolyi the Hungarian patriot noted, hated the Red Army. “It was alarming to meet this hatred in all quarters, and any time I mentioned the ‘Liberating’ Red Army in public, a hostile silence followed.” “Alarming” to hate the instrument of a foreign oppressor? Alarming for whom? For the Stalinists and for Karolyi as well. This “abstention” from actual politics (while apparently making speeches about the Liberating Red Army), the devotion and respect he commanded among the people illuminated the role he actively played in those days, a role he does not seem to be aware of. He was the symbol of the October Republic, and Rakosi, Gero, Szoltan Vas used him as a cloak of legitimacy over their detested regime. His defense of the Mindszenty imprisonment is pure Stalinist thinking at work. His character sketches of Rakosi and Gero show a sympathetic appreciation of these hangmen which turn the stomach, even if they come from a moral idealist. When he called the attention of Gero to the fact that someone whom he personally knew to be perfectly loyal had been arrested by the secret police, “Gero showed surprise and assured me that he would look into the matter. I got the impression he was not deceiving me, for the secret police had authority to act on their own. One of the worst features of totalitarian States is that people in the highest positions are not always informed of what is happening.” The individual in question was not released, despite Gero’s “looking into the matter” and Karolyi leaves the subject without comment.

At long last, Karolyi was moved to protest against the regime in the trial of Rajk. His motivation was to make “the instigators of the trial realize that they were losing their most loyal friends and risking a split in the party.” The trial of Rajk was thus a serious tactical error of the leading Stalinists criticized by a fundamentally loyal Stalinist. In a short epilogue entitled Faith Without Illusion, written in 1954, Karolyi affirms his faith in Stalinism. “Although aware that Stalinism was not Socialism, I believed that it was the first step towards it as it had done away with the exploitation of man by man, the State having taken over the means of production.” That democracy is in some way related to the development of socialism does not even get the consideration of being rejected for it is a thought that is totally irrelevant to his approach. It is incredible that writing in 1954, he has virtually nothing to say about the oppression of his people. How could this “great Hungarian patriot” have resisted comment about this regime, so detested by the people, that it inspired the incomparable Hungarian uprising? The answer is simply that Karolyi remained firmly in the trap of Stalinist thinking, despite his tactical break with the regime over the Rajk Trial. “I fell willingly and consciously between two stools, the only place I could honorably take.” But this sensitivity to honorable postures that pervades the book is dulled when it comes to Stalinism. A position between two stools is more futile and ridiculous than honorable especially when the times demand that everybody take a seat. But even the dubious “honor” of sitting between stools must be denied Karolyi, for it is pure self-deception. His memoirs are sufficient testimony to the fact that his entire political life, after the short period of the Republic, was seated, uncertainly and uncomfortably at times, but seated nevertheless, on the stool of Stalinism.

The central impression of Karolyi that emerges from his memoirs is that of a fumbling, futile politician who nevertheless solicits the esteem of men for his idealism, self-sacrifice and moral sensitivity. It is an earnest confession of tremendous aspirations and monumental failure. While the record shows that Karolyi’s “moral sensitivity” had rather dubious standards of morality, there is no question that he had a sharp sensitivity to the judgment of history and his contemporaries. The sincerity and passion of the slaughterers have never justified the slaughter. The needle on the sincerity-meter is an interesting personal fact but does not help historical judgments. Karolyi made his contribution to the strength of Stalinism, and if his claim to attention is his political life, it is the political consequences of his actions by which he must be judged.

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