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Béla Kun

Béla Kun

Béla Kun (20 February 1886 – 29 August 1938), born Béla Kohn, was a Hungarian Communist revolutionary and politician who was the de facto leader of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919. Following the fall of the Hungarian revolution, Kun emigrated to the Soviet Union, where he worked as a functionary in the Communist International bureaucracy as the head of the Crimean Revolutionary Committee from 1920. He was an organizer and an active participant of the Red Terror in Crimea (1920–1921), following which he participated in the March Action (1921), a failed socialist uprising in Germany.

During the Great Purge of the late 1930s, Kun was arrested, interrogated, tried, and executed in quick succession. He was posthumously rehabilitated in 1956, following the death of Joseph Stalin and the critical reassessment of Stalinism.

Béla Kun
People's Commissar of Foreign Affairs
Leader of Hungarian Soviet Republic
In office
21 March 1919 – 1 August 1919
Preceded byFerenc Harrer (Minister)
Succeeded byPéter Ágoston (Minister)
Personal details
Born(1886-02-20)20 February 1886
Lele, Austria-Hungary
(today part of Hodod, Romania)
Died29 August 1938(1938-08-29)(aged 52)[1]
Kommunarka shooting ground, Moscow, Soviet Union
(today Russia)
Political partyHungarian Social Democratic Party (MSZDP)
Communist Party of Hungary (KMP)
Spouse(s)Irén Gál
ParentsSamu Kohn
Róza Goldberger
ProfessionPolitician, journalist


Early life

Béla Kohn, later known as Béla Kun, was born on 20 February 1886 in the village of Lele, located near Szilágycseh, Transylvania, Austria-Hungary (today part of Hodod, Romania). His father, Samu Kohn was a lapsed Jewish village notary, while his mother - also from Jewish heritage - was Róza Goldberger who converted to Protestantism.[2] Despite his parents' secular outlook, he was educated at the Silvania Főgimnázium in Zilah (present-day Silvania National College, Zalău)[3] and a famous Reformed kollegium (grammar school) in the city of Kolozsvár (modern Cluj-Napoca, Romania).

At the kollegium Kun won the prize for best essay on Hungarian literature that allowed him to attend a gymnasium. His essay was on the poet Sándor Petőfi and the concluding paragraphs were:

The storming rage of Petőfi's soul… turned against the privileged classes, against the people's oppressor… and confronted them with revolutionary abandon. Petőfi felt that the country would not be saved through moderation, but through the use of the most extreme means available. He detested even the thought of cowardice… Petőfi's vision was correct. There is no room for prudence in revolutions whose fate and eventual success is always decided by boldness and raw courage… this is why Petőfi condemned his compatriots for the sin of opportunism and hesitation when faced with the great problems of their age… Petőfi's works must be regarded as the law of the Hungarian soul… and of the… love of the country".[4]

Béla magyarized his birth surname, Kohn, to Kun in 1904, although the almanac of the University of Kolozsvár still referred to him in print by his former name as late as 1909.[5] There is no archival evidence that he took any formal action to change the spelling of his name, although it is clear that from 1904 all those around him referred to him as Béla Kun rather than Kohn, and he likewise used the Magyar variant in his signature.[5]

Before the First World War, he was a muck-raking journalist with sympathies for the Hungarian Social Democratic Party in Kolozsvár. In addition, Kun served on the Kolozsvár Social Insurance Board, from which he was later to be accused of embezzling. He had a fiery reputation and was involved in duels several times. In May 1913 he married Irén Gál, a music teacher of middle-class background.

Early political career

During his early education at Kolozsvár, Kun became friends with the poet Endre Ady, who introduced him to many members of Budapest's left-wing intelligentsia.

Kun fought for Austria-Hungary in World War I, and was captured and made a prisoner of war in 1916 by the Russians. He was sent to a POW camp in the Urals, where he became interested in communism. In 1917, he was caught up in what he regarded as the romance of the Russian Revolution, the idea of which fulfilled for him certain spiritual needs previously unsatisfied. Paradoxically, he held Russians to a certain degree in contempt, feeling that communism was much better suited to "civilised" nations such as Hungary rather than "barbaric" Russia. During his time in Russia, he became fluent in Russian (he was also fluent in German and competent in English).

In March 1918, in Moscow, Kun co-founded the Hungarian Group of the Russian Communist Party (the predecessor to the Hungarian Communist Party). He travelled widely, including to Petrograd and Moscow. He came to know Vladimir Lenin there, but inside the party he promoted ultra-radical left-wing political opposition to Lenin and the mainstream Bolsheviks. Kun and his friends (such as the Italian Umberto Terracini and the Hungarian Mátyás Rákosi), aggregated around Grigory Zinoviev or Karl Radek; instead of Lenin's pragmatism, they espoused and advertised the politics of "revolutionary offensive by any means". Lenin often called them "kunerists".

In the Russian Civil War in 1918, Kun fought for the Bolsheviks. During this time, he first started to make detailed plans for a communist revolution in Hungary. In November 1918, with at least several hundred other Hungarian Communists and with a large sum of money provided by the Soviets, he returned to Hungary.

Hungarian People's Republic

Sándor Garbai and Béla Kun, leaders of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, 1919

Sándor Garbai and Béla Kun, leaders of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, 1919

In Hungary, the resources of a shattered government were further strained by refugees from lands lost to the Allies during the war and that were due to be lost permanently under the projected Treaty of Trianon. Rampant inflation, housing shortages, mass unemployment, food shortages and coal shortages further weakened the economy and stimulated widespread protests. In October 1918, the so-called "Aster Revolution" established an unstable social democrat-communist coalition government. Kun founded the Hungarian Communist Party in Budapest on 4 November 1918.

He immediately began a highly energetic propaganda campaign against the coalition government: he and his followers rebelled against the President, Count Mihály Károlyi, and his Social Democratic allies.

His speeches had a considerable impact on his audiences. One who heard such a speech wrote in his diary:

Yesterday I heard Kun speak… it was an audacious, hateful, enthusiastic oratory. [...] He knows his audience and rules over them… Factory workers long at odds with the Social Democratic Party leaders, young intellectuals, teachers, doctors, lawyers, clerks who came to his room… meet Kun and Marxism.[6]

In addition, the Communists held frequent marches and rallies and organised strikes. Desiring to achieve a revolution in Hungary, he communicated by telegraph with Vladimir Lenin to garner support from the Bolsheviks, which would ultimately not materialise.[7] Although the Social Democrats were the largest party at the time, Kun had acquired a sizeable following.

On 19 March 1919, French Lt-Col Fernand Vix presented the "Vix Note", ordering Hungarian forces to be pulled back further from where they were stationed. It was assumed that the military lines would be the new frontiers that would be established by the peace conference between Hungary and the Allies. The Vix Note created a huge upsurge of nationalist outrage, and the Hungarians resolved to fight the Allies rather than accept the national borders. Károlyi resigned from office, ceding power to the Social Democrats, who realised that Hungary needed allies for the coming war and in their view the only ally that offered Hungary anything was Soviet Russia. As Kun was known to be friendly with Lenin, it was assumed that including him in the government would bring Soviet aid for war against the Allies.

Though imprisoned in February 1919 by the government of Mihály Károlyi, Kun was allowed to continue directing the Hungarian Communist Party from his cell. The Social Democrats first approached Kun on the subject of a coalition government. Such was the desperation for them to have Kun receive promised Soviet support that it was Kun, a captive, who decided the terms to his captors. This was despite the Red Army's full involvement in the Russian Civil War and the unlikelihood that it could be of any direct military assistance.

Kun proposed the merger of the Social Democrat and Communist parties, the establishment of a Soviet Republic and several other radical measures, which the Social Democrats agreed to. On 21 March 1919 a Soviet Republic was announced; the Social Democrats and Communists were merged under the interim name Hungarian Socialist Party, and Béla Kun was released from prison and sworn into office.

The Social Democrats continued to hold the majority of seats in government. Of the thirty-three People's Commissars of the Revolutionary Governing Council that ruled the Soviet Republic, fourteen were former Communists, seventeen were former Social Democrats and two had no party affiliation. With the exception of Kun, every Commissar was a former Social Democrat and every Deputy Commissar a former Communist.

Hungarian Soviet Republic

Béla Kun was the leader of the Hungarian Revolution of 1919.

Béla Kun was the leader of the Hungarian Revolution of 1919.

The Hungarian Soviet Republic, the second Communist government in Europe after Russia itself, was established on 21 March 1919. In the Soviet Republic, Kun served as Commissar for Foreign Affairs but had the most influence in the government during its brief existence. As he told Lenin, "My personal influence in the Revolutionary Governing Council is such that the dictatorship of the proletariat is firmly established, since the masses are backing me."[8]

The first action of the new government was the nationalisation of the large majority of private property in Hungary. Despite advice from Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Béla Kun's government chose not to redistribute land to the peasantry, which reduced the majority of their support in Hungary. Instead, all land was to be converted into collective farms and former estate owners, managers, and bailiffs were to be retained as the new collective farm managers. This resulted in the dissolution of the balance of power between the old ruling class and the peasantry which made up the majority of Kun's support.

In an effort to win peasant support, Kun cancelled all taxes in rural areas. To provide food for the cities, the Soviet Republic requisitioned food in the countryside through a red militia known as the Lenin Boys. This caused additional conflict between Kun and his supporters in the countryside.

Within the Socialist Party, there was a bitter dispute over the permanent name of the party, which may have reflected underlying tensions between the two merged parties. The former Social Democrats preferred "Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party", while former Communists wanted "Hungarian Socialist Communist Workers' Party" instead. Within the ranks of the former Communists themselves, a split developed between the rural and urban factions.

On 24 June, anti-Communists attempted a coup d'état. The government retaliated with secret police, revolutionary tribunals and semiregular detachments such as Tibor Szamuely's bodyguards, the Lenin Boys; this campaign became known as the Red Terror. Of those arrested, an estimated 370 to about 600 were killed;[9] some place the number at 590. It has been argued that the major limiting factor on the repression were the former Social Democrats such as József Pogány, relatively moderate supporters of Kun.

Opposition appeared to be centred on the city of Szeged and around Rear Admiral Miklós Horthy, who formed a National Army against the government. But the National Army never saw action and marched on Budapest only after the Romanians withdrew in November, while the Horthy regime staged a White Terror in 1919–20, during which Hungarian villagers were murdered, tortured, and kidnapped for profit.[10] During the White Terror, tens of thousands were imprisoned without trial and as many as 5,000 people were killed.[11]

The Soviet government lasted for 133 days, ending on 1 August 1919. The Soviet Republic had been formed to resist the Vix Note, and created the Hungarian Red Army to do so. Given the disparity in power between Hungary and the Allies, Hungarian chances for victory were slim at best. To buy time, Kun tried to negotiate with the Allies, meeting the British General Jan Smuts at a summit in Budapest in April. Agreement proved impossible, and Hungary was soon at war later in April with the Kingdom of Romania and Czechoslovakia, both aided by France. The Hungarian Red Army achieved some success against the Czechoslovaks, taking much of Slovakia by June.

The Hungarians, however, were repeatedly defeated by the Romanians. By the middle of July 1919, Hungary had begun a major offensive against the Romanian invasion. The Allied Commander in the Balkans, the French Marshal Louis Franchet d'Esperey, wrote to Marshal Ferdinand Foch on 21 July 1919: "We are convinced that the Hungarian offensive will collapse of its own accord... When the Hungarian offensive is launched, we shall retreat to the line of demarcation and launch the counteroffensive from that line. Two Romanian brigades will march from Romania to the front in the coming days, according to General Fertianu's promise. You see, Marshal, we have nothing to fear from the Hungarian army. I can assure you that the Hungarian Soviets will last no more than two or three weeks. And should our offensive not bring the Kun regime down, its untenable internal situation surely will."[12]

The Soviets promised to invade Romania and link up with Kun and were on the verge of doing so, but military reversals suffered by the Red Army in Ukraine halted the invasion of Romania before it began. Around this time, the Romanians invaded Hungary and overthrew the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Thus, on 1 August 1919 a government of Social Democrats ruled the country, after on 4 August the Romanian army took Budapest.[13]

Activity in Crimea

From left: Béla Kun, Jacques Sadoul, Leon Trotsky, Mikhail Frunze and Sergey Gusev. Kharkiv Ukraine 1920. Russian Civil War.

From left: Béla Kun, Jacques Sadoul, Leon Trotsky, Mikhail Frunze and Sergey Gusev. Kharkiv Ukraine 1920. Russian Civil War.

Béla Kun then went into exile in Vienna, then controlled by the Social Democratic Party of Austria. He was captured and interned in Austria, but was released in exchange for Austrian prisoners in Russia in July 1920. He never returned to Hungary. Once in Russia, he rejoined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Kun was put in charge of the regional Revolutionary Committee in Crimea, which during the Russian Civil War changed hands numerous times and was for a time a stronghold for the anti-Bolshevik White Army. It was in Crimea that the White Russians led by General Wrangel fell to the Red Army in 1920. About 50,000 prisoners of war and anti-Bolshevik civilians subsequently were executed, on Kun and Rosalia Zemlyachka's order, with Lenin's approval.[14] After having been promised amnesty, they had surrendered.[15] Mass arrests and executions occurred while Kun was in control of the Crimea. Between 60,000 and 70,000 inhabitants of the Crimea were executed in the process.[16][17]

The "March Action" in Germany

Kun became a leading figure in the Comintern as an ally of Grigory Zinoviev. In March 1921, he was sent to Germany to advise the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and encouraged the KPD to follow the "Theory of the Offensive" as supported by Zinoviev, August Thalheimer, Paul Frölich, and others which in the words of Ruth Fischer meant ""the working class could be moved only when set in motion by a series of offensive acts."[18]

On 27 March, leaders of the Communist Party of Germany decided to launch a revolutionary offensive in support of miners in central Germany. Kun along with Thallheimer were among the driving force behind the attempted revolutionary campaign known as "Märzaktion" ("March Action"), which ultimately ended in failure.

In the end, Lenin blamed himself for appointing Kun and charged him with responsibility for the failure of the German revolution. He was considerably angered by Kun's actions and his failure to secure a general uprising in Germany. In a closed Congress of the Operative Committee — as Victor Serge writes — Lenin called his actions idiotic ("les bêtises de Béla Kun"). But Kun did not lose his membership in the Operative Committee, and the closing document accepted at the end of the sitting formally acknowledged the "battle spirit" of the German Communists.

Kun was not stripped of his Party offices, but the March Action was the end of the radical opposition and of the theory of "Permanent Offensive":

"The final analysis of things shows that Levi was politically right in many ways. The thesis of Thallheimer and Béla Kun is politically totally false. Phrases and bare attending, playing the radical leftist.".[19]

Throughout the 1920s Kun was a prominent Comintern operative, serving mostly in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, but his notoriety ultimately stopped him being useful for undercover work.

Later career

Kun's final undercover assignment ended in 1928 when he was arrested in Vienna by the local police for travelling on a forged passport. Back in Moscow, he spent much of his time feuding with other Hungarian Communist émigrés, several of whom he denounced to the Soviet secret police, the OGPU, which arrested and imprisoned them in the late 1920s and early 1930s. During the Comintern's "Third Period" from 1928 to 1935, Kun was a prominent supporter of the Social Fascism line that equated the moderate left as "social fascism", an animosity in large part owing to Kun's strained relations with the Hungarian Social Democrats.[20] In 1934, Kun was charged with preparing the agenda for the 7th Congress of the Comintern, in which the Social Fascism line was to be abandoned and the Popular Front was to be the new line for Communists all over the world, a policy change that Kun was opposed to. Instead of submitting to party discipline, Kun did his best to sabotage the adoption of the Popular Front policy, which led to him being formally sanctioned for insubordination.[20] In 1935-36, the leadership of the émigré Hungarian Communist Party was thrown into crisis as Kun sought to prevent the adoption of the Popular Front policy, which occasioned a vigorous round of party in-fighting.[21] Beyond policy, there was also a clash of personalities as Kun's abrasive and autocratic leadership style had left him with many enemies, who saw the dispute over whether the Hungarian Communist Party was to adopt the Popular Front strategy as a chance to bring down Kun, who many Hungarian émigrés deeply hated.[22] Reflecting his embattled position led Kun to denounce one of his leading enemies in the Comintern, Dmitry Manuilsky who was sympathetic to the anti-Kun faction to the NKVD as a Trotskyite, who in his turn had also denounced Kun to the NKVD as a Trotskyite.[23]

Death and legacy

Béla Kun after arrest by NKVD 1937

Béla Kun after arrest by NKVD 1937

During the Great Purge of the late 1930s, Kun was accused of Trotskyism and arrested on 28 June 1937.[24] Little was known about his subsequent fate beyond the fact that he never returned. Even an official Hungarian Communist biographer with official access to the Communist International's archives in Moscow denied information during the mid-1970s.[25]

Only some time after the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of certain archives in its aftermath did Kun's fate become public: after a brief incarceration and interrogation, he was hauled before a judicial troika on charges of having acted as the leader of a "counter-revolutionary terrorist organisation." Kun was found guilty and sentenced to death at the end of this brief secret trial. The sentence was carried out later the same day at the Kommunarka shooting ground.[24]

When Kun was politically rehabilitated in 1956, as part of the de-Stalinization process, the Soviet party told its Hungarian counterpart that Kun had died in prison on 30 November 1939. In 1989, the Soviet government announced that Kun had actually been executed in the Gulag more than a year earlier than that, on 29 August 1938.[26]

After the war the Soviets inaugurated a Communist puppet regime in Hungary under the leadership of Mátyás Rákosi, one of Kun's few surviving colleagues from the 1919 coup.


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