Painting Budapest Red

Bob Dent

In March 1919, Hungary saw the creation of a short-lived revolutionary state. We look at the significance of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, and its attempted transformation of art and culture.

Automobile loaded with Communists dashing through the streets of Budapest, March 5, 1919. US National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia

Interview by
David Broder

In March 1919 Hungary saw the first attempt to create a Bolshevik-style state outside the old Russian Empire. Social democrats and communists combined to form a Council (or “Soviet”) Republic inspired by the Bolshevik example. Mounting sweeping nationalizations, raising wages and slashing rents, the state was however immediately engulfed in the post-World War I chaos. In August that same year, it was overthrown by Romanian troops in concert with Miklós Horthy’s far-right paramilitaries. Its defeat soon led to pogroms against Jews and leftists.

Despite its short existence, the Council Republic was notable for a revolution in the cultural field. Beyond efforts to socialize the economy, a People’s Commissariat for Education and Culture sought to open up the arts to the masses. As Bob Dent explains in his recent book, Painting the Town Red: Politics and the Arts During the 1919 Hungarian Soviet Republic, workers’ concerts, May Day parades, and new thinking on film and literature all sought to raise the cultural level of the population while breaking the hegemony of traditional elites and the Church.

Jacobin’s David Broder spoke to Bob about the significance of the experiment in Hungary, the revolution in the art world, and its legacy for post-World War II socialism.


DB

Why write about art in the Hungarian Council Republic — and what do you mean by “painting the town red”?

BD

Living in Hungary for over thirty years, I have often encountered mentions in books that this or that individual in the arts world of the time sided with the Council Republic, including some who would later become known as rather conservative types, such as the writer Sándor Márai. But that was all — just a mention, no explanation or further details.

When I started to look into the matter, I discovered that many prominent figures across the board in the arts world — writers, painters, filmmakers, musicians, and theater workers — supported the new regime, at least in the initial stages. My book is the result of that research, and essentially an introduction to this issue.

After an overview of the historical context following World War I, I focus on the May Day celebrations of May 1, 1919. The Revolutionary Governing Council, which had only been in power a little over a month, commissioned artists to literally paint the town red for the celebrations on what was billed as the country’s “first free May Day.” There were red flags, red draperies, red posters, and red slogans everywhere.

I was also interested to delve into political debates about culture and the role of art in society and how that might change, for example with the promotion of free schools for budding proletarian artists.

DB

You give the impression that the Council Republic’s founders had boundless optimism in the possibility of creating a new society, including in terms of culture. You cite the Socialist Party newspaper Vörös Ujság describing “In the cleansing fire of proletarian revolution the arts are being reborn and are waking up to a new life.” But who were the protagonists of this movement — was it a case of progressive intellectuals seeking to raise the cultural level of the masses, or of these latter taking charge of musical and theater production for themselves?

BD

Looking at the politicians behind the Council Republic, I don’t think what they did was much more than a matter of opening up “high culture” to a more proletarian audience. The intentions were genuine and positive, but where was the new material, the new literature, the new plays? There was little time for those to appear, so meanwhile classic material with a perceived positive content was promoted.

The real protagonists were the people in the new regime’s Commissariat for Education and Culture and many intellectuals generally, some of whom had advocated new approaches to the arts for some time, generally in the name of “modernism.”

On the other hand, art historian Nóra Aradi once interestingly observed that the majority of sculptors participating in the decoration of Budapest for May Day chose to follow the traditions of heroic monuments or portraits, and this style was employed for the figures of revolutionaries, too. However, in contrast, much of the visual imagery on posters was rather more avant-garde.

DB

From your book, we get the sense that even despite the perils it faced, the young Soviet Republic saw creating a new culture as central to its mission — not something that could be dispensed with in the interest of higher economic or military needs. But to what extent did the Commissariat for Education and Culture see its work as a mobilizing mission, and what limits did that impose?

BD

It is difficult to determine the extent to which the regime in overall terms saw creating a new culture as central, as opposed to simply allowing those who were enthusiastic to get on with it, so to say. I suspect there was a great deal of the latter.

In general, the official “line,” as promoted by György Lukács, for example, was that everything — in literature, theater, film, painting, etc. — should be allowed, even encouraged, apart from anything that was counterrevolutionary. Yet as far as I know, Lukács never got around to clearly defining what ‘counterrevolutionary’ actually meant, nor who would make the decision — rather important matters! Needless to say, perhaps, the implicit answer was that the ruling party (or maybe Lukács himself) would decide.

As for the limitations, there certainly was censorship, sometimes covered by the argument of a paper shortage (which was genuine). Posters were censored and newspapers were subject to censorship. Lots of publications were closed down, though sometimes changes were made by installing a new editor. As for major books and other lengthy works, there was not enough time for much to be written and published. After all, the Council Republic lasted just over four months.

DB

From the history of the Hungarian Soviet Republic it’s easy to get the impression of sudden upheaval followed by a great deal of improvisation in forming the new state. What explains the strength of support for the new regime in the arts world — previous Communist organization in these circles, or jumping on the bandwagon of an apparently victorious power?

BD

There was no long-term, prior communist organization working its way over the years into various organizations and institutions. The Hungarian Communist Party was formed only in November 1918 and was rather small. Nevertheless, there were antecedents which prefigured the general developments. The preceding liberal regime under Mihály Károlyi, which ruled from the end of the First World War until the formation of the Council Republic in March 1919, was progressive in its cultural policy. Its minister of culture was the Social Democrat Zsigmond Kunfi, who became the People’s Commissar for Culture and Education after March 1919, strongly indicating a sense of continuity, which suited the arts world. (Incidentally, György Lukács, who had not long before joined the Communist Party, was at first Kunfi’s deputy, though after some time the title of “deputy commissar” was abolished in all the commissariats.)

There were other reasons why the new regime was supported in the arts world. Some were rather mundane, but understandable. For example, being a member of one of the new organizations for writers ensured a certain income. More positively, people in the arts world were attracted by transformations in culture in the broad sense of the term.

For example, serious thought was given to modernizing the academic world and there were some interesting “firsts” during the Council Republic. For example, Irén Götz was appointed a professor of chemistry, thus becoming the first woman in Hungary to occupy such a post. What by international comparison was even more groundbreaking was that the world’s first academic department of psychoanalysis was established in Budapest in 1919 under the direction of Freud’s Hungarian disciple, Sándor Ferenczi. Other people active during the Commune who later became nationally and/or internationally renowned included the sociologist Karl Mannheim, the art historian Arnold Hauser, who in 1919 worked on reforming the art education system, the literary historian Marcell Benedek, and György Hevesi, who in 1943 would be awarded a Nobel Prize for chemistry.

Having said all that it has to be acknowledged that there was also a strong element of jumping on the bandwagon. This resulted in initial enthusiasm, which tended to die down as the weeks went by and some of the more negative aspects of the new situation came to the forefront.

DB

You cite the particular case of the famous actor Bela Lugosi. What was his connection to the Soviet Republic?

BD

After the First World War, the break-up of the Habsburg empire and the autumn 1918 upheaval in Hungary, Lugosi threw himself into liberal causes. On December 2, the Free Organization of Theatre Employees was established with Lugosi heading the names of the committee members. Then during the Soviet Republic period, he was a prominent activist as the secretary of the National Trade Union of Actors, which was established on April 7. He was a great publicist and often wrote polemical articles. In an article published in mid-May 1919, for example, Lugosi passionately contested the view that actors are not proletarians.

Not very many Hungarians who were active in 1919 became noted international figures. However, there are some others. Michael Curtiz, the director of Casablanca, has already been mentioned. Similarly, the film producer Sándor (Alexander) Korda was making films in 1919. And then there were the noted composers and musicologists Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók, who in 1919 were both members of the Music Directory, a body operating under the wing of the cultural commissariat.

DB

The Hungarian Council Republic was partly formed in response to the previous government’s inability to defend the national territory in response to Czech, Serb, and Romanian invasions. Did this mean that the new regime sought to mobilize national and patriotic sentiments? How could it establish its own connection to Hungarian popular history? Was this simply a capitulation to the chauvinism spreading in post-World War I central Europe?

BD

This was a tricky area for the new authorities. It needed and wanted to mobilize the population to defend the country against military intervention. It did not use specifically nationalist propaganda, but the poster campaigns, for example, as well as the recruiting drives implicitly aimed to promote patriotic sentiment. This might help explain why many people, including members of the normally conservative officer corps, were willing to join in. The regime sometimes talked about spreading socialism — even world revolution — in connection with its campaigns, but it is difficult to say how effective such an approach was and to what extent that was in the minds of most people. True, the situation was rather paradoxical in this regard.

DB

One figure linking the 1919 revolution and post-World War II socialist Hungary was György Lukács. If he clashed with the cultural dogmas of the Stalin period, this nonetheless took the form of a retreat from directly political activity rather than open dissent. What continuities can we see in his understanding of revolutionary culture, and in what sense was he able to bring the spirit of the Hungarian Soviet Republic into the post-1945 “people’s democracy”?

BD

I am not a Lukács specialist as such, but my feeling is that there was a certain similarity with his views of literature and politics post-1945 and those of 1919. For example, in 1949 Lukács was strongly criticized in a campaign centered on cultural dogmatism. According to the new line, the problem with Lukács revolved around his view of realism in literature, which included the idea that some politically reactionary writers of classical European literature had nevertheless produced works which, in view of their style, insight and content, could be considered progressive. Arguably, that was a reflection of his relatively broad-minded attitude in 1919.

However, it should be noted that after 1945 Hungarian Communists had problems with highlighting the 1919 experience. From a psychological point of view, it was of some importance that the majority of the Communist people’s commissars of 1919, who, in various stages, had emigrated to Moscow, fell victim to the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s. When the Hungarian Communists came back into power soon after the Second World War, how could they extol the achievements of 1919 when many of its prominent figures, including Béla Kun (generally regarded as the main political leader), had lost their lives under Stalin, who continued to rule in Moscow until his death in 1953?

It was only in the decades following the 1956 uprising, a central element of which involved breaking with the Stalinist model, that there was a significant shift in the amount of attention paid in Hungary to the 1919 events. Beginning with the fortieth anniversary in 1959, there was an explosion of publication, particularly in specialist journals, about what had happened in 1919. Thereafter, each round-figure anniversary would see the appearance of new books and studies about the period.

DB

You quote the social-democrat Jenö Landler saying in 1919 that “the significance of Budapest in world terms is roughly the same as it formerly was for Moscow.” What was the real importance of the Hungarian Revolution — did it lie in the prospect of spreading Bolshevik-style regimes across Europe as a whole, or did it offer a different model of socialist government?

BD

I take the Landler statement to be a bit of bombast, and not much more! I suppose in theory there was the possibility of spreading Bolshevik-style regimes across Europe as a whole, but I don’t see much evidence of that happening in terms of starting from Hungary. Apart from political considerations, Hungary was (and still is to an extent) isolated in terms of its language being unknown and unrelated to almost all other European languages. Thus, knowing and understanding what was going on in Hungary was difficult in 1919.

Otherwise, I really don’t think there was much of a new model on offer. That may seem blunt. But the Hungarian Council or Soviet Republic did not come about essentially as a result of a revolution. Rather it was very much a top-down, even authoritarian regime. Put more concretely, did the events of March 1919 and the proclamation of the Hungarian Council Republic represent, as often claimed at the time and later, a genuine proletarian revolution and the establishment of a proletarian dictatorship acting to liberate the oppressed? Or was it a seizure of power in the name of the Hungarian proletariat and the establishment of a regime which ruled over the proletariat? There is clearly a difference, though they have often been confused — in relation to Hungary 1919 and elsewhere.

When the Social Democratic and Communist leaders held negotiations in Budapest’s Transit Prison on March 21, 1919 and agreed to join forces in a newly named Socialist Party, they issued a statement declaring the unity of their two parties and the establishment of a new regime. The short text contains the following very revealing sentence: “In the name of the proletariat, the party immediately assumes all power.” That is quite clear — it was an assumption of power by the leaders of a newly created party, rather than the conquest of power resulting from some kind of revolution.

Both the Soldiers’ Council and the Budapest Workers’ Council quickly endorsed the new regime on March 21 and formally speaking the councils were often regarded as supreme. But in practice it was always the Revolutionary Governing Council — i.e., the People’s Commissars comprising leading party members — which held the real power. That, even though they certainly required the support of large sections of the population.

This distinction between party and proletariat could have some serious consequences, particularly when there were perceived clashes of interest between the ruling regime and the people in whose name it claimed to be exercising power. At its extreme, there could be a certain intolerant fanaticism, expressed even against the proletariat.

For example, in a decree of June 6, 1919, one of the leading communist hard-liners, Tibor Szamuely, announced that striking, which was always a rightful weapon used in a capitalist state against private capital, should now, in the new socialist system, be considered the most “infamous treachery against the interests of the working class.” Thus, he asserted that advocating a strike against the proletarian state was counterrevolutionary. “We will stifle every motion of counterrevolution in its infancy,” he announced. “Whoever participates in counterrevolution or advocates counterrevolution, whether they uphold it or keep quiet, will pay for it with their lives.”

Tibor Szamuely and his notorious leather-coated “Lenin Boys” toured the country in a special “Death Train” in response to reports (true or otherwise) of opposition activity. Summary public hangings of those believed to have been involved took place on the spot and forced requisitions of cattle, corn, and other goods were imposed on the locality. Then the train would move on, later to quell yet another “rebellion” in another area.

While Szamuely’s approach was not representative of all the leaders at the time, it certainly had a major impact. It confirmed the view that the new party was exercising power “in the name of the proletariat” only.

DB

The short-lived Republic went down to defeat in August 1919. What did this mean for the idea of a liberated culture?

BD

First there was the reaction of those who had participated prominently in cultural activities during the Soviet Republic and the reaction of the new political authorities.

A large number of those who had been active felt they had to leave Hungary, since they feared reprisals under the new regime or simply anticipated a negative situation, either politically or culturally, or maybe both. This applied both to politicians and artists of various sorts, though there were differences in the fate of the two groups.

Virtually all the political leaders of the Hungarian Soviet Republic fled the country in the immediate aftermath of its fall. Some remained in Vienna for a while, others moved to Berlin, then by and large those who were Communist Party members or Party sympathizers ended up in Moscow. As for artists of all descriptions, art historian Éva Forgács has asserted that among the many waves of exile throughout Hungarian history, probably the one following the defeat of the Council Republic in 1919 drained Hungarian art and culture the most.

Most of the cultural activists who fled Hungary following the fall of the Council Republic did not go to the Soviet Union, preferring to remain in Western Europe, in Vienna, Berlin, or Paris, but many of them returned to Hungary in the interwar years, particularly after the mid-1920s, when a de facto amnesty was in operation. Among those who remained in Hungary, some suffered arrest and imprisonment and/or were dismissed from their positions.

Cinema historian John Cunningham claims that most of the film-making community fled to avoid retribution, adding that even some who had not been involved with the Council Republic also left, due to the limited opportunities for work. The result, he says, was that the Hungarian film industry was virtually denuded of all its major talent.

On the political front, the fall of the Council Republic was quickly followed by a wave of “white terror.” Communists, Social Democrats, Jews, trade unionists, and others who “didn’t fit” were massacred in large numbers. The ultraconservative regime which finally emerged after the 1919 events — headed by Miklós Horthy — understandably wanted to erase all positive memory of what had happened. And that also meant reverting to more conservative trends in the arts.