In April 1945, the Soviet Army liberated Hungary from German occupation. As Hungary was on the side of the vanquished powers, its future depended on the terms of the cease-fire agreement as well as the peace treaty negotiated among the victorious powers. In an October 1944 meeting in Moscow between British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Josef Stalin, the two men had agreed over spheres of influence, with Hungary split 50/50 between the Western powers and the Soviet Union. But the Red Army occupied Hungary, and the political, economic, social, and military development of Hungary in the postwar era was to be largely influenced by the Soviet Union.
The Communist Party in Hungary had been illegal between the two world wars; thus, many party activists spent these years in Soviet exile. When they returned to Hungary with the Red Army at the end of World War II, their chief mission was to grasp political power and introduce a Soviet-style political-economic system. The communist takeover did not occur immediately, however.
In November 1944, Hungarian General Miklós Béla Dálnoki and the Hungarian communists in exile negotiated a cease-fire agreement in Moscow. In return, the Soviets offered Dálnoki the post of premier in the immediate postwar Hungarian government. This Provisional National Government was formed on 22 December 1944 in Debrecen in eastern Hungary, which had already been liberated from German occupation. As premier, Dálnoki reorganized the public sector, signed the cease-fire agreement with the Red Army, began land reform, modernized elementary education, and called for elections. These elections were held six months after the end of the war, in November 1945. Four major parties participated: the Smallholders' Party, the Social Democrat Party, the Hungarian Peasant Union, and the Communist Party. Of these, the Smallholders' Party was the most popular as well as the most conservative. Subverting the Smallholders' Party was one of the main Communist Party goals.
Although the Smallholders' Party won the November elections with 57 percent of the vote, under Soviet pressure a four-party coalition government was formed with Zoltán Tildy as premier. He held this position until 1 February 1946, when Hungary was declared a republic, whereupon he became its president.
The new premier, Ferenc Nagy, also from the Smallholders' Party, faced three big challenges in inflation, nationalization, and growing pressure from the Communist Party. A new currency was introduced in August 1946, which helped stem inflation, but the other two problems defied solution. The communists, meanwhile, held key positions in the government and used these to undermine the democratic process. Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party and Vice Premier Mátyás Rákosi controlled the police, and Soviet troops remained in occupation. Soviet expropriation of the German monetary assets in Hungary was also a strong economic lever, and the communists claimed credit for restoring the economy and the transportation system.
László Rajk, minister of the interior and head of police, directed a reign of terror, while Rákosi embarked on what he called salami tactics, slicing off one segment of the opposition after another. The communists also moved against the Smallholders' Party. Its leader, Béla Kovacs, was arrested and accused of plotting to restore the Habsburgs. In May, Premier Nagy, on vacation in Switzerland, was forced by threats from Moscow to resign by telephone. The August 1947 parliamentary election, tainted by communist fraud, reduced the strength of the Smallholders, and in March 1948 the socialists were forced to merge with the communists into the Hungarian Workers' Party (MDP). In August 1948 President Tildy was also forced to resign and was placed under house arrest. In 1949 Hungary became a People's Republic.
The MDP soon nationalized the banks, factories, private schools, businesses, land, and other properties. Farmers were forced to join collective farms. Resisters were promptly arrested by the State Protection Authority. The party also maintained strict control over education and cultural life. Rákosi, party general secretary and premier during 1952–1953, was the main proponent of these policies.
The Roman Catholic Church opposed the communists. Primate of the Hungarian church Archbishop József Mindszenty refused to recognize the confiscation of Church lands and nationalization of its schools, and he also refused to hide his conservative social and political views. Accused of being a monarchist, he was arrested in December 1948, tortured, tried and found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison.
Within a few months Rajk found himself on trial. A nationalist revolutionary who enjoyed genuine popularity and was not beholden to Moscow, he was found guilty of treason and spying and was executed in October 1949. Rákosi, a pure Stalinist and the most unsavory of communist East European leaders, now assumed formal control of the Hungarian Workers' Party and was the effective power broker until 1953.
Many Hungarians fell victim to Rákosi's excesses, enforced by the dreaded Allamvedélmi Hivatal (AVH, State Security Authority) secret police. By the summer of 1953, the Hungarian economy was in deep crisis. The party's economic policies carried out under the leadership of Ernő Gerő, president of the National Economic Council, had proven unsuccessful. Forced industrialization and agricultural collectivization combined with unrealistic goals all took a heavy toll. Rákosi, however, failed to deal with the growing problems, and on July 1953 Imre Nagy, now favored by the new Soviet leadership in place following Stalin's death, replaced Rákosi as premier.
Nagy soon introduced a reform program known as the New Course that relaxed the pace of industrialization, allowed peasants to leave collective farms, eased police terror tactics, reformed the bureaucracy, and improved the standard of living. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev became concerned about these reforms, however. When the political climate in Moscow changed in favor of the hard-liner Rákosi, Nagy was forced to resign in the spring of 1955. Rákosi's reappointment and the suspension of Nagy's reforms were greeted with great hostility in Hungary. To stave off widespread general discontent, Rákosi was replaced as general secretary of the party in July 1956 by another hard-liner, Gerő. This was not the best of decisions, as Gerő was just as unpopular as Rákosi. To add to the discontent, the reburial in early October of victims of the earlier purges led to widespread unrest.
All the while, Nagy's popularity was increasing. Intellectuals and journalists demanded the implementation of his reform program. University students were also committed to political change. On 23 October 1956, they scheduled a peaceful demonstration that soon turned violent when shooting erupted between police and the demonstrators. After an emergency meeting of the party Central Committee on the night of 23 October, Nagy was appointed premier. He held this position until 4 November.
During his brief tenure, Nagy attempted to bring events under control, but at first he advocated only moderate reforms. His intention was to implement the political program of his first premiership in 1953. During the first days of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, he offered amnesty to the demonstrators and promised the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Hungary.
Nagy soon realized that his program had been superseded by events when the revolution spread to the rest of the country, with more demands. He therefore agreed to the primary popular demands: the introduction of political pluralism and Hungary's withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. On 1 November he announced that Hungary intended to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact and proclaimed Hungarian neutrality. These developments angered Moscow and ultimately provoked a Soviet military intervention. Soviet forces invaded the country on 4 November, following meetings two days earlier between Soviet authorities and János Kádár, the newly appointed general secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party. Meanwhile, Nagy sought asylum in the Yugoslavian embassy in Budapest.
Kádár immediately denounced the plan for Hungary to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact and, with Soviet military support, took control of the government. On 8 November he announced the formation of a Revolutionary Worker-Peasant Government and its Fifteen-Point Program. The latter included protection of the "people's democratic and socialist system" from attack, an increase in living standards, reduction of the state bureaucracy, increases in agricultural production, and justification for the Red Army's intervention. Nagy, promised free passage out of the country from the Yugoslavian embassy, was arrested on 22 November and imprisoned in Romania.
By June 1957, Kádár had fully stabilized the situation and secured his position as the most prominent Hungarian political leader for the next thirty-two years. He instituted severely repressive countermeasures against the revolution's leaders. Nagy and his fellow reform communists, including Pál Maléter, the minister of defense in the revolutionary government, were tried and executed on 16 June 1958. This caused an international outcry and resulted in several years of political isolation for Kádár's government.
By the late 1960s, however, Kádár began to implement his so-called Goulash Communism. Begun in 1966, this program of economic liberalism allowed some degree of free enterprise in order to bring about a higher standard of living and improved relations with the West. Everyday life became safer and more pleasant. Of all the postwar-era East European communist leaders, Kádár retained power the longest. During the 1960s and 1970s, he quietly implemented most of the reforms that the revolutionists of 1956 had fought for without evoking a backlash from Moscow. During his reign, Hungary was considered the "happiest barracks" in Eastern Europe. In 1977, Pope Paul VI granted Kádár an audience at the Vatican, which symbolically marked the end of Hungary's moral isolation.
In the late 1980s, however, Kádár found it difficult to adapt to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reform initiatives. Indeed, Kádár's presence in the party became an obstacle to reform. Thus, in May 1988 Károly Grósz, a moderate party reformist and Hungary's premier, ousted Kádár and became party general secretary. Kádár was shifted to the ceremonial post of party president.
During his short term in office, Grósz contributed significantly to the transformation of Hungary to a Western-style democracy. In November 1988, Miklós Németh succeeded Grósz as premier. After Gorbachev signaled greater independence for Eastern Europe, Németh began implementing fundamental reforms. His objective was to reintegrate Hungary and the entire region into the world economy and the free market system. He agreed to a state reburial of Imre Nagy and opened the border to East German refugees, triggering a sequence of fundamental international political changes that would bring an end to the division of Germany and an end the Cold War. Németh also decided to order the removal of the barbed-wire fence on Hungary's western border, and he and other party reformers refounded the Hungarian Socialist Party. Németh also signed an agreement for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. During his tenure, a new constitution came into being, Hungary was declared a republic, and a new election system based on political pluralism was implemented. In the spring of 1990, József Antall, whose Hungarian Democratic Forum party won Hungary's first post–Cold War free election, succeeded Németh as premier.
Dunay, Pál. Hungary's Security Policy. Hamburg: Institut für Friedensforschung und Sicherheitspolitik an der Universität Hamburg, 1987.; Schöpflin, George. Hungary between Prosperity and Crisis. London: Institute for the Study of Conflict, 1981.; Szerencsés, Károly. Magyarország története a II. Világháború után, 1945–1975 [History of Hungary after World War II, 1945–1975]. Budapest: IKVA, 1991.