- Hungary from the Nazis to the Soviets: The Establishment of the Communist Regime in Hungary, 1944–1948
Peter Kenez writes that “nationalist and conservative politicians . . . partial to a certain exclusivist, almost racialist nationalism . . . date the beginning of Soviet oppression at the end of the war. . . . Liberal and socialist historians by contrast look favorably at the achievements of social revolution that took place at the end of the Second World War” (p. 289). But no “racial exclusivism” is needed to describe the 1945–1948 transitional period as pre-Stalinization. The debate should be decided by the weight of the evidence presented.
Kenez argues that Soviet policy was improvised and evolved gradually from the end of the Second World War through the imposition of Communist control and that legitimate hopes for democracy survived until the middle of 1947. In 1944, according to Kenez, Josif Stalin did not foresee two opposing blocs. Soviet foreign policy changed because harsh domestic controls were reimposed in 1946. This led to the cutting of ties with the outside world, especially the West. By mid-1947 Soviet leaders were no longer concerned about the Western response to their actions. But one could [End Page 133] argue that even in 1945 the Soviet authorities disregarded Western complaints about the lack of free access to Hungary, which Moscow treated as its closed sphere from the outset. Characteristically, the Soviet political representative Georgii Pushkin responded to a U.S. request for civilian landing rights that it would be easier for them to get landing rights in the USSR itself.
According to Kenez, Soviet leaders initially assumed that power would be shared in Eastern European states between Communist and non-Communist parties. Soviet support for the coalition government in Hungary, he argues, was genuine. “It would be a mistake to conclude . . . that the Russians constantly pushed the Hungarians in a radical direction. In fact the opposite is likely” (p. 50). Communist leaders took for granted that their ultimate task was to establish a Communist regime, but “from the available evidence it appears that the Soviet leadership and therefore their Hungarian inferiors expected a far longer transition period than in fact occurred.” This is not a new argument. Charles Gati presented it in 1986. But Kenez does not convincingly back it up. Neither does he support his argument that the Soviet Union never pushed the Hungarians in a radical direction. For instance, in the summer of 1945 Pushkin forced the Social Democrats to accept the Communist candidate, Sándor Rónai, for justice minister. Rónai posed as a Social Democrat but was in fact a clandestine Communist. Kenez recounts how after the election of 1945 Stalin instructed the Communists to take over the ministry of interior. But Kenez misses an important point. Initially the Communists ceded this post to the victorious Smallholders with the consent of the Allied Control Commission (ACC) chairman Kliment Voroshilov. However, Soviet leaders overruled both Voroshilov and Moscow’s Hungarian protégés and reversed the agreement.
Kenez shows how determined the Communists were to become the dominant political power. A case in point was the secret police, which “was in communist hands and . . . could arrest and hold in prison any one it desired without any legal niceties.” The head of the secret police was appointed by the Communist party without government control. In addition to the secret police, the other police forces were also dominated by Communists or fellow travelers. So were the local governments, which never reflected the results of the 1945 election.
The ACC was crucial in the implementation of Soviet policy. Kenez writes that Voroshilov “had considerable standing in the Soviet hierarchy and personal ties with Stalin that allowed him a degree of independence” (p. 64). In reality, Voroshilov had already lost favor with Stalin, and he was overruled on at least two occasions: on the assignment of the ministry of interior and for the way he handled the rules of the 1945 election. Soviet officials closely supervised every aspect of life...