Kádár, János (1912–1989)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

KÁDÁR, JÁNOS (1912–1989)


Hungarian communist politician.

János Kádár, the leader of Hungary between 1956 and 1988, was born in Fiume (now Rijeka, Croatia) in 1912. Because his father had left the family before his birth, he was brought up by his mother and given her last name, Csermanek. They moved in 1918 to Budapest, where after finishing the primary school he became a typewriter technician's apprentice.


Kádár joined the illegal Communist Party of Hungary in 1931. In 1933 he was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for illegal conspiracy. For acting in a cowardly manner during the police interrogations, the party excluded him. After release he was active in the social democratic movement for several years. In 1941 the communist movement re-embraced him and he got his new alias, Kádár. Soon afterward, he became the first secretary of the domestic party, which by that time had practically broken into fragments. In 1943, after Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) dissolved the Comintern, Kádár dissolved the domestic party and attempted to reorganize it as the Peace Party. In 1944 he was again arrested, but he managed to flee and went into hiding in Budapest till the end of World War II.

Between 1946 and 1951 Kádár held top positions in the party apparatus and in the government. Yet, he did not belong to the innermost power circles during the era of Mátyás Rákosi (1892–1971). His promotion was due to the fact that he was among those few cadres who had no Muscovite past and enjoyed some reputation among the public. He was not an independent policy maker but rather an obedient executor of Rákosi's orders. He was the deputy chief secretary of the ruling Hungarian Workers' Party between 1946 and 1951 and the minister of internal affairs between 1948 and 1950. In this capacity he played a prominent and cruel role in staging the show trial in 1949 of László Rajk, his former comrade in the domestic movement.

In 1951 he was arrested and charged with being a "secret agent" of the prewar political police and the "liquidator" of the party in 1943. He was sentenced to life inprisonment. After Stalin's death in 1953 mass rehabilitations were initiated during the first premiership of Imre Nagy. Kádár was released and rehabilitated in 1954.

As a former victim of the purges, he was regarded as one of the potential challengers of the Rákosi clique, especially by the mid-ranking party apparatus. In July 1956, when Rákosi was replaced, Kádár was elected as a member of the Politburo. On 25 October 1956, two days after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution broke out, he became the first secretary of the party. After the discredited Stalinist party was dissolved on 31 October he was nominated the first secretary of the newly established successor party, the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party (HSWP). Kádár was also minister of state in Imre Nagy's brief revolutionary government in 1956. In a radio speech on 1 November he praised the people's "democratic socialist revolution." That same evening the Russians kidnapped him and took him to Moscow.

He was summoned before the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow on 2–3 November 1956. At the first hearing Kádár opposed military intervention, but the next day he capitulated and assumed the lead of the puppet government. On 4 November, when Soviet troops attacked Budapest, Kádár proclaimed the formation of the Revolutionary Worker-Peasant Government.


In his first speeches he made conciliatory promises: amnesty and the restoration of national symbols. However, he was unable to convince the main actors of the domestic nonviolent resistance—Imre Nagy, the workers' councils, and the intelligentsia—that they should accept the "reality" of the Soviet occupation. In December 1956 Kádár opted to use mass violence to suppress resistance. Mass shootings took place in various cities against peaceful demonstrators; thousands were arrested and hundreds were executed between 1957 and 1962. In June 1958 Imre Nagy and his supporters were also tried and hanged.

From 1956 until 1988 Kádár was the ultimate political authority in Hungary. He was prime minister (1956–1958 and 1961–1965), first secretary (1956–1985), chief secretary (1985–1988), and then president of the HSWP (1988–1989, already an honorary post). Kádár's policy was determined by the shocking experience of the revolution. After 1956 he faced an extremely hostile domestic and international environment. Although his power was based primarily on the party apparatus, the security forces, and the Soviet troops, he realized that a return to the power practices of the Rákosi era was impossible. After more than two decades of war and mass terror the people appreciated his offer for peace, relative autonomy in the private sphere, and modest economic progress. Despite its bloody beginnings, the Kádár regime turned out to be a "soft" dictatorship, as consolidation made considerable progress by the early 1960s. In a speech in December 1961 Kádár reversed the former Stalinist slogan, saying: Who is not against us, is with us! In 1963 he announced amnesty for the political prisoners, most of whom were later released.

Kádár's policy aimed at obtaining the support of the urban petty bourgeoisie, the workers, and the peasantry. The 1956 revolution, the one-party rule, and the country's adherence to the Soviet bloc remained taboos, but the relative freedom in culture and the reduction of the ideological pressure appeased the intelligentsia. The basis of the reconciliation was the guarantee of a perpetual improvement in living standards (goulash communism). Therefore, the regime had to revise the centrally planned economic system and launch cautious economic reforms in 1968. The reforms introduced some market elements aimed at increasing productivity and efficiency without endangering the hegemonic rule of the party. This contradictory claim, however, set forth the limits of the reform policy.

From the mid-1960s Kádár was able to develop a fairly good relationship with the Western democracies. He gained a remarkable reputation as a politician who was able to make peace and exert some independence from Moscow. His policy was widely regarded both at home and abroad as the best available option given the circumstances and as a partial fulfillment of the demands of the 1956 revolution.

In 1968 Kádár subscribed to Czechoslovak intervention in order to preserve his relative autonomy in domestic affairs. Yet in 1972 he was unable to resist the neo-Stalinist turn of the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (1906–1982). The reform in the economy was halted and partly reversed. By the end of the decade the economy gradually sank into depression. The increase of the people's welfare could not be guaranteed any more. Throughout the 1980s the trends of foreign indebtedness and economic depression could not be stopped. Moreover, Kádár, who remained a true communist for all of his life, attempted to push through a conservative leftist turn in 1985 in order to reinforce the economic and ideological foundations of the regime. This only worsened the economic and political crisis. Within the rapidly changing international environment Kádár's "neoconservative" move was rejected even by the technocrats and pragmatists of his own party. In May 1988 he was forced to resign. In April 1989 Kádár gave a speech in front of the Central Committee of HSWP in which he tried to tackle the shadows of his past crimes. The speech indicated that he had been already suffering from a serious mental disorder. He died on 6 July 1989, the very same day that Imre Nagy was rehabilitated by the Hungarian Supreme Court.

See alsoEastern Bloc; Hungary; Nagy, Imre; Warsaw Pact .


Békés, Csaba, Malcolm Byrne, and János Rainer, eds. The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents. Budapest and New York, 2002.

Felkay, Andrew. Hungary and the USSR, 1956–1988: Kádár's Political Leadership. New York, 1989.

Gati, Charles. Hungary and the Soviet Bloc. Durham, N.C., 1986.

Huszár, Tibor. Kádár János politikai életrajza, 1912–1956. Budapest, 2001. The single full biography of Kádár published after 1989.

Kis, János. "The Restoration of 1956–1957 in a Thirty Years Pespective." In his Politics in Hungary: For a Democratic Alternative, translated by Gábor J. Follinus. Boulder, Colo., 1989.

Mink, András. "The Kádár of History." Budapest Review of Books 11, nos. 1–4 (2001).

Romsics, Ignác. Hungary in the Twentieth Century. Budapest, 1999.

Shawcross, William. Crime and Compromise: Janos Kadar and the Politics of Hungary since the Revolution. London, 1974.

Varga, László. Kádár János bírái elõtt: Egyszer fent, egyszer lent, 1945–1956. Budapest, 2001. The volume contains an analysis and archival documents on Kádár's role in the Rajk trial in 1949 and of his own trial and rehabilitation from 1951 to 1956.

AndrÁs Mink