Károlyi, Mihály (1875–1955)

views updated

KÁROLYI, MIHÁLY (1875–1955)


Hungarian democratic politician and president of the Hungarian Republic in January–March 1919.

Mihály, Count Károlyi von Nagykároli, was born in Budapest to one of the oldest and wealthiest of Hungarian aristocratic families. He started his political career in 1901 in the ruling Liberal Party but in 1905 broke off and became the member of parliament of the Independence Party. After the party was reorganized he became its president in 1913. Károlyi heavily criticized the conservatism of the old liberal elite and the selfishness of the Hungarian aristocracy. As he put it in his memoirs, he always felt ashamed of his own wealth in a country where the majority of the people lived in poverty and deprivation. His program urged the extension of democratic liberties, particularly universal suffrage. He opposed militarism and the German orientation of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy's foreign policy. When World War I broke out in August 1914 he took a firm stand against it, notwithstanding public enthusiasm for war.

His political ideas allied him with the civil radicals and the social democrats. Károlyi believed that without democratic reforms and change in the policy of forced assimilation for national minorities—who actually made up the majority of the population—the growing social and national tensions would soon tear apart Hungary. His opponents, and their leading figure, Premier Count István Tisza, were convinced of just the opposite: that yielding to democratic and nationalistic demands would shake the social order and lead to the immediate collapse and disintegration of both the monarchy and Hungary.

As the public became weary of the war, Károlyi's peace agitation received increasing support. He established the leading opposition force, the Károlyi Party, which formed a political coalition, the Suffrage Bloc, with the civil radicals and social democrats. The bloc demanded universal suffrage and the federal reorganization of the monarchy. It also urged immediate peace talks with the Entente Powers. Károlyi, perhaps naively, believed that on the basis of Wilsonian principles fair peace conditions could be attained.

By late October 1918 the monarchy's military forces collapsed. On 31 October 1918 a civil democratic revolution broke out in Budapest. King Charles IV appointed Károlyi, leader of the National Council, as prime minister. The next day, under massive public pressure, the king abdicated and the independent Hungarian Republic was proclaimed. The Károlyi government faced an extremely difficult situation. The initial national and democratic enthusiasm was rapidly fading away. The government was unable to overcome the economic crisis and food shortages. The armies of neighboring states continued to march into and occupy former Hungarian territories with the tacit permission of the Entente. Apparently the government could not stop the disintegration of the country. The Entente Powers put off recognition of the new state and refused offers for negotiations with Károlyi, frustrating his hope that the Entente would appreciate the country's democratic transition.

On 11 January 1919 Károlyi was elected president. He introduced democratic political reforms and initiated modest land reform, which he started with his own lands near Kápolna. Yet he could not strengthen his position in the international field. On 20 March 1919 the Entente resident colonel Ferdinand Vix submitted a memorandum that required Hungary's further retreat from its territories. Károlyi refused to concede the ultimatum and resigned. His resignation led to a takeover by Béla Kun and the Hungarian Bolsheviks.

In July 1919 he and his family emigrated to Paris. In 1921 he was tried in absentia for high treason and his lands and estates were confiscated. Károlyi was disappointed in the western democracies, which had come to terms with the "reactionary," "counterrevolutionary" regime of Governor Miklós Horthy. Károlyi sought partnership with the democratic leaders of neighboring countries, especially with the Czechoslovak president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. Meanwhile his political views became radicalized as he developed socialist and communist ideas. In 1931 he visited the Soviet Union. After Adolf Hitler took power in Germany in 1933, Károlyi's communist sympathies became even stronger. He even contemplated joining the Communist Party. His closest friend and political ally, the Hungarian civil radical politician and émigré Oszkár Jászi, heavily criticized him for his communist inclinations. Yet Károlyi, who had already given up his pacifist views, regarded communism as the single true force that could stop fascism and attain social progress.

During the war Károlyi lived in Great Britain. In 1944 he organized the Movement for the New Democratic Hungary. In May 1946 he returned to his home country and his name was mentioned as a potential candidate for president of the postwar Hungarian People's Republic. Eventually he was appointed Hungary's ambassador to Paris. In 1949 he resigned as an act of protest against the show trial of László Rajk. He lived in France for the rest of his life.

See alsoHorthy, Miklós; Hungary .


Primary Sources

Károlyi, Mihály. Memoirs of Michael Karolyi: Faith without Illusion. Translated by Catherine Károlyi. New York, 1957.

Secondary Sources

Hajdu, Tibor. Károlyi Mihály: Politikai életrajz. Budapest, 1976.

Jemnitz, János, and Litván, György. Szerette az igazságot: Károlyi Mihály élete. Budapest, 1977.

Ormos, Mária. From Padua to the Trianon, 1918–1920. Boulder, Colo., 1990.

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

Seaton-Watson, Hugh. Eastern Europe between the Wars 1918–1941. New York, 1945.

AndrÁs Mink