Kun, Béla (1886–1938 or 1939)

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KUN, BÉLA (1886–1938 or 1939)


Hungarian communist politician and revolutionary.

Béla Kun, the leader of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, was born in Szilágycseh, Transylvania, into the family of a lower-ranking public clerk of Jewish origin. In 1902, at the age of sixteen, he joined the local branch of the Social Democratic Party of Hungary in Kolozsvár (Cluj, Romania). In 1905 he broke off his studies in law and became a journalist. He was sentenced in 1907 to six months in jail for a radical leaflet he wrote in support of a construction workers' strike. After his release he worked for the Workers Indemnity Fund in Kolozsvár and became an influential figure of the leftist faction of the Social Democrats in Transylvania. In 1914 he was conscripted and dispatched with his regiment to the eastern (Russian) front. In summer 1916 Kun was captured and taken to a prisoner-of-war camp in Tomsk, Russia.

The Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 reached Tomsk in December. Kun, who had already joined the Bolshevik faction, left for Petrograd. There he got involved in the activities of former Hungarian POWs. On 24 March 1918 Kun presided at the formation of the Hungarian Group of the Communist (Bolshevik) Party of Russia. In May 1918 he became president of the international federation of Socialist POWs. He also played a role in the suppression of the Social Revolutionaries' rebellion in Moscow in July 1918.

Kun returned to Hungary in November 1918 and became the unchallenged leader of the leftist radicals in Budapest. His pamphlet What Do the Communists Want? had been disseminated in Hungary months before his return. On 24 November 1918 he established the Communist Party of Hungary in a private apartment in Budapest.

The political situation in Hungary was chaotic. After the civil democratic revolution on 31 October 1918, the new government led by Count Mihály Károlyi could not control the situation and halt the disintegration of the country. Kun was an original theoretician who proved to be a genuine talent in revolutionary tactics. In Russia he had became a fanatic follower of Leninist ideas and the Bolshevik Revolution. Like the Soviet leaders at that time he believed that the worldwide proletarian revolution was under way and his mission was to facilitate this development in Hungary.

The Communists' tactic of "the worse the better" targeted the Social Democrats in particular. Their chief organ, Vörös újság (Red newspaper), tried to radicalize the discontented workers and launched harsh attacks on the Social Democratic leaders who "bent to the will of the bourgeoisie." However, this tactic was largely unsuccessful until the end of February 1919. On 21 February, after a shooting, Kun was arrested and severely injured by some police officers. This incident raised sympathy for him. During the next three weeks, in the prison, Kun carried on negotiations with left-wing Social Democratic leaders. In the meantime the government found itself at a dead end after rejecting the Vix memorandum, in which the Allies demanded further retreat from Hungarian territories. President Károlyi resigned on 21 March. On the very same day, the Communists and Social Democrats declared unification as the Socialist Party of Hungary and proclaimed the Soviet Republic of Hungary. Kun, the leader of the new government, assumed the positions of both foreign minister and defense minister.

Kun was aware that chances were slight of his regime remaining in power. Yet initially, many intellectuals (prominent writers, artists, university professors, journalists) who believed that further social reforms were inevitable expressed modest loyalty toward the new regime. More importantly, a significant part of the public, including a great number of military officers of the former army, regarded his takeover as the last chance to halt the disintegration of the country and achieve fair peace conditions with the Entente, which, on the other hand, showed no inclination to treat the Hungarian Soviet government as a negotiating partner. Fearing that the "Bolshevik infection" might spread to other parts of the continent, the Entente encouraged the governments of neighboring countries to continue their military progress on Hungarian land. However, Kun was able to mobilize the Budapest workers by relying upon their national sentiments. The reorganized Hungarian Red Army launched a successful counterattack on the northern front line against the troops of the new Czechoslovak state in May. This success temporarily stabilized his government.

However, Kun's policy rapidly destroyed the initial hopes of the Hungarian public. Kun placed all his trust in the expected progress of the Bolshevik Revolution in Germany and in Europe. Therefore, instead of appeasing the public he opted for creating a proletarian dictatorship as radically as possible. The lands, factories, and banks were nationalized; the government refused to carry out land reform and it put the whole economy under strict central control. This intransigent policy quickly alienated both the urban and rural populations. The regime was unable to tackle the economic and military crisis. Forced requisitions in the rural areas provoked resistance. Harsh living conditions as well as forced recruitment for the Red Army led to strikes even among the working class in June and July. In order to suppress the resistance the regime set up special units such as the Cserny commando (called the "Lenin guys") and applied revolutionary "red" terror. These units committed mass murders in several areas of the country. Their actions provoked such outrage that in July, under pressure from the leaders of the Social Democrats, Kun dissolved the Cserny commando. Nevertheless, the Red Terror was the first occasion in the history of the modern Hungarian state when state authorities applied (unwarranted, illegal) violence against civilians. However, the counterrevolutionary regime that succeeded Kun's greatly exaggerated the scale of the Red Terror and the number of its victims. These leaders wanted to justify the horrendous crimes of their own so-called officer commandos, the Héjjas and Prónay units, during the White Terror in 1919 and 1920 against alleged Communists who were in fact mostly innocent bystanders (intellectuals, shopkeepers) of Jewish origin. The Jewish origin of Kun and many of his comrades would become the main topic of regime propaganda during the interwar period, which laid a new and long-lasting foundation for political anti-Semitism in Hungary. (The comparison of "red" and "white" terror and the suggested relationship between Jews and "liberalism/leftism/communism" that was responsible for the fall of royal Hungary is still a subject of pseudo-historical, ideological, and political debates.)

In order to save his regime and gain the recognition of the Entente powers, Kun on 30 June accepted the ultimatum of French premier Georges Clemenceau and withdrew his troops from those areas the Hungarian Red Army had occupied during its campaign in May. This move undermined his reputation as a leader capable of defending the country. Many believed that Kun subordinated the interests of the nation to the interests of his own increasingly unpopular regime. Discipline within the army quickly deteriorated, and by the end of July the Hungarian Red Army practically collapsed. Kun and his government resigned on 1 August 1919 and fled to Vienna, then to Moscow.

In the following years Kun held various positions in the Comintern and in the apparatus of the Soviet Communist Party. The émigré Hungarian party was severely split on the future prospects of a quick return to Hungary. Kun, still the leader of the party, miscalculated the potential domestic support of the Communists on Hungarian soil. His faulty decisions resulted in the collapse of the underground movement in Hungary, which also tarnished his reputation within the Comintern. In 1937 he fell victim to Joseph Stalin's Great Purges. After his former boss and friend Grigory Zinoviev was tried and executed, Kun was arrested. Sources are contradictory on his eventual fate: either he was shot to death in August 1938, or, as stated by the final order of his posthumous "rehabilitation" procedure in 1956, he died in prison on 30 November 1939.

See alsoCommunism; Hungary; Károlyi, Mihály; Purges .


Borsányi, György. The Life of a Communist Revolutionary, Béla Kun. Boulder, Colo., 1993.

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

Tőkés, Rudolf L. Béla Kun and the Hungarian Soviet Republic: The Origins and Role of the Communist Party of Hungary in the Revolutions of 1918–1919. New York, 1967.

AndrÁs Mink