{3-787.} The Socialist Alternative: A Soviet Republic

On 21 March 1919, a Republic of Councils was proclaimed in Budapest — the second 'proletarian state' after that established by the bolsheviks in Russia. It brought the promise of radical historical change for the peoples of the Danubian Basin. Left-wing social democrats and communists — former prisoners-of-war who had participated in the Russian revolution — came together in a new Socialist Party and formed a Revolutionary Governing Council. The régime's dominant figure was the communist commissar for foreign affairs, Béla Kun, who had begun his career in the socialist movement at Kolozsvár. Hungary's new masters hoped to win the support of the country's labouring masses by pursuing an alliance policy that gathered all 'wage-earners' — blue-collar workers, white-collar workers, and even writers (who were regarded as 'intellectual proletarians') — into the category of proletarians.

The Councils Republic adopted fundamentally new foreign and minority policies and tried to adapt these to changing conditions. It did not commit itself to preserving the territorial integrity of historical Hungary, and it distanced itself from the nationalities policy of Károlyi's democratic government. On the other hand, the new régime rejected the Vix memorandum, for it was not prepared to hand over territory to the armies of neighbouring states that pursued or served imperialistic objectives. In its inaugural proclamations, the régime promised to liberate by force the country's mining and food-producing regions, vowed to wage war against (amongst others) 'the Romanian boyars,' and invited the proletarians of other countries — including Romania — to form an alliance with their Hungarian comrades. In a display of legalism, the régime drafted its decrees as if they applied to the whole country; thus the nationalization of urban apartment buildings nominally covered Kolozsvár, Brassó, and Marosvásárhely, although it was clearly impossible to implement the measure in the occupied territories. The Councils {3-788.} Republic linked the solution of the ethnic problem to the cause of proletarian revolution and the prospect of a new order. Its leaders firmly believed that the revolutionary workers' movement would bring about the victory of socialism and abolish borders to form a unified multi-national state. The first step toward this was the establishment of 'a federative republic, a brotherly union of workers,' beginning with the liberated regions and the neighbouring peoples. (A decree issued on 2 April prescribed the formation of national councils for each ethnic group. Germans and Ruthenes were granted full right to self-determination, and all languages could be used for written and oral communication with government offices.) The constitution, drafted by Kun, stated that the Socialist Allied Republic of Councils of Hungary — 'the free alliance of free peoples of the Republic of Councils' — was to be a federative proletarian republic made up of councils republics and self-governing bodies.

At the time when the régime took office, all of historic Transylvania was already under the control of the royal Romanian army and the Nagyszeben administration. The present state of research does not allow for comprehensive assessment of the impact that the Hungarian Republic of Councils may have had on Transylvania. Communist influence in the region had been growing since December; hundreds of Romanian soldiers deserted to join the Hungarian Red Army; and some of the Hungarians in that army would subsequently figure prominently in the communist movement. In early April, railwaymen launched a general strike, and hundreds of them were arrested. New directorates and Socialist Party organizations were formed in Nagyvárad, Nagykároly, Szatmárnémeti, and other localities lying west of the 'front line.' In Nagyvárad, left-wingers had formed a majority in the Social Democratic Party even before the revolution, and they now raised, within one week, several battalions of workers for the new Red Army; 42 percent of the city's population participated in the council {3-789.} elections held in early April, roughly the same proportion as in Budapest.

In rural areas, the political situation was quite different. Larger villages, such as Tasnád and Élesd, soon rallied to the Councils Republic. The Romanian communist faction at Nagyvárad tried to conduct propaganda even in areas under Romanian military control, disseminating Romanian-language newspapers and leaflets, but met with little success. Led by nationalists, most of the half-million Romanians in the region remained indifferent or hostile to Red power, which they tended to identify with visiting agitators from the towns or with the rather apolitical but bellicose soldiers of the Székely Division. The decrees aimed at improving the social circumstances of workers were implemented in most of the eastern districts under the control of the Councils Republic, but the impact was slight, for the liquidation of communist rule began in the same regions.

From the start, the Entente powers displayed great — if somewhat differentiated — hostility towards the Hungarian Republic of Councils. The new régime nevertheless had a greater international impact than its predecessor. On March 24, Béla Kun addressed to the Great Powers a memorandum calling for settlement of frontier issues on the basis of authentic national self-determination. A few weeks later, the peace conference dispatched General Smuts to Budapest with a proposal for a new demarcation line that lay some 25 kilometres eastward of the line specified in the Vyx memorandum. The districts of Nagyszalonta, Nagyvárad, and Szatmárnémeti would thus be spared Romanian military rule, although they were to be neutralized and withdrawn from Budapest's authority. Kun's counter-proposal, based on the terms of the Belgrade armistice, aimed at a more favourable bargain, including free transit to Transylvania; more importantly, it called for a meeting — under the auspices of the peace conference — of representatives from Hungary and its neighbours, to discuss borders as well as future {3-790.} forms of economic cooperation. However, France, being short of military resources, wanted the Czechs and Romanians to declare war on Hungary, and its belligerent attitude prevailed over England's more accommodating policy. Organized in the field by General Franchet d'Esperey, the military operation against the Hungarian Republic of Councils was hampered by the Belgrade government's refusal to participate and by the Czechs' unpreparedness. The Romanians, on the other hand, wanted to ensure the success of their territorial demands by maximizing the extent of military occupation; their longer-term objective was to forestall a link-up between the Hungarian and Russian soviet republics and the spread of communism in the Danubian Basin; on April 10, the crown council in Bucharest decided in favour of an attack.

On April 15, the Romanians launched a powerful offensive along the entire Hungarian–Romanian demarcation line. The Székely units, deployed along a 130-kilometre-long line extending from Técs through Szatmár to Csucsa, bore the brunt of the attack. The Székely Division was the foster child of the revolution. Most of its officers were basically apolitical, which in the circumstances meant that they opposed the revolution, and they came under the influence of counter-revolutionary politicians who had already attempted to mount a coup against the Budapest régime. At the time when the proletarian dictatorship was proclaimed, the division — with its 12,000 soldiers and 649 officers — was the largest Hungarian military unit, and the only one that was adequately equipped and battle-ready. Although the division had the backing of the central military command, its relations with the new régime were marked by mutual suspicion. Indeed, in early April, Colonel Kratochwil asked the French to allow his troops to return to Transylvania. The circumstances remain unclear, but he apparently offered to turn his division against the communists — as long as the Romanians did not cross the demarcation line. The Romanians' offensive aborted this initiative. The Hungarians were driven out of {3-791.} Szatmár, Nagyvárad, and, on April 23, of Debrecen as well; troops were retreating in some disorder along the entire front. The Székely Division initially put up a fight, suffering severe losses, then pulled back, and finally broke contact with Budapest. On 26 April, its commanders negotiated a cease-fire with a Romanian cavalry division; they agreed to surrender and even to be kept in internment camps if the Romanians freed their families and allowed the latter to return to their homes. A communist officer rallied some of the soldiers to join other Székely forces, and they remained loyal to the revolutionary government until the end.

The French forces began their advance on 27 April, occupying Makó and Hódmezővásárhely; the Czechs advanced in the northeast and joined up with the Romanians at Munkács. A desperate Béla Kun sent messages, first to Woodrow Wilson, then to the governments at Prague, Belgrade, and Bucharest (with a copy to Nagyszeben); hoping to win breathing space, he accepted without qualification 'all the national-territorial demands' of the neighbouring countries. By 1 May, the Romanians had reached the Tisza River north of Szeged, and thus extended their zone of occupation beyond that specified in either the Vyx memorandum or the secret Bucharest treaty of 1916. Resorting to harsh measures, they swept away all trace of the communist republic in the areas under their control.

A new front line was consolidated along the Tisza River. In cease-fire talks with the Hungarians, the Romanian military commanders threatened to renew their offensive, but they would not take this risk without the Entente's active support. In the event, the peace conference vetoed further operations. The Hungarians, for their part, began to strengthen their defences and drew some encouragement from the news that the Russian Soviet Republic (which was the Hungarian régime's only ally) was planning a major offensive at the Dniester River to relieve the pressure.

{3-792.} On May 30, the Hungarian Red Army launched an offensive in the northeast. The plan was to drive a wedge between the Czechs and the Romanians, and, after the former had been defeated, to cross the Tisza and attack the latter. The ultimate goal was to liberate Ruthenia and join up with the the Soviet red armies in Ukraine. In the meantime, the Hungarians abstained from a major attack on the Romanians, although they did succeed, after some minor battles, to expel the latter from the right bank of the Tisza around Nyíregyháza. The northern campaign met with some initial success, which allowed for the establishment of a Slovak Republic of Councils and led the peace conference to consider inviting Hungary to the talks.

On 13 June, in what amounted to a dictate, Clemenceau made public the decision (actually reached in March) regarding Hungary's borders; he did promise that as soon the Hungarians surrendered the newly-occupied territories in the northeast, Romanian troops would be withdrawn from some of the territory east of the Tisza River. In his reply, Béla Kun did not reject the dictate outright but protested at the injustice of the frontier line. Paris finally issued an ultimatum demanding the evacuation of the northern regions. The Hungarians complied, but the Romanians did not pull back from the Tisza; the Brătianu government thus expressed its dissatisfaction with the new boundary, which left Romania with less territory than had been promised in the secret treaty. On 20 July, the Hungarian Red Army launched an offensive — perhaps too precipitously — to liberate the districts beyond the Tisza assigned to Hungary in Clemenceau's plan. After some initial successes, the Hungarians were pushed back to the Tisza by the Romanian army, which enjoyed a superiority in numbers and, thanks to the Entente, in equipment as well. On July 30, three Romanian divisions crossed the Tisza and began to march on the capital. Over the next two days, the Hungarian Red Army became fragmented, the troops were ordered to cease fire, and the Governing Council resigned. {3-793.} The 2nd Székely Brigade withdrew in good order all the way to Sopron.

The Hungarian Republic of Councils collapsed, and so did the vision of a new social order in the Danubian Basin — a goal that had taken precedence over ethnic and territorial issues. Thanks to the Entente, the stage was set for the reinstitution of a conservative social order, one that would be more than ever dominated by the spirit of nationalism.