May in Hungarian History

We begin our survey of May in Hungarian history with a look at the life of one of the more controversial figures in twentieth century Hungarian life, Janós Kádár.

János Kádár

János Kádár

May is the month in which he was born, on 26 May 1912 in Fiume, and on 22 May 1988 his long political career ended when, plagued by ill-health and clear signs of senility, he was removed from the Politburo and replaced as General Secretary by the then Prime Minister Károly Grósz. And in between those 76 years, what do we make of his life and career? For many he was the man who invited the Soviets in 1956 and saw to the crushing of the Revolution, including the execution of its leaders, including Imre Nagy. So for many Hungarians he has blood on his hands. Yet I know of more than one Hungarian who liked and respected Kádár. They see him as someone who, the events of 1956 notwithstanding, oversaw nearly three decades of peace, prosperity and a degree of freedom not experienced in other Communist countries. Eventually, life under a Kádár-ruled Hungary was not so bad, they say. A few things are clear about Kádár – he was a life-long Communist who despite the ups and downs of his career never wavered in his ideological beliefs; he led a Spartan, puritan-like life and actively avoided any “personality” politics; and he ruled Hungary for longer than any other leader in modern times. But ultimately he was the victim of the truism “all political careers end in failure” 1 : the re-burial of Imre Nagy in 1989, the man Kádár had sent to the gallows, signified the end of his regime and all he had stood for. Kádár himself died a few weeks after Nagy’s reburial but by then he was irrelevant to Hungarian life, his legacy at best uncertain.

Turning from politics to more cultural matters, May is the birth month of one of my favourite Hungarian painters, Béla Iványi-Grünwald who was born on 6 May 1867. Initially a pupil of Bertalan Székely and Károly Lotz, he studied in Munich and Paris before joining the Nagybanya artists group.



An example of his early work is Devotion (Ave Maria) showing meticulous drawing and restrained use of colour, Once at Nagybanya his style naturally changed and became much more impressionistic. His “Spring Excursion” is a fine example of the plein-air style and while very close to the French Impressionist style, is still distinctly Hungarian in feel. Iványi-Grünwald eventually settled in Kecskémet where he founded his own artists’ colony.

Another significant figure in Hungarian cultural life, Miklós Radnóti, was also born in May, on the 5th, 1909. He is one of Hungary’s greatest twentieth century poets and his works are the most translated on any Hungarian poet. His poems are of the utmost beauty and have a grace and power born of truly loving spirit. Yet death is a common theme of his poetry – not surprising given that his mother died giving birth to him and his twin brother was still-born; his father died when Radnóti was barely a teenager. It is however the manner of his own death that gives his life and poetry real meaning. As a Hungarian Jew he was not drafted into the regular army but instead was forced to serve in labour-camp service. In late 1944 his squad was forced marched to Abda in north-west Hungary where he along with twenty-two others were shot by their guards and buried in a mass grave. His body has later exhumed and a notebook of poems was found sewn into his clothing. These formed part of a posthumous volume of his poetry known as Foamy Sky (Tajtékos ég) that truly established his reputation as a great poet. His last poem, written a week before his death, Razglednica (4), [Serbian for ‘postcard’] has become perhaps the most famous poem of the holocaust. Only seven lines long, it is worth showing in full here

I fell next to him. His body rolled over.
It was tight as a string before it snaps.
Shot in the back of the head – ’This is how
you’ll end.’ ‘Just lie quietly,’ I said to myself.
Patience flowers into death now.
‘Der springt noch auf(*). I heard above me.
Dark filthy blood was drying on my ear.

Translated by Steven Polgár.
(*)”This one might get away yet”

Gyula Krúdy

Gyula Krúdy

May marks the death of another titan of the Hungarian literary scene, Gyula Krúdy who passed away on 12 May 1933. A contemporary and friend of Ady, Krúdy established his reputation was a writer of class with his Sinbad stories. Here he tells about the adventures, amorous and otherwise, of the timeless, nostalgic ridden Sinbad. No doubt many of these stories have their basis in Krúdy own tremendous love of life and its many pleasures. But he tells these stories in a mystical, sad yet hopeful manner. His prose has a rhythm and a music that draws you into the phantasmagorical, dream-like world of Sinbad and keeps you there. The world he describes is manifestly Hungarian in tone, colour and feel. Fortunately these works are now available in English translation so his works have a much wider audience.

Several other great Hungarian writers departed this earth in the month of May including Jókai Mór on 5 May 1904, Áron Tamási on 26 May 1966, Kálmán Mikszáth on 28 May 1910, and in more recent times the poet János Pilinszky died on 27 May 1981.

If we can return briefly to politics two current political figures celebrate birthdays this month, Katalin Szili, who visited New Zealand recently, turned 50 on 13May and Viktor Orbán celebrated 43 years on 31 May. One suspects with recent political events, it wasn’t the happiest of celebrations.

We will end this brief survey of Hungarian history and personalities with a connection to the month of May with a look at the life of Artúr Görgey, the military leader of the 1848-49 War of Independence, who died on 21 May 1916 at the remarkable age of 98. After playing a key role in some of the early military success of 1848, he was appointed as supreme commander of the Hungarian forces by Kossuth. However differences between himself and Kossuth surfaced as they argued over the conduct of the war, the role of the army and the place of the Monarchy. By early 1849 Görgy was suspected of treason after several of his offices went over to the Imperial side. Nonetheless as the military and political situation deteriorated throughout that year, Kossuth would eventually resign and hand over power to Görgy. A few days later Kossuth wrote to him saying, “I should consider it treason if you were not to exploit every reasonable opportunity to save the nation. I should consider it treason if you begin negotiations, not in the name of the nation but in the name and interests of the army.”

Hungarian Troops Surrender to the Russians at Világos

Hungarian Troops Surrender to the Russians at Világos

But two months later Görgy surrendered to the Russians at Világos and thus became to many a traitor, “Hungary’s Judas”, and remained so for ever in the eyes of many. He was pardoned in 1867 and lived out the rest of his life in Hungary, vilified by many and humiliated in public. But in his last years and in recent historiography he is seen him in a different, more generous light. History can be both a cruel and a forgiving judge, as the heirs to János Kádár may one day discover.


1. Attributed to the British politician Enoch Powell who said, All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs. * Enoch Powell, Joseph Chamberlain (Thames and Hudson, 1977), p. 151. Back to Post

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