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Béla Kun

Béla Kun (February 20, 18861939?) was a Hungarian Communist who ruled Hungary for a brief time in 1919.


Early Career

Kun was born Bela Kohn in Cehu Silvaniei (Szilagycseh) a village in Transylvania. His father was a lapsed Jew, and his mother was a lapsed Protestant. His father was the village notary. He Magyarized his name to Kun in 1906.

Though Kun was indifferent, if not hostile to all forms of religion, his original Jewish surname was to be the cause of much anti-semitic prejudice against him later in his career. Despite his secular upbringing, Kun was educated at a famous Calvinist kollegium (grammar school) in the city of Kolozsvar (modern Cluj-Napoca, Romania).

While there, Kun was friends with the famous poet Endre Ady, who introduced Kun to many members of Budapest's left-wing intelligentsia. Also at the kollegium Kun won the prize for best essay on Hungarian literature that allowed him to attend a Gymnasium school. Kun's essay was on the poet Sandor Petofi and his concluding paragraphs were "The storming rage of Petofi's soul...turned against the privileged classes, against the people's oppressor...and confronted them with revolutionary abandon. Petofi felt that the country would not be saved through moderation, but through the use of the most extreme means available. He detested even the thought of cowardice... Petofil's vision was correct. There is no room for prudence in revolutions whose fate and eventual success is always decided by boldness and raw courage...this is why Petofi condemned his compatriots for the sin of opportunism and hesitation when faced with the great problems of their age...Petofi's works must be regarded as the law of the Hungarian soul..and of of the country"1.

Before the First World War, he was a muck-raking journalist with sympathies for the Hungarian Social Democratic Party in Kolozsvar. In addition, Kun served on the Kolozsvar Social Insurance Board, from which Kun was later to be accused of embezzling. Kun had a fiery reputation and was several times involved in duels. In May 1913, Kun married a beautiful music teacher of middle-class background named Iren Gal.

Kun fought for Austria-Hungary in the First World War. He was captured as a prisoner of war in 1916 by the Russians. He was sent to a P.O.W. camp in the Urals mountains of Russia, where he became a Communist.

In 1917, Kun was caught up in what he regarded as the romance of the Russian Revolution, which fulfilled for him spiritual needs that been previously unsatisfied. Paradoxically, Kun held Russians to a certain degree in contempt, feeling that Communism was much better suited to "civilized" nations such as Hungary rather than "barbaric" Russia. During his time in Russia, Kun became fluent in Russian. Kun was also fluent in German and was competent at English.

In March 1918, in Moscow, Kun was a founding member of the Hungarian Group of the Russian Communist Party, the predecessor to the Hungarian Communist Party. During the Russian Civil War in 1918, he fought for the Bolsheviks. During this time, Kun first started to make detailed plans for exporting Communism to Hungary, though characteristically he paid no thought as to what he would do if he took power. In November 1918, Kun, with at least several hundred other Hungarian Communists, returned to Hungary.

To the Soviet Republic

In Hungary, the resources of a shattered government were further strained by refugees from lands lost to the Allies during the war and that were due to be lost permanently under the projected Treaty of Trianon. Further damaging Hungary were rampant inflation, housing shortages, mass unemployment, food shortages and coal shortages. In October 1918, there had occurred the Chrysanthemum Revolution, which had established an shaky democratic coalition government. Kun founded the Hungarian Communist Party in Budapest on November 4, 1918.

Kun immediately began a highly energetic propaganda campaign against the government. Kun and his followers engaged in venomous and slanderous attacks against the President, Count Mihály Károlyi and his Social Democratic allies. Kun, who was a good speaker, gave fifteen to twenty speeches every day, and the rest of the Communists were supposed to match his example. In addition, Kun founded an newspaper called Vörös Újság (Red News) and wrote countless pamphlets and, as he was an equally good writer, was widely well-read that winter of 1918-19.

Kun's speeches had considerable impact on audiences. One who heard Kun speak wrote in his diary: "Yesterday I heard Kun was an audacious, hateful, enthusiastic oratory. He is a hard-looking man with an head of a bull, thick hair, and moustache, not so much Jewish, but peasant features, would best describe his face...He knows his audience and rules over them...Factory workers long at odds with the Social Democratic Party leaders, young intellectuals, teachers, doctors, lawyers, clerks who came to his Kun and Marxism"2. .

In addition, the Communists held frequent marches and rallies and organized strikes. Desiring to attempt a Communist revolution, which, lacking mass support, could only be a coup, he communicated by telegraph with Russian Communist leader Vladimir Lenin3. In this way, Kun acquired an sizable following, though the Social Democrats, who were Hungary's largest party, continued to dwarf the Communists.

On February 22, 1919, the Communists led a rowdy demonstration outside the Social Democratic newspaper Nepszava that ended in a shootout that killed four policemen. After this incident, Kun was arrested and charged with high treason. After his arrest, the Budapest police subjected Kun to anti-Semitic insults and gave him a brutal beating in the full view of a tabloid reporter.

The news of the beating and Kun's response to it brought Kun much public sympathy. Kun forgave his enemies in the manner of Christ. Everything that is known about Kun's character suggests that this was merely an ploy for public support. Kun remained in prison until March 21, 1919.

On March 19, 1919 the French Colonel Fernand Vyx presented the Vyx Note ordering Hungarian forces to be pulled back further from where they were stationed. It was assumed that the military lines would be the new frontiers that would be established by the peace conference between Hungary and the Allies.

The Vyx Note created an huge upsurge of nationalist outrage, and the Hungarians resolved to fight the Allies rather then accept it. Karolyi resigned from office in favor of the Social Democrats. For their part, the Social Democrats realized Hungary needed allies for the coming war and, in their view, the only ally on offer was Soviet Russia. As Kun was known to be friendly with Lenin, it was assumed that including him in the government would bring Soviet aid for war against the Allies.

As such, the Social Democrats got in touch with Kun. Such was the desperation for the Social Democrats to have Kun in the government and receive the Soviet support Kun promised that it was the captive who dictated the terms to his captors. The fact that the Red Army was fully involved in the Russian Civil War apparently did not occur to anyone.

Kun demanded the merger of the Social Democrat and Communist parties, the proclamation of a Soviet Republic and a host of other radical measures. Every one of Kun's demands was agreed to. On March 21, 1919, a Soviet Republic was announced, the Social Democrats and Communists were merged under the interim name Hungarian Socialist Party, Kun was released from prison and sworn into office. Kun did not seize power; rather it was the Social Democrats who gave Kun power on an platter.

The extent to which Social Democrats were the larger element in the Socialist Party can be seen from the fact that of the thirty-three People's Commissars of the Revolutionary Governing Council that ruled the Soviet Republic, fourteen were former Communists, seventeen were former Social Democrats, and two were linked to no party. With the exception of Kun, every Commissar was a former Social Democrat and every Deputy Commissar was a former Communist.

The Soviet Republic, 1919

On March 21, 1919, Kun and the small Communist Party made their move, establishing the Hungarian Soviet Republic, the second Communist government in Europe after Russia itself. In the Soviet Republic, Kun served as Commissar for Foreign Affairs, but he was the dominant personality in the government during its brief existence. As Kun reported to Lenin: "My personal influence in the Revolutionary Governing Council is such that the dictorship of the proletariat is firmly established, since the masses are backing me"4.

The first act of the new government was to nationalize virtually all private property in Hungary. Contrary to advice from Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Béla Kun's government refused to redistribute land to the peasantry, thereby alienating the majority of the population. Instead, Kun declared that all land was to converted into collective farms and for the lack of anyone qualified to run them, kept former estate owners, managers and bailiffs as the new collective farm managers.

In an effort to win peasant support, Kun cancelled all taxes in rural areas, which in fact hurt the government as the peasants took the view that any government that would not collect taxes was by definition a weak government. The Soviet Republic made worse the problem of inflation by printing more money and proved incapable of solving the housing shortage. To provide food for the cities, the Soviet Republic resorted to food requisitioning in the countryside through a collection of thugs known as the Lenin Boys.

Within the Socialist Party, there was an very bitter but ultimately pointless dispute over the permanent name of the party. The former Social Democrats wanted the name Hungarian Socialist Worker's Party while the former Communists wanted the name Hungarian Socialist Communist Worker's Party. Within the ranks of the former Communists, there were disagreements between the rural former Communists who maintained a chiliastic attitude and the urban former Communists.

Had the Soviet Republic not fallen when it did, Kun might have liquidated the rural former Communists. As it was, the task of killing the rural Communists fell upon the Horthy regime which staged a White Terror in 1919-20.

To eliminate his opponents, Kun resorted to the Red Terror via the Secret Police, Revolutionary Tribunals and the Lenin Boys; however, the numbers of his victims were low, ranging, depending on whose estimate one goes by, from 370 to 587 executed5. For those who claimed the Soviet Republic was a Jewish dictatorship, it worth pointing out that 7.4% to 11.9% (estimates vary) of those shot during the Red Terror were Jewish6.

The major limiting factor on the Red Terror was the former Social Democrats who objected to the arbitrary violence practiced by the Communists. Opposition appeared to be centered on the city of Szeged and around Rear Admiral Miklós Horthy, who formed a National Army to fight the Soviet Republic. However, the National Army never saw action and only marched in Budapest after the withdrawal of the Romanians in November.

The government only lasted for 133 days, falling on August 1, 1919. The Soviet Republic had been formed to resist the Vyx Note, and created the Hungarian Red Army to do so. Given the disparity in power between Hungary and the Allies, the Hungarian chances for victory were slim at best. To buy time, Kun tried to negotiate with the Allies, meeting the South African Prime Minister, General Jan Smuts at a summit in Budapest in April. Agreement proved impossible and Hungary was soon at war later in April with Romania and Czechoslovakia, who were aided by France. The Hungarian Red Army achieved some success against the Czechoslovaks, taking much of Slovakia by June.

However, the Hungarians were repeatedly defeated by the Romanians and by the middle of July 1919, Kun staked all on an offensive against the Romanians. The Allied Commander in the Balkans, the French Marshal Louis Franchet d'Esperey wrote to Marshal Ferdinand Foch on July 21, 1919: "We are convinced that the Hungarian offensive will collapse of its own accord...When the Hungarian offensive is launched, we shall retreat to the line of demaracation, and launch the counteroffensive from that line. Two Romanian brigades will march from Romania to the front in the coming days, according to General Fertianu's promise. You, see, Marshal that we have nothing to fear on the part of the Hungarian army. I can assure you that the Hungarian Soviets will last no more than two or three weeks. And should our offensive not bring the Kun regime down, its untenable internal situation surely will"7. The Soviets promised to invade Romania and link up with Kun, and were on verge of doing so. However, military reversals suffered by the Red Army in Ukraine stopped the invasion of Romania before it began. The Romanians invaded Hungary, took Budapest, crushed the Communists, and forced them to hand over power to a Social Democratic party. Afterwards, the Romanians looted Budapest before leaving in November.

Later Career

Béla Kun then went into exile in Vienna, Austria, then also controlled by Social Democrats, and eventually made his way back to Russia. There he rejoined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and was put in charge of the regional revolutionary committee in Crimea.

He was deeply involved in the massacres of captured Whites in November 1920 following the fall of the Crimea to the Red Army. The Whites had been promised amnesty if they would surrender and were then treacherously murdered. The Crimean massacres created outrage in the Soviet Communist Party and caused Lenin to censure Kun. Adding to the outrage within the Party was the fact that the massacres had been perpetrated against Russians by a Hungarian outsider.

Kun became a leading figure in the Communist International as an ally of Grigory Zinoviev. In this capacity, he went to Germany to advise the Communist Party there and sought to encourage that party to follow the Theory of the Offensive which he and Zinoviev supported. In March 1921, he was the driving force behind the German Communist Marzaktion Putsch, which ended in complete failure. When put into practice, this theory led to the loss of support for the KPD.

Through the 1920s, he was an prominent Comintern operative, serving mostly in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia but ultimately his notoriety made him useless for undercover work. His final undercover assignment ended in 1928 when he was arrested in Vienna by the local police for travelling on a forged passport. When Kun was in Moscow, he spent much of his time feuding with other Hungarian Communist émigrés, several of whom he denounced to the Soviet secret police, the OGPU, which arrested and imprisoned Kun's critics in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

He was accused of Trotskyism and killed in the late 1930s, during Joseph Stalin's purge of the Communist old guard. This charge was utterly unjustified as Kun was a fanatical Stalinist who until his arrest in May 1937 strongly supported Stalin's terror.

Accounts differ over the precise date and manner of Kun's death. It was well-established that Kun had been tortured by the NKVD, but accounts differ from that point forward. Some state that Kun was secretly executed in 1937. Other accounts maintain that Kun was sent to the Gulag and executed there sometime in either 1938 or 1939. In 1989, the Soviet government announced that Kun had been executed in the Gulag on August 29, 19388. According to the 2002 edition of Encyclopedia Britannia, Kun was executed on November 30, 1939. Kun's widow was sent to the Gulag as were his daughter and son-in-law. He was rehabilitated in 1956.


1 Tokes, Rudolf "Bela Kun: The Man and the Revolutionary" pages 170-207 from Hungary in Revolution edited by Ivan Volgyes, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971 page 173.

2 Tokes, Rudolf Béla Kun and the Hungarian Soviet Republic New York : F.A. Praeger, 1967 pages 111-112.

4 Borsanyi, Gyorgy The life of a Communist revolutionary, Bela Kun Boulder, Colo. : Social Science Monographs ;1993, pages 146-147.

5 Janos, Andrew The Politics of Backwardness In Hungary, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982. page 197.

6 Janos, Andrew The Politics of Backwardness In Hungary page 182.

7 Borsanyi, Gyorgy The life of a Communist revolutionary pages 197-198.

8 Borsanyi, Gyorgy The life of a Communist revolutionary pages 435-436


  • Borsanyi, Gyorgy The life of a Communist revolutionary, Bela Kun translated by Mario Fenyo, Boulder, Colorado : Social Science Monographs ; New York: Distributed by Columbia University Press, 1993.
  • Janos, Andrew C. & Slottman, William (editors) Revolution in perspective : essays on the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919: Published for the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Slavic and East European Studies, Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1971
  • Janos, Andrew The Politics of Backwardness In Hungary 1825-1945 Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.
  • Menczer, Bela "Bela Kun and the Hungarian Revolution of 1919" pages 299-309 from History Today, Volume XIX, Issue #5, May 1969, History Today Inc: London.
  • Tokes, Rudolf 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 : published for the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, Stanford, California, by F.A. Praeger, 1967.
  • Volgyes, Ivan (editor) Hungary in revolution, 1918-19 : nine essays Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 1971.

External links

1. Record Of Wireless Message To Béla Kun ( March 23, 1919de:Béla Kun eo:KUN Béla he:בלה קון hu:Kun Béla nl:Béla Kun pl:Béla Kun fi:Béla Kun


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