Something In The Soil – Imre  Nagy& The Revolutionary Ethos Of Kaposvar

Kaposvar, with its postcard perfect Kossuth ter (square) in the town center sporting Art Nouveau and Neo-Classical architectural gems, seems like a strange breeding ground for revolutionary politics. The past century and a half has seen this mid-sized city (population 66,000) in the southern Transdanubian region of Hungary play an outsized role in radical movements.  Kaposvar has gone against the prevailing political headwinds time and again. Reaction and counter-reaction have ensued as the city has been swept up in the seminal moments that have helped set the often wayward and violent course of modern Hungary.

Kossuth ter in Kaposvar

Kossuth ter in Kaposvar

Radicalism, Revolution & Reactionism – Kaposvar On The Brink
Take for instance the year 1867, as the Kingdom of Hungary sealed its historic compromise with Habsburg Austria to form the Dual Monarchy, Kaposvar’s voters saw fit to elect the exiled revolutionary leader Lajos Kossuth to parliament in protest. A half-century on, the chaotic aftermath of World War One provided the city with a fertile breeding ground for the Red Revolution. Kaposvar threw its support behind the radical leftist regime of Bela Kun. A virulent right wing counter-reaction destroyed the Soviet Hungarian Republic in a matter of months.  Hungarian politics then shifted decisively to the right in the years leading up to the Second World War. During this time Kaposvar’s revolutionary fervor continued to simmer. Following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary in 1944, Kaposvar became the epicenter of land reform. The peasants in the surrounding area of Somogy County were the first in the nation to benefit from post-war land redistribution efforts. Spearheading these efforts was one of Kaposvar’s native sons.

Kaposvar’s role in revolutionary politics is made even more prominent by the fact that it gave birth to one of those paradoxical figures that Hungarian history manages to produce on a regular basis. This was Imre Nagy, a name that evokes both controversy and sympathy in equal measure. Nagy is best remembered for his fateful role in the 1956 Revolution. His early years in Kaposvar helped plant seeds of radicalism that sprouted into a revolutionary career. He was born there in 1896, the same year that the Kingdom of Hungary was celebrating the millennium of the Magyars arrival in the Carpathian Basin. That year is remembered by many as the height of a national golden age. But the celebrations masked endemic problems that plagued the countryside. Nagy’s early life in Kaposvar is instructive as to one of the issues that would eventually lead to radical upheaval and forever change Hungary. That issue was land reform.

Hungarian peasant children plowing a field in 1920

Hungarian peasant children plowing a field in 1920 (Credit: Fortepan.hu)

The Sum Of Nothing – Land Poor Hungarians
Nagy’s Calvinist parents were poor farm hands, part of an increasingly restless peasantry that toiled on the estates of the large land holding nobility. Land was power in provincial Hungary. The nobility controlled the overriding majority of the land. According to historian Paul Lendvai one-fifth of Hungary’s arable land was owned by just 324 magnates. One aristocratic family, the Esterhazy’s owned 700 villages. The so called “great and middle” landowning classes owned over seven million hectares of land and dominated rural Hungary. Meanwhile millions of peasants toiled in obscure poverty. At best peasants held tiny land plots, at worst they were landless. Either way, it was hardly enough to support a large family. Imre Nagy’s family was on the lowest rung of the social ladder, landless peasants. Young Imre spent his first nineteen years in Kaposvar. He was forced to drop out of school when his father lost his job. Nagy went to work in the fields, as a locksmith’s apprentice and at a lawyer’s office. At this point his life had followed a quite traditional pattern. He like many others who were trying to rise out of a peasant background, took any work that was available. The outbreak of World War I ended that. Nagy was soon drafted and left Kaposvar, but not for good. He was captured by the Russians on the Eastern Front in 1916. Like so many other future revolutionaries – including the future Yugoslav dictator Josip Tito – he would become radicalized during internment. He ended up fighting with the Red Army in the Russian Civil War. In 1921 he was back in Kaposvar. By this point he had joined the Hungarian Communist Party and was now attempting to bring about radical change.

Nagy was fortunate that in the counter revolutionary atmosphere of the early 1920’s he was not executed. He tried joining the more moderate Social Democrats, but was considered far too radical for them and ended up being kicked out of the party. He then went on to found the Socialist Workers Party. Nagy’s extreme leftist politics landed him in prison on multiple occasions. Finally in 1928 he fled Kaposvar and Hungary, making his way eventually to the Soviet Union where during the 1930’s he barely survived Stalin’s purges. During this time he wrote extensively about land policy. Nagy had firm ideas about agriculture, many of his principles having been influenced by his family’s situation as peasants.

Imre Nagy distributing land to peasants in 1945

Imre Nagy distributing land to peasants in 1945

At the tail end of World War II he arrived back in Hungary where among his many duties he became Minister of Agriculture. He led the land redistribution program which was begun in and around his hometown of Kaposvar. Nagy never forgot his peasant roots. Ironically, the once radical Nagy proved to be much more moderate than communist hardliners. In 1949 he lost his post as a party leader for his opposition to forced collectivization of agriculture. Rather than large land owning magnates it was now the Communist colossus that monopolized land.

Imre Nagy Statue in Kaposvar -  sculpture by Iván Paulikovics

Imre Nagy Statue in Kaposvar – sculpture by Iván Paulikovics

The Land Called Home – That’s Where The Hurt Is
Imre Nagy’s ties to Kaposvar and the fertile land of Somogy County were the guiding force of his life. Fighting for land ownership by the peasantry, Nagy suffered both in opposition and in power. Kaposvar is not so much a place to debate Nagy’s role as a martyr of Hungarian history or his historic role in the Revolution of 1956. Instead it is a place to reflect on how Nagy’s early years in this provincial outpost formed his outlook on land, agriculture and improving the lives of landless peasants. There is no better place to do this than at the Nagy statue on Fo Utca (Main Street). There Nagy is cast in dynamic form, stepping forward into life, into history and into the land he called home.

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