A Triumph of Determination – A Cathedral Restored, A People Unreconstructed: The Bombing Of Szombathely (Part 3)

The Szombathely I discovered on that early spring day was so calm and serene that I had trouble imagining war had ever touched the place. Mothers played with their children in Fo ter, kids were eating gelato and soon I was joining them. Young women texted on their phones or stared through stylish sunglasses up into a cloudless blue canopy of sky hovering above the triangular square. The blue sky was not unlike the one that was seen just after sunrise on the fateful morning of March 4th. The sky had not changed much since then, but Szombathely had. The process of recovery from the war was slow and arduous. The city had suffered more than others.

Szombathely Cathedral in 1961

Szombathely Cathedral in 1961 (Credit: Gyula Nagy/fortepan.hu)

Civic Pride – A Potent Symbol Of Spiritual Force
Of the 52 urban areas in Hungary that were subjected to allied bombing raids, Szombathely ranked fifth in the amount of damage sustained by the city. Seven out of every ten buildings had been hit in the March 4th raid, an incredible figure when one considers that the raid lasted only 45 minutes. Over 300 were killed and 1,200 left homeless during that short amount of time. In addition, the city’s self-image had suffered a near mortal blow with the destruction suffered by its beloved cathedral. Whether or not it could be reconstructed was less a question of architectural skill, then one of will. Many felt it was a necessity. A newspaper article written a couple of years after the war stated that, “Szombathely…is the cathedral and the cathedral is Szombathely itself.” That may have been so, but there were obstacles of money, materials and politics that would have to be overcome. It might take years to complete reconstruction, but the cathedral was a potent symbol of both spiritual force and civic pride. A decision was soon made to clear the debris from its interior and begin the rebuilding process.

The day I visited Szombathely Cathedral both its interior and exterior looked to be in perfect order. Staring at its deceptively slender façade I saw no hint that any explosions had ever occurred there. The same was true of the Cathedral’s interior. I had no idea that the clean lines and smooth surfaces were due to a massive reconstruction carried out by the citizens of Szombathely beginning right after the war. The church was in immaculate condition, but that was because of an immaculate re-conception that started in June of 1945. Just three months after the ruinous bombing of the Cathedral, groups of citizens began the long and arduous task of clearing debris from the interior. Once the debris was cleared, reconstruction could begin in earnest.

An Immense Undertaking – Rebuilding History
Reconstruction would mean more than building upon what was left of the original structure following the bombing, it also meant deconstructing much of the façade that still existed. Columns and statues were carefully removed. The entire nave of the church had to be scaffolded. This was as daunting a task as any part of the work. It required 750 cubic meters of wood, just a little bit less than the 900 cubic meters of debris which had earlier been hauled out of the same interior. The roof, which had collapsed during the bombing, was resurfaced using 90,000 roofing tiles. The façade required 140,000 bricks which were created out of 11 railway cars worth of lime and cement. The scale of the project was immense, especially when placed in the proper context. Consider the fact that Szombathely was trying to rebuild, repair or restore hundreds of homes damaged by the bombing.

At the same time, the city’s citizens were undertaking the massive reconstruction of the Cathedral. Here was a triumph of determination and imagination over the forces of destruction and despair. Sweat equity was in ample supply, but funding was tight. The post-war Hungarian government was impoverished and was only able to provide very limited funding. Though the citizens of Szombathely were in desperate financial straits, they somehow managed to raise 80% of the near one million forint cost of the reconstruction. It is thought to be the largest reconstruction of a war damaged church in Hungarian history. And it succeeded beyond what anyone could have imagined who saw the smoldering city immediately after the bombing.

Immaculate Reconstruction - Interior of Szombathely Cathedral

Immaculate Reconstruction – Interior of Szombathely Cathedral (Credit: Daniel Kovacs)

Failure To Replicate – The Greater Loss
On September 8, 1947 a hundred thousand citizens gathered together in Fo ter to hear the address of Cardinal Joszef Mindszenty, Hungary’s most famous Catholic prelate. Mindszenty dutifully carried out the Cathedral’s rededication. The ceremony took place just in time. This was only months before the church and all official religious activities in Hungary began to suffer unprecedented persecution. By the following year, Matyas Rakosi’s vile Stalinist regime had cracked down on public and private forms of religious expression. There is no way the reconstruction of Szombathely’s Cathedral would have been allowed to take place under the vice grip of Rakosi’s totalitarian rule. Anyone attempting such a thing would have been sentenced to busting rocks in the gulag. This turn of events meant that additional restoration work on the frescoes and paintings inside the Cathedral would have to wait.

Final restoration efforts would not be completed until over sixty years after the March 4th bombing occurred. Even then, certain artistic aspects could never be replicated. Only a trained art historian or someone who had visited the Cathedral prior to the bombing would have known what they were missing out on. I was oblivious to what had been lost. Sometimes not knowing makes it easier. The reconstruction was magnificent, but there were still limits.  Franz Anton Maulbertsch could not be resurrected to repaint his frescoes on the cupola. His artistic work was priceless and losing it came at the highest cost. There were others in Szombathely who had lost much more. Family and friends whose lives would never be reconstructed. These were pieces of the past that could not be picked up and melded back together.

An Invitation - Szombathely Cathedral

An Invitation – Szombathely Cathedral

Precious & Precarious – Lost Art, Lost Lives
While the cathedral was rebuilt as a symbol of Szombathely’s survival, rebirth and renewal, the same could not be done for so many of it citizens. Life is precious, but also precarious. As an American I felt a vague connection to what had happened here. I was depressed by the bombing, but could not feel apologetic about the tactics or strategy that informed it. Defeating the German Army meant accepting a degree of collateral damage that would only be tolerated in a total war. Whether that collateral damage was lost art or lost lives hardly mattered to the war planners. It ultimately led to victory and as I discovered in Szombathely, a massive sense of loss. This was the paradox of one American bombing campaign in Hungary that has been all but forgotten, because it is so painful to remember.

Click here for: Dreams Of Unsatisfied Desires – Ostffyasszonyfa: Where The Lonesome Whistle Blows

A Brilliance Beyond 1954: The Last Triumph of Hungarian Football

For all the accolades showered on Hungary’s “Golden Team” there is one achievement that gets scant notice. After their 32 game unbeaten run was broken by West Germany in the 1954 World Cup Final, the Golden Team did not suddenly collapse despite a hostile Hungarian public and a government searching for scapegoats. Instead they continued to play at an incredibly high level. They did not give into defeatism or wallow in the sorrow of that stunning loss. For a year and a half they continued to beat one team after another, much the same as they had before the World Cup loss. Even after they lost a game in 1956, the Hungarians rose to the occasion one final time in Moscow to defeat what was soon to become their nation’s greatest foe.

Setting Records & Precedents – Kocsis Rises To The Occasion
Two months after the 1954 World Cup, Hungary began to play internationals once again. The loss to West Germany seemed to have little effect on their play. The star during this period was Sandor Kocsis. He had been the leading scorer in the World Cup, netting eleven goals. He kept up that pace for the rest of 1954 and into 1955. In the first ten internationals Hungary played after the loss, Kocsis scored 16 goals, including five multi-goal games. His prolific scoring ability helped carry the team as Kocsis set a standard unmatched in football history. He still holds the all-time record for average goals per game against FIFA Class A competition. In one of those matches, a friendly played in September 1954 against the Soviet Union in Moscow, he scored the lone Hungarian goal in a 1-1 draw. This was as close as the Soviets had ever come to losing at home. It would not be the last time the teams met in a precedent setting match in Moscow.

In the winter of 1954 Hungary traveled to Glasgow where they faced Scotland in front of a massive crowd of 113,000 at Hampden Park. This was the largest crowd the Hungarians would play in front of during the 1950’s. The Scots were well aware of what the Hungarians had done in their two earlier routs of England. Their strategy was very different from England’s. They launched fierce counterattacks in an effort to put Hungary on the defensive. These tactics were only partially successful. Hungary scored the first two goals and held the lead throughout the game, but the Scots showed great resolve. They pulled to within 3-2 a minute into the second half. From that point, the Scots narrowly missed on several shots that would have leveled the game. Only in the final minute did Hungary put the game away when Kocsis scored. The Magic of the Magyars was on full display that afternoon. They showed that even on the road, in the face of fierce resistance both on the field and in the stands, a top notch opponent was still no match for their brilliance. In the return affair in Budapest six months later Hungary triumphed once again, winning 3-1 before 100,000 of their countrymen.

Heading up the team - Sandor Kocsis

Heading up the team – Sandor Kocsis

Ending An Era – One For The Road
From September 1954 until the end of 1955, Hungary played 19 games, winning 16 matches and drawing three others. This was part of a six year run where they only lost once in 52 games. Then starting with their inaugural match in 1956 they hit a shockingly bad streak. First, they played poorly in a 3-1 road loss to Turkey. In their next match at home they tied Yugoslavia. The decline continued when they suffered their first home loss in an international match since 1943 as they were soundly defeated by Czechoslovakia 4-2. A couple of weeks later they traveled to Belgium where they would attempt to break a losing streak, something none of the Hungarian players had ever experienced playing for the national team. They raced out to a 3-1 lead, only to collapse in the second half, allowing four goals and losing 5-4. Changes would now have to be made. Blame focused on the coach, Gusztav Sebesz. For years he had been hailed as a footballing genius, a master of tactics, who had built the most brilliant team in football history. Ever since the World Cup loss, Sebes had become increasingly suspect in the eyes of the communist government. Following the loss to Belgium, he was relieved of his duties. Sebes would never again be allowed to manage the national team. The end of an era was close at hand.

The domestic situation in Hungary began to resemble the national team’s collapse. The Soviets removed the hardline Hungarian dictator Matyas Rakosi from power. Stalinist-era purges were denounced and victims were rehabilitated. This thaw unleashed pent up frustration about the country’s direction under the communist regime. Once the edifice of stability had cracked, it was not long before it began to crumble. The country was headed toward revolution. The Hungarian national football team dramatically inserted itself into this fraught situation when on September 23, 1956 they played the Soviet Union at Lenin Central Stadium in Moscow. The Soviets had never lost an international match at home. The 102,000 spectators on hand fully expected to witness another triumph by a team that was seen as an icon of what the Soviet system could produce. The Hungarians were seen as well past their prime, even though all the old war horses – Bozsik, Czibor, Grosics, Hidegkuti, Kocsis and Puskas – were still playing in the match. In the 16th minute, Czibor scored the lone goal of the game. It was an incredible upset in the backyard of worldwide communist officialdom.

The revolution to come in Hungary - autumn 1956

The revolution to come in Hungary – autumn 1956

Anything Is Possible – On The Edge Of Revolution
The Hungarians had conjured another remarkable victory. At the same time they helped stoke a patriotic fervor sweeping across the nation in what would be the final month before the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The nation’s pride swelled as anything seemed possible. Their football team had defeated the best squad the Soviets had ever assembled. Once again it seemed that nothing could stop these Magical Magyars. That was until the outbreak of a revolution that would change Hungary and the Hungarian national football team forever.

Losses On & Off The Football Field – Shadows Of Defeat: Hungary’s 1954 World Cup (Part Six)

It was an uneventful and quiet journey from Berne back to Budapest for the Hungarian national football team following their upset loss to West Germany in the 1954 World Cup Final. The trip could not have been long enough for each member of the team. Every one of them knew that nothing would be the same when they arrived back home. They had no idea who or what would greet them, but it would certainly not be good. Much of the capital had been festooned with bunting prior to the final in anticipation of a victory. Following the loss all of the bunting disappeared in a matter of hours. What appeared on the streets was much more ominous and foreboding. In the working class districts of Budapest thousands gathered together to vent their frustrations resulting in localized riots. Some of them went even further. Among their targets was the National Football Lottery which they set on fire. Prowling the streets, shouting and inebriated, these vandals made their way to the National Radio Station, a prime target since it had broadcast the catastrophic loss. In vain they would shout for commentator Gyorgy Szepes to be brought out. They were searching for a scapegoat. The government would find one soon enough. These incidents were symbolic of the heartbreak and frustration of an entire nation now seething with discontent. Into this fraught situation, the Golden Team – its luster turning rapidly to rust – returned.

Losing the blame game - Ferenc Puskas

Losing the blame game – Ferenc Puskas

The Search For Scapegoats – “I Knew They Had It In For Me”
Much of the anger was directed at Ferenc Puskas. The star of the team became a lightning rod for much of what had gone wrong in the final game. Puskas had convinced the team’s coach Gusztav Sebes to add him to the lineup. Not only was Puskas still injured and unfit for match play, but his presence in the lineup also denied a place to Laszlo Budai who had been one of the stars in the victory over Uruguay. Later it was said that Puskas did this out of jealousy and a habitual dislike for Budai. After the loss Puskas was kept out of the limelight for many months, both for reasons of personal safety and fear that his appearance might provoke the public further. For his part, Puskas accused the Germans of doping. His complaints were loud, but few were listening. Hungarian goalkeeper, Gyula Grosics and the team’s coach Gusztav Sebes bore the brunt of the Hungarian communist regime’s wrath for the loss. Grosics was already under suspicion for attempting to defect several years before.

Fall guy - Gyula Grosics

Fall guy – Gyula Grosics

Because of his checkered past, Grosics became a convenient fall guy for the communist regime. Who could be guiltier than the man who allowed all three goals by the West Germans? This was despite the fact that he had been named to the all-star team for the 1954 World Cup.  Many years later Grosics would recall the greeting given to the team upon their arrival in Budapest by Hungary’s communist dictator Matyas Rakosi. “None of you should be punished for this game. I get the sound of his voice still in my ears…I knew that this means exactly the opposite. I knew that something bad would happen. I had often clashed with state security…now I had the feeling to be in danger. I knew they had it in for me.” Grosics was correct. Soon thereafter he was arrested, charged with smuggling goods and espionage. He could have been given the death penalty, but instead was banned from football for a year, then exiled to the mining town of Tatabanya, where he played for the local team when he was not being taken in for weekly interrogations. Only after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 did the pressure on him subside. He would be allowed to rejoin the national team, playing in both the 1958 and 1962 World Cups.

A Failure Of Nerves – The Plight Of Sebes
As Hungary’s coach, Gusztav Sebes found himself shouldering much of the blame. His decision to play Puskas was seen as a fatal error that helped cause the loss, but that decision was not just Sebes’. Other officials in the Ministry of Sport also put pressure on him to start Puskas. Sebes made some other odd lineup and position changes that directly impacted the team against West Germany. He included Mihaly Toth in the starting lineup though he was not a regular starter. He also switched Zoltan Czibor from his traditional position on the right wing to the left. Perhaps Sebes’ decision making was influenced by the immense pressure of trying to win the championship. During the tournament he said, “I never suspected the World Cup would be such a test of nerves.”  An even greater test of nerves awaited him back home in the aftermath of that dreadful defeat. Sebes was a fierce communist ideologue, but he had let the regime down on one of the biggest international stages. Such a failure could not be easily explained away.

Coach and scapegoat- Gusztav Sebes

Coach and scapegoat- Gusztav Sebes

Sebes reputation was badly damaged, though he did manage to continue as the team’s coach for another two years. Then in 1956 after Hungary lost a friendly to Belgium and with the political situation in the country growing to a combustible level, Sebes lost his job. He was denounced by officials in the Ministry of Sport for being too bourgeois, a code word for ‘enemy of the people.’ His notoriety likely saved him from a worse fate than being fired. Eventually Sebes would find his way back to the game as an administrator and coach at the club level, but he would forever be shadowed by the 1954 World Cup Final. Sebes saw in the defeat a monumental political, as well as sporting loss. He once said, “If Hungary had won the football World Cup there would have been no counter-revolution, but a powerful thrust in the building of socialism in the country.” Such a statement might be dismissed as ideological nonsense. Then again what else did Hungary have in the 1950’s except an extraordinary football team, a team that represented an entire nation’s hopes and dreams? When those Magical Magyars were defeated, so was the state. At least that was the way it worked in the mind of Sebes.

The Greatest Loss
Sebes, Grosics and Puskas were all vital components in one of the greatest football teams ever. Yet each of these men also received much of the blame for Hungary’s stunning defeat. Hungarian football had ascended to such stratospheric levels that a single loss ended up obscuring the team’s many spectacular achievements. That was the way it had to be for a government and a nation that lost the one thing they could believe in together. It was a horrible loss, but more horrible ones were to come for Hungary and the losses would not be on a football field.

Maximizing The Moment – József Asbóth’s Achievement: The 1947 French Open & Eastern European Tennis Greatness

Growing up, my first introduction to Eastern Europe was through men’s professional tennis. While watching matches I learned that there were nations such as Czechoslovakia, Romania, Poland and Hungary. These were the homelands of Ivan Lendl, Ilie Nastase, Wojtek Fibak and Balázs Taróczy. I also learned that there was an Iron Curtain that divided Europe. Behind this curtain was an entirely different world, a controlled environment where faceless officials decided what people could or could not do. The Soviet Union was little more to me than two things, the place where Andrei Chesnokov was from and a system that took most of his prize money. Eastern European tennis players brought the words, defector and dissident into my vocabulary. My idea of communism was not Brezhnev or Gorbachev it was Lendl, though my assumptions about him ended up being totally wrong.

Now I can see the ATP Tour was the beginning of a lifelong interest in Eastern Europe. So many great players have come out of the region, both male and female, that it led me to wonder who the first great Eastern European tennis player was. Long before Lendl or Nastase won Grand Slam titles, there were other trailblazers. The first great Eastern European tennis player – a Hungarian by the name of József Asbóth – is now an obscure enigma, all but lost to tennis history. He came at a time when top class tennis was just getting restarted in the years following World War II. He deserves to be much better known for his achievement as the first Eastern European (and only Hungarian) to win a singles Grand Slam title. The way he won that title is just as amazing as the fact that he did.

József Asbóth in action prior to World War II

József Asbóth in action prior to World War II

Courting & Skirting War – The Rise of  József Asbóth
József Asbóth was born during the First World War and had his career interrupted by a second one. The son of a railway worker in the far western Hungarian city of Szombathely, Asbóth came of age in the tumultuous interwar years of a Hungary, riven by the loss of two-thirds of its territory in the post- World War I peace settlement. This was a time when Hungary could no longer call itself part of an empire. Instead it was a medium sized nation surrounded by enemies on multiple sides. One way Hungary could still flex its muscle internationally was in sport. In both the 1928 and 1936 Summer Olympics Hungary finished in the top 10 medal count. Sport was an opportunity for Hungarians to achieve some semblance of greatness. József Asbóth was likely not immune to this desire. At the tender age of 20 Asbóth made his debut in international competition, losing a Davis Cup doubles match to the powerhouse German team. The next year he almost singlehandedly defeated Hungary’s hated archrivals, Romania in Europe Group play. He came from behind in both his singles match, on the road in Bucharest no less, to win each of them in five sets. Later that same year Asbóth won his first Grand Slam match at the French Open. He also made it into the main draw at Wimbledon. In 1940 he won three international tournaments, all in Italy.  Asbóth seemed to have a bright future ahead of him.  Then Hungary became inextricably involved in World War II.

Asbóth’s career was put on hold. He would not play any international tournaments outside of Hungary for five years. Truth be told, he was lucky to survive the war and even luckier that his tennis talent had not deserted him. With the Red Army occupying Hungary, the post-war period was filled with tension and strife. It would only be a few years before the Soviets would shut down all vestiges of democracy in the country. During the interim, Asbóth was allowed the freedom to play abroad. After an eight year absence he reappeared on the Grand Slam stage, making it to the third round at Wimbledon in 1947. A couple of weeks later he was in Paris at the French Open (in 1947 the French open was played after Wimbledon) primed to make a run for the title on his favorite surface, red clay. He was seeded fifth, the result of a title at Nice and semifinal showing at Monte Carlo earlier in the spring. These results were good, but nothing like what was about to happen.

József Asbóth won 31 tournaments and is still the only Hungarian to win a Grand Slam Singles Title

József Asbóth won 31 tournaments and is still the only Hungarian to win a Grand Slam Singles Title

From Oblivion To Greatness & Back Again
To say that Asbóth steamrolled through the French Open field in 1947 is an understatement. In six matches he lost only one set and a total of 52 games. In the semifinals he destroyed the #1 seed, American Tom Brown, relinquishing only five games. Asbóth’s run through the tournament was otherworldly. He won two more matches at the French Open that year then he had won in his three previous Grand Slam tournament appearances. He had waited years to play the tournament a second time and then dominated the field. This was unheard of. Asbóth ’s French Open career after his 1947 title turned out to be just as astonishing, but in a very different way. He would not play another match at the tournament until 1954. His title defense was a non-starter, as he was unable to take the court in 1948, losing in a walkover. This was a shame because his performance at Wimbledon that year proved he was still in fine form. He became the first and only Hungarian to make the semifinals on the finely manicured lawns at the All England Club.

From these heights Asbóth ’s play began to fall, as much because of officialdom as any deterioration in his game. To play Wimbledon Asbóth had to have the tennis loving Swedish King Gustaf V guarantee a personal warrant on his behalf. As Hungary succumbed to the Stalinist rule of the dictator Matyas Rakosi, Asbóth’s international appearances became fewer and fewer. Only after Rakosi was ousted from power did Asbóth start to appear in European tournaments again with regularity. In 1954, he took the court at the French Open for the first time since the 1947 title match. He easily defeated a 17-year old Australian by the name of Roy Emerson. Emerson would go on to win more Grand Slam singles than any player of the amateur era. Asbóth was in his late 30’s when he reappeared at the French. He would stay competitive with the top players until he turned forty. He then helped develop young tennis talent in Belgium. Later he moved to Germany, where he would work as a trainer until he died in 1986.

József Asbóth - the 1947 French Open Champion

József Asbóth – the 1947 French Open Champion

An Invisible Champion & Eastern Europe’s Rise To Tennis Greatness
Asbóth’s twenty years on the tennis circuit was characterized by fits and starts. Interruption by a world war, imposition of Stalinism on his homeland and the failed Revolution of 1956, were all events that coincided with Asbóth’s tennis career. He never had an opportunity to maximize his talent like so many others. His tennis was only able escape his nation’s troubles for a few years. During those moments his game soared. During his career, he won 31 tournaments with one of those being that epic run to the French Open crown in 1947. It set the stage for greater things to come for tennis in Eastern Europe. From Jaroslav Drobney to Jan Kodes through Nastase and Lendl up to Novak Djokovic today, the region has produced some of the greatest tennis champions. And that list of champions starts with the son of a railway worker from Szombathely, Hungary. József Asbóth, the Hungarian who forged a remarkable tennis career and French Open title run against incredible odds.

Reckoning With the Past – Enemies Within: The Hungarian Gulag at Recsk

The village of Recsk is set deep within the Matra Hills of northeastern Hungary. Like many other settlements its size, Recsk contains small clusters of modest houses that line quiet streets. The village seems like just another wayside on the road to somewhere else. It is easily forgotten by travelers just a few minutes after passing through it. But mentioning Recsk around Hungarians of a certain age or those with a deep historical knowledge will arouse suspicion. This suspicion is likely to induce silence, a hallmark of unspoken fear. Recsk is well known for one thing and one thing only. Close to this unassuming, modest village was the Hungarian version of the Gulag.

Building Dystopia – Enemies of the People
From 1950 to 1953, five kilometers east of Recsk stood the most notorious internment camp of Hungary’s Communist era. During its short, but terrifying history the camp claimed thousands of lives and ruined even more. Under the Hungary’s hardline Stalinist ruler Matyas Rakosi, “enemies of the people” were supposedly everywhere. Arrests were arbitrary, denunciations a fact of everyday life, the population lived in terror of a knock at the door. Late at night the secret police would arrive and carry the innocents away. The Stalinist system imposed upon Hungary in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s justified itself by creating enemies. The unfortunate and unsuspecting suffered weeks of torture, in which confessions were extracted. They were then either shot or sentenced to hard labor. The living would be sent to the prison camp close to Recsk, where they would all too often soon join the dead.

Watchtower from the Recsk camp

Watchtower from the Recsk camp

At any one time, the camp held up to 1,500 internees. They labored in horrific conditions, toiling for hours on end while mining quarries. Starved and nearly worked to death, they stood little chance of survival. Undergoing the cruelest tortures, hundreds perished, broken on the wheel of ideology by a rigid, unceasing authoritarianism. This dictatorship was a demon seed that had been planted on Hungarian soil by their post-World War II Soviet occupiers. The main function of Recsk was to help achieve the promised utopia of a worker’s state. What this meant under Stalinism was that intellectuals, opposition politicians and various other “deviants” were ferretted out of society. This was all done in the name of building a worker’s state. If this was what a worker’s state looked like, than one shutters to think what the ultimate outcome of such a dystopia would have been if it had lasted much longer. None of this seemed to make sense, unless one was a member of the ruling clique.

The Punitive Barrack at Recsk

The Punitive Barrack at Recsk

Fellow Travelers – Fascism & Stalinism: The Same Difference
In a macabre paradox, many of the camp guards at Recsk turned out to be the same people who had once carried out killings and injustices as part of the fascist Arrow Cross during World War II. They had merely changed uniforms, insignia and slogans. The leap from one extreme to another was a matter of nuance rather than degree. Fascism and Stalinism were fellow travelers with much in common, including the need to create “enemies of the people” in order to sustain the system.  In 1953 Rakosi was ushered out of power. With the death of Josef Stalin, the new leadership in the Soviet Union felt that Rakosi’s methods were too harsh, even for them.

A much more moderate Communist figure, Imre Nagy was put in charge. He soon ordered the camp shut down, but this was not end of the trauma for prisoners who had survived Recsk. Before being released, they were ordered never to speak about their experiences in the camp. In addition, they were not allowed to get their old jobs and by extension their old lives back. Many intellectuals and artists were given menial labor duty. The humiliation continued on a much more benign, but no less hurtful scale. As for the perpetrators they went free. These faceless demons were unknown to a society that long bore the scars of their cruelty. None were put on trial. After the wall fell though, many were given a very different type of trial, in the court of public opinion.

A Soviet Tank in front of the wall of victims at the House of Terror Museum in Buda (Credit: drcw)

A Soviet Tank in front of the wall of victims at the House of Terror Museum in Buda (Credit: drcw)

A Public Reckoning – Facing Up To Fear
The misery and suffering that occurred at the Recsk camp really only came into the public consciousness after the turn of the 21st century. In 2002, the House of Terror Museum was opened in Budapest at No. 60 Andrassy Avenue, the former headquarters of both the fascist Arrow Cross and the AVO (State Security Service) of the Communist state. Today, when visitors first enter the museum they come into an open spaced square surrounded by multi-story cell blocks. On one wall are photos of hundreds of people, these are the victims, faces filled with confusion and fear.  Some of these people spent time at Recsk. On the opposite wall, facing them are the perpetrators. These are the faces of ordinary men and women, the faces of terror. This is as close to a public reckoning as the Recsk camp has ever received.

As for the actual site of the Recsk camp, after being closed down it was covered by a tree plantation. Today, all that stands on the site of the camp is a somber memorial, reconstructed barracks and markers outlining where buildings once stood. There are also a series of exhibits which explain the horrifying reality of life in the camp. Visitors are left to form their own opinions of the life, death and memory of a place that should never be forgotten.

Memorial Monument at Recsk

Memorial at Recsk

The Judgment of History – No Escape
Despite the work of museums and exhibits, in some ways the Recsk camp is as invisible today as when it was functioning. One of the phrases said to have been used by the guards at Recsk was, “We don’t have to account for the prisoners.” That was true then and also after the camp was shut down. Nearly all the officials and guards who took part in the heinous crimes at Recsk never had to account for the lives they willingly destroyed. Yet those same officials and guards forgot one thing, the judgment of history, which has been damning. Unlike the Recsk camp which lasted less than four years, the judgment of history will last forever.


Impossible Choices – The Assassination of Count Istvan Tisza

One of the stranger occurrences or shall we say non-occurrences during the highly traumatic first phase of the 20th century (1900 – 1956) in Hungary was – with one notable exception – the lack of assassinations or assassination attempts against the leadership. Whether it was an empire, republic or people’s republic (take your pick), Hungary was beset by the forces of political reaction and counter reaction on numerous occasions. The country went from Red to White Terror literally overnight during the summer of 1919. In late 1944 – early 1945, it swung from fascism to communism in a matter of months. It suffered through two World Wars, the second one of which destroyed much of Budapest as well as 60% of the national economy. The capital was occupied multiple times by three distinctly different foreign armies (Romanian Army in 1919, German Army in 1944, Soviet Army in 1945 and again in 1956) in a period of less than forty years. For twenty-five years the republic was led by a regency replacing an abolished monarchy. This seemingly endless succession of upheavels makes it all the more remarkable that only one Hungarian leader lost their life to an assassination during this time. This man, Istvan Tisza, was the dominant Hungarian politician of the era, prior to and during the First World War. His role also made him a marked man, not once, not twice, but four times. The final blow fell just as the war was drawing to a close.

Count Istvan Tisza

Count Istvan Tisza – giant of Hungarian politics in the years leading up to and during World War I (Artist: Gyula Benczur)

Exiles, Executions and Suicides
Just because Tisza was a marked man, does not mean all the other leaders during this time were safe. After all, the four most controversial men to lead Hungary during the 20th century all ended up as exiles. Mihaly Karolyi lived out the latter part of his life in France. Bela Kun fled to the Soviet Union, where he was unable to escape the vicissitudes of Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930’s.  He got a bullet in the back of his skull as deadly repayment for his dedication and zeal to the communist cause. Miklos Horthy was kidnapped by the Nazi’s for attempting to negotiate a Hungarian surrender with the Allies. He then ended up in the hands of the Americans, who refused to hand him over to the Soviets. Horthy spent his final years in Estoril, Portugal of all places, his expenses and care financed by Jewish friends who were grateful that he had helped save at least some of the Jews (this is ironic to say the least). Matyas Rakosi, a horrible man who even looked the part, was removed by the Soviets due to the effect his harsh dictatorship had on fomenting the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. He sat out the rest of the Cold War in the Soviet Union, cooling his heels until his death in 1971.

Sadly a couple of men who have been looked kindly upon by some historians, Pal Teleki and Imre Nagy died tragically. In Teleki’s case he shot himself in protest at the government’s decision to allow German troops to use Hungary as a transit corridor for the invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941. As for Nagy, he was executed ostensibly for treason, this happened at the hands of his former comrades. Some might say these men were also committing treason, this time against Nagy and the will of the Hungarian people. Teleki and Nagy may have stood on principle, but were felled by tyranny.

Tyranny did not always win. Take the case of the fascist Ferenc Szalasi, who led the Nazified Arrow Cross movement. His short lived policies took the lives of thousands of Jews. He did not escape fate though. Following the war he was brought back to Hungary, convicted for war crimes and hanged. He was just another of the many different leaders of Hungary that were removed from power in a variety of manners. The tally for this first phase of the 20th century includes a suicide, three executions, multiple exiles and what we now turn to, an assassination.

One Attempt After Another
And what of the assassination of Tisza? As is so often the case in Hungarian history, the assassination does not follow a simple path, the story is clouded with complexities. To begin with, Tisza survived no less than three attempts on his life. The first actually occurred before the war and happened in parliament no less. Tisza had a long history of keeping the socialists and national minorities in check. Politicians who represented these interests were often given to loud protests in parliament against Tisza and his colleagues. Tisza’s response was to have the police remove the obstructionists from parliament.

One such instance led to the first assassination attempt against him. On June 4, 1912, the opposition turned furious over Tisza’s support for an Army Bill. The bill in question would increase Hungarian influence in the army, while at the same time increasing the number of men drafted for service. In other words, the workers and national minorities were to provide the soldiery, while the upper crust of Hungarian society provided the leadership. The socialists disrupted parliament on this day with a variety of noisemaking devices. Tisza called in the police who removed the offenders. Soon after, the Army Bill was passed.

When parliament was convened just three days later, the opposition attempted to cause another disturbance in parliament. Tisza called the police once again to usher them away. One legislator, Gyula Kovacs, managed to make his way into the upper gallery of the chamber. Suddenly he shouted, “There is still a member of the opposition in this house” and fired three shots at Tisza. Kovacs then turned the gun on himself, shooting himself in the head. Astonishingly, his attempts against both Tisza and himself were unsuccessful. Forebodingly, the wounded and bleeding Kovacs is said to have muttered, “this is not the last shots that will be fired here.” A surreal scene followed with the wounded Kovacs removed and Tisza continuing the parliamentary proceedings. The Army Bill was passed. Later Tisza was insulted by his political foe Mihaly Karolyi for passing this bill. This challenge to Tisza’s honor deserved a response. The two fought a dual. In those days, the Hungarian nobility dueled not with pistol, but with fencing sabers. Fortunately, for Karolyi, the duel was stopped after Tisza inflicted the first slash on him.

Just a little over two years later, the heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb nationalist in Sarajevo. This was the spark that would ignite the initial catastrophe of the 20th century, World War I. The Austrian leadership wanted war from the very beginning. The Hungarians were in a much trickier position. War threatened Hungary’s position as a veritable equal in the Dual Monarchy. Tisza helped forestall the initial impulse of the Austrians to declare war. He insisted that the leadership of the Serbian state be given an opportunity to answer the charges for their role in the assassination. The terms given to the Serbians were so stringent though, that there was no way they could meet all the requirements and still maintain a modicum of national self-respect. Nonetheless, the Serbians did meet most of these. Unfortunately, for Tisza and Hungary no amount of Serbian contrition was going to stop the Austrian leadership from going to war, especially when support for the Austrians was assured by Germany.

The best that Tisza could negotiate for Hungary was an agreement that when Serbia was defeated, it would not be annexed into the empire. If it had been, the tenuous power that the Hungarians enjoyed in the Dual Monarchy would have been upset by an increase in the Slav population. Such a Slav presence would have to be accommodated at the expense of Hungary. In retrospect, the Hungarian role in the Dual Monarchy was a classic no win situation. Salvaging it left Tisza and his nation with impossible choices. If Serbia had been defeated and the war won, the Hungarians would probably have lost out to Slav incorporation within the empire and if the war was lost, everything would crumble. Why did Tisza not resign in protest? Because he would have been immediately replaced with another Hungarian leader who supported Austrian policy.  In addition, a failure to support the Austrians would have displayed a near fatal fissure in the Dual Monarchy. Thus, Tisza supported the war and remained Prime Minister until 1917.

His life, like the Dual Monarchy was imperiled by the war. More assassination attempts were forthcoming. One soldier took a shot at Tisza while he was returning from a visit to the front. Another attempt occurred on October 16 when a member of an anti-military group shot at Tisza as he was leaving parliament. This was the same day that Tisza gave a famous speech in Parliament where he admitted “We have lost the war.” This was the final blow not only for Hungary, but also Tisza. All of his life’s work to keep Hungary’s privileged position in the Dual Monarchy was now lost.  Even after his ouster as the nation’s leader, Tisza had remained one of the preeminent politicians in Hungary. What was to become of the country, what was to become of Tisza?

Istvan Tisza with his wife

Istvan Tisza with his wife

The Final Act
October 31, 1918 was a bright, sunny day in Budapest. The Hungarians do not celebrate Halloween, not that anyone at the time would have wanted to. The country was in chaos, hundreds of thousands of men had died on the eastern and southern fronts in horribly mismanaged campaigns. The national minorities were in revolt. New nations were being created and old ones resized. This would eventually lead to Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and an enlarged Romania.  Even in Hungary, radical Socialism was threatening to turn into Bolshevism. Surviving soldiers were arriving back in the capital. They were looking for scapegoats. There was none better than Tisza.

Tisza knew his life was in peril. He carried a pistol at all times. He was advised to leave the country, but said, “I wish to die upright, the way I have lived.” On this day, he was at his villa, the Roheim palace, on the edge of the Varosliget, Budapest’s city park. He was visiting with his wife and niece, the Countess Almassy, in the early evening when three armed soldiers gained entry to the villa. It is still unclear to this day, the details of what exactly transpired. Newspaper reports state that the soldiers confronted Tisza in a hallway. He had his revolver in hand. One of the soldiers asked him to lay it down. He would not. The ladies were asked to leave, but they refused. One soldier addressed Tisza with the accusation that “it is your fault that millions have perished. You brought about this war.” Tisza denied this. The soldiers again asked the ladies to leave, again they refused. The three soldiers lowered their rifles and pointed them at Tisza. A volley of bullets suddenly spewed forth. Tisza was mortally wounded. He lay dying at the feet of his wife and niece. His last words were reportedly, “I am dying. It has to be.”

As mentioned above the Hungarians do not celebrate Halloween, but first day of November is traditionally known as the day of the dead. This is when the dead are remembered, flowers placed on graves and cemeteries packed with those paying their respects. On November 1,1919, Count Istvan Tisza the giant of Hungarian politics was buried earlier than usual. As Miklos Banffy soberly relates in his memoirs, “Tisza’s funeral was to be at four o’clock on the following day. At half past three I set off but was met by a friend coming away. He told me the funeral was over and that it had been held before the time announced as it had been feared the mob might have tried to prevent the last respects from being paid because there were those who had threatened to desecrate the corpse of a man who had been so hated.” Finding peace seemed as elusive in death for Tisza as it was in the last years of his life.

This ended the first and only assassination of a leading Hungarian politician during the tumultuous first phase of the twentieth century. The murder of Count Istvan Tisza can be seen as the final casualty of Hungary’s First World War. He represented the establishment, the old guard, a way of life that was quickly becoming anachronistic. Like the hundreds of thousands of men before him, he died in the trenches. Not the military ones, but instead the political trenches. Yet in many ways he also represents the first casualty in a new war, the war between radical socialism and reactionary conservatism. This was the war that would change Hungary forever and so violently influence the next forty years of its existence.