VERITAS Research Institute for History and Archives

Károlyi becomes the head of government on October 31st. What kind of government does he lead? What are his first steps?

From the beginning, the new government, made up mainly of members of the National Council, acts as the representative of an independent Hungary. An important event takes place on November 1st and 2nd, 1918, when Minister of War Béla Linder, via the Austro-Hungarian High Command, sends a message to the front ordering Hungarian troops to cease fighting immediately and return to Hungary. This sounds great in theory, but in a war, in the middle of the Italian Offensive (specifically the Battle of Vittorio Veneto), it cannot be done efficiently, so the Hungarian troop withdrawal speeds up the process of collapse, the prospects of which the Imperial and Royal Armed Forces has already been facing. As a result, the Armistice of Villa Giusti with the Entente is signed on November 3rd. It is important to know that the agreement stipulates the Monarchy’s troops pull back to where the borders lay in 1914. For us Hungarians, that meant withdrawing to within the border of the Kingdom of Hungary. The agreement does allow for twenty divisions to remain battle-ready. Except that the Károlyi administration announces that it does not consider the Armistice of Villa Giusti binding since the Entente has signed it with the Austro-Hungarian state, which exists in name only, instead of with Hungary. In the meantime, de facto new states are being carved out of the territories of the former Monarchy. So Károlyi and his team try to reach out to the Entente troops advancing from the direction of the Balkans. On November 7th, they travel to Belgrade to meet with the Entente mission. Armistice negotiations commence. However, the terms of the Armistice of Belgrade, signed on November 13th, are much worse than those of the Armistice of Villa Giusti. The Hungarian Army is reduced to only eight divisions while the lines of demarcation are no longer the borders of the kingdom. The Czechs in the north, the Romanians along the banks of the Maros River and the Serbs near the post-Trianon border now occupy much of the country.

Why have they accepted such disadvantageous conditions?

The Aster Revolution carries the promise of peace, and Károlyi and his men believe they stand on the threshold of a new and democratic world order. By demonstrating their progressiveness via democratic transformation, they hope to secure advantageous peace treaty conditions for Hungary from the Entente Powers. The Károlyi administration actually carries out a greater and more comprehensive disarmament than the Armistice of Belgrade requires. The eight divisions allowed by the agreement remain undermanned. On November 1st, Béla Linder makes his incriminating statement about not wanting to see any more soldiers. In the new pacifist world about to dawn, there will be no need for armies since conflicts will be handled in a different way. Moreover, the Military Council attempts to initiate a democratization process within the army by restricting officers’ authority and giving enlisted personnel say in the decision-making process. Of course, this is complete nonsense. An army cannot function on a democratic basis. By the first two weeks of November, the system has already shown itself to be incapable of fulfilling its commitments. In the wake of the signing of the Armistice of Belgrade, the French view Hungary as a defeated state, taking no notice of Károlyi’s “independent country”. This is even more painful in light of Károlyi confidante Márton Lovászy’s announcement that “Hungary is a friend of the Entente”, which he says at around the time of Tisza’s famous speech.

How do we get to the declaration of the Hungarian People's Republic?

Events in Austria and Hungary happen simultaneously. When World War I comes to an end with the Armistice of Compiègne on November 11th, and Austria forces the Emperor to step down, Károlyi sends a delegation to Eckartsau, a town near Vienna, calling for Charles to renounce also his claim on the Hungarian Crown. Following their visit, Charles issues a proclamation suspending his right to rule. He says that he shall leave it up to the people to decide what form of government they want to live under and respect their decision. Feeling encouraged, Károlyi and his team decide that they will declare Hungary’s new form of government as a népköztársaság (people’s republic). In all official documentation, this is the name that appears. When a government office mistakenly uses the word “Republic”, it receives a rebuke from above that the proper appellation is People’s Republic. By the way, when György Szabad (Speaker of the National Assembly of between 1990 and 1994) establishes the framework of Hungarian republican tradition, he considers this to be the first republic of Hungary, the second and third being declared in 1946 and 1989, respectively. György Szabad’s greatness and intelligence are on display here, although his numbering is debatable if we take into consideration that when the Hungarian Soviet Republic collapses in 1919, a people’s republic takes its place, lasting until March 1st, 1920, when legislation reestablishes the Kingdom of Hungary and ushers in the Horthy Era. We could make the argument that the first people’s republic is supplanted by the second within a matter of months, turning the entire numbering system on its head. In any case, in addition to the people’s republic, the Károlyi administration refers to legislation as néptörvény (people’s legislation) and enacted laws are renumbered starting from No. 1. This system ushers in a new era, so much so that in 1919, a decision is made to declare October 31st, the birthday of the new system, as an official holiday.

There seems to be a strong shift leftwards with the declaration of the People’s Republic, is there not?

Some on the extreme leftwing say that a socialistic republic or, more specifically, a dictatorship of the proletariat should be declared instead of a people’s republic, but by calling the new state a people’s republic, Károlyi and his men attempt to knock the wind out of the extremists’ sails. A sign of the changing times is that the concluding phrase from the wording of oaths (“So help me God!”) is removed. Government office workers and military personnel are made to pledge allegiance to the new form of government. The pledge is taken by many people who will come to regret it later. One is Archduke Joseph August, for example, who even tries to change his nobiliary name to Alcsút, after the estate in Alcsútdobozi. ‘Tis also true that many people look upon the oath as a final longshot attempt at keeping the country intact.     

Where are the people when the People’s Republic is declared?

The decision is made with the participation of approximately two thousand people, who stand in front of the Hungarian Parliament Building on what is today known as Kossuth Square. In other words, the people have not chosen what form of government they must live under. It has been decided for them and served up as a fait accompli

So the citizens of the People’s Republic cannot make their voices heard at the ballot box?

The new system does not dare to be challenged at the ballot box. There is no countrywide election even though suffrage has been greatly expanded. Bishop of Székesfehérvár Ottokár Prohászka opines that the Christian Socialists and the Smallholders will come out on top in the event of an election, in which case Károlyi and his team will lose power as the Independence parties have no real base. After continuous delays, the decision is finally made in January to hold the elections in April. By this time, it is obvious that Károlyi lacks the necessary social support as he and his men have been unable to meet even basic challenges. There is neither enough coal nor food. The Spanish flu victimizes the population. The new system cannot keep its promise of fixing the social and economic problems that emerged during World War I. That it has failed is not completely Károlyi’s fault, however. The enemy occupies sixty percent of the country. With the exceptions of Subcarpathia, Burgenland and the Partium, the outline of free Hungary has begun to resemble the post-Trianon reality. Kolozsvár falls on Christmas Eve in 1918, Kassa and Pozsony by January 1st. Within eight days all three key cities are lost, a harbinger of the greater catastrophe to come. The idea that a voluntarily disarmed and pacifist Hungary can win advantageous peace treaty conditions has come to nothing. It is now too late to remobilize. The system has revealed its most serious deficiency.


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