VERITAS Research Institute for History and Archives

How did Károlyi and his team react to the enemy’s offensive, which was penetrating deeper into Hungarian territory? 

When Czech forces arrive in Nagyszombat, Budapest instructs the local gendarmerie not to intervene even though the number of Czech occupiers is small. In the meantime, the Hungarian military changes its name to the Hungarian People’s Army. At the time, the country’s strongest military unit is the Székely Hadosztály (Szekler Division), which tries to defend the Transylvanian territories. More than once they defy orders from Budapest. The division does not enjoy the support of the home front. We need to emphasize the Budapest Military Council’s role in this, particularly József Pogány’s. When the Hungarian Soviet Republic (i.e., “dictatorship of the proletariat”) comes to power and the Romanian attack commences in April 1919, the Szekler Division becomes demoralized and surrenders on April 26th. The responsibility for this happening falls overwhelmingly on the military policy of the Károlyi Era. After March 21st, even Béla Kun lambastes the diminished Hungarian Army that now consists of only 48 thousand men, except that he himself has also played a role in this demilitarization.      

Even in domestic policy, the government seems unable to find its voice.

Károlyi is an unwitting victim of events. To what extent Budapest is in charge of the country is questionable. On February 5th, 1919, the county assembly in Székesfehérvár declares the central government illegitimate. In response, the central government removes the local főispán (translator’s note: the head official of county administration). Bishop of Szombathely Count János Mikes is imprisoned for “anti-state activity”. Despite using pacifist sloganeering, the state is clearly trying to enforce its will (i.e., monopoly on violence) in defense of the revolution. The state even smashes a communist protest on February 22nd, 1919. In other words, the Károlyi administration attempts to position itself against the far left. Béla Kun is taken to Budapest Prison. Except by this time the Social Democrats are also disgruntled. There is now a two-tiered system of control in the country, with the central government representing the people’s republic, and the various councils, military councils, work councils and even priest councils running their respective locales. Károlyi begins to divide up the land of his estate in Kál-Kápolna, but it is only a symbolic gesture. He has failed in solving the problems that stress the entire system. His political direction comes under fire when conservative-liberal politicians speak up. Others argue that Hungary needs to militarily defend herself. At the beginning of March 1919, Károlyi gives a speech in Szatmárnémeti in which he says that he will not acquiesce to the latest demands of the Entente. He is the first to use the “No, no, never!” (Nem, nem, soha!) rallying cry. He makes a call to arms, but it is too late by then. Delivered to Károlyi on March 20th, the Vix Note is the death knell of his administration. The communication, named after the French lieutenant colonel who has penned it, demands Hungary to withdraw from additional territories in the Trans-Tisza region. Károlyi acknowledges that the political system he established at the end of October is beyond saving. Conservative-liberal forces, however, decline to take over for Károlyi, which is a grave mistake on their part. Next, the Bolsheviks author a resignation letter on Károlyi’s behalf, and on March 21st, Béla Kun and his gang assume power in an almost bloodless scheme. Moreover, the socialists see potential in working together with the Bolsheviks.     

Károlyi ends up staying in Hungary until July. What does he do during the Kun Era?

Károlyi drops out of political life. During this time he drifts leftward, which, coincidently, is typical of the majority of intellectuals of the era. Apart from Wilsonianism, Bolshevism is the other ideology that offers the universal solution of a more peaceful and better new world order. Károlyi takes this under consideration.   

How successful does Károlyi consider himself when it comes to his political achievements (or lack thereof)?

We need to highlight the importance of the question of social equality in answering this question. To the end, Károlyi is obsessed with somehow bringing social equality to Hungary. Even in hindsight, after the catastrophe of Trianon has unfolded, Károlyi does not condemn his 1918-19 policy decisions, which is intriguing because during his tenure he reaches out to politicians – such as Edvard Beneš – who play a decisive role in bringing about the Treaty of Trianon. At this point, does the notion of treason apply to him? The communis opinio (translator’s note: general opinion) of the Horthy Era that Károlyi has already been acting in this spirt by the end of 1918 cannot be supported and lacks factual basis.

Why does Károlyi end up helping Mátyás Rákosi, future communist leader of Hungary?

He wants to legitimize his policies to show that he has remained faithful to his earlier principles. After emigrating from Hungary, he progresses towards Bolshevism, to the point he writes, sometime around 1936-37, that the ideology of Bolshevism suits him. When he hears about Stalin’s reprisals, he doubts the truthfulness of the news. Following Hungary’s defeat in World War II, the new powers that be bring Károlyi out as a kind of continuity of / connection to the past. He is welcomed back in celebratory fashion after spending twenty-seven years abroad. During the Rákosi Era, he is the Hungarian Ambassador to France. Eventually he fades into insignificance. He butts heads with the Rákosi regime, falls out of favor, is forced out and immigrates to France, where he dies in 1955. That his life ends after spending many years in exile puts him in the same company as Hungarian freedom fighters Francis II Rákóczi and Lajos Kossuth. Unlike them, however, Károlyi conspired against Hungary on several occasions.     

Even today, the assessment of Mihály Károlyi’s role is a source of heated debate. For example, the location of his statue is a good indicator of a given political system’s view of history. 

He truly does embody the contradictions secreted in Hungarian history. It is an undeniable fact that there was a leftward tilt to the 1848 tradition. However, when the moment of truth arrived in 1848, there was no question the country would mount an armed defense. Mihály Károlyi and his men, on the other hand, did no such thing, which was their historic responsibility. We recognize that they were not responsible for the events that brought forth the collapse of Historic Hungary, the primary driver of which was Hungary’s defeat in World War I. But that they were the ones to demobilize the army and impede armed resistance is historical fact. The other aspect we have to emphasize when assessing Károlyi is that he was considered as the forerunner of the so-called democratic forces that would come later. When communist leader János Kádár was consolidating power, Károlyi personified the Hungarian aristocrat who had laid the foundation for the socialist changes to come. So the 1970’s saw a kind of Károlyi worship, which the communist powers that be supported. Imre Varga’s statue of Károlyi, placed near where the statue of Tisza had stood on Kossuth Square, was a manifestation of this reverence. It was spun as a milestone of Hungarian democracy, or even better, the transformation of such. Everything we have talked about in this interview was swept under the rug. The dichotomy continued until 2010, when the Orbán administration made the decision to restore the statue of Tisza. It directly followed that Tisza’s great political opponent Mihály Károlyi simply had no place on Kossuth Square, i.e., the main square of the Hungarian nation. Despite the steps Károlyi had taken to bring forth social equality in Hungary, his responsibility for losing the nation overrode everything else. Even after the catastrophe of Trianon had been carried out, he had chosen not to condemn his own policies and decisions, nor cut ties with either Czech politician Edvard Beneš or the Yugoslavs. And so on and so forth...    

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