Laszlo Rajk and the Hungarian Jewish Communists

Recently, ITV’s “First Tuesday” showed Barry Cockcroft’s film about the attempt of the Hungarian dissident Laszlo Rajk to discover and indeed understand his father. The latter, the first Laszlo Rajk, was a leader of the underground Communist Party during the Horthy regime. How was it, the son asked, that a man who courageously struggled against fascism in his own country, fought in Spain and was a leader of the Hungarian resistance, could ruthlessly suppress his own people in the immediate post-war years. Laszlo Rajk was condemned to death by his erstwhile comrades at the behest of Stalin in eastern Europe’s first show trial in 1949. His son, a baby during these terrible events, was taken away from his imprisoned mother and his relatives and placed in an orphanage for a number of years. In the film, the younger Rajk, asked how his father met his inquisitors—did he acquiesce for the good of the Party or did he struggle for the soul of Communism? The pained replies were those of a cheated generation who had earnestly believed in the illusion of a bright future until the shades dropped from their ideas so abruptly and often violently.

Although not central to the theme, and indeed not mentioned in this remarkable programme, the Jewish dimension is both interesting and important. Jews were represented disproportionately amongst the founding fathers of the Hungarian socialist movement and in Bela Kun’s revolutionary government in 1919. The Communist quadrumvirate who returned with the Red Army in 1945 eventually to rule the country were all Jews—Rakósi, Gerӧ, Farkas and Revai. This leadership remained silent about anti-Jewish pogroms in Hungary in the summer of 1946 and did little to quench popular antisemitism when the Communist Party was making a bid for power. The non-Jewish Laszlo Rajk as Interior Minister soft-pedalled and interfered in the investigation of the pogromists, assisted by the Jewish police chief Gabor Peter.

Matyas Rakósi, the son of a Jewish shopkeeper named Rosencrantz and known as “Stalin’s best Hungarian disciple” initiated the move against Rajk. Three of Rajk’s co-defendants were Jews, chosen more for their ideological positions than for any ethnic reasons. It is also significant that this first show trial also included the first accusation of “Zionism” following the demise of Stalin’s positive attitude towards Israel the previous year. Dr Tibor Szonyi agreed that he had spied with Zionists for the Americans whilst Andras Szalai confessed to membership of a “Trotskyite-Zionist” group.

It was the ceremonial reburial of Laszlo Rajk in September 1956 which catalysed the October rebellion in Budapest. The involvement of many Jews, in both government and in the intellectual opposition which finally led to the uprising, is well documented. The degree of antisemitism which the Stalinist leadership aroused is unclear. Peripheral populist and neo-fascist elements certainly capitalized upon this, but the Communist and non-Communist mainstream opposition seems to have ignored the Jewish origins of the Rakósi dictatorship. At an earlier stage, the Stalinist leadership also attempted to use the Jewish question as a means of smearing and discrediting the growing movement against the government. Prime Minister Gerӧ, a Jew, suddenly discovered the usefulness of the charge during a speech which actually inflamed the crowds.

Before this, following the death of Stalin, the Russians feared that the Jewish origin of their disciples would weaken their control in Hungary. Beria is reputed to have told Rakósi: “We know that there have been in Hungary, apart from its own rulers, Turkish sultans, Austrian emperors, Tartar khans and Polish princes. But as far as we know, Hungary has never had a Jewish king. Apparently, this is what you have become. Well, you can be sure that we won’t allow it.” (From T. Meray, Thirteen days that shook the Kremlin (New York 1959) ).

Beria was arrested virtually immediately after this meeting and quickly executed. Rakósi survived as an outcast in Russia to outlive friend and foe alike and to die peacefully in bed in 1971.

Jewish Quarterly Winter 1986

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