We are going to shoot from now on

Magyar Idők- 12.01.2019.

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  • 2019. January 12.

Rural Hungary proved to be difficult for the Communist dictatorship. The second wave of collectivization started sixty years ago. Réka Földváryné Kiss, chairperson of the Committee of National Remembrance (NEB), Krisztián Gergely Horváth leader of the research group of the Research Centre for the Humanities of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and NEB were asked by ‘Lugas’ section of Magyar Idők about what happened and why it happened between 1945 and 1962 in Hungarian villages. LUGAS: It is hard to find an explanation for or any logics in what the communist regime did in and to Hungarian villages. Lands were distributed, three years later they were collectivized, then Imre Nagy promised the possibility of free leave and voluntarism, just to force everybody in the collective in the end. What is the explanation for that?

RÉKA FÖLDVÁRYNÉ KISS: The subjugation of peasantry was important for the leaders of the forming dictatorship, because they were an autonomous social group with some wealth and independence from the state. The history of rural Hungary, the recent happenings has been a neglected area of history. A research group of 30 young academics that was established four years ago is now working on exploring what underlying processes were in operation. How the replacement of the elite and the owners happened, how the prosecution of the Church took place. We have published two lengthy books of collected papers and we started a travelling exhibition called ‘Sorsfordítás’, where we describe the various methods, means of those in power as well as important events.

GERGELY KRISZTIÁN HORVÁTH: In order to stabilize the dictatorship of the proletariat the social foundation of a predominantly agriculture-based country, peasantry, its values, traditions and way of living had to be eliminated. From the eighteenth century modernization meant industrial advancement and know-how; the peasant attitude to agriculture could not compete with that. The idea of advancement as industrialization was adopted by the Marxist ideology  it considered agriculture as a necessary evil, and see the future in its industrialization. However, Marx and Engel’s prediction proved to be wrong, and communism became victorious in the least developed country, Russia, instead of the most developed one. In Russia nearly 90% of the population was peasantry. As a lot of money was needed for industrialization, it was taken from agricultural production. With the collectivization that started in 1929 in Russia created a situation that crowds fled from agriculture to the industrial sector.

RÉKA FÖLDVÁRYNÉ KISS: There were not only economic but ideological reasons behind collectivization. In order to make Marxism as an exclusive world view, first the traditional system of values with such important pillars as the respect of property, religion and nationalism had to be abolished. Therefore, the elimination of an autonomous way of living, the creation of dependency and the elimination of traditional values became an aim at the same time, which was not an easy task for the communist party which enjoyed little support. In 1945 a process of many stages started, with multiple directions in the beginning. The start was the distribution of lands in 1945. All democratic representatives agreed that the latifundia system had to be eliminated and a solution to be found for the land needs of poor peasantry within the frames of an extensive land reform. The debate escalated not around the need for a land reform but around the ways of implementation and finally the decision favoured the power interests of the Soviet leadership and the Hungarian communist party. The communists wanted to create unviable small-peasant farms, for them land distribution was a political means of propaganda and they intended to gain legitimization capital. It is not a coincidence that the agricultural ministry of the provisional national government approved by Moscow was given to Imre Nagy, in order that the ‘new conquest’ was connected to the communist party. So it is clear that while there were still fights in the west of the country, in the east the land distribution was on, in other words it wasn’t a well-prepared reform, but it was the beginning of the replacement of owners and elite by Soviet pressure.

GERGELY KRISZTIÁN HORVÁTH: The execution went smoothly, which indicates that the process and the executive cadres were prepared. There were members of the communist party in each land distribution committee. The 600/1945 land reform decree defined the upper limit of a farm at 100 jugerums. Above 1000 jugerums there was no compensation and above 100 there was a promise for compensation for taking lands away, but finally there was none. The aim was not only to help the penniless but to eliminate the existential base for the rural middle class  i.e. smaller or bigger land owners as well as urban citizens (especially in the Alföld) whose one source of income was the land. Three weeks before the official end of the war the subsistence of civic livelihood was made impossible. Moreover, the fact the lands were taken away from the Church without compensation led to the loss of their economic independence which provided the financial background for their social, educational and religious activities. Therefore, when they were talking about separating the state and the Church, in fact they preserved the total economic dependence of the churches.

LUGAS. The first step, distribution of the lands indicates some democratic intentions.

RÉKA FÖLDVÁRYNÉ KISS: There are two processes interwoven. A significant part of Hungarian society and the political elite committed to a democratic change, which is reflected in the overwhelming victory of the Smallholders’ Party in November 1945. The communist party, however, was trying to monopolize the most important positions from the very beginning  with intensive Soviet support. Having those positions, they started to exterminate their rivals. The distribution of the lands was such a power tool for them. Research into rural history in the recent years shed light on how important part the control over local government and institutions (beside the most important central positions) played in the underlying process of establishing a communist dictatorship. Apart from the land distribution committees it was just as important to ensure a left-wing majority in the local national committees -which could only be achieved in many places by extremely corrupt practices- as all legitimate power was in the hands of these bodies. They appointed the leaders of people’s courts and screening committees  these bodies became significant factors in the replacement of the local elite. While the Smallholders’' Party gained absolute majority at the elections for a national assembly, below the national level, in terms of local executive powers, mostly communists and loyal individuals were in key positions. The takeover took pace not only in the political elite. We could say that the arrest of Béla Kovács, chief secretary of the Smallholders’ Party was not the beginning of the establishment of the dictatorship, but its manifestation.

GERGELY KRISZTIÁN HORVÁTH: After the first phase of sovietization between 1945 and 1947  which period is intricately described in Sándor Márai’s diary  1948 was another milestone in the history of the sovietization of the country and breaking the rural areas. We are over the elimination of rival parties, the show trials are on when the first war on the peasantry is launched. The starting signal for collectivization was Mátyás Rákosi's speech on 20 August 1948 in Kecskemét. Instead of the promised voluntary partnerships there is force by the authorities. The prosecution of kulaks peaked in 1949. Paradoxically, kulaks were not allowed in the collective -being enemies of the people. Those who would join to find peace are disruptive and those would farm alone are exploitative. The only way out of this vicious circle was leaving the land. On the other hand there were the newly made landowners with 5 jugerums of property who had no tools to cultivate their land. Many -being former farmhands or domestic workers- had no overview of the hole cultivation process. No know-how, no team nor capital. Failure was encoded. From 1948 they volunteered to join the collectives in order to get rid of the burden of independent farming.

LUGAS: Did that generate tension in villages?

RÉKA FÖLDVÁRYNÉ KISS: Of course. The peasantry was hardly homogeneous, groups of different social status, wealth, religion and ethnicity lived together. The communist party tried to heighten and make use of these conflicts of interest in order to weaken rural solidarity. The campaign against kulaks, which made a whole social group an enemy to be eliminated, turned the poorer peasants against the wealthier farmers. On the other hand, they created a flexible category, where anybody cut be placed and anybody could be qualified as a kulak. It is very important that there was a campaign of negative propaganda around it. It is not a coincidence either that the positive-sounding ‘collectivization’ was used when people were made forcefully to join. Collectivization was a positive interwar term and it meant a voluntary cooperation.

GERGELY KRISZTIÁN HORVÁTH: It was also language policy to call the tribute (commonly known as kulak tax) agricultural development contribution.

LUGAS: The first wave of collectivization started in 1948 and lasted till 1953, the first era of Imre Nagy as prime minister. Was there a bit of ‘give’ after the ‘take’?

GERGELY KRISZTIÁN HORVÁTH: In 1953 Imre Nagy started to declare the possibility of voluntarily joining and leaving the collective. By this time there approximately 5200 collectives in the country, and by the summer of 1956 it reduced to 4800. By December 1956 two-third of them was eliminated and the rest were only working officially. In 1957 72% of agricultural production came from private farms and only 4.8-5% from collectives. It is worth noting that although peasantry was the biggest group of society, the number of immigrants in 1956 with agricultural background is insignificant. When Kádár and his associates apologized to the peasantry at the end of November 1956 for the past years and promised voluntarism, peasants believed that  that may be the reason why so few left the country.

RÉKA FÖLDVÁRYNÉ KISS: The revolution of rural Hungary had a different history. We usually emphasize that the fights took place in Budapest while in most venues outside the capital the revolution took place within a few days and without blood. The system of councils was eliminated and local communities had the resources to organize local governments and national committees independently and to elect their leaders. They made responsible decisions; there was no sign of anarchy. They worded their demands, for example the elimination of forced collectives, but in the meantime they kept doing the autumn work. They displayed strong solidarity with the revolutionists in the capital, they were sending them food. 1956 also showed that the Rákosi-regime was unable to change the traditional way of thinking of the peasantry.

LUGAS: Was János Kádár wiser or did he just have more time?

RÉKA FÖLDVÁRYNÉ KISS: Kádár really was a break, the elimination of traditional peasantry is associated with him and it is closely linked to 1956. The revolution was followed by extensive retaliation. First there were volleys, then mainly ex-ÁVH militiamen beat through villages in the literal sense of the word. Internments again, dismissals from workplaces and a series of trials in the country too. Often people were interned, imprisoned or hanged who were elected leaders during the revolution with a role in the ‘organized revolution’. They were people with integrity who not only did not break the law, but ensured law and order locally. The Kádár-establishment considered them enemy, as the local communities listened to them.

GERGELY KRISZTIÁN HORVÁTH: We know more about the trials and less about the vigilante restoration of order by the communists. Ex-ÁVH (state security) staff who became ‘quilted jacket men’ [pufajkások] were on the loose. These events are barely documented. The atmosphere of terror is well demonstrated with the incident when a priest of the Reformed Church was taken in three times, was beaten with a truncheon but the doctor was afraid to make a medical record; the patient was treated in secret.

RÉKA FÖLDVÁRYNÉ KISS: I heard one of the most moving stories from a farmer in the Trans-Tisza region. He was a presbyter, respected in the village. He was beaten in front of the local pub and he was so ashamed of it, he did not tell anyone for decades what happened to him.

GERGELY KRISZTIÁN HORVÁTH: On 8 December 1956 György Marosán said the slogan: we are going to shoot from now on. He let the reign loose, volleys started. After the fall of the revolution there was great disappointment and resentment; we can talk about a sense of defeat on a national level. People felt that the West abandoned them, the Soviet occupation did not change and even the prime minister, Imre Nagy was executed. All this had a clear message. What could the average man rely on and hope for after this? The post-revolution retaliation was still on, half a year after Imre Nagy’s execution when collectivization started in January 1959. Those who did not join the collective because they still hoped to avoid it somehow were gradually worn down, eliminating the resistance. As a result of the forced collectivization campaign that was scheduled for the winter and spring of 1959 and the turn of 1959-60 as well as 1960-61, by the spring of 1961 the elimination of the peasantry was completed and 94% of agricultural workers were working in the so-called socialist sector. “They put down the foundations of socialism” - i.e. everyone became penniless and one of the proleariat.

RÉKA FÖLDVÁRYNÉ KISS: The villages were in resistance even at the end of 1956, after the fall of the revolution, Vilmos Garamvölgyi, chief commissioner of police said in the beginning of 1957 that “our power stops at district level”. That is why they sent patrols in trucks to the villages “to have a word with the locals” and therefore it was “sure that there would be no sign of reactionary elements in these villages”. He added that the enemy started their disruptive work in the collectives. He issued the task to restore order in the villages first, by which they did the groundwork for the forced collectivization which was euphemistically called creating kolkhozes. Kádár’s collectivization was a scheduled and precise campaign. Learning from earlier mistakes, it was officially built upon agitation and convincing, but in fact locally it ranged from constant harassment, intimidation to verbal and physical aggression. Agitators flooded the villages and they were not afraid to resort to the cruelest means. Reports of complaints and letters testify that people were beaten to near death in spite of the party propaganda as one of the letter writers put it: “some people had no strength to go home alone after the operation”.

The establishment "if they paid attention to the reports at all" labelled them as local incidents of encroachment and the biggest punishment was an administrative penalty from the party. The most severe trauma was that Kádár’s consolidation took blackmail to a family level. Families were threatened that the child would be expelled from the boarding house, from the workplace. Teachers in schools gave out essay assignments whether the parents joined the collective. The persuasion involved masses of people. There was a series of family tragedies  unprocessed to this day  induced by a wave of state aggression that was imposed upon the Hungarian society in a time of peace. There were some cases of protestation, although they involved the risk of serious repercussions in the light of the retaliation. A peculiar form of open protestation was the women’s protest. We know about five women’s rebellions only in Szabolcs-Szatmár county. The best-documented incident was in 1960 in Nyírcsaholy, where women demanded back the declaration of joining signed by the men in front of the council building. An investigation started and five women were charged, one of them was given two years. These were the last desperate attempts.

GERGELY KRISZTIÁN HORVÁTH: There were two options: Villagers could either leave agriculture or stay in it but there would be unspoken traumas about both. Alcoholism became a large-scale phenomenon, there was a sudden increase in the number of suicides, in some South-Alföld regions there were 60-80 suicides for a 100 thousand people. The trauma is indicated by the low birth rate, the number of births in the first half of the 50s is double the figure of 12.9 in 1962. That was the lowest number in Europe at the time. In a neuroscientific journal there was a paper describing that in a Szabolcs-Szatmár village the condition of a quarter of neurotic patients was connected to the situation induced by collectivization. At the same time the humiliation of the rural country went on. There were jokes with peasants at the bottom of the jokes in Ludas Matyi, and the culture of peasants was being mocked at every level.

LUGAS: What could be the way out?

RÉKA FÖLDVÁRYNÉ KISS: Many people left the agriculture, fled from the village and those who joined the collective, tried to make it more economical and ensure individual growth. The general modernization of the time reached the villages, which was made to appear as a result of collectivization by the propaganda. To ensure the food supply, backyard farming based on self-exploitation was necessary. The whole family, including the children worked together after the official working hours, depriving themselves from rest. It was not really a free choice, but just to get by. The process of violent elimination of independent farming was accompanied by many instances of self-destructive behaviour, the system of norms that regulated the traditional way of living among the peasantry was no more. This generation had to carry those burdens.

GERGELY KRISZTIÁN HORVÁTH: Mass immigration continued in the 1960s. While 53% of active earners worked in agriculture in 1949, this number was only 24% in 1970. In the 60s only 600 thousand people left the villages and became first-generation industrial workers. Turning away from the peasant way of living is a result of a sense of failure. In this period there were a number of administrative measures imposed upon agricultural workers. Members of the collective did not count as employees, so all the benefits that industrial workers were entitled to did not apply for them. As there was no trade union, there was no holiday, no funeral support. In the first years the members did not get a salary, they only received money once a year, at the time of discharge, if they were given money at all. There was only some advance of the produce, and they had to make a living off backyard farming. Women who worked in the collective received less family benefits. Even after 1967 the industrial sector provided 300 Ft child benefit for a woman with two children, this sum was 140 Ft for a collective member and after every child only 70 Ft. In contrast, the child benefit was 510 Ft for three children and 680 Ft for four for someone in the industrial sector. The message was that your joint venture is the collective, produce what is needed to make a living, but if you work too well and take your produce from backyard farming to the market, your growth is not the socialist way. In the beginning of the 1970s some leaders of successful collectives were persecuted. From 1963 a tax was imposed on private residences, which did not concern those living in urban rentals, mostly just villagers living in their own houses. The death rate of middle-aged men increased from the mid-60s due to stress, overworking and unhealthy lifestyle. The demographic which used to be the foundation of population growth was shaken and this process  as we can see  cannot be reversed to this day.


Reka Kiss interview