In 1959, Scottish novelist Alistair MacLean set his fourth novel, The Last Frontier, in the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) satellite People’s Republic of Hungary. Written during the bleak years following the failed October Revolution of 1956, it was in effect an appeal to the ‘West,’ to open as many channels of interaction to the satellite nations as possible, to win them freedom.
However, the years under the Soviet Union proved to be the foundational and formative years of the independent, democratic Republic of Hungary known today. Two things characterize the history of Hungary: its downfalls as a result of its territory-holding, and its capacity for development in forced peacetimes.
Hungary: the Imperial Years (Holy Roman Empire, Ottoman and Habsburg Empires)
Beginning 1000 AD (CE), the monarchy of Hungary officially joined the Holy Roman Empire. So zealous were King Stephen I and his descendants in the interests of the Holy Roman Empire, that they remained true to Rome when most of Eastern Europe turned to Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
Even more interestingly, developments happened for Hungary here that would be mirrored later during its time as a USSR satellite nation. Under the Pax Romana, Hungary expanded its territories to a large swath of what is now known as Slovakia, parts of Romania, parts of Serbia, and so forth.
It also created the Diploma Andreanum in 1224, the first law granting autonomous status to a people within a state—in this case, the Transylvanian Saxons. Hungary also created the first continental European constitution, the Golden Bull of 1267. It was also the first nation to create a parliament (the Diet) which could overrule the monarchy at need.
At the time the fall of the Holy Roman Empire in 1648, Hungary was split between the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg Empire, also known as Austria-Hungary (still Catholic). In 1686, the Habsburgs took the rest of Hungary back from the Ottoman Turks. This state of affairs lasted until World War I.
Hungary: the World Wars
World War I was decisive for Hungary in two ways: the Habsburg Empire was on the side of the Central Powers, which included Germany and the Ottoman Empire (Turkey). Both the Habsburg and the Ottoman Empires collapsed after World War I, which left Hungary momentarily independent.
Moving too quickly into the idea of pacificism, Hungary disarmed and found itself attacked on all sides by neighbors intent on regaining territories taken from them during the Pax Romana. In an effort to regain her territories, Hungary joined Germany in World War II.
Admiral Miklos Horthy, Regent of Hungary, disliked the manner of German integration. He attempted to force peace with the Soviet Army and turn Hungary against Germany. It failed and Hungary fought with Germany until the Soviet Army forcibly took over its capital, Budapest. Barely free of imperial power, Hungary found itself a satellite nation of the USSR.
Hungary: Satellite Nation
After an attempt to ease Hungary into Communism, Soviet Russia gave up after losing political ground, and passed the Hungarian Constitution of 1949, turning Hungary into the People’s Republic of Hungary. From then until the 1956, sweeping Communist reforms were undertaken, including the nationalization of all industries and redistribution of farmlands. There were some positive effects, such as the spread of public education (as a propaganda strategy). However, the political turmoil after Stalin’s death in 1953, until Khrushchev’s takeover in 1956, weakened Soviet rule enough to allow the October Revolution in 1956.
Hungary: October Revolution of 1956
The October Revolution lasted only twelve days, and was essentially a failure. On the first day, October 23, students posted sixteen items requesting more freedoms for Hungarians, especially politically. Arrests were made, the students resisted, and the police fired back. Commissioned officers and even soldiers joined the demonstration.
Communist leader Imre Nagy, who was a popular leader in the 1953-1956 leadership wars, took over and instituted a coalition government within ten days. The Soviet Union was only an observer, until Nagy declared that Hungary would withdraw from the USSR and become a neutral nation. In response, the Soviet Union sent the Red Army into Hungary on November 4.
Hungary: Peace and Prosperity
Interestingly, it was this last quelching of the Revolution that stabilized the country enough for it to develop. After ten years (an admittedly long time) of rigid control, Soviet loyalist leader Janos Kadar began to relax the harsh vigilance of his regime, and started cultural and economic liberalization. He recognized that one means to keeping power was economic contentment, and slowly opened trade routes to the Western European nations. The New Economic Mechanism in 1966 was the period of market liberalization and free trade.
The slow political liberalization led to civil activism in the government itself. By the time of the collapse of the USSR in 1989 with the destruction of the Berlin Wall, Hungary was ready and able to hold discussions with all parties involved politically, re-write its constitution, and transition to democracy within the same year. The Communist Party was converted into a Socialist Party, and Hungary became a Republic once more. It joined the European Union in 2004.
Hungary: A Study in Greed and Patience
With 80% of its economy made up of agricultural activities, territory expansion was the main economic growth strategy of Hungary. Its true economic drivers were agriculture, and food production. Industrialization only began later, under the Communist idea of self-sufficiency. Hungary found itself with factories and a growing mining industry. Under the New Economic Mechanism, it began to engage in foreign trade, and transitioned fully to a market economy in 1989.
Because of Hungary’s gift, so to speak, of internal development during forced peacetime, it was able to prepare and await democratic independence. This makes Hungary unique as a satellite nation. There is no question that the Soviet Union was ruthless in Hungary, especially after the October Revolution. This is not a story of redemption—that because Hungary developed during the Communist regime, the Soviet Union should be summarily forgiven. Instead, it is a fascinating look at what Hungary as a nation chose to do in the era of forced peacetime: build itself internally, and prepare for independence and freedom.