History wars: Hungarian radical leftist writes to college classmate, Gábor Vona

Hungary is a small country and early twentieth century author Frigyes Karinthy’s theory on the six degrees of separation isn’t really applicable to a society of this size. As it turns out, during his university days, the chairman of the Left Party (Balpárt), Szilárd Kalmár, lived in the same dorms as Gábor Vona, the leader of the far-right Jobbik party. Mr. Kalmár is the second friend of mine who went to college with Mr. Vona and has a personal connection to the young man who then still called himself Gábor Zázrivecz and who gave no indication of wanting to be a far right politician. His classmates called him “Zaza” for short. Zaza was both a bookworm  (he once said that he is “very good friends” with Friedrich Nietzsche and Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz), but also a relatively wild “partier.” At least that’s what I hear from people who knew him in his college days.

After 10 years, Mr. Kalmár addressed his former college mate this week in an open letter, published in the staunchly leftist Munkások Újsága (Workers’ Newspaper), pleading with the leader of the extremist party to convince Jobbik politicians in Budapest’s working class Újpest suburb to give up plans aimed at demolishing a monument erected in honour of soldiers who fought on behalf of the short-lived 1919 Soviet Republic. This is the only such monument in Hungary, and Fidesz has teamed up with Jobbik in Újpest to have it removed.

Interestingly, Mr. Kalmár is appealing to Mr. Vona’s nationalism and to the right-wing’s preoccupation with the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 (when Hungary lost two thirds of its land to the successor states of the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire), in an effort to spare the endangered monument, erected to honour the Red Army of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. What many on the right fail to mention when mourning the Trianon peace “diktat,” is the fact that communists were the ones who took up arms to fight the loss of territory to nascent Czecho-Slovakia and Royal Romania.

“I don’t deny that we know each other from the university residences. As such, I am not simply turning to you, a far right political leader, in my capacity as a radical leftist, but rather in that same respectful, yet ultimately distant tone that characterized our relationship ten years ago,” writes Mr. Kalmár. “You know, in 1919 there were only two types of people in this country. There was a minority, that thought of only itself, and which was willing to commit treason in exchange for political power. And there was the majority, which seeing the signs of an increasingly unjust peace diktat, took up arms. The treasonous minority chatted away with officers of the Entente in Szeged’s coffee houses, while those who feared for the future of their homeland went straight from the first free May Day celebrations in Budapest to the front lines,” added Mr. Kalmár in his letter to Mr. Vona.

In Mr. Kalmár’s narrative (which isn’t inaccurate), the Red Army led by a former officer of the Austro-Hungarian military, Aurél Stromfeld, goes to battle against the Czecho-Slovak and Romanian forces in northeastern Hungary. Launching an attack from the town of Hatvan on May 9th, 1919, Commander Stromfeld claimed a military victory against the invading forces near Miskolc, thus ensuring that the Romanians, who were marching on Hungary from the south, and the Czecho-Slovaks, who invaded from the north, could not join forces and proceed to occupy more territory.  The Hungarian Red Army then proceeded to take back the towns of Kassa (now Košice) and Eperjes (Prešov) from the Czecho-Slovak forces. Commander Stromfeld went as far as to proclaim a Slovak Soviet Republic (Slovenská republika rád) in what today is southern Slovakia, which survived from June 16th, 1919 until July 7th, 1919. Hungarian communist leader Béla Kun hoped that the Slovak Soviet Republic was the first step in a wider, East/Central European communist revolution.

French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau was livid when he heard about the Hungarian Soviet Republic’s advances in what would become the Slovak half of Czechoslovakia, and he ordered Hungarian authorities to withdraw. The Hungarian communist regime agreed to withdraw from Slovakia, if the Entente convinced Romanian soldiers to end their occupation of parts of eastern Hungary. Commander Stromfeld was furious that Budapest would give in, and he resigned in protest. In 1920, after the fall of the Soviet Republic, Mr. Stromfeld was put on trial by the new reactionary authorities and was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of incitement.

Hungarian Red Army monument in Újpest. Fidesz and Jobbik have partnered to have it demolished.

Hungarian Red Army monument in Újpest. Fidesz and Jobbik have partnered to have it demolished.

The monument in Újpest, which Fidesz and Jobbik politicians are looking to demolish, honours the deeds of the Hungarian Red Army in northeastern Hungary. Mr. Kalmár points out that local residents already voted once to preserve the monument, in a referendum held shortly after the change in regime of 1989/90. The Balpárt’s leader argues that “25 years of falsified history” is what could create a situation where the monument might very well be destroyed, without any significant protest from Budapest residents. The destruction of the monument was spearheaded by a Jobbik municipal politician and Újpest’s district council–which has a Fidesz majority–has supported this motion.

“Today Fidesz and Jobbik consider Miklós Horthy–the man who came to power thanks to the occupying Romanian forces–as their historical predecessor,” argues Balpárt in a statement concerning the endangered monument. The radical leftists then proceed to label Admiral Horthy a traitor.

Historical debates are certainly alive and well in Hungary. Meanwhile, it may be worth visiting the endangered Red Army monument in Újpest, erected in 1959 and designed by Tamás Gyenes, before it’s too late.


  1. Is that monument of a singular person or just generally a soldier?

  2. Avatar Géza Jeszenszky says:

    The Hungarian Soviet Republic was a tragic attempt to impose a utopian system by dictatorship on Hungary and beyond. Very serious crimes were committed during those 133 days. The Bolsheviks did not fight for fair borders but for world revolution. But the soldiers and most of the officers of the Hungarian Red Army fought against the aggression of Romania and Czechoslovakia; they deserve a monument for their bravery and for liberating North-eastern Hungary.

  3. Avatar Christopher Adam says:

    Mr. Jeszenszky,

    I have read that Béla Kun and many of the revolutionaries around him didn’t really believe in spreading worldwide revolution. Kun, in particular, sought revolutionary change within central/eastern Europe only. But yes, I agree that it is worthwhile separating the effort to liberate regions under foreign occupation from the repressive elements of the Soviet Republic. That’s why I also think that the monument should remain.

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