PAINTING THE TOWN RED: POLITICS AND THE ARTS DURING THE 1919 HUNGARIAN SOVIET REPUBLIC
By Bob Dent
Pluto Press. 231 pages. Ł24.99. ISBN 978-0-7453-3776-0
Reviewed by Jim Burns
I doubt that, historians apart, much is generally known about the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic. It was one of a number of events in 1919 which followed on from the First World War, and which can probably be said to have been, in most cases, at least partially inspired by the 1917 Revolution in Russia. Discontent with the conditions caused by the war was also a major factor. Political activists may have seen communism as the key to creating a new social order, but for many people the immediate problems of food, housing, jobs, and other practical factors, were the likely triggers for taking to the streets. This is a point worth bearing in mind when considering what happened in Budapest and Hungary generally.
Bob Dent’s book is primarily concerned with the impact of the Hungarian Soviet Republic on the arts, but it’s impossible to fully understand what happened without an awareness of the broad political situation in the country. Hungary had been on the defeated side in the First World War, and as a consequence was faced with territorial losses as the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed. Romanian and Czechoslovakian troops advanced into Hungary to make claims on parts of it. The turmoil within Hungary led to political instability, and eventually there was an alliance between the Social Democratic Party and the newly-founded Hungarian Communist Party, with Béla Kun as its leader. On the 21st March, 1919, they agreed on a takeover of the government, and the formation of a Revolutionary Governing Council. Their actions were backed up by armed soldiers and workers occupying key positions in Budapest and elsewhere.
The account I’ve given is necessarily short and excludes a great many details that Dent provides in an informative opening chapter. But it might direct attention to how and why there were difficulties within the Council right from the start, and stirrings of dissatisfaction with its policies among the wider public. There had been talk of a re-distribution of land to the peasants, but the new government decided instead to promote a system of collectivisation which naturally didn’t go down well in the countryside. Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils were established, but it soon became evident that real power lay with the Communist Party. Dictatorship of the Proletariat was, in fact, Dictatorship of the Party. There are some parallels with what happened in Russia in 1917 and after in terms of a somewhat shaky new government being faced with major domestic problems and military threats from outside.
If the new authorities lacked resources to carry out all their intended reforms they did not lack ambition. Moves got underway to improve standards of literacy and efforts were made to take art and music to the workers. When May 1st came there were parades and other forms of celebration and entertainment. What is striking is the degree to which musicians, artists, and writers were prepared to lend their talents to making the arts an integral part of the revolutionary process. Were they all dedicated communists or even just active democratic socialists? There does seem to be some evidence that there was a degree of opportunism on the part of certain people as they vied for positions with institutions such as theatres and newly-founded arts associations. The singer, Sári Fedák, took part in the May Day events with “heart and soul”, but later she became “an ardent supporter of the (post-1919) counter-revolutionary government”. And Dent has some noteworthy comments to make about a register that was established to recognise writers.
There is something disturbing about a register of approved writers. Who decides which persons are placed on the register? I suppose it could be argued that any published writer will be seen as qualifying, but does the publisher also have to be approved? And what of the unpublished author. If he or she needs to be on the register to be assigned writing jobs, but they’re as yet unpublished, how do they manage to be recognised as ready for the register? It all smacks of state supervision, and a handy way of making sure that selected writers produce a rigorously controlled (in style and content) type of writing. This, no doubt, is precisely what Béla Kun and his cronies wanted. The amount of censorship that was applied to newspapers and magazines was quite extensive, and shortage of paper was often a handy excuse for exercising control. Editors were told that their journals had been “suspended” because of the shortage, and not banned. This didn’t, of course, affect those writers and publications approved of by the government.
The programmes at theatres were determined by a committee, and it was decided that they should accord to “revolutionary ideas” or classic works should be performed. Every theatre had to have its own political commissar. As for music, Hungary had several noted composers in residence. Béla Bartok, Zoltán Kodály, and Ernó Dohnányi, all had reputations that had spread outside their native country. How they co-operated with the authorities is useful to know. Bartok appears to have mostly kept himself to himself, but Kodály took on a commission for an orchestral version of the communist anthem, The Internationale, and paid for it later when he was investigated by the right-wing government that came to power after the overthrow of the Socialist Republic. He pleaded that it was a commission he couldn’t refuse, the consequences of a refusal being to effectively stop someone like him from working.
Hungary had quite a busy film industry around 1919, and at least a couple of its activists were later noted for their work in Hollywood. The actor, Béla Lugosi, became famous for his portrayal of Count Dracula, though one wonders if he imagined that would be his fate when he left Hungary? He had been active in the actors’ union during the Soviet Republic, and was unable to work in his own country when the counter-revolutionaries came to power.
The director, Mihály Kertész, was “a well-known figure of Hungarian cinema, already having been involved with well over forty films”. Dent says that “there are some contradictions and unanswered questions” about his career, though he does appear to have been sympathetic enough to the Soviet Republic to have produced what may be viewed as “a strongly propagandist film” about militant workers. Kertész moved to Hollywood where he had a successful career as Michael Curtiz, one of his films being Casablanca. Did he find it convenient to forget about his activities in Budapest when he got to Hollywood? It’s perhaps doubtful if HUAC ever knew about them. In any case, they were hardly “un-American”, having taken place in Europe around thirty years previously.
The visual arts also played a part in the history of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, with a propaganda angle inevitably featured prominently. There were attempts to bring great art to a wide public, with one notable exhibition having around 500 works by El Greco, Courbet, Constable, Renoir, Matisse, Monet, and many more. They had often been seized from private owners and collectors, and “socialised” by being taken into public ownership. Workers could view these paintings free if they had a union card, just as they could go to the theatre with tickets obtained from their unions.
Leaving aside the great art of the past, it was largely poster art that was produced at the time of the Soviet Republic, with the usual heroic sailors and soldiers, idealised workers and peasants, and calls to action and support for the revolution. “Citizens were bombarded with images and slogans”. What effect they had is difficult to know. Fine words don’t put food on the table.
One of the curious characters to turn up in Budapest was Jósef Pogány who appears to have been a thoroughly obnoxious type. I’m basing my judgement largely on Thomas Sakmyster’s A Communist Odyssey. The Life of Jósef Pogány/John Pepper (Central European University Press, 2012: see my review, Northern Review of Books, November, 2012) which follows his career up to his execution in the Stalinist purges of 1938. Assuming various roles in the revolutionary government, he also saw himself as a playwright and his Napoleon ran for a few performances in Budapest in 1919. Pogány liked to entertain actresses and others in lavish circumstances at a time when many people were struggling to get enough to eat. He fancied himself as a military strategist, but proved incompetent when he had the opportunity to command troops in the field.
The military threats to its territory, the general hostility of European powers like Britain and France, the lack of any real support from the Soviet Union, and the growing disillusionment generally within Hungary, combined to set a limit on the length of time the Soviet Republic could survive. Ordinary people were disenchanted with the lack of any real progress with regard to improving conditions relating to work, housing, food, etc. Inflation and other factors cancelled out any increases in earnings. Many intellectuals were discontented, as intellectuals often are, because their pet projects weren’t being accorded the attention it was thought they deserved, no matter how impractical. Soldiers serving in the so-called Red Army were downcast because of their defeats. It’s more than probable that many of them had enlisted for patriotic and not political reasons. And there had always been a strong body of opinion opposed to communism. A firmly Catholic country wasn’t in tune with anti-religious sentiments expressed by communists.
The Soviet Republic collapsed on the 1st August, 1919. Béla Kun, Jósef Pogány, and other favoured ones, fled from Hungary. Kun and Pogány later made a mess of an attempted insurrection in Germany. It’s intriguing to note that Kun had a tendency to lay the blame for any failures at the door of the working-class. They should have been prepared to fight and die on the barricades, and if they had then Kun might have stayed and died with them, or so he said, “but the question is whether the sacrifice would have been worthwhile in terms of the interests of the international world revolution”. Like Pogány, he seems to have had a high opinion of his own standing in the scheme of things. They could both be ruthless when required. Kun, dealing with a deputation of disabled soldiers who had been promised a payment of 5,000 crowns, told them they were likely to get 5,000 bullets instead if they carried on agitating. It’s difficult to do more than shrug when one learns that both he and Pogány were arrested and shot during the purges of the late-1930s in Russia.
Painting the Town Red raises a lot of provocative questions relating to revolutions, the motives of those leading them, the amount of support they have, and other matters of relevance. Dent mentions an article by Árpád Szélpál, “Revolutionary Art or Party Art,” which suggested that “Party Art”, i.e. art produced to a specific programme laid down by the Party, reflected “a revolutionary programme turned conservative” and was designed for “preserving a political party” in power. It was not true “Revolutionary Art”.
There is also the question of the people who flock to join a party once it gains power. Opportunism is always a factor in such situations. It was noted that “there streamed into its camp those elements who support whatever government comes to the surface, and those who had past sins to cover up by the loud profession of new loyalties”.
Bob Dent has written a valuable and fascinating book which throws light on a little-known episode in the history of European communism. And how the arts played a role in an attempt to create a new form of society in Hungary. It doesn’t seem that, creatively, a great deal of consequence was actually produced, though the short-lived nature of the Soviet Republic probably didn’t give writers, artists, and musicians sufficient time to come up with anything new or of an extended nature. The immediate was most likely what was required. Journalists may have thrived better in that situation, despite censorship restrictions. Dent quotes Mihály Babits as saying, “The months of the proletarian dictatorship were the months of silence in literature”. The efforts to take music, art, theatre to a wider audience were admirable, but again were limited by the fact that the government only lasted for a few months.
Painting the Town Red has a good bibliography and some useful notes on the later activities of a number of the leading lights in the story of the 1919 Hungarian Soviet Republic. It may be worth mentioning that I recently came across a copy of Between Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930 (MIT Press, 2002), a 735 pages anthology of documents from a wide variety of sources. It has a section relating to the Hungarian Commune, as it was called, which includes Lajos Kassák’s “Letter to Béla Kun in the Name of Art”, from his magazine, MA. Kassák is described by Dent as a “radical non-party activist”, and his letter to Kun was written in response to him referring to MA as “a product of bourgeois decadence”. Dent discusses the events surrounding the Kun/Kassák controversy, and says that it led to a ban on MA. Jósef Pogány justified it on the grounds of the paper shortage.