Lenin’s Boys: A short history of Soviet Hungary


It is 1919 and Russia is in the midst of a ruthless civil war with fronts stretching for thousands of kilometers across a ruined country. On one side are aristocrats and capitalists who had been overthrown less than two years before and are now desperately fighting to return to power. On the other side are the workers and peasants of the former Russian Empire, who had seized power from their former masters and were now determined to defend it. It is a savage struggle between two irreconcilable worlds with only two ways it can end: total victory or death.  The Bolsheviks did not see their struggle as merely the concern of Russians but as the spark of a world revolution against exploitation and oppression. During the early months of 1919, the Bolshevik spark appeared to set fire to the old order of Europe. Revolution and revolt gripped Germany, Austria, Spain, Scotland, Ireland, and Italy. Other countries seemed poised for upheaval. Understanding the importance of these events, Commissar of War Leon Trotsky explained to soldiers of the Red Army:

Decisive weeks in the history of mankind have arrived. The wave of enthusiasm over the establishment of a Soviet Republic in Hungary had hardly passed when the proletariat of Bavaria got possession of power and extended the hand of brotherly unison to the Russian and Hungarian Republics….To fulfil our international duty, we must first of all smash the bands of Kolchak. To support the victorious workers of Hungary and Bavaria, to help the revolt of the workers in Poland, in Germany and throughout Europe, we must establish Soviet power definitively and irrefutably over the whole extent of Russia.1

When Trotsky spoke those words, Russia no longer stood alone. On March 21, workers’ revolution had come to Budapest and Soviet power was proclaimed. The Soviet Republic of Hungary joined with Soviet Russia in attacking the bastions of bourgeois power and showed the possibilities of a new socialist order. Unfortunately, Soviet Hungary did not last long and was toppled after only 133 days by the armed power of the internal counterrevolution and imperialism. Those were not the only causes of Soviet Hungary’s defeat. Poor Communist leadership and rash policies made Soviet Hungary’s loss swifter and more certain by alienating many potential supporters. Even though the Hungarian Soviet Republic provides many negative examples of how to make a revolution, they deserve to be remembered for their boldness in attempting to accomplish the impossible in the worst conditions.

Towards the Abyss

In the years before World War One, the reign of the ancient Hapsburg dynasty over the Austro-Hungarian Empire appeared secure. The Hapsburgs had successfully co-opted potential unrest from the Magyar nobility in 1867 by creating a Dual Monarchy. The Compromise of 1867 granted the Magyar aristocracy unparalleled autonomy with control over their own government and budget. Only in foreign policy, a common army, and a customs union did the Magyars remain united with Austria.

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