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Surviving the Stalinist Purges in the 1930s: The Strange Case of Jenö Varga

Surviving the Stalinist Purges in the 1930s: The Strange Case of Jenö Varga

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SURVIVING THE STALINIST PURGES IN THE 1930S:THE STRANGE CASE OF JENŐ VARGAANDRÉ MOMMENResearch memorandumCEPSMaarssenJune 2010
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The Great Purge of the mid-1930s swept away the older Bolshevik generation, decapitatedthe Comintern of its old cadres as well. Stalin’s terror gave birth to a generation of convincedStalinist bureaucrats and police officers that would transform the Soviet Union’s social andcultural structure all together with the ruling Communist Party. Meanwhile, most Polish andHungarian Communists living in Moscow were murdered. Varga survived the Stalinist purges in which two of his brothers-in-law and a nephew disappeared. Though he was closeto Kun, he did not share the latter’s fate. Probably Stalin saw in Varga his servant and veryapt author of useful reports commenting on international economic problems. In contrast toKun, Varga’s role in the ECCI had always been very modest. Though he was a foreigner, henever traveled to Western Europe or established contacts with foreign scientists or  journalists. He could have nonetheless been a “spy” at the service of the British or Germangovernment. In 1935 he left Hotel Lux where practically most foreign functionaries of theComintern were living, for a private apartment in Moscow, which indicates that he preferredkeeping his fellow Comintern functionaries at a distance.Stalin’s error started after the killing of Sergey Kirov on 1 December 1934, the Politburoapproved an emergency decree enabling the conviction and execution of terrorists.Thereupon, passing over his chief Yagoda, Nikolai Ezhov initiated a campaign(
 Ezhovshchina
) against
 foreign spies
as well. Soon he would gain control of the wholePeople's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). On 1 February 1935 the CentralCommittee appointed Ezhov its secretary. Then, he initiated the prosecution of the former Party opposition after having arrested in the early months of 1935 a large group of theKremlin staff. Then, Ezhov rounded up more “terrorist groupsall linked to Trotsky,Zinoviev and Kamenev. A verification operation of all party members was carried out tounmask the enemies having crept into the Party. Special attention was paid to foreigners whohad infiltrated the CPSU(b) as spies or Trotskyite agents. The verification operation wasended not later than September 1936.Ezhov’s zeal led to the dismissal of his chief Yagoda and his own appointment to People’sCommissar of Internal Affairs. By 1 December 1935 about 177,000 members and candidateshad been expelled. Of them 15,218 had been arrested. In August 1936 the first of theMoscow show trials occurred. Confessions, convictions, and executions intensified thevigilance campaign and skewed other actions against traitors. The exact number of Stalin’svictims is not known.
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Arrests occurred in all sectors of society and touched people in high places, their family members, their colleagues and friends. A large number of responsiblestaff of the Comintern was arrested, including I. A. Pyatnitsky
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, Béla Kun and V. G. Knorin.Everybody could be arrested in these years, especially foreigners with a Leftist past.Being politically close to Kun and his faction, Varga must have been affected by Kun’sdisgrace and execution in 1936. Varga nonetheless survived, but his wife lost two of her  brothers in the purges. Kun’s arrest and death illustrates the way in which Stalin got rid of foreign Communist leaders he distrusted or who were opposing him. Especially the Kunleadership of the Hungarian Communist Party (HCP) had caused problems because of itsideological fractioning and political setbacks in Hungary. An alliance with the Social-Democratic MSZDP was tried after Jószef Révai had made in mid-1934, a study for the
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Known is that the total number of people brought to trial in 1936 was 324,850, in 1937 940,850 and in 1938641,760. Sentenced to capital punishment in 1936 were 1,120, in 1937 392,380 and in 1938 372,210. Personsarrested by the state security authorities and sentenced to execution amounted to some 5.5 million persons for the period from 1921 to 1953.
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Pyatnitsky had been Stalin’s man in the Comintern, but in 1937 he rebelled against him, and perished.
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ECCI. Even after the Seventh Congress of the Comintern, Kun refused to change his basicattitude to the MSZDP. Béla Kun’s position was considerably weakened because of hisindecent behaviour during the Seventh Comintern Congress.
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On 20 November 1935 OttoKuusinen informed the Hungarian leadership and several parties that they had not alignedtheir tactics to the guidelines of the Seventh Congress.
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 At the January 1936 meeting of theCentral Committee’s of the HCP, heated debates compelled Kun to exercise self-criticism. Aresolution was passed acknowledging that the party had been dilatory in adopting the newtactics.
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 Meanwhile, the situation of the Hungarian Party became subject of heated debates within theECCI.
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Kun’s methods of leadership were described as sectarian and bureaucratic. Factionalstruggles and nepotism were all the time dividing the Central Committee. Dimitrov andManuilsky investigated the case of the HCP. In May 1936, a provisional Secretariat led byZoltán Szántó
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was formed. The party office in Vienna was closed down.
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The Hungariansection operating within the Comintern was dissolved. Though Kun was invited to assist thenew leadership in its work, his future looked grim now that Stalin was preparing for the firstseries of great ideological trials with Zinoviev and Kamenev as his main victims. On June 6,1936, Kun stood as the accused before the International Control Commission of theComintern. After deposing several charges against Kun on 29 June 1936, the InternationalControl Commission dismissed the Hungarian officials. There was no decision with respectto Kun.
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Finally, a special commission was set up to examine his case. The final conclusions
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On 14 December 1935 he reacted in a letter to his Central Committee concerning his ‘failure to adequatelyapply the Congress line in practice to the situation in Hungary and to the work of the CP of Hungary’ and his behavior at the Congress which had ‘caused doubts within the CI leadership as to whether the proper attitude of the CC HCP toward the new Comintern leadership has been guaranteed’. Letter signed by Kun, RGASPI, f. 495,op. 18, d. 1038, ll. 241-243, translated from German into Russian.
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On 21-25 December 1935 a plenary meeting of the CC CPSU(b) had passed a resolution that the enemies,including the agents of foreign intelligence services had managed to infiltrate the CPSU(b) ranks disguised asmembers of fraternal parties. Verification of party documents and measures against agents of the class enemywere decided. RGASPI, f. 495, op. 18, d. 1071, l. 64.
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Meanwhile Kun had spent most of the time at the Kremlin hospital were he was treated by his friend LászlóPollacsek for his diabetes (Borsányi 1993: 416-7).
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Participated in the discussions: Dimitrov, Togliatti, Kuusinen, Kun, Komor, Nemes, Zoltán Szántó, Révai(Borsányi 1993: 418).
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Zoltán Szántó (alias János Szalai, or “Elek”), born in 1893. In 1919 he was deputy head of the PoliticalDepartment of the Hungarian Red Army Main Command. Later he headed the secret apparatus of the CPH’sForeign Bureau. In 1935-36 and 1938-39 he was CPH representative in the Comintern. In 1945 he left for Hungary. [RGASPI f. 45, op. 74, d. 101,ll. 38-42, copy in Russian in type script, translated from German, signed by Z. Szántó on 29.6.1936.]
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A provisional secretariat was settled in Prague with as leading figure Zoltán Szántó. The economist IstvánFriss, the stonecutter Lajos Papp, and the locksmith Ferenc Bozsóki assisted him. In 1937 Révai arrived inPrague where he would emerge as the great party ideologue applying the new tactic.
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For eight months, Kun had been promised a job, but these promises had not been fulfilled. ‘It was Manuilskywho took a particularly unjust position towards him. He badgered him, but when he saw him (Kun) after hisillness, he smothered him with kisses’. Kun went to Stalin who received him in presence of Molotov, Mikoyanand Andreev. Stalin sent him to Ezhov in order to solve this problem. Kun: ‘I said, that it was when I did notstand up when Manuilsky appeared [on the podium at the Comintern Congress] and did not applaud him. Thiscaused a great laughter, but I added that later this accusation was directed against only one other CPH member’.On this his not standing up, see Franz Grosz (Iohann Nagy, Gusti) (1893-1937), a lawyer, member of theHungarian Social-Democratic Party in 1912, Communist in 1918, in 1923 emigration to the Soviet Union, andmember of the CPSU(b), between 1931 and 1936 secretary of the CC CPH, member pf the foreign committee,Hungarian delegate to the ECCI and delegate at the Sixth and Seventh Comintern Congress. In June 1936expulsed pf the CC CPH by ECCI after ECCI had discussed on 27 May 1936 his attitude at the 7
de
CominternCongress. Grosz allegedly expressed his hostility by failing to stand up when the audience gave standingovations to Dimitrov and Manuilsky, who had been elected to the ECCI’s Presidium. Grosz explained his action by the fact that the Hungarian delegation was denied the right to nominate Bela Kun to be a member of the ECCI
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