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Review of Gough, _A Good Comrade. János Kádár_Review by Johanna Granville

Review of Gough, _A Good Comrade. János Kádár_Review by Johanna Granville

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Published by Johanna Granville
How is it possible that the man who swore in 1956 to fight Soviet tanks with his bare hands and hours later agreed to serve as quisling for a post-invasion regime in Hungary, a man who 8 years earlier persuaded a friend to confess to imagined crimes to facilitate his execution, could in 1999 be voted the greatest Hungarian of the twentieth century and third greatest Hungarian of the entire millennium? How is it possible that a bastard child, born into poverty, with only eight years of elementary education, could become the post powerful Hungarian communist leader for three decades? In A Good Comrade: János Kádár, Communism and Hungary, Roger Gough shows readers how. Gough, Research Director at the London-based think tank Policy Exchange, explains how Kádár, born János Csermanek, lived for the first six years of his life with a foster family, because his mother, a Slovak peasant (Borbála Csermanek), could not support him. His father refused to acknowledge the crying infant on his doorstep. When Csermanek moved to Budapest, he never quite fit in, appearing awkward to city and provincial kids alike. Blacklisted from his job as a typewriter mechanic at age 14, Csermanek suffered long bouts of unemployment. Poverty and loneliness bred in him an inferiority complex and introverted personality.In 1930 or 1931 Csermanek joined the underground communist movement, which gave him a larger cause and identity. certain accidents of history taught Kádár key lessons and catapulted him to power, namely five stints in prison (1931-1932, 1933-1935, 1937, 1944-1946, 1951-1954), the Nazi-Soviet Pact (1940), and the end of World War II.
During his first experience of torture in 1931-1932, he betrayed his fellow communist prisoners, thinking he had no choice (p. 12). Afterwards he was ostracized; they didn’t trust him. From this mistake - and his error of dissolving the communist party in 1943 - Csermanek learned the importance of maintaining party unity above all else. Lacking intellectual sophistication, Kádár excelled in organization, rather than ideology, economics, or agriculture. He identified strict control over the police force as the party’s key task (p. 26). When instructed by Rákosi to interrogate László Rajk, whom Kádár envied and resented for taking his job as Budapest Secretary, Kádár had no qualms (p. 35). Only later, when confronted with the “physical reality” of what his “specious justifications” entailed, did Kádár feel guilt; he was allegedly seen vomiting after witnessing the execution (p. 46). Kádár agreed with Prime Minister Imre Nagy on the need for a full break with the old Rákosi-Gerő regime after he was appointed the new First Secretary on October 30, 1956. Chosen suddenly by the Soviet elite to head a harsher, post-invasion regime, knowing the intervention had already been launched, Kádár succumbed to a combination of fear and ambition. His belief in party unity and loyalty to the USSR prevailed. He certainly would not “opt for martyrdom” like Nagy. As Gough writes, “To view siding with the Soviet Union as a betrayal is to use a moral calculus alien to Kádár…[T]here was nothing in his thinking that made Soviet intervention wrong in itself ” (p. 97). Although initially acting as Brezhnev’s “broker and soft cop” in the 1968 crisis, in contrast to hardliners Ulbricht and Gomułka, Kádár ultimately joined Warsaw Pact forces in the invasion of Czechoslovakia when Dubček rejected a call from Brezhnev on July 3 for yet another multilateral meeting (p. 167). The ever pragmatic Kádár “knew that Hungarian living standards were dependent on Soviet goodwill” (p. 169). Goulash communism and the "New Economic Mechanism" (NEM) boosted Kádár’s popularity by inter alia easing foreign trade restrictions, giving limited freedom to the workings of the market, and allowing a limited number of small businesses to operate in the services sector (p. 161). Review published by Johanna Granville in _The American
Historical Review_, vol. 112, no.
How is it possible that the man who swore in 1956 to fight Soviet tanks with his bare hands and hours later agreed to serve as quisling for a post-invasion regime in Hungary, a man who 8 years earlier persuaded a friend to confess to imagined crimes to facilitate his execution, could in 1999 be voted the greatest Hungarian of the twentieth century and third greatest Hungarian of the entire millennium? How is it possible that a bastard child, born into poverty, with only eight years of elementary education, could become the post powerful Hungarian communist leader for three decades? In A Good Comrade: János Kádár, Communism and Hungary, Roger Gough shows readers how. Gough, Research Director at the London-based think tank Policy Exchange, explains how Kádár, born János Csermanek, lived for the first six years of his life with a foster family, because his mother, a Slovak peasant (Borbála Csermanek), could not support him. His father refused to acknowledge the crying infant on his doorstep. When Csermanek moved to Budapest, he never quite fit in, appearing awkward to city and provincial kids alike. Blacklisted from his job as a typewriter mechanic at age 14, Csermanek suffered long bouts of unemployment. Poverty and loneliness bred in him an inferiority complex and introverted personality.In 1930 or 1931 Csermanek joined the underground communist movement, which gave him a larger cause and identity. certain accidents of history taught Kádár key lessons and catapulted him to power, namely five stints in prison (1931-1932, 1933-1935, 1937, 1944-1946, 1951-1954), the Nazi-Soviet Pact (1940), and the end of World War II.
During his first experience of torture in 1931-1932, he betrayed his fellow communist prisoners, thinking he had no choice (p. 12). Afterwards he was ostracized; they didn’t trust him. From this mistake - and his error of dissolving the communist party in 1943 - Csermanek learned the importance of maintaining party unity above all else. Lacking intellectual sophistication, Kádár excelled in organization, rather than ideology, economics, or agriculture. He identified strict control over the police force as the party’s key task (p. 26). When instructed by Rákosi to interrogate László Rajk, whom Kádár envied and resented for taking his job as Budapest Secretary, Kádár had no qualms (p. 35). Only later, when confronted with the “physical reality” of what his “specious justifications” entailed, did Kádár feel guilt; he was allegedly seen vomiting after witnessing the execution (p. 46). Kádár agreed with Prime Minister Imre Nagy on the need for a full break with the old Rákosi-Gerő regime after he was appointed the new First Secretary on October 30, 1956. Chosen suddenly by the Soviet elite to head a harsher, post-invasion regime, knowing the intervention had already been launched, Kádár succumbed to a combination of fear and ambition. His belief in party unity and loyalty to the USSR prevailed. He certainly would not “opt for martyrdom” like Nagy. As Gough writes, “To view siding with the Soviet Union as a betrayal is to use a moral calculus alien to Kádár…[T]here was nothing in his thinking that made Soviet intervention wrong in itself ” (p. 97). Although initially acting as Brezhnev’s “broker and soft cop” in the 1968 crisis, in contrast to hardliners Ulbricht and Gomułka, Kádár ultimately joined Warsaw Pact forces in the invasion of Czechoslovakia when Dubček rejected a call from Brezhnev on July 3 for yet another multilateral meeting (p. 167). The ever pragmatic Kádár “knew that Hungarian living standards were dependent on Soviet goodwill” (p. 169). Goulash communism and the "New Economic Mechanism" (NEM) boosted Kádár’s popularity by inter alia easing foreign trade restrictions, giving limited freedom to the workings of the market, and allowing a limited number of small businesses to operate in the services sector (p. 161). Review published by Johanna Granville in _The American
Historical Review_, vol. 112, no.

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Copyright: Johanna Granville, review of Roger Gough, A Good Comrade: János Kádár, Communism and Hungary (London: I.B.

Tauris, 2006), in The American Historical Review, vol. 112, no. 4, (2007): pp. 1280-1283. - p. 1280 How is it possible that the man who swore in 1956 to fight Soviet tanks with his bare hands and hours later agreed to serve as quisling for a post-invasion regime in Hungary, a man who 8 years earlier persuaded a friend to confess to imagined crimes to facilitate his execution, could in 1999 be voted the greatest Hungarian of the twentieth century and third greatest Hungarian of the entire millennium? How is it possible that a bastard child, born into poverty, with only eight years of elementary education, could become the post powerful Hungarian communist leader for three decades? In A Good Comrade: János Kádár, Communism and Hungary, Roger Gough shows readers how. Gough, Research Director at the London-based think tank Policy Exchange, explains how Kádár, born János Csermanek, lived for the first six years of his life with a foster family, because his mother, a Slovak peasant (Borbála Csermanek), could not support him. His father refused to acknowledge the crying infant on his doorstep. When Csermanek moved to Budapest, he never quite fit in, appearing awkward to city and provincial kids alike. Blacklisted from his job as a typewriter mechanic at age 14, Csermanek suffered long bouts of unemployment. Poverty and loneliness bred in him an inferiority complex and introverted personality. In 1930 or 1931 Csermanek joined the underground communist movement, which gave him a larger cause and identity. His illiterate mother and bastardy did not trouble his egalitarian comrades (p. 12).

The author does not state this explicitly, but perhaps due to the lack of a higher, university-level education, a tendency developed in - p. 1281 Csermanek to focus on what is currently expedient, rather than on what is morally right. These two factors, opportunism and loyalty to a larger cause helped Kádár achieve power in the Hungarian communist system. In addition, certain accidents of history taught Kádár key lessons and catapulted him to power, namely five stints in prison (1931-1932, 1933-1935, 1937, 1944-1946, 1951-1954), the Nazi-Soviet Pact (1940), and the end of World War II. During his first experience of torture in 19311932, he betrayed his fellow communist prisoners, thinking he had no choice (p. 12). Afterwards he was ostracized; they didn’t trust him. From this mistake - and his error of dissolving the communist party in 1943 - Csermanek learned the importance of maintaining party unity above all else. According to Gough, Csermanek’s political isolation ended when Matyás Rákosi, whom he met in 1937 in the Csillag jail in Szeged, condoned the younger man’s “honest mistake” (p. 14). In 1940, the Comintern decided to re-establish a party organization in Hungary; Csermanek was available to perform tasks in the underground again and to serve as a liaison with the legal Social Democrats. In 1945, Csermanek became one of the ten senior Politburo members elected. He adopted the Hungarian surname Kádár (“cooper”). Lacking intellectual sophistication, Kádár excelled in organization, rather than ideology, economics, or agriculture. He identified strict control over the police force as the party’s key task (p. 26). When instructed by Rákosi to interrogate

László Rajk, whom Kádár envied and resented for taking his job as Budapest Secretary, Kádár had no qualms (p. 35). Only later, when confronted - p. 1282 with the “physical reality” of what his “specious justifications” entailed, did Kádár feel guilt; he was allegedly seen vomiting after witnessing the execution (p. 46). Eighteen months later, Kádár himself was imprisoned for the fifth time. Released in 1954, he still praised Rákosi, again exhibiting his loyalty to a larger cause (p. 67). In chapters 7 and 8, in which Gough provides a useful day-by-day account of the Soviet and Hungarian decision-making process in 1956, we see Kádár at the height of his opportunism. Kádár agreed with Prime Minister Imre Nagy on the need for a full break with the old Rákosi-Gerő regime after he was appointed the new First Secretary on October 30, 1956. Chosen suddenly by the Soviet elite to head a harsher, post-invasion regime, knowing the intervention had already been launched, Kádár succumbed to a combination of fear and ambition. His belief in party unity and loyalty to the USSR prevailed. He certainly would not “opt for martyrdom” like Nagy. As Gough writes, “To view siding with the Soviet Union as a betrayal is to use a moral calculus alien to Kádár…[T]here was nothing in his thinking that made Soviet intervention wrong in itself ” (p. 97). As he later warned Alexander Dubček in 1968, Nagy himself had not been a “counter-revolutionary,” but had been “overtaken by events” (p. 164). Although initially acting as Brezhnev’s “broker and soft cop” in the 1968 crisis, in contrast to hardliners Ulbricht and Gomułka, Kádár ultimately joined Warsaw Pact forces in the invasion of Czechoslovakia when

Dubček rejected a call from Brezhnev on July 3 for yet another multilateral meeting (p. 167). The ever pragmatic Kádár “knew that - p. 1283 Hungarian living standards were dependent on Soviet goodwill” (p. 169). Goulash communism and the "New Economic Mechanism" (NEM) boosted Kádár’s popularity by inter alia easing foreign trade restrictions, giving limited freedom to the workings of the market, and allowing a limited number of small businesses to operate in the services sector (p. 161). In contrast to the wasteful Ceauşescus of Romania, Kádár was known for his modest lifestyle, probably stemming from his poverty in childhood. All I want is “a bed of my own and shoes that don’t leak in the winter” he once told his girlfriend Piroska (p. 15). Other factors contributing to Kádár’s popularity include his peaceful abdication (again, in contrast to Ceauşescu), his sincere regret for the tragedy of 1956, especially regarding Nagy, and his death just 3 weeks after the reburial of Nagy on June 16, 1989. Key strengths of Gough’s biography include his lively writing style and extensive use of documents from Hungarian and U.S. archives, memoirs, and personal interviews. In short, although rather partial in places, A Good Comrade is a welcome contribution to the dearth of archive-based biographies of communist leaders, to be read in conjunction with others, such as János Rainer’s ground-breaking, two-volume study of Imre Nagy and Robert Levy’s biography of Ana Pauker.

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