A century ago, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned many times before, the rise of Communism was one of the world’s defining geopolitical mood influencers. In the late summer of 1919, events that were relatively minor in global terms, in least when compared to the tectonic shifts going on around them, changed the mood in subtle but hugely significant ways. Those events are generally treated as footnotes by modern commentators without an axe to grind for or against Communism, so I thought I’d give them a mention.
Socialism had been a growing political force wherever mass literacy had flourished during the nineteenth century, nurturing an unprecedented outbreak of hope for change among those now capable of considering themselves oppressed, politically or economically. The basic principles of this new, egalitarian ideology really messed with the collective mood of the elite classes running those countries, who were busy fleecing the world dry for what at least some of them perceived as the benefit of humanity, and whose take on mass politics was informed by the relatively recent memory of the French Revolution, with all the chaos and violence it entailed.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, Communism was recognisably the sharp end of socialism – promising (or threatening) overthrow of the established political order followed by a complete transformation of the economic order. That said, it remained a relatively marginal influence, opposed by millions of more moderate socialists, strongest where liberal institutions were particularly weak, and hardly the bookies’ favourite to take over the future. Lenin changed that.
The success of the Bolshevik coup d’état in the autumn of 1917 came as a massive shock to leaders of what, for the sake of simplicity, we’ll call the First World, as did the new regime’s survival in the face of (admittedly and obviously) flawed attempts to tear it down. By the beginning of 1919, with Bolshevik forces competing for control of states on the southern and western margins of the former Russian Empire, and much of central Europe engulfed by economic chaos, political turmoil or both, Communist predictions of worldwide revolution, spontaneous and inevitable, seemed scarily convincing to those likely to lose most by it.
And yet, by the summer of 1919, the spectre seemed to be receding as quickly as it had arisen. Spontaneous Communist revolution, as opposed to revolution sponsored directly by the Soviet Union on its frontiers, had succeeded in only two places that First World movers and shakers considered important, or at least close to home – Bavaria and Hungary.
A socialist government had taken control in Bavaria, the largest and most distinct of the German states ruled from Prussia, in November 1918, but it collapsed after its leader, Kurt Eisner, was assassinated in February 1919. Amid the political chaos that followed, Bavarian Communists established a regime on the Soviet model on 7 April. Declaring independence from the newly proclaimed Weimar Republic, they attempted to govern from Munich as the Bavarian Socialist Republic.
Communist rule didn’t last long. Facing critical food shortages and inevitable hostility from the Weimar government, Communist leaders also had to deal with a rival regime, the People’s State of Bavaria, based in Bamberg and led by Eisner’s successor, Johannes Hoffman.
Some 8,000 men fighting for Hoffman clashed with 30,000 hastily assembled men of the Bavarian Red Army around Dachau on 18 April. Although force of numbers gave the Communists an initial victory, Hoffman reacted by coming to an arrangement with elements of the Freikorps, the militia that employed former German Army personnel to impose right-wing solutions on German revolutionary problems. The ramshackle Bavarian Red Army was no match for 20,000 well-trained and well-equipped Freikorps troops, who took Dachau, surrounded Munich and broke through into the city on 1 May. After several days of street fighting that claimed some 600 lives, half of them civilians, Freikorps commander General von Oven declared the city under his control on 6 May, a point he emphasised by executing at least 700 communists and anarchists.
That was the end of Communist Bavaria, and the effective end of independent Bavaria. A new constitution, known as the Bamberg Constitution and essentially a copy of the Weimar Republic’s constitution, was voted into place by a right-leaning parliament-in-exile and came into force from 14 August 1919. The ‘Free State of Bavaria’ rejoined the rest of Germany, and although Hoffman was installed as Minister-President, he was ousted the following March and replaced by Gustav von Kahr, a wartime leader of the right-wing Bavarian People’s Party.
Bavaria had once been independent, and was an important component of a unified Germany, but it felt a lot less geopolitically significant than the other European nation under Communist rule during the spring of 1919. Hungary had been a sovereign state for a very long time, and it had shared dominion over the sprawling Habsburg Empire. It had been an integral part of Europe’s Great Power structure. It mattered.
I’ve talked before about the foundation and failure of Hungary’s first post-imperial incarnation, the Hungarian People’s Republic (31 January, 1919: Dream Ticket). Amid a popular, press and political storm of outrage at the recently revealed and predictably harsh peace terms offered by the Allies, the Republic’s essentially liberal government fell on 20 March 1919, and president Mihály Károlyi asked the socialist but relatively moderate Social Democrat party to form a new government.
The Social Democrats were the most popular politicians in the country’s major urban centres, but they felt unable to govern without support from the Communist Party. Founded in Moscow during November 1918, the Communist Party had quickly become an important and growing influence. Able in theory to call on support from Lenin’s Bolsheviks, it could also bring a Red Army of perhaps 30,000 fighters into the field at a time when Hungary faced trouble on all its frontiers and near-anarchy on its city streets. Though Communist leader Béla Kun and his principle allies had been jailed after protests in Budapest had turned violent on 20 February, they were able to continue their political work from prison. It included negotiation with the Social Democrats, who released the Communists as soon as they took power and proposed a coalition, to which Béla Kun agreed.
The two parties merged as the Hungarian Socialist Party, while Károlyi, a committed opponent of Communism, was dismissed and arrested on 21 March (though he later escaped into exile). The coalition lasted three days. Dominated by Social Democrats, the new Revolutionary Governing Council just about had time to proclaim a Hungarian Soviet Republic before Kun and the Communists seized power, apparently under instructions from Moscow, on 24 March. Social Democrat Sándor Garbai remained head of the government but he was effectively powerless, and Kun, nominally in charge of foreign affairs, took actual control.
The new regime proceeded with a sweeping Communist agenda, nationalising much of the country’s industry, trade, infrastructure, cultural outlets and private property, and abolishing anything aristocratic. All these measures were effectively notional, because the regime’s writ hardly extended beyond Budapest, and even among the urban population its support largely depended upon promises to improve the terms of the peace treaty and, if necessary, restore lost frontiers by force. Restrictions were meanwhile put on free speech and the right of assembly, and Red Guard detachments (as well as a small ‘hit squad’ militia known as the Lenin Boys) were used to requisition food from the countryside or suppress protest.
The new regime did try to open channels of communication with the Allies, but in April Kun refused offers of cooperation from Allied representative Jan Smuts, and the end of negotiations was followed by Allied demands for further territorial concessions, delivered to Budapest in May. Kun responded by keeping his promise to restore Hungary’s borders by force, and the Hungarian Red Army attacked eastern Czechoslovakia in June.
Bolstered by Hungarian nationalists, many of them professional soldiers, the Red Army achieved some success against the Czechs, but Kun’s decision to proclaim a Slovak Soviet Republic and withdraw from captured territory marked a turning point. Kun’s willingness to give internationalist doctrine precedence over Hungarian affairs cost his Army the support of its non-Communist elements, and it had all but disintegrated by the time he launched its rump against Romanian forces further east, along the line of the Tizsa River, in mid-July.
Control of Budapest was meanwhile slipping away from the Communists as nationalist support dwindled. A coup attempt by the Social Democrats failed on 24 June, triggering a swathe of arrests and executions that became known, predictably enough, as the ‘Red Terror’. As Kun lost the working-class loyalty that had kept him in power, the failure of Hungarian attacks across the Tizsa River – culminating in a successful Romanian Army counterattack that broke through Hungarian lines on 30 July – was the final straw.
With a national anti-revolutionary army under Admiral Miklós Horthy gathering around the southern town of Szeged, French and Serbian forces mustering to support the Romanians with an attack into Hungary, and the Romanians pursuing the Hungarian Army as it retreated on Budapest, Kun and most of his senior colleagues fled to Vienna on 1 August. The Communist regime in Hungary came to a formal end when a new government, led by Social Democrat Gyula Peidl, took office on 4 August, and socialist government ended two days later, when the bulk of the Romanian Army arrived to take political control of Budapest.
Romanian forces occupied Hungary until early 1920, exacting reparations wherever they went, and then handed power to Horthy’s right-wing regime, which had already begun a ‘White Terror’ aimed at Communists and Jews (routinely and inaccurately denounced as Communist sympathisers by right-wing elements). Horthy became head of the government on 1 March 1920, and would hold power until October 1944, while Béla Kun reached the Soviet Union, where he pursued a high-profile political career until purged and executed by Stalin in 1938. Hungary was meanwhile reduced to a third of its pre-war size and lost a third of its Hungarian speakers to foreign control by the Treaty of Trianon, signed on 4 June 1920. It is generally accepted that the fleeting experience of Communist rule in 1919, and its association with the hard times that followed, informed the country’s political complexion up to and beyond the doomed uprising against Soviet control in 1956.
So, August 1919 can be seen as a defining moment in the global history of Communism. A doctrine that preached the inevitability of worldwide revolution once the capitalist dominoes started falling had seemed on the point of fulfilling that destiny, and the powers that be had trembled, providing support for the enemies of Communist Hungary, scene of the most alarming outbreak, and preparing their own invasion of the place at a time when military adventures represented a massive political risk. By the middle of August both the Bavarian and Hungarian Communist regimes had collapsed, broken by a combination of the socio-economic chaos that had enabled them to take power and the political consequences of their doctrinaire governance.
The moment had passed. Far from sweeping the world like some airborne virus of political logic, state Communism would remain penned inside the Soviet Union, struggling to expand its frontiers, until released by the global trauma of another world war. Even during the decades after 1945, Communism’s spread was spotty rather than pandemic, and though some apparently Communist regimes exist in 2019, it can be argued that few if any of them retain more than a nominal adherence to Marxist-Leninist principles. If you’d told Lloyd George or Clemenceau that in the spring of 1919, they would have been very, very pleased and relieved to hear it. Worth noting, I’d say.