Saturday, 24 October 2009

Hungary 1930: In Search of the Missing Plaque

By Bob Dent - From LSHG Newsletter, Autumn 2009

Soon after I moved to Budapest in 1986 I got a contract to write the very first Blue Guide Hungary. I
tried write in a style somewhat more lively than the then rather dry approach characterising Blue Guides.
Occasionally I also tried to inject a little labour or social history into the work, something which hardly
ever appears in any kind of guidebook. I included a mention, for example, of a wall plaque on the façade of the Hall of Exhibitions, a huge neo-Classical building in Heroes’ Square, one of the largest and most striking public spaces in Budapest.
The square is filled with statuary depicting Hungary’s ‘great and the good’ — mainly kings and princes who ruled in past centuries. The plaque, however, recalled a workers’ demonstration which, under the slogan ‘Work and bread!’ had taken place, partly in the square, on 1 September 1930. It was the largest such manifestation of inter-war Hungary, involving around 100,000 participants. There were clashes with the police who fired into the crowd, seriously injuring many and killing one person.
When my next Blue Guide — this one just about Budapest — appeared in 1996 it contained no mention of the plaque. Some time in the early 1990s the plaque had disappeared from the façade of the Hall of Exhibitions.
Next year, 2010, will see the 80th anniversary of the demonstration, so I thought it might be a good opportunity to try to get something published about the event. My first step was to investigate what has already been written about the subject. I delved into many books about Hungarian history, written in
English and Hungarian, which had been published since the political changes of 1989-90. Occasionally
there would be a mention of the big demonstration of 1930, but not much more than that. Like the plaque on the wall, the history of the demonstration seems to have ‘disappeared’.
No doubt there is a connection. After 1948-49 in Hungary (as elsewhere in Eastern Europe) the ruling party — let’s call it the Communist Party, though that wasn’t its official name — tried to appropriate for itself all of the country’s twentieth-century labour history, as if the history of the Hungarian Communist Party was just another term for the history of the working class movement in Hungary. This nonsense became part of the official discourse and, in a way, it still is, given that many people continue to conflate the two. Hence it is perhaps not surprising that the ‘memory’ of a 1930 workers’ demonstration should have been forgotten – symbolised by the disappearance of the memorial plaque. (If it was ‘communist’, it was obviously something to be junked.)
The plaque, incidentally, is nowhere to be found. I have spent hours trying find out what happened to it. Nobody knows. The consensus is that it probably went missing during large-scale renovation of the Hall of
Exhibitions in the early 1990s, but no one admits to knowing who made the decision, exactly when and why. It is a little bit easier to find out what happened in Budapest on 1 September 1930, if only in the (limited) sense that daily newspapers from the time can still be found in libraries. They all gave the demonstration massive coverage on the following day. Luckily, you can still find copies of Népszava, the daily paper of the Social Democratic Party of Hungary, which, together with its affiliated trade unions, had organised the event. What I have done is compare its sympathetic coverage with that of two other, commercial newspapers.
I have also taken a look at how the Communist Party press treated the anniversaries of the demonstration
in 1950, 1955, 1960, 1970 and 1980. On each occasion much coverage was devoted to the anniversary (something which didn’t happen in the media in 1990 or 2000). Reading the Party press of the 1950s, you would think that the Communist Party had organised the 1930 demonstration, which is pure nonsense. At the time the Party was minute. It was the Social Democrats who represented the majority of affiliated
workers and who played the main role in 1930. At the time the CP denounced the Social Democrats as
‘social fascists’, following the then line of the Comintern. This was the view still being put forward by the Hungarian Party press in the 1950s (which is ironic given that the ‘official’ line had changed in the
mid-1930s with the adoption of the Popular Front policy). Thus the Social Democrats could not be credited with anything positive in connection with the 1930 demonstration. Predictably the man who was shot and killed by the police during the events was touted as an “enthusiastic Party member” — more pure nonsense.
All this began to change from 1960 on. The ‘social fascist’ label was dropped in connection with the
Social Democrats and slowly their role became recognised. By 1980 and the 50th anniversary, Népszabadság, the Party’s central daily was giving a reasonably balanced account of the great
demonstration. This is an interesting reflection of broader changes underway in Hungary. Crudely
speaking, we can say that pre-1956 Hungary was characteristically Stalinist with police-state elements being prominent. After 1956, despite the crushing of the uprising, almost everything changed, albeit slowly.
Hungary became, again crudely speaking, one of the most liberal societies in the Eastern Bloc. Changes in
the ‘official’ view of 1930 seem to reflect that. I have also tried to examine why the 1930
demonstration happened, or at least how it came about. Why, in the sense of what it was all about, is fairly clear. It was a demonstration for work and bread, meaning against unemployment and for
benefits for the jobless. Why it was so big a demonstration and why or how it involved — very interestingly — both employed and unemployed workers is another question.
I have traced labour movement developments for the 12-month period prior to 1 September 1930. What
took place was a series of increasingly militant demonstrations about work issues and growing unemployment as the international economic crisis took hold of Hungary.
The Social Democratic Party and trade union leadership were in some ways forced to adopt a more
militant stance due to pressure from below, but also because their representations to the government (not fascist but very conservative) were producing no results. On 1 May 1930 the trade unions organised a demonstration. It was the first such May Day event witnessed in Hungary for 11 years, since the suppression of the 1919 Hungarian Council Republic.
Several thousand workers took part. It added to the growing militant atmosphere, but was only one of
many public manifestations throughout the year, many of which led to clashes with the police. As the first day of September approached, official panic increased. A few days prior to the event the police banned the demonstration but it was too late and the union leaders had already gone too far to call it off. However, what made the protest march so large was, in my opinion, a completely unintentional result of another development – just prior to 1 September the Federation of Industrial Employers declared that the large factories belonging to its members would be closed on the day. The idea seems to have been to preempt what was in effect going to be a massive strike on the day of the demonstration. In the event, what happened was that workers who might have continued working on the day had no work to go to. People assembled in front of the factory gates early in the morning, but the gates were closed. It was relatively easy, therefore, for political agitators as well as union representatives to persuade more people to attend the demonstration. What was there to lose? And as things began there was a ‘holiday’ atmosphere anyway.
What I have also tried to do is approach the history of this singular event from a so-called post-modern perspective, namely I mix in a lot a comments and comparisons with other demonstrations in other countries at other times (even, for example, the recent G20 demo in London where one person also lost his life after a police attack). I address the question as to why I am personally interested in the subject (it’s got a lot to do with having been born and brought up in the north of England) and I make investigations concerning how the demonstration featured in some poetic, artistic and literary productions at the time and in later years. I have also tried to track down the grave of the demonstrator killed by the police, as well as uncover who he was and the circumstances of his death. The last chapter explores the question-cum slogan ‘What about the workers?’ – in other words, asking why the labour movement has become hidden from mainstream history and what should/could be done about that. (I’m going to enquire if that plaque can be returned, too!)
Apart from books about Hungary appearing in the UK and USA, I have had works published in Hungary itself, in both Hungarian and English (on 1956, on the statues of Budapest and a personal memoir). My Hungarian publisher, however, has turned down my proposal for this book focussing, if not exclusively, on the 1 September 1930 demonstration. The reason given: ‘It’s too political’. I’m looking for another publisher, maybe one in the UK or US. Any suggestions?
Bob Dent (Budapest)

Bob Dent’s book Budapest 1956 – Locations of Drama was published in 2006 by Europa Konyvkiado
ISBN 9789630780339

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