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Review April 2024

Hungary and Germany in the mirror of the Bolshevik regimes of 1919

Review by Václav Šmidrkal
Eliza Ablovatski, 2021
ISBN 9780521768306
300 Pages
Published by: Cambridge University Press
Fortepan / Péchy László

In the early spring of 1919, two revolutionary Bolshevik governments briefly seized power in two Central European states. The Hungarian Soviet Republic that was proclaimed in Budapest lasted just over four months and ended in military defeat and occupation in August 1919, when its campaign to restore the territorial integrity of Greater Hungary failed. The Bavarian Soviet Republic that was proclaimed in Munich in April 1919 lasted only around three weeks, with counter-revolutionary forces ending this regionally isolated event. Although the brevity of these two regimes could have made them proverbial footnotes in the history of Central Europe, Eliza Ablovatski brings them into the limelight and shows us that there is much more that we can learn not only about them, but also, more importantly, about Hungarian and German society in the face of Bolshevik radicalism.

The book is somewhat vaguely titled Revolution and Political Violence in Central Europe: The Deluge of 1919 and is divided into six comprehensive chapters. The first two provide a great deal of context to identify the historical preconditions for the emergence of these two revolutionary regimes in 1919. Contrary to the conventional view of Bolshevism as a reaction to the apocalypse of the First World War, Ablovatski draws attention to the decades preceding it. During that time both Hungarian and German societies were undergoing fundamental changes in their social structure, most clearly seen in the rapid growth of Budapest and Munich, to which the more rural parts of the rest of these countries, their traditional elites, and their ossified political systems were unable to adapt. However, it was not only due to the shortcomings of the political system, which failed to satisfy either the newly expanding urban middle class or the growing organized labor in these countries. It was above all the question of Jewish emancipation and assimilation and the rise of anti-Semitism as a reaction to it, as well as the growing importance of the “women’s question” in patriarchal society. Thus, long before 1914, there were many serious political tensions in both Hungarian and German societies, which the existing political systems were unable to resolve.

The extreme experiences on the war front and increasing problems on the “home front” also led to an unprecedented activation of the population.

Even so, Ablovatski does not overlook the influence of the First World War, which initially dampened these political tensions during the “truce”. Later, the experience of war also sowed new divisions in society, for example, around the idea of disproportionate sacrifice to the war effort. The extreme experiences on the war front and increasing problems on the “home front” also led to an unprecedented activation of the population. Returnees radicalized by the war and women and youths experienced in survival strategies became increasingly determined to resolve all kinds of situations for themselves, with no regard for laws or authorities. These are precisely the conditions under which the Bolshevik regimes came to power, exploiting the situation of the moment but promising to solve problems that were not only created by the war but were present in these societies long before it. As much as this chapter is based on secondary literature, it does not retell the entire political history of these regimes but focuses on one of their most striking elements: political violence.

The four chapters that follow attempt to capture the different meanings that were ascribed to these events by Hungarian and German society, using different methodological approaches. In the third chapter, Ablovatski traces the rumors that were spread about the revolutionary terror. In such exceptional situations, when the traditional media of the public sphere were either censored or did not function properly, rumors were an important source of information about what was happening and helped people understand these extraordinary events. The text focuses on interpretive tropes and linguistic means used by different population groups in Hungary and Bavaria in 1919 to explain what was happening around them, especially the revolutionary and later counter-revolutionary violence. Not only were previous revolutions instructive as a pattern, but many of these rumors viewed these events through the lens of anti-Semitism.

The following chapter traces how the truth about the violent crimes of the revolution was pursued by the criminal courts charged with punishing revolutionary violence after the fall of these regimes. It is not only interested in the outcome of these trials, but especially in the way these events were discussed in court, the arguments of the prosecutors, and how the defendants justified themselves. The chapter shows that post-revolutionary justice was much harsher in Hungary than in Bavaria. While in the Bavarian courts many defendants managed to obtain a lighter sentence or even an acquittal by pointing to their “naivety” and “idealism,” this strategy was less common and less successful in the Hungarian courts.

The fifth chapter examines the interrelationship between gender and anti-Semitism in the interpretation of the revolutionary experience, exploring ideas about women and their role in the revolution. However, the question of female morality, ethnicity, and the social and professional status of female revolutionaries was again linked to anti-Semitic ideas. Indeed, in such a worldview, a non-Jewish revolutionary could easily be confused with a Jewish woman, and a Jewish woman, regardless of her political views, with a Bolshevik revolutionary (p. 174). Thus, in “gendering” the meaning of the revolution, Ablovatski shows that it is not possible to separate it from the anti-Semitic framework in which it was intertwined.

Anti-Semitism was also the ideological glue that inspired and united the anti-revolutionary reaction.

The final chapter focuses on the interwar societies’ collective memory of the revolutionary events of 1919. Unsurprisingly, they were divided along the political lines of right and left. While for the anti-revolutionary, conservative right it was a matter of defending the nation against foreign influences, for the left it was an opportunity to honor the victims and draw lessons for the future. Of particular interest in this context are the contemporary reflections of German psychiatrists, who sought to “medicalize” the experience of the revolution as the non-political, pathological manifestation of a society that was unbalanced by war and the postwar experience.

For me, there are two takeaways from this meticulously researched and readable book. Firstly, for many people at this time, the anti-Semitic worldview, which formed long before 1919, provided an interpretive framework for understanding these revolutions as foreign, imported, or imposed events carried out by “Jews” and for the benefit of “Jews.” Anti-Semitism was also the ideological glue that inspired and united the anti-revolutionary reaction. In this mirror, we see not so much the Bolshevik revolutions themselves, but the societies of the countries in which they took place. Thus, the book contributes to the general debates on “Judeo-Bolshevism” and the role of anti-Semitism in Central European societies in the early 20th century. Moreover, it does so in an innovative way, showing that with the use of different cultural-historical approaches – working with analytical categories such as gender, collective memory, and physical violence – we can offer rich material and reach deeper levels of understanding, which would otherwise remain undiscovered.

The second notable feature of the book is the way it points to the need to perceive the significance of events that had a very short life span within a longer time frame and wider regional scope. These regimes were not an alien deviation from the “normal” development of their societies, but an organic part of them, even though many contemporaries and some historians thought otherwise. This is also confirmed by the comparative dimension of the book. In addition to adding new insights, the consistent and careful comparison of Hungary and Germany, or Budapest and Munich, helps us to move away from ideas based on national exceptionalism, be it the German Sonderweg or its variations in other national historiographies. The comparison confirms the intuitive expectation that it was in Hungary, and not in Germany, that most of these phenomena were more extensive, stronger, and deeper. Even so, as Ablovatski points out, it was in Munich and not in Budapest where Nazism was born as a direct response to the events of 1919. Returning to the title of the book, which suggests it addresses the whole region of Central Europe, it leads me to wonder to what extent this experience can be generalized and, in particular, applied to states like Czechoslovakia, where the experience with the Slovak Soviet Republic in the eastern part of its territory was brief and where the main source of its political legitimacy was the expectation associated with the establishment of a new nation-state. In this sense, Ablovatski’s book also provides much food for thought about these Central European varieties of experience with Bolshevism in 1919.

Václav Šmidrkal is a historian at the Masaryk Institute and Archives of the Czech Academy of Sciences and assistant professor of modern Central European history at Charles University in Prague. He has published articles on the post-Habsburg transformation of the Bohemian lands in journals such as Contemporary European History, European History Quarterly, and European Review of History. He is co-editor and co-author of the joint Czech-Austrian book on modern history entitled Sousedé in Czech (Prague 2019) and Nachbarn in German (Weitra 2019).