Chapter Ten

The End of Feudalism in Hungary

Uncle Jozsef or Jozsi Bacsi (pronounced Yoshy Bachy) as we have come to call him, seems as good a starting point as any for a chapter on land reform in Hungary. Dressed in a green hunting coat with a cock pheasant's feather in his hat, he dropped in one day at the hotel room of a visiting American correspondent friend of mine and proved with letters from America that he was the uncle of my friend. Uncle Jozsef, balding, greyish, had that nut-brown face, that easy smile and gay look even in his mid-fifties, that reminded one of the types that used to haunt the gambling casinos of the Riviera in the between-the-war days. Handsome and jolly, as if life were a reflection of the perpetual Riviera sunshine, but vacuous, unintelligent and uncultured. And, in fact Uncle Jozsef has spent many days – and nights – on the Riviera, gambling away the money his farm servants earned for him by their slavery at home.

Uncle Jozsef, full of confidence and winning smiles, had come on an important mission. My friend was a correspondent. He must therefore be in contact with Ivan Boldizsar, Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, in charge of press and propaganda, doubtless a powerful man.

"You must see Boldizsar immediately," said Jozsi Bacsi once credentials of uncleship were irrefutably established. "This is an important family matter. My son-in-law, husband of your cousin Therese, is arrested. You must ask Boldizsar to get him released. Of course, we will pay what is necessary. But only you can make the contact."

Poor Jozsi Bacsi was still living in the old days, when if things went wrong, for the privileged class it was just a matter of contacting the responsible official, paying enough and the matter was settled. But Jozsi Bacsi had been completely at a loss in this family crisis, because it occurred under a government in which he knew not a soul, nor did he have a friend who even knew a friend of somebody connected with the government. And then the fates sent a "deliverer" in the form of a relative who must perforce have contacts with M. Boldizsar, so Jozsi Bacsi took out his best landowner's costume and set forth for Budapest.

My friend, who is a progressive journalist, had to give Jozsi Bacsi a quick outline of the new ethics, before he understood, very sadly, that times had indeed changed.

We were glad, however, of the chance of meeting Jozsi Bacsi, and lost no time in following up the acquaintance. It turned out that son-in-law Ferenc was soon released. He had not been charged with a political crime as we expected, but had been denounced by his own mother for stealing some of the oak beams from the family castle for fire-wood. The police were called and had no option but to take Ferenc in charge for a few weeks.

Jozsi Bacsi, before the first World War, had been a modest lawyer, but his dashing manners and gay smile won him a Countess wife with a dowry of five thousand acres. The property was near the Rumanian border and had a frontage on the Tisza river, and a fine castle with two towers. Jozsi Bacsi was a good lawyer, and soon organised the estates into good shape. He cut down the number of farm servants, who were, as was usual, paid in natura, in grain, lard and occasionally a little meat, were given a hovel to live in and got enough hard cash to buy perhaps a shawl or a pair of shoes in a year. He raised the rent of the fishing rights, which every landholder whose property fronted a river, owned, at such a price that the fishermen could not pay. He obligingly fixed a compromise so that the fishermen returned him half of the catch every day.

Jozsi Bacsi brought up the fishing rights from his neighbors, released them to the fishermen on the same basis, and bought up the fish shop in the biggest town in the district, through which he marketed his share of the catch. As he became the biggest fish distributor, he fixed the prices at which the fishermen sold him that portion of the catch which they retained.

With all this well organised, Jozsi Bacsi could devote his time to the Countess, relax, travel and enjoy life. While trusty managers looked after the estates and fisheries, Jozsi Bacsi and the Countess toured Europe and sometimes indeed Jozsi Bacsi toured alone. He became a man of taste and culture, and two rooms in the castle bore marks of his wide travels. His smoking room gradually became an exhibition piece for pipe connoisseurs. The walls were lined with hundreds of pipes from every age and nation, from tiny clay pipes to enormous carved meerschaums and complicated Turkish hookahs. But another room was his real pride in which he displayed his European-wide collection of chamber ware. His favourite was a fine Grecian urn on which he averred the Empress Maria Theresa had frequently and comfortably squatted. The farm servants, huddled together in their miserable cottages, could not afford to send their children to school, or at most, for three or four years. They could never afford to have a doctor if one fell sick. But they had the spiritual comfort of the little church which Jozsi Bacsi subsidised. Jozsi Bacsi told us that he regarded his farm servants almost as his children. After all, he fed them and housed them. Pretty peasant girls he even treated gallantly and sent them a doctor if they were to have a child by him.

When World War II came, however, and Russian troops began to near the Rumanian-Hungarian border, Jozsi Bacsi thought it prudent to retire from the castle and live modestly in town. The area where his estates were located has been traditionally called the "Stormy Corner" of Hungary. The Soviet armies burst across the frontier. Landowners and estate managers had fled. The Russians told the farm servants: "Grab as much land as you can work yourself and plough and sow. Hungary is going to need food, lots of it." The servants gladly grabbed, ploughed and sowed. Afterwards came the Land Reform Act which confirmed them in ownership of the land they had seized.

Jozsi Bacsi, when the fighting was over and passions had cooled, returned to the castle to reason with his servants:

"Would you believe it?" he asked us, his slightly bulging eyes almost jumping out of their sockets, "the castle wasn't there. The servants had carted it off, brick by brick to the very last stone and built themselves cottages out of it. They'd even prised stones out of the very foundations. God knows what happened to my pipes and chamber pots."

The farm servants settled down on the land and tilled it as their own land, as indeed it now was. Fishing rights were abolished, the fish distribution business taken over by the state. The fishermen joined one of Hungary's two hundred fishing co-operatives, the government gave them a loan to replenish boats and nets, they now fish the rivers wherever there are fish and care nothing about whose water frontage they are fishing in. Jozsi Bacsi accepted his losses philosophically, however, like a good gambler, and went to join daughter Theresa and son-in-law Ferenc, on their estate near Hungary's most famous battleground, Mohacs, along the Yugoslav border. Uncle Jozsef had gambled with too many dispossessed Russian aristocrats in Monte Carlo ever to believe he would get his estates back again, and in that, at least, he was different from most of the former landowners.

My correspondent friend and I visited Uncle Jozsef and the rest of the family one Sunday afternoon, after a long drive south from Budapest. They lived in two enormous rooms on the ground floor of an eighteen-roomed castle, belonging to Ferenc's family. The rest of the castle had been taken over by the village farmers' co-operative and, as we arrived, the peasants were streaming in over the threshold to hold some sort of conference. The co-operative had held a dance there the previous night, to celebrate the harvesting of the grapes. Jozsi Bacsi, dressed in neat brown tweeds, brown and white shoes with a gold knobbed cane, looked as if he might be about to step out to have a fling at the Casino. Cheerful as ever, a wide smile on his brown face, he bade us welcome to the castle.

The room to which we were invited was filthy and in dreadful disorder. Apples and onions were sprawled together in one corner, old clothes, riding equipment, a sword scabbard, and some deer heads were scattered in another corner. Theresa came in, grimed with dirt, handsome but filthy. "We're 'prolies' now," she said, as she greeted the hitherto unknown cousin, begging us to excuse the dirt and disorder on that account. "Prolie," short for proletarian, is a favourite word these days for Hungarians who have come down in the world. It was a magic word by which they could be excused for any lack of courtesy, dirt or personal neglect. Dirt and disorder was their conception of the proletarian way of life, and they adopted it as the first symbol of their changed circumstances. Actually peasants' homes in Hungary, as in most parts of the world, are shining with cleanliness and so are the faces of the peasant housewives. Theresa, plump and dark, mother of two little children, explained that when the estate was divided up, they had been left 100 acres. At first they rented out the 100 acres in small lots, but now that they decided to transform themselves into small farmers, and live as other peasants lived. They had been allowed to retain temporarily the two rooms in the castle, but were soon going to move into a little cottage in the village.

On the fireplace was a coloured photograph of cousin Ferenc on his wedding day. With fierce moustaches, in the traditional uniform "Dismagyar" of the landed gentry, blue coat with gold buttons and lacings, he looked every inch an aristocrat. But what a weak impression he made when he joined the family circle, to kiss the hands of ladies in our party, clicking heels as he shook hands with the men, talking in a squeaking high-pitched voice, as he, too, tried to explain the soiled linen, the dust and grime, the awful atmosphere of decay and neglect by the fact that "we're 'prolies' now."

Aswe took our leave the co-operative members started filing out. It seemed to me they looked at Ferenc and Jozsi Bacsi without malice, but with a highly amused contempt as much as to say, "And to think it's for these weak, stupid people that we and our fathers and grandfathers have been slaves for centuries." They lounged around in the sun and under the fine old trees which grew outside the entrance to the castle, and seemed to have quickly adapted themselves to the idea of looking on the castle and park as part of their property.

About 8,000,000 acres of land was distributed in the land reform laws of 1945 to 650,000 landless families of farm servants and agricultural labourers, and peasants who formerly owned only an acre or two of land. Together with their family members nearly 3,000,000 people were involved in the great handing out of the estates. They turned Hungary into a country of small landholders, the great majority of whom owned farms of less than 10 acres.

Many people, including some of the new owners themselves, criticised the land reform on the grounds that it was uneconomic to turn a country which had been used to large scale agriculture back into a land of tiny holdings. Also that the holdings were too small for a family to make a proper living. Both these criticisms are justified, but there was no other alternative, because the owners and managers had fled, most of the agricultural machinery, tractors and combines had been destroyed or shipped back to Germany, eighty per cent. of the draught cattle had been killed; the country was faced with millions of unemployed farm labourers on the one hand, untilled land and famine on the other. The government followed the lead of the Soviet Army leaders and told the peasants to grab the land and till as much of it as they could, with their bare hands if necessary, until the government could provide better implements. Of course, theoretically, it would have been better to move in with a great army of tractors and up-to-date machinery, and declare the estates national property and work them as great communal farms. Everyone knows that with scientific methods large-scale farms can be worked more economically. But it would be years before Hungary could replace even that machinery which existed before and meanwhile the workers had to be fed, the peasants employed.

The farm servants because they lived on the estates grabbed first; the agricultural labourers who lived in the villages and did only seasonal work for the landowners, received their share afterwards, which explains why the farm servants received an average of 12 acres, the labourers only seven acres. The servants, living on the properties, got in first. There is a great excess of peasant labour in Hungary, a problem which can only really be solved by a large absorption of labour into the cities as the country is gradually industrialised. Official figures show that three millions, one-third of the country, were either without land or had tiny plots from which they could not make a living before the war. The immediate demands of these people were largely met by the land reform: It was better for three million people to be settled on eight acres of land per family than for only a million and a half to be given sixteen acre farms for each family and the rest to go empty-handed.

Hungary will certainly not remain a country of tiny landholders. The development of the machine-tractor station and the co-operative farm have started the second revolution in five years in the Hungarian villages. Hungarian peasants, because millions of them have had the status of serfs for generations, are backward and fearful of change. One has to explain and demonstrate a new idea a score of times to them before a spark of interest is kindled. As Hungarian industry has got into its stride again, and more and more tractors are coming off the assembly lines, the question of the co-operative farms is coming more and more to the fore. But the peasants are suspicious and the government is wise in introducing the new co-operative farms very gradually.

The principle is to demonstrate to the peasants that the co-operative farms give the best results, the best crops and give more free time to the farmer. There is no pressure on people to join. Unwilling farmers will not plant crops and the government does not want any interruption in its food supplies. Reactionary priests in all parts of the country warn farmers to have nothing to do with this new evil. "First they give you land and now they want to take it away from you," they say; and the farmers, millions of them, with their own little farms for the first time in their lives, swear they will defend their holdings till the last. But there are plenty who now have confidence in the government that gave them land, that helped them with animals, seed and fertilisers, a government that kept its promise to them and brought electric light and a water supply to the village, that rebuilt the school and church and made it possible for Janos to go to the University or Dorothea to the hospital when she was sick. There is so much on the balance sheet in favour of the government that they listen to the party organisers or village committeemen who lecture on the new life a co-operative can make possible. After weeks or months of discussion perhaps a group of peasants, usually the poorest in the village, may decide to pool their land and form a co-operative. It is a very serious decision to take and not one that is made lightly.

All those who want to join, perhaps fifteen or twenty families, will meet together and elect a committee, a governing board of the co-operative. If their farms are not adjoining, the committee will have to do some negotiating with their neighbours, exchanging perhaps some pieces of land so that the co-operative farm will lie in one block of land. The members will have to decide what sort of farm they want to have and there are two main types.

(1) One in which the land is completely pooled, the boundary stones are torn up, the peasants lose all claim to any land if they withdraw, payment will be made on the same basis to all according to the number of working days he or she has worked.

(2) The land is pooled only for working purposes. Boundary stones remain, if the peasant wants to withdraw he can take his land out with him, payment is based partly on rent paid for his land and partly on the working-day system.

There are several varieties of the second type of farm which is naturally the most popular.

Having decided on the second type, they must fix the proportion on which the farm income is to be divided. Usually it is on a 60-30-10 basis. After all running costs have been paid, ten per cent. of the farm income is set aside to take care of the old, sick, the unemployable, sixty per cent. is paid out according to the number of days each man, woman and child over 16 has worked, and thirty per cent. is paid out on a rent basis. He who brings in 30 acres, gets three times as much out of this dividend as someone who contributes only ten acres.

After the committee's request to form the co-operative has been approved by the Ministry of Agriculture, the farm may apply for a loan at a very low interest rate. They may try to buy one or two tractors unless there is a government tractor station somewhere in the neighbourhood. What implements and draught animals they will have will be pooled, work will be rationalised. Old Sandor who has troubles with his legs and couldn't manage the ploughing very well, may be an excellent milker. He will be the farm's milkman, will do nothing else but milk the farm's co-operative herd twice a day. Young Bela, who always had a flair for mechanics, will be put in charge of keeping the machinery in order. The first thrill of communal effort comes when the peasants all get together to build the new sheds which are going to house their herds and their machinery. Old-established co-operatives have already built their own cinemas, and in some cases small theatres to which troupes from Budapest come and play. That is the real revolution that is going on in Hungarian villages, much more significant than the turning out of the feudal landowners. Cinemas and theatres, really owned by the farmers. Only they can decide who uses them and for what purpose. In the old-established co-operatives, there is a new pride and love for the communally-owned property built with the peasants' own hands, from money which they themselves have voted out of a common fund, which is of much higher order than the old attachment the individual farmers had for their bit of land.

The machine station is an important adjunct to the co-operative farm and a valuable bridge between the city worker and the peasants. Hungary's small farmers are not wealthy enough to own tractors even if they could get priority to buy them. But tractor-ploughing is not only labour-saving, it is good for the crops. The deep ploughing now introduced into Hungary turns up soil hardly more than scratched in the old days with oxen-drawn wooden ploughs. The government set up machine stations all over the country, each with a few tractors, harvesting machines and other essentials. They were manned by young men and women from the city, politically educated as well as being first-class mechanics. All of them volunteered for the work. They are the city workers' ambassadors to the peasantry. At first they were regarded with deep distrust, when they set up their sheds and moved in with their queer collection of charges. In some cases they were attacked, their sheds burned. They are there primarily to serve the co-operatives, but any farmer who wants his ploughing done can call up the machine co-operatives arid the ploughing will be done at a very modest charge. In some cases the machine stations have been absorbed by the co-operatives and, of course, the latter has priority over private farmers' work. The private farmer must pay slightly more than the co-operatives.

The machine stations have become more than just places where tractors and harvesting machines are available. They are little centres of enlightenment in the village. They are manned by advanced city workers who can tell thepeasants what is really going on and what one is going to build in Hungary. In the evenings the peasants come around and on the pretext of wanting to borrow a spanner or seek some technical advice, they begin to discuss this new life which is sweeping over the country. The technicians are gradually invited into peasant homes. They are people who have read books and can explain things. The priests are not pleased about the technicians. They regard them as an African medicine man regards a modern doctor who steals his authority by curing the tribe's sick with science instead of magic. In the old days a villager turned to the priest as the supreme authority on all matters, now they turn to the mechanics.

Instead of being completely isolated as they were at first, the technicians from the machine stations are now the centre of the village life. They are good propagandists for socialism by their very skills. Not only do they plough the farmer's land and harvest his crops, but they mend his implements, his wife's sewing machine and the youngster's toys. They win the confidence of simple people to whom the city workers were previously as foreign as South Sea islanders. "Work hard, develop your co-operatives and you and your-children can enjoy the same sort of life as we have in Budapest," they tell the peasants. They open up entirely new horizons, give a picture of a life where one need only work eight hours a day, six days a week, have paid holidays in the mountains of Matra or at Lake Balaton, even be sent to Czechoslovakia or the Black Sea in Bulgaria; and all to be accomplished not for some future generation, but now, in a year or two. Why should farmers always work from dawn to dusk and live in misery? The co-operative farm and the tractor will alter all that.

The government, of course, favours the co-operative farms, by selling them the best seeds and fertilisers, giving them the benefit of any new developments in treating diseases of crops or cattle. And the co-operative farmers do their best to prove to the often sneering private farmers, that their road is the right one. By communal effort they lay on an irrigation system, they take the advice of the government and try the deep ploughing and rotation of crops. Specialists survey their soil for them and tell them what is best to plant where. Usually by the second season, there is a demonstrable improvement in their crops and in the financial situation of the members. More farmers want to join and in a neighbouring village a new group starts up and that's the way the government wants to have it. The co-operatives should grow naturally by the example of successes firmly demonstrated. In 1949 the government had to put a temporary halt to the formation of new co-operatives. They were beginning to grow too fast, faster even than Hungarian industry was able to keep pace with tractors and machinery. But the movement is now on a firm basis with over 1,500 co-operatives farming half a million acres, and 220 machine stations operating 3,800 tractors, by the end of 1949, the last year of the Three-Year Plan.

Nothing had been done for the Hungarian peasants or villagers for hundreds of years until 1945. Even villages on the outskirts of Budapest had no electric light until the Three-Year Plan brought it to them. Nearly 400 have been linked up with the electricity network during the Three-Year Plan, and by the end of the Five-Year Plan there will not be a village without electric light.

The 80,000 acre Hortobagy written off by Horthy and the Hapsburgs as a romantic waste-land where the gentry could shoot wild geese in the swamps, and visitors could see the wide-sleeved dashing csikos (horsemen), galloping in swirls of dust across the puszta, is now being transformed into one of the most fertile regions of Hungary. With a well-planned irrigation system, the state started a great rice-growing project for the first time in Hungary. By the end of 1949, not only was the Hortobagy producing all domestic rice requirements but a substantial surplus for export. Cultivation of cotton has now also started in the Hortobagy area from strains imported from the Soviet Union.

When the land reform was carried out the State reserved about 70,000 acres of land for state experimental and research farms, mainly for breeding stock and seeds.

One of the most important of these is at Babolna, on the Budapest-Vienna road, where the famous Lipizzan-Arab horses, are being "proletarianised." Stock descended partly from those bought by Count Ferenc Eszterhazy from the Hapsburg Court, and partly from direct imports from Arabia, are used for breeding purposes, to develop a new light draught animal which will be equally at home pulling a cart-load of potatoes or drawing some dashing turn-out at a farmer's wedding. The stud itself is on an old Eszterhazy property and is claimed by the Hungarians to be one of the finest Arab studs in the world to-day.

After the dispersal at the end of the war, the Hungarians could only scrape together one stallion, twelve Arab and seven Lipizzan mares by 1946. A few more were returned from Germany, others turned up inside the country, and to-day there are just under 200 first-class stallions and mares at stud again. Beautiful milk-whites, grays and bays originally destined to pull emperors' coaches, and provide mounts for the emperors' escorts are now siring a new race of farmers' horses. With artificial insemination, avoiding the trouble of transporting their mares to stud, farmers from all over Hungary can now breed Arab or Lipizzan strain from their mares. Indeed they may not cross their mare with any stallion without government permission. As every other detail of life is planned, so is also the question of raising the quality of the country's livestock.

There are no people in Europe who care more for their horses than the Hungarians. They rival even the Irish in this respect, and this minute attention to horse-breeding on the part of the government has won many peasants over to its side who were not the slightest bit impressed by electricity in the village or university for the children. Hungarian horse-drawn traffic already has a recklessness about it that makes the western motorist feel a little nervous. What it will be like when every farmer's horse has a dash of Arab or Lipizzan in it, I would not care to prophesy. I attended a demonstration in Babolna, where an old-time "cochero" drove a four-in-hand of beautiful dapple-greys in a fine hunting brake. The greys were immediately switched to the harness of a long dray with two and a half tons of flour in it. They hauled it as if it were the Emperor Franz Joseph himself, necks arched, high-stepping and trotting as briskly as if they were on the Vienna Prater.

Uncle Jozsef bewails such things. His fine nose turns up with disgust when he hears of Lipizzan stallions being made available to the peasants. His gay good humour disappears completely when one discusses the growth of the co-operatives, the incursion of machine stations into villages. Jozsi Bacsi is particularly hurt that a peasant takes off his cap when he meets a tractor driver from the machine station in the village clad though he is in greasy overalls and disregards Jozsi Bacsi in his green hunting suit.

An era has come to an end for Jozsi Bacsi and his friends. In the old days it was Jozsi Bacsi and the peasants against the city workers. Now it is the workers and peasants against Jozsi Bacsi and his friends. And not only in Hungary but in Bulgaria too which I visited for the third time in the summer of 1949.

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