Chapter Four

Hungary – Paradise of the Counts

My studies of life in Tito's capital were cut short by an attack of pneumonia which laid me low at the end of the Danube Conference. After a week in a Yugoslav hospital, tended by Slovenian nurses with wide hats on their heads and hatred of Communism in their hearts, I left Belgrade to convalesce in sunny, warm-hearted Budapest. It is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, one of the friendliest and gayest, one of the most energetic. To come to Budapest in August, 1948, after Berlin and Belgrade was like emerging from a dark tunnel into spring sunshine with the scent of flowers in the air. One could sense in the first days the elan of a people striding forward with a faith in the future based on what had been accomplished in the few years since the Liberation. The physical signs of reconstruction were there in front of everybody's eyes to see, the new bridges over the Danube, whole streets repaired and rebuilt, food and clothing shops well stocked with unrationed goods. There was confidence and hope in the voices of youths and girls, marching through the streets singing their songs of liberation.

Hungary had been oppressed and liberated many times in the past, but for the first time, the Hungarian people had the future in their hands. Their first kingdom was ravaged by the Tartars, Tartars replaced by Turks, Turks by Hapsburgs, Hapsburgs by Admiral Horthy and eventually Horthy gave way to the Nazis and the Szalasi Fascists. The whole history of the country was of a fight against oppressors, of bloody and courageous fights. A stroll through the city and a glance at the names of streets, squares and monuments of Budapest is an object lesson in Hungary's stormy history. From the time the Turks were chased out in the late seventeenth century the Hungarians had fought against the Hapsburgs (and as the Mindszenty trial was to show later, they still have to fight against Hapsburg intrigues). The numerous mustard-coloured buildings scattered throughout the city, remind one of three centuries of Hapsburg domination; it was the favoured colour of the House of Hapsburg as most official buildings in Vienna still testify.

The revolt against the Hapsburgs at the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the whole Hungarian people rose and threw the Austrian armies out of the country for six years, is commemorated with dozens of streets and squares named after the leaders of the revolt. Rakoczi Street, one of the finest boulevards in Budapest, Kis Square, Karoly and Berzseny Streets are a few examples. These are not newly named, they are age-long expressions of the fight of the Hungarian people for an independent republic-which they now have for the first time in a thousand years.

When I arrived in August, 1949, the Hungarian people were celebrating the hundredth anniversary of their great liberation war against the Hapsburgs. In the 1848-9 revolution the Hungarians led by the liberal statesmen, Kossuth and Batthyanyi, delivered a crushing blow to the Hapsburg armies. Emperor Ferdinand was forced to appeal to Tsarist Russia for help and the Tsar sent 200,000 troops with which eventually the Liberation armies were defeated. Kossuth escaped into exile, Batthyanyi was executed, 13 of the Hungarian generals were shot. Hungary's greatest poet, Sandor Petofi, died on the battlefield. The 1848-9 revolt added a new crop of heroes' names to Budapest's streets and squares. The revolt was defeated but it dealt a heavy blow to the House of Hapsburg. In 1867, Emperor Franz-Joseph was forced to grant Hungary a large measure of independence, with separate parliament and complete autonomy in purely Hungarian affairs. The Emperor of Austria, however, held the dual title of King of Hungary. The Ministries of Defence, Foreign Affairs, and Currency were joint Austro-Hungarian institutions. This system lasted until Hungary was dragged into World War I at Germany's side. Franz-Joseph died during the war and his successor, Charles, abdicated on the day the armistice was signed with the Western Allies.

After World War I, another attempt at revolution by the Hungarian people was successful for a short time, but eventually crushed by the Fascist Admiral Horthy, with the help of Rumanian, Czech and French armies. Horthy, former aide-de-camp of the Hapsburgs, hung most Communists he could lay hands on, ruled the country as a Regent Dictator, opened the gates to German economic penetration and eventually Nazi invasion.

Hungary now recognises two great dates in its history. March 15, 1848, when the great Liberal Revolution under Kossuth started, April 4, 1945, when the country was liberated by the Soviet Army and the last German troops fled the country. The revolts of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were mixed up affairs, often led by the nobility to wrench Hungary away from one Empire, only to form another one with Hungary oppressing Serbs, Croats and any other peoples they could enslave.

The nobles exploited the longings of the people for independence and mobilised them in their armies but had no intention of granting any of their basic demands for land and freedom. Except for the 1848 revolt which had some reformist aims, the issues were purely national.

Very different, however, were the aims of the revolutionary Government of 1919 and those of the provisional government established at Debrecen in 1944, when Budapest was still under siege. They had their roots back still further in Hungary's stormy history. Their aims corresponded to those of Gyorgy Dozsa who, in the early sixteenth century, led the first organised peasant's revolt in European history, a few years before the great peasant war in Germany. Dozsa's slogan was "The land to those that till it" and the peasants flocked to his banner in their thousands. Eventually the revolt was crushed with ferocious cruelty by the nobles. Dozsa was slowly roasted to death chained to a mock iron throne with the words "stinking peasant" burned into his breast under the approving eyes of the nobles and bishops.

The Debrecen government demanded an end to the monarchy and a clean sweep of all the feudal privileges still enjoyed by the aristocratic land-owners. Land for the people, government by the people, were their slogans. And in 1945 the Soviet Army was in Hungary to guarantee that no reactionary forces invade the country as in 1919, to suppress the new government. In a few years after World War II, successive Hungarian governments were able to carry out a bloodless revolution with no possibility of a foreign-inspired counter-revolution. There were no Czarist troops, as in 1849, to come to the rescue of the defeated Hapsburgs. There were no French armies as in 1919 to set up a rival government in Szeged under Admiral Horthy, no Czech troops to invade from the north, no Rumanian troops to capture Budapest so that the former commander of the Hapsburg Navy, resplendent in admiral's uniform, could ride into the capital on a white horse and start his hangman's work. In 1945, the people were able to exercise their will in a quiet, democratic fashion – to the great chagrin of the Western Powers.

In 1945 the first free and secret elections ever to be held in Hungary took place. The basis of franchise was greatly widened. In previous elections in Hungary less than 30 per cent. of the population had the right to vote. In 1943 the figure was 59.7 per cent. and in 1947.62 per cent. The provisional government set up in Debrecen was comprised of the four parties which had opposed Hungary's taking part in the war with Germany, the Smallholders' Party, Social Democrats, Communists and National Peasant Party. Smallholders received 57 per cent., Communists and Social Democrats 17 per cent. each, National Peasants 6 per cent. The coalition government or "People's Front" continued in office with the Communists and Social Democrats between them, holding six of the fourteen cabinet posts. It was this government which carried out the vital land reform laws, splitting up the large estates and crippling the economic power of the aristocratic landowners. Less than 1 per cent. of the landholders owned 48 per cent. of the land, and at the other end of the scale 72.5 per cent. of landholders owned 10 per cent. of the land, while 719,000 peasants owned no land at all.

In 1945 and 1946 Hungary was in the grip of the greatest inflation in history, greater even than that in Germany after the first World War. People rushed out with their whole week's salaries to buy a few bus tickets or a loaf of bread. On the initiative of the Communists a currency reform was worked out and put into effect on August 1, 1946. One new Forint was valued at 426, followed by twenty-seven zeros of the old pengoes. Overnight Hungary had a stable currency which could buy real goods which now began to appear in the shops. Currency reform won the Communists great prestige, reflected in the elections in 1947. Late in 1946, a conspiracy involving a number of leading members of the Smallholders' Party was discovered. The Prime Minister, Ferenc Nagy, leader of the party was abroad and refused to return. He was replaced as party leader and Prime Minister by Lajos Dinnyes, an agriculturist with a long record in the Smallholders' Party. In the 1947 elections, a number of parties in opposition to the government coalition had emerged and they were joined by breakaway groups from the Smallholders' Party. The coalition decided to contest the elections as a bloc and received just over 60 per cent. of the votes. The Communists became the strongest party with 22 per cent. followed by the Smallholders 15.4 per cent., the Social Democrats 14.8 per cent., and the Peasant Party 8.3 per cent. Later the Communists and Social Democrats merged their parties into the Hungarian Workers' Party. The coalition continued to operate with the Workers' Party holding a majority of the seats, and it is still the basis of the Hungarian administration in 1950.

To get an impression of the forces which have ruled Hungary over the centuries, I decided to try to find some member of the fabulous Eszterhazy family. I had read about them in history books as something like the Medici of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, wealthy aristocrats and great patrons of the arts. Haydn, Schubert, Mozart and Liszt, I knew had all basked in Eszterhazy hospitality during some period of their lives. The best place to enquire about the Hungarian aristocracy obviously was the British Legation. It was easier than I had thought. There was a Countess Eszterhazy working in the Legation itself.

Over a long lunch at the famous Gundel's restaurant, she filled in some interesting details of the history of this greatest land-owning family in the old Empire – and in Hungary until 1945. There was only one larger landowner in Hungary and that was the Roman Catholic Church.

The Eszterhazys between them owned 750,000 acres of which the senior member of the family, Prince Paul Eszterhazy, owned 300,000. They owned 15 castles in Hungary, several more in Austria and Bavaria. The countess had no idea how many peasants or farm labourers were employed on the various estates.

The name was an ancient one. Romantic members of the family declared it dated back to biblical times, the name means Esther's House. The original seat of the family, which was attached to the Royal Court in the early fifteenth century was on the Austrian side of the Austro-Hungarian border area not far from Sopron. It was called Eszterhaza, but has become Austrianised into Eisenstadt.

Always loyal supporters of the House of Hapsburg, they were rewarded for their military and financial help with lavish titles for the two main branches of the family. Apparently the help of one of the branches was valued more highly than the other, because one line of dukes and princes was created, another of counts and barons. The titles were inherited by all sons, the estates only by the eldest sons – providing they did not marry outside their social caste.

My informant, the Countess, inherited the physical characteristics of the family. Very tall with pale blue eyes and a large nose which dominated the face. "You can tell us anywhere" she said, "by our eyes, noses and height." She was young, sighed for the old days, but was realistic enough to believe they would never return. She herself left the country to live off the estates in Austria or Bavaria, or the gold piled away in Switzerland, not long after my interview.

The modern history of the House of Eszterhazy started at the beginning of this century when Count Ferenc split the family property into two parts. One at Tata not far from the Austrian border was left to his eldest son, also Ferenc, the other at Papa to the second son Paul. Ferenc, the elder, incidentally, for special services to the Hapsburgs, was, during the time of Maria Therese, allowed to have his own private army, a right unique in Hungary where many of the nobles had declared themselves against the Hapsburg domination. Paul was eventually killed in the first World War, and the Papa estates was managed by a relative, former Prime Minister of Hungary, Maurice Eszterhazy, until Thomas, third son of Count Ferenc, was old enough to take over. Thomas was a gay young man, a fervent admirer of ballerinas and an equally fervent supporter of the Hapsburgs, who were having a lean period at the time Thomas succeeded his estates. According to the rules of the family, which apparently became a little lax during the first World War, Thomas should have been disinherited. He married, out of his caste, three ballerinas in succession.

While his farm servants lived on a few pounds a year and an odd pair of trousers or shoes flung to them by an overseer, Thomas piled up gambling debts and lived the usual profligate life of the Hungarian aristocracy. He kept a permanent suite at the Hotel Hungaria overlooking the Danube in Budapest, where he obligingly left a chequebook full of signed cheques for any of his drinking companions to fill out when they were hard-pressed to raise the wind for a new carousal, or to pay up the gambling debts of the night before.

His lawyers spent several months after World War I trying to get back some of the fantastic sums drawn by his various friends, running into several millions of pengoes. Thomas's scandals in the early 1920's, however, were soon overshadowed by those of his brother Ferenc of the Tata estate. Ferenc set himself the task of restoring the Hapsburgs to the throne of Hungary. In 1921 the former Emperor Charles, who had abdicated in Vienna three years earlier, decided to try and stage a come-back in the other half of the Empire, as King of Hungary. He raised a King's Army which was joined by the Hungarian garrison at Szombathely, on the Austro-Hungarian border. Charles had previously been negotiating with the Regent, Admiral Horthy, to take over power peacefully, but Horthy for all his sympathies for the Hapsburg Monarchy, knew the temper of the Hungarian people too well to agree. Charles decided to fight.

From Szombathely, Charles and his wife, the former Empress Zita, went to Tata, where they stayed the night with Count Ferenc. Ferenc's wife's father had been a minister under Emperor Franz-Joseph. He pledged his full support in the restoration attempt.

It ended in disaster, of course, for Charles. He was seized by Horthy and handed over to the Allies, who obligingly escorted the ex-royal couple to the charming Isle of Madeira. Count Ferenc accompanied him into exile, and spent lavish sums of his own money and some borrowed from brother Thomas, supporting Zita and the children after the ex-emperor died. Zita's eldest son, Otto, became the Pretender to the Hapsburg throne, and as we will see in a later chapter, neither Zita, Otto, nor the Eszterhazys gave up hope for an eventual restoration.

After Charles died, Eszterhazy returned to Hungary and devoted himself to his ruling passions: horse breeding and music. To show his tenderness for the Royal family and his faith in their eventual restoration, he bought from the Austrian Government the famous Lippizana, milk-white Arab horses which had formerly belonged to the court of Franz-Joseph. Ferenc established a stud and set up the finest stable of Lippizanas in Europe. He trained riders in the Spanish school of riding, taught them to drive the smart four-in-hands, dressed in the livery of the House of Hapsburg. Everything should be ready for the return of a new Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary.

Count Ferenc fancied himself also as a talented musician and patron of the arts. In his great English park at Tata he imported whole sections of ruins from ancient Rome and had them built into the park, diverted streams through them, created little ponds and lakes, the bottoms of which were covered with special coloured rocks imported from all over Europe.

His chief delight was to bring the entire cast of the Budapest Opera or a symphony orchestra to Tata to perform in the delightful summer garden. Ferenc always insisted on conducting the performance. Only his special friends from the aristocracy were invited as guests. On the beautiful lake in the English park only close relatives were allowed to row. Peasants were occasionally allowed to enter the park on a special holiday, but the Count or his estate managers used to stroll through the grounds and woe betide any peasant sitting on the ground. A beating and fine would be the minimum punishment.

Apart from two castles and a hunting lodge on the Tata estate, Count Ferenc had a private theatre, a racecourse and a champagne still there.

The head of the family in 1948, Prince Paul, had been a close friend of Admiral Horthy, for whom he used to organise hunting parties. In general, he lived a quieter life than his roistering father and uncle, supervising the accounts of his 300,000 acres of land, several hundred houses and villas, and a few small factories. After the liberation and the distribution of the estates among the landless farm labourers, Prince Paul even tried to pass for a democrat. He shared his father's taste for ballerinas and married the prima-ballerina of the Budapest Opera, Melinda Ottrubay, in 1948.

"Just as well there are no estates for him to succeed to these days," said the Countess, "it was a shocking blow to the family when he too, married a dancer."

She shuddered when I asked what had happened to the properties at Tata. "It's too dreadful to speak about." she said. "The castle has been turned into a lunatic asylum, the beautiful old Hunting Lodge has become a Communist Youth Hostel, the English Park was turned into a training ground for the Olympic team, because they said the atmosphere and climate was like that of England and would help the team that was going to England for the Olympic Games. The parks are all thrown open, anyone can wander through them," and her china-blue eyes filled with tears.

"What about the thousands of farm labourers that have got land now?" I asked, "probably they are pleased with their new life."

"Certainly not," replied the Countess, "in the past they got everything free, good food, lodging and often clothes, as well as money. They did not have to think about anything. No worries, just do what the overseer said. No responsibilities at all. Now, who gives them food? The government takes it all away from them. The farms are all going to ruin because peasants are not used to thinking and planning for themselves."

I made a tour of some of the Eszterhazy castles to see for myself what was going on. Tata is a beautiful village, about ten miles off the main road between Budapest and Vienna. Sure enough the main castle had become a hospital for the insane, the Hunting Lodge -was full of gay young people, including a group of Canadians who had been working on one of the volunteer youth brigade projects. It was Sunday, in mid-summer, the two magnificent parks were crowded with villagers and peasants, reclining in the shade of massive oak and elm trees. More peasants and some workers from the nearby Tata coal mines (Eszterhazy property before they were nationalised), were splashing away in a fine swimming pool that had formerly been a private preserve of the Eszterhazys.

In the keeper's Lodge at the entrance to the park was living another Eszterhazy, Count Miklos. But he was not at home. "Poor fellow," said his soldier-butler, a veteran from the Hapsburg armies, "the lad must have something to do. He spends his time swimming these days."

"In the pool?" I asked.

"Of course not. With them hooligans? He swims with his friends in a little stream, some miles away from here."

The old butler went on to tell me that "poor" Miklos didn't have a penny to his name any more. "He's only got one suit to stand up in." Actually the Count Miklos was busy liquidating 55 houses which belonged to him and was salting the money away for an illegal flight over the border. Three times I went to visit him, but never caught him at home.

On the fourth occasion he had already fled the country. Before he left he threw a great party to which a well-known Budapest actress was invited. When the party reached its height, Count Miklos bathed the actress in a bath filled with champagne from the Tata champagne still, as a final salute to the old days.

Peasants from the Tata region are mostly dour, unsmiling Schwabs, Schwabian Germans, but they smile readily enough if one asks them if they want to return to the status of farm servants on the Eszterhazy estates. Their lives are still hard, they still work from dawn to dark and have little enough at the end of the month to buy clothes or other necessities with. They are still plagued by priests who tell them it's sinful to have taken the land of their masters, and that God and the Americans will punish them for it.

"My boy's at the university," said one brown old peasant, squatting on the ground in the English park at Tata. "He's learning to be an engineer. D'ye think I could ever have managed that in the old days? If I'd saved up everything and could sell a pig or two, I couldn't even keep him at school after he was twelve. Now they even pay him for learning. He's at one of the People's Colleges and they pay him enough that he sends me and the missus a bit on the side."

Of the land reform, he said, "We could have done with a bit more land. It's hard to make do without 10 acres, but we live all right. We eat better than we ever did and there's always something to take to the market to sell. If there’s not eggs, there's grapes, if there's not grapes there's apples or melons. And we're our own bosses now. Nobody to come along and rouse us out and say 'Do this' and 'Do that,’ and a cuff on the ear if you don't do it quick enough."

At the village of Eszterhazy the castle had been turned over to an Agricultural College. On the Sunday I visited it, there was a big Mothers' Day meeting in progress. In the castle courtyard, seats had been set out in the warm autumn sunshine, and parents were watching a performance by the school children. On other Eszterhazy estates parks had been thrown open to the public, in some cases used as plant research stations, castles used as hospitals, schools, orphanages, youth hostels.

The princes, counts and barons, for the most part speculated on the black market, intrigued for the return of the Hapsburgs, plotted to transfer their money and later their persons abroad.

The fine Lippizana stud of Count Ferenc was taken away by the Germans to Bavaria, from where many of the best stallions and mares were shipped to America. But stable hands managed to hide others in various parts of the country and the stud has been reconstituted again by the Ministry of Agriculture. The new stud, however, is not breeding and training horses to draw Emperors' coaches, but it is crossing them with sturdier breeds to step up the quality of horses all over the country.

The Eszterhazy art treasures have been turned over to the public galleries where all the people can admire them instead of a few chosen aristocrats.

The final act in the drama of the Houseof Eszterhazy was to be played in the People's Court at Budapest a few months after my conversation with the Countess, with Prince Paul as one of the chief actors still in the traditional Eszterhazy role of defending the interests of the Royal House of Hapsburg.

My five weeks convalescence in Hungary in the summer of 1948 provided me with the right background to appreciate the dramatic events which followed in February, 1949, and which are described in subsequent chapters.

AsHungary is supposed to be shut off from the Western world by a heavy clanking "Iron Curtain," with freedom of any type suppressed, it may be interesting for western readers to learn how I was able to enter Hungary in the first place, how I was able to arrange for permits to move about in the second place and in the third place how I, as a tainted westerner, was able to talk to people. I applied for a visa and received it like many another western correspondent-and I applied from Belgrade, which in the summer of 1948 was not a healthy spot from which to be asking for a visa to a Cominform country.

I flew from Belgrade to Frankfurt in the U.S. Zone of Germany, applied for and received a transit visa through Czechoslovakia and drove to the Hungarian border. At the border I presented the Royal Automobile Club carnet for my car, was handed enough petrol coupons to take me to Budapest, and told to report to the Hungarian Automobile Club, which would provide me with further coupons. For a foreigner there was no limit to the number of coupons I could draw – by the time I returned to Hungary the following year petrol rations had been abolished.

Once in Hungary, I found I was free – as indeed are all other people, Hungarians and foreigners alike – to drive when and where I liked. Probably some frontier areas were out of bounds, but I never discovered any limitations on movements at all. Normally, I would have arranged visits through the press section of the Hungarian Ministry for Foreign Affairs, but as I was in Hungary on holiday, I arranged nothing through official channels. Apart from paying purely a courtesy call at the Press Office, I did not once make use of their facilities during my five weeks' stay.

With a hired interpreter, I toured the country, stayed at hotels and ate at restaurants unannounced, went where I wanted and spoke with whom I wanted. Some of my visits must have branded me as reactionary, for instance, those to the Eszterhazy family and later to Cardinal Mindszenty. As far as I know there was never any control on my activities, certainly I was never aware of it. Nor have I been aware of such controls in subsequent visits to Hungary. I visited co-operative farms near the border of Rumania, gypsy settlements near the Czech border, the Eszterhazy estates on the border of Austria. Wherever I went I took plenty of photographs of normal activities of life, peasants in the fields, public buildings. At the end of five weeks, I left Hungary without writing one word, good or bad, about the country; I was on leave and if I made it a working holiday, that was only for my own background. It was my first visit to Hungary, I was completely unknown to the authorities. I was, and am still in 1950, as free to drive about Hungary as I am in England – more so in fact because my travel in England would be limited by petrol rationing, and in Hungary petrol rationing, as all other forms of rationing, has long been abolished.

In twelve months living constantly in Budapest, there has been a steady stream of western journalists, members of parliament and other visitors, all of whom have exactly the same facilities, without the slightest restriction on their movements. Excellent plane, coach and rail services connect Budapest with other main cities in the country and one can travel from city to city without the slightest formality by public transport if one is not fortunate enough to possess a car. If after the revelations of Western espionage brought to light during the trials in Eastern Europe in 1949 and 1950, and after scandalous articles by journalists who have never visited the country, the Hungarian authorities are beginning to scan more carefully the visitors to whom they grant visas, one can only commend them for their caution.

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