Bela Kiraly: Soldier who led Hungarian resistance against the Soviet Union during the 1956 uprising

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The Independent Online

Major-General Bela Kiraly was 39 years old when he was sentenced to death by Hungary's Communist authorities at the beginning of 1952.

According to one – erroneous – report in the files of the prosecution office, the sentence was carried out shortly afterwards.

But that report of Kiraly's death was greatly exaggerated. For over the next five decades he survived more than four years in gaol; became Commander-in-Chief of the National Guard during the pro-democracy Hungarian Revolution of 1956; led the remnants of military resistance to the Soviet invasion which crushed the uprising; escaped via Austria to the United States, where he worked as an academic in New York and founded a research and publishing institute with a focus on East-Central Europe; returned to Hungary with the fall of communism; and was elected a member of the newly democratic parliament in 1990. During several of those decades he was a leading figure in the Hungarian émigré community and a prodigious author and editor of works whose scope went well beyond his own specialisation in Hungarian military history.

Kiraly's opponents were to compare his willingness to serve under any regime to the behaviour of a cork which, no matter how deep it is pushed into the water, will always keep bobbing up to the surface. Kiraly answered that criticism by saying that he had always been motivated by his dedication to serving his country as a professional soldier; but added that, without luck, he would not have succeeded.

For someone of his illustrious military career, Kiraly's life in the army began almost by accident. As a young man he wanted to be a veterinary surgeon but his stationmaster father could not afford the university fees. His attempt to join Hungarian railways failed due to his colour blindness. In 1930, as he was contemplating what to do, the government introduced compulsory military service with the incentive that those who volunteered would be called up for only half of the two-year stint reserved for conscripts.

Army service turned out to be much more interesting than Kiraly had expected. He developed a passion for organisation, chains of command and troop manoeuvres. He finished the Ludovika Military Academy in the top five per cent of his year's intake; and then the General Staff Academy as its best student.

Kiraly was twice injured while serving on the Russian front during the Second World War. His command in the Don valley included a Jewish forced labour battalion whose members had been given summer clothes in the bitterly cold Russian winter. His decision to issue them with proper winter clothing at Christmas 1943 earned him 50 years later the title "Righteous among the Gentiles" from the Yad Vashem memorial institute in Jerusalem.

In spite of his misgivings, Kiraly stayed with the army when Hungary's leader, Miklos Horthy, was removed from power by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross movement in October 1944 after he had ordered Hungarian forces to cease fighting. On Hitler's orders the Arrow Cross were determined to continue the war to the end. Days before that end came for Hungary, in March 1945, Kiraly was put in charge of defending the town of Koeszeg on the Austrian border. To avoid its destruction, he surrendered to the Red Army.

Kiraly's "reward" was to be arrested – with the prospect of years of imprisonment in a POW camp in Siberia. But he and several of his comrades managed to jump off the train carrying them to Russia. He then faced the choice of staying a fugitive in his own land, escaping to the West via Austria or joining the new army that had been formed under Soviet inspiration. For that he had to become a member of the Communist Party. He complied. Once again, his commitment to army service overrode his political doubts.

Kiraly had a meteoric career in the post-war army which was brought under increasing Communist – and Soviet – domination. But in 1947 he came close to throwing it all away. He defied the warnings of Communist officials who told him not to marry Sarolta Gömbös, the niece of Hungary's pre-war, ultra-right-wing Prime Minister, Gyula Gömbös. Kiraly expected to be sacked when he was summoned to see General György Palffy, the army's de facto commander. Instead, he was promoted to become head of the Training Department. Kiraly received no explanation for this decision. He could only assume that Palffy, who had at the start of the 1940s been forced to resign his own commission because of his marriage to a Jewess, did not want to inflict this kind of punishment on others.

With the onset of the Cold War and then the split between Stalin and President Tito's Communist but independently-minded Yugoslavia, Hungary's army more than quadrupled in size to 200,000 in the two years after 1948. As commander of Hungary's infantry forces, Kiraly would have been in charge of his country's contingent in the planned Soviet-led invasion of Yugoslavia. But Stalin called off the preparations for an attack after the West had put up stiff resistance to North Korea's invasion of South Korea in the summer of 1950.

In the same year Kiraly became the founding Commandant of the newly-established Military Academy. But at the end of 1951 he, too, was swept away in the wide-ranging purges the Communist leadership had instituted against its real and imaginary enemies. In the atmosphere of terror that prevailed, Kiraly knew he could rely on no one: after all, back in 1949 he himself had publicly denounced Palffy when it became his one-time mentor's turn to be put in the dock – just as Palffy himself had shown no mercy to the victims of the earlier show trials.

In January 1952 Kiraly was sentenced to death for conspiracy and sabotage. It was subsequently commuted to life imprisonment.

Kiraly was released weeks before the 1956 Revolution, and was in hospital recovering from an operation when fighting erupted in Budapest on 23 October. Five days later he was smuggled out of hospital, against doctors' orders, to attend a national gathering of armed revolutionary groups. Such was his reputation both in military terms and as a victim of the old Stalinist regime, that he was almost immediately elected Commander-in-Chief of the newly formed National Guard which brought together the various revolutionary groups with sympathetic units from the established security forces.

Under Kiraly's command the National Guard began to establish law and order. It became a mainstay of the multi-party government of Prime Minister Imre Nagy, the Communist reformer, who adopted the revolutionaries' main demands. Nagy originally entrusted Kiraly with being a member of the delegation that was appointed to negotiate with Soviet commanders to discuss the Soviet army's withdrawal from Hungary. But Kiraly was needed to organise the defence of Budapest against a possible Soviet attack. By being excluded from the delegation, Kiraly escaped virtually certain death. The Soviet side kidnapped the Hungarian negotiators, and after the Uprising was crushed, handed them over to the post-revolutionary puppet regime that later executed Nagy and other prominent leaders of the revolution.

A few hours after these "negotiations", on 4 November, the Soviet army launched its attack against Hungary. Kiraly alerted Nagy who initially ignored the warning and said that Yuri Andropov, the Soviet Ambassador (and subsequent leader), was with him and giving categorical assurances him that there was no invasion. That prompted Kiraly some years later to make his most oft-quoted remark: "Even pirates, before they attack another ship, hoist a black flag."

Nagy and most of his ministers sought refuge at the Yugoslav embassy. With no one left to take orders from, Kiraly led several thousand members of the National Guard out of his headquarters in the centre of Budapest, first to the outskirts of the city and then to the Bakony mountains in western Hungary. Throughout their march they were harried by Soviet troops which were vastly superior in numbers and heavy weaponry. It was more an organised escape than resistance. As Kiraly was to put it later:

"We could all have done our duty and died in the defence of the country. In that case it would have been a massive suicide action. It would have been nothing more or less than Thermopylae – like the Spartans who stood up against the Persians and died to the last man."

Seeing that any further military activity was pointless, Kiraly disbanded his command and in late November escaped across the border into Austria. He moved to the United States because he wanted to join Anna Kethly, the Foreign Minister in Imre Nagy's legitimate – but no longer functioning – government, who was lobbying at the United Nations on behalf of her country.

Kiraly's new career in the United States was helped by his stint in prison, when for a while the only book he had access to was an English-Hungarian dictionary. He had memorised it from cover to cover. Now in his late 40s, Kiraly returned to his studies, enrolling at Columbia University. Subsequently he taught military history at Brooklyn College and City University, New York, for 20 years. In 1978 he set up the Atlantic Research and Publishing Institute whose main purpose was to disseminate greater knowledge about east-central Europe and, in particular, about Hungary. As its editor-in-chief, Kiraly oversaw a publication list that stretched to more than 130 monographs and collections of articles. Kiraly himself edited or contributed to many of those volumes, primarily those dealing with aspects of military history. His own recollections of the Sovietisation of the Hungarian army, Honvedsegböl Nephadsereg (From Defence Force to People's Army) were published in 1984.

Kiraly's life as a formally retired, though very active, academic was severely disrupted with the political changes in Hungary in 1989. The new breed of Communist reformers finally agreed to the reburial of Nagy and his comrades who had been put in an unmarked grave after their executions 31 years earlier. Kiraly was the only speaker from the Hungarian émigré community to deliver a speech at the funeral, which was attended by a quarter of a million people in Budapest's main parade ground. A few months later opposition politicians from his home town of Kaposvar asked him to stand in the first multi-party elections as their joint candidate to compete against the Communist who was otherwise tipped to win.

At the age of 78, Kiraly joined the new intake of MPs in the spring of 1990. He learnt his parliamentary skills from Miklos Nemeth, Hungary's last Communist-era Prime Minister, who was barely more than half his age. They sat together as independent MPs. A few months later Kiraly joined the parliamentary group of the liberal Free Democrats, the main opposition party, because he was angered by the centre-right coalition government's chaotic handling of a blockade of Budapest's main road arteries by striking taxi drivers.

Kiraly served his full four-year term in parliament, where his military expertise prompted his election as deputy chairman of the National Defence Committee. Afterwards, he returned to writing and editing. Tall, somewhat aristocratic in bearing and of a friendly, approachable disposition, he continued to receive a stream of academics, journalists and politicians. Students of central Europe – especially those in the English-speaking world, have much to thank him for his work in disseminating knowledge about the region.

Kiraly was close to 90 when he was appointed an adviser to the centre-right Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, to help work on reforming the military. By then Kiraly had broken with the Free Democrats and strongly opposed their campaign for a professional army. He argued that national service was an important training ground for the young in a country which was not as yet, in his view, a stable democracy. It seemed a somewhat old-fashioned view, given that Hungary was already a member of Nato and on the threshold of joining the European Union. But Kiraly's contribution as an adviser extended his service to his country into the 21st century, and confirmed, once again, his willingness to work under any government.

Bela Kiraly, army officer and historian: born Kaposvar 14 April 1912; member, General Staff, Hungarian Army 1942-45; commander of infantry troops 1949-50, Commandant, Hungarian Military Academy 1950-51; imprisoned 1951-56; Commander-in-Chief, National Guard and military Commander of Budapest 1956; teaching staff, Brooklyn College and City University New York 1963-83; member, Hungarian Parliament 1990-94; married 1947 Sarolta Gömbös (marriage dissolved 1955); died Budapest 4 July 2009.