OBITUARY : Gyula Kllai
Monday 01 April 1996
Born into the obscurity and poverty of village life in the final years of the Austro- Hungarian empire, during the Communist era he rose through the party ranks to become prime minister in the mid-1960s, only to be moved out of that job when Kdr decided to pursue a more reformist policy. Thereafter, he was gradually eased out of the leadership, though he retained a number of largely honorific posts right up to the collapse of the old Communist establishment in 1989.
Kllai was born in southeast Hungary in 1910, one of seven children of a shoemaker. It was hardly an auspicious start, either for making a successful career or for adopting Marxist-Leninist views. Kllai recalls in his memoirs his teachers' asking when he misbehaved in school: "Where on earth do you think you are, in Moscow?"
Unlike many ot Hungary's Communist leaders who did find refuge in Moscow in the 1930s and then became obedient servants to Stalin's every whim, the young Kllai who had joined the tiny and then illegal Communist movement in 1931 remained in Hungary. He enrolled at university in Budapest, studying Hungarian and Latin; a remarkable feat at the time - barely 1 per cent of college students were the children of peasants or the rural poor.
Kllai became a journalist, a profession well-suited to propagating the Communist cause through left-wing publications, especially after the mid- 1930s when Moscow had decreed co-operation with other left-of- centre parties. In Hungary, where the Communist Party remained banned, this meant work in other organisations. Kllai became a successful practitioner of this policy of entryism when he joined the Social Democratic Party's newspaper, Nepszava, without his colleagues realising that he was a card- carrying member of the Communist Party.
Though he was involved in the anti-war and anti-German movements, Kllai escaped arrest, except for a brief period of detention in 1942. After the Second World War, he was well-placed for promotion in the increasingly Communist- dominated coalition governments that ruled Hungary until one-party dictatorship was imposed in 1948. His extensive contacts with the Social Democrats and with the Populist movement of rural, left-wing nationalist intellectuals helped him to senior posts in the information, propaganda and culture departments in his own party and in the government.
But as the paranoia of Mtys Rkosi, Hungary's Stalinist ruler, began to extend from real and imagined political enemies in other parties to decimate the ranks of the Communist leadership itself, Kllai's strengths became the vehicle for his temporary undoing.
After serving two years as foreign minister, in 1951 he was arrested along with other senior officals and charged with anti-state activities. As with his fellow defendants, Kllai's only crime was to have started and remained a home-grown Communist - a group distrusted by the so-called Muscovites, led by Rkosi, who had spent long periods in the Soviet Union under Stalin's gaze. His contacts with Hungary's non-Communist left-wing movements before and during the war now became proof of treason in the eyes of the Stalinist leadership.
Kllai spent three years in prison before being released in 1954 during the thaw that followed Stalin's death. Unlike many of his colleagues for whom their trial and imprisonment on trumped-up charges had become the inspiration to struggle for a root-and-branch reform of the Communist system, Kllai emerged from gaol blaming not the regime as a whole but only the errors of its leaders. He moved back into cultural administration, working as deputy minister of education and then as minister after the 1956 pro-democracy uprising.
With the uprising crushed by Soviet tanks, Kllai joined the small band of leaders around Kdr who began to restore Communist rule in the country. If Kdr was not impressed by Kllai's abilities, he had few people to choose from. He was reluctant to take on too many Stalinists from the discredited regime that had provoked the revolution; but the Communist reformers around Imre Nagy, the prime minister during the uprising, were not prepared to collaborate with him.
While Nagy and his closest colleagues were interned in Romania, Kdr dispatched Kllai to meet them in an attempt to try to drive a wedge between them and get some of them to collaborate. Kllai's role as Kdr's negotiator - and his campaign to blacken the reputation of Nagy and his friends - turned him into a hated figure among those who cherished the memory of 1956. They could not forgive him - a long-standing friend known to them as "Gyufa" (matchstick) who had been a fellow victim of both the wartime right-wing regime and the Stalinist dictatorship - for abandoning them to stay in power.
But Kllai's colleagues in the Kdr era saw a different side of his personality. As he rose to become first deputy prime minister in 1960 and then prime minister in 1965, they regarded him as one of the relatively decent administrators of Communism. At cabinet meetings he was not domineering; he did not interfere in his ministers' departmental responsibilities; and he combined the thinking of an educated, though dogmatic, Marxist with the cautious shrewdness of a peasant.
Ultimate power, though, was not in the hands of the government but of the Communist Party, renamed the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party (HSWP) by Kdr in 1956, who remained in control of Hungarian political life until the late 1980s. And although he had to relinquish the post of prime minister to Kllai in 1965, this was largely in response to Moscow's requirements at a time when the post-Khrushchev leadership decreed that the posts of party leader and prime minister should be separated.
The appointment of Kllai - more unquestioningly loyal to the Kremlin than Kdr - as prime minister was a sensible choice for Kdr. He was about to embark on far-reaching economic reforms and it was crucial to reassure Moscow that the Communists would not lose control over a less highly regulated economy and society.
However, on the eve of the introduction of the reforms, which started at the beginning of 1968, Kdr needed to replace Kllai with an economist who had reformist credentials. In 1967 he was replaced as prime minister by Jeno Fock and shunted off to become Speaker of the National Assembly. Meeting four times a year for one or for two days, this was a rubber- stamp body; Kllai's influence was on the wane.
He was removed from the HSWP's policy-making Politburo in 1975 for no particular reason other than that Kdr had been forced by pressure from an increasingly inflexible Soviet leadership to sack some prominent reformers; and to show the Hungarian public that this was not the end of the more liberal economic policies, he also ousted some more hardline politicians, such as Kllai.
Out of the centre of power, Kllai retained a seat on the HSWP's "Parliament", the central committee, until that body was disbanded when the HSWP was replaced by a Western-style social democratic party in 1989. Meanwhile, Kllai's intense loyalty to - and fear of - Moscow had remained. In the early 1980s he was one of only two members of the over 100-strong central committee to oppose the leadership's decision to apply for membership of the International Monetary Fund without first consulting Moscow - which was an unprecedented act of independence by Hungary at the time.
Kllai disappeared from the Hungarian political scene after the collapse of Communism in 1989. In his final years he did not become an embittered opponent of the new democratic regime; in private he accepted Hungary's transformation as a fact of political life. He and his family shunned the media to such as extent that even his death was announced with a week's delay after the funeral had taken place.
Gyula Kllai, politician: born Berettyjfalu, Hungary 1 June 1910; Prime Minister of Hungary 1965-67, member of the HSWP Politburo 1965-75, Speaker of the National Assembly 1967-71; married Gabriella Alnoch (two daughters); died Budapest 12 March 1996.
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