The Heart of Hungarian Football: 1956, Identity, and Restoration – Part 1

HungaryBTLM welcomes David AJ Reynolds as our newest guest writer and we’re pleased this week to be publishing his first contribution, a lengthy and fascinating two-part history of the Hungarian game in the immediate post-war years. David is an expert on Magyar history and this comprehensive article explores in depth the huge political and sociological convulsions that the country underwent in the early years of communism – and their affect on the game in Budapest. Look out for Part Two of this tale later this week.    

At noon on October 31, 1956, the streets of Ferencváros, like the rest of the Budapest, were free of fighting. The Red Army, who twelve years before had smashed its way into the city, was gone. It had been just a week earlier (October 24) that the Soviets had deployed their 92nd Armoured Division to the capital, from its base in Székesfehérvár 70 kilometres to the south-west. They had come in response to dramatic demonstrations against the Hungarian communist regime and the initial invitation of its head, Ernő Gerő.


But the Soviets, to their considerable surprise, had encountered stiff armed resistance to their intervention, and, over the following seven days, were unable to overcome it. This resistance most notably coalesced around the Corvin cinema, which sits where the körút circling inner Pest meets Üllői út, the road leading south-east towards the airport. Heading down that road from Corvin immediately takes you into the 9th District, Ferencváros, whose own notable fighting groups remained undefeated as the Soviets completed their withdrawal that morning. Was this victory?

You might assume that this was no time to think about something as trivial as football, but you would be quite wrong. On the same day, a revolutionary committee took charge of the central body that the communist regime had appointed to micro-manage Hungarian sport on its behalf (the OTSB). Back In 1950, the OTSB had turned the people’s game on its head, imposing new identities on the nation’s biggest football clubs, including its most famous and popular one – Ferencváros (FTC: Ferencvárosi Torna Club). In the middle of that extraordinary 1949/50 season, the club formed in 1899 and colloquially known as Fradi suddenly became the team of the food industry’s union; it was renamed ÉDOSZ and had its iconic green and white kit changed to a Party-friendly red and white. But with football freed from party-state control on October 31, 1956, Fradi could return.

ferencvaros-1948-49So it was that thousands gathered the following day at Ferencváros’ stadium on Üllői út to celebrate the re-formation of a football club. It was a moment and a process that was, in many ways, far more typical of the uprising than the street fighting that had taken place in that district a few days earlier and would soon resume again. The thirteen days of the uprising—or revolution as it is understandably also called—was characterised by two dovetailing elements central to Fradi’s return: on the one hand, the re-establishment of forms and identities that had been buried in the Communist Party’s early, Stalinist years of control in Hungary between 1949 and 1953; and, on the other hand, the emergence of new anti-regime bodies which swiftly took control of most areas of national life in support of the uprising and in place of the regime’s rapidly crumbling authority. Revolutionary committees took the reins of governments in cities, towns, and villages across Hungary, while similarly anti-regime workers’ councils assumed control of factories and plants, demonstrating the emptiness of the ruling Party’s claims to represent the working class.

imre-nagyAs these bodies set to work, they were belatedly joined in campaigns of restoration by the remaining leaders of the state and Party, who were desperately trying to hold on to power by attempting to shape a movement they were following rather than steering. For Imre Nagy, a reform Communist who had been re-appointed Prime Minister on the first night of the uprising, the embrace of reformations came naturally. He had maintained the opinion, even when it was perilous to do so, that it had been a mistake to so quickly—under pressure from Stalin—replace Hungary’s multi-party parliamentary democracy with a one-party dictatorship. He was, therefore, a popular figure among those clamouring for change. And so on October 30, with hard-liners having fled the country or been cowed into silence by the popular mood, Nagy announced the formation of a coalition government. With that move, parties that had been erased a few years earlier suddenly re-emerged into the public square. The Independent Smallholders’ Party (FKgP), which had comfortably won the first post-war election before being bullied into submission—and eventually banned—was re-established that very afternoon. So too was the Social Democratic Party, which had been forced to ‘merge’ with the Communist Party in June 1948.

Suppressing, renaming, replacing, appropriating; these had all been tactics of the Hungarian communist regime led by Mátyás Rákosi, in its haste to remake the nation in its own image. With will, power, and the mystical tide of history on their side—the ascendant Stalinists assumed in the early fifties—old forms, identities, connections, ways, and ideas could be irrevocably consigned to oblivion. And that is why every revivification of an old name or practice in the uprising was so significant; each instance was a celebration of the fact that the regime had not succeeded. Cherished loyalties and meanings had not in fact disappeared beneath arbitrarily imposed replacements. They had not been forgotten. They were not dead.

honved-1950sFootball was the perfect microcosm of the Party’s failure to create permanent felt realities beneath its fiat impositions because it was the emotional pull and socio-political significance of football that had persuaded the Party to try utilizing it in the first place. The rapid unravelling of this project in the uprising also saw two of the other big Budapest clubs that had received new identities in the 49/50 season restored: Újpest TE and MTK returned to life under their ancestral names. The exception was Honvéd, who, with a European Cup tie against Athletic Bilbao approaching, retained its new form. Nevertheless, after October 31, newspapers quickly in the habit of reverting to pre-1950 titles also began referring to Honvéd by their former identity of Kispest. At the same time, the revolutionary committee freshly in charge of the OTSB indulged in some renaming of its own. The vast concrete-bowl national stadium that the communist regime had built and opened three years earlier as Népstadion (People’s Stadium) would, the committee announced on November 1, henceforth be known as Ifjúság Stadionja (Youth Stadium) in honour of the many young people who had fought in the uprising.

The football clubs founded at the end of the 19th century, particularly in Budapest, were from the beginning freighted with both organic and contrived significance. “Since their emergence and codification,” sport historians Phillip Dine and Seán Crosson note, “…modern sports have exerted a powerful influence on both personal and collective self-images, and have thus impacted extensively on local and national politics.” Football fans by definition identify themselves with an enduring identity more than with the players and coaches of the moment, aided by the fact that, as Miklós Hadas adds regarding Hungarian football, “football teams often express sociologically relevant distinctions”. This is particularly pertinent when you consider that every great name in European football started literally as a “club”. The Victorian era sporting clubs were not only places where the like-minded gathered, but also frequently means of projecting a political posture or claiming a desired identity.

Therefore, the likes of the Ferencváros and Újpest clubs were not only founded to represent and reflect their respective areas (Újpest—New Pest—was a new town north of Pest that was finally absorbed into Budapest in 1950) but were also aspirational organizations. Their adoption of the word Torna (gymnastics) gave them overtones of moral and civic engagement in a Central European context where the German turnverein and Czech Sokol gymnastic movements were vehicles of national idealism. These clubs were also being formed at a time when the Hungarian government, which had possessed a wide degree of autonomy within the Habsburg realms since the 1867 Ausgleich, was increasingly seeking to Magyarize the Kingdom of Hungary, a territory whose population was about 50% non-Magyar. This cultural and linguistic agenda gave members of non-Magyar ethnicities, particularly in cities, significant incentive to emphasize their participation in the dominant national community. In this situation, Hadas relates, “a group mainly of bourgeois Jews, who deemed gymnastics too conservative” had in 1888 founded MTK (Magyar Testgyakorlók Köre – Circle of Hungarian Body Trainers). Thus, “compared to the more locally organized but socially heterogonous” clubs that had already formed in Ujpest and elsewhere, MTK, “with the word ‘Hungarian’ in its name expressing the assimilating motives … stood for ‘universal Hungarianhood’ free from local particularities.”

But foundational differences between Ferencváros TC and MTK, in particular, would not have played such a large part in the subsequent story of Hungarian football were it not for the remarkable fact that no other team won the championship between 1903 and 1929. Despite the genuine, though generalized, distinctions between the fan bases and identities of these two clubs, the long rivalry and the emergence of football as a mass spectator sport exaggerated them far beyond any underlying reality. This became especially the case, with sad consequences for both clubs, of the Jewish-Gentile divide. MTK was never a Jewish club or team in the way that the great Hakoah Vienna was, while Fradi had Jewish founders, fans, and directors. Yet the over-emphasis on this aspect of the FradiMTK split was nevertheless exacerbated in the inter-war years.

The Great War and subsequent treaties had rendered Hungary a rump state, denuded of two-thirds of the kingdom that lived on only in the inter-war leader’s (Miklós Horthy) hypothetical role as regent. As a result, the new, smaller Hungarian body politic was both more ethnically homogenous and burdened with a sense of loss. As was the case across the region, this was also accompanied by rising anti-Semitism, which was translated into restrictive legislation against Hungary’s large Jewish population. Finally, after the Second Jewish Law of May 1939 greatly restricted the participation of Jews in the economy, the management of MTK (which had renamed itself Hungária in 1926) was handed over to a right-wing chairman. After finishing second to Fradi on goal difference in the subsequent 1939/40 season, as Hungary’s German allies were rapidly occupying Central and Western Europe, the club was shut down entirely.

Despite the real confluences of interest that existed between Hungary and its Nazi German allies, the former became an increasingly reluctant partner over the course of the Second World War. Hence, in March 1944, Hitler took matters into his own hands, ordering the Wehrmacht to occupy Hungary. Then, in October of that year, with Horthy continuing his attempts to extricate Hungary from the Axis, the Germans installed leaders of the home-grown fascist party, Arrow Cross, as a puppet government. The period since the German occupation had already seen the unprecedentedly rapid deportation, with local assistance, of 400,000 mostly provincial Hungarian Jews to their death at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Hungarian most directly responsible, Interior Minister Andor Jaross, was even briefly installed as the President of Fradi. It was a sick caricature of a club whose nationwide popularity as the ‘quintessential Hungarian’ team would continue to be conflated with the anti-Semitism that sometimes accompanied both nationalism and the city rivalry.

Nandor Hidegkuti, Hungary
Nandor Hidegkuti, Hungary

So while it was certainly true, in historian Gyozo Molnar’s words, that “before Communism each football team had its unique social connotation and groups of fans”, those identities were neither simple nor uncontested; they were subject to both exaggeration and corruption. Yet when the national league finally fully resumed for the 1946/7 season, it was reassuringly once more dominated by the old guard of Pest-based sides. That included MTK, back with their original name and playing at their old stadium between Fradi to the south and the forthcoming national stadium to the north. And in 1947 the revived MTK signed a young player, Nándor Hidegkuti, whose name now adorns that ground on Hungária körút. Six years’ after he joined the blue-and-whites, he would score a Wembley hat-trick that brought Hungary glory across the football world.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the political upheavals and manipulations that had scarred the game in the late thirties and during the war were over. But of the six Pest teams that filled the top six positions at that 1946/47 season’s end, only Vasas—the team of the ironworkers of Angyalföld with its solid left-wing history—would emerge unscathed from the communist takeover. As alluded to earlier, the Hungarian Communist Party (the MKP: Magyar Kommunista Párt) had initially leveraged the post-war sponsorship of the Soviet occupiers to secure a merely advantageous position in the Hungarian coalition government, while bullying and marginalizing its opponents. But such relative gradualism was abandoned; by May 1949, when elections were held in which only Communists could be selected, Hungary had become a one-party state. The one party had by this time characteristically rechristened itself, after its absorption of the Social Democrats, as the MDP (Magyar Dolgozók Pártja – Hungarian Workers’ Party). Such nominal tinkering would, as we shall see, be the feature of the era.

Two aspects of this new regime sealed the fate of football. Firstly, as was the case across the new Soviet bloc, it was de rigueur for the Hungarian party-state to slavishly ape every aspect of Soviet precedent. In the case of football, this would mean welding existing football clubs onto departments of state and trade unions without any regard to history and culture. In the Soviet Union, for example, an old Moscow club had become the team of the state security police (eventually the KGB); it was renamed Dinamo Moskva and overseen by the malignant power, second only to Stalin, of KGB head, Lavrenty Beria. Secondly, and connectedly, in the Hungarian Stalinists’ understanding of history and their role in it, the communist seizure of power was a natural step that necessitated and justified a top-down re-ordering of society, reaching into every nook and cranny of life. And as the historians Lara Ryazanova-Clarke and Petre Petrov summarize in The Vernaculars of Communism, “the victorious proletarian revolution implied not only the project of remaking the world, but also of renaming it. The practical-political and linguistic tasks went in hand in hand.”

For about a year it seemed that football had escaped close scrutiny. The national sporting body was overseen by the Ministry of Culture, while more easily contrived and controlled activities drew its attention. But the first dramatic indication of a fundamental reorganization of football came two games shy of the 1949/50 season’s halfway point, when Kispesti AC was suddenly placed under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence, and renamed Honvéd SE (Sportegyesületbe). Due to the crucial role it would play in the formation of the legendary national team that the English call the Mighty Magyars (and the Hungarians refer to as the Aranycsapat: Golden Team), Honvéd is usually as far as foreigners explore Hungarian club football of this era. But, while the ability to draw on all members of the armed forces in a time of universal national service was certainly an incredible advantage for Honvéd, this focus obscures the pre-nationalization roots of its success.

The transformation of the Kispest club’s fortunes under the appropriation and sponsorship of the Army has been greatly exaggerated both at home, by understandably aggrieved fans of other clubs, and abroad. It did not turn Kispest from an obscure backwater club into the champions; it turned them from one of the best teams in the country into the very best. The base of a great team was there prior to the takeover, partly thanks to the felicity that both Ferenc Puskás and Péter Bozsik were Kispest boys who naturally played for their local club—Kispest is a town turned Budapest district (19th) which one would arrive in after a few miles of heading south-east on Üllői út from Fradi’s ground.

ferenc-puskas-honvedIn the 1930s, Kispest had been competitive yet perennially stuck behind the traditional top teams that dominated Budapest and, therefore, Hungary. But in the first Hungarian national championship since the war, 1946-47, Kispest had finished second, behind Ujpest but ahead of Fradi and MTK. That year, Puskás scored 32 goals in the league, and the following season he scored an incredible 50, although Kispest slipped down to a more familiar fourth position in a top division that had been expanded from sixteen to seventeen teams. In the last full season before the party-state takeover of Hungarian football and the Army’s absorption of Kispest, the team finished third (with 46 Puskás goals). It is hardly the record of a “small village club”, as the otherwise excellent Jonathan Wilson described their pre-1950 existence.

And the 1949-50 season looked like it was going to be the best in the club’s history. On December 13, 1949, Kispest beat Soroksár 6-1 to maintain a slender lead over Budapest rivals MTK and Ferencváros at the top of the table. With thirteen games played, Kispest were on course for their first ever Hungarian championship. But one week later, the name of Kispest was not only no longer in first place, it was nowhere to be found on the league table. In the official account, the club that now led the league, Honvéd SE, had “merged” with Kispesti AC. But this was a takeover. And it was a sign of things to come.

Look out for the second part of this in-depth 20th century history of Hungary and the Hungarian game later this week.

David Reynolds is an editor and writer from Chesham (Bucks.), specialising in current affairs and history. Having lived and taught in Hungary and the Czech Republic, David is especially intrigued by the history of those nations. His football fascination focuses in particular on the English, Dutch, and Central European game, as well as his love for Tottenham Hotspur, Ajax, and Heracles Almelo (the latter two through his Dutch family). He currently lives in Illinois (U.S.) and writes frequently for the The Technoskeptic.



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