We welcome back guest writer David AJ Reynolds for the second part of his fascinating two-part history of Hungary and its football in the immediate post-war years. If you missed the first part you can read it here.
During the mid-season winter-break, on January 13, the regime established a new national sport authority. Significantly, rather than remaining under the Ministry of Culture, the OTSB (Országos Testnevelési és Sportbizottság: National Physical Education and Sport Committee) was placed directly under the supervision of the cabinet. It signalled the complete nationalization and centralization of sport, and when, at the end of February, the football season resumed, the consequences were clear. Just a few years after being snatched from oblivion, MTK was placed under the Textiles Workers’ Union and given the bland new name of Textiles, while its colours were predictably switched from the traditional blue and white to, you guessed it, red and white.
At the same time, as previously mentioned, Fradi suffered a similar fate, becoming the red-and-white clad ÉDOSZ (Élelmiszeripari Dolgozók Országos Szakszervezete). Salt was also rubbed in this wound at the end of the season when two of Fradi’s best players, who would become integral members of the Aranycsapat, László Budai and Sandor Kocsis, were moved to Honvéd. With Hungary’s three top clubs renamed and appropriated, all that remained—a few weeks after the season had so bizarrely re-started—was Újpest’s transformation. The oldest club in the first division finished the season as the team of the police force, under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior and with the non sequitur name of Dózsa SE.
This was ultimately an expression of power by the regime. But it was also a mark of extraordinary confidence in its ability to both sweep away ties that historically bound clubs to people and places and replace them—while retaining the vibrancy and passion that animated the original connection— with identities of the regime’s choosing. As Hadas puts it, “the omnipotent party thought itself powerful enough to control the physical energies and symbolic forces mobilized by football.” Ambitious enough already, this project was complicated further by the fact that the regime appeared unable to make up its mind about the identities that it wished to impose over the ones it was attempting to bury.
So, no doubt conscious that ÉDOSZ was as uninspiring a name as could be imagined, the authorities once more re-christened the former Fradi after the semi-season that followed the momentous changes of 1949/50. That abbreviated championship in the autumn of 1950 was itself the result of another ruling by the new OTSB, who decreed that the football season should no longer start in the autumn of one year and finish in the spring of the next—as was the norm in Europe—but should begin and end within a single year, as it did in the Soviet Union. This change, like a country shifting from the Julian to Gregorian calendar, necessitated the mini season of 1950, won by the champions Honvéd. When the full 1951 season arrived, ÉDOSZ had become Budapesti Kinizsi (like Dózsa, whose name now adorned the Újpest team, Kinizsi was a fifteenth century Hungarian hero of whom the Communists approved). To some degree, it was to be expected that the former Fradi and its fans, who were under the suspicion of the regime for their nationalist connotations, would be subject to radical transformation. Yet it was once again MTK who fared the worst in the upheaval; this time inadvertently.
In years to come, after the restoration, Ferencváros fans would wear their club’s maltreatment as a badge of honour. No such emotional catharsis was available to MTK who, after spending 1950 as Textiles, were turned in 1951 into the club of the dreaded and detested secret police: the ÁVH (Államvédelmi Hatóság – State Security Authority). Under this sordid new sponsorship, the former MTK became Budapesti Bástya (Bastion), finishing that 1951 season as champions. Two years later, the club was, absurdly, renamed yet again as Budapesti Vörös Lobogó (Red Flag), condemned to sounding more like a socialist newspaper than a football club. So poisonous was the link with the ÁVH that this proved to be the Stalinist-era transition with the most enduring and deleterious effects. It sucked away the opportunities for emotional, joyous connections between supporter and club that make football a cultural phenomenon, leaving MTK, even today, a club with a great heritage and often a good team, but few fans.
In the end, the top-down transformation of Hungarian football between 1949 and 1953 did not leave a taste of idealism, misguided or otherwise, but of wanton and arbitrary coercion, poorly thought-through and speedily executed. This characterized Hungarian Stalinization and there were, naturally, far more horrifying manifestations. In this period, the ÁVH collected information on a million Hungarians—a remarkable 10% of the total population—while 400,000 were imprisoned. But, as had transpired in the Soviet Union, the terror that had initially been focused on suppressing the opponents of Communism was soon turned inwards against loyal and talented Communists, making the regime’s rule all the more terrifyingly unpredictable – there was no course of action that guaranteed safety.
This was the context of the show trial, which the Hungarian leader Mátyás Rákosi eagerly adopted from Stalin’s model of power consolidation. It was on May 30, 1949 that the most famous, and ultimately infamous, of these processes began with the arrest of László Rajk. Occupying the crucial position of Minister of Interior until shortly before his arrest, Rajk had taken a leading role in the strangulation of non-Communist Hungary. He also had a deep and colourful communist résumé that included service in the Spanish Civil War and persecution under both the Horthy and Arrow Cross regimes. But after his arrest, the task of inventing a new identity and biography for Rajk, with the close involvement of Soviet experts in this methodology, began. Instead of a committed Communist, Rajk was transformed by his accusers into an inveterate traitor and opponent of the cause. According to his new life-story, as quite literally scripted for the ensuing trial, Rajk’s anti-Communism had begun in 1931 and culminated in an elaborate Titoist and pro-American spy-ring. Rajk was hanged as a stranger to himself, on Saturday, October 15.
Eventually, Stalin’s death in March 1953 gave life in Hungary to a painfully fragile process of de-Stalinization that saw a first Nagy premiership (terminated after less than two years) and tentative attempts at revising the fictitious accusations and convictions of the previous four years. With Stalin and Stalinism increasingly discredited, the Rajk case became the one that many in the regime most wished to forget, as well as a vulnerability that could be utilized by critics. That vulnerability was given a potent and eventually unavoidable face when, in June 1954, five years after her arrest along with her husband, László Rajk’s widow, Júlia, was released from prison. But she was released as someone else. Capriciously deprived of her dead husband’s name, she officially emerged from jail as Júlia Györk.
It may seem inappropriate to compare this with the re-assignation of football clubs; but the same logic, the same astonishing confidence, and the same bet with and against history was at work in both acts of peremptory chutzpah. They were both test-cases of a decisive question: did this regime really have the power, as it appeared, to overrule precious details of life—however rooted these meanings were—and irretrievably make them be something else by the sheer application of force and will? Was this how the world now worked?
Unfortunately for the regime’s hardliners, Júlia was unwilling to submit to either the degrading or erasure of her past life. As her biographer, Andrea Pető, explains, Júlia’s “fight to win back her name was part of the struggle to rehabilitate László Rajk”. To put it another way, she insisted that what she knew about her identity and past was more important than what the party-state, who closely guarded its self-appointed monopoly on the ‘truth’, proclaimed it to be. Progress was slow, but received an external boost in February 1956 when Khrushchev exposed many of Stalin’s fabrication-fuelled excesses in the so-called Secret Speech, which was then, in early summer, widely disseminated in Hungary.
The seminal moment in which the regime was fatally undermined came seventeen days before the uprising’s beginning when Rajk was ceremonially reinterred (along with three others) as a martyr, not a traitor. Even when it had conceded the necessity of a partial rehabilitation and reburial of its highest profile victim, the Party wished to limit the ceremony to invited bigwigs and family. But the widow insisted that if the public were not free to attend, then neither would she. To restore her husband, she insisted, there should be a show burial commensurate with the show trial that had condemned him. It was the Party leaders that blinked—on the night before the burial—and at least two hundred thousand people flocked to the cemetery the following morning. The next day’s papers overflowed with the national spectacle of re-remembrance; in them, pictured and named with her son, was Júlia Rajk.
Among the bouquets that were brought to the graveside by the people of Budapest that momentous morning was a recurring message: “we shall not forget”. It was a fitting slogan for the moment. But there are different kinds of forgetting. It was one thing for the party-state to demand that social democrats, nationalists, Christians, football fans, and indeed every conceivable category of Hungarian, forget and replace things they had known and cherished with new names and identities. But there are also, of course, things that people wish to forget about their life in order to free themselves for new beginnings and identities. And the need and urge to do just that was as strong for Hungarians in the 30 years before communism as it was in any time and place before or since.
Speaking about the vulnerability of a former underground communist to accusations of secretive plotting, even under a communist regime, historian István Rév concluded that “all his previous acts could be presented under a new description.” A person who had idealistically chosen to enter “into the world of the dark, could be suspected of having remained there; his life on the surface serving only as the cover of his real, illegal activities.” Past secret lives of one’s choosing exposed one to future secret lives of another’s choosing. Similarly, in the context of a nation in which identities and names had already been scrambled by a mixture of upheaval, choice, and survival strategies, it was unusually conceivable and pertinent for the new communist regime in Hungary to impose its own new set of identities in the ‘zero hour’ of post-war Europe.
The shifting parameters and meanings of ethnicities and nationalities was the forge of many new identities. Consider, for example, the leaders of the Communist Party themselves. Mátyás Rákosi, his successor Ernő Gerő, and the executed László Rajk were all born in Hungary. Yet in adulthood, after World War One, their home towns were in Hungary no longer, but instead in Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Romania respectively. Gerő and Rajk’s towns of birth also had their names changed to reflect the ethnicity of the nation states to which they now belonged. The strange disorientation that this gave these men who regarded themselves as Hungarian, but suddenly were no longer ‘from’ Hungary, was mirrored in the country as a whole, which just as suddenly went from being a multi-ethnic kingdom to a far more homogenous nation-state which regarded its true borders as exceeding its political ones. This same transition was doubly difficult for these three, and many like them, because as Jews (Rákosi and Gerő) and a Transylvanian Saxon (Rajk), their Hungarian-ness was put in doubt by the more stringently ethnic criteria that this situation had encouraged. All three adapted by changing their own names to more ‘Magyar-sounding’ monikers: they had been born as Mátyás Rosenfeld, Ernő Singer, and László Reich.
The man who succeeded Rajk as Interior Minister and eventually led Hungary for more than thirty years, János Kádár, was still known by his real name of Janos Csermanek as late as 1945. Kádár had been born in the Hungarian crown’s Croatian port city of Fiume, which itself passed through many hands and is now Rijeka. And it was not just Hungarians born in the since amputated regions of the old kingdom who found themselves faced with the urge to grant themselves a new identity that chimed more with a changed nation’s mood. Just as Budapest had a large, old Jewish community (which had emerged from the Holocaust in Hungary in greater proportions than their decimated equivalents in the rest of the country), it also had long been home to ethnic Germans, particularly Swabians. They, too, often gained new names. One of them was a footballer from Kispest named Ferenc Purczeld, whose father, when the player was still a boy, changed the family name to Puskás.
As the crucial month of November 1956 began, both these men, Kádár and Puskás, departed Hungary and journeyed into very different places in Hungarian history. Puskás left with his teammates for Vienna on November 2 (the MTK squad also went to Vienna on the same day) to begin a tour of Germany, Belgium, and France in the run-up to the Bilbao tie. The greatest of all Hungarian footballers would not set foot in his country again for twenty-five years. Meanwhile, late on the previous evening to Puskás’ departure, Kádár left Budapest in the opposite direction, flying to Moscow at the invitation of Soviet ambassador Andropov. Kádár would return rather sooner—three days later, as the Soviet-installed head of a new provisional Hungarian government.
Of all the Communist Party grandees who got involved in football, Kádár had probably the most authentic connection. As a young man in Budapest, he had been a member of the ironworkers’ union and even played for the youth team of Vasas (at centre-half). His genuine working class connections in Budapest made Kádár a popular figure in the Party, but, after replacing Rajk, he was Rákosi’s next victim. Escaping with only life imprisonment in December 1952, Kádár did not, however, have long to wait before the onset of de-Stalinization and his release in the summer of 1954. As part of his rehabilitation into the Party leadership, he was appointed president of the club he had once dreamed of playing for in the first division. And when the uprising began, Kádár was perfectly positioned; neither an inveterate reformer nor a discredited hardliner, he was appointed as the Party’s General Secretary on October 25 when, after a massacre of demonstrators, the Hungarian Politburo panicked and removed the tone-deaf Ernő Gerő.
In the days that followed, as they scrambled to keep up with and modulate popular demands, Kádár and Nagy were the only Communists in the country who seemed to retain any serious credibility. On October 30 (the day on which the coalition cabinet was announced), Kádár headed into the streets with Ferenc Münnich, the current Interior Minister and former Present of Fradi, to negotiate with leaders of the armed groups at Corvin and into Ferencváros. Kádár was particularly impressed by his conversation with the Tűzoltó utca fighting group in the 9th district and István Angyal, its leader. Angyal had been one of the many Hungarian Jews who had been deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and, while he was one of the few who returned, his mother and sister had not. Now, faced with Kádár, Angyal insisted that his group were not reactionaries but real revolutionaries, with many of them displaying their membership cards to the Party leader.
These were the sort of men with whom Kádár had to build a new legitimacy. But the scale and nature of that task was clarified on the 31st, with another dramatic act of renaming. In a desperate attempt at renewal, the Party (MDP), so thoroughly discredited by its exposed immersion in deceitful and self-serving terror, was dissolved, and a new Communist Party was launched in its place—the MSZMP (Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt: Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party). It was in fact not the first time that Kádár had both dissolved and reformed the Party—as central committee secretary of the tiny wartime Party he had also done so as a tactical ploy—and, astonishingly, the MSZMP became the fifth iteration of the Communist Party within Hungary in just 13 years.
But these hopeful and peaceful hours in Budapest, as the Soviets withdrew on the 31st and reformations and restorations continued across the nation, constituted a false dawn. Even as Fradi supporters rejoiced at their stadium on November 1, ten miles to the south-east the Red Army was seizing control of Ferihegy airport. When it became clear that the Soviets, rather than accepting Hungary’s retreat from orthodox communist rule, were preparing a new and decisive intervention in Hungarian affairs, Imre Nagy finally aligned himself fully with a central popular demand of the uprising. At 7:50 p.m., the Prime Minister told the nation that Hungary was withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact and appealing to the UN for assistance. But as Kádár’s pre-recorded message regarding the new Communist Party was also broadcast later that same night, the man himself was on his way to Moscow.
Over the next few days, former Presidents of Vasas (Kádár) and Fradi (Münnich) negotiated the shape of a new Soviet-imposed Hungarian government. And after the Red Army launched the overwhelming military operation on November 4 that crushed the popular uprising and made Kádár the head of a new “revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ government”, the momentary dream of a restored multi-party democracy disappeared. Strangely, as this took place, Hungary’s greatest sportsmen and women were, almost to a person, elsewhere. The Olympic team’s three week odyssey to the Melbourne Olympics was under way and it would be a fortnight before they discovered what had transpired back home. Meanwhile, its top footballers, as we have seen, were already scattering across Europe on various European tours. But just as football had been a microcosm of the recovered identities and restored meanings of the uprising, it also demonstrated the ambivalent way in which one-party rule would be restored.
After a few weeks’ lull, the new government did indeed launch a brutal repression of those who had been and remained in open defiance of the party-state. And this went hand-in-hand with an imperious re-writing of the history of the uprising—turning it retrospectively into a foreign-directed right-wing counter-revolution—that was underlined by the trial and execution of Imre Nagy in June, 1958. Nevertheless, the Kádár-led party-state was not a neo-Stalinist regime hankering after the methods of the Rákosi era. Kádár, after all, had been brutally tortured and imprisoned under that modus vivendi, and he always maintained that the Party’s mistakes and excesses of the pre-1956 era had been a crucial cause of the uprising.
While the Stalinist leaders of the late forties and early fifties had sought to politicize and micro-manage every aspect of national life, Kádár felt his way to an opposite accommodation with society; if people kept away from politics, then politics would be kept away from them. But this was not immediately apparent, and Kádár did not crystalize it with the memorable maxim, “those who are not against us are with us”, until 1961. But far sooner football demonstrated the hopeful, yet contradictory, contours of this new bargain. Instead of being condemned to return to the arbitrarily imposed identities of the 1949/50 takeover, Hungarian football’s revolutionary restoration was partially retained.
The protection of what had been regained in the uprising was aided when, on November 10, the OTSB recommended its own dissolution to the cabinet. It was a self-denying ordinance that the government was only too happy to oblige, as it transferred national oversight of sport back to minor ministries. A week later, bolstered by the demise of the OTSB, the Hungarian FA (MLSZ: Magyar Labdarűgó Szövetség), announced the resumption in 1957 of a standard autumn/spring season, jettisoning the shadowing of the Soviet season that the OTSB had previously introduced, while making a point of insisting that it would be deciding football matters independently.
The Olympics, which opened on November 22, hogged the sporting headlines at the end of the year, as the Hungarian team captured nine gold medals. But at the same time, and just as significantly, MTK joined their ancient rivals Fradi in final liberation from the takeover of 1950. At the close of their English tour—after games against Sunderland, Portsmouth, Tottenham, Manchester City, Brighton, and Wolves—the club, having played the whole tour as MTK, was officially restored to that former name and freed from the unwanted embrace of the ÁVH. Those final two games, against Brighton (December 8) and Wolves (December 11) even raised money for the Hungarian Relief Fund (the latter amassing the princely sum of ₤2312 and 2 shillings for the cause). Meanwhile, on tour in Yugoslavia, Ferencváros played its first game as FTC and in green-and-white since 1949, taking on Vojvodiná. But amidst the catharsis of familiar names and identities restored, there was lingering discord.
Újpest was unable to free itself from the grip of the police and the Ministry of Interior and, as a result, prevented from remaining Újpest TE, as the club had resumed calling itself during the uprising. While Újpest was not forced to return to a de-localized name—under the OTSB’s domination all Budapest teams were prefixed by Budapesti—they gained a hybrid title, Újpesti Dózsa. Honvéd, however, had not been altered in the uprising. The Ministry of Defence’s absorption of Kispesti AC had preceded the OTSB’s establishment, and it was a far different proposition to break away from the Army, to which most families were connected, than it was from a union or from the marginalized and despised secret police. And yet, for Honvéd and its players, these post-uprising weeks were even more dramatic.
While other teams played only friendlies, Honvéd could focus on European Cup matches. After they had lost 3-2 in the first leg in Bilbao on November 22, the second leg was originally supposed to take place on December 2 in Valencia, with matters still too unsettled in Hungary for football. It was delayed, however, and in the meantime the Hungarian champions won games at both Barcelona and Milan. Despite this good form, when the return fixture was finally played in Brussels on December 20, Honvéd could only manage a 3-3 draw, going out of the competition. Still unwilling to return to Budapest, the Honvéd team decided to continue their touring with a trip to South America. And this is the context of the following defections of Puskás, along with fellow members of the Aranycsapat, and former Fradi players, Kocsis and Czibor.
Puskás’ defection is probably the aspect that, outside of Hungary, is the most known connection between the 1956 uprising and football. And yet, the story has become garbled beyond recognition. It is frequently spoken of as a consequence of the fact that Honvéd were away from Hungary for the Bilbao tie, and that absence is also often regarded as fortuitous. But, firstly, as we have seen, MTK had left Hungary on the same day that Honvéd did, and both MTK and Ferencváros were also still travelling and playing abroad at the time Honvéd played their second leg; yet no MTK or Fradi players defected. Secondly, it should also be pointed out, that it was surely no fortuitous coincidence that Honvéd were out of the country by the time the Soviets seized control on November 4. Honvéd did not have a scheduled game until a friendly with Essen in Germany on November 7, yet the team departed Hungary for Vienna on November 2; the day after the club’s Ministry of Defence overlords became well aware that the Soviets were planning a second, larger military intervention.
This certainly does not make the three defectors villains or render their decision any less understandable; two-hundred thousand Hungarians made the same one at this time. But their choice was neither an inevitable consequence of being abroad nor forced upon them. In early December, Puskás was assuring a Hungarian journalist in a telephone interview that Honvéd’s players would indeed return, as other greats like MTK’s Hidegkuti and Honvéd’s Bozsik did. The decisive trigger was when the MLSZ and FIFA refused to authorise Honvéd’s South American tour. It was led by the legendary Bela Guttmann—who had previously been the manager of Kispest, Újpest, and Vasas, and would later both win the European Cup for, and then successfully curse, Benfica. Guttmann characteristically even stayed and coached in Brazil when the Honvéd tour was over, while the players returned to Europe under the threat of sanctions for their unofficial matches. Even after deciding not to go back to Hungary, the three players had to wait, following a FIFA ban, before restarting their careers at Real Madrid and Barcelona.
It was, therefore, a strange return to football normality in Hungary, as spring brought the bookend of 1950’s autumn half-season. This time the shortened schedule was needed to restore football to its former routine. Four months earlier, Honvéd had been top with four weeks to go before the uprising had caused the 1956 season’s cancellation. Now, with its team denuded, Honvéd floundered in the spring season, winning just one out of eleven games. It was a first division that combined, on the one hand, restored identities of legendary clubs that had regained them in the uprising and retained them after its defeat, with, on the other hand, enduring consequences of early communist rule and strained compromises between the old and new regimes. It was, in other words, a football scene that mirrored the nation of 1957.
The speed and eagerness with which Hungarian clubs sought to return to their old identities, with all the loyalties and connections they represented, demonstrated the power of these emotional and social meanings. And it was just as clearly a mark of the utter failure of the Party to co-opt and utilize the power of football for its own purposes. The Party abandoned the micro-management of football, paralleling its wider realization after 1956 that, while its authority was still non-negotiable, it could and would not protect and justify it through the politicization of society or the ideological mobilization of the people.
Beneath a coerced veneer, deeper and stronger connections between people and place, religion, community, history, and national culture endured. The uprising could not have manifested the Party’s characteristic failure to bury memory and meaning beneath imposed replacements in football unless that failure pre-existed the uprising. Hungarian football was incredibly popular in the early fifties and as long as old names and identities could not be trumpeted, it was possible for the regime to imagine that this was their success. But as Hadas comments, within the safety in numbers of large football crowds, “it is easy to see that the fans had the opportunity to attribute their more traditional local, ideological or symbolical meanings to the teams.” Football had never belonged to the Party, despite what its leaders may have imagined: Fradi could not remain Kinizsi anymore than Júlia Rajk could remain Júlia Györk.
David Reynolds is an editor and writer from Chesham in England, 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 Technoskeptic. If you would like to read more from David about the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, his paper on the subject can be viewed here. This article has previously been published in The Hungarian Review.