Welcome to part 2 of fascism in Hungary, where I will be covering the ideology, lead up to, and short reign of Gyula Gömbös’s Szeged Fascism in the early 1930’s.
Part 1 of the series can be found here: Overview and setting the stage
Gyula Gömbös, born 26/12/1886, was a career military man (rising to the rank of staff captain) of German and Hungarian (some untitled nobility) descent, a Lutheran and fierce nationalist; his influences while politically maturing included H.S. Chamberlain (Hitler’s “John the Baptist”) and the prominent Hungarian writer Dezső Szabó. Szabó could be described as proto-fascistic in his views: highly antisemitic, a belief in the need for social dogma and education, extoling the virtues of a strong disciplinary division within the populace and that the peasantry “were the best characteristic of the people” who needed to be persevered and protected as “only they remained true to the values of the culture”.
The loss of Hungarian territories from world war I greatly upset Gömbös’s nationalist pride and the communist takeover of Budapest all the more, prompting him to establish, in 1919, the Hungarian national defence forces association (Magyar Országos Véderő Egylet in Hungarian [thus known as MOVE]); a paramilitary organisation that participated in the anti-communist counter-revolution under the future regent Miklós Horthy and subsequently provided the foundation for the new national army in the aftermath. MOVE’s ideology was a crystallisation of the fascistic ideas Gömbös had grown into, somewhat informally codified as the “Szeged idea” (Szegedi gondola); so named as the anti-Communist counter-revolution had been based out of the city of Szeged in southern Hungary. This Szeged Fascism promoted Hungarian nationalism, a strong state, an economic “third way” (Christian socialist economic policy), land reform for peasants, resistance to judeo-bolshevism and “To regenerate Hungary in the name of the protection of the Hungarian race and Hungary’s position in world politics in accordance with its historical vocation In Eastern Europe”. MOVE was supportive of Hungarian independence and was part of the resistance to the Hapsburg royal families attempts to retake the throne in 1921; not to say they were anti-monarchy, simply that they wished only a native Hungarian for a king.
Despite his rank Gömbös was known as a man of the people, showing a fondness of the working class and the peasantry, he was also popular with the right-wing nationalist/traditionalist student youth groups (such as the Turul Association who particularly held Gömbös in very high regard) that had begun to form in the 1920’s. He began his peace-time political career by joined the agrarian focused Smallholders Party soon after the communists had been put down but ended up a member of the preeminent Unity Party in 1922 when the two parties merged. This Unity Party ruled Hungary as authoritarian Christian conservatives from 1921 to 1931 continuously under prime minister István Bethlen, a close associate of regent Horthy; It brought stability to the country by absorbing and mitigating allot of revolutionary energy that was boiling under the surface due to the harsh economic conditions and massive inequalities between social strata. These energies a modern reader may expect to have manifested as far-left but with a strong desire for reasserting national identity (due to the bruising national pride took from the territorial loses) and the bad taste the communists had left among the people this instead produced a revolutionary national socialistic feeling that was considered “far-right”. A number of groups (like MOVE) and parties formed in the 20’s from these energies, primarily calling for land reform for the peasantry and socialist policies (labour reform/minimum wages) for the working class, and in response the ruling elite worked hard to forestall any upset to the conservative liberal order they had established by suppressing overly right-wing criticism of society through censorious cultural policy whilst allowing liberal middle-class parties to operate unhindered as a potential vent for calls for equality. The conservatives also had Hungary join the league of nations and shied away from antisemitic policies to present themselves as modern (for the time) liberals. Acceptance of jews with the goal of integrating them was of particular importance to the Unity Party not only for the appearances of their conservative and Christian ideology but also because they wanted to make Hungary attractive to jewish big capital and finance (seeing it as a way to rapidly generate wealth for the struggling nation). The conservatives had even gone so far in the early 20’s as to pay-off many of the anti-communist “whites”, who were still operating in the time after the Budapest revolutions collapse, to stop their attacks on jews and leftists by giving them government positions.
Gömbös was not impressed with the Unity Party’s milk-toast positions (particularly the openness to jewish money), stating in 1922 “After the defeat of the red terror, Christian Hungary awoke. . . We pulled down liberalism and the mask of Bolshevism to see clearly the aspirations of Judaism”. By 1924 he had had enough of the current government and broke right to form the Hungarian National Independence Party, generally known as the Race Protection Party (yes you read that right), which advocated for state and social cohesion to improve the Hungarian race (race being used as we now would probably use ethnicity) and administrative restriction of jewish participation in the economy and professional life. The party had contact with the far right in Germany and Gömbös even openly displayed an approval of Mussolini, who had risen to power by that time. The race protection party never really made much of a headway in popularity though as regardless of the all the factors mentioned so far it appears things weren’t quite bad enough yet for the people to go “fashy” and in 1928 the party was disbanded and Gömbös was back to the Unity Party; making a required conciliatory announcement to the leaders of the jewish community that he would “revise his position”.
But four years later things were not so rosy for the Unity Party. The radical right had continued to grow against very marginal economic improvements, unemployment was still high and for those with work, conditions were terrible (resulting in increasing strikes). In this climate Horthy made the move to remove his friend Bethlan* from the prime ministership and install Gömbös (who was then minister for defence) in an extreme gamble at placation. Horthy never intended for it to be an actual shift in any real way and Gömbös was not given free reign (even within the normal limits of a parliamentary democracy) in his new capacity; Bethlan remained the head of the party (though it was renamed the “National Unity party” to symbolise a supposed new way) and the three (Gömbös, Horthy and Bethlan) came to, then secret, agreements on restrictions (particularly no land reform and on the composition of his staff) Gömbös would have during his time in office so as not to move the country too far right. Gömbös was also forced to make an official statement recanting of his former positions on jews. The old aristocracy (which filled the ranks of the former Unity Party) looked down on Gömbös’s humble lineage (the first prime minister not of true nobility since the country had reformed) and thought they could easily control him and by extension the people that had similar ideas.
For all these obstacles Gömbös however hit the ground running. He envisioned Hungary transformed into a modernised autocratic unitary (no great class distinctions) Christian national authoritarian state and he would speak of his vision by radio directly to the people in the fashion of Mussolini (something not really done until then), becoming the nation’s first prime minister to fully set out his government program in public. That program, the national work plan (also called the 95 points in homage to Luther’s 95 theses), was to “secure our national civilization based upon our own special racial peculiarities and upon Christian moral principles” with the overarching goal of strengthening the nation and ensuring its moral and material well-being through creating a unified Hungarian world view from which all other goals would then extend; he so was heavily and obviously inspired by Mussolini and doctrinal Fascism with his plan and methods that Gömbös quickly acquired the nickname of Gömbölini. The plan set out provisions such as: a 48 hours work week and increased social benefits, a moratorium on debt for farmers and on the tax burden on the peasantry, voting reform and extension of civil liberties (such as rights to assembly and association), economic protectionism, state intervention and infrastructure development, freedom of the press and removal of the intellectually stifling cultural policy, rights to private property and the formations of chambers of workers and employers (very much like the corporatism of Fascism proper). The plan had some internal contradictions and was admittedly demagogic in nature but it did inspire great confidence in the people, at least initially, being praised by the radical right, the small radical left, the burgeoning new middle class and the intelligentsia. Gömbös also strengthened the military, abolished Hungary’s war reparations and helped establish the Rome-Berlin axis: being the first European head of state to visit Adolph Hitler in 1933. He even had bolder plans beyond those revealed; wanting to a transition Hungary to a true one-party state that would take total control of Hungary’s social and economic life, apparently telling Hitler as much during their meeting.
Unfortunately, beyond the reduction of censorship, little of the 95 points came to fruition due to constant stymying by conservative forces and resistance by private capital to corporatisation. Such little progress had been made by 1934 (except for the beginnings of a mass party via the establishment of party organisations throughout the country) that Gömbös was beginning to quickly lose the confidence of supporters from all sectors. Seeking to escape the conservative “deep state” he forced new elections in 1935 and thanks to intense propaganda and, to be honest, quite a-bit of voter intimidation managed to not only increase the number of seats held by the National Unity Party but also to change over many of the entrenched Bethlan supporters for his own men. But it was all too little too late, the far-right had lost so much confidence in him by then that more radical men were appearing and rapidly gaining notice (next instalment) and even finally publicly promising actual land reform and firmly recommitting to the previous points on labour and social reform didn’t sway them back. On the conservative old-guard side, despite Gömbös’s new parliamentary power, Horthy was still very much the true authority in the country and a political bloc of trade unionists and Christian conservatives against the idea of a one-party state and fascist reform had formed under him. By early 1936 Horthy told his supporters that he would remove Gömbös from power if not for the fact that the man had developed chronic kidney disease, which took his life on 6th of October that year.
On that rather flat note we finish with Hungary’s first flirtation with a fascism, next time we get into its following evolution with the origin, and first political manoeuvres, of Ferenc Szálasi and his revolutionary fascist ideology: Hungarism.
*There was in fact another prime minister for about a year between these two, but it was half hearted attempt to deflect from Bethlan’s failures before turning to the “far-right”.