‘White Misrule’: Terror and Political Violence during Hungary’s Long World War I, 1919-1924

Thesis author: 
Emily Gioielli
Year of enrollment: 
Thesis supervisor: 
Susan Zimmermann
Full description: 

Between 1918 and 1922 Hungary experienced an extended period of political upheaval and violence including the end of a world war, two left-leaning revolutions, a Red and White Terror and a conservative counter-revolution. Much has been written about the high politics of this period, including biographies of many of the major players and detailed accounts of political decision-making and in-fighting. More recently, scholars have begun to examine postwar militia/paramilitary violence in Central Europe, and in Hungary more specifically. But relatively little has been written on the social history of this period, on the experiences and actions of those ordinary (and sometimes not-so-ordinary) persons attempting to navigate and exploit the dramatic shifts in the ideological and social bases of power, and perhaps hoping to carve out a new role or defend an old privilege in the newly independent Hungarian state.

This dissertation seeks to correct, in part, this deficiency by analyzing the lived experience of counter-revolution and White Terror in Hungary. It uses intersectionality, the study of how multiple forms of oppression and privilege overlap, to analyze how the violence and terror that accompanied political change was experienced and interpreted by its perpetrators, victims and observers, whose understandings were shaped by their overlapping positions in various socio-economic, ethnic, gender, legal, and political hierarchies.

But the counter-revolution and White Terror has never been simply a Hungarian story. World War I and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy overlapped with and profoundly affected Hungary’s internal politics, and Hungary’s descent into political crisis and violence provoked a strong response from states concerned about the spread of Bolshevism and from international political and humanitarian organizations that attempted to address the material and moral consequences of counter-revolution. The experience of war had helped certain patterns of international engagement develop that continued to affect how the international community—both state and non-state actors—interpreted and responded to the political upheaval in Hungary. State functionaries, like consuls and military personnel, and those of non-state actors like the International Red Cross, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and the British Labour Party (which straddles the boundary between state and non-state actor) were prominent both in actively (attempting) to influence the internal politics of Hungary, and interpreting and publicizing them for a wider audience back home through official reports, newspaper articles, and fundraising activities. These interpretations, like those of the people living through the White Terror and counter-revolution, were also shaped by the writers’ ideas about the victims’ and perpetrators’ positions within existing hierarchies, as well as by their understanding of Hungary’s place within the “family of nations,” which was, in itself, another hierarchy in which all states were not equal.

            With the broader domestic and international context of counter-revolution and White Terror in mind, this dissertation makes several arguments. First, the counter-revolution and White Terror were not just top-down phenomena involving “white” militias comprised of officers from the traditional social-economic elite or the middle classes. Local authorities in towns and villages, like the police and the gendarmerie, as well as local militias in the countryside, were put to the task of investigating and rounding up individuals and sometimes groups, holding them in prison, and participating in tortuous interrogations. Many of these functionaries were known to the victims by name and were not anonymous representatives from a far-off state. Further, officials often relied on the denunciations and testimonies of employers, neighbors and colleagues in order to make their cases against hundreds for their alleged participation in the revolutionary state. Thus, there was an intimacy to the counter-revolution and White Terror that tore at the social fabric of Hungary, and which engaged all sorts of people in the counter-revolutionary struggle whether they liked (or even realized) it or not.

            Second, individuals’ experiences of the violence of the White Terror and counter-revolution were affected by multiple categories of their self and ascribed identities, including class, gender, legal, and ethnic hierarchies. These categories intersected with each other at multiple points which in turn affected people’s interpretations of the counter-revolution and White Terror in particular ways. These intersections also shaped how the violence and terror was interpreted by its victims and its perpetrators, as well as by those investigating or observing developments within Hungary. In spite of these intersections, each interest group attempted to homogenize the victims by emphasizing what they considered to be the most relevant issue that motivated the Terror and counter-revolution. For the British Labour Party, this was the political activities of the victims, while for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, it was their ethnicity and religion.

            Third, the counter-revolution and White Terror developed not merely as reactions to the leftist revolutions of 1918 and 1919 and the Red Terror. They are also part of the broader history of World War I, which for Hungary did not end neatly in November, 1918 with the signing of an armistice, but rather continued to be fought well into 1919 and overlapped with internal political collapse and revolution. World War I in many ways marked a departure from previous conflicts in Europe, in large part because the violence of the war was no longer contained to the battlefield, but was experienced by groups such as civilians and prisoners-of-war. The war also differed from prior conflicts because of the massive expansion of state power through the passage of wartime emergency legislation that, to a greater or lesser extent, abrogated the civil rights of people all across Europe and North America, subjecting “enemy aliens” (those persons who were citizens of enemy states), refugees, and political opponents of the state to material deprivation, imprisonment, and surveillance.

This dissertation will therefore analyze the violence of the White Terror and counter-revolution as they were understood by their victims as part of the “normal” dynamics of revolutionary periods, whereby violence fulfills a number of impulses in the effort to rebuild state legitimacy, including revenge, retribution, and as an important and often overlooked dimension of transitional justice. But it will also examine the events in Hungary within the broader context of the war and imperial collapse, in order to analyze how the content of broader European norms about violence and expectations regarding the “proper” relationship of the state to its citizens weathered and were transformed by the experience of the Great War in one small state in Europe. It will also look at how both individuals and groups interpreted violence and how they instrumentalized it, especially through publicity efforts, to attack or defend the legitimacy of the newly established government and to promote particular political and humanitarian agendas. Thus gaining control over the narrative about counter-revolutionary violence in Hungary was not simply a matter of establishing political legitimacy in the eyes of the Hungarian public at home, but was also an important dimension of the Hungarian state’s positioning of itself in the international sphere.

The dissertation is divided into different arenas of counter-revolution and White terror, but all pay attention to the overlapping role of gender, class, ethnic, legal and global hierarchies in the interpretations and experiences of them. The first is a historical contextualization of Hungary’s war and revolutionary experiences. The second features a discussion of the white militias and their victims, paying attention to how social, ethnic and gender hierarchies shaped not only the experience of victims but interpretations of the militia members’ violent acts. The third chapter turns to the Budapest domestic sphere to explore the ways that counter-revolution and terror unfolded. It pays particular attention to how legal institutions were used in specific ways to reconquer domestic spaces for the middle classes. The fourth chapter homes in on the history of postwar political incarceration, positioning it within the broader history of wartime civilian internment as well as emphasizing the roles of gender, class, ethnicity, and legal status in shaping practices, experiences and interpretations of the carceral experience. The fifth and sixth chapters shift to the international arena, particularly the political and humanitarian engagement of the international labor movement and the Jewish philanthropic organization, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Regarding the reaction of the labor movement to White Terror, this chapter not only analyzes the report of the labor movement on the conditions in Hungary but explores how the concern about the Terror was wrapped together with a broader critique of Great Power diplomacy and democracy. The sixth and final chapter examines the limits of diasporic nationalism within the confines of humanitarian aid by delving into the JDC’s approach to post-war developments in Hungary, paying special attention to the troubled relationship between American JDC representatives, the local committee they helped establish and Galician Jewish refugees in the Hungarian capital.