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The Rise and Fall of a Leader Cult in Post-War Hungary

15 March 2018 - When Dr Balázs Apor, Assistant Professor in European Studies in the TCD Centre for European Studies, was a young history student at the turn of the 21st century, he plucked a book from his grandfather’s bookshelf that would sow the seed for the book he would one day write himself:The Invisible Shining: The Cult of Mátyás Rákosi in Stalinist Hungary, 1945-1956, launched recently in the Trinity Long Room Hub with an introduction by Professor Judith Devlin of UCD.

The book from his grandfather’s shelf was a literary anthology, written and published in 1952 to celebrate the 60th birthday of Hungary’s Communist Party Secretary Mátyás Rákosi, who had risen to power with the arrival of the Red Army in 1945 and would effectively be exiled to the Soviet Union after the quelling of the 1956 uprising in Hungary.

Like most Hungarians of his generation, Balázs Apor had grown up with a negative view of Rákosi - both from official history and the general population (since for once the perceptions of both were aligned – almost uniquely for a Stalinist leader).  So he was intrigued to find in the anthology glowing tributes to Rákosi, specially written for the occasion by most of the renowned figures in Hungary’s literary canon. 

So began Dr Apor’s interest in how the ‘leader cult’ of Rákosi had been established in the post-war years, how it had become dominant among both the intelligentsia and the ordinary people of Hungary and how, in time, it was destroyed.  It led to his first (2004) edited volume on the leader cult in communist dictatorships and fits within his wider research focus on the symbolic aspects of communist regimes: how symbols and rituals were used to construct and transmit socialist myths and how ritual practices and ideological tenets were perceived by the society.

The Invisible Shining begins with a detailed examination of how the Rákosi ‘leader cult’ was systematically constructed: the institutions and decision-makers involved, how political decisions filtered down through the party hierarchy and the day-to-day bureaucratic process of creating and maintaining the cult.  This is a fascinating investigation into the ‘Self-Sovietisation’ of an Eastern European country occupied by the Red Army in the post-war years, in which the imposition of a leader cult was a key factor.  (Dr Apor uses the term ‘leader cult’ rather than ‘personality cult’ because in the post-war era, the latter was used only as a term of accusation or stigmatisation by the Communist Party against political leaders they wanted to marginalise or eliminate).   

But how did the ordinary people of Hungary respond to this carefully constructed endeavour to impose a leader cult?   The central section of the book highlights the diversity of possible responses to the leader cult, even within the dictatorial regime.  Initially focussing on positive, affirmative responses to the cult, Dr Apor examines the symbols, language and rituals that helped to entrench it, and why and how ordinary people chose to engage with these.

Although dissent and opposition to the leader cult are more difficult to pin down from the sources given their underground nature, Dr Apor shows how people used the standard methods of iconoclasm and humour to subvert the regime.   This investigation shares common ground with  COURAGE: Cultural Opposition - Understanding the Cultural Heritage of Dissent in the Former Socialist Countries, a three-year international research project (Feb 2016 – Jan 2019) funded by Horizon 2020, the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, on which Dr Apor, who has been at TCD since 2008, is the Principal Investigator for TCD.  Courage H2020 will create the first digital database of both online and offline, as well as private and public collections in Europe that testify to the survival of various forms of cultural opposition in the former socialist countries.

In Hungary, iconoclasm in the form of disfiguring the ubiquitous images and statues of Rákosi was common.  And of course, people told jokes about the leader – but the striking aspect of the specific jokes identified by Dr Apor (some of them dutifully recorded in secret police files) is that they were identical to those told about leaders in the Soviet Union, even though the borders of Hungary were closed, leading Dr Apor to speculate:  did party officials, the only people travelling regularly between Hungary and the Soviet Union, themselves import the jokes that then spread into wider society?

Another form of resistance to a leader cult can be popular apathy and indifference and Dr Apor found a striking level of concern and complaint from the party, with this and other contemporary sources indicating strongly that apathy was the dominant response of the Hungarian population.  Dr Apor points out that apathy is a tricky response to analyse, because it can both contribute to the conservation of the regime and subvert it.   The possible motivations behind apathy are complex: it could arise because people are wholly engaged in day-to-day survival, the challenges of which neutralise their political sensors; or it could be feigned because of fear of reactions to overt dissent.

Party senior officials were, for their part, convinced that indifference in the general population to the leader cult was partly due to the incompetence of local level agitators and propagandists.  Dr Apor examines how the complex bureaucratic machine constructed to push out the message and sustain the leader cult was staffed at local level by people not necessarily well versed in party ideology, who were in party positions for reasons of opportunism or survival but were often likely to have loyalties split between local and party interests.

The concluding section of the book charts the dismantling and destruction of the leader cult of Mátyás Rákosi in the years after the death of Stalin in 1953.  For reasons of internal political rivalry, Hungary took further than any of its neighbours the de-Stalinisation process of ‘corrective measures’ recommended by Moscow after 1953.  Reforms created expectations and aspirations in the general population and when Khruschev made his famous 1956 speech denouncing Stalin for creating the ‘cult of personality’ it fell on fertile ground in Hungary.  Dr Apor charts the rising tide of criticism of Rákosi and the regime in forums around the country, culminating in the outbreak of the 1956 popular uprising, which featured many acts of iconoclasm – crowds tearing down statues of Stalin in Budapest and ripping up images of Rákosi.

After the suppression of the 1956 uprising the Communist Party leadership took a firm anti-Rákosi line, a pragmatic decision based on the realisation that Rákosi was the local symbol of Stalinism.  Rákosi was effectively exiled to the Soviet Union where he remained for the rest of his life and in order to reconstruct the local party and its leadership and retain power, the decision was made not to resurrect the leader cult in Hungary in any shape or form.  The leader cult remained a feature of communist regimes for much longer in, for instance, Albania, Eastern Germany, Romania and Yugoslavia.

Dr Apor uses the example of the construction, reception and final dismantling of the leader cult surrounding Mátyás Rákosi to make the wider argument that, despite one popular perception of leader cults as the accrual of devotion around a charismatic figure, in fact cults of people in power are always systematically constructed.  This is a time-consuming business requiring resources, institutions and people to build the cult, organise and enforce cultic rituals.  This is why cults are almost always connected to the consolidation of authoritarian rule and why they thrive in dictatorial societies where the state has the ability to enforce the cult and ensure participation in its rituals.  The extent to which leader cults exist in any given society, concludes Dr Apor, can therefore be seen as a barometer of authoritarianism.

Dr Balázs Apor is Assistant Professor in European Studies in the TCD Centre for European Studies (School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies).  His key interests are the history of Central and Eastern Europe in the 19-20th centuries and the history of communism in particular, and his research priorities embrace the study of culture and cultural politics, the formulation and transmission of myths and ideologies, strategies of political legitimation, and the popular reception of political ideologies and political systems.

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