Mátyás Rákosi (March 14, 1892 – February 5, 1971), born Mátyás Rosenfeld, was a Stalinist dictator of Hungary from 1945 to 1956 through his post as General Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party supported by the Soviet Red Army. One of the most oppressive of Stalin's puppet dictators in East Europe, he fell from favor following Stalin's death and was removed from power shortly after Stalin's own excesses were made public. However, his tyrannical rule resulted later that year (1956) in the Hungarian up-rising, followed by Soviet military intervention to restore a communist regime. This action by the Soviets gave the lie to their claim that communist East Europe comprised of free, independent and voluntarily Marxist states and showed the free world that these so-called republics were merely satellites of a Soviet empire. Marxism, too, lost some ideological supporters in the West.
Rákosi was born in Ada, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now in Serbia). The sixth son of a Jewish grocer, he later repudiated religion. He served in the Austro-Hungarian Army during the First World War and was captured on the Eastern Front. After returning to Hungary, he participated in the communist government of Béla Kun; after its fall he fled, eventually to the Soviet Union. This brief regime took advantgae of the post-World War I chaos in Hungary and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to take over the government from March, 1919 until August of the same year. After returning to Hungary in 1924 to re-organize the communist party, Rákosi was imprisoned for treason. His initial eight and a half year term was changed to life in 1935, although he was released to the Soviet Union in 1940, in exchange for the Hungarian revolutionary banners captured by the Russian troops at Világos in 1849. In the Soviet Union, he became leader of the Comintern. He returned to Hungary with the Red Army in 1945.
Following the end of World War II, East Europe was left, effectively, under Soviet control since de facto Soviet troops now occupied the East, and de jure since the 1945 Yalta conference had agreed that the Soviets would reconstruct the East, while Britain and the USA would reconstruct the West. Hungary had been allied with Germany (although never officially) and by the end of the war it was completely occupied by the Soviets. Committed to the worldwide spread of communism, the Soviets set about establishing puppet communist regimes in their agreed sphere of influence. When the communist government was installed in Hungary, Rákosi was appointed General Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party. In 1948, the Communists forced the Social Democrats to merge with them to form the Hungarian Workers Party. At this point, Rákosi dropped all pretense of democratic government, and Hungary became an outright Communist state. Communism in Hungary was never a bottom-up, popularist movement, but a top-down, totalitarian system imposed and supported by the Soviets.
Rákosi described himself as "Stalin's best Hungarian disciple" and "Stalin's best pupil." He also invented the term "salami tactics," which related to his tactic of eliminating the opposition slice by slice. At the height of his rule, he developed a strong cult of personality around himself.
Rákosi imposed dictatorial rule on Hungary—arresting, jailing and killing both real and imagined foes in various waves of Stalin-inspired political purges—as the country went into decline. In August 1952 he also became prime minister of Hungary, but on June 13, 1953, to appease the Soviet Politburo, he was forced to give up the office to Imre Nagy, yet retained the office of General Secretary. Rákosi led the attacks on Nagy. On March 9, 1955, the Central Committee of the Hungarian Worker's Party condemned Nagy for "rightist deviation." Hungarian newspapers joined the attacks and Nagy was accused of being responsible for the country's economic problems and on April 18, he was dismissed from his post by a unanimous vote of the National Assembly. Rákosi once again became the leader of Hungary.
The postwar Hungarian economy suffered from multiple challenges. Hungary agreed to pay war reparations approximating US$300 million, to the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, and to support Soviet garrisons. The Hungarian National Bank in 1946 estimated the cost of reparations as "between 19 and 22 percent of the annual national income." Moreover, Hungary's participation in the Soviet-sponsored COMECON (Council Of Mutual Economic Assistance), prevented it from trading with the West or receiving Marshall Plan aid. Postwar economic recovery reversed under the Rákosi government. The Hungarian currency experienced marked depreciation in 1946, resulting in the highest historical rates of hyperinflation known. By 1952, disposable real incomes sank to two-thirds of their 1938 levels; whereas in 1949, this figure had been 90 percent.
By 1953, post-war Hungarian manufacturing output fell to one-third of pre-war levels. The government used coercion and brutality to collectivize agriculture, and it squeezed profits from the country's farms to finance rapid expansion of heavy industry, which attracted more than 90 percent of total industrial investment. At first Hungary concentrated on producing primarily the same assortment of goods it had produced before the war, including locomotives and railroad cars. Despite its poor resource base and its favorable opportunities to specialize in other forms of production, Hungary developed new heavy industry in order to bolster further domestic growth and produce exports to pay for raw-material import.
Rakosi's regime also established wage controls and a two-tier price system made up of producer and consumer prices, which the government controlled separately. In the early 1950s, the authorities used these new controls to limit domestic demand and cut relative labor costs by tripling consumer prices and holding back wages. Popular dissatisfaction mounted as the economy suffered from material shortages, export difficulties, and mounting foreign debt.
Rákosi, however, was now an embarrassment to the Soviets (and Stalin was dead) and was removed as General Secretary of the Party under pressure from the Soviet Politburo in June 1956 (shortly after Nikita Khrushchev's Secret Speech), and was replaced by Ernő Gerő.
When the anti-communist uprising began in October, 1956 Rákosi fled to Russia. The official reason given was that he was "seeking medical attention." He spent the rest of his life in the Kirgiz Soviet Socialist Republic. Shortly before his death, in 1970, Rákosi was finally granted permission to return to Hungary if he promised not to engage in any political activities. He refused the deal, and remained in the USSR where he died in Gorky in 1971.
After his death, his body was returned to Hungary for burial in Budapest.
Rákosi's rule had been so unpopular in Hungary that in October and November, 1956 an uprising took place that briefy succeeded in installing a government under Imre Nagy, Rákosi's rival, which was committed to democratic reforms, and removed Hungary from the Soviet alliance known as the Warsaw Pact. With Rákosi out of favor, the people were now ready for a real change in the running of the country. Although still a communist, Nagy's willingness to abolish the one party system and to initiate reforms made him an acceptable compromise ruler for the people of Hungary. The rebels expected military support from the free world, but this did not materialize. The United States was not prepared for a direct military encounter with the Soviets and informed their single agent in Hungary to restrict his activities to information gathering. Initially, the Soviets agreed to negotiate terms for withdrawing from Hungary. Changing their mind, they then invaded. Civilians fought Soviet troops in the streets but the new government under Nagy fell and Some 200,000 Hungarians became political refugees. Nagy was found guilty of treason, and hung even though his Soviet-sponsored successor, János Kádár had promised him a safe-passage into exile. His reputation has been posthumously rehabilitated by the post-communist government of Hungary. The Soviets were not prepared to lose a satellite, and were quite prepared to prevent this by show of force.
Rákosi is remembered as one of the most repressive leaders of any Soviet proxy government in East Europe. The uprising of 1956 indicated that communism did not enjoy the support of the people, and although the rebellion failed, Hungary's next communist leader was more moderate, and put measures in place that did improve the economy and give people greater freedom. For example, he allowed private farming, made less use of repressive measures curbing the powers of the secret police and allowed limited private enterprise and trade—this became known as Goulash Communism. Yet Rákosi's own heritage of repression served to make communism less appealing to some of its ideological supporters in the West, and helped to show to the world that the so-called republics of eastern Europe were nothing but colonies of the Soviet Empire. Nonetheless, the communism that continued in Hungary until it collapsed in 1989 was of a different flavor and, as the term Goulash implies, comprised of different elements such as some of a more capitalist hue.
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