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Aczél, György

(1917–1991), Communist ideologue, cultural tsar of Hungary in the post-1956 Kádár era. György Aczél grew up in an orphanage, worked in construction, and performed as an actor. He participated in the Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir youth movement and later joined the underground Communist Party in 1935. Arrested in 1942, he worked as a forced laborer. During the German occupation, he participated in the resistance movement and in rescuing Jews.

After World War II, Aczél was associated with the Budapest administration of the Communist Party. He became party secretary of the counties of Zemplén (1946) and Baranya (1948), and also served in Hungary’s parliament. In 1948, he joined the party’s presidential board. Arrested in 1949 and condemned to life imprisonment, he was released in August 1954 and charges against him were dismissed. He then became the director of a state-owned construction company. After the Soviet invasion of Hungary in November 1956, Aczél joined the executive board of the reformed Communist Party. Though he represented a moderate political position, during the first meeting after the revolution (in mid-1957), he sharply criticized the party’s former chief ideologue, József Révai (1889–1959) for his orthodox views, significantly increasing his own political role.

That year, Aczél was appointed minister of cultural affairs, a position he held for 10 years. As a confidant of party leader János Kádár (with whom he had been in prison), Aczél became one of the most influential members of the party. In the post-1956 era, Aczél was the only politician of Jewish origin in the upper ranks of the nomenklatura.

In the second half of the 1960s, Aczél was given more visible and significant political roles. In 1967, he became the secretary of the party’s central committee, and in 1970 he was a member of the committee that gave him control of Hungarian cultural, scientific, and educational programs. Informally, he was considered to be the second most important leader of the country. During the final decades of the Kádár era, it was he who shaped a cultural policy of Hungary that was less authoritarian than that of other Communist countries, a policy that basically mixed state support, tolerance, and prohibition.

In the debate on ways to modernize the country’s economy (dubbed the “new economic mechanism”), Aczél belonged to a group of reformers, but he consistently opposed every effort to effect changes, and sought instead to preserve the ideological hegemony of the Communist Party. He played an active role in stifling the then-emergent dissident movement.

After the failure of the economic reforms, political power shifted, restricting Aczél’s influence. He was assigned the post of deputy prime minister in 1974, but lost his position on the central committee. In 1982, he was able to retrieve almost all of his earlier functions, holding on to them for another three years; however, he never regained the power he had once wielded. He could not find solutions for the gradually deepening crises of the Communist regime nor did he recognize the crumbling dynamics within the system. In 1985, he was pushed to the periphery, this time for good, through a minor appointment as director of the Social Science Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Not long before his death, Aczél rediscovered his Jewish roots and traveled to Israel.

Suggested Reading

Révész Sándor, Aczél és korunk (Budapest, 1997).



Translated from Hungarian by Anna Szalai