Béla Kun (third from right, facing left) and other members of the leadership of the Communist revolution at a demonstration, Hungary, 1919. Among the revolutionaries pictured are others of Jewish origin, including Ottó Korvin, Béla Szántó, Tibor Szamuely, Jenő Varga, and Jenő Hamburger. (Hungarian National Museum)

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Kun, Béla

(1886–1938), Hungarian Communist leader. Béla Kun (originally Kohn) was born to a poor Transylvanian family in the village of Lele. His father, then a village official, was later fired and struggled to find work, but nevertheless managed to educate his son at the best gymnasiums of the region. In 1904, Kun began to study law at Kolozsvár (now Cluj, Romania) University and at the same time changed his name (as did many assimilated Jews). Even though he abandoned Judaism, he was never baptized.

To earn money and to stimulate his intellect, Kun worked for local newspapers while still a student. Editors welcomed his aggressive manner, and he helped them to follow up on newsworthy scandals. He soon gave up his studies, a typical pattern for Jewish students who lacked funds and had no hope of entering the civil service. At the age of 16, Kun joined the Social Democratic Party and gained a reputation as a fearless fighter in the Kolozsvár party organization. After serving six months in jail for writing and distributing a strike leaflet, he was elected to the Transylvanian party committee in 1908 and at the same time was given a job at the Workers Health Insurance office.

In 1914, Kun was conscripted into the army as a second lieutenant, and by spring 1916 had been taken prisoner in Russia. After the Russian Revolution he joined the Bolshevik Party, traveled to Petrograd, and became the chair of the Hungarian party section after he had pushed its founders aside. He insinuated himself into Lenin and Zinov’ev’s confidence, and they named him to be the chair of the party’s international federation and to oversee the numerous war prisoners who had joined the revolution.

In November 1918, Lenin sent Kun to organize a revolution in Austria and Hungary. Kun’s attempts in Austria failed, but he was more successful in Hungary. On 21 March 1919, he united the Communist and Social Democratic parties and proclaimed the Hungarian Soviet Republic, in which he occupied the posts of commissar of foreign affairs and of war. The Hungarian Soviet successfully resisted Romanian and Czech armed intervention, and only after 133 days of fighting yielded to superior force. Kun then fled to Vienna and was interned for almost a year with his followers, many of whom were also young Jewish revolutionaries. In August 1920, he returned to Petrograd.

In Soviet Russia, Kun enjoyed high esteem as the only leader in Europe who had succeeded in establishing a copy of the Russian Revolution. He overestimated his own abilities, though, and after contributing to the crushing of the last White Army units (led by General Peter Wrangel) in October–November 1920, he volunteered to organize a Communist revolution in Germany. When the so-called Märzaktion failed in March 1921, Kun lost some of his authority in the Comintern but nevertheless remained a member of its leadership for many years.

Within a few years, Kun had successfully reorganized the Communist Party of Hungary, but he stubbornly imposed on it a policy with the slogan “Forward for the Second Hungarian Soviet Republic,” thus suppressing opposition. As a friend of Zinov’ev, he felt an aversion to Stalin, which he tried to disguise; but after his April 1928 arrest in Vienna, where he had gone with a false passport to organize underground activities, Stalin forbade him, once he had returned to Moscow, to leave Soviet Russia. In the mid-1930s, Kun shared the fate of most of the revolutionary leaders of 1917. He was excluded from the presidium of IKKI in 1935; ousted from all political functions in 1936; arrested in 1937; and shot in 1938.

Kun’s name was taboo under all Hungarian regimes until 1956. In 1966, his main writings and speeches were published in two volumes, Válogatott írások és beszédek (Selected Writings and Speeches), which included a comprehensive bibliography. He summed up the events of 1919 in Von Revolution zu Revolution (From Revolution to Revolution; 1920), written under the pseudonym Kolozsváry Blasius. He also wrote a work published in English, Marxism versus Social Democracy (1932).

Suggested Reading

György Borsányi, The Life of a Communist Revolutionary: Béla Kun, trans. Mario Fenyo (Boulder, Colo., 1993); Tibor Hajdu, The Hungarian Soviet Republic, trans. Etelka de Láczay and Rudolf Fischer (Budapest, 1979); Rudolf Tőkés, Béla Kun and the Hungarian Soviet Republic (New York, 1967).