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Kunfi, Zsigmond

(1879–1929), Social Democratic politician, publicist, and editor. Zsigmond Kunfi was born in Nagykanizsa, Hungary, the son of a civil servant of Jewish origin, and converted to Calvinism. Kunfi was never interested in religion, but as Zoltán Rónai (his friend and brother-in-law) wrote, he labored under the weight of “an invisible yellow star.” At Kolozsvár (now Cluj, Romania) University, Kunfi earned a doctorate and a degree that enabled him to teach Hungarian and German, which he did at a gymnasium in Temesvár (now Timişoara, Romania) for five years. As a teacher, he contributed to local and Budapest democratic and Social Democratic papers and journals and criticized Hungarian policies in Neue Zeit (published in Stuttgart).

In 1908, Kunfi left Temesvár and moved to Budapest to edit the Social Democratic journal Szocializmus and to work as a staff member on the party daily Népszava. At the 1909 party congress, he was elected to the national committee, and served until 1919. A leading ideologue, he did not confine himself to closed party circles but maintained his Freemason membership and collaborated with radical sociologists (foremost among them Oszkár Jászi) and wrote for their journal Huszadik Század, soberly talking through the drunken nights with his close friends, the Hungarian writers Endre Ady and Gyula Krúdy.

Kunfi’s unique position as the sole university graduate among a party leadership composed exclusively of trade union bosses compelled him to exercise self-restraint; to frequently swallow his aversion to narrowmindedness, political morals, and pettiness; to accommodate himself to his fellow politicians who were mostly less revolutionary and also less liberal than himself; and at the same time to suffer ironic comments from his intellectual friends who were proud of their uncompromising character. On the other hand, the Social Democratic movement remained the only field in which he was not handicapped by his Jewish origin, poverty, and anticlericalism. As party salaries were poor, he translated extensively in order to support himself, but also managed to publish his own studies and brochures.

During World War I, Kunfi gradually became the leader of the party pacifists, and after the Russian Revolution he shaped the left wing. In October 1918, he joined the revolutionary Hungarian National Council, and later became a member of the cabinet of Count Mihály Károlyi, responsible for social welfare. After the reorganization of the government in January 1919, he was minister of education, a position he used for calling for the separation of church and state. He refused to adapt Communist methods, but protested against suppression of the new Communist Party. After proclamation of the Hungarian Soviet Republic (March 1919), Kunfi kept his post as commissar of education in the Hungarian Soviet government, opposing terrorist methods but supporting reconciliation between Social Democrats and Communists. After three months, however, he recognized the futility of such efforts and even of the Soviet experiment. He quit his post in June 1919 and moved to Vienna.

Unlike most emigrants, Kunfi easily found a good job as foreign editor of the Vienna socialist daily Arbeiterzeitung. Nonetheless, he was consumed by exaggerated self-accusations about his revolutionary activities. He founded the emigrant group Világosság, which fought against the Hungarian Communist Party but also criticized the new leaders of Budapest Social Democratic Party. His never monogamous nature made his marriage unhappy. He sought refuge from political and personal problems in morphine, solving both at last with an overdose.

Suggested Reading

Peter Agárdi, ed., Kunfi Zsigmond (Budapest, 2001); Tibor Erényi and Rózsa Köves, Kunfi Zsigmond életútja (Budapest, 1974).