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Rákosi, Mátyás

(1892–1971), Communist leader; prime minister of Hungary. Son of a retail merchant, Mátyás Rákosi pursued his studies at the Eastern Trade Academy in Budapest. In 1910, he joined the Social Democratic Party. Rákosi acquired practical experience between 1912 and 1914 while working at firms in Hamburg and London; his outstanding linguistic abilities also led him to master a number of languages. In 1914, he enlisted in the army as a volunteer.

At the beginning of 1915, Rákosi was stationed on the eastern front and was captured by the Russians. Returning to Hungary in 1918, he helped to found the Hungarian Communist Party in November of that year, and served as secretary of one of its rural divisions. With the declaration of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in March 1919, Rákosi held a number of positions before being appointed national commanding officer of the Red Guard in July.

Fleeing to Vienna on 1 August 1919 when the Soviet government fell, Rákosi was detained with other Communist emigrants. Although he was released in 1920, he was expelled from Austria after delivering a controversial speech. He subsequently traveled to Soviet Russia and worked with the Comintern’s executive committee; by 1921 he was its secretary. In 1924, he was sent back to Hungary to carry out underground activities; there he was arrested in September 1925 and was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison. A large international campaign was waged for his release; at the same time, the Comintern initiated a secret disciplinary investigation in connection with Rákosi’s confession to Hungarian police.

At the end of his prison term, Rákosi was not released but was summoned before another court because of his activities during the Hungarian Soviet Republic. This time, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1940, the flags of the Hungarian Army of 1848 were returned by the Soviets, and in exchange Rákosi was allowed to leave for the Soviet Union. In Moscow, he served as head of the Hungarian Communist emigrant group, whose ranks had been severely decimated because of Stalinist purges and internecine wars within the party. He returned to Hungary in January 1945 and set about organizing the Communist Party in the liberated city of Debrecen; he then became the secretary general of the Budapest-Debrecen divisions. Following elections in November 1945, he served as minister of state.

After the peace accords, Hungary and other satellite states were expected to establish Communist regimes. In 1947, suspect elections were conducted for this purpose and Rákosi became prime minister, receiving 22 percent of the vote. His regime gained power by the end of June 1948 through obliterating or immobilizing other political parties and, finally, through forcing a unification of the Social Democratic Party with the Communists. At the congress for the fusion of the two “worker’s parties,” Rákosi was elected secretary of the united party. After the elections of 1949, he retained his previous positions and also became the president of the State Security Committee.

Because of Rákosi’s power and personal ambition, he played a key role in the staged trials of Hungarian Communists of 1949 to 1952. His paranoia gradually worsened. After the death of Stalin in 1953, the new Soviet leaders harshly criticized Rákosi’s policies, and he was obliged to relinquish the prime ministerial position to Imre Nagy (1896–1958). Rákosi opposed Nagy’s cautious reforms from the onset, and in the end, he acquired Russian approval for Nagy’s dismissal in April 1955.

As a true advocate of internationalism, Rákosi had basically no Jewish identity; he considered himself and wanted to be considered a Communist. When it seemed practical, he and his party did not hesitate to ride the waves of antisemitic public sentiment, and when it came to fighting against Zionism, he himself initiated trials. And although he emphasized a goal to reduce the number of “Jews” in higher political leadership and the State Security Committee, he was nonetheless considered Jewish by the Hungarian public and some even viewed his regime as “Jewish revenge.” Similarly, Stalin, and even his successors, considered Rákosi Jewish, which in their terminology meant “not Hungarian.”

After de-Stalinization commenced at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party in February 1956, Rákosi was forced to admit his role in staged trials, and, as a result, his position became more and more untenable. Soviet leadership, however, fearing a snowball effect from Rákosi’s dismissal, repeatedly supported him. Ultimately, following a Soviet proposal, he was relieved of office on 18 June 1956. In an official version of his resignation, however, he had quit for medical reasons, and immediately left for the Soviet Union seeking “treatment.” In April 1970, the Communist Party would have permitted him to return to Hungary, but he did not accept their conditions. He died in Gorky, a city in the Soviet Union.

Suggested Reading

Árpád Pünkösti, Rákosi a hatalomért, 1945–1948 (Budapest, 1992); Árpád Pünkösti, Rákosi a csúcson, 1948–1953 (Budapest, 1996); Árpád Pünkösti, Rákosi bukása, száműzetése és halála, 1953–1971 (Budapest, 2001); Mátyás Rákosi, Visszaemlékezések 1940–1956, 2 vols. (Budapest, 1997); Mátyás Rákosi, Visszaemlékezések, 1892–1925, 2 vols. (Budapest, 2002).



Translated from Hungarian by Anna Szalai