Peter Fryer

Hungarian Tragedy

6. Bábolna

That day I had the good fortune to acquire a fine interpreter in Károly, a Hungarian who spoke excellent English. His wife and children were in Budapest and, like myself, he was more than anxious to get there. When the revolution broke out he had been with a German visitor shooting stags in the Bakony hills south of Györ. The German wanted to get out of the country as soon as possible, and Károly accompanied him to the frontier. They passed through the mining town of Várpalota, where the car was stopped by a group of miners who asked that two of their number, both badly wounded, should be taken to the nearest hospital. One of the wounded miners said as they laid him in the car: ‘Carry on the fight, comrades. Don’t give up till we win!’ The miners told Károly that they were solidly behind the revolution, and that their workmates at the famous mining town of Tatabánya had risen ‘to a man’.

Károly had a plan for getting to Budapest, and he was willing to take me with him. Half and hour’s bus ride away, if the bus was running, was the big Bábolna State farm, where he had friends who owned a jeep and might (he stressed ‘might’) be prepared to lend him it to complete the journey. It turned out that there was a country bus leaving Györ at six in the evening. Two days later the buses were standing in the street with placards saying ‘strike’ on them. The busmen had decided to show their solidarity with the railwaymen and the revolution. But on Sunday we were lucky. We arranged to meet at the terminus at a few minutes to six.

My actor friends tried hard to persuade me not to go. It was off the main road, where there were chances of picking up a car; the road beyond Bábolna ran through mining areas, where there was heavy fighting, and it would be dangerous. But I had to take whatever chance there was of getting through, and this seemed as good as any. As it happened we could get no transport at Bábolna and came back to Györ on the Tuesday. But I was glad to have been to Bábolna; what took place there was a microcosm of the whole revolution, and I was the only foreigner and the only journalist to see it. My friends took me to a restaurant near the station and bought me tea and cakes and laughed as I politely denied that the tea was any weaker than I was used to. ‘Be sure to come to us if you come back to Györ,’ said Zsuzsa the puppetmistress. I promised, and we said good-bye.

The single-decker bus ran unlit over what felt like a cart-track. On the way Károly told me about Bábolna. It was Hungary’s outstanding show farm: 35,000 acres of game preserve and farmland. But the central feature was the celebrated stud farm, where for 200 years Arab and Hungarian horses have been crossed to produce the magnificent Bábolna strain. The whole farm employed over 1,000 workers, veterinary surgeons, stable-hands, game-keepers, foresters, labourers and so forth.

We got off the bus at the main entrance to the farm, and there, by chance, was a friend of Károly’s who promptly invited us to stay the night at his home. His father was a shepherd and I would be interested to hear his story. So we set off down a long lane and clambered over a field and across a railway line to a little settlement where our arrival set the fiercest dogs in Hungary all barking at once.

The old man was lying on the couch in his sheepskin jacket when we went in, while his wife, a typical peasant woman in dark blue shapeless garments and greasy apron, sat rosy-cheeked in front of the stove, feeding it with logs. Neither would believe at first that I came from London, but they welcomed me with almost embarrassing hospitality.

’The old man’s been at the bottle a bit,’ murmured Károly. ‘But don’t blame him. Perhaps he’s had something to celebrate.’ He had. He shook my hand vigorously. He seemed a year or two over 70, and his gnarled hands and weather-beaten face, and the faint smell of sheep that clung about him, told of hard work to bring his family to a level of prosperity about that of a skilled worker in Britain. Deaf to our protests they went out and killed ducklings to make us a gigantic meal, first taking the skin off my throat with a soup livid with paprika – not the anaemic stuff you buy as paprika in London but something altogether more caustic.

‘They’ had called the old shepherd a ‘kulak’. Not even a Hungarian word, you notice, but a Russian word meaning ‘fist’, and easy to apply to a man who has a couple of dozen sheep and knows how to make them pay. ‘They’ had bullied him into joining an agricultural co-operative, as ‘they’ had bullied other peasants in the village. Every peasant was rejoicing tonight at the disbanding of this co-operative which nobody wanted. They had taken back their individual pieces of land and their own animals. It was a second land distribution. ‘Trying to tell me I don’t know how to run things,’ grumbled the old man. ‘Trying to tell me I’d got to apply Soviet experiences and the latest discoveries of bloody Lysenko.’ He hawked and spat voluminously into the stove. What accumulation of mistakes had been piled on this unrepentant ‘kulak’s’ shoulders, I reflected.

But he had another reason for celebration. It appeared that the director of the Bábolna State farm for the past five years had been, not a countryman, but a former ironworker, a Party appointee, who knew nothing about horsebreeding or agriculture, but was sent down to administer from the comfortable side of a desk. Four years ago, before the shepherd was ‘de-kulakised’, he allowed his sheep to stray one day on to a field belonging to the State farm, a field in which shoots of rye were springing up. According to the shepherd, for rye to be nibbled down by live-stock for a week or two is not a bad thing, as it strengthens the crop. Be that as it may, along came the director and swore at the shepherd, ordering him ‘as you wouldn’t speak to a dog’, to get his sheep off State farm land at once. The old man’s command of Hungarian invective was equal to the occasion, and he told the director in a few sentences exactly what his mother was. Whereupon the director punched the old shepherd in the face, knocking him to the ground, and then seized his crook and beat him with it savagely. That was four years before.

Come the revolution, three days ago, the shepherd’s two husky sons had made their way to the director’s office. He was not slow to guess their errand, for he reached in his desk draw for his revolver. But they overpowered and disarmed him before he could use it and then beat him. He had left Bábolna and had not returned.

Next morning the newly-elected workers’ council was to meet to elect in its turn a leading committee and a new director. A foreign journalist would be welcome. So next morning, after a long farewell to the old couple, who spoke with tears in their eyes of their relations in Canada, we set out for the farm offices. There was time first to look at the horses, to see the tablet in the courtyard bearing the name of the Arab stallion Obayan, grandsire of the Bábolna breed, and to admire the little horses’ heads, like white knights, that topped the posts along the fences.

Then we were asked to watch the entry into the Party committee office, the opening of the safe, the discovery of hundreds of dossiers, one for each worker at the farm, in which were recorded his whole career, his political reliability or otherwise, any scrap of information known about him. Any sordid little informer who had a grudge against a workmate could be sure of having his tale, true or false, solemnly recorded on one of these documents. In some cases a man’s history was taken back twenty years or more. All over Hungary in these days of revelation the people were finding and burning these dossiers, whose contents were unknown to the individual concerned, which were passed on from job to job and which might easily prevent promotion or lead to arrest, secret trial, torture, imprisonment or death.

The workers’ council meeting comprised some eighty delegates representing every section of the farm. Some sat around a long trestle table adorned with little tricolour flags, others on rows of wooden seats facing the chairman and a woman secretary taking a careful record of the proceedings.

First there were general speeches: about the revolution, its aims and tasks and prospects, and about Bábolna’s place in a new, genuinely Socialist, genuinely democratic Hungary. I was given a fairly full translation, and I noted down outstanding phrases: ‘We shall obey a democratically-elected Parliament.’ ‘Our duty today is to make sure we elect the best men.’ ‘This is our country now.’ ‘We must set our faces resolutely against any personal revenge. We don’t want Hungarians to kill Hungarians.’ ‘Rákosi cheated and deceived the people.’ One elderly man got up and said:

I am an ordinary workman. I am convinced that the system we have had up to now was only working for foreign interests. Many of those who joined the Communist Party did so for bad reasons. I ask that those we choose today should be reliable, honest people. We don’t want turncoats.

He was warmly applauded. Another delegate addressed ‘the English journalist’ directly: ‘Tell the English people and your friends in England about the heroism of this little country.’ Several who spoke made it clear they were Communists, and they were listened to gravely. But there was one man who demanded the banning or voluntary dissolution of the Communist Party as a completely discredited organisation. The next speaker, a serious, bespectacled man of about twenty-five, said:

I am against demanding that the Communist Party be dissolved, because in a democratic country there should be freedom for all parties. But it will have to be a Communist Party that operates in an entirely new way.

This clearly expressed the general feeling of the meeting.

Soon the delegates, in a buzz of excitement, proceeded to the election of their leadership. Three candidates were proposed for the directorship, all local men. The one whom Károly told me was most likely to head the poll was a tall sober-looking man in riding breeches, some forty-five years old, who came over and chatted with us. Károly said he was an agricultural expert. His popularity was shown when a spokesman for one section rose and said if this candidate did not win, that section wanted him as section leader and hereby got its claim in first. The election was by secret ballot. Everyone was given a slip of paper and wrote on it the name of one of the candidates, and then the slips were collected and the votes counted by the chairman. It all took a very long time indeed, and one of the delegates came across and said to me through Károly something that has stuck in my mind ever since: ‘I am sorry it is so slow, but you must understand we have not got any practice in electing people.’ I think my last remaining illusion about the past was destroyed at that moment.

The agricultural expert was elected director by 57 votes against his nearest opponent’s 13. Then the council elected a committee. Fifteen members were chosen, one or two by the delegates from each section. Again it was a secret ballot, and again these novices in democracy took their time. But at last the committee took office and the council meeting broke up.

We left with the delegates, but the committee sent word after us that we were welcome to watch its proceedings for as long as we wished. We sat in for about an hour. All kinds of questions, from the most trivial to the most momentous, were under discussion, and it was impossible to miss the sense of responsibility with which these new leaders approached their tasks. Should they continue to use the old, tainted word elvtárs (’comrade’)? Or would it be better to address each other as polgártárs (’fellowcitizen’)? By a large majority the comrades became fellow-citizens. What practical measures should be taken to set up a local militia to keep order and protect farm property? What precisely were the limits of the decisions the director could take without immediately consulting the committee? And, above all, what could this farm do to send food to hungry Budapest? After an exchange of views it was agreed to send a deputation to the national committee at Györ to see how many trucks were available to come to Bábolna and be loaded with meat and milk and eggs and butter and flour for the people of the capital.

At this point we left them, the young man who had opposed the banning of the Communist Party counting a number of proposals off on his fingers. And what has puzzled me ever since, and what puzzles me greatly, is this: where exactly was the ‘White Terror’ at Bábolna? Where was the ‘counterrevolution’? Where were the ‘reactionaries’? Where were the ‘Horthyites’? Where was ‘the terrible spectre of the fascist beast’ which, according to D.T. Shepilov’s speech at the General Assembly of the United Nations on November 22, had ‘risen over the peaceful fields of Hungary’? just what had the workers of Bábolna done to justify foreign intervention?

Last updated on: 15.1.2012