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Andrea Pető, Geschlecht, Politik und Stalinismus in Ungarn. Eine Biographie von Júlia Rajk (Studien zur Geschichte Ungarns, Bd. 12), Gabriele Schäfer Verlag, Herne 2007, 212 S., kart., 29,50 €.

The two revolutions which shook communist rule in twentieth-century Hungary, the first in 1956 and the second in 1989, were both preceded by the disinterment and public reburial of a former eminent communist turned national hero - László Rajk in 1956 and Imre Nagy in 1989. These men were among the most famous victims of the Stalinist and post-Stalinist terror in Eastern Europe, Rajk being executed as an alleged `Titoist‘ after a famous show trial in 1949, and Nagy likewise being hanged in 1958 for his role in the events of October-November 1956. Indeed, their fates were intertwined, for Nagy's appearance at the public reburial of Rajk in Budapest's famous Kerepesi cemetery on 6 October 1956 also set the stage for his dramatic return to power three weeks later as leader of the twelve-day anti-Soviet uprising. While much has been written about these two men, however, next to nothing is known about their wives, both of whom spent years as social and political outcasts fighting for the posthumous rehabilitation of their husbands and for the right to bear a normal life for their children. As such, Andrea Pető's new biography of Júlia Rajk is a welcome contribution to a previously overlooked aspect of Hungary's recent communist past.

Júlia Rajk was born as Júlia Földi in Budapest in 1914, the youngest of three sisters. Her parents were first generation immigrants from the countryside, and belonged to the Catholic working-class milieu of the city's 9th district, the Franzenstadt (Ferencváros). In 1919 her father, who worked for the state railways, served briefly as a Red Guardist, and the family subsequently knew many leftists who were persecuted by the inter-war Horthy regime. Júlia herself spent some time living with her sister in Paris in the late 1930s, where she became involved in Red Aid for Spain and other anti-fascist causes. She returned to Hungary after the outbreak of World War Two and soon joined the illegal communist movement, visiting comrades held in political detention camps, supporting their wives and families, and looking for safe places to hide people on the run, including Jews facing deportation. She met László Rajk when he was interned in various places from 1941 onwards, and hid him in her flat after he escaped from the military prison on Margit Körút (Margaret Ring) in September 1944. The pair were arrested by the political police in Budapest in December 1944 and later deported with a group of communist prisoners to Sopronkőhida in western Hungary. Here László Rajk narrowly avoided being sentenced to death by an Arrow Cross court after the intercession of his elder brother, a fascist sympathiser. A forced march to Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria in late March 1945, where they were refused entry on arrival, was followed by liberation in early May and a long, complicated journey by foot, boat and train back to Budapest.

The subsequent four years, until her husband's arrest by the communist secret police (ÁVO) on 30 May 1949, Júlia saw the apparently privileged lifestyle of the spouse of a high-ranking party functionary. Yet Pető shows that she often felt `inferior', as a woman and as a non-intellectual, in the company of her husband and his party colleagues (p. 62). According to Hungarian custom, she no longer had a name of her own, but was known as Lázlóné Rajk, literally `the wife of László Rajk'. She had to face up to suspicions that she had only got the post of general secretary of the new “Democratic Association of Hungarian Women“ (MNDSZ) because of her husband's influence; and at the same time she had to live in a world where she knew and understood very little of her husband's work as a senior Politburo member and government minister. She also suffered a number of miscarriages, until finally giving birth to a son, László junior, in January 1949. Her happiness at finally becoming a mother lasted only a few months, as she was arrested in June 1949 in connection with the investigations against her husband, and did not see her son again for over five years. During her interrogations by the ÁVO she was told of her husband's infidelities and that his mistress had been arrested. She also subsequently learned that many former party friends had denounced her. Yet her on-going campaign for her husband's rehabilitation meant that she had to put her own private suffering and grief to one side in order to recover her identity as a loyal communist, wife and mother (p. 83).

After Rajk's execution in October 1949 and her own trial and conviction on false conspiracy charges in March 1950, she spent a further four-and-a-quarter years in prison, having very little contact with the outside world during this time. Released in June 1954 under a false name given to her by the authorities, and formally acquitted of all charges a year later, she waged a determined battle for the right to be officially recognised as Júlia Rajk, rehabilitated party member, victim of a proven miscarriage of justice and widow of an unjustly executed party comrade. This campaign in turn brought her into the circle of reform communists around Imre Nagy (although she was never part of the inner leadership of this group) and to an impromptu speech during a debate at the Petőfi Club in June 1956, which may partly have contributed to the downfall of the old Stalinist leader Mátyás Rákosi a month later. Soon she became famous throughout Hungary and further afield as the `widow of the nation‘ whose own grief mirrored that of hundreds and thousands of others. Having taken refuge alongside Nagy and others in the Yugoslav embassy on 4 November 1956, she was part of the group kidnapped to Romania in the weeks following the Soviet invasion, and was not allowed to return until October 1958. As far as Hungary's new communist rulers were concerned, however, there was to be no `second Rajk trial‘ and she personally faced no charges in relation to the 1956 events.

Her subsequent view of 1956 was complex. On the one hand, she partly accepted the official communist line that “the October events had led to a counter-revolution“ (p. 163). She also condemned the decision to leave the Warsaw Pact and to appeal for help to the United Nations (UN). On the other hand, she was unwilling to condemn Nagy and - even more dangerously for the new party leadership around János Kádár - she was determined to see links between his judicial execution in June 1958 and the earlier mistreatment of her husband. This ran counter to Kádár's desire to present himself as one of the chief victims of Stalinist terror, on the grounds that he spent the years 1951 to 1954 in one of Rákosi's jail, while concealing his own less than honourable role in the events of 1949 and 1956-58. On top of this, some of Júlia's former supporters, who had themselves made peace with the Kádár regime, remained unhappy at her decision to enter the Yugoslav embassy in November 1956, as it did not fit well with the claim that Rajk had been falsely accused of `Titoism‘ in 1949. In their view, the rehabilitation of victims of Stalinism was best left in the hands of the new (and predominantly male) leaders of the party who had the good sense to know what to remember and what to forget.

For these and other reasons, each significant anniversary and public commemoration of the Rajk execution - 1959, 1969, 1974 and 1979 - proved to be politically highly sensitive. Júlia knew very well that the full and unconditional rehabilitation that she fought for could only come from within communist Hungary, as the anti-communist exile movement outside the country's borders would never be willing to accept a former communist Minister of Interior as a worthy case for posthumous recognition. In June 1956, in her speech at the Petőfi Club, she had demanded not the overthrow of communism but the “restoration of Leninist norms“ (p. 106). Yet equally she could not feel happy associating herself with those of her husband's murderers who remained in power after Rákosi's removal, first Ernő Gerő and then János Kádár. Thus, she was forced to adopt a `Janus-faced‘ stance, one side looking towards `official‘ Hungary, the other side pointing in the direction of well-wishers in the party opposition (p. 177).

Pető's account of Júlia's life does not shy away from these difficult issues but presents them as they are. Her study also raises interesting questions about the availability, reliability and interpretation of written and oral sources on prominent party veterans in twentieth-century Hungary given the constant manipulation, and even destruction of personal biography under the Stalinist and post-Stalinist systems. (1) Thus many of the earlier episodes in László Rajk's and Júlia Földi-Rajk's careers as communist activists, both before they met in 1941 and after, remain shrouded in mystery and uncertainty. Júlia herself was not entirely blameless here, as her insistence on upholding an unspoilt, heroic image of Rajk after his reburial in 1956 may paradoxically have worked in favour of the party's strategy of obscuring the full truth about his arrest, confession, trial and execution - even if this is the opposite of what she intended (p. 178). From 1962 onwards the rehabilitation of victims of Stalinism indeed continued slowly, but alongside this there came a repeated emphasis on the heroic revolutionary traditions of the party before 1949 and a condemnation of the `counter-revolutionary‘ events of 1956 (p. 169). The purity of the communist ideal and movement could then be contrasted with the corruption of individual party leaders - for Kádár this meant disassociating himself from Rákosi and Gerő, while for Júlia this meant maintaining a critical distance from the entire party leadership since 1949.

What Júlia's role would have been - or could have been - in 1989, if had she not died eight years earlier, is difficult to say. Certainly László junior was keen to stress in an interview in 1990 that his mother would have “only been able to overcome the complex problem of revenge with difficulty [since] she had lost her husband, to whom she was attached, and remained forever alone“ (p. 181). Her inability to come to terms with her husband's execution and to move on in terms of her own personal life indeed marked her out from some of the other victims of Stalinist terror in Hungary and elsewhere.

Even so, Pető also makes a convincing case for seeing Júlia Rajk as a courageous woman who did much to advance the feminist cause in what were extremely hostile and unfriendly circumstances (p. 21). Thus she was a fighter for female autonomy in the male-dominated world of pre- and post-1956 Hungarian communism, an advocate of women's reproductive rights and rights within the family, an educator of children and adults in democratic principles, a supporter of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, a campaigner for animal welfare, and above all a champion of the search by the wives of former political prisoners for a voice and a name of their own. In her individual story, in which the personal and the political became one, we also find the story of Hungarian women over the past 100 years.

Matthew Stibbe, Sheffield



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