All That You Can’t Leave Behind
Kaposvár, with its picture perfect Kossuth square in the town center sporting Art Nouveau and Neo-Classical architecture, seems like a strange breeding ground for revolutionary politics.
Yet the past century and a half has seen this mid-sized city (population 66,000) in southern Transdanubia play an outsized role in radical movements. In 1867 when Hungary sealed its historic compromise with Austria forming the Dual Monarchy, Kaposvár’ voters elected the exiled revolutionary leader Lajos Kossuth to parliament in protest.
Following the First World War, the city was fertile ground for the Red Revolution and threw its support behind Bela Kun. The subsequent counter-reaction which shifted the nation rightward in the years between the world wars failed to quell the revolutionary spirit of the area.
Following the Soviet Union’s invasion, Kaposvar became the epicenter of land reform. The peasants of the surrounding land in Somogy County were the first in the nation to benefit from post-war land redistribution efforts.
Kaposvár’s role in revolutionary politics is made even more prominent by the fact that it gave birth to one of Hungary’s most conflicted 20th century political figures, Imre Nagy. Nagy is most remembered for his fatal role in the 1956 Revolution.
It was his early life in Kaposvár though, which planted seeds that would sprout into a revolutionary career. Be sure to make your way from Kossuth Square down Fő Utca (Main Street) on the left side you will find a statue of Nagy.
He was born here in 1896, the same year that the Kingdom of Hungary was celebrating the millennium of Magyar arrival in the Carpathian Basin. That year is remembered by many as the height of a national golden age. But the celebrations masked endemic problems that still plagued the countryside. Nagy’s early life in Kaposvár is instructive as to one of the issues that eventually caused radical upheaval and forever changed Hungary. That issue was land reform.
Nagy’s Calvinist parents were poor farm hands. They were part of an increasingly restless peasantry that toiled on the estates of nobles. Land was power in provincial Hungary. The nobility controlled the overriding majority of the land. Tiny land plots given to peasants were not enough to support a family. And the Nagy family was on the lowest rung of the social ladder, totally landless.
Young Imre would spend his first nineteen years in Kaposvár. He had to drop out of school when his father lost his job. He went to work in the fields, as a locksmith’s apprentice and at a lawyer’s office. At this point his life had followed a quite traditional pattern. He like many others who were trying to rise out of a peasant background, took any work he could find.
The First World War ended all that. He was soon drafted and left Kaposvár, but not for good. He was captured by the Russians on the Eastern Front in 1916. Like many others, including the future Yugoslav dictator Josip Tito, he would become radicalized during internment. He ended up fighting with the Red Army in the Russian Civil War. In 1921 he was back in Kaposvar, by this point he had joined the Hungarian Communist Party and was now attempting to bring about radical change.
Nagy was fortunate that in the counter revolutionary atmosphere of the early 1920’s he was not killed. He tried joining the more moderate Social Democrats, but was too radical for them and ended up being kicked out of the party. He then went on to found the Socialist Workers Party.
Nagy’s politics would land him in prison on several occasions. Finally in 1928 he fled Kaposvár, making his way eventually to the Soviet Union where he would barely survive Stalin’s purges. During this time he wrote extensively about agricultural policy. Nagy had firm ideas about agriculture going back to his upbringing by peasant parents.
At the tail end of World War II he finally arrived back in Hungary where among his many duties he became Minister of Agriculture. He led the land redistribution program which was begun in and around his hometown of Kaposvár.
Nagy never forgot the peasantry. Ironically, the once radical Nagy proved to be much more moderate than communist hardliners. Seven years before the 1956 revolution he lost his post as a party leader for his opposition to forced collectivization of agriculture. His ties to Kaposvár and the land of Somogy County seem to have been the guiding force of his life. No matter what the consequences were.
Kaposvár is not so much a place to debate Nagy’s role as a martyr of Hungarian history or his historic role in the events of 1956. Instead it is a place to reflect on how Nagy’s early years there formed his outlook on land, agriculture and improving the lives of landless peasants.
There is no better place to do this than at the Nagy statue on Fő Utca. There you will see him cast in dynamic form, stepping forward into life, into history and into the land he called home.
written by CHRIS WILKINSON
edited by CHRIS KOVACS
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