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the guide to historical resources • Issue 10: The Cold War •

The Cold War

A photograph of a ruined statue of Stalin in Budapest.

A ruined statue of Stalin in Budapest.

Image courtesy of History Learning Site

articles > A home front...

A home front in the Cold War: Hungary, 1948–1989

Mark Pittaway, Open University

In 1957, in the immediate aftermath of the bloody suppression of the 1956 Revolution, the restored socialist state in Hungary launched a national television service. Television sets were marketed countrywide, including in the western border city of Sopron immediately adjacent to Austria, despite the fact that they could not yet receive a reliable signal from the Hungarian broadcasters. Despite this, over two hundred and fifty sets were bought by Sopron residents before the end of 1957 – far more than in any equivalent western Hungarian city. (1) The reason, of course, for television's extraordinary popularity in Sopron was the opportunities it presented for watching television broadcast not from Budapest, but from Vienna – only fifty kilometres away. By 1959 news had spread that in Sopron it was possible to watch Austrian television. Despite the fact that, as part of the border zone, free travel to the city from the rest of Hungary was not permitted, visitors descended on the city at weekends. The owner of a television could earn 'a serious supplementary income' by hiring a room in their house to such 'television tourists'. (2)

At first the television viewing habits of the population of Hungary's western borderland seem insignificant to the course of the Cold War, when compared with the deliberations of statesmen in London, Moscow, Washington or Paris. They certainly seem to present less of a threat to the post-war political order than superpower confrontation based on the destructive power of nuclear arsenals. Yet, before dismissing subtle patterns of cultural behaviour on an everyday level, it is important to recognise that the Cold War, at least, in its European theatre was tied to the fate of the socialist dictatorships that ruled over the eastern half of the continent between 1948 and 1989. Not only did the events that sealed the fate of the eastern half of the continent in 1948, like the Prague coup or the Berlin crisis, mark the beginning of the Cold War, but the eventual collapse of those regimes marked its end. While many have made a case for the role of Western foreign and military policy in determining the constraints under which socialist regimes operated, what seems to have been more important were the internal dynamics through which socialist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe were consolidated and then, from the mid-1970s, decayed. Examination of the bottom-up negotiation of legitimation in Central and Eastern European societies is thus likely to offer potentially crucial insights into the nature of the Cold War, at least in the European theatre. (3)

The bottom-up negotiation of legitimation in a state like Hungary was profoundly affected by one aspect of superpower confrontation that has received increasing attention from historians in recent years. Some historians of the Cold War have begun to shift our focus away from the diplomatic or conventional international history understandings of post-war superpower confrontation, towards one which sees the conflict as also being a cultural struggle between two competing visions of modernity. This 'cultural Cold War', fought in parallel to the diplomatic Cold War, was contested through radio and television, travel, blatant propaganda, film, literature, music and consumer culture. (4) Central and Eastern European socialist regimes actively engaged in this 'cultural Cold War'. They even attempted to engage Western models outside of the fields of high culture, presenting their own media and consumer cultures to their populations from the mid-1950s onwards. Increasingly, the legitimacy of socialist states became dependent on their ability to deliver the goods, to offer the promise of a socialist consumerism. This was ground on which they were utterly ill-suited to cope, even in so far as their own populations were concerned, with the promise of abundance that the West came to represent. (5)

Outside of Yugoslavia, a socialist state which was not part of the Soviet bloc, Hungary went further than any other state in Central and Eastern Europe in embracing 'socialist consumerism'. The period immediately following the suppression of the 1956 Revolution saw not only the emergence of a national television service, but 1957 saw the launch of Hungary's National Lottery, and the late 1950s witnessed attempts by state-owned retail enterprises to replicate what they themselves described as 'American' shopping experiences in the department stores of Hungary's large cities. (6) The 1960s saw a diversification of the press and the generation of a 'socialist tabloid press' packed with endless reports of crime and other things that the Hungarian authorities regarded as 'deviant'. (7) By the middle of 1960s the majority of the country's population had bought fully into the consumer culture that had developed over the previous decade. Many workers in the western industrial city of Gyor were, according to a sociological study conducted in 1968, 'already busily satisfying their demands for additional consumer durables: they had their TV sets, washing machines, motor-cycles, and were now spending money improving their apartments, buying refrigerators or even cars'. (8) In 1968 the regime indeed conducted a major reform of economic structures, with the significant introduction of market elements into its centrally-planned economy, in part in order to secure the economic foundations of the socialist consumerism it promoted. (9) Yet as socialist consumerism became crucial to the legitimacy of Hungary's socialist regime, it also underlined the ways in which Hungary's regime was losing the 'cultural Cold War'. Many were aware of their relative poverty in comparison to their Western neighbours – a perception fuelled by limited opportunities for Hungarians to travel outside the Soviet bloc, family networks created by migration that crossed the East-West divide and the growing influence, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, of Western popular culture within Hungarian society. Indeed one worker was heard to comment in a Budapest factory by a writer researching a documentary account of factory life in the mid-1970s that, for him, life in the West meant 'living with two cars of my own'. (10) As Hungary's economy entered a crisis triggered by the near bankruptcy of the country under a mountain of accumulating debt in 1978 and 1979, (11) and living standards fell, such negative comparisons with the West became ever more corrosive for the legitimacy of the regime. Indeed by the late 1980s during the terminal crisis of Hungary's socialist regime, perceptions of the West's superiority, especially in terms of its consumer culture, were hegemonic, and provided an undermining for the acceptance of free market ideas that decisively shaped not only the fall of communism, but patterns of economic transition in the 1990s. (12)

Thus, cultural practice and social history are important to an understanding of the Cold War's end. But the interaction between superpower confrontation and political pressure on the one hand, and popular social expectations in Hungary on the other is fundamental to understanding why the Hungarian state went so far in embracing a consumerist model of state socialism in the first place. The most marked shifts came in 1957, in the immediate aftermath of the carnage of the 1956 Revolution in which a broad popular movement attempted to replace the country's socialist political order outright, and which was suppressed only with the deployment of Soviet tanks. Many political demands motivated those who took to the streets as part of revolutionary crowds across the country in late October 1956 – calls for political independence, and democratisation were the most prominent among them. Yet behind them often lay deep-seated frustration at the inability of the socialist state to improve living standards. Immediately prior to the Revolution workers, partially commenting on upheaval elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, expressed their discontent that nearly 'twelve years after the end of the war living standards remain low'. (13) This frustration had been a product of the penury produced by the early socialist state's pursuit of policies of collectivisation and forced industrialisation during the early 1950s. Western Cold War propaganda exploited this material discontent; its radio broadcasts, through the Voice of Free Hungary especially, were especially successful when they compared Hungarian living standards and consumption to those of its immediate Western neighbors. (14) Unfavorable comparisons with the West were made by ordinary Hungarians throughout the mid-1950s – comparisons which would be frequently echoed in the decades that followed. According to one miner,

I don't understand why we work so much in Hungary and we work for nothing and with absolutely no outlook. We have to struggle and endanger our lives in the mines for just a small amount of daily bread. A worker can't give his family the comfort that a western worker enjoys, as they have to work much less than we do. In the United States they only have to work four hours and they earn enough to have their own property in their old age, their own car and house. (15)

After 1956, while Soviet intervention shut the door firmly on greater democracy, the restored socialist regime moved to consolidate its authority through attempting to alleviate the material discontent that had helped fuel the Revolution. (16)

Hungary's experience as outlined in this short article suggests that there is much to be learned about the course of Cold War through a concentration on cultural and social history. After all the Cold War was a battle between different systems, different ideas, and, in fact, differing visions of modernity. While on the one hand it was a period in which Europe lived under the shadow of annihilation in what seemed to be an all-too probable nuclear confrontation and Central and East Europeans lived under repressive regime which denied many basic civil and political rights, the Cold War was to an extent a battle for hearts and minds. In this battle ordinary people played a fundamental role – their values and attitudes ensured that some political projects prospered and others failed. This suggests that much can be learned from examining the Cold War 'from below'; that the result will enrich our understanding of post-war superpower confrontation in many different ways.

  1. 'Két Hír a Televízióról. Televíziós erosíto felállítást tervezik a soproni Károly-kilÁtóra', Kisalföld (19 Dec., 1957), p. 3. Back to (1)
  2. Open Society Archives (OSA), 300–40–4/23d., Item No. 5279/59, p. 2. Back to (2)
  3. I make this case in greater depth in Mark Pittaway, Eastern Europe, 1939–2000, (2004). Back to (3)
  4. For some studies of the 'cultural Cold War' see Across the Blocs: Cold War Cultural and Social History, ed. Patrick Major and Rana Mitter (2004); David Caute, The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy during the Cold War (Oxford, 2003). Back to (4)
  5. The best is introduction to this is provided by the studies in Style and Socialism: Modernity and Material Culture in Postwar Eastern Europe, ed. Susan E. Reid and David Crowley (Oxford and New York, 2000). Back to (5)
  6. Mark Pittaway, 'Consumption, political stabilisation and social identity: the roots of socialist consumerism in Hungary, 1953–1960', paper presented to the one-day conference 'Socialist artefacts, places and identities', Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 11 Nov. 1998; a very revealing way into this issue is to examine issues of Kirakat, the monthly of the Ministry of Internal Commerce during the late 1950s. Back to (6)
  7. Sándor Horváth, 'A szocialista bulvársajtó és a társadalmi nyilvánosság arénái Magyarországon: népszeruség és pártszeruség az 1960-as években', Múltunk, 3 (2005), pp. 226–254. Back to (7)
  8. Lajos Héthy and Csaba Makó, Munkásmagatartasok és gazdasági szervezet (Budapest, 1972), p. 144. Back to (8)
  9. The best introduction of the economic reforms in English is Nigel Swain, Hungary: the Rise and Fall of Feasible Socialism (London and New York, 1992), pp. 99–107. Back to (9)
  10. Ferenc Halmos, Illo Alázattal (Budapest, 1978), pp. 131–2. Back to (10)
  11. György Földes, Az Eladósodás Politikatörténete 1957–1986 (Budapest, 1995), pp. 77–142. Back to (11)
  12. Jason McDonald, 'Transition to Utopia: a reinterpretation of economics, ideas, and politics in Hungary, 1984 to 1990', East European Politics and Societies, 7.2 (1993), pp. 203–39. Back to (12)
  13. Budapest Fováros Levéltár, (BFL), XXXV.176f.2/154ö.e., 274. Back to (13)
  14. Mark Pittaway, 'The education of dissent: the ceception of the Voice of Free Hungary, 1951–1956', Cold War History, 4, 1 (2003), 97–116. Back to (14)
  15. OSA, 300–40–4//16d., Item No. 8083, pp. 12–13. Back to (15)
  16. Magyar Országos Levéltár (MOL), M–KS–288f. 23/1957/29ö.e., pp. 36–7. Back to (16)

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