December 21, 1949

‘Comrade Stalin fought for the workers of the world’: How Hungary mourned his death

The cult of personality surrounding Stalin had its first grand appearance in Hungary on December 21st, 1949 on the occasion of the Soviet dictator’s 70th birthday. It was also on this day that trolleybus route 70 was launched in Stalin’s honor in Budapest, which still runs to this day. The birthday also required a great deal of collaboration on the part of the propagandists and became what was known as a labor competition (to see who could do the most), but kindergarteners also participated. Little Sanyika Vaderna, for example, promised not to break the side of his bed during his afternoon nap, while István Varga promised to learn how to sew a button.

The majority of the Hungarian population learned of Stalin’s death on March 5th, 1953 via a Hungarian Radio broadcast the following day. The radio repeated the following text every half hour, excerpted from the Soviet Party’s statement: “The great man of our era has left us (…) the heart of this brilliant wise man has beat its last.” The cinemas and theatres were closed until the funeral March 9, 1953, and the buildings were adorned with red and black banners, while the leading mourners struggled with their tears at the base of the Stalin statue in Budapest.

The Hungarian Worker’s Party declared a state of national mourning, and the National Assembly wrote Stalin’s memory into law. According to Law I of 1953, Stalin “belonged among those great men who changed the world.” The law commemorating Stalin’s memory was in effect until May 11, 1989. According to the law, the reason for the Hungarian people owing their gratitude to Stalin was because he led the Red Army that liberated Hungary in World War II. Prior to Stalin, the last non-Hungarian historical figure to have their memory inscribed in law was Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph.

At 10 o’clock in the morning in Hungary on the day of Stalin’s funeral, public transportation stopped, factories held a five-minute break, factory sirens were sounded and an honor guard fired several rounds. For the average person this was perhaps the most significant moment, when traffic stopped and their everyday routines were interrupted, even if they had not read the articles and poems printed in the party daily Szabad Nép. In the evening, a large gathering was organized at his statue located at Stalin Square (later called Felvonulási Square and today 56ers’ Square).

Those who recall the dictator’s death all emphasize the fear they felt, for those who did not mourn adequately could expect a visit from the ÁVH secret police and might even find themselves in prison. It was widely known that the daily Népszava committed a grave mistake in their March 6, 1953 edition. Stalin’s death was announced not with “mély megrendüléssel” — with deep sorrow — but with “mély megrendeléssel” — making it sound as if it had been ordered!

According to reports on the general mood, village residents in Heves and Nográd counties promised to clean up their houses for the day of the funeral. In Budapest, a woman worker from the Textile Painting Factory collapsed onto a machine in tears. When they asked her why, she responded “Comrade Stalin fought for the workers of the world, for children and so that we could work in peace. We’ve lost him.” This image, of course, bears an eerie resemblance to the great father-figure ruler or benevolent dictator figure, who according to legend was a country’s wise leader who relieved the people of their basic burdens and provided them with employment and security. Not everyone saw it that way, however, and not everyone took his passing with such sorrow. One of the stokers working at the Filatorigát suburban train station did not want to participate in the sudden commemoration and consequently lost his job.

News of Stalin’s death offered hope for release and a fresh start for those in the work camps. In reality, freedom would come only months later, therefore among those happy to learn of the dictator’s death, many did not live to make it home due to their physical condition. Following Stalin’s death, policy changes meant a comparative relaxation in the dictatorship, and the state’s vacillation between reforms and hardline policies would create an opening for the 1956 Revolution.

Eszter Zsófia Tóth