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Obituary Béla K. Király, 1912-2009 By Lee Congdon, Professor Emeritus of History, James Madison University Béla K. Király, military commander of Budapest during the Hungarian Revolution, and later a distinguished historian, died on July 4, 2009. Born in Kaposvár, Hungary on April 14, 1912, he never failed to note that he came into the world on the day the Titanic struck an iceberg. As a youth, he liked nothing better than to breed pigeons, a hobby he pursued, when able, for the rest of his life. His love of the birds, and of all animals, was such that he aspired to become a veterinarian, but his father, who worked for the railways, could not afford to pay for his education. After completing studies at the Kaposvár gymnasium, therefore, Király enlisted in the army and, under pressure from his father, applied for and won a scholarship to attend the Royal Hungarian Ludovika Military Academy. He was commissioned second lieutenant on August 20, 1935. Király’s calling, he observed late in life, had found him. He was, however, more than content with his unplanned career, not least because of his devotion to his homeland, one that never wavered. In 1941, when Hungary entered World War II, he was attending the Royal Hungarian Military Academy; by the time he graduated in December 1942, he held the rank of captain in the General Staff, as a member of which he was obligated to serve time in a combat zone. Perhaps the most memorable event of his tour there came in Ukraine in 1943. Because of the humane manner in which he treated Jewish forced laborers assigned to his command, Yad Vashem later honored him as a “Righteous among the Nations.” At war’s end, he continued to advance in rank and, on December 6, 1947, he married the widow Sarolta Gömbös, niece of Gyula Gömbös, the pro-fascist prime minister of Hungary, 1932-1936. When, in 1948, the communists consolidated their power in Hungary, Király joined the Communist Party, in part because he felt a genuine sympathy for what he took to be a reform movement, but principally because he did not wish to go into exile. Whether or not he was deceiving himself, he insisted upon viewing his military duties from the perspective of a Hungarian patriot rather than of a Party loyalist, and that may have led to his arrest on August 17, 1951. The trumped-up charges against him included spying for the United States, sabotaging the training of military officers, and conspiring against the “people’s democracy.” A kangaroo court sentenced him to death by hanging on January 15, 1952. For some reason, if reason there was, the sentence was never carried out, though Király could never be sure when he awoke that he would not be led to the gallows before nightfall. His wife, who had been detained by the ÁVH (State Security Authority; the political police) from August 1951 to August 1953, divorced him in 1955, while he was still in custody; only then did he learn that his sentence had been commuted to life at forced labor. The commutation of his sentence was probably a result of the “New Course” that Prime Minister Imre Nagy charted from 1953 to 1955. Although a dedicated communist, Nagy had never reconciled himself to the Stalinist policies of Mátyás Rákosi and Ernő Gerő. When, after Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953, the new Kremlin masters grew uneasy about unstable conditions in Hungary, they turned to Nagy, who promptly took steps to restore legality, reduce the hitherto prevailing emphasis on heavy industry, permit the dissolution of collective farms, close the internment camps, and guarantee intellectual liberty. As a result, he unleashed forces that had long been pent up. Fearing that they had made a mistake, the Soviet leaders cashiered Nagy and gambled again on Rákosi, who quickly discovered that the clock could not be turned back, particularly after Nikita Khrushchev delivered his anti-Stalinist speech to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1956. Taken aback by the increasingly bold opposition he faced from Hungarian intellectuals, old and young, “Stalin’s best pupil” appeared to lose control and hence, in the eyes of Moscow, he had become a liability; at the direction of the Soviets, he resigned in favor of Gerő. The situation that confronted Gerő was becoming increasingly fluid and the Party therefore thought it prudent to open negotiations with Imre Nagy, with an eye to restoring him to good standing. As tensions continued to mount, the police released Király on September 7, 1956. On October 23, the Revolution broke out and Gerő and the Party Central Committee “recommended” that the Presidential Council appoint Nagy prime minister; it did so immediately. On October 29-30, delegates from various groups of revolutionaries chose Király commander-in-chief of the National Guard with responsibility for the creation of unity and the maintenance of discipline. During the tumultuous revolutionary days that followed, he worked closely with Nagy, whom he held in high regard, and hoped against hope that the Soviets would, as they promised, withdraw their troops from Budapest and Hungary. We know now that on October 31, the Soviet leaders decided to crush the Revolution and by midnight on November 4 they had very largely done so. Not knowing what had become of Nagy—who had sought asylum in the Yugoslav embassy—but knowing that he faced almost certain execution, Király crossed the border into Austria and began what was to be a 33-year period of exile. Király found a new home in the United States and until the early 1960s, he devoted his considerable energies to the Hungarian cause—testifying before the UN, delivering speeches, traveling around the world. He believed that by thus keeping Hungary before the public eye, he helped to exert pressure on the Soviet Union and János Kádár; the traitorous Hungarian leader began to liberalize his regime in the 1960s, ultimately transforming Hungary into a relatively moderate communist state. At the same time, however, Király found exile politics, with its rivalries and divisions, distasteful and decided to turn his efforts in a new direction. He began graduate studies in history at Columbia University and soon discovered, to his dismay, that available books in German and English tended to cast Hungary in an unfavorable light. He decided that he could do his homeland the greatest service by remedying this situation, not by engaging in a war of propaganda but by promoting a more informed and balanced scholarship. To that scholarship he himself was dedicated. In 1966, Columbia conferred upon him the Ph.D. in history; by then he had already begun an academic career at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He taught modern east central European history, but later assumed responsibility for a two-semester course in military history. So respected was he that students at the College elected him teacher of the year in 1967. He continued to teach until 1982, when, having reached the age of 70, he was forced to retire. Although he was dedicated to his teaching, Király produced a significant body of scholarly work. In 1969, Columbia University Press published his revised dissertation: Hungary in the Late Eighteenth Century: The Decline of Enlightened Despotism. Based upon extensive research in Vienna, the book provides a valuable description of eighteenth-century Hungarian society and analyses the attempt by the Hungarian estates to regain power lost to the Habsburg court during the reign of Joseph II. Despite their rivalry, however, both sides shared an interest in keeping the peasants in their place and in maintaining the existing social structure. In the end, therefore, they arrived at a reactionary compromise that marked the decline of Enlightened Despotism. As a liberal—in the original sense—Király was critical of this historical development, but he reserved sympathy for the kind of compromise that had often characterized historical relations between Hungary and Austria. Although a military man ever ready to defend his country, Király never looked with favor upon violent solutions to political problems. He was by nature a man of peace, one who preferred compromise to the adoption of unyielding positions. In his view, the Revolution of 1956, like that of 1848, which was preceded by a great era of reform, was essentially a “legal revolution” that turned violent only when violence was directed against it. It was in the spirit of that understanding that he wrote a biography of Ferenc Deák, the liberal architect of the Ausgleich, the Compromise of 1867 that created “Austria-Hungary.” Deák, Király informed his readers, always favored a legal, nonviolent revolution. In summing up his subject’s greatest achievement, the Ausgleich, Király had this to say: “He was able to recognize political, social, and economic forces and the power balance in the Habsburg lands, and, above all, to sense the moment he could harness these forces and use them to realize his goal, the realization of the ideas and designs of others that he had absorbed and made his own. Deák made history through Realpolitik, which consists not necessarily of unprincipled compromises but of the accomplishment of as many objectives at a time as circumstances permit and then waiting for the opportune moment to achieve more.” With only minor differences, this is precisely how he viewed Imre Nagy in 1956. With his teaching career behind him, Király was free to devote full attention to his role as chief editor of the series of books he launched in 1977 and entitled “Atlantic Studies on Society in Change.” It is this work of which he was most proud. The project was originally backed by Brooklyn College, but in 1983 Király established the ARP—Atlantic Research and Publications—as the sponsoring organization. He added a Hungarian branch—Atlanti Kutató és Kiadó Társulat-Alapítvány—in 1994. To fund the work, Király sought and gained support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the George Soros Foundation, and the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX). He recruited leading scholars from Hungary, the United States, and around the world to contribute the results of their research and to help with the editing. He created a sub-series entitled “War and Society in East Central Europe,” established a working relationship with “East European Monographs,” and persuaded Columbia University Press to distribute his books, most, though not all, of which dealt with east central Europe. From his home in Highland Lakes, New Jersey, Király worked tirelessly. But in 1989, his eventful life took another, and unexpected turn—communism was collapsing in Hungary (and in east central Europe generally) and he returned to his homeland to speak at the ceremonial reburial of Imre Nagy. After giving the matter much thought, he decided to return home for his last years, and in 1990 he won election to the new Parliament. Once again, however, he found politics to be an unpleasant business and resolved to focus all of his attention on the organization of scholarly conferences and the editing of his ever lengthening series of books. To his surprise, no doubt, he lived to help celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Revolution in 2006. He organized a “Ceremonial General Assembly” of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences to mark the occasion and co-edited (with Lee Congdon and Károly Nagy) the 128th volume in the Atlantic Studies series: 1956: The Hungarian Revolution and War for Independence. Among the contributors were leading authorities on all aspects of the Revolution. Those of us who were privileged to know Béla Király, as colleague and friend, will never forget his old-world graciousness, extraordinary kindness, and profound sympathy for his fellow human beings.