Bela Kiraly (1912-2009)
Mario Fenyo, September 2010
Key figure in 1956 Hungarian Revolution, military historian, politician
Béla Király died on July 4, 2009, at the age of 97. He lived long enough to have had three fruitful careers—military leader, historian and author, and politician—and attain prominence in each.
Béla Király was born in 1912 at Kaposvár, Hungary, the son of the station-master. Pressured by his father, he competed for and won a scholarship to the Ludovika Military Academy (which bears a distant resemblance to West Point). He was an officer of the Hungarian general staff during most of World War II. At one point, he was in a position to intercede on behalf of the Jewish conscripts serving in the so-called “labor battalions” (for which he would eventually receive a commendation from Yad Vashem in Israel). In 1945 he was cleared of any suspicion of fascist activity by the coalition government then in power, rejoined the army, and was soon appointed commander of a new, post-war military academy. Not for long; in 1951 he was arrested on trumped-up charges and sat on death row for almost five years: although his sentence was commuted to life, the prison authorities failed to inform him, and he was expecting execution at the dawn of each new day. He must have had hopes of survival, however, for he took advantage of his years in prison to learn English from some of his fellow-inmates.
He was released on the eve of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and was appointed commander of the National Guard. Fully aware of the mismatch once the Red Army units executed an about-face and began to pour back into Budapest, he managed to lead a few formations all the way to the Austrian border. A few weeks later he landed at Camp Kilmer in New Jersey—the triage place for Hungarian refugees arriving in the United States.
That was not the end of his military career. In 1989, even after his retirement, upon his return to Hungary, he was honored and repeatedly promoted, achieving the highest rank in the military hierarchy.
His leadership of the National Guard and his status as a near-martyr are what enabled Király to launch an academic career in the United States. He obtained a PhD in history from Columbia University in 1966, under the auspices of the East-Central European Institute, associated with Istvan Deak. His dissertation, Hungary in the Late 18th Century; the Decline of Enlightened Despotism, was published by Columbia University Press.
He joined the faculty at Brooklyn College, eventually assuming chairmanship of its history department. Király taught European and military history to several generations of students at Brooklyn College (CUNY). I am sure he impressed them with his commanding, yet fatherly appearance: he was well into his sixties when he started to teach. He brooked no indiscipline. When he hired me to teach a summer course, he told me in no uncertain terms to make sure I met my classes infallibly and on time. His staff, who eventually received medals of knighthood from Király and the new Hungarian government, perceived him as a taskmaster.
Perhaps the crowning achievement of Király’s career, as scholar and as sponsor of Hungarian culture, are the two series of publications he launched some 20 years after his arrival in the United States: the Brooklyn College Studies on Society in Change, soon renamed the Atlantic Studies on Society in Change, including the sub-series War and Society in East-Central Europe. Most volumes in the series were distributed by Columbia University Press. Retroactively, all of it became part of the undertaking of Atlantic Research and Publications, headed, of course, by editor-in-chief Béla K. Király. At the same time, many volumes are part of the series East European Monographs published by the historian and scholar of Romanian background, Stephen Fischer-Galati.
In conversation, Király summed up the objectives of the series—especially applicable to War and Society in East-Central Europe as follows: “to cover all aspects and periods of Hungarian history for the benefit of the English-speaking public” (personal communication, Béla Király to author). His published statement is somewhat more circumspect: the Preface to one of the more recent volumes notes that the “series intends to present a comprehensive survey of many aspects of East Central European history,” a variant of which reads “a series which, when completed, will constitute a comprehensive survey of the many aspects of East Central European society.” The quality of the scholarship and writing is consistently high in these monographs, most of the authors being American and Hungarian scholars of distinction.
Béla Király returned to Hungary in 1989, to participate in the ceremonial reinterment of his hero Imre Nagy, the prime minister who suffered martyrdom in the aftermath of the revolution of 1956. He was elected to the first post-Communist National Assembly, in the district of his birthplace Kaposvár, the following year. He served a four-year term (1990–94) and then advised the government on reform of the armed services.
Király was a founder of the Association for the Advancement of the Study of Hungarian History, recently and more elegantly renamed the Hungarian Studies Association. The association has a distinguished record as a lobby for Hungarian history, within the framework of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies. It should redound to the credit of Király and of the association that they have gone out of their way to preserve or establish positive relations with sister historical organizations of Slavic and Romanian scholars.
Király’s voice was always one of moderation and tolerance. Perhaps all we can conclude for certain is that, were it not for his efforts, the country’s name abroad would have suffered.
Bowie State University