View Full Version : General Bela Kiraly, leader of 1956 uprising, dies at 97

07-10-2009, 09:42 AM

General Bela K. Kiraly, the commander-in-chief of the revolutionary forces in the Hungarian uprising of 1956, died on July 4 in Budapest. He was 97. For more than half a century he was considered a folk hero in Hungary, and returned in 1989 to serve in its post-Communist government.

At his death, Gen. Kiraly was emeritus professor of history at Brooklyn College, where he taught from 1964 to 1982. Before returning to Hungary, he lived for many years in Highland Lakes, N.J.

A former major general in the Hungarian army, he was the senior military leader of Hungary's short-lived revolt against Soviet forces in the autumn of 1956. As commander-in-chief of the Hungarian National Guard and the leader of the Budapest garrison, he commanded a force of 26,000 insurgents and 30,000 Hungarian army troops who had joined them.

When the uprising began on Oct. 23, Gen. Kiraly was weak, ill and exhausted; he had just been released after spending five years in prison, four of them on death row, on manufactured charges of espionage. After the uprising was put down violently by the Soviets less than two weeks later, he fled to the United States.

Gen. Kiraly was one of the most highly visible Hungarian exiles in the United States, writing and lecturing widely and speaking about the uprising before the United Nations. In 1989, as Hungary's Communist government dissolved, he was able to return; the next year, he was elected to a four-year term in the National Assembly, as the Hungarian parliament is called. He also served as vice-chairman of the assembly's defence committee and later advised the Hungarian government on military reform.

A native of Kaposvar, in southwest Hungary, he graduated from the state military academy in Budapest and served as an army officer in the Second World War. In later years, he said in interviews that he had tried to join the Russian side in the war rather than serve with Hungary's fascist forces, but was unable to do so.

During the war, he commanded a battalion of 400 Jewish slave labourers at the Ukrainian front. Disobeying orders from his superiors, as The Jerusalem Post wrote in 1993, he “put the 400 men under his command into Hungarian uniforms and treated them humanely.” For his actions, he was honoured in 1993 as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial authority in Jerusalem.

Captured by the Russians in 1944, he was sent to Siberia. He and two dozen of his men managed to escape from the train carrying them there and walked over the Carpathian Mountains back to Hungary.

He was made a general in 1950 and appointed leader of the military academy in Budapest.

In 1951, Gen. Kiraly was arrested on charges of subversion, sedition and spying for the United States. (The charges are now widely believed to have been concocted by Hungary's Stalinist leaders.)

He was given a death sentence, later commuted to life at hard labour. In October, 1956, Gen. Kiraly was among the prisoners paroled by the Hungarian government in a futile effort to appease mounting popular unrest.

When the uprising started, he was in a Budapest hospital. “I was skin and bones coming out of five years of imprisonment,” Agence France-Presse quoted him as saying in 2006. “I was far from being healed, so I had to slip out of the hospital because the doctors would not let me go.”

At the request of Imre Nagy, a liberal Communist who was Hungary's prime minister from 1953 to 1955 – and who was returned to office at the start of the uprising – Gen. Kiraly organized a loose confederation of students, workers and other insurgents into a well-oiled fighting force.

“In 24 hours, I created a professional military staff,” he said in the Agence France-Presse interview.

But it was no match for the hundreds of Soviet tanks that rolled into Budapest on Nov. 4. Pursued by two tank divisions, Gen. Kiraly and a small band of resistance fighters headed for Austria. As they approached the border, the general ordered his men to blow up a nearby ammunition dump. With the Soviet tanks enveloped in the resulting cloud of smoke, he and his men slipped through the border fence.

Gen. Kiraly made his way to the United States, where he remained for 33 years. In 1958, Mr. Nagy and other leaders of the uprising were executed by Hungary's post-revolutionary government. Had Gen. Kiraly returned, he most likely would have met the same fate.

After receiving a master's degree from Columbia University in 1959, Gen. Kiraly earned a Ph.D. from Columbia in 1966. His many books include Hungary in the Late Eighteenth Century: The Decline of Enlightened Despotism (Columbia University, 1969) and Basic History of Modern Hungary (Krieger Publishing, 2001).

In the mid-1970s, Mr. Kiraly started a nonprofit organization, Atlantic Research and Publications, which has published more than 100 monographs on Central and Eastern Europe. Through the organization, he also convened a series of seminars about the region, held in the United States, Western Europe and the Eastern Bloc.

During his exile in the United States, Gen. Kiraly vowed not to return to Hungary until the remains of Mr. Nagy and other executed leaders of the uprising were taken from their unmarked graves and properly reburied.

In June, 1989, the general was an invited guest at the public funeral and hero's burial for Mr. Nagy and several associates in Budapest. At the ceremony, which was organized by members of Hungary's anti-Communist opposition, four Hungarian Communist Party officials laid wreaths.

Bela Kalman Kiraly was born on April 14, 1912, in Kaposvar, Hungary. He leaves a son and a grandson.