Béla Király

Dr. Béla Király (14 April 1912 – 4 July 2009) was a Hungarian army officer before, during, and after World War II. After the war, he was sentenced to life in prison under the Soviet-allied regime, but was later released. After his release, he commanded the National Guard in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. He then fled to the United States, where he became an academic historian. He returned to Hungary after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and was elected a member of Hungarian Parliament.

Béla Király
Király Béla.jpg
Király Béla Kálmán

(1912-04-14)14 April 1912
Died4 July 2009(2009-07-04) (aged 97)
Resting placePlot: Section 300, ÚJKÖZTEMETÕ, Budapest
SpouseSarolta Gömbös (1947–1955 div.) (niece of Gyula Gömbös)
Military career
Service/branchHungarian army
Years of service1930–1951
RankMajor General
Commands held
  • 1956:
  • commander in chief of the Hungarian National Guard
  • commander of Budapest garrison

Early lifeEdit

He was born in Kaposvár, Hungary, the son of a station master. As a youth he bred pigeons, a lifelong interest. His ambition to be a veterinary surgeon foundered because his family could not afford the fees. Color blindness barred his employment by the railroad. In 1930, military service became compulsory - two years for conscripts but only one year for volunteers. He joined the army, found it interesting, finished the Ludovika Military Academy in the top 5% of his class, and was commissioned a second lieutenant 20 August 1935. As a student at the General Staff Academy he was promoted to captain in December 1942.[2][8]

World War II and postwar imprisonmentEdit

Hungary joined the Axis powers and declared war on the Soviet Union in 1941. Király saw combat on the eastern front and was twice wounded. In 1943 he commanded 400 men guarding a Jewish labor battalion in the Don River valley. Contrary to orders, he provided them with warm clothing, decent food, and medical attention. In 1993, Yad Vashem named him one of the "Righteous Among the Nations", recognizing his humane treatment of the Jewish prisoners.[2][6][9][10]

In March 1945 Király commanded the defense of Kőszeg. Upon surrendering the city to the Red Army, he was arrested and sent to Siberia as a prisoner of war. He returned home following the Paris Peace Treaties, and joined the Hungarian Communist Party and the new Hungarian People's Army.

Communist officials warned him against his 1947 marriage to the widowed niece of far-right former prime minister Gyula Gömbös, who was, for much of his career, anti-semitic. He expected to be sacked when General György Pálffy summoned him, but instead was appointed to command the Training Department. He was promoted to general in 1950, and later to the rank of major general. In 1950, he was put in command of the infantry. He was expected to command the Hungarian component of a planned Soviet invasion of Yugoslavia following the Tito–Stalin Split. Stalin ceased the operation, however, discouraged by the success of American intervention in the Korean War. According to Király, the situation in Korea "nipped Stalin's pet project in the bud".[3]

In 1951, the Mátyás Rákosi regime arrested him on charges of subversion, sedition, and espionage. He was sentenced on January 15, 1952 to death by hanging. His wife was detained by the ÁVH from August 1951 until August 1953. She divorced him in 1955. He then learned that his sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment at hard labor. In September 1956 the government of Ernő Gerő paroled him along with other prisoners, a measure intended to soften public unrest.[2][6][7][8]

Role in the 1956 Hungarian RevolutionEdit

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 began shortly after his release from prison. He was ill and recovering from surgery, but he escaped the hospital to join the Hungarian revolutionaries and accept appointment as commander-in-chief of the military guard and military commander of Budapest against the Soviets.

"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."

— Béla Király, Agence France-Presse 2006[2]

Violence broke out in Budapest on October 23, 1956. Soviet troops, unprepared for the strength of the revolutionary forces, arranged a ceasefire on October 28, and began to retreat from the city. The violence subsisted, however, as pro-Nagy communists and various nationalist factions engineered purges of pro-Soviet party members in the city. Király, sensing a chaotic fragmentation of the revolutionary forces, sought to unite various anti-Soviet factions into a National Guard. On October 30, 1956, Király-led revolutionaries attacked the building of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The revolutionaries detained dozens of suspected pro-Soviets, executing many on the spot. Similar purges continued throughout the city.[11][12]

In spite of the continued violence directed against pro-Soviet communists, Soviet correspondent Anastas Mikoyan advised against a Soviet invasion, wishing for the Hungarian communists to suppress the "counter-revolution" themselves. This inaction led many pro-Soviets to question their loyalties. As Nikita Khrushchev lost confidence in the ability of the Hungarian communists the suppress the uprising, he directed the Soviet army to invade Budapest on November 4.[13]

Király recognized his forces, loyal to Nagy, had no hope of victory over the Soviet army. However, he resented Soviet ambassador Yuri Andropov's concealing of the imminent invasion, which Nikita Khrushchev had officially decided upon 3 days prior.

Here was this man Andropov who clearly understood what was going on, Mr. Kiraly said bitterly, yet he pretended until the last moment to me and to the Prime Minister and to others that everything was business as usual. Even pirates, before they attack another ship, hoist a black flag. He was absolutely calculating.

— Béla Király, 1982 interview with R.W. Apple, Jr.[5]

After the Soviets successfully suppressed the revolution, Király fled to the United States through Austria to avoid capture. He was, however, sentenced to death in absentia back in the Soviet Union (a fate which other revolutionary leaders like Nagy did not escape).[2][14]

Time in the United StatesEdit

Király was well regarded in the United States, as the U.S. had been supportive of the Nagy-led government to which Király had been loyal. He arrived speaking good English, having taught himself through an English-Hungarian dictionary while in prison. He enrolled in Columbia University earned a Master's degree in history in 1959, and a Ph.D. in 1966.[15] His doctoral dissertation topic was "1790: Society in Royal Hungary," and was later revised and published as Hungary in the Late Eighteenth Century: The Decline of Enlightened Despotism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969). The supervisor for his dissertation was Robert A. Kann, an Austrian-born historian at Rutgers University who spent several years as a visiting professor at Columbia.[16] Király dedicated his second book, Ferenc Deák (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975), to Kann, and also contributed to a Festschrift for Kann: Intellectual and Social Developments in the Habsburg Empire from Maria Theresa to World War I: Essays Dedicated to Robert A. Kann, ed. Stanley B. Winters and Joseph Held (Boulder: East European quarterly; distributed by Columbia University Press, 1975). From 1964 he taught Military History at Brooklyn College, and became chairman of the history department. He retired as Professor Emeritus in 1982.[2][7] During his tenure he served as director of the Society In Change Program on East Central Europe, supervised Brooklyn College Press (the College's Publishing House), and was an adviser to the Brooklyn College Military History Club. The Brooklyn College Bela K. Kiraly Award, awarded to undergraduate students for outstanding work in modern history, bears his name.

Return to HungaryEdit

After the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, he was an invited guest at Imre Nagy's funeral and re-interment, June 1989. He moved back to Hungary later that year, and was elected to the Hungarian National Assembly, representing his birthplace Kaposvár. He served from May–November 1990 as an independent deputy, then joined the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) parliamentary group,[2][6] later assuming the role of a government adviser. In 2004, he was made an associate member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Király died in his sleep in Budapest on 4 July 2009, aged 97.[6]

Selected worksEdit


  1. ^ Nagy, Terka (2009-07-04). "1956 National Guard commander Bela Kiraly dies". naplo-online.hu. Archived from the original on 2012-02-25. Retrieved 2009-07-04.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Fox, Margalit (8 July 2009). "Bela Kiraly Dies at 97; Led Revolt in Hungary". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-02-01.
  3. ^ a b Schindler, John R. (1998-02-24). "Dodging Armageddon: The Third World War That Almost Was, 1950". Cryptologic Quarterly: 85–95. Archived from the original on 2015-09-30. Retrieved 2016-10-27.
  4. ^ "Bela Kiraly". Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale. 2009. Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000054393. Retrieved 2014-02-01. Biography in Context. (subscription required)
  5. ^ a b Apple Jr., R.W. (28 December 1982). "SOME INSIGHTS INTO ANDROPOV GLEANED FROM BUDAPEST ROLE". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-02-06.
  6. ^ a b c d e Land, Thomas (26 July 2009). "Righteous Gentile Bela Kiraly dies at 92". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Retrieved 2014-02-06.
  7. ^ a b c Partos, Gabriel (11 July 2009). "Bela Kiraly: Soldier who led Hungarian resistance against the Soviet Union during the 1956 uprising". The Independent. London: Independent Educational Publishing. Retrieved 2014-02-06.
  8. ^ a b c Congdon, Lee (8 August 2009). "Obituary: Béla K. Király, 1912-2009". NewsgroupHabsburg H-Net Habsburg. Retrieved 2014-02-07. {{cite newsgroup}}: Check |newsgroup= value (help)
  9. ^ "Király Béla (1912 - 2009 ) Personal Information The Righteous Among The Nations". Yad Vashem. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  10. ^ "Király FAMILY - The Righteous Among The Nations". Yad Vashem. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  11. ^ Berecz, János (1986). 1956 Counter-Revolution in Hungary: Words and Weapons. Akadémiai Kiadó. pp. 116. ISBN 978-9630543705.
  12. ^ Filimonov, Olef (October 30, 2016). "Мифы о восстании". Polit RU. Retrieved October 27, 2016.
  13. ^ Khrushchev, Nikita (2007). Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev (PDF). University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press. p. 665. ISBN 978-0-271-02935-1. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-02-07.
  14. ^ Bay, Austin (29 July 2009). "Remembering a Hungarian Freedom Fighter". Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  15. ^ Béla K. Király, Wars, Revolutions and Regime Changes in Hungary, 1912-2004: Reminiscences of an Eyewitness (Boulder, CO: Social Science Monographs; Highland Lakes, NJ: Atlantic Research and Publications, Inc.; New York: distributed by Columbia University Press, 2005), 381.
  16. ^ Winters, Stanley B. "The Forging of a Historian: Robert A. Kann in America, 1939-1976," Austrian History Yearbook 17 (Jan. 1981): 3-24.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit