Women under the banner of friendship

The concept of friendship played an important role in the creation of a new world order amidst post-WWII reconstruction efforts. In countries such as Hungary, just as the Communist Party was resurfacing from its interwar illegality, new organizations such as the Hungarian Women’s Democratic Federation (Magyar Nők Demokratikus Szövetsége, MNDSz) were formed. As an umbrella organization, the MNDSz included women from a broad societal spectrum: ‘no matter what social status, party affiliation, profession, religion, all the women and girls who love their country and want to work’ were encouraged by the federation. The leading stipulation: dedication to anti-fascism. Building such a new local organization from scratch brought women together who hadn’t or had only tangentially known each other before.

Soon after its foundation, the MNDSz joined the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF), making it the main vector of Hungarian women’s access to international politics and connections. WIDF membership enabled getting to know women ‘from the whole wide world’. The relationships within the organization, locally and internationally were often framed as friendship, and more specifically, as female friendship. Most languages spoken by the women from the newly created socialist bloc within the WIDF had a specific term for female friend: Freundin in German, barátnő in Hungarian, prijateljica in Croatian (and BCS), подруга in Ukrainian, to mention but a few. The gendered aspect is crucial here: it is not only solidarity and camaraderie that female friends share, reciprocity (another key element of friendship) also entails sharing intimate and private details of one’s life.

This private aspect of female friendship was attributed a new meaning set within the lead metaphor of Soviet local policy: Stalin’s ‘friendship of peoples’. The USSR campaign, which began in 1935, was gradually adopted in East-Central Europe after WWII. The term was used first to re-brand Russia in its relationship to other Soviet republics, especially those in Central Asia, and dispel the memories of earlier imperial practices. The purpose was similar in East-Central Europe after WWII, maintaining the image of the Soviet Union as not only a liberator but also a superpower with which the small countries in the region had a relationship marked by reciprocity and even equality.

Historian Rachel Applebaum calls the campaign an ‘experiment in power of a different kind’. She highlights the prescribed role of ‘transnational friendship to create a cohesive socialist world,’ which ‘linked citizens of the superpower and its satellites in an empire of friends that lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall.’ Cultural exchange, economic trade and sports diplomacy were just as crucial as the interpersonal connections established through international organizations. The WIDF and the MNDSz played an important role in jointly creating this international cohesion, whilst ensuring female support of the communist party domestically.

fortepan_142714Fortepan / Chuckyeager tumblr

Magyar Nők Demokratikus Szövetsége during a 1st of May demonstration. Image from Chuckyeager tumblr via Fortepan.

Global socialism

Women from the illegal communist movement and the freshly re-established Communist Party in Hungary occupied the most important MNDSz positions. Their ‘secret’ mission was to recruit as many women as possible to support the Communist Party at the elections in November 1945. The two women with the most comprehensive agenda were two intellectuals, who had already been active in the interwar period: Boris Fái (Boris was a nickname for Borbála, the equivalent of the Greek name Barbara – a Hungarian, female given name. Boris is pronounced with a sh sound at the end) and Magda Aranyossi. Both had been illegal communists and devoted anti-fascists during WWII, spending years in exile and having been imprisoned by the police of the Nazi-allied, Horthy-ruled Hungary. Fái was beaten and tortured whilst in prison.

Within the MNDSz, the two women collaborated on a new agenda of women’s rights and women’s involvement in politics, and organized post-war reconstruction work across the country. They focused on women and children, especially regarding the provision of food and basic healthcare services for malnourished and sick children. They worked with women from all walks of life. Helping these women and taking care of their needs was their primary goal but recruiting them for support of the Communist Party was part of their agenda and a precondition for the material support from the party. Fái had very good organizational skills and experience in working with large groups of women, whilst she and her fellow activists looked to Aranyossi for intellectual input. The women who founded and organized the MNDSz were often confronted with the male leadership of the Communist Party and realized that they would benefit from the protection of the wives of prominent communists. Fái turned to Júlia Rajk, the wife of the future interior minister and creator of the state secret police, László Rajk, and asked her to take over the lead position as chief secretary of the organization.

For these Hungarian women, becoming members of the socialist international community or as Celia Donert more accurately calls it, ‘global socialism’, meant dissolution from the role of their country in WWII as Hitler’s last satellite. The MNDSz women were invited to the first WIDF congress in Paris in 1945 and Fái was part of the delegation. On recollecting the visit, she wrote: 

I felt this enormous excitement. Not only because, apart from our contact with the Yugoslav and Romanian women, this was our first contact with abroad [a külfölddel]. We didn’t know much about the women’s movements elsewhere, since there was no train or mail connection yet. We realized it now, from the brochure sent with the invitation, that there are women from America, China, Vietnam, Italy, … who fight for the same goals, and with similar means as we do. That women of the whole world fight for democracy, peace, the protection and happiness of children. Then we saw that we were on the right path. … From this point on, we were members of the family of hundreds of millions of democratic women of the world.

The use of family as a metaphor for political alliance reveals a sense of closeness, loyalty and intimacy. Moreover, for Fái, as well as Rajk and Aranyossi, being part of the WIDF congress meant acknowledgement for their views and work in front of what seemed like the entire world. 

Fái wrote multiple recollections of her first WIDF meeting in 1945, all of which highlight the benevolence and curiosity amongst the participants, which created a warm and friendly atmosphere despite the ignorance about each other’s languages and culture: 

Thousands of women from forty countries gathered there, and many of them came from much further away and often on much more arduous journeys than us. We found here the crème-de-la-crème of the women of the world. We did not even understand the language of most of them, still, there was a strong tie between all of us from the first moment. We were very, very different [from each other]. Not only our language, our skin colour, our clothes, our customs. There were rich and poor, highly educated and very simple women. But most of us had lived through the war, many of us the hell of prisons and concentration camps, we all hated fascism and were ready to fight for peace, independence, democracy. .

What these women shared brought them closer together: their political goals and the sacrifices they had made for them during the war. For these Hungarian women, being with those who had been at the forefront of the anti-fascist struggle was a form of absolution from their country’s shameful past.

Friendship as identity

They shared their discoveries with women at home via the MNDSz’s magazine, Asszonyok (mature or married women). With its colour print, household advice and children’s page, the magazine appealed to women from almost all walks of life. It contained a section on international news, where MNDSz leaders reported their encounters with other WIDF women with admiration and a sense of inferiority: in contrast to them, Hungarian women ‘had nothing to say about the fight against fascism’. Fái, instrumental in organizing the magazine, described the women she met in Paris with language that combined intimacy with the kind of journalism usually reserved for movie stars. She also assigned special roles to each and every woman in the WIDF leadership, encouraging readers to choose those they identified with the most and create a set of characters, as if from a novel or film.

One of the most important letters, given a prominent position in Asszonyok, came from Dolores Ibárruri, also known as Pasionaria. Ibárruri (1895-1989) was a communist politician, who fought on the side of the republicans during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and continued her anti-fascist work during WWII. She was one of the initial four vice presidents of the WIDF. In her letter, she addresses Fái and Anna Kara, another activist from the MNDSz, as ‘my dear [female] friends’ (kedves barátnőim). The letter, which was otherwise rather perfunctory, was important for its declaration of friendship. Ibárruri was portrayed as one of the protectors of the Hungarian delegation at the WIDF in Paris in 1945, arguing for MNDSz delegates to be invited to join the executive committee of the WIDF: ‘Because the Hungarian people are not identical with the Horthy and Szálasi fascists, because the real Hungarian people are the ones whose heroic sons were fighting in Spain, many of them sacrificing their lives for Spanish freedom.’  Fái’s words, narrating Ibárruri’s statement, reflect again on the sensitive matter of Hungary’s status as ‘the last satellite’. Asszonyok proudly announced that women in the MNDSz had earned the respect of their comrades in the WIDF for contributing to the maintenance of peace and democracy in Hungary. The following year, in 1948, the country even hosted the next WIDF congress.

Betrayal of friendship

This initial success and era of hope ended in 1948-49. The Stalinization of Hungary was a period of fear and terror. Tensions grew between those previously nurturing political friendships, serving political purposes, and private friendships, imagined to be based on loyalty, care and camaraderie. Women, previously celebrated in the communist movement, disappeared from the scene. Even those friendships that developed between women within the post-WWII Hungarian communist movement stood on shaky ground. Stalinization took away much of the joy and ease among women in the movement.

Magda Aranyossi’s memoirs from 1978, which were re-published in 2018 with side notes from her nephew, Péter Nádas, one of the most important contemporary writers in Central Europe, have important insights about this period. Aranyossi recalls the role of jokes and self-irony helping the illegal communist women preserve their good spirits during the war. The very same spirit characterized the times around the foundation of the MNDSz. They humorously re-appropriated some of the names that were originally meant as offensive (e.g., by male opponents within the communist movement), and, as Nádas adds, Aranyossi and her friends referred to the MNDSz as the Witch Club and the Old Hens Democratic Federation. He adds that all the joy disappeared from even his aunt’s closest circles after 1949 when the Rajks were arrested: ‘From this point on, the life experience and humour of the former Paris emigré women didn’t have a place anymore. Even less so because all of those who were not members of the Moscow group of emigrants, lived under the heavy shadows of suspicion. Until they were arrested too.’

The Rajk trial was the largest Stalinist show trial in Hungary. Andrea Pető writes about Fái’s role, alongside that of many of the women who worked with her and Júlia Rajk in the MNDSz, in testifying against the Rajks. László Rajk was subsequently executed, Júlia Rajk imprisoned and their baby son taken away. Pető emphasizes that the transcripts of the original 1949 trial are not available anymore, but from the rehabilitation trial she reconstructs that Fái denied there was friendship between her and her husband and the Rajks, and that she had only asked Júlia Rajk to join the MNDSz in the hope that the wife of a ‘big man could be useful for a mass organization’. Despite their relentless support of the Communist Party and the regime, Fái and Aranyossi were removed from their positions at the MNDSz, including their activity for Asszonyok, and side-lined from any directly political activity concerning women – something both had prioritized and cared deeply about.

Friendship as a metaphor was used for post-WWII Soviet expansion efforts in combination with endeavours to maintain the illusion of popular front politics, a kind of organizing principle that allows women from a broad political spectrum to express their views and participate in politics. The contradiction between this position and the Stalinist purges of anyone who was even suspected of disagreement is shown in an almost absurd manner in an Asszonyok article. The magazine published an image from the WIDF Executive Committee meeting in Moscow in October 1947 with three women from the Czechoslovak delegation: one of the most important feminist thinkers and politicians from before WWII, Miládá Horáková, in the company of Marie Trojanová ‘representing Catholic women’ and Anežka Hodinová-Spurná from the Communist Party. ‘They work together and are best [female] friends,’ states the caption. However, Horáková over the course of a couple of years went from being an anti-fascist hero to an enemy of the state and was executed in the first show trial in Czechoslovakia in June 1950. 

One unavoidably wonders about how close these women, especially our protagonists, Fái, Aranyossi and Rajk, actually were. Their ‘friendship’ is a puzzle in many ways. As their archived correspondence shows, Aranyossi and Fái had known each other for a long time and kept in touch till the end of their lives. Júlia Rajk was introduced to the movement by Boris Fái. More often than not, the women were each other’s political competition. At best, their relationship would seem to have been more camaraderie than friendship. However, as Pető discovered, Fái and her husband, and the Rajks hosted each other in their respective homes, which conjures an image of genuine friendship – at least until the Rajks’ persecution. My research even shows that the police once arrested Fái and László Rajk together, and Fái remembered Rajk’s caring support in prison.

The Soviet policy of friendship continued to play a crucial role in its internal and East-Central European politics, but the personal and political female friendships with all their promise and potential were demolished together with the institutions and initiatives from the immediate post-WWII era. Those women who were integral part of this brief period of hope, who believed in the possibility of a politics of alliance across the wide political spectrum, symbolized by friendship, in just a couple of years were confronted with and sometimes themselves resorted to repression, betrayal and violence.

This article was inspired by participants at the workshop Intersecting Histories: Exploring interdisciplinary perspectives on friendship convened by Zara Pavšič at the Democracy Institute at the Central European University in Budapest. The author has used many findings from the research results published in ‘International Solidarity as the Cornerstone of the Hungarian Post-War Socialist Women’s Rights Agenda in Women’s Magazines’ (IRSH 67 (2022), pp. 103-129). The research for that article received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement MSCA-IF-EF-ST 841489 hosted by the University of Cambridge.

This article has been published as part of the youth project Vom Wissen der Jungen. Wissenschaftskommunikation mit jungen Erwachsenen in Kriegszeiten, funded by the City of Vienna, Cultural Affairs.

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