István Bethlen and the importance of the Bethlen-government

Count István Bethlen was one of the key politicians of the Horthy era, who managed to achieve during his decade as prime minister that Hungary, battered by the Trianon tragedy, was strengthened both economically and socially. This week, on the 75th anniversary of his death, we commemorate his life, merits, and the government he constituted a hundred years ago.


01_232832.jpgCount István Bethlen of Bethlen was born on 8 October 1874 in Gernyeszeg, Transylvania, in an old aristocratic Reformed family. On the maternal side, the Wesselényi and Teleki families were among his ancestors. Until the age of nineteen, he studied at the Theresianum in Vienna, which was created specifically to educate the noble youth. After his return, he studied law and public administration at the Budapest University of Sciences. After a year of military service, he also graduated in agriculture. He was 27 years old when he was elected a representative in Hódmezővásárhely. He married that year; his wife was Countess Margit Bethlen, a writer, a distant relative, with whom they had three children. He politicised first as a member of the Liberal Party, then as a representative of the Independence Party, and later in the Constitutional Party. In 1918-19, he became the main organizer of the counter-revolutionary forces; after the establishment of the Council Republic, he worked as the head of the Anti-Bolshevik Committee in Vienna. In 1920, he travelled to Paris as a member of the Hungarian delegation of the Congress preparing the Treaty of Trianon. The term from 1919 to 1921 was a transitional period, in which governments changed one another, and Bethlen's name had already emerged during the Teleki-government, but the political forces at that time would not have allowed him to choose his ministers, so he rejected the position offered to him. After the resignation of the Teleki-government, in April 1921 he was invited to the post of Prime Minister again, which he accepted then.

Csoportkép politikusokról

Members of the Bethlen-government from left to right: Nándor Bernolák (welfare), István Nagyatádi Szabó (agriculture), Sándor Belitska (home defence), Gedeon Ráday (interior), Count István Bethlen (Prime Minister), Miklós Bánffy (foreign affairs), Lóránt Hegedüs (finance), Vilmos Pál Tomcsányi (justice), József Vass (religion and public education), Lajos Hegyeshalmy (finance temporarily) – Balatoni Múzeum CC BY-NC-ND

When the government was constituted, Hungary was in a serious crisis, partly due to the Trianon peace dictates and partly due to Charles IV’s attempts to return and the conflicts with neighbouring countries. Bethlen himself chose the members of his government and took his first measures to ensure the formation of a united Christian and national party (KNEP), and in the meantime, he managed to reconcile with the largest opposition party (Bethlen-Peyer Pact) within a short time.

03_237315.jpgWith the repeal of the Pragmatica Sanctio, not the entire Habsburg dynasty, only Charles IV was dethroned. As the form of the state was a national kingdom, they did not rule out the possibility of electing even a new Habsburg ruler further on. Bethlen was a revisionist, but he would have arranged the revision peacefully. He wanted to reclaim the Hungarian-inhabited areas without a referendum, and where the Hungarians were in the minority, he would have held a referendum there, but at the same time, he would have given autonomy to the Rusyns, Slovaks and Transylvanian peoples. However, the creation of the Little Entente thwarted these efforts.



In 1922, merging with Nagyatádi’s smallholders’ party, he formed the United Party, in which he took over the leading role in a short time, and by 1923 he ousted Gömbös' national right-wing politicians from the party. According to contemporary recollections, Bethlen was an extremely charismatic personality, who gained authority even in the eyes of his opponents and critics. He avoided the then fashionable neo-baroque splendour, preferring puritanical simplicity. He was conservative, but at the same time liberal; he gained recognition in the Anglo-Saxon countries with his diplomacy that was close to British conservatism.

To stabilize the economy, he established the National Bank in 1924 and obtained a federal loan. In 1927, he introduced the Pengő, created a mandatory pension- and health insurance system. He developed the social network, improved the public health situation, and built a network of public schools. Count Kuno Klebelsberg, Minister of Religion and Public Education (1922-31), was of great help in reforming culture and education. He did not support Nagyatádi’s land reform because he was rather on the side of big landowners on the land issue and refused to accept the derogation of their lands, even if it could have alleviated the peasants' hunger for land. Thus, no extensive land reform took place during his term as prime minister. The world economic crisis of 1929 did not avoid Hungary either, so he had to take out loans and take austerity measures. He resigned as prime minister in August 1931, but remained an adviser to Governor Miklós Horthy further on.


05_232846.jpgAfter his resignation, he travelled a lot; in his lectures, he represented the Hungarian cause, supported good relations with the Anglo-Saxon countries and tried to reduce the German and Russian influence in Hungary. He was familiar with the circles where adherents of independent, anti-Nazi and pro-British politicians gathered. He considered that the entry in World War II was an error and opposed the Anti-Jewish laws.


In 1943-44, he made attempts to achieve the separate peace through his British connections. He organized gatherings and meetings to find an opportunity for Hungary to break out of the war. Due to the German occupation, he had to hide from the spring of 1944, when his health deteriorated and he suffered two strokes.

He was captured by invading Soviet troops, he offered to cooperate, and then he was held under house arrest for a short time. The Soviets probably still considered him a dangerous opponent, thus they decided to isolate him so that he could not plot against them and took him to Moscow, where he was detained in the Butyrskaya prison. He died there on 5 October 1946. The Russians kept his death and its circumstances secret for a long time, and authentic documents about his fate were not revealed until 1993. He rests in the mass grave of the Donskoy Monastery in Moscow, from where his ashes could be brought home only symbolically to the Kerepesi Cemetery, where his shrine stands.

Aknai Zita



More thematic virtual exhibitions