Béla Király, 97

Béla Király; Hungarian General Led 1956 Uprising Against Soviets

Béla Király fled Hungary after the uprising and settled in the United States, where he wrote books and taught college. He later returned to Hungary.
Béla Király fled Hungary after the uprising and settled in the United States, where he wrote books and taught college. He later returned to Hungary. (1957 Associated Press Photo)
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By Alexander F. Remington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009

Gen. Béla Király, 97, a Hungarian military leader who survived a death sentence imposed by Budapest's Kremlin-controlled government, commanded the tumultuous 1956 uprising against Soviet invaders and decades later served in his country's first post-communist parliament, died July 4 in Budapest. No cause of death was reported.

A career army officer, Gen. Király joined the Communist Party after World War II but was swept up with thousands of others on political charges as Stalin's grasp on Hungary strengthened.

He was arrested in 1951 and sentenced to death, but the punishment was commuted to a life term. During a period of clemency for political prisoners, he was paroled in late 1956 -- weeks before the uprising began.

Student protests took place Oct. 23 as he was convalescing in a hospital a day after undergoing surgery. An armed response to the protests was followed by a short-lived ceasefire.

Friends briefed him in his hospital room. On Nov. 4, he later said in interviews, a New York Times reporter offered to give him a front-page story if he would request aid from the West. He declined, saying he believed such prominent coverage might trigger a nuclear war.

Imre Nagy, the Hungarian prime minister whose clashes with more iron-fisted communist leaders led to his expulsion from government and the party, briefly returned to office and named Gen. Király to lead the Hungarian forces against Soviet troops that entered Budapest to quell the rebellion.

"In 24 hours, I created a professional military staff," he later told Agence France-Presse. On Nov. 4, Yuri Andropov, the Soviet ambassador to Hungary who went on to lead the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, assured Nagy that their countries were not at war. Shortly thereafter, Nagy went on the radio to declare that Soviet troops had attacked Budapest.

Gen. Király's troops were hopelessly outmanned. "There was no prepared strategy to drive the Russians out," he said in an interview in 1996. "Mostly the Hungarian army remained in the barracks."

In late November, he and a few of his soldiers fled Budapest and made for the border. Gen. Király escaped to Austria and went to the United States, where he settled in New Jersey. Nagy remained, was charged with plotting revolution and was executed in 1958 on charges of treason. Gen. Király vowed not to return to Hungary until Nagy's reputation was officially rehabilitated.

In 1989, with the communist power structure eroding rapidly in Budapest, Gen. Király returned for Nagy's reburial after Hungary's supreme court acquitted Nagy of high treason.

In the intervening years, Gen. Király received a doctorate in history from Columbia University, taught military history at Brooklyn College, wrote books about Hungarian history and founded the New Jersey-based publishing house Atlantic Research and Publications. He remained a voluble critic of the Soviet Union, testifying before the Senate and the United Nations and writing frequent letters to The Washington Post and other newspapers praising Nagy.

Béla Kalman Király was born April 14, 1912, in Kaposvár in southwestern Hungary. He was a 1935 graduate of the Ludovika Military Academy in Budapest. An early marriage ended in divorce, and survivors include a son, according to published reports.

Gen. Király served in the army during World War II, when Hungary was allied with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union. He disobeyed an order for 400 Jewish slave laborers to build fortifications on the Soviet front and instead put them "into Hungarian uniforms and treated them humanely," the Jerusalem Post reported.

This action may have saved his own life, journalist David Rennie wrote in the Spectator, a London magazine. He escaped from a Soviet train to Siberia in 1944 and was suspected of being a fascist until he provided proof of his actions on behalf of the Jews he commanded.

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, recognized Gen. Király in 1993 as "Righteous Among the Nations," the designation for Gentiles who aided Jews during the war.

Gen. Király retired from teaching in the early 1980s. At the end of the Cold War, he returned to his home town and, widely viewed as a patriot, ran for parliament in 1990 and served a four-year term. While campaigning, he showed how Americanized he had become.

Though he was widely seen as a sure thing for office, the Toronto Globe and Mail quoted him as saying with an "American" accent: "You know what Yogi Berra always says. It ain't over till it's over."

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