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Sándor Horváth: Children of Communism. Politicizing Youth Revolt in Communist Budapest in the 1960s. Translated by Thomas Cooper (= Studies in Hungarian History), Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press 2022, XIII + 281 S., ISBN 978-0-253-05973-4, USD 85,00
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Árpád von Klimó
The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC
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Árpád von Klimó: Rezension von: Sándor Horváth: Children of Communism. Politicizing Youth Revolt in Communist Budapest in the 1960s. Translated by Thomas Cooper, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press 2022, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 11 [15.11.2023], URL:

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Sándor Horváth: Children of Communism

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Sándor Horváth's study is a fruit of his long research on the history of everyday life and culture of Communist Hungary. Particularly important were his studies, based on extensive archival and oral history research, on the town of Dunaújváros (formerly Sztálinváros or Stalin City), a very specific town built around huge steel works, the most ambitious industrial project of Communist Hungary in the 1950s [1].

His new book Children of Communism describes how the authorities of the Communist system, "mostly the police and secret police, together with the state-controlled media and in cooperation with youth care institutions, youth organizations, and juvenile courts, created the image of a dangerous youth gang" (73, 93) and its members as "criminals" (12, 35, 50, passim) and "fascists" (14,16, 18, 23-24, passim). Horváth, who is Head of the Department of Contemporary History at the Institute of History in Budapest (Research Center for the Humanities, formerly; Academy of Sciences) describes the decades of individual struggles of these young people who often went from youth detention institutes into prisons and never had a chance to live normal lives. Instead, they were often surveilled or molested by the authorities. He also analyzes how these young people struggled with the identity forced upon them by the state, a struggle that would often continue even after the fall of the regime in 1989. In most cases, the unwanted interaction between the authorities and the youth created something that the authorities had aspired: It turned rather apolitical consumers of Western or Western-style rock music into "enemies" of the Socialist state. By doing so, Horváth further extends the recent historiographical sub discipline of pop history to South-Eastern European history and he contributes to the history of youth, in particular to the construction and criminalization of certain socio types [2].

Horváth's history of the "great tree gang" (2, 22, 35, 54, 173, passim) of Budapest begins with the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 in which thousands of young people had protested or even taken on arms against the Soviet invaders and their Hungarian allies. After the crushing of the revolution and the executions of hundreds and the incarceration of thousands of protesters, the regime under János Kádár attempted to create a new form of social contract by focusing its policies on consumerism and a certain depoliticization of society.

However, Horváth's monograph demonstrates very well how ambivalent and limited the new policies of a depoliticized Socialist consumer-society was. The example of the construction of the "great tree gang" exemplifies this well: This group of friends and acquaintances, some of them hippies or young people with difficulties at home or in school, would meet regularly around a large tree on the Buda-Hill, in close proximity to the Youth Park, where the Communist Youth Organization (KISZ) organized beat and pop concerts. The fact that they met outside of the state-organized sphere designated for a controlled gathering of young people, made the KISZ suspicious but it also created a perfect target for a coordinated attack by the police, the secret police, youth authorities and organizations. The Kadar regime offered limited, strongly observed spaces for young people, and defined the strict borders outside of which the youth could become target of police surveillance because of suspected Western influences that were regarded as threat to the socialist system.

So, on 8 June 1969, when a larger group was mourning the death of Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones, the authorities struck and arrested dozens (chapter 1). As shown in chapters two, three and six, this coordinated police operation was accompanied by a campaign in the state-controlled media that attempted to create a "moral panic" (6, 7, 12) among the law-abiding socialist citizens, who would surely also condemn the "huligán" (hooligans: 3, 7, 10, passim), a term taken from Soviet legal language or "galeri" (Hungarian for "youth gang") who were led astray because of damaging Western influences (12, 62, 174). Horváth compares this form of moral panic with similar phenomena in Western societies during the mid-1950s to mid-1960s where the image of dangerous youth was rather created by an independent yellow press and not controlled by state authorities.

The book then follows the lives of a few of these young hippies through the system of youth detention centers, foster families, and other institutions that dealt with young people who were suspected of not living up to the high standard to socialist morals. Chapter five describes how the police mapped and observed public spaces, and defined how these could be and could not be used. The next chapter reconstructs from diaries of some of the young people how they experienced their difficult struggles through the socialist youth system. In Chapter seven, the author turns his attention to questions of gender, by focusing on a few girls who were arrested in 1969 and then treated in gender-specified ways by the authorities. For example, in many cases, pregnant minor gang members were considered to be a specific category of delinquents which needed specific treatment according to the welfare system of the socialist state (100). The final chapter is based on oral history interviews with some of the protagonists, highlighting how they regarded their lives as oppositional outsiders of the socialist state after the collapse of communism, how they tried to cope with the sometimes traumatic experiences and how these shaped their identities and attitudes. Some of them stylized themselves as "hermit" or "hobo", and other forms of social outsiders (195).

Sándor Horváth's study provides us with new insights into a variety of areas of the Kadar regime in Hungary: how its ambivalent policy of consumerism and limited toleration of Western influences (mostly in the area of pop culture) created tensions and contradictions, how the authorities attempted to control these by creating suspicious outsiders ("hooligans") among young people in order to exercise control over society, and how a socialist yellow press supported these practices. The book also offers us a glimpse on the lives, experiences and reactions of these young outsiders, their lives and sufferings in the state youth justice systems and later on in their lives as adults until after the fall of the system. These are all areas which have hardly been studied before in Hungarian historiography. Another major accomplishment are Horváth's numerous comparative reflections, not only on the creation of moral panic across Western and socialist societies, but also on the effects of Westernization and consumerism, and how modern pop culture shaped identities.


[1] Published in English as: Sandor Horvath: Stalinism Reloaded. Everyday Life in Stalin-City, Hungary, Bloomington 2017.

[2] See the reviews of the sehepunkte-FORUM "Popgeschichte in Ost und West": and Matej Kotalík: Rowdytum im Staatssozialismus. Ein Feindbild aus der Sowjetunion, Berlin 2019.

Árpád von Klimó