Honoree

Gyorgy Aczel

AWARDS

Thomas Hart Benton Mural Medallion (1987)
Official Visit from Hungary
Location: Bloomington
Presenter: John W. Ryan

BIOGRAPHY

Growing up in an orphanage, György Aczél worked in construction and dabbled in acting during his younger years. Later, he joined the underground Communist Party, participating in the Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa'ir youth movement as well. After being arrested in 1942, he worked as a forced laborer. During the German occupation at that time, he assisted in the resistance movement and in rescuing Jews. After World War II, Aczél began associating with the Budapest administration of the Communist Party, becoming party secretary of the counties of Zemplén (1946) and Baranya (1948), and also served in Hungary's parliament, joining the party's presidential board in 1948. The following year he was arrested and condemned to life imprisonment, though he was eventually released in August, 1954 with charges dismissed.

Aczél then became the director of a state-owned construction company and joined the executive board of the reformed Communist Party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in November 1956. Though he initially represented a moderate political position, during the first meeting after the revolution, he sharply criticized the party's former chief ideologue, József Révai (1889–1959) for his orthodox views, significantly increasing his own political role. Consequently, Aczél was appointed minister of cultural affairs, a position he held for 10 years. As a confidant of party leader János Kádár (with whom he had been in prison), Aczél became one of the most influential members of the party; in the post-1956 era, Aczél was the singular politician of Jewish origin in the upper ranks of the nomenklatura.

Towards the end of the 1960's, Aczél was given increasingly visible and significant political roles. In 1967, he became the secretary of the party's central committee, and by 1970 his committee membership gave him control of Hungarian cultural, scientific, and educational programs. Informally, he was considered to be the second most important leader of the country. During the final decades of the Kádár era, Aczél shaped a cultural policy of Hungary that was less authoritarian than that of other Communist countries, a policy that basically mixed state support, tolerance, and prohibition. Aczél belonged to a group of reformers during the debate on ways to modernize the country's economy (dubbed the "new economic mechanism"), but he consistently opposed every effort to effect changes, and sought instead to preserve the Communist Party. He was active in efforts to stifle the then-emergent dissident movement.

The failure of the economic reforms in 1974, however, shifted political power and restricted Aczél's influence; he was assigned the post of deputy prime minister, but lost his position on the central committee. Though he was able to retrieve almost all of his earlier functions in 1982, and successfully held on to them for another three years, he would never regained the power he had once wielded. The gradually deepening crisis of the Communist regime cried out for solutions he could not find, and he failed to recognize the crumbling dynamics within the system. In 1985, he accepted an appointment as director of the Social Science Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.