János Kádár (; Hungarian: [ˈjaːnoʃ ˈkaːdaːr]; 26 May 1912 – 6 July 1989) was a Hungarian communist leader and the General Secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, presiding over the country from 1956 until his retirement in 1988. His 32-year term as General Secretary covered most of the period the People’s Republic of Hungary existed. Due to Kádár’s age, declining health and declining political mastery, he retired as General Secretary of the party in 1988 and a younger generation consisting mostly of reformers took over.
Kádár was born in Fiume to a poor family. He never met his father, who left his mother when he was young. After living in the countryside for some years, Kádár and his mother moved to Budapest. After quitting school, Kádár joined the Communist Party of Hungary’s youth organisation, KIMSZ. Kádár would go on to become a prominent figure in the pre-World War II communist party, even becoming First Secretary. As leader, he dissolved the party and reorganised it as the Peace Party. This new party failed to win any popular support for the communist cause and he would later be accused of dissolving the Hungarian communist party. With the German invasion of Hungary, the Peace Party tried again to win support from the Hungarian populace, but failed. At the time of the Soviet occupation, the communist movement led by Kádár was small.
As the Communists took over Hungary in 1947–48, Kádár rose quickly through the Party ranks, serving as Interior Minister from 1948 to 1950. He took part in the trial and interrogation of former secret police chief László Rajk, one of the most infamous show-trials in the post-war Eastern bloc. In 1951, he was imprisoned by the Stalinist regime of Mátyás Rákosi, but was released in 1954 by reformist Prime Minister Imre Nagy and became a rising star in the Party once again. On 25 October 1956, during the Hungarian Revolution, Kádár replaced Ernő Gerő as General Secretary of the Party, taking part in Nagy’s short-lived revolutionary government. However, on 1 November he broke with Nagy over the latter’s decision to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact; secretly defecting to the Soviets. When the Soviets crushed the Revolution on 4 November, they selected Kádár as the next leader of Hungary. After the Revolution was crushed, Kádár initially presided over a reign of terror, ordering the execution of many participants in the Revolution (including Imre Nagy and his close associates) and the imprisonment of many others. However, he gradually softened his approach as the years passed, often granting individual amnesties, and moderating his regime’s overall governing style. By 1963, the last prisoners from the Hungarian Revolution had been released.
As leader of Hungary, Kádár was a team player and took care to consult his colleagues before acting or making decisions and his tenure saw an attempt at liberalising the economic system to put greater effort to build up industries aimed at consumers. His rule was marked by what later became known as Goulash Communism. A significant increase in consumer expenditures because of the New Economic Mechanism (NEM), a major economic reform, reintroduced certain market mechanisms into Hungary. As a result of the relatively high standard of living, a favorable human rights policy and more relaxed travel restrictions than those present in other Eastern Bloc countries, Hungary was generally considered the best country to live in Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War, also expressed in the informal term “the happiest barrack”. On 6 July 1989, an ill Kádár died after having been forced to retire. Kádár was succeeded by Károly Grósz as General Secretary on 22 May 1988. Grósz would only serve a year in this post due to the fall of communism in Europe in 1989.
While at the helm of the People’s Republic of Hungary, Kádár pushed for an improvement in the standard of living. Kádár engaged in increased international trade with non-communist countries, in particular those of Western Europe. Kádár’s policies differed significantly from those of other communist leaders such as Nicolae Ceaușescu, Enver Hoxha and Wojciech Jaruzelski, all of whom favored authoritarian governments that suppressed and punished opposition severely. However, Kádár’s policies could not overcome the inherent limitations of the communist system and were viewed with distrust by the conservative leadership of Leonid Brezhnev in the Soviet Union. Kádár’s legacy remains disputed, but he was voted in a survey carried out by Median in Hungary in 2007 as the third most competent politician behind István Széchenyi and Lajos Kossuth who could solve the problems of Hungary.