Kádár spent his first six years with foster parents in Kapoly, Somogy County, until reunited in Budapest with his mother, who worked occasionally as a washerwoman and sent him to school until he was 14. (He met his biological father, who lived as a small landowner, and his three half-brothers only in 1960).
He was arrested in 1937 by the Horthy regime and was sent to prison for three years. On his release he did not go to the Soviet Union, but together with his friend László Rajk ran the underground communist movement during the Second World War, since 1943 under the pseudonym János Kádár. (In Hungarian kádár means cooper) In 1944 while trying to pass the border into Serbia, in order to make secret contacts with Tito's partisans, he was arrested and dispatched with a transport of Jews to Mauthausen concentration camp. On the way at Komarno while temporarily transferred to the town's prison, he managed to escape and went back to Budapest. Between 1943 and 1945 he was the first secretary of the Communist party, and between 1943 and 1944 he led its legal cover organization, the Peace Party.
In 1946, he was elected Deputy Secretary-General of the Hungarian Communist Party. In 1949, he succeeded László Rajk as Minister of the Interior. Rajk was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs by the Communist Party leader Mátyás Rákosi when he had already been secretly chosen as the chief defendant of the "show trial," to be staged by Rákosi in Hungary by the analogy of the show trials, initiated by Stalin in the Soviet Union. Rajk and "his spy ring" were accused of conspiring with Marshal Tito, President of Yugoslavia and were executed.
In a Machiavellian scheme, Rákosi put Kádár, who was friends with both Rajk and his wife Julia, in the Interior Minister's position to make sure Kádár was visibly involved in Rajk's trial. In fact, the State Protection Authority (ÁVH), which was in charge of the investigation, took its orders directly from Rákosi; but as interior minister, Kádár condemned Rajk's "crimes", tried to force a confession out of him and attended his execution.
Only a year later, Kádár found himself the defendant in a show trial of his own - on false charges of having been a spy of Horthy's police. This time it was Kádár who was beaten by the security police and urged to "confess." He was found guilty, and sentenced to life imprisonment. His incarceration included three years of solitary confinement, conditions far worse than he suffered while imprisoned under the Horthy regime. He was released in July 1954, after the death of Stalin and the appointment of Imre Nagy as Prime Minister in 1953.
Kádár accepted the offer to act as party secretary in the heavily industrialised 13th district of Budapest. He rose to prominence quickly, building up a large following amongst workers who demanded increased freedom for trade unions.
In the meantime, the Hungarian Communist Party decided to dissolve itself and to reorganize the party under the name of Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party. On 25 October 1956 Kádár was elected Secretary-General. He was also a member of the Imre Nagy Government as Minister of State. On the 1st of November, Kádár, together with Ferenc Münnich left Hungary for Moscow with the support of the Soviet Embassy in Budapest. There the Soviet leaders tried to convince him that a "counter-revolution" was unfolding in Hungary that must be put to an end at any cost. Despite his opposition to the leaving the Warsaw Pact decided by Nagy, allegedly he first resisted the pressure and argued that the Nagy government did not wish to abolish the Socialist system. He yielded to the pressure only when the Soviet leaders informed him that the decision had already been taken to crush the revolution with the help of the Soviet troops stationed in Hungary and that the old Communist leadership would be sent back to Hungary, were he not willing to assume the post of Prime Minister in the new government. The Soviet tanks moved into Budapest to crush the revolution at dawn on November 4. The proclamation of the so-called Provisional Revolutionary Government of Workers and Peasants, headed by Kádár, was broadcast from Szolnok the same day.
He announced a "Fifteen Point Programme" for this new government:
The 15th point was withdrawn after pressure from the USSR that a 200,000 strong Soviet detachment be garrisoned in Hungary. This development allowed Kádár to divert huge defence funds to welfare.
Nagy, along with Georg Lukács, Géza Losonczy and László Rajk's widow, Julia, fled to the Yugoslav Embassy. Kádár promised them safe return home at their request but failed to keep this promise as the Soviet party leaders decided that Imre Nagy and the other members of the government who had sought asylum at the Yugoslav Embassy should be deported to Romania. Later on, a trial began to establish the responsibility of the Imre Nagy Government in the 1956 events. Although it was adjourned several times, the defendants were eventually convicted of treason and conspiracy to overthrow the "democratic state order". Imre Nagy, Pál Maléter and Miklós Gimes were sentenced to death and executed for these crimes on June 16, 1958. Geza Losonczy and Attila Szigethy both died in prison under suspicious circumstances during the court proceedings.
In notable contrast to Rákosi, Kádár declared that "he who is not against us is with us." Hungarians had much more freedom than their Eastern Bloc counterparts to go about their daily lives. They were by no means emancipated by Western standards, however. While some of the draconian measures against free speech, culture and movement were gradually lifted during the Kádár era, the ruling MSZMP party still maintained absolute control and high levels of state surveillance, laying pressure on opposition groups and encouraging citizens to join party organisations. The secret police, while operating with somewhat more restraint than in other Eastern Bloc countries (and certainly in comparison to the Rákosi era) were nonetheless a feared tool of repression. Overt opposition to the regime was not tolerated.
As a result of the relatively high standard of living, and more relaxed travel restrictions than that of other Eastern Bloc countries, Hungary was generally considered one of the better countries in which to live in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. (See also Goulash Communism for a discussion of the Hungarian variety of socialism.) Many Hungarians are nostalgic about the Kádár era, due to the dramatic fall in living standards caused by the adjustments to a capitalist economy in the 1990s. This point of view has been expressed by Gyula Horn, a former communist politician elected Prime Minister in 1994. However, the relatively high living standards had their price in the form of a considerable amount of state debt left behind by the Kádár régime. As mentioned above, the regime's cultural and social policies were still quite authoritarian; their impact on contemporary Hungarian culture is still a matter of considerable debate.
During Kádár's rule, tourism increased dramatically, with many tourists from Canada, the USA, and Western Europe bringing much needed money into Hungary. Hungary built strong relations with developing countries and many foreign students arrived. The "Holy Crown" (referred to in the media as the "Hungarian Crown", so as to prevent it carrying a political symbolism of the Horthy régime or an allusion to Christianity) and regalia of Hungarian kings was returned to Budapest by the United States in 1978.
Kádár was known for his simple and modest lifestyle and had a strong aversion against corruption or ill-doing. His only real hobby was chess. (see Victor Sebestyen "Twelve Days" p.141). He was often perceived as a convinced Communist who retained his beliefs throughout his life.
Kádár was generally known as one of the more moderate East European Communist leaders. While he remained loyal to the Soviet Union in foreign policy, based on the hard lessons of the 1956 uprising, his intent was to establish a national consensus around his policies at home. He was the first East European leader to develop closer links with the Social Democratic parties of Western Europe. He tried to mediate between the leaders of the Czechoslovak reform movement of 1968 and the Soviet leadership to avert the danger of a military intervention. When, however, the decision was taken by the Soviet leaders to intervene in order to suppress the Prague Spring, Hungary decided to participate in the Warsaw Pact operation.
Kádár's grave at the Kerepesi Cemetery in Budapest was vandalized on May 2 2007; a number of his bones, including his skull, were stolen, along with his wife Mária Tamáska's urn. A message reading "murderers and traitors may not rest in holy ground 1956-2006" was written nearby. The two dates refer to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the 2006 protests in Hungary. This act was greeted with universal revulsion across the political and societal spectrum in Hungary. Police investigations focused on extremist groups which had been aspiring to "carry out an act that would create a big bang.