Magyar-British Relations in the Era of the Two World Wars, 1914-44: Conclusions and Continuing Debates.   Leave a comment

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Discourse and Debates

Géza Jeszenszky, Hungary’s first post-communist Foreign Minister (1990-94) and Ambassador to the United States in 1998-2002, has recently written an article, published in The Hungarian Review (March 2014) in which he describes how Hungary became ’the victim’, first of Hitler, and then of Stalin, during and immediately after the Second World War. It contains some interesting remarks on Hungary’s links with the Western Powers, including Great Britain, which I summarise here, because they add some understanding to my own recent research and writing on the relations berween Hungary and Britain during these turbulent years.

However, some of his claims are a little difficult to square with the evidence from sources, recently published, of Domokos Szent-Iványi, a diplomat in the service of all the Hungarian governments between 1936 and 1944. In particular, Jeszenszky’s suggestion that Hungary only became an ’eager and effective ally of Nazi Germany’ following the German invasion of 19 March 1944, would seem to ignore much of the evidence about the period between the death of Premier Teleki in 1941 and the invasion of 1944, in which the Regency governments demonstrated their willingness to continue in alliance with the Axis Powers, first under Bárdossy and then under Kállay as Premiers, despite also showing interest in reaching accommodations with the Western Allies.

How ’eager and effective’ was Hungary as an ally of Nazi Germany between 1938 and 1944?

Only once the pro-Nazi Sztójay government had been replaced by the Lakatos Cabinet in the autumn of 1944, was the Hungarian Independence Movement able to persuade the Regent to follow a less belligerant policy towards the Soviet Union, which Hungary had itself chosen to declare war on (illegally) in 1941. By then, the autumn of 1944, Soviet troops were already making inroads into territory in Transylvania and the Carpathians which had been occupied by Hungary under Germany’s patronage in 1938-41. Hungary’s fate had been sealed by the refusal of successive administrations to accept what the Western Allies had continually made clear, that it could not simply make peace with them while maintaining its hostile attitude towards the Soviet Union.

True, Britain and France refused to participate in the Vienna arbitration over the borders of Hungary and left it to Germany and Italy, but by then the alliances were firmly in place, and Hungary was clearly in the Axis camp. It demonstrated this by its own dictated revision of Trianon. In March 1939, when all the eyes of the world were on Hitler’s troops marching into Prague, Hungarian forces, crept almost unnoticed through the back door of history by occupying Carpatho-Ukraine at the far eastern end of Czechoslovakia, a territory which although once part of the historic crown lands of Hungary, was actually less than 10% Hungarian in language and ethnicity. Hungary’s Ruthenian adventure of 1939 is little known to British historians, but it created another wave of refugees with stories to tell to their exiled government, of Hungarian brutality towards the slavs in former Czechoslovakia. One such refugee was Ludvik Hock. As Hungarian troops approached the village of Slatinske Doly, this young man was persuaded by his mother to leave in order to avoid being rounded up as a Jew. Hock made it to Budapest where he later got involved with members of the Czech underground. He was arrested and spent four months in the notorious detention centre at 60 Andrássy út, where he was so badly beaten that he had difficulty in breathing through his nose for the rest of his life. He escaped from Hungary and eventually made his way to Britain, later becoming internationally famous as a British press tycoon, having changed his name to Robert Maxwell.

Under these circumstances existing in the Spring of 1939, it was not surprising that Hungarian diplomatic attempts to keep a distance from German policy towards Poland should receive little recognition or support from Britain and France. Jeszenszky correctly points out that their limited resources and lack of real interests in Central Europe compelled the western democracies to continue their policy of appeasement from Munich until the attack on France in the Spring of 1940, despite declaring war over Poland in September 1939. Nor should the role of Hungary in enabling more than a hundred thousand Poles to escape to the west be underestimated. However, Hungary then flouted its international agreements by accepting Hitler’s gift of northern Transylvania under the 1940 Second Vienna Award, this time a wholly dictated revision by Fascist powers now in open warfare with the West.

Jeszenszky then goes on to pose a number of ’what ifs’ in defence of Hungarian foreign policy in the following period, to which, of course, we cannot know the answer. For instance, the claim that the Jews would have suffered more had Hungary resisted Hitler earlier, might be easily countered with the argument that they could not possibly have suffered more than they eventually did in the Holocaust of 1944-45. Szent-Iványi’s evidence clearly demonstrates, despite his understandable loyalty to Teleki, that’the Anglophile wing of Hungary’s political and economic elite’, dominated as it was by conservative aristocrats, was naive in its half-hearted (far from ’determined’) attempts to avoid entering the War by thinking that it could do so by ’engaging in limited collaboration’ with Germany. As Kontler has shown, Hungary was already heavily dependent on, and subservient to, the War economy of the Reichswahr by the end of the thirties.

How short-sighted were Hungary’s political leaders in 1940-41?

Certainly, it is easy to pass judgement on Hungary’s political leaders in hindsight, but it is not so easy to see how the foresight of Szent-Iványi and others in the Hungarian Independence Movement, could so readily have been disregarded. They had already predicted, in 1941 (if not before), that Germany would lose the war and that the Soviet Union would come to dominate much of east-central Europe. Neither, as Jeszensky himself has pointed out, was Hungary under any particular German pressure to join the Tripartite Pact in November 1940. With most of Western Europe under Nazi occupation and Britain blitzed and besieged, Hungary made what he calls the ’inexcusable mistake’ to go along with ’the new master of the continent’, albeit together with Bulgaria and Romania. However, it must have been obvious to a Geographer like Teleki that the Balkan countries would not be as significant to Hitler’s plans as Hungary would. Germany needed Hungary’s roads and railway lines for its attack on Yugoslavia, while Britain, mindful of its tens of thousands of troops stationed in Greece, had little option but to threaten a declaration of war if Hungary participated in the invasion.

By this time, the Benes Czechoslovak government-in-exile in London had been recognised by the British, and was denouncing Hungary as a reactionary pro-Nazi state. Nevertheless, a Hungarian government-in-exile led by Bethlen and Teleki would easily have counteracted this influence. Given the enthusiastic support given to Hitler by both the rump Slovak state and, more importantly, Romania, at this stage, Hungary could even have had a realistic hope of retaining the territories already gained with Hitler’s help. Again, Szent-Iványi and others urged Teleki to act in creating a government-in-exile, but he held back, under influence from the Regent. True, in March 1941 Germany was at the height of its power, but there were those who, even before its attack on the Soviet Union, could predict its eventual defeat.

Why was Teleki in such an impossible position in 1941?

Here, again, Jeszenszky uses his hyperthetical argument about the early annihilation of the Jews to justify Teleki’s decision to stay put, unwittingly contradicting himself, using the benefit of hindsight. Szent-Iványi’s documents reveal that not only was the protection of Hungarian Jewry never a major consideration, but also that by 1941 the Government, through the series of anti-Jewish laws, completed under Teleki, had put in place the legal and bureaucratic framework which could, at any time, be used by a pro-Nazi government to carry out ghettoisation and deportation as swiftly as that which eventually happened under Nazi occupation and SS supervision. Again, as Jeszenszky himself points out, the truth was that ’the Regent ultimately could not resist the temptation’ of regaining another part of historical Hungary. This had always been the priority of the Horthy regime over all else.

Even Teleki thought that, with Croatia declaring its independence, Hungary would be able to claim that it was only following the Germans into Vojvodina to defend the half million Hungarians living there. However, Churchill, with his eyes set on Greece, would not fall for that strategy, and when Barcza, Hungarian Ambassador in London, sent a dispatch making this clear, Teleki, his wife already terminally ill, saw no way out except suicide. In his farewell letter, he took full responsibility for the predicament of the Hungarian state, while indicating the role of the Regent and his pro-Nazi generals in leading it into outright conflict with Britain over Yugoslavia:

We have become breakers of our word, – out of cowardice… The nation feels it, and we have thrown away its honour. We have placed ourselves on the side of scoundrels… We shall be the robbers of corpses, the most abominable nation! I did not hold you back. I am guilty.

Churchill was moved to say:

His suicide was a sacrifice to absolve himself and his people from guilt in the German attack on Yugoslavia. It clears his name before history.

Until recently, many Hungarian writers and historians have addressed the issue of Hungary’s pro-German Foreign and Military policy under Horthy in a critical manner. They have not denied that the impulse of its political and military leaders to revise Trianon ’at any cost’ drove the country into an alliance with Nazi Germany and from there into the World War, with all its tragic consequences for Hungary and its people for generations to come. However, it is also easy to forget how popular revisionism had become in Hungary by the late 1930s. Bob Dent has written amusingly of the invention of anti-Trianon greetings, zealously patriotic handshakes and a variety of ’irredentist’ memorabilia. It is easy to ridicule these excesses of popular political culture. However, even if not taken to extremes, anti-Trianon feeling was widespread throughout society, running through all shades of political opinion. Even a seventeen-year-old Attila József, who later became the great proletarian poet, wrote an anti-Trianon verse entitled ’No, no, never!’

Why did Hungary go to war with the Soviet Union in June 1941?

In early 1941, in a clever gesture, the Soviets returned the flags of the Hungarian Home Defence Army, captured in 1849, when Tsar Nicholas intervened to suppress Hungary’s War of Independence against the Habsburgs. Immediately after after the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, Molotov summoned the Hungarian Minister in Moscow, Kristóffy, enquiring if Hungary would remain neutral. He intimated that the Soviet Union had no demands or requests to make of Hungary, other than neutrality, and that, in return, it stood ready to support Magyar claims to Romanian-held southern Transylvania. The Hungarian Government did not even bother to give an answer, another blunder, which contributed to the Soviet decision at the end of the war to refuse to consider even a modest redrawing of Hungary’s borders, as proposed by both the United States and Britain.

However, the biggest blunder was yet to come, in the shape of Hungary’s decision to declare war on the Soviet Union. There is clear evidence that just five days after the Nazi attack began, the pro-German and anti-communist Hungarian generals were rallying their troops for their own attack on the Soviet Union. Premier Bárdossy and Horthy went along with them, launching an illegal war without consulting Parliament, on the pretext of retaliation for the bombing of Kassa (Kosice) by Soviet planes, which many eye-witnesses claimed looked suspiciously like they belonged to the Luftwaffe. Whoever committed the bombing of Kassa, it was used as a justification for entering what the generals mis-judged would be a quick, successful war against the evil Boshevik Empire. Regent Horthy had always claimed that he had led the campaign to overthrow the Hungarian Bolshevik Republic of Béla Kun in 1919, though he personally contributed very little to its defeat. Again, there were those in government circles, including Domokos Szent-Iványi, who opposed the precipitate step. While Bárdossy was not a pro-Nazi, he held a grudge against the British, going back to his time as Minister to the Court of St James’, and he chose to gamble on a German victory.

How far was the West to blame for Hungary’s entry into the war?                                                                                                  

In defence of Bárdossy, Jeszensky claims that, prior to his decision, Hungary ‘received no encouragement whatsoever from the West to move away from the Axis, nor was it given any promise about the future borders’.   After the attack on the Soviet Union, and Hungary’s declaration of war, The Times, which had become ‘notorious for advocating an accommodation with Nazi Germany in the 1930s’, called on 1 August 1941, for the appeasement of Stalin and argued that the Soviet Union had ‘special interests’ in Central-Eastern Europe. Jeszenszky, while accepting that the West (at that time consisting of Britain alone), had every interest in supporting Soviet Russia’s fight for survival, was mistaken in giving Stalin ‘a kind of unconditional support’ in its annexation of the Baltic States and Eastern Poland as early as December 1941, during British Foreign Secretary Eden’s talks in Moscow:

The entire tenor of the British-American-Soviet discussions from 1941 on led Stalin to believe that he had a free hand at least to retain the Soviet borders he had agreed with Hitler before 1941. But whereas Britain and the US did not assume that Soviet ‘special interests’ would mean turning all of Central Europe communist, Hungary, as well as Poland and Romania, was increasingly afraid of such a fate. Then (as today) it was beyond the grasp of Central Europeans why the British and Americans, having resisted the totalitarian and inhuman Nazi system, did not foresee that the similarly aggressive, expansionist and inhuman Soviet great power was about to subjugate the eastern half of Europe. It was within the reach of the western democracies, with their economic and strategic strength (certainly until the battle of Stalingrad) to prevent that and to make sure that the high-sounding phrases of the Atlantic Charter did not become a dead letter.

This Central European perspective can be well understood, given the benefit of hindsight, but, one might suggest, the Allies were dealing with many other regions in their attempt to win what, by the end of 1941, had become a global conflict. Britain’s interests still lay, to a considerable extent, in its far-flung Empire, and the US had the Japanese threat in the Pacific to contend with, as well as the U-boat threat to its shipping in the Atlantic. In this broad context, it was perhaps not surprising that they had little alternative, until the opening of the second front, to leave the Central-Eastern European War to the Soviets and such allies as it could find. If it was difficult for many Hungarian leaders to understand, like Szent-Iványi, that Germany could not, ultimately, win a world war, why does Jeszenszky expect even greater vision to have been shown the British and Americans? In the final analysis, did the Western Allies have any realistic choice but to concede so much territory and influence to the Soviet Union by the end of the war?  

By December 1941, it was already clear that his Bárdossy’s gamble had failed, and that Soviet Russia was not going to be defeated anytime soon. In fact, Szent-Iványi’s predictions proved correct, with the USA finding itself being drawn formally into the war by Pearl Harbour, though its resources were already firmly committed to Britain. Germany declared war on the USA in support of Japan, and the Axis Powers expected its smaller allies to do the same. At first, Bárdossy tried to avoid this by expressing his solidarity with the Axis, calling home his Minister from Washington and advising the US Ambassador to leave Budapest. When Herbert Pell asked if this constituted a declaration of war, he was answered negatively. However, the next day, following pressure from Berlin, he told Pell that solidarity did mean a state of war, and added that Hungary was acting “as a sovereign and independent state” and not, as Pell supposed, due to German insistence.

Moreover, instead of deciding to abstain from Germany’s war effort, in the Spring of 1942 the Hungarian Government fatefully agreed to commit two hundred thousand men to the Russian Front, eventually losing three-quarters of them. An abstention might well have led to an earlier German occupation, but it would have placed Hungary in a better light within which it might yet negotiate a favourable post-war settlement, as well as sparing the lives of many of those at the front, a significant number of whom were unarmed Jews, Social Democrats and Communists in forced labour units, whose Hungarian commanders were not generally keen to help survive.

To what extent was Kállay’s dual ‘diplomacy’ responsible for the German occupation of Hungary?

After the German Blitzkrieg was halted at Stalingrad and America entered the war, Horthy began to believe what his Foreign Office had been telling him for some time, that it was the Allies, as they now were, who were more likely to become victorious. The strong Anglophile wing of the Hungarian aristocracy and professional classes began to make serious efforts to take Hungary out of the war. In March 1942 the Regent told Bárdossy that he no longer enjoyed his confidence, and appointed Miklós Kállay as his new Premier. He was a member of one of the oldest Hungarian noble families and he began his subtle dual strategy, named after the dance, the Kállay Double. While in his public speeches he paid lip-service to the common cause with Nazi Germany, anti-Bolshevism, honouring the commitment of the previous régime to send the bulk of the Hungarian Army to the Front, he also tried to limit Hungary’s contribution to the war effort, sending out peace-feelers towards the British and the Americans.

The annihilation of the Hungarian Army at the River Don in January 1943 led to a re-doubling of this Double. However, the Nazi’s began to see through Kállay’s double-speak, while the Allies were in no position to take his partial peace approaches seriously, while there was only one real Front open in Europe. It may be, as Jeszenszky suggests, that ’most historians admit that the demand for unconditional surrender was a most serious mistake which extended the War’, but they do so with the benefit of considerable hindsight and fashionable retro-speculation. Undoubtedly, there were great sacrifices involved in making an open breach with Germany, but Kállay did not even accept the suggestion of undeclared neutrality which the Allies were willing to accept until they could draw nigh to Hungary’s southern borders from Italy. A ’secret’ Armistice agreement was concluded on a ship in the sea of Marmara, with the British Ambassador in Istanbul in September 1943. However, the plan was thwarted by the clumsy American military operation in Italy, which allowed German forces to overrun Italy from the north and halted the Allied advance towards occupied Yugoslavia. Kállay then maintained his ’double dance’, no longer so subtle or so secret, until the Nazi’s fnally ran out of patience and decided to occupy Hungary anyway, installing a puppet Quisling government under Sztójáy. So what did Kállay and Horthy gain for their country by their dogged adherence to this strategy? One year of survival.

The position of Hungary in late 1943 was certainly far worse than its leaders thought. They naively believed, as Szent-Iványi’s records show, that the Anglo-American leaders could and would oppose Soviet domination of Central, if not Eastern Europe.   They overestimated the priority given by Churchill and Roosevelt to anti-communism in a war that was far from being won for western democracy. While the Horthy régime had steadfastly maintained its anti-Bolshevik stance, throughout the entire era, the British and Americans were more concerned with the survival of western Europe. They also could not afford to ignore public opinion in their countries. In London and Washington the majority of the diplomats and ’opinion-makers’ and, I would add ’opinion-takers’ were aware that their peoples were on the side of ’the heroes of Stalingrad’, and were not interested in the double-dealings of ’diehard reactionaries’ in Budapest.The gift of a sword forged in Coventry to the people of Stalingrad was not propaganda. It reflected an inevitable leftward popular trend in British public opinion which was confirmed in the election result of 1945. By 1943, the war had become an anti-Fascist crusade for soldiers and workers alike and the anti-communism of ’the Guilty Men’ had been consigned to the dustbin, though it left traces in the collective memory for many years. The Allied governments were indeed more inclined towards the governments-in-exile of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia than towards Hungary, which was still, in name at least, the enemy.

That meant upholding the unfair pre-1937 Trianon borders, although Britain and the United States were in support of their modification in favour of Hungary, in line with the principle of majority ethnicity. They hoped that Hungary’s neighbours could be persuaded to accept this once the war was over. The Teheran Conference settled the fate of Central Europe for half a century, especially as an Anglo-American landing in the Balkans was abandoned in favour of an invasion of northern France and the low countries, therefore making the ’liberation’ of central-eastern Europe a purely Soviet project. Neither Churchill nor Roosevelt anticipated that this liberation, even of their heroic ally, Poland, would become a cruel invasion by the Red Army, leading to the imposition of a monolithic Soviet-style communism.

However, both leaders felt, at the very least, a residual sympathy for the Hungarians, many of whom had found refuge in their countries in successive wars and persecutions since 1849, and in significant numbers. In this context, Jeszenszky believes that Churchill’s ’percentage’ agreement with Stalin in Moscow (October 1944) has been misinterpreted by historians, most recently by Laurence Rees in his Behind Closed Doors. From Szent-Iványi’s book, we know that Churchill and Eden were in the Kremlin with Stalin and Molotov at the same time as the three-man Regency Hungarian delegation, including Szent-Iványi, was signing a preliminary armistice with the Soviet Foreign Minister. Churchill’s ’naughty paper’, as he described it to Stalin, was, among other things, an (albeit crude) attempt to conserve some western influence in the countries threatened by Soviet domination. We know that Churchill’s intention was to secure fifty per cent influence for Britain in shaping Hungary’s future, but Eden agreed, once Churchill had left the table, to revise this down to only twenty-five per cent.

When the news of this proposed division of central-eastern Europe became known, through the Hungarian diplomats in the neutral countries, to the Anglophile Hungarians in Budapest, they and the Horthy régime had already lost power in a Nazi-backed coup which installed the openly Fascist Szálási Government, but it was further devastating news to the remaining resistors and their exiled colleagues.

However, Jeszenszky’s attempt to exonerate the Kállay Government for the situation Hungary found itself in by then is difficult to accept, given the weight of evidence contained in Szent-Iványi’s book, which also draws extensively on Macartney’s earlier work. In particular, his statement that the fate of the Jews of Hungary was not an important consideration for the leaders of the Western democracies is an example of standing the historical record on its head, as if it was an important consideration for Horthy and Kállay. It did not become a significant issue for the Hungarian Regency until at least August, 1944, by which time almost the entire Jewish population had been deported from the Hungarian countryside. The replacement of the Sztójáy Cabinet by the Lakatos’ short-lived administration stopped further deportations from Budapest that autumn, but, following the coup in October, which overthrew both that government and the Regent, the Jews in the capital were left exposed to the winter terror unleashed by the Arrow Cross. The Western Powers might, arguably, have done more to disrupt the deportations by air-raids on the transit points, but the suggestion that they cared nothing for the plight of Hungarian Jewry is belied by Churchill’s statement, made as soon as the reports of the deportations came through to him, that this was ’the worst crime in human history’.

Jeszensky himself points out that Kállay and the Generals made no preparations for resisting a German occupation, even one on the small scale which Hitler actually launched (Operation Margheurite II). They received a great deal of information about suspicious military movements close to the western (Austrian) frontier of Hungary, one Hungarian Burgenlander flying to Budapest with precise details of the plan being put in place. Despite this evidence, Horthy agreed to his eighth meeting with Hitler in as many years, at Klessheim Castle in Austria. He could have caught Hitler in a trap, since in his Memoirs he wrote that he could and should have shot the Führer. After all, he already knew what Hitler was going to tell him, that Germany was going to invade and occupy Hungary. By going along with Margheurite II, Horthy was able to avoid Margheurite I, which would have involved his resignation and the occupation by Yugoslav and Romanian troops, but the end result could not have been worse, for the Hungarian people in general and especially for the Jewish population. He then left without giving the order, through Szombathélyi, Chief of the General Staff, attending with him, for Kállay to organise military resistance. Kállay was urged to give the order himself, but would not act without an order from the Regent. By the time Horthy’s train pulled into the station in Budapest, the German invasion had already reached Budapest unchallenged. Some measure of resistance would, at the very least, have turned Hungary from a German ally into the victim she later tried to claim she was, especially since Romania did not make its break with Germany until five months later, when there was no doubt whatsoever about who was going to win. The Slovak Uprising came even later, albeit in a puppet Nazi state. This was now what Hungary became, but with its Regent still (technically) in charge.

How far was Regent Horthy responsible for Hungary’s situation in October 1944?

It is difficult to imagine how Horthy could have believed that Hitler would keep his promise that if he appointed a pro-German government, the military occupation would end. As a naval officer, he thought that he should stay on ’the bridge’ of the ship of state until it sunk, rather than resigning and abandoning his fellow officers and passengers. However, to continue the nautical metaphor, he failed to send up flares or give the orders to man the life boats and abandon ship, and so all hands and passengers perished with him.

The Gestapo arrested hundreds of prominent politicians and anti-Nazi citizens, but still Horthy clung to office. He acquiesced in the measures introduced by the puppet Sztójáy regime, the former Minister to Germany, including the rounding up, ghettoisation and deportation of the Jews which began a month after the occupation with a briefing, both oral and in writing, by Eichmann to religious leaders at which the Regent was represented. He was not merely passive in the deportation of 437,000 Jewish Hungarian citizens, as some have suggested, since he allowed the Quisling government to put all the resources of the Hungarian state, Army and police forces, including the national ’Gendarmerie’, into the realisation of Eichmann’s plan. They were willing participants, according to village eye-witnesses, who never saw a foreign soldier until the Russians arrived the following autumn. Much has been made of his ’decisive role in preventing the deportation of the Jewish population of Budapest’, but although he did issue an order of this kind in late July/ early August, it was initially ignored by Stójáy who continued rounding up the Jews from the outskirts of the city. It was Himmler who intervened, perhaps under pressure from the Hungarian generals, to divert the troops to the front line, when the Romanians suddenly changed sides at this time. Nonetheless, Eichmann was able to return to the capital some weeks later to resume his activities, even if, by then, the rapid advance on the capital by the Red Army was making further deportations by train impossible.

The Regent not only remained in office, but also, physically, in his office in the Royal Palace in Buda, dependent on reports from his ministers. This was not because he was old and infirm. Szent-Iványi’s record shows that one of the reasons for the Regent’s dislike of certain key ministers, including Kállay, was that, although far senior in years to them, he was also far superior in health. He may have been afraid for his own security, and that of his family, his son Nicky being in charge of his special bureau, together with Szent-Iványi. Nonetheless, even if his ministers did not inform him of the cattle-trucks transporting the Jews, he must have had some information through his Regency officers, acting independently of the Government and in secretly from the Germans, about the fate of such large numbers of his fellow citizens. Again, it is difficult to believe that he simply swallowed the Government’s propaganda, that they were being sent to Germany as guest-workers, like Hungarians had been in previous eras. As Head of State, he was responsible for them as Hungarian nationals, and for their fate even after they had been transferred to German territory and supervision.

I shall attempt, in another essay, to explain this ’acquiescence’ by the conservative political élite in Hungary, not just the Regency, and the willing participation of the forces of the state, especially the Gendarmerie, whose role in the Hungarian state was, and is, often misunderstood by Anglo-Saxon observers used to regionally-controlled police forces. Here, suffice it to say that Jeszenszky again contradicts himself when he argues that, despite the anti-Jewish laws passed by the Hungarian Parliament after 1938, the lives and liberties of the Hungarian Jews were not in danger until the German occupation. As soon as the Parliament agreed to the definition of Jewish ethnicity as being determined by having one set of Jewish grandparents, and to their registration as Jews, they had already given them an invisible yellow star, which the Nazis, both German and Hungarian, simply had to turn into a visible one.

With those decisions being passed into law, the fate of the Hungarian Jews was sealed, just as much as the Polish Jews and those from elsewhere in central-eastern Europe. However, perhaps Jeszenszky is right to suggest that, given the length of time the Jews had been settled in the villages, for at least two and a half centuries, since the end of Ottoman rule; given their renowned patriotism in the 1848-9 Revolution against the Austrian Emperor; given their level of integration into Hungarian village and urban life, they themselves had good reason to feel confident that their Christian neighbours, Hungarian society as a whole, and the Hungarian state in particular, would protect them from the Nazis, despite the horror stories they had heard from Polish refugees. These wholly reasonable, but naive expectations, were, as the Zionist Theodor Hertzl had himself prophesied, would make the fate of Hungarian Jewry the most tragic of all.

Horthy failed to recognise that he was no longer sovereign Head of State, but just as much a puppet of Germany as the collaborators he had appointed to give the Nazi regime a claim to legitimacy. These ’leaders’ of the country betrayed their Jewish compatriots and in so doing blackened the reputation of Hungary.

The German occupation and the collaboration of the Hungarian state in it aso meant that the previous agreement with the Allies not to bomb the country was negated. The bombardment of Hungary began in the summer of 1944. At the end of August, after the success of the D-day landings in Normandy had been secured, Horthy recovered his mental strength and replaced Sztójáy with one of his loyal Generals, Géza Lakatos. With the Red Army reaching the edge of the Great Plain and entering Hungarian territory by mid-September, Horthy finally agreed to swallow his anti-Bolshevik pride and ask Stalin for an armistice, sending Szent-Iványi, another general and the son of Pál Teleki to Moscow to negotiate the terms. This was achieved quite rapidly and successfully, perhaps due to Churchill and Eden also being in the Kremlin, though not directly involved in the talks, but the other part of the final ’breakaway’ plan, to launch a showdown with Germany ahead of the advancing Red Army, was thwarted by Horthy’s stubborn refusal to leave the capital for the Hungarian military headquarters at Huszt in Subcarpathia (Ukraine).

Horthy got as far as the radio station in Budapest on 15 October, announcing that he was asking for an armistice and asking the Army to cease fighting. However, he did not give his approval to the preliminary terms signed in Moscow on 11th, and neither did he declare war on Germany, as required by those terms. He added that he hoped the German Army would now evacuate Hungary voluntarily, revealing how deluded he had become. The pull-out collapsed within hours and the young Miklós Horthy was taken hostage in Budapest. The grief-stricken Regent handed power officially to the leader of the Hungarian National Socialists, the Arrow Cross, Ferenc Szálasi, while he and his family were interned in Germany.

Horthy avoided the fate of several of his ministers and generals, who were captured by the Americans and handed over to new authorities in Hungary after the war, who were tried for war crimes in carrying out Horthy’s policies. He died in exile in Portugal in 1957. As Jeszenszky has concluded, the tragedy of his last act in Hungarian history on 15 October, 1944, is that it was important that, finally in that fateful year, the Regent at least and at last had the opportunity to make the population of Hungary sufficiently aware of the country’s real military, political and economic position that they could choose to rally them to their own national interest. The responsibility for discerning that interest lay with the leaders of the country, and ultimately, its sovereign. The fact that he could not do this, was symbolic of the extent of his, and Hungary’s, loss of sovereignty.

How important were the roles of Hungarian exiles in the survival of Hungary?

As for the country’s exiles, Hungary was the only country with a sizeable group of political exiles from 1919 onwards. From the very beginning Mihályi Károlyi was their acknowledged leader in London. Károlyi rallied around him the democratic refugees and set up the ’hungarian Council in England’, the aim of which was to to work for the establishment of a democratic Hungary. He had been ready to form a government-in-exile under Teleki and Bethlen, and attempted to organise military units to fight alongside the Allies. The intention was that these would be recruited from Hungarian troops captured on the Eastern Front. However, for political and military reasons   the Allies vetoed this course of action. Therefore, Hungarians opposed to their country’s pro-Nazi orientation were not given the opportunity afforded to Czechoslovak and Polish exiles in Britain and the Soviet Union.

Although Hungarian political refugees were divided on many issues, they were agreed on making known to the world the anti-democratic nature of the Horthy regime. They made a collective effort to bring Hungary out of the war, to create a new, democratic Hungary, and to promote harmonious relations amongst the peoples of the Danube Basin. Many actually took up arms against the Nazis. Hungarians fought not only in the Red Army but also in the American Army, in De Gaulle’s ’Free French’ and in the French Resistance.

In December 1944, in those parts of Hungary which had been ’liberated’ by the Soviet Union, life began to return to some semblance of normality. On the 2nd, a National Independence Front was born in Szeged. Communists returning from Moscow, the Social Democratic Party, the Independent Smallhoders’ Party, the National Peasant Party and the Bourgeois Democratic Party joined together to establish this. Its goals were to establish independence and break with Hitler; reconstruct the war-torn economy through land reform and some nationalisation of industry, as well as through private enterprise; maintain good relations with Hungary’s neighbours, the Soviet Union and the United States. By 20 December, 230 members of a Provisional National Assembly had been elected by forty-five constituencies. The next day the National Assembly convened in Debrecen, in the Calvinist College. The following day the Provisional Government was elected with General Miklós Dálnoki, who had gone over to the Red Army, as its President. This government was recognised by the Allies as the de facto representative authority of the nation. One of its first actions was to declare war on Germany on 28 December 1944. It also signed an armistice agreement with the Allies in Moscow on 20 January, 1945, and sent two Hungarian divisions to fight alongside the Soviet Army.

Nevertheless, Hungary was still regarded by the Allies as an aggressor nation in the war. Under the terms of the armistice, Hungary was to evacuate all territory occupied since 31 December 1937 and pay three hundred million dollars in reparations to the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. An Allied Control Commission was established to oversee compliance, and Soviet troops were to remain to occupy the country. Bryan Cartledge has summarised the enormous price Hungary paid for its participation on the Axis side in the war:

The war had cost Hungary 900,000 lives, of which 550,000 were Jewish… All the prizes that had lured her into the Faustian Pact with Hitler’s Germany were lost. Worse, Hungary had forfeited the goodwill of the international community. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, no voice was raised to mitigate her punishment, no concern was expressed for her future. Churchill’s informal understanding with Stalin that the West would retain a fifty per cent share of influence in Hungary (subsequently reduced to twenty five per cent by Molotov with Eden’s tacit agreement) was forgotten. The fait accompli of Soviet occupation was unchallenged. The year 1944-45 eclipsed the many previous tragedies and disasters in Hungary’s history….”


Bryan Cartledge (2011), The Will to Survive: A History of Hungary.

Domokos Szent-Iványi, The Hungarian Independence Movement, 1936-1946. Edited by Gyula Kodolányi and Nóra Szekér (2013: Hungarian Review Books).

Géza Jeszenszky (2014), Hungary in the Second World War: Tragic Blunders or Destiny? (Hungarian Review, Volume V., No. 2.)

István Lazar (1990), A Short History of Hungary. Budapest: Corvina.

Péter Hanak (1988), A Concise History of Hungary. Budapest: Corvina.

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz.





Posted May 8, 2014 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

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