14 March 2014

An Other Hungary Existed

The importance of this book(1)exists because of its double merits: its narrative and its documentary contents. Not always is there such a concordance between the character of an author and his reminiscences. Szent-Iványi was a young diplomat whose intelligence and integrity was remarked by some of the highest Hungarian statesmen early in his career. One of his admirable traits: he was never eager to receive high government office. But his reputation was such that he was entrusted with a supremely important mission in 1944 by the Regent himself, to which I shall return. Moved by his integrity and high patriotism he completed his mission. Less than three years later he was put in prison by a Hungarian government then dominated by Communists. He was set free on probation in 1956. For more than twenty years thereafter he worked on his reminiscences and the collection of documents for a book such as this. He never expected them to be published in his lifetime. His life was one of efforts and then tragedy. It is pleasant to record that he was able to emigrate to Austria and Germany, working incessantly until his death at the age of eighty-two. Eighteen years later his ashes were reburied in Hungary.

All of this would be sufficient material for a riveting memorial. It is much more than that. Its contents are such that it is both proper and just to state that Szent-Iványi’s purpose throughout his life was to serve his country through some of his acts, thereafter through his extraordinary research and collection of documents, establishing the case that before and during the Second World War there was “an other Hungary”, other than Hitler’s ally. And for English and American readers, including even those generally conversant with Hungarian history during the Second World War, this requires explanation.

For many reasons, too long to detail or even sum up here, Hungary was a natural and expectable minor ally of the German Third Reich. Both of them were defeated and truncated after the First World War (Hungary lost two-thirds of its ancient kingdom). Hungary’s desire of revisionism had no results, while Hitler’s indeed did. In 1938 he annexed Austria, Hungary’s close neighbour. The effects of this conditionwere wide and deep, they included also a considerable empathy for the Third Reich among a large portion of Hungarians. But there was a minority among Hungarians, mostly among the upper classes, that opposed to such a tendency. They included the former Prime Minister István Bethlen, whom Szent-Iványi had met years before, they had a mutual esteem for each other. And as early as 1936 something like a Hungarian Independence Movement was beginning to form, meaning primarily the maintaining of a considerable amount of Hungarian independence from Germany. Its very existence is extensively documented in this book. Szent-Iványi was in the midst of it. But to understand something of its difficulties is hardly separable from the complex nature of Hungarian politics and statesmanship during the Second World War.

Consider that already in early 1942 Regent Horthy understood that Hitler’s Germany would lose the war, in spite of its enormous victories. He appointed a Prime Minister, Miklós Kállay, who thought and inclined likewise. Now consider that these small groupings of the Hungarian Independence Movement (a somewhat imprecise title) were not in accord with perhaps most of popular sentiments then. And consider too that Hitler knew this, indeed he tolerated (if that is the proper word) the Horthy–Kállay regime, informed as he also was of the secret Kállay attempts to establish relations with Great Britain in 1943. By March 1944 he had enough. He told Horthy to come to see him, he ordered German troops to occupy parts of Hungary, forced Horthy to appoint an entirely pro-German and also pro-Nazi government. But he kept Horthy as Regent, he wanted no more trouble in Hungary. Less than three months later about 500,000 Hungarians of Jewish origin were sent by Eichmann to the extermination factories in Poland (it should be noted, in favour of Horthy, that in July 1944 he ordered loyal troops to prevent the deportation of the remaining Jewish people in Budapest, about 200,000 of them).

During these searing tragic months the “Independence Movement” was active. And when the Russian armies moved close to Hungary and began to enter the country (Romania and Bulgaria had already surrendered to the Russians) Horthy and the Independents had to act. He sent a secret delegation to Moscow. Szent-Iványi was one of its three leading members. Arriving in Moscow he acquitted his task honourably and well. But during the very same days Horthy’s attempt to quit the war and surrender failed miserably. So Szent-Iványi was both witness and principal actor in Hungary’s very great tragedy. His documents and descriptions of those weeks and months are valuable for us and for all future Hungarian generations. He was brought back to a devastated and ruined Budapest and Hungary in 1945. Again he did not seek any government office. Moscow and the then few Hungarian Communists were aware of his deep beliefs and inclinations. We saw that less than three years later he was again arrested by the political police. “The rest is history?” No. The rest was his enduring historical effort, his documentary proof that, even though often a minority and forlorn, “an other Hungary” existed during the worst of times.

1 Domokos Szent-Iványi, The Hungarian Independence Movement 1936–1946. Edited by Gyula Kodolányi and Nóra Szekér. Hungarian Review Books, 2013, 758 pp.

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