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14 March 2014

Hungary in the Second World War: Tragic Blunders or Destiny?

Among the many unfair or exaggerated criticisms Hungary has received recently it is often brought up that Horthy, Hungary’s Head of State (Regent) from 1920 to 1944, was an ally of Nazi Germany, who, with Hitler’s help, annexed territories from the neighbours, and permitted the murder of half a million Jewish Hungarians. Few of the journalists, let alone their readers, would take the trouble to look into the intricate story of how Hungary (together with all the states of Central Europe) became the victim first of Hitler and then of Stalin, and what was the background of the terrible crimes perpetrated during and immediately after the Second World War. Here is a summary of those fateful years.

If a literary form is sought to describe the history of Hungarian foreign policy in the last century, tragedy would probably be the best choice. According to the classical definition tragedy is a dramatic work that portrays a deep human struggle and most frequently ends with the death of the hero. Aristotle goes on to say that the fall of a tragic hero is not brought on by his sins or wickedness, but by his decisions, his erroneous judgements. Hungary, or more properly its legal governments, had to make very hard decisions in the 20th century, and many were bad decisions with tragic consequences, but what were the alternatives? In 1914 Prime Minister Tisza did his best to avoid starting a World War, but finally gave his consent, which led to his assassination and Hungary’s dismemberment. In 1939 Prime Minister Teleki – unlike the Soviet Union and Slovakia – refused to go along with Germany to attack Poland. But by 1941, when most of Europe lay prostrate before the Nazis, Hungary’s choice was to stand up to Hitler and be crushed, with all the consequences witnessed in occupied Poland, or to try to survive the War by limited collaboration with Germany. Nothing is further from me than to exonerate those Hungarians, politicians, civil servants and opportunists, who endorsed the Nazi ideology, and who committed crimes against their fellow Hungarians. The guilty ones were duly punished by Hungarian courts after the War. But is it true that Hungary was an eager and effective ally of Nazi Germany? No, and certainly not before 19 March 1944, when Germany invaded and occupied its nominal ally.(1)

Eighteen years after Hungary lost its war for independence from Austrian rule (due to the intervention of the Russian Czar) a Compromise was reached with the Habsburgs in 1867 and the dual Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was established. It entered into an alliance with Germany in 1879, and 35 years later the rivalry with the Entente Powers led into a world war, ending in the break-up of the Monarchy. The 1920 Peace Treaty deprived Hungary of more than two thirds of its historical territory, and a third of all Hungarians became ill-treated minorities in one of the neighbouring states.(2) The treaty signed in the Greater Trianon Palace at Versailles in 1920 flouted the principle of self-determination proclaimed by President Wilson, and led to an exodus or expulsion of half a million Hungarians from the detached territories. “In each of the new states there prevailed a narrow official nationalism”, and the oppressive policy pursued against the national, religious and political minorities led to internal and external tensions and conflicts. “This state of generalised and mutual hostility provided opportunities for any great power intenton disturbing the peace”, was the conclusion of the sons of the British historian who had been one of the spiritual authors of the Trianon Peace Treaty.(3)

In  the  1920s  and  1930s  Hungarians,  from  Communists  to  Conservatives and Right Radicals, were unanimous indenouncing “Trianon” as an unfair deal. The desire to revise it peacefully was the leitmotif of Hungary’s foreign policy, and the Covenant of the League of Nations made that theoretically possible. Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia, now with millions of unhappy national minorities (not only Hungarians, but also large numbers of Ukrainians, Germans, Albanians, Bulgarians, etc.) created the so-called “Little Entente” with the aim of preventing Hungary from gaining back any territory. The memories of the brief Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919 meant that Hungary was also on bad terms with the Soviet Union. It was only Italy under Mussolini and Germany led by Hitler who, albeit for their own selfish interests, helped Hungary in 1938–1941 to get back some of the lost territories with an overwhelmingly Hungarian population. The return of the territories was received most enthusiastically in Hungary and among the people affected. The circumstances of the long hoped-for border revisions were, however, most unfortunate. Britain and France declined to participate in the arbitration over the borders of Hungary and left it to Germany and Italy. Hungary as well as its neighbours became economically and politically dependent on Germany (which was exactly Hitler’s aim), relations with the neighbouring nations deteriorated further, and Hungary’s claims for fairer borders became compromised in the eyes of Germany’s enemies. Those affected most closely, the Hungarians of the re-attached territories, did not realise how questionable the future of the new arrangement was, and could not foresee how high a price they were to pay for the few happy years.
Admiral Horthy (a rank earned and well deserved in the First World War in the Adriatic), the Head of State, and his governments were not unaware of the danger presented by Nazism, and were far from being enthusiastic supporters of Hitler. At the end of the 1930s there were some attempts to put up a common Central European front against Hitler. In August 1938 Horthy firmly rejected a German proposal that Hungary should attack Czechoslovakia. That and other Hungarian diplomatic attempts at the end of the 1930s to keep a distance from Germany received neither recognition nor assistance whatever from the Western democracies. In fact they gave no real support even to their actual allies, Poland and Czechoslovakia. Their limited resources and lack of direct interests in Central Europe compelled Britain and France to pursue a policy of appeasing Hitler. All the states of Central Europe tried to avoid conflict with Germany; it was Hitler who decided whom to destroy and whom to make a satellite. Austria, Czechoslovakia, and then Poland became victims, although their conduct was far from similar, only the Poles putting up any resistance. The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact then made the Soviet Union a partner in the partition of Central Europe. It was a courageous step from Hungary under Teleki as Prime Minister to refuse participation in the rape of Poland, while his government took in well over a hundred thousand Polish (including Jewish) refugees, many of whom eventually left Hungary to continue fighting Germany on the side of the British.

It has become customary to say that becoming a satellite of Nazi Germany was Hungary’s inevitable destiny, it was a course predetermined by the Trianon Peace, and the desire to revise its terms. If Hungary had defied Hitler it is certain that Germany would have soon imposed a pro-German Quisling government and Hungary, including its Jews, would have suffered even more than it did at the end of the War. The Anglophile wing of Hungary’s political and economic elite was determined to avoid entering the War by engaging in limited collaboration with Germany but remaining outside of the looming War. The conundrum faced by Hungarian foreign policy in this tragic period was what George Kennan described as the oldest and toughest dilemma facing mankind: How far is it permissible to connive with evil in order to mitigate its harmful effects? When must it be opposed, even if that means the strongest resisters will be weakened or even annihilated in the process?(4)

It is easy to pass judgement over Hungary’s ill-advised steps by hindsight. But as my one-time tutor, Péter Hanák warned: we must play an honest game with the dead. The leaders of the past could not see the outcome of their decisions. In 1939 Germany’s victory in a World War was far from certain, but in 1941, following Hitler’s victories and before the entry of the US into the war, it was not at all unrealistic to believe that the Neue Ordnung would be the fate of Europe. True, it was not wise and it was not due to any German pressure that Hungary (together with Romania, Slovakia and Bulgaria) joined the Tripartite Pact of Germany, Italy and Japan on 20 November 1940. Although the Pact did not oblige the signatories to join in a war involving the other members of the alliance, nevertheless it was an inexcusable mistake to adhere to it. True, when most of Europe lay prostrate before Germany and the Soviets went out of their way to please Hitler and to share the spoils, most Hungarians, not only the pro-Nazis, thought that the only course for a small nation was to go along with the new master of the continent.

The treaty of “eternal friendship” Hungary signed with Yugoslavia in December 1940 could be interpreted (and was really meant) as an alliance between two neutrals facing German pressure, but Hitler welcomed it as bringing another state closer to the German camp. When in March 1941 Yugoslavia indeed signed the Tripartite Pact, its government was immediately overthrown in a military coup, and that led to Hitler’s decision to attack and destroy the southern Slav state. Hungary’s position then became effectively impossible: Germany needed Hungary’s roads and railway lines for the attack and offered the return of the formerly Hungarian regions of Yugoslavia, while Britain sent a message that any Hungarian participation in the invasion would be met by a declaration of war. That was the end of Teleki’s policy of staying out of the War at any cost. Now came the time to realise his contingency plan, i.e. setting up a Hungarian government-in-exile if Germany’s pressure became unbearable. The Prime Minister had even deposited five million US dollars in a Swiss bank to be used by that government, but after the defeat of France he gave up the idea. By this time the Beneš-led Czechoslovak government-in-exile had been recognised by the British, and Beneš did all in his power to denounce Hungary as a hopelessly reactionary pro-Nazi state. Given Teleki’s high reputation in London he or former Prime Minister Bethlen most probably would have been accepted as the true representative of the Hungarian nation. Teleki, however, did not want to deliver Hungary to the mercy of Germany; the pro-German rightist Hungarian politicians would have certainly been installed if he had fled, and would have put all Hungary’s resources at the disposal of Germany, while eliminating the Anglophile” section of the traditional elite. The fate of almost one million Jewish Hungarians would have also been in jeopardy – now we know it would have led to their annihilation. Wavering over joining the attack on Yugoslavia however the Regent ultimately could not resist the temptation of marching into another part of historical Hungary detached in the Trianon Treaty, and most Hungarians were of the same mind. Even Teleki thought that if Hungary refrained from moving into Yugoslavia until it fell apart, with Croatia declaring its independence, that would save the face of Hungary, who would be seen as acting only to protect the half million Hungarians of the southern Slav state. However, neither Britain nor posterity fell for that legal loophole. When Barcza, Hungary’s Minister in London, made that clear in a dispatch, Teleki saw no way out. With the prevailing mood in Hungary and lacking the support of Horthy, and with his wife fatally ill, he felt he could not just leave as head of a government-in-exile. On the night of 3 April he shot himself, assuming responsibility for Hungary’s breach of faith. In his farewell letter addressed to Horthy he wrote: “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 at the side of scoundrels [...]. We shall be robbers of corpses! the most abominable nation. I did not hold you back. I am guilty.”(5) 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.”(6)

A break with Hitler then and having a government-in-exile recognised by the Allies would have certainly served Hungary well at the end of the war. Given Slovakia’s and Romania’s whole-hearted support of Nazi Germany, Hungary would have stood a good chance to retain the territories gained with Hitler’s help, but in March 1941 Germany was at the height of its power, and few Hungarians would have bet on Hitler’s total defeat.

Hungary’s other chance to win over the would-be victorious allies was to curry favour with the Soviet Union. Soon after the 1939 Pact and Poland’s fall, when the Soviet Union annexed Eastern Poland, Hungary and the Soviet Union restored their diplomatic relations. Then it was the Soviet Union which seemed to be keener on improving relations with Hungary, its new neighbour. Since Hungary deliberately did not move when the Soviet Union annexed Moldavia (Bessarabia), the easternmost part of Romania in June, on 3 July 1940 Commissar for Foreign Affairs Molotov told Kristóffy, Hungary’s envoy, that in the view of the Soviet Union Hungary’s territorial claims against Romania were well-founded and in case of war between Hungary and Romania it would behave accordingly. Rather than involving the Soviet Union in its subsequent diplomatic efforts to get back at least part of Transylvania from Romania however, Hungary only sought the support of Germany and Italy, finally accepting their arbitration, and the smaller, northern part of Transylvania (having a slight majority of Hungarians over Romanians) was ceded back to Hungary on 30 August 1940. That was called the Second Vienna Award. In early 1941, with a clever gesture, the Soviets returned the flags of the Hungarian Home Defence Army, captured in 1849, when Czar Nicholas intervened to suppress Hungary’s War of Independence against the Habsburgs. Immediately after the German attack on the Soviet Union Molotov summoned Kristóffy, enquiring if Hungary would remain neutral. He said that the Soviet Union found Hungary’s claims for Romania-held Southern Transylvania justified. Hungary did not even bother to give an answer. Another blunder. The silence was taken as an affront and it contributed to the Soviet decision at the end of the War to refuse considering even the modest rectification of Hungary’s borders, as proposed by the United States and Britain. But of course the bigger blunder was joining the War against the Soviet Union on the side of Germany.

It is easy today to condemn Hungary’s decision to wage war on the Soviet Union – ostensibly in retaliation for the still inexplicable and mysterious aerial bombardment of a Hungarian town, Kassa (Košice in today’s Slovakia) – just five days after Hitler attacked his erstwhile Soviet partner. After Kassa, Prime Minister Bárdossy (Teleki’s successor) announced in Parliament that Hungary “considers itself to be at war with the Soviet Union”. Unlike Romania and Slovakia, Hungary’s government was not at all eager to participate in that war, despite the fact that Germany was in effective control of the European continent from the Atlantic to the Soviet border, and Stalin’s army made a very poor showing in attacking Finland. Most people in Hungary, including the Regent, thought that surely Soviet Russia would not be able either to resist the might of the Wehrmacht. The fear was general that after a German victory Hitler would reward its faithful satellites, Romania and Slovakia, by rescinding the two Vienna Awards and would return them the coveted territories, the Hungarian region of the former Czechoslovakia and Northern Transylvania. Whoever committed the bombing of Kassa, it was used as a justification for entering what promised to be a quick and successful war against the evil Bolshevik Empire. Regent Horthy was always proud to have been the first to stand up against Bolshevism in 1919, although he actually contributed little in the defeat of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Only a relatively small number of sensible people – some members of the Cabinet, opposition MPs like Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, and Foreign Ministry officials like Domokos Szent-Iványi – opposed the precipitate step. Bárdossy was not a Nazi sympathiser, but he held a grudge against the British, going back to his time as Minister to the Court of St James’s, and he banked on German victory, or at the very least a stalemate, in the new World War. By December, however, it could be seen that a quick German victory over Russia was not going to happen, and then came Pearl Harbor, which brought the US formally into the war. If only Hungary had held out as a non-belligerent until then, it would have been much easier to reckon with the eventual defeat of Germany, and thus to stiffen resistance to German demands. True, Germany might not have acquiesced in Hungary’s abstention from the war effort, but an overt German intervention would have placed Hungary in a different light at the end of the World War.

The next blunder actually followed from the Japanese attack. The Tripartite Pact was theoretically a defensive alliance which did not oblige Hungary to join in the war against the United States. Bárdossy first tried to avoid such a step by expressing only solidarity with the Axis powers and called back Hungary’s Minister from Washington. On 11 December he advised Herbert Pell, the US Minister to Hungary to leave. When the latter asked Bárdossy if that was meant as a declaration of war, the answer was “No”. Next day, however, Germany and Italy demanded that Hungary declare war on the US, and Bárdossy, overruling the advice of his colleagues, complied. When he told Pell on the phone that, contrary to his previous statement, solidarity meant a state of war, the American, a good friend of Hungary, helpfully remarked that he assumed the change was due to strong German pressure. The Prime Minister, who also held the portfolio of foreign affairs, retorted, very undiplomatically, that “Hungary acted as a sovereign and independent State”.(7)

In January 1946, still before the Communist takeover, Bárdossy was tried for his role in taking Hungary into the war, even overriding some of the stipulations of the Constitution. He was sentenced to death and was executed. Today there is a debate over whether Bárdossy was really guilty, who deserved the death penalty. Although he detested Nazism he believed that Hungary’s future hinged upon a German victory, otherwise it would lose its independence, and fall under Soviet domination. Strangely it did not occur to him that a German victory would lead to total control by Nazi Germany, probably the loss of at least some territories too, or even worse, to the mass deportation of Hungarians to former Soviet territories.(8) On the other hand, before 1941 Hungary received no encouragement whatsoever from the West to move away from the Axis, nor was it given any promise about the future borders. On the contrary, The Times of London – the same paper that was notorious for advocating an accommodation with Nazi Germany in the 1930s on 1 August 1941 called for the appeasing of Stalin and admitted that in Central and Eastern Europe the Soviet Union had special interests. It was undoubtedly right for Britain and later for the United States to make an alliance with Stalin: the West had a strong interest in helping the Soviet Union to survive and fight Nazi Germany. In my opinion, however, it was a mistake to give Stalin a kind of unconditional support, e.g. to acquiesce in the annexation of the Baltic States and Eastern Poland as early as December 1941, during British Foreign Secretary Eden’s talks in Moscow.(9) 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 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 the 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.
After the German Blitzkrieg was halted and America entered the War, Horthy realised that the western Allies were more likely to become victorious. He and the strong Anglophile” wing of the Hungarian middle and upper classes started their efforts to take Hungary out of the war.(10) In March 1942 the Regent told Bárdossy that he no longer enjoyed his confidence, and upon the latter’s resignation Horthy appointed Miklós Kállay as Prime Minister. That calm, phlegmatic, robust scion of one of the oldest Hungarian noble families started a subtle game, named after a dance the “Kállay double”. In his public speeches he paid lip-service to the common anti-Bolshevik cause, and could not avoid sending a large part of Hungary’s army to the Eastern Front, as agreed (under very strong German pressure) by his predecessor. At the same time he tried to reduce Hungary’s contribution to the war effort and soon started sending out peace-feelers towards the British and the Americans.(11) The debacle of the Hungarian army’s annihilation at the River Don in January 1943 led to a doubling of these efforts. It did not take long however for the Germans to see through Kállay’s rhetoric, while – unfortunately – the Allies were reluctant to take his secret approaches seriously. Today most historians admit that the demand for unconditional surrender was a most serious mistake which extended the War. It did not make it easier for Hungary to be ready to accept the undoubtedly great sacrifices involved in an open break with Germany, especially when the end of the war, the defeat of Germany was still not in sight. What would have brought it closer, perhaps already in 1943, was an overthrow of Hitler by his generals. Many Prussian officers may have been able and ready to do that were it not for the unfortunate formula of “unconditional surrender”.

It was the unexpected overthrow of Mussolini and the surrender of Italy which, at least for a few days in September 1943, held out the hope of Hungary leaving the War and even joining the Allies. Having sent a number of unofficial emissaries abroad with the task of making contact with the Allies and trying to obtain acceptable terms (mainly on Hungary’s post-war borders), on 9 September 1943 the Hungarian government’s official representative concluded a secret armistice agreement with the British Ambassador to Turkey in Istanbul, on a ship in the Sea of Marmara. That was to come into force when Allied forces reached the borders of Hungary. It was still hoped that Italy’s surrender (signed on 3 September) would soon bring the Anglo-American forces into Central Europe, reaching Hungary. The plan was thwarted by the clumsy American military and the Italian political leadership, which allowed German forces to overrun Italy and stop the advance of the Allies.

The position of Hungary in late 1943 was worse than its leaders thought. The Hungarian leaders and the anti-Nazi opposition could not believe that the Anglo- American leaders would not oppose the Soviet domination of Central Europe. They remembered the anti-communist stance of pre-war British policy, and they regarded the Soviet–British alliance only as a marriage of convenience, which would not allow Soviet expansion.(12) But in London and Washington the majority of the diplomats and the leftist opinion-makers had illusions about the Soviet Union and they considered Horthy and Kállay as die hard reactionaries. The Allied governments were understandably more inclined towards the governments-in-exile of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia than towards the Hungarian enemy. That meant supporting the restoration of the unfair pre-1937 Trianon borders. Many experts however were in favour of modifying those borders in favour of Hungary, in line with the ethnic principle. British and American advisers naively thought that after the War the governments of Hungary’s neighbours would be ready to do that.(13) The Teheran Conference – unwittingly for Churchill and Roosevelt – settled the fate of Central Europe for half a century. For political and (questionable) military reasons a landing in the Balkans was abandoned in favour of the invasion of France, thus making it almost inevitable that the Soviet Red Army would eventually liberate Central Europe. Neither Roosevelt nor Churchill imagined that liberation everywhere, even in their heroic ally, Poland, would become a cruel invasion leading to the imposition of Soviet communist imperialism. Stalin’s promise to enter the War against Japan once Germany was defeated also compelled the US to be even more accommodating to the Soviets, to accept the annexation of Eastern Poland (which pushed an entire country westward) and of the Baltic States. Notwithstanding the short-sightedness of the two western leaders about the danger presented by Stalin’s ambitions it would be a mistake to think that they lacked any sympathy for Hungary, and that the tragic fate of Hungary was due to their ill-will. On the contrary, both of them (and Churchill especially) felt a kind of personal sympathy for the Hungarians, but their subordinates and even more the historical-political setup determined the outcome of the war for Hungary. In his often misinterpreted “percentage agreement” with Stalin in October 1944 Churchill tried to save some western influence in the countries threatened by Soviet domination. If 50 per cent British influence (as it was first agreed) had really been the fate of Hungary, the coming decades would have become very different. Alas Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden immediately gave in to Molotov’s pressure and agreed to change the percentage to 75 per cent influence for the Russians over Hungary.

The main lines of the decisions made at the Teheran conference became known or at least suspected in Budapest, thanks to the Hungarian diplomats stationed in the neutral countries. It was devastating news for the Anglophiles, while giving an argument for the pro-Germans that Hungary had no choice but sticking with Germany through thick and thin. The anti-Nazi wing of the governing circles, supported by the leftist opposition (the Smallholders and the Social Democrats, joined also by the “Legitimists” hoping for the restoration of the Habsburg dynasty) increased their pressure on Kállay to bring the Hungarian troops home from the eastern war theatre in preparation for a break with Germany. Both were easier said than done. The more the Hungarians insisted on withdrawing their forces (claiming a military threat from Romania) the more suspicious Hitler became of Hungary’s intentions and the more determined he was to prevent its defection. Hungarians still hoped that the advance of the Allies in Italy would bring them to the southern border of Hungary before the Red Army reached the Carpathians. In early 1944 that still looked possible.

Nobody feared a “too early” break with Germany more than the close to a million Jews in Hungary as well as the international Jewish associations, because Hungary’s occupation by Germany, however temporary it would be, was likely to put their life in grave danger.(14) So Kállay’s options were extremely narrow: an early breakaway from Germany at potentially the very highest cost, for which the anti- Nazi elements and particularly the Jews would have to pay dearly, or to continue the “wait and see” attitude to the displeasure of the Allies, while even the modest “good points” earned by Hungary’s limited cooperation with Germany (being “the unwilling satellite”15) would fade away. By 1944 Hungary’s leaders would have been ready even to suffer the consequences of the break with Germany if acceptable terms had been offered, mainly on the issue of the future borders. But – as we have seen – the Western democracies were bound by their morally unavoidable support to Czechoslovakia (particularly because of their guilt complex about the Munich conference) and to Yugoslavia, while the Soviet Union was determined to dominate its Polish and Romanian neighbours, and the most obvious way to befriend those two traditionally anti-Russian nations was to take their side against their respective old adversaries, Germany and Hungary. Most probably Stalin decided to give the whole of Transylvania to Romania already in December 1941 (during his talks with Eden), and after Teheran it was in his power to carry that out.

Hungary’s policy (which was in fact Kállay’s) in 1942–44 has seldom been given much understanding let alone credit in the many writings which appeared on that subject, with the exception of C. A. Macartney’s seminal work. Based on the latter and on a fresh book which used new material from Hungarian archives,(16) my conclusion on those efforts is the following.

Kállay was not a double dealer stepping once to the Right, once to the Left, he was carefully but seriously moving towards extricating Hungary from the German bond.

He was not anti-Semitic and sympathetic to Nazi ideology. His statements suggesting that were meant only to dispel German suspicions.

His diplomatic efforts to break away from Germany were not amateurish, and the Germans had only vague knowledge of them.

He and his Army Chief of Staff General Szombathelyi (executed as a “war criminal” by Yugoslavia in 1946) made a serious attempt in November 1943 to call back all the Hungarian forces from the Soviet theatre of war; the German answer was that in case of such a step they would attack those units.

The idea of making Transylvania an independent state was not unrealistic, the British were ready to support it; it was Stalin who vetoed that.

Kállay made several overtures towards the Slovaks, but it was only their Minister of Defence, Ferdinand Čatloš, who showed any interest in the matter.

It was a mistake to think that the fate of the Jews of Hungary was an important consideration for the leaders of the Western democracies.

Those facts as well as an objective analysis of the conduct of Hungary after March 1942 substantiate the epithet that Hungary was the unwilling satellite of Nazi Germany. The distinguished Hungarian historian György Ránki, himself a Holocaust survivor, came to support that view in his later writings, especially in his introduction to an edition of Hitler’s talks with the leaders of Central and Eastern Europe.(17)

Is there then nothing to blame in the conduct of Kállay and the Anglophile Hungarian circles prior to the German occupation on 19 March 1944? Certainly there is. Although the opposition, in effect the agrarian Smallholders’ Party led by Bajcsy-Zsilinszky and Peyer’s Social Democrats came closer together, they were thinking more of the future, when they would run the country, than preparing for a confrontation with Germany in the last phase of the War. Kállay and the leaders of the Army made no preparations for resisting a German invasion, although they received much information about suspicious military movement close to the western border of Hungary. By accepting Hitler’s invitation to visit him at Klessheim castle in March 1944 Horthy walked into a trap which should have been avoided at all costs. Horthy in his Memoirs wrote that when Hitler told him that Germany would occupy Hungary, he should have shot the dictator. Why did he not do that, he had a pistol on him, hadn’t he? Although in the absence of the Regent and the Chief of the General Staff (Szombathelyi) Kállay was not entitled to give an order for military resistance to the German invasion, but as Horthy was cut off from all communication the Prime Minister should have disregarded legal considerations. Military resistance could not have been effective and would have cost lives, but it would have turned Hungary from a German ally to a victim of German aggression. Morally it would have counted for much, and politically, too, since it was well before Romania’s break with Germany on 23 August and the Slovak uprising on 29 August. Undoubtedly Horthy was much upset and his old dislike of Hitler had grown by leaps and bounds, but how could he believe in Hitler’s promise that if he appointed a government acceptable to the Germans the military occupation would end? Horthy, the Admiral, thought that he should not abandon the sinking ship by resigning, and hoped to preserve enough influence to prevent complete subservience to Germany, but seeing that it did not work, that the Gestapo arrested hundreds of prominent politicians and anti-Nazi citizens, he should have stepped down. He should not have acquiesced in the measures introduced by the puppet regime led by Sztójay, the former Minister to Germany, a blind pro-German. Staying in his office Horthy had a decisive role in preventing the deportation of the Jewish population of Budapest, but before that he watched passively the roundup and deportation of half a million Jewish Hungarian citizens, who lived in the countryside. Even if in April, when the first trains left for Auschwitz with cattle-cars packed with Hungarian Jews, he really did not suspect what was in store for his Jewish compatriots (and he must have had at least some inkling of that), he, nominally still Head of State, had a responsibility for their fate.

It is beyond the scope of the present essay even to touch upon the tragic fate of the Hungarian Jews in 1944. Despite the most deplorable and disgraceful anti-Jewish laws passed by the Hungarian Parliament after 1938 the life and liberty of the close to 800,000 Hungarian citizens of Jewish background was not in danger until the occupation of the country by Germany. They had been fully integrated and assimilated into Hungarian society, they considered themselves (and indeed were) patriotic Hungarians, while most of them preserved their Jewish traditions and faith. They were confident that the Hungarian State would protect them from Hitler’s murderous schemes. With the forceful removal of the legitimate Kállay government and the installation of a puppet regime by the Germans, the sovereignty of Hungary was destroyed. The new leaders of the country betrayed their Jewish compatriots and surrended them to Nazi Germany, where most of them were murdered. The grave responsibility of the Nazis’ Hungarian collaborators is beyond doubt; their guilt blackened the reputation of Hungary. The most detailed account of that fateful period is by Randolph Braham,(18) the most insightful one is by Charles Fenyvesi.(19)

By the end of the summer Germany had lost the War beyond any doubt, and it needed the utmost credulousness to believe that with some miraculous weapons Hitler could turn the tide of the war. The bombardment of Hungary, which started only after the German occupation (before that there was an unwritten agreement that the Allies would not bomb the country but would be allowed to fly over it unhindered), brought that home even to the ignorant and uninformed, but not to the members and supporters of the extreme Right, the Arrow Cross Party. Their blindness was tragic, but what was catastrophic was the conduct of so many officers of the Army. At the end of August, after the successful Allied landing in Normandy, Horthy recovered some of his mental strength, replaced Sztójay with one of his loyal (but as it turned out, sadly timid) generals, Géza Lakatos, who managed to obtain the release of some of the political prisoners. By that time the Soviet Red Army, making use of the Romanian turnaround, reached the Great Plain and in mid-September entered Hungary. Horthy decided to turn personally to Stalin, asking for an armistice, and sent a three-member team to Moscow to negotiate it. That had to be done in utmost secrecy, as the Cabinet included at least two pro-Germans, in effect spies of Hitler. The small staff of the “breakaway” group (its strongest member was the widow of Horthy’s pro-Western son István, who in 1942 died in action on the Russian front) did not succeed in preparing for the showdown with Germany sufficiently, mainly because the Regent, the commander of the Army, refused to leave the Buda castle to join the Army at its headquarters at Huszt (in Subcarpathia, today in Ukraine) which was commanded by officers loyal to him. The (preliminary) armistice, with its very harsh terms, was signed in Moscow on 11 October. In that Hungary accepted the obligation to evacuate its civilian and military authorities from the territories gained since 1937, and to declare war on Germany. After some unnecessary delay, while the Germans prepared to arrest Horthy and to install the Arrow Cross, and finally kidnapped Horthy’s remaining son Miklós, the Regent had his proclamation read on the radio on 15 October, announcing that he was asking for an armistice and ordered the Army to cease fighting. He did not announce that his representatives had already signed the preliminary armistice, and did not declare war on Germany. He hoped that the German Army would voluntarily evacuate Hungary without fighting, as it did in Finland. That was an unfounded and fateful delusion, which a soldier should not have held.

The story of how this half-blundered attempt was foiled by the Germans and their Hungarian accomplices, and of how so many military officers broke their oath given to the Regent, need not be told here. Nor of how the War dragged on for half a year on the territory of Hungary, largely due to the traitorous behaviour of the Arrow Cross, causing terrible suffering, and enormous damage in lives and property. In the Peace Treaty signed again in Paris in 1947 Hungary had to cede back all the territories it gained in 1938–41. Unlike after the First World War now there was not even the consolation of international guarantees for the protection of minorities.

The gradual communist takeover was not the consequence of the conduct of Hungary during the War; the example of Poland shows it beyond doubt. There is, however, a very important lesson to be drawn from the final blunder of 15 October, which was rightly called by C. A. Macartney “the end of a world”, the death of traditional Hungary. How important it would have been in 1944 for the population of Hungary to be sufficiently aware of the real military, political and economic position of their country! In critical times, on essential issues, party, class and personal interests should all be set aside and the national interest should prevail. As to what is the national interest in a given situation should be obvious for all well-informed people, whatever their social and political position is. If that is not the case, the responsibility lies with the leaders of the country.

This essay was written before the question of Hungary’s responsibility for the deportation and murder of half a million of Hungary’s Jewish citizens became an issue hotly debated inside and outside Hungary. That is not a debate between historians, it is part of the campaign leading to the elections due on 6 April. But no political agenda should lead tooverlookingthehistoricalfacts,eithertothewhitewashingortotheblackeningof the record. A very thoughtful and fair summary of the meaning and consequences of the Nazi occupation of Hungary was put together and issued by the American Hungarian Federation, written by its President, Frank Koszorús, Jr, the son of the Hungarian colonel who was instrumental in saving the Jewish population of Budapest from deportation to the death-camps. I am satisfied that the Editors have decided to publish his statement in this same issue of Hungarian Review.

1 Until today the most thorough account of Hungary’s road to and conduct during the Second World War in any language is by the British scholar C. A. Macartney, October Fifteenth: a History of Modern Hungary, 1929–1945. Edinburgh: University Press, 1956–1957. The newest, exemplarily detached work in English is Cornelius, Deborah S.: Hungary in World War II. Caught in the Cauldron. New York: Fordham University Press, 2011.
2 A succinct and balanced account is Romsics, Ignác: The Dismantling of Historic Hungary: the Peace Treaty of Trianon, 1920. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. East European Monographs, No. DCVII. Bálint Vázsonyi, a Hungarian-born American concert pianist and political writer called it a “Bad Treaty that won’t go away”. The Washington Times, 4 June 2000.
3 Seton-Watson, H. and C.: The Making of a New Europe: R. W. Seton-Watson and the Last Years of Austria-Hungary. London: Methuen, 1981. 435.
4 Kennan,G.F.:FromPragueafterMunich. Diplomaticpapers,1938–1940.Princeton,N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968.
5 Teleki’s letter is quoted from Cornelius, op.cit., 143.
6 Churchill, Winston S.: The Second World War. London: Cassel, 1948–1954, vol. 5. 14–18.
7 Macartney, op.cit., vol. 2, 64.
8 Pritz, Pál: Pax Germanica. Német elképzelések Európa jövőjéről a második világháborúban [German ideas about the future of Europe]. Budapest: Osiris, 1999.
9 Eden, Anthony: The Reckoning (Boston, 1965), 269.; Bennet Kovrig, The Myth of Liberation. East-Central Europe in U.S. Diplomacy and Politics since 1941 (Baltimore and London, 1973), 7.
10 The most detailed rendering of those efforts is Czettler, Antal: A mi kis élet-halál kérdéseink. A magyar külpolitika a hadba lépéstől a német megszállásig. [Our little life or death problems. Hungarian foreign policy from the entry into the war to occupation by Germany]. Budapest: Magvető, 2000.
11 Juhász, Gyula (ed.): Magyar-brit titkos tárgyalások 1943-ban [Secret Talks Between Hungary and Britain in 1943]. Budapest: Kossuth, 1987.
12 Kállay, Nicholas: Hungarian Premier. A Personal Account of a Nation’s Struggle in the Second World War. Westport, Conn., 1954. 11.
13 Romsics, Ignác (ed.): Wartime American Plans for a New Hungary. Boulder, Colo., Distributed by Columbia University Press, New York, 1992. East European Monographs, No. CCCLIV. Hercegh, Géza: A szarajevói merénylettől a potsdami konferenciáig. Magyarország a világháborús Európában 1914–1945 [From the outrage at Sarajevo to the Potsdam Conference. Hungary in the Europe of the World Wars]. Budapest: Magyar Szemle Könyvek, 1999, 425–429.
14 Juhász, op. cit., Doc. 82., Czettler, op.cit., 312–313.
15 Montgomery, John Flournoy: Hungary, the Unwilling Satellite. New York: Devin Adair Co, 1947.
16 Joó, András: Kállay Miklós külpolitikája. Magyarország és a háborús diplomácia, 1942–1944. [The
foreign policy of Miklós Kállay. Hungary and wartime diplomacy, 1942–1944] Budapest: Napvilág Kiadó, 2008.
17 Ránki, György (ed.): Hitler 68 tárgyalása kelet-európai államférfiakkal 1939–1944 [Hitler’s 68 negotiations with East European statesmen]. Budapest: Magvető, 1983. The original documents are to be found in Andreas Hillgruber (Hrsg.), Staatsmänner und Diplomaten bei Hitler. Frankfurt am Main, 1967–1970.
18 Braham, Randolph L.: The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981, 2 vols.
19 Fenyvesi, Charles: When Angels Fooled the World: Rescuers of Jews in Wartime Hungary. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

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