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14 March 2014

Reflections on 19 March 1944 and its Aftermath: A Perfect Storm of Tragedy and Folly

The American Hungarian Federation, representing a cross-section of the Hungarian American community, strongly supports historical accuracy, completeness  and  integrity.  The  Federation  applauds  Hungary  for sponsoring Holocaust memorial events during the 2014 memorial year just as it was glad to see Hungary mark the Raoul Wallenberg Commemorative Year in 2012 – events that contribute to a better understanding of Hungary during a treacherous time. Considering the extent of the catastrophe of the Holocaust, great care should be taken to avoid actions that serve no purpose other than to open old wounds and needlessly exacerbate controversies. Care also should be taken to objectively discuss all aspects of a period and not abuse history for political purposes.

Considering these general principles, the Federation believes:


First, that any attempt to whitewash the catastrophe of 19 March 1944 – when Hitler occupied Hungary – and the ensuing deportation and murder of 550,000 Hungarian Jews or the involvement of Hungarian authorities cannot be tolerated.

Second, in order to fully understand the extent of the drastic changes brought about by the German occupation of Hungary on 19 March 1944, one must recall, as noted by Joseph Rothschild, that prior to that date and “to the chagrin and rage of the Radical Rightists, domestic social and institutional coordination with the Nazi model was also diluted by the ruling conservatives. Parliamentary debate was vigorous, opposition parties were active, trade unions remained free, the press was lively – though overt criticism of Germany was taboo. Civil liberties endured. Escaping Poles and Allied war prisoners received shelter, and the Jews though economically and socially molested, were shielded from extermination. Finally, the exasperated Hitler occupied Hungary in mid-March 1944 and forced the replacement of the foot-dragging and peace-seeking conservative government with a more pro-German one though, still not within all-out Radical Right one.”

The American Hungarian Federation, representing a cross-section of the Hungarian American community, strongly supports historical accuracy, completeness  and  integrity.  The  Federation  applauds  Hungary  for sponsoring Holocaust memorial events during the 2014 memorial year just as it was glad to see Hungary mark the Raoul Wallenberg Commemorative Year in 2012 – events that contribute to a better understanding of Hungary during a treacherous time. Considering the extent of the catastrophe of the Holocaust, great care should be taken to avoid actions that serve no purpose other than to open old wounds and needlessly exacerbate controversies. Care also should be taken to objectively discuss all aspects of a period and not abuse history for political purposes.

Considering these general principles, the Federation believes:

First, that any attempt to whitewash the catastrophe of 19 March 1944 – when Hitler occupied Hungary – and the ensuing deportation and murder of 550,000 Hungarian Jews or the involvement of Hungarian authorities cannot be tolerated.
 
Second, in order to fully understand the extent of the drastic changes brought about by the German occupation of Hungary on 19 March 1944, one must recall, as noted by Joseph Rothschild, that prior to that date and “to the chagrin and rage of the Radical Rightists, domestic social and institutional coordination with the Nazi model was also diluted by the ruling conservatives. Parliamentary debate was vigorous, opposition parties were active, trade unions remained free, the press was lively – though overt criticism of Germany was taboo. Civil liberties endured. Escaping Poles and Allied war prisoners received shelter, and the Jews though economically and socially molested, were shielded from extermination. Finally, the exasperated Hitler occupied Hungary in mid-March 1944 and forced the replacement of the foot-dragging and peace-seeking conservative government with a more pro-German one though, still not within all-out Radical Right one.”(1)
 
The great majority of knowledgeable commentators and historians(2) agree with Professor Rothschild that Nazi Germany occupied Hungary on 19 March 1944.
That occupation was not a friendly gesture by an ally just strolling through Hungary, but ordered by an angry and anxious Hitler who intended to keep Hungary from extricating itself from the war, as Budapest had been attempting to do as it negotiated with Allied representatives. Hitler also was outragedbytheKállaygovernment’sadamantrefusaltodeportHungary’s 800,000 Jews. As succinctly noted by historian Randolph Braham, a specialist of that period, “[it] was primarily to safeguard their security interests that the Germans decided to invade Hungary. The destruction of Hungarian Jewry, the last surviving large bloc of European Jewry, was to a large extent concomitant of this German military decision”.(3) John Lukacs wrote, “[w]hat remained of the independence of Hungary [following the invasion] was largely gone … [and]  so  war  had come to Budapest,  physically,  in  the  spring  of  1944”.(4)
Tragically, the lack of adequate preparations by the government coupled with the pro-German predisposition of several officers of the General Staff and senior officers in key positions and a fear of Bolshevism were among the factors that precluded any military opposition to the German invasion to defend Hungary’s borders.

The roles of Germans and Hungarians in the Holocaust are summarised by Braham as follows, “[w]hile the Germans were eager to solve the Jewish question, they could not have proceeded without the consent of the newly established [Sztójay] puppet government and the cooperation of the Hungarian instrumentalities of power. … The Hungarian ultra-rightists, in turn, … could not have achieved their ideologically defined objectives in the absence of the [German] occupation [in March 1944]”.(5) György Ránki put it this way, “[n]evertheless, with all due regard to the major Hungarian component, upon examining the events, one must conclude that without the Germans, the Hungarian Holocaust would not have occurred in the same manner”.(6)

And in examining the events, it is important to recall the anti-Jewish laws, Kamenets-Podolsk (halted by Interior Minister Keresztes-Fischer), the Novi Sad massacres (perpetrators prosecuted by the Kállay government) and the labour battalions (whose plight Defence Minister Vilmos Nagy-Baczoni eased and for which he was recognised as a Righteous Gentile). It is equally important to examine why approximately 800,000 Jews remained alive in Hungary in 1944 before the occupation. While fascists, Nazis and pro-German elements may have welcomed the German invasion, thereby betraying Hungary, Hungarian interests and humanity, one must consider how and why they had been stymied as long as Hungary had been able to maintain a semblance of its independence and until Hitler’s invasion. After the war, the war criminals, including members of the Sztójay and Szálasi governments, were tried, convicted and executed by the People’s Tribunals in Hungary.
 
Third, the Nazi German occupation had horrendous consequences, resulting in the deportation under horrific conditions and death of hundreds of thousands of Jews at the hands of the Nazi occupiers and their Hungarian collaborators. Both the German and the Hungarian roles must be acknowledged (as Hungary’s ambassador to the United Nations Csaba Körösi did recently), remembered and taught objectively not only for the sake of accuracy, but also to prevent such tragedies from occurring again.

Fourth, the Holocaust and the war-related suffering are separate catastrophes. But one cannot deny or belittle the devastating consequences for Hungary of the German occupation and the acts of the Quislings, such as keeping that country in the war and subjecting it to the “most destructive fighting ever to take place on Hungarian soil”.(7)

Fifth, the Federation further believes that rescue efforts by non-Jewish Hungarians who stood up against evil, such as Col. Ferenc Koszorús who intervened with his loyal troops to prevent the deportation of the Jews of Budapest in July 1944, must not be omitted, denied, forgotten or minimised.8 Such rescue efforts must also be acknowledged, taught and remembered for the sake of historical accuracy and to serve as examples for this and future generations of how one should behave in the face of the barbarism that characterised the Nazis and their collaborators (as well as the Communists).

In sum, 19 March 1944 and its consequences are interconnected historical facts relating to one of the most tragic periods of Hungarian history. It can be hoped that politics is not injected into what should be a serious and honest historical debate and a sombre, respectful and distinguished commemoration of tragedies that affected and continue to affect so many lives.

 
1 Joseph Rothschild, Return to Diversity: A Political History of East Central Europe Since World War II
(2000), p. 40.
2 Elie Wiesel; István Nemeskürty; Iván. T. Berend; Bálint Török; Gyula Juhász; Péter Gosztonyi; János Horváth; István Csicsery-Rónay; Imre Kovács; István Domonkos; Elek Karsai; Károly Vigh; Tsvi Erez; Zsuzsa Hantó; and Asher Cohen to name just a few. Ignác Romsics observed that, “[a]lthough Horthy formally appointed the government [under duress] … the cabinet usually did not clear its actions with him but with Edmund Veesenmayer, whom Hitler had sent as Reich Plenipotentiary to replace the German ambassador in Budapest. During his five months in office, Sztójay set about doing all the things that the Germans and the Hungarian right wing had been demanding but which had so far been more or less successfully blocked by the conservative regime. On 28 March he dissolved all parties of the left-wing and bourgeois democratic opposition, including the Independent Smallholders and Social Democrats. During March and April over 3,000 people were taken into custody by the Gestapo and the Hungarian police and gendarmerie. … In order to preserve a semblance of legal continuity, the Parliament was allowed to carry on functioning but there was a massive clear-out of officials in key positions of the state administration and army command, including 29 of the 41 high sheriffs and two-thirds of the country’s burgomasters.” Ignác Romsics, Hungary in the Twentieth Century (1999), pp. 211–212, (Emphasis added).
The “clear-out” was successful. The German’s goal of eradicating the Hungarian Jews “was facilitated by the fact that they had destroyed the traditional Hungarian political leadership; the anti-German groups of the Hungarian economic, diplomatic and military elite had been removed from positions of influence. The conservative-liberals, leftist liberals and social democrats who had protested against the Jewish laws had either been taken into German prison or concentration camps or had gone into hiding.” Deborah S. Cornelius, Hungary in World War II (2011), p. 292. See also, Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews: 1933–1945 (1975), p. 379: “The real rulers in Hungary thenceforth [after 19 March 1944] were the SS and Reich Plenipotentiary Edmund Veesenmayer.”
Under these circumstances Horthy perhaps should have resigned to avoid the semblance of legitimacy as Kállay implored. A Jewish delegation, headed by Ferenc Chorin and Móric Kornfeld, on the other hand, urged Horthy not to resign because, they believed, if he failed to appease the Germans the Jews would face extermination. Deborah S. Cornelius, Hungary in World War II (2011), p. 281.
Hisdecision to remain as regent has been one of the most intensely debated questions among Hungarians ever since”. Cornelius, p. 286.
Since Horthy did not abdicate could he have done more than to protect just the 250,000 Jews of Budapest? According to Charles Fenyvesi, “Horthy as head of state did have enough power to protect its Jewish citizens. … Horthy underestimated his freedom of action and overestimated the force of the great power facing him.” Charles Fenyvesi, When Angels Fooled the World: Rescuers of Jews in Wartime Hungary (2003), p. 12. Cf. Veesenmayer’s cable to Berlin on 13 July 1944: “He [Horthy] has no personal influence left whatsoever, which is apparent from his inability to even have Undersecretaries of the Ministry of the Interior Baky and Endre removed.” György Ránki, Ervin Pamlényi, Lóránt Tilkovszky and Gyula Juhász, A Whilhelmstrasse és Magyarország: Német diplomáciai iratok Magyarországról, 1933–1945 [The Wilhelmstasse and Hungary. German diplomatic documents concerning Hungary] (1968), p. 881.
3  Randolph L. Braham, The Uniqueness of the Holocaust in Hungary, The Holocaust in Hungary Forty
Years Later, Braham and Vago (Eds.) (1985), p. 185.
4  John Lukacs, Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and its Culture (1988), p. 217.
5  Randolph L. Braham, The Uniqueness of the Holocaust in Hungary, The Holocaust in Hungary Forty
Years Later, Braham and Vago (Eds.) (1985), p. 186.
6György Ránki, The Germans and the Destruction of Hungarian Jewry, op. cit., p. 77.
7  N. F. Dreisiger, Hungary in 1945, in Hungarian Studies Review XXII, no. 1 (Spring 1995), p. 5. Bryan Cartledge summarised the enormous price Hungary paid for its ill-fated participation in the war: “The war had cost Hungary 900,000 lives, of which 550,000 were Jewish. Six hundred thousand Hungarians, including 120,000 civilians, disappeared into captivity in the Soviet Union; half of them never returned. Nearly half the country’s national wealth had been destroyed or requisitioned, including 54 per cent of her industrial plant, 40 percent of her railways and over half her livestock. 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 expressed for her future. Churchill’s informal understanding with Stalin that the West would retain a 50 per cent share of influence in Hungary (subsequently reduced to 25 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, perhaps excepting only the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century.” Bryan Cartledge, The Will to Survive: A History of Hungary (2011), p. 412 (Emphasis added).
It should be recalled that “[w]ith the outbreak of World War II it was clear that Hungary would not be able to avoid being involved in the war. Despite efforts to maintain her neutrality, her geopolitical situation in Central Europe – surrounded by countries either allied with or occupied by Germany – predetermined her participation. The question was whether this participation would take shape as a German ally or an occupied country… The lure of regaining Hungary’s lost territories [inhabited by Hungarians] combined with Germany’s stunning early successes persuaded many that the restoration of the territories might be won through a German alliance. This belief was strengthened by the fact that Hungarian life maintained a surprising amount of normalcy, even though limited for its Jewish citizens, until the German occupation in March 1944.” Cornelius, p. 5.
See also, John Flournoy Montgomery (US Envoy Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Hungary, 1933–1941), Hungary: The Unwilling Satellite (1947).
8  On the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust, Congressman Tom Lantos, a survivor of the Holocaust himself and a liberal Democrat who served as Chairman of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs, recognised Colonel Ferenc Koszorús: “Colonel Koszorús’ unparalleled action [in July 1944] was the only case in which Axis power used military force for the purpose of preventing the deportation of the Jews. As a result of his extraordinarily brave efforts, taken at great risk in an extremely volatile situation, the eventual takeover of Budapest by the Nazis was delayed by 3 1/2 months. This hiatus allowed thousands of Jews to seek safety in Budapest, thus sparing them from certain execution. It also permitted the famous Raoul Wallenberg, who arrived in Budapest on 9 July 1944, to coordinate his successful and effective rescue mission. … Therefore it is with great honour and pride that I rise today in recognition [of the] valiant, patriotic efforts of Ferenc Koszorús. Many thousands of families are alive today as a result of the heroic actions of one man who stood up for his beliefs in a very uncertain and dangerous time. His loyalty to his country and love of humanity are an inspiration to all who struggle against oppression and the vile bigotry of racism… Too often the efforts of those who struggle against the Nazi oppression go unrecognised. This year, the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust, the world reflects on the lessons learned. I am proud to honour Colonel Koszorús, a patriot, a humanitarian, and a hero.” Hon. Tom Lantos, Ferenc Koszorús: A Hero of the Hungarian Holocaust, Congressional Record, 26 May 1994.
See also The American Jewish Yearbook, Vol. 46, (Ed. Harry Schneiderman), p. 256: “The main
current of public opinion failed to take the side of Nazism against the Jews. It proved overwhelmingly anti-Nazi and largely decent toward the Jews.” Other Hungarian heroes include but are not limited to the following: General Vilmos Nagybaczoni-Nagy (who upon being appointed Minister of Defence by the Kállay government took measures to end the gross abuses threatening the lives of Jews in the auxiliary labour force); Tibor Baránszky (who as secretary to Monsignor Angelo Rotta, the Vatican’s ambassador to Budapest, distributed protective letters to Jews on forced marches and elsewhere); Roman Catholic priest Ferenc Kálló (who gave Jews certificates of baptism and who was killed by the Arrow Cross on 29 October 1944); József Antall, Sr (who as a commissioner of the Ministry of Internal Affairs for civilian refugees gave refuge to Jews and Poles); Prince-Primate Jusztinián Serédi, Bishop László Ravasz of the Reformed Church and István Bethlen (who communicated protests to Regent Horthy in 1944 against deportations).



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