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14: Death Bend

<< 13: The Red and the White || 15: Almost Half a Century, or Half My Lifetime >>

Quo vadis? Whither, man? However strange it may seem, the Horthy regime moved left from 1920 to the end of the decade. Of course, it did so not from principle or the heart but from necessity. It had started out so far to the right that it could not do anything else, and the consolidation became its vital concern. The Entente imposed bounds on them for a long time.

Then the world economic crisis, which also shook the most developed countries very severely, ruined banks, ravaged money markets, and made hundreds of millions the prey of unemployment and poverty, while locomotives were being fired with wheat and coffee -and not far from us, helped Hitler come to power- that crisis reached less-developed Hungary after a brief delay. But then it immediately muddled the prosperity that was barely a few years old and just beginning to emerge at the end of the reconstruction period: it set back the regeneration of a Hungarian industry that had switched from a war to a peace economy and manufactured mostly consumer goods -and thus was very sensitive to the development of the buyers' market- and, not for the first or last time, it choked the agrarian economy into a cycle of overproduction.

The economic crisis was not yet over, but receding, when a right-wing army officer, Gyula Gömbös, pushed Bethlen aside. With Gömbös an unmistakable fascism gained ground. This was signaled by corporate endeavors, the social demagogy appropriating some of the arguments and objectives of the leftists, racism, brutal violence, and unbridled friendship with Italy and Germany, the fawning over Benito and Adolf. After a forced and modest turn to the left dictated by consolidation, the pendulum swung to the right. And when the economic crisis ended in our area, hopes for war kept the new prosperity going. In Györ, situated in the center of a strip of land along the Danube and intended to become, with no slight misstatement of dimensions, the "Hungarian Ruhr region", the new Prime Minister, Kálmán Darányi, announced the Györ Program. This conception put heavy industry in the gravitational center of industrial activity which served the rearmament long prohibited by the Entente. However, because of the shortage of time and money, it was only partially realized (which was to be clearly demonstrated by the very deficient equipment with which the Hungarian army fought in World War II). An unlimited outlet for Hungarian agricultural products quickly opened-in the Nazi Third Reich.

Smaller steps were also taken: cautious and limited land reform, social programs. The impoverished in the villages could obtain land and inexpensive homes in some places. White-collar workers and certain levels of laborers could enjoy the benefits of social insurance. Grand concepts for the development of the economy or society taking into account the nation's domain as a permanent reality were not initiated. Trianon remained the general basis of reference, the diabolical cause of every Hungarian difficulty, its rectification was held out as a promise whose possible fulfillment would solve all problems as if by magic. In case some difficulty should, by chance, still remain, that could be remedied if we, it was said, would protect Hungarians from the assimilated, from the advance of the "foreign" elements that had been admitted, chiefly the Jews. With the eyes of the Hungarians closed to what Hitler openly professed in the pages of Mein Kampf, which was obtainable in local bookstores in Hungary, and to the shameless promises and the unhindered way in which the brown-shirted Volksbund was drawing closer to the German minority in Hungary, the illusion persisted that the future of Hungary could unfold in the shadow of Germany.

Nor was the nation brought to its senses by the Anschluss that liquidated the state existence of our former partner, Austria, or by the first Nazi blitzkrieg in the fall of 1939 that forced many tens of thousands to flee from Poland across the Carpathians in part to Hungary, in part across our country to other places. The expression of solidarity, kept alive by the historical Polish-Hungarian friendship, was not based on an ephemeral enthusiasm. In spite of German protests, the fate of Poles compelled to remain with us was in good hands; many of them achieved their liberation here, and those who headed across the Balkans to the south, to the Free Polish Armies siding with the British, received assistance in their journey. But this small Polish interlude and the manner in which French soldiers fleeing later to Hungary from German imprisonment found asylum with us amid the hell of war represented not even a momentary halt in our country's calamitous course.

By this time the First Vienna Award had, after all, come into being. In the fall of 1938, Ribbentrop and Ciano, the German and Italian foreign ministers respectively, functioning as a "court of arbitration", granted to Hungary considerable territories in Slovakia containing a significant number of Hungarian inhabitants. This decision was based chiefly on ethnic considerations. For this reason, the boundary line twisted and turned in such a way that for the next few years, every train heading for Kassa (Kosice) had to pass through Czechoslovakian territory before reaching its destination. On the other hand, the population of the areas "returned home" was nearly 90 percent Hungarian and less than 10 percent Slovakian. (If these data did not reflect the ethnic proportions accurately, it may have been because, for example, Jews living in the areas overwhelmingly considered and declared themselves to be Hungarians. Later, this did not much improve their fate, however.) It is worth noting that, after the First Vienna Award, many Hungarians who "returned home" bitterly observed that though they were subject to harmful discrimination as members of a national minority "over there", the bourgeois Republic of Czechoslovakia did enforce civil rights and human equality to a much greater extent, while the most minor officeholder in a still half-feudal Hungary was arrogant, its gendarmes abusive -its whole atmosphere shabby.

The Second Vienna Award was put together in the summer of 1940. In this agreement -again Ribbentrop and Ciano- gave back to Hungary a part of Transylvania in such a way that the ethnic ratio of the transferred population was more unfavorable because of the more complex location of the settlements: Hungarians comprised not quite 52 percent, while the Rumanians reached 42 percent.

Meanwhile, what was happening between the Soviet Union and Hungary? At the beginning of 1939, when Hungary joined Japan, Germany, and Italy in the Anti-Comintern Pact, the Soviet Union broke off the rather formal diplomatic relations which existed since 1934. But when Stalin decided on a non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Germany, the Soviets were apprehensive and made additional conciliatory gestures so as to guarantee their border in the area of the Carpathians too. At the Soviets' suggestion, diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Hungary were restored in the autumn of 1939. A year later, the two countries signed a trade agreement. Then Hungary released and handed over two Communist leaders sentenced to life imprisonment, Mátyás Rákosi and Zoltán Vas. As a counterbalance, at the beginning of 1941, a special train with a guard of honor transported fifty-six flags of the 1848-49 Hungarian Army from Moscow to Budapest. The czar's forces had captured them at the time of the suppression of the War of Independence. Barely a few days later, Count Pál Teleki died. Why?

The partial territorial revision with regard to Czechoslovakia and Rumania was carried out by extortionate means but without any bloodshed -data on alleged carnages in Transylvania by the Hungarian forces marching in and made public later were fabrications, ridiculous exaggerations of a few minor incidents. Sub-Carpathia (today the so-called "Trans-Carpathian" territory of the Ukraine) was similarly transferred in the third stage, at the time of Czechoslovakia's complete dismemberment. The fourth stage in rectifying the Trianon decision was the last gamble in the game of chance.

There was no turning back any longer. When Hitler overran the internally weak Yugoslavia in the spring of 1941, Hungary not only permitted the transit of Nazi forces against the country with which it had shortly before signed an "eternal" treaty of friendship. It also wanted to do its share or at least lend a hand in the treacherous attack.

By this time, Teleki had been Prime Minister for two years. Earlier, I mentioned that he was a noted geographer. I did not mention that he was the "chief boy scout" of the country. He was a schizoid character. A vacillating moralist. He supported serious fact-uncovering sociological investigations that produced revolting data from the depths of society. He arrived at agreements with the extremists of aggressive racism, perhaps in order to take the wind out of their sails in the spirit of his own more moderate national ideals and to form a counterweight to German racism.

Now Teleki found himself in an impossible situation. And so he threw his life away. His gesture was dramatic but futile in the long run. It is impossible not to quote the confused letter he wrote minutes before his death, his cry of distress to Admiral Horthy: "Honorable Sir! We have become perfidious -out of cowardice- with regard to the treaty of everlasting peace based on the Mohács speech. The nation senses it, and abandoned its honor. We sided with the scoundrels- because not a single word about the trumped-up atrocities is true! Not against the Hungarians and not against the Germans either! We will become bodysnatchers. The most beastly nation. I did not stop you. I am guilty."

The gesture was late politically and ineffective but absolutely genuine as a personal act. On hearing news of his death, Winston Churchill, the English Prime Minister, said that an empty chair would be reserved for Teleki at the future peace conference. This pronouncement belongs among Churchill's noble and better moments. But at the 1947 Paris Peace Conference, not a word was spoken about the empty chair that Pál Teleki's phantom was to occupy.

In the territory retaken from Yugoslavia at the cost of some fighting -because here some resistance did appear- only 36 or 37 percent of the inhabitants were Hungarians; true, the Germans among them formed 20 percent; the rest were Southern Slavs and other nationalities. One, however, has to take into account the fact that a significant Serbian colonization had occurred after 1918. But even so, it is evident that during the course of Horthy's "enlargement of the country", the ethnic ratio gradually worsened.

In June 1941, Hungary entered the war against the Soviet Union (and, as a consequence, it ended up in a state of war against the Allied Powers lining up against the Axis Powers). This act was again extremely unusual. It is a fact that five days after the Nazi attack began, the Hungarian army was already rallying for a blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union. Nota bene: a considerable part of the army was relying on horse-drawn equipment and was composed of "fast-moving detachements" mounted on bicycles. . . Not consulting Parliament, Prime Minister László Bárdossy had, in fact, launched Hungary in the war illegaly: in answer to the bombing of Kassa (Kosice) which, he claimed, was a Soviet provocation. But what reason would the Soviet Union have had to provoke Hungary? After all, even in the last minute it tried with gestures rare in the practice of diplomacy to keep Hungary from entering the war. Of course, as early as the summer of 1941, the rumor spread that the planes that dropped a few bombs offhandedly on Kass a -as well as on Munkács (Mukacevo) and Rahó (Rakhov) belonged to a formation of the Nazi Luftwaffe. It contradicted the rumor that the German political leadership did not want Hungary to enter the war at the time because the undisturbed flow of Hungarian food products, bauxite, and crude oil was more important to its war effort, and Germany's war industry was not in the position either to supplement the armaments of the badly equipped Hungarian forces. At the same time, the Wehrmacht would have been pleased if the Hungarian army -in addition to the Slovakian and Rumanian- would have assisted German troops attacking on a very wide front. It was also rumored that Slovakian air planes had carried out the mysterious attack in reprisal for the territorial annexations, and also that the planes were Rumanian because the Rumanians suspected that if the Hungarian forces did not wage ware in the east, then they might devote their energy to the occupation of the remaining parts of Transylvania. As a matter of fact, it is astounding that from 1941 to the present day, no authoritative data, documents, or statements concerned with this event have come to light; not a single secret journal of war operations, not a single participant or witness, nothing.

In the beginning, the army ordered to the eastern front was limited in size, and the 1914 illusion that it would be sent home victoriously in a few weeks prevailed. However, in the spring of 1942 the Second Hungarian Army of 200 thousand was dispatched to the Russian front. In January 1943, the Russian army looked for and found the weakest point at the great bend of the River Don at Voronezh and executed a breakthrough on the front line of the Rumanian forces fighting on the side of the Nazis; then, widening the breakthrough, it routed powerful forces, encircled them, took prisoners, and pursued them toward the west; at this time, the Second Hungarian Army lost 150 thousand of its 200 thousand men.

Many of those who fell in action or were taken prisoner were not carrying weapons. They were members of forced labor units, and they performed the hardest and most dangerous work behind the front. Members of the opposition, Jews, and national minorities under suspicion were conscripted into these units, which labored under armed guards on the eastern front and in Hungary. At first, members of the Arrow-Cross Party -the Hungarian National Socialists- were included in the opposition, but later only Social Democrats and Communists. The horrible mathematics of the war, of murder, bears witness to the fact that though it was not an exaggeration to call a part of the forced labor units, mainly those ordered to the east, a portable slaughterhouse because some commanders aimed not at working the conscripts but at exterminating them, a greater proportion of the conscripted Jewish males survived than those who were later hauled off with their families to the death camps.

After the annihilation of the Second Hungarian Army, Hungarian politics -again under a new Prime Minister, Miklós Kállay- more or less comprehended the fiasco of the path followed and began a double game. The Nazis pressed for intensification of the war effort; the Hungarians tried, instead, to diminish it and to call the Allies' attention, namely that of the western powers, to this effort. Feelers, apparently cautious and secretive but closely followed by the Germans, were begun to arrange the pull-out from the war -to the west. But however heterogeneous and causal the anti-Hitler coalition under Soviet and American, British and French leadership was, it did not permit a separate deal of this kind.

By the time Horthy recognized this, by the time he really came to believe that the Hungarian army fighting on the eastern front could turn to the Soviets, the ''ancient enemy", only for armistice terms, it was again too late. Italy pulled out of the war somehow or other. In March 1944, while Horthy was conferring at Hitler's general headquarters, a small German army occupied Hungary. Horthy settled for a preservation of appearances, a tremendously limited sovereignty.

And now the most monstrous sowing also ripened. From the beginning, the Horthy era, which entered the stage with its White Terror, had leanings toward anti-Semitism and restrained it only temporarily. The regime produced its first Jewish law in 1938, its second in 1939, and its third in 1941, limiting ever more tightly the possibilities of activity and means of livelihood for Jewish citizens. However, their confinement to ghettos and shipment to German death camps began only after the German occupation, under Adolf Eichmann's administration but with the widespread cooperation of Hungarians. Though those in the Budapest ghetto ultimately escaped through the intense pressure of international protests, laymen and clergy rescued many Jews at great personal risk; and the cooperation of the Swedish, Swiss, and other embassies, as well as the Red Cross, was significant in the saving of lives. This is the balance sheet (approximately so, since accurate data are not ascertainable): the number of Jewish victims in Hungary during World War II was 400 thousand; 90 percent of the Hungarian Jews in the provinces were lost and nearly half of those living in Budapest.

The aim of Hungary in World War II -its first, second, and third aims- would have been the restoration of its borders to their pre-Trianon status, namely, territorial revision. This was shattered. It became clear that the First and Second Vienna Awards and then the acquisitions wrested by force of arms would have meant nothing after a war ending in defeat. More specifically, the fate of Transylvania was still in balance in the summer of 1944. According to indications, everything depended on who would liberate the contested territories from the Germans. In addition to the constantly growing military, civilian, and economic losses, it was this factor that motivated Horthy's and his cohorts' continuing attempts to pull out of the war even after the Germans occupied Hungary. But in August 1944, Royal Rumania succeeded in pulling out. The Soviet and Rumanian armies, which had by now combined forces, immediately began their joint attack, and the weak Hungarian army, setting out from the borders drawn up in 1940, was unable to contain them. In the north, the range of the Carpathians could be stoutly defended, but in the southeast, Soviet units in September 1944 reached the border established by Trianon. Soon they were at Szeged, from where Horthy had started out with his detachments in 1919.

At the beginning of October, a gigantic tank battle commenced around Debrecen. On October 15, Horthy, in a radio address, declared a ceasefire for which he had prepared only diplomatically but not politically or militarily. The pull-out collapsed within hours. The Nazis were lying in wait. For example, the very same SS tough, Otto Skorzeny, who had freed Mussolini from captivity with his parachute commandos after the Italian pull-out, this time took young Miklós Horthy 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.

Szálasi, this former officer of the general staff who was more muddle-headed than Hitler, created an idiotic reign of terror in the limited territory under his rule. The siege of Budapest began at the end of 1944. Actually, the German army was desperately defending here the Vienna Basin and the only oil field still at its disposal, the one in Zala County. But the war in the country did not end even after the siege of the Hungarian capital and its capitulation.

Meanwhile, efforts were made to have regular Hungarian troops take part in the final crushing of the Nazi Third Reich.... A group of soldiers who wound up as prisoners of the Soviet army initiated the establishment of a Hungarian legion, but they were not given the opportunity to carry out their plan. And the new democratic Hungarian army recruited in the liberated part of the country by the Provisional Government formed in Debrecen did not become battle-ready in time. Only the military cooperation of a single, spontaneously rallied outfit, the Buda Voluntary Regiment, could be observed in the battles for Budapest.

The last important battle of the war initiated by the Germans was the large winter breakthrough in the Ardennes in December 1944. When that faltered, the few still combat-worthy elite guards of the German army, with the still effective Sixth SS Panzer Army, were hastily transferred to Hungary, to Transdanubia, where, deployed in the Lake Balaton area, they were to hold on to the Zala oil fields. When the Soviet forces eventually liberated the last Hungarian town officially on April 4, in fact, perhaps a few days later, in 1945, barely more than a month was left of World War II in Europe.

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