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1: The Prewar Line-up in Central Europe

Foreword || 2: Hungary's So-Called Feudalism >>

Part One

What Price Independence?



WHEN I looked down for the first time from the Fishermen's Bastion next to the Coronation Church on Castle Hill in Buda, I thought of what another envoy, Otto von Bismarck, had written to his wife in 1852 when he was in Buda on a special mission for the King of Prussia:

" The Emperor was so gracious as to offer me quarters in his castle, and here I am sitting in a large, vaulted hall at the open window into which enter the peals of the evening bells down in Pest. The view is enchanting. The castle towers high on the hill. When I look down, there is first the Danube, over-arched by the Chain Bridge; then follows the city of Pest, and behind it there stretches the endless plain, vanishing hazily in the blue-red evening vapor. To the left of Pest, my eyes can wander upstream; on its right bank, the Danube is first hemmed by the city of Buda, and then there are mountains, blue, bluer, finally brown-red in the glowing evening sky. In the middle of the two cities, there is the broad mirror of water, broken by the Chain Bridge and a wooded island. If only you were here for a moment to see with me the dead silver of the Danube, the dark mountains against the pale-red background and the lights of Pest glittering up to me; Vienna would go down in your appreciation compared with Budapest. You see, I am a worshipper of natural beauty. Now I must appease my stirred blood with a cup of tea. I don't know where I got that song that does not leave me alone today: --'Over the blue mountain, over the white seafoam, come thou beloved one, come to thy lonely home.'--"

This nostalgic song he quoted in English. No doubt Bismarck was enthralled by the irresistible charms of the Hungarian siren. I could easily share his emotions. It is undeniable that European city builders on the whole have made use of the favors of nature more successfully than we Americans, and of this the twin cities of Buda and Pest were an outstanding example.

I say "were" instead of "are" and I do so with a heavy heart. Today the outlook from the Fishermen's Bastion is not fascinating but saddening. The Royal Palace where Bismarck wrote that letter is in shambles, the Coronation Church is gutted. All six bridges have gone, and with them the lovely Szechenyi Chain Bridge. Margaret Island is devastated and the Corso, scene of mirth, grace and elegance, is no more. Eleven weeks of fighting, preceded by air bombardments, transformed many districts, rich and poor, into deserts of wreckage and rubble. Worst of all, hunger still stalks the capital of an agricultural country in which, before the Russians looted it, not even the destitute had lacked for daily bread.

Having known Hungary before the catastrophe, I have suffered an irreparable loss. Yet I am grateful that I was allowed to have a last glance at a great achievement to which the Western world owed a good deal of its security, alas, without acknowledging its debt. When we look at the map and find Europe a tiny appendix of the Asiatic mainland, we cannot help admiring the courage and tenacity of those who, through the centuries, prevented the submersion of Europe. One of the outposts holding out against immense pressure were the Magyars, though they had come from Asia themselves.

I saw Hungary in peace, but I cannot say that I saw her in normal times. "Normalcy" ended in 1914, and what was left of Hungary after the first World War was but a shadow of herself. As a result of Hitler's rise to power in 1933 Budapest had suddenly attained great importance on the international chessboard, and when I was asked to go there as American minister, I accepted my mission with eager expectation.

Before going there in July, 1933, I spent thirty days of preparatory study in the State Department and learned that while Hungary was a puppet of Italy and had no independence of action, she was of importance as a listening post. Italy had left the peace conferences of the suburbs of Paris dissatisfied after the first World War. For that reason she became the chief antagonist of France and those who had participated in the distribution of Europe, that is, Poland, Yugoslavia, Rumania and Czechoslovakia, who naturally agreed with France's policy of anti-revisionism. Those who had lost by the treaties of Versailles and Trianon naturally leaned toward Italy. The Germans did so rather reluctantly because they were playing for higher stakes and had a poor opinion of Italy's strength and ultimate reliability. The Austrians, on the other hand, regarded Italy as an anti-revisionist power because she refused to disgorge Southern Tyrol which had been taken from Austria. Only the Hungarians could look to Italy wholeheartedly as there was no clash of interests. Italy wanted revision at the expense of Yugoslavia, a member of the Little Entente, whose chief, and sometimes it seemed sole, aim was to keep Hungary under strict control.

Between Rome and Budapest there was common ground, but subsequent events proved that it is not true that Hungary was an Italian vassal. The idea that Hungary's policy was solely determined by Rome is a gross mistake. In foreign affairs, nothing is more alluring and more misleading than oversimplification. Not for a moment did the Hungarians renounce their right to make their own decisions~f course, within the limitations of a small, unarmed power. For a time, they were pretty well tied up with Italy because there was nothing else to do, but with the rise of Germany, this situation changed. Up to the time when Germany and Italy were pushed together by the force of events, Hungary could and did balance herself between the two. If Italy wanted her to do something she did not want to do, she told them that she could not because of Germany; and if Germany wanted her to do something she did not want to do, she told them the same thing about Italy. This policy in the hands of a clever diplomat like Kalman de Kanya gave Hungary, during most of the time that I was there, considerable liberty of action.

The nations on the European continent, including Russia, recognized the danger of Nazi Germany sooner than England or the United States. The general reaction was fear. In strong countries and in those which considered themselves strong, that fear was adulterated by hope of profit through the approaching turn of events. The Soviets regarded Hitler as their icebreaker who would destroy democracy, prosperity and freedom to their final advantage. Mussolini, overrating Italy's position and his own skill, thought that he would remain the senior partner in the new adventure. But France and the minor nations around Germany were subject to unadulterated fear. While England and America talked of peace, they commenced to think about war, and it became plain that the alternative was subjugation.

If England kept aloof, there seemed to be no need for any foreign policy. If there was to be a new war between the great powers, the supreme task of every weak country was to remain neutral, if possible. Apart from that, the most important thing was to be on the winning side. Who of the small neutral nations wanted Germany to win? It can be said with certainty that until June of 1941, when Germany attacked Russia, none of them wanted a German victory. There was good reason to believe that not even Mussolini wanted Hitler's victory to be complete. All the nations of Europe knew that a German triumph would mark the end of their sovereignty, but at this point we must distinguish between nations that had been the beneficiaries of the first World War and naturally were afraid of German success which would not only deprive them of their territorial gains but even of their sovereignty; and nations that had been ill-treated by the peace stipulations and found it more difficult to make up their minds. It is true that the latter preferred independence and narrow frontiers to dependence and wider ones, but at the same time they feared a German victory. To become dependent on Germany would be a hard fate. Yet, since Germany seemed to be invincible, they could not court complete disaster by openly opposing her. On the other hand, it was the natural instinct of the profiteers of the first World War openly to oppose Germany.

The whole picture was finally blurred by the German invasion of Russia. That happened after I left Hungary, but it was not unexpected. It was apparent that it was only a matter of time before the two tyrants would be at each other's throats. Russian communism is practically the same system as German national socialism. As they used to say in Budapest, the only difference between Nazism and Bolshevism is that it is colder in Russia. Both envisioned world conquest and were not only perfectly ruthless, but used the same methods. Americans, being farther from Russia and more or less blinded by their hate of Hitlerism, did not share this point of view with Europeans. This accounts for the fact that we did not make greater efforts to prevent pan-Slavism from succeeding pan-Germanism. The people of central and eastern Europe knew only too well that if the Germans were locusts, the Russians were super-locusts, impoverished by a planned economy which had put guns before butter, not since 1933, but since 1917.

It is, therefore, surprising that the Hungarians sympathized with the cause of the Allies to such a great extent as they did. It is undeniable that they did not receive encouragement from the democracies. We did not promise them anything-we only threatened. Yet with stout hearts and great political wisdom, they clung to the tradition of belonging to the Christian civilization of the Occident although they seemed to be destined for the un-Christian civilization of the Orient.

It is an undeniable fact that Hitler's best collaborators in the second World War were the Czechs, the Slovaks and the Rumanians. Hungary held out longest against German demands, indeed, until the spring of 1944. Foreign propaganda, however, supported by our OWI, succeeded in distorting historic facts by telling our public that the regimes in Bohemia, Slovakia, and Rumania were not representative of their peoples' wishes whereas the Hungarian regime was. This allegation is highly questionable. Dr. Hacha, who surrendered Czechoslovakia, was constitutionally elected president after the resignation of Dr. Benes, who sent his congratulations upon the election. Father Tiso, the head of Slovakia, certainly enjoyed the adherence of the majority of his Catholic peasantry. In Rumania, the regime of King Carol and Marshal Antonescu was not what you would call democratic, but the movement which had swept it into power had been genuinely Rumanian. If, for argument's sake, we say that Hacha, Tiso and Antonescu were less representative than Horthy, would it justify the conclusion that Hungary's limited collaboration was more blameworthy than the unlimited collaboration of the others? If we accept the view that nations are not responsible for the actions of puppet regimes but are responsible for those of representative governments, then we should really prefer abject rather than partial surrender to tyrants. It sounds absurd, but at Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam, this preference was adopted as the policy of the major powers, including the United States of America.

Foreword || 2: Hungary's So-Called Feudalism >>