3: Admiral Horthy's Position as Regent
<< 2: Hungary's So-Called Feudalism || 4: Revisionism in Hungary >>
ON MARCH 15, 1939, a gala performance was given at the Royal Opera in Budapest in
celebration of Hungary's Day of Independence, equivalent to our Fourth of July. It
happened that Hitler had chosen this particular day for taking over Bohemia. Naturally
considerable tension was felt in Budapest.
It was customary for these performances to be given under the auspices and for the benefit
of some organization. Since the prime minister, Count Paul Teleki, was head of the Boy
Scouts, on this night they were in charge. The Regent, most of the cabinet ministers,
diplomats and local dignitaries were present. I made it a point to go every year, and on
this occasion I attended with my daughter, son- in-law and some friends.
Before the prelude, a little Boy Scout came out and started to recite a speech, but he
had scarcely got started when there was an unexpected interruption. This took the form of
chanting in unison-what I later learned was "Justice for Szalasi!" Szalasi being
the leader of the Hungarian Arrowcross Party, or Nazis, this was obviously some sort of
demonstration against Horthy and Teleki.
My son-in-law and I left our box to see what was happening. We were near the stairs
and, having located the noise as coming from the gallery, we went up. The chanting was
interspersed with terrific shouts; we could not imagine what was happening. When I got to
the top of the stairs I was astonished to find that the shouts were coming from the
Regent. Two or three men were on the floor and he had another by the throat, slapping his
face and shouting what I learned afterward was: "So you would betray your country,
would you?" The Regent was alone, but he had the situation in hand. When he had
thrown his man down, he began to mumble to himself, brushing off his clothes with his
hands; and passed us down the stairs without saying a word. Meanwhile, there was great
excitement among the guards. The Regent's box led out into a room where they were
stationed. They had not heard the Arrowcross demonstration. All they knew was that all of
a sudden the door of the Regent's box had opened and he had rushed out like a shot before
they could get to their feet. The whole episode happened so quickly that they had no idea
where he was until he came back.
A few days later, the Regent asked me to call, thanked me for having come to his aid
and presented me with his picture. I was a little surprised at his deduction, but did not
see any reason to contradict him.
The whole incident was typical not only of the Regent's deep hatred of alien doctrine,
but of the kind of man he is. Although he was around seventy-two years of age, it did not
occur to him to ask for help; he went right ahead like a skipper with a mutiny on his
Likewise, he never permitted Hitler to treat him as the dictator treated the heads of
other states. In August 1938, when Hitler, after seizing Austria and bringing the German
army to the Hungarian frontiers, invited the Regent to become his military ally against
the Czechs, the Admiral replied, according to de Kanya, who was then chairman of the
foreign affairs committee in the Upper House: "You will get another world war and you
will lose it, because you have no sea power." Then when Hitler began to scream, the
Admiral rose and asked him not to forget that he, the leader of an infant state, was
speaking to the head of a thousand-year-old sovereign state; and told him that unless he
was treated as such, he would leave at once. Hitler calmed down immediately and after that
treated the Regent with respect, although the incident made him hate Horthy intensely and
no doubt had a great deal to do with some of the things that happened later.
The Admiral had learned as a youngster in the Naval Academy at Pola to behave with
poise and dignity. The statement that Hungary was a kingdom without a king and had as its
head an admiral without a navy was often made. While it was true that Hungary never had a
navy, Austria-Hungary had one and Admiral Horthy had been its commander in chief until
The official language of the Naval Academy at that time was German and Horthy, although
the scion of a Magyar family, never spoke his mother tongue without a slight Austro-German
accent. Like most Hungarians, though, he spoke many languages well enough to carry on a
conversation without difficulty.
To call Horthy "Regent" as we and the British understand the term, is not
quite correct. A better title would be "Lieutenant of the Realm," although in
Hungarian his official title meant "Governor." Hungary, as contrasted with
England and nearly every other kingdom, had always put the crown above its wearer: The
king really served as regent for the crown in which rested the sublime power carried down
through the ages from the time of King Stephen.
Hailing from the eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains, the migrating Magyars, who were
of Finno-Ugrian origin, crossed the Carpathians in the winter of 895 to 896 A.D., led by
their chieftain, Arpad, who was responsible to a council of their seven tribes.
His great-grandson, Duke Geza, was determined to rule over a Western nation, not a
loose federation of eastern tribes. To this end, he educated his son Stephen in the new
religion of the West and married him to the Bavarian princess Gizella. Stephen, who
succeeded Geza in 997 and ruled until 1038, converted the pagan tribes of Hungary to
Christianity. A brilliant warrior and wise legislator, he forced his faith upon his
subjects, convinced that only through Christianity could Hungary become a Western power.
In the year 1000 he sent an ambassador to Pope Sylvester II, to ask for a crown which
would establish the fact that Stephen was not a vassal of the Holy Roman Empire. At that
time, only three persons -the Holy Roman Emperor, the Pope and the Emperor at
Constantinople- had the right to crown a king in Europe. By applying to the Pope, Stephen
kept clear of political entanglements, both in the east and west.
Sylvester sent Stephen a crown and the apostolic cross, to be carried before him on
state occasions as a symbol of his new title "Apostolic King." With the
coronation of its medieval king, who after his death was sainted, Hungary became the most
eastern of the western lands. This is the origin of the "millennial crown"
around which the Magyars have built a comprehensive doctrine. Theoretically the king was
elected and only became king when he was crowned by the nation. Actually, it was as regent
for the crown that the nation bestowed upon him such royal powers as the right to confer
nobility upon his subjects. At the same time, the crown set limits to his rights. The
territory was not his but the crown's- hence he could not alienate it.
This doctrine was by no means a dead letter. By accepting the crown the king was bound
to the constitution. For this reason, Franz Josef underwent the coronation only after
completing his unconstitutional experiments. His presumptive successor, the Archduke Franz
Ferdinand, was resolved to make changes that would have satisfied the Croats at the
expense of the Magyars before accepting the crown.
It was because of this that the Serbian government had him murdered in 1914, fearing
lest he destroy their plan of luring the Croats away from Austria-Hungary. The events
which followed upon his murder led to the installation of Admiral Horthy as regent of a
After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian armed forces and dissolution of the Hapsburg
Empire following the war precipitated by Franz Ferdinand's death, the November 1918
Hungarian revolution established a weak and incompetent government under the leadership of
Count Michael Karolyi. Due to internal disorder and pressure exercised on Hungary by her
neighbors, this government was unable to maintain itself. In March 1919, the French army
of occupation, in contravention to the treaty of armistice, ordered large parts of Hungary
to be ceded to Rumania. The resulting desperation of the Hungarian people was exploited by
Michael Karolyi, who handed over power to the communist agent, Bela Kun. Just released
from prison, the latter organized an outright Bolshevik government on the Russian pattern.
It collapsed after a reign of 133 days of terror. The entire nation had been opposed to
it. The peasantry, for instance, had refused to deliver food and all other supplies to the
cities. Only by sheer force and terrorism could this government maintain itself, even
temporarily. At the approach of the Rumanian army Bela Kun and his associates -among them,
Mathias Rakosi, virtual dictator of present-day Hungary- fled from Budapest to Vienna
whence they traveled to Moscow.
Counterrevolutionaries stepped in, as Bela Kun and his followers fled, and revoked the
republic which Count Karolyi had proclaimed before turning Hungary over to the communists.
Hungary became again a kingdom, but the throne stayed empty. Instead of a king they chose
to have a regent and wanted a man who would be acceptable to the West. It is little known
that Horthy was chosen regent largely by the grace of Great Britain. The British method of
supporting him was subtle and circuitous. Admiral Trowbridge, who headed an Allied mission
to Budapest, let it be known that Horthy would be a good choice. Probably the British navy
had a stronger say in the matter than the Foreign Office. Horthy had always expressed
profound admiration for the British navy.
Thus Hungary had a crown without a king -had the benefits of a monarchy without its
risks. The illusion was ideal in a nation with a strong monarchist tradition. To all
practical purposes, Hungarians had a republic; but every so often the Guardians of the
Crown -who as such held the highest positions in Hungary- met with the prime minister to
perform an ancient ceremony. Each had a key to the crown vault. When all three keys had
been turned, the door was opened and the crown was examined to make sure that it was still
intact. All this was done under the surveillance of the crown guards, who watched over it
twenty-four hours of the day. The vault was carefully locked at the end of the ceremony, a
guard resumed his position from which the crown vault was visible, and the eternal vigil
It can be seen from this that the crown was much more important than the king and that
Regent Horthy's position was not as odd as it might be in some other country. He did not
have the prerogatives that a crowned king would have had. The government was not
responsible to him, but to parliament. Until February, 1935, when the Government Party
adopted a new Regency Bill, he could not sanction or refuse to sanction laws; he could
only ask for reconsideration. In fact, his position was quite different from that of a
regent as we understand it.
Horthy took his oath to the constitution very seriously; he never overstepped his
authority. Looking back, there are times when I wish he had been less scrupulous, but his
critics cannot have it both ways.
Although the young emperor, King Charles, had made him admiral and commander in chief
of the Austro-Hungarian navy, all his devotion belonged to the memory of Franz Josef,
whose aide he had been. He was already regent when Charles staged his two unsuccessful
attempts to regain the throne. In March 1921, he appeared in Budapest and asked Horthy to
yield his power to him. The Admiral persuaded him to return to Switzerland. In October of
the same year, Charles came by air and landed near the Austrian border where he was
welcomed by a small number of faithful followers, chiefly former army officers; and with
them he marched on the capital. The Hungarian war minister, informed of the event, left
his office and went for a walk. But Horthy ordered Captain Gombos, whom we shall see again
as premier, to meet force with force. The king's detachment was dispersed, he fell into
captivity and, as the British had insisted on his removal, it was aboard a small British
gunboat that he was taken away down the Danube. Around these two events has been spun a
story accusing Horthy of ingratitude, but he could not have given way without exposing his
nation to extinction, because the British-backed Little Entente, armed to the teeth and
opposed to restoration of the Hapsburgs, would most certainly have invaded and occupied
the whole country.
The hapless Charles, as he was depicted to me, must have been an utterly
well-intentioned man who in peaceful times would have made an excellent constitutional
ruler, but he was not a pilot for dangerous waters. To a man like Horthy or Bethlen, the
king's actions appeared irresponsible and amateurish. As far as I could discern, the
Regent bore no grudge against Charles or his family and viewed the aspirations of Otto,
his son, with the sympathy natural in an old imperial and royal officer.
Faced with grave decisions, Horthy always asked himself and his advisers what would
have been Franz Josef's attitude. I know of times when he had refused to do something but
changed his mind on being shown that, in similar circumstances, Franz Josef had taken
certain action. Franz Josef, once he had abandoned absolutism, ruled but did not govern.
With smaller rights, Horthy served as a constitutional figurehead.
As such, was Horthy a good ruler? He was not brilliant, but it is questioned whether
constitutional rulers should be brilliant. He had, however, an abundance of common sense,
great patriotism, honesty and integrity. No one could truthfully deny that he did his best
within the limits of his authority and according to his code.
It was a rule that Admiral Horthy could receive no one without the consent of the
Foreign Office. On several occasions his aide came down to ask me to make a request for
some American to see the Regent, because it was likewise a rule that the Foreign Office
would not permit a citizen of any foreign country to see the Regent without the approval
of the citizen's legation. Each time, the Regent requested it, I made application, but
seldom did the Foreign Office approve. The Regent had to forego seeing a lot of people
whom he would have liked to meet, because the Foreign Office objected. They objected
because they never knew what he was going to say. Being an old sea dog, he was outspoken.
It never occurred to him to dissemble, and he would not have known how. If any
correspondent asked him questions, he was liable to give answers which would involve
Hungary in all kinds of trouble. On the occasions when permission was given for newspaper
men to see the Regent, it was always with the provision that their copy would have to be
submitted to the Foreign Office. On two or three occasions, I have seen newspaper or
magazine men on their way from the Royal Palace beaming over the most wonderful interview
they ever had-sensation after sensation. They could hardly wait to get to the telegraph
office. But by the time the Foreign Office had finished, there was nothing left.
It can be seen from this that Horthy had little or nothing to do with the foreign
policy of the country -in fact, little to do directly with the government itself. A very
prominent Hungarian told me one day that the Regent complained bitterly that he had a
young fellow for whom he was anxious to get a position in one of the government
departments, but could do nothing for him. Tibor Eckhardt told me that he went to the
Regent because he thought things were happening that Horthy would not approve and should
know about. When he informed the Regent of them, Horthy said, "It is much worse than
you think-" so they sat down together and had a nice, antigovernment talk; but that
is all that ever came of it. I myself have gone to him when I thought his government was
doing things that it should not do, and he was always one hundred percent to my way of
thinking, even when his foreign minister and prime minister were the ones of whom I
He was greatly disturbed by Premier Imredy's introduction of anti-Jewish legislation in
Hungary, and let this be known, but all he could do was to intrigue with a number of
members of parliament, as a result of which Imredy, on November 23, 1938, was given a vote
of no confidence and had to resign. However, when Teleki and others refused to take over
the prime ministry and insisted that he reappoint Imredy, Horthy did so. Meanwhile, Imredy
had obtained the support of some Catholic leaders and thus mustered a slight majority.
From then on, whatever real power Horthy had was lost. But he did not stop intriguing
against Imredy, and when some of Imredy's opponents went to Germany a few months later and
brought back proof that his great grandfather had been born a Jew and baptized at the age
of seven, the Regent was jubilant. He afterward told me the story with great exuberance,
and said, "I wouldn't care if he were a whole Jew, but I pretended to be
shocked." Imredy was so astonished, either because he had not known it or did not
want it found out, that he fainted during the interview. He at once resigned, and this
time Teleki took over.
Horthy and his wife, who would have made a perfect queen, were not to be spared
personal tragedy. In August 1942, their oldest son Stephen was killed in an air accident
over Russia. Their son-in-law also met his death in an air accident, and it is said,
though as far as I know, it was never proved, that the Germans had a hand in it because
Stephen Horthy had been elected vice-regent and after he was killed, it was pretty certain
that Horthy's son-in-law would take that position. In ordinary times such a succession
would not have happened because it smacked of a dynasty, but when Horthy announced that he
wanted to retire and nominated his son as deputy regent in February 1942, parliament
acquiesced in order to forestall the election of a Nazi, which might have happened under
German pressure if the Regent had died without an automatic successor. Both the son and
the son-in-law were very fine, capable men. The last time I saw Stephen was when he came
to see us off when we returned to America in 1941.
Madame Horthy worried considerably about the future for, even as far back as April 19,
1940, my wife has in her diary:
"Mme. Horthy came to see me. Looked very attractive and chic in trotteur with
furs. Regretted instability of the times, especially not being able to insure the future
of one's children. 'That is really what every man works for in every walk of life. For
myself I should not mind and for my husband. I should be willing to live in one room. I
could do my own cooking if necessary. But not to leave a solid future for one's
children-that is too sad."
How well she knew that she would not spend her old days in the royal castle! She played
the part of the country's first lady with simple dignity. Her friends knew that she was
primarily a loving mother and still the modest wife of an Austro-Hungarian naval officer
whose dutifulness in service had not been stimulated by material rewards.
The sea, as is well known, creates a kind of solidarity and professional brotherhood
among navy men of all nations, vestiges of which are felt even in wartime.
President Roosevelt always had a great interest in the Admiral. It began in the first
World War. He told me he had never heard of Horthy until President Wilson sent him on a
mission to Rome, when he was assistant secretary of the navy. The object of this mission
was to induce the Italians to make more active use of their navy. He said it was his first
mission and he was very anxious to make good. He was invited to a meeting of the Italian
cabinet where he vigorously exhorted them, as instructed by President Wilson. Thaon de
Revel, Italy's bearded and dignified minister of the navy, admitted that the
Austro-Hungarian navy was much weaker than his own, but, he said, the enemy had excellent
hiding places in the Dalmatian Islands. "Apart from that," he added, "they
have a daredevil commander, Admiral Horthy, who will swoop out and attack on the most
unexpected occasions. No, we cannot expose our fleet to that risk." When Roosevelt
told me this story, he concluded, "That was my first diplomatic defeat, and I owed it
to Admiral Horthy."
The President played cleverly on Horthy's leanings by addressing him as from sailor to
sailor, and the Admiral was very responsive. In 1940, after Roosevelt's re-election, he
asked me to inform the President by cable of his delight. Thinking that this might be made
public in America and cause the Regent some embarrassment, I told him it would be rather
risky because the Germans might be decoding our messages. He said he did not care if they
did: He would like to have me send it; and I did.
Of the bond between men of the sea, Horthy gave me at another time a most enlightening
example. The British brought a retired admiral to Budapest to keep the Regent informed and
to get information from him. The Germans thereupon sent an admiral of their own who had
been in the first war as their liaison officer with Admiral Horthy, then in command of the
Austro-Hungarian navy. Horthy was staying in a hunting lodge at Godollo, a rural estate of
the Hapsburgs, and when the German arrived invited him there for some shooting. This was
in 1940, after the French surrender, when many expected the invasion of the British Isles.
The Regent told me that he avoided any mention of the war because he did not want his old
acquaintance to think he had invited him for the purpose of pumping him. He knew him as a
tight-lipped man and was therefore doubly surprised when after the hunt, the German
admiral burst into the following confession:
"Admiral, I want you to know that we in the German navy have not changed under the
national socialists. The other forces have to a certain extent, but the navy is what she
was before. We are grateful to Hitler because he has done a lot for the navy, much of it
in agreement with England, but we know that both he and Japan have made a fatal mistake by
thinking that the air arm could take the place of the navy. The British navy is still
intact and is a wonderful navy. We in the naval staff know that what was true in the last
war is no less true this time, namely that sea power will win the war." The Regent
added that he had not said anything, but was pleased to have his views confirmed from
these quarters. Hitler obviously had not picked the right delegate.
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