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9: The Breaking Up of Czechoslovakia

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THIS BOOK is not meant to prolong the series of publications which either boast of successful diplomatic missions or make apologies for their failures. It can be said that my years in Budapest did not prevent Hungary from being drawn step by step into Hitler's net until she fought on the side of her enemies. My task, however, could be at best only to retard that development, and for that task a representative of the United States had very little to back him up. America was far, far away from eastern Europe. She was unarmed, she was a neutral, even after the outbreak of war. True, we did not hide our aversion to the Hitler regime. President Roosevelt and members of his cabinet used strong language to castigate it. While privately most Hungarians agreed with us, they were not in a position to say so publicly. It takes more courage on the part of small nations to speak plainly when a tyrant is on the threshold than it does on the part of a great power overseas.

I was asked many times if we would help Hungary if she followed our policy, and how, but I was compelled to say that we would not and I did not know how we could. Hungarians knew this very well. If they had thought that we would and could help them, the situation might have been quite different.

An American envoy could be little more than an observer. He could protect the interests of his country and of his compatriots and convey to the Hungarian leaders -and to a certain extent also to the public- the views of his government; and that is about all. Of course, we did everything possible against the spread of Nazism, and at times I departed considerably from the strict line of neutrality. We worked as closely as we could with the British and other Allied nations and helped where we could to bolster up the courage of the Hungarian government and to counteract German pressure as much as possible.

My counterpressure, alas, was restricted to persuasion. When France went down and England was assailed, I had to maintain a show of serenity and confidence. When Hungary was asked to yield to German military demands, I warned her of the bad impression in America. When she yielded, I had to investigate the facts and was again confined to the role of observer. Diplomacy unbacked by force is not entirely helpless, but it is not any too potent against the near threat of an enemy's army.

Hungary's inclination was to side with the Allies, but circumstances made it not so much a question of what the people would like to do but what they knew they had to do. Hungarians may feel now that their leaders made mistakes, and they certainly did, but in my opinion, no matter what policy had been adopted at any particular time, the result would have been exactly the same. I am glad that we did not make any promises to Hungary, as we did privately to the Poles and Serbs. We may be perfectly justified in refraining from making commitments, especially in minor affairs. But once we have pledged ourselves, we must live up to our obligations. It is unfortunate that in the service of our policy of appeasement, we have uselessly deviated in recent years from this course.

I have been told that Hungary's present plight is the well-earned reward of her sharing in Germany's temporary booty. It is said that the Hungarians should have acted like the Poles; but unlike the Poles, they were not attacked in 1939, and they had no army worthy of the name. However, unlike the Russians, they not only did not attack the Poles as Germany tried to get them to do, but they would not even allow the German army to go through Hungarian territory for that purpose. There was plenty of inducement for Hungary to join Germany, just as Russia did, and none to refuse, much less join with the Allies. Should they have rushed in voluntarily at a time when the French watched the Eastern tragedy from behind the Maginot Line, when Britain had but a handful of divisions, when we were neutral, when Russia was Germany's accomplice? If Hungary had not compromised with Hitler -if she had provoked him more than she actually did- what would have been the result? Her country would have been occupied in 1939 or 1940, instead of 1944. Hungarians would have been treated like the Poles -and another million Jews would have been murdered. Are we Americans, a world power who have been so ever-considerate of Stalin, entitled to condemn a small, defenseless people because they feared Hitler's wrath and met him halfway?

The full truth about Hungary's sharing of Hitler's booty is as follows: In March 1938, Austria was occupied by the Germans. Now Czechoslovakia was practically surrounded by greater Germany; and Hungary, as well as Italy and Yugoslavia, became Germany's neighbor. A few months later, Hitler sowed the seeds of secession among the Sudetenlanders, who, until then, had only demanded economic and political equality with the Czechs within the Czechoslovakian state. In July, the British government, with the consent of Paris and Prague, sent Lord Runciman on an unofficial mission to act as an impartial adviser to the Czech government in its dealings with the Sudetenlanders. The result was four plans, the last of which, published on September 9, announced that the language laws would be modified to establish equality of the German, Hungarian, Polish, Ruthenian and Russian languages with the "Czechoslovak" language, and that the principle of national self-government would be applied in the form of a system of cantons. So far, Hitler's and England's combined pressure had been beneficial, because all that should have been conceded twenty years before, when the new state was founded. But Hitler, who did not want peace, ordered his henchmen among the Sudetenlanders to reject the plan as coming too late. Then followed the war scare of the so-called Munich crisis. On September 21, 1938 the Czechs accepted the amputation of the Austro-German regions from Czechoslovakia, and Dr. Benes' minister of propaganda, M. Vavretchka, set the pattern of the ensuing collaboration by proclaiming that "often more courage is needed to live than to commit suicide," which was more true than heroic.

The plan which should have applied to all the minorities of Czechoslovakia had been wrecked. The Sudetenlanders had found another solution. Other nationalities began to clamor for the same right of secession. On October 1, the Czechs were deprived of Teschen by Poland. On October 2, the Hungarian government announced that a mixed Hungarian-Czech commission would discuss the right of national self-determination of the Hungarians in Slovakia, in accordance with the decisions of Munich. On October 5, Dr. Benes resigned as president of Czechoslovakia, having nominated as foreign minister, Dr. Frantishek Chvalkovsky, an old pleader for co-operation with Hitler. In his farewell broadcast, Dr. Benes said: "Now it is particularly necessary for the Czechs to reach unity with the Slovaks. We must hasten to grant everything necessary." On October 9, the Ruthenians of the Carpatho-Ukraine decided on autonomy within the framework of the Czechoslovak state. The decomposition was in full swing. On the same day, negotiations began, with the approval of the Czechoslovak government, between Hungarians and Father Tiso, the leader of Slovakia. Two days later, in agreement with the Czechoslovak government, the Hungarian army carried out the token occupation of two Hungarian towns in Slovakia. Chvalkovsky hastened to Hitler and Ribbentrop, giving them assurances of Czech loyalty. On October 13, de Kanya declared that the conference with Tiso was deadlocked. He demanded 5,000 square miles, 79% Magyar, which would have left 150,000 Magyars in Slovakia and Ruthenia, but would have transferred 145,000 Slovaks and 30,000 Ruthenians to Hungary. Tiso offered but a small frontier strip.

This was followed by a crisis. Hungary called up five classes of conscripts. The Slovak radio warned that "the Czechoslovak army was ready." Negotiations were resumed. Hungary had insisted upon direct negotiations with Czechoslovakia, but since they had failed proposed a decision by plebiscite. On October 26, the Czechs, instigated by Hitler, accepted German-Italian arbitration, and rejected a plebiscite. Hitler thus forwarded an ambitious scheme to make both Czechoslovakia and Hungary subservient to his political aim, which at that time was the encirclement of Poland and the opening of a road toward Russia. After the acceptance of Hitler's proposal by Czechoslovakia, Hungary was no longer in a position to refuse, as refusal would only have led to Hitler's giving preference to submissive Czechoslovakia over recalcitrant Hungary -who thus would have lost the only remaining chance for the solution of her territorial dispute with Czechoslovakia.

On November 6 Horthy, riding on a white horse, led Hungarian troops into Komarom, a purely Hungarian town. On November 11, Horthy rode into the town of Kassa, completing the peaceful occupations granted by the Vienna Award. On November 20, the Czechoslovak parliament voted autonomous statutes for Slovakia and Carpatho-Ruthenia. Slovak was declared the official language of Slovakia, which put an end to the fiction of the Czechoslovak tongue. Actually, the two tongues, Czech and Slovak, are close relatives but not identical.

The participation of Hungary in reducing Czechoslovakia has been called her first open sin. Hungarians point to the fact that their action was in keeping with the Munich decisions; that Czechoslovakia had been compelled to disgorge what never should have become hers, and that Hungary, in these circumstances, could not refrain from taking back property previously stolen from her.

De Kanya, although not a revisionist, said that he approved of getting everything they could obtain peacefully to forestall Germany. He foresaw the German occupation of Czechoslovakia.

The Slovaks, not content with their autonomy within the reduced Czechoslovak state, pursued their ultimate goal of independence. For this, their leaders at that time were afterward accused of high treason, and I doubt whether this was justified. They certainly accepted German support to secure independence and later showed their gratitude by fighting against Russia, but Bolshevism appeared to that strongly Catholic people as a natural enemy; and one must not forget that they had been a part of Czechoslovakia for twenty years and had disliked it.

To combat Slovak separatism, President Hacha, Benes' freely and legally elected successor, dismissed Father Tiso as Slovakia's premier and ordered many arrests. Four days later, Slovakia proclaimed her independence. One day later, on March 15, 1939, Hitler did the most foolish thing of his career by sending his troops into what was left of Czechoslovakia. The damage he did himself by awakening the sleeping British was enormous. His profit was less than nil. It would be difficult to find in world history anything equally foolish -except, perhaps, Hitler's decision to counterattack in France instead of in the east, in December 1944. These two happenings reveal his small stature as a statesman and as a war lord.

With Slovakia independent and Bohemia a German protectorate, Carpatho-Ruthenia was a derelict. Hitler had promised it repeatedly to Hungary, but apparently had no intention of keeping his promise. Not only were the Czech garrisons kept there, but when they were withdrawn as a result of a Hungarian ultimatum to the Czechs, it became a no-man's-land, full of German and Hungarian agents, until the Hungarian army went in and took possession.

The occupation of Ruthenia, now a part of the Soviet Union, was carried out without the knowledge and council of Germany and very much against her wishes. It was Poland which urged the establishment of a common Hungarian-Polish frontier, in order to prevent the German army, which had entered Slovakia, from moving far east into the back of endangered Poland and establishing direct contact across Ruthenia with Rumania. Somewhat belatedly, Rumania had also sent regular troops into Ruthenia to establish junction with the German army. This junction was disrupted by the Hungarian occupation though it did not extend westward up to the important Dukla Pass, as Poland desired, because of a German ultimatum on the third day of the occupation. Nevertheless the usefulness and importance of this Hungarian move was fully justified by subsequent events when, after the German attack against Poland, Hungary prevented the German troops from crossing this strategic territory and opened up the Ruthenian frontier to more than a hundred thousand soldiers of the Polish army. These men were well received in Hungary and all but some thirty thousand clandestinely joined the armies of the Western democracies. Polish flyers thus participated in comparatively large numbers in the famous Battle of Britain, in the autumn of 1940, which saved England from German invasion. The remaining group of Poles who were unable to join the Allied armies stayed on in Hungary. Polish schools, even colleges, were established for their children, and Polish-Hungarian friendship was publicly demonstrated.

The end of Czechoslovakia sealed the fate of the Little Entente. Yugoslavia hastened to adapt herself to the new situation. She stressed the cordiality of her relations with Germany, at the same time trying to improve those with Italy and Hungary. Fear of Hitler had now begun to overshadow every other consideration, and resentments were temporarily forgotten. The Russo-German pact of August 1939 shook the world with its implications. The neighbors of the two dictators had held the wild hope that the two would annihilate each other. Now the small nations huddled together. Hungary and Yugoslavia seemed to understand best what further litigation would bring to both of them. Secret negotiations were started after the collapse of France between Regent Horthy and Prince Paul of Yugoslavia. As a result, on December 12, 1940, Count Csaky, the Hungarian foreign minister, and Cincar-Markovitch, his Yugoslav colleague, signed at Belgrade a pact of lasting peace and mutual friendship, providing for consultation on all questions of mutual interest. Although this was not to last very long, at the moment both sides were sincere as they did not want to be played one against the other. But the German dictator was not impressed. On March 25, 1941, the Yugoslav premier, Mr. Tsvetkovitch, signed his country's adherence to the Tripartite Axis Pact. Ribbentrop promised that Germany would respect at all times the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Yugoslavia and would not ask her to permit the passage of Axis troops. Two days later, the Yugoslav air general Simovitch, staged his coup-de-main which caused the resignation of Prince Paul and King Peter's assumption of full royal power. The Germans interpreted this change as a hostile act, which it was, and on April 6 began to invade Yugoslavia and Greece. A few hours before their attack, Moscow had announced the conclusion of a Soviet - Yugoslav friendship pact, which did not promise help but only continued friendship in case of aggression by a third state. It must be left to historians to decide what would have happened if Tsvetkovitch had not been overthrown. It is improbable that Yugoslavia would in the end have been spared, although she might have postponed the invasion by appeasement. The Germans could have entered Greece from Bulgaria and Albania without crossing Yugoslavia.

For Hungary, the rupture between Berlin and Belgrade was fraught with destiny. Hitler demanded in an ultimatum not only passage for his troops but active military co-operation. On April 3, Count Paul Teleki received a message from the Hungarian minister in London that Mr. Eden had threatened to break off diplomatic relations with Hungary, unless she resisted actively the passage of German troops across her territory. That evening in the cabinet council, Teleki discussed the desperate situation in a gloomy mood. After having retired to his study he received at midnight the authentic news that the German army had just started its march into Hungary. This was more than Teleki could bear and that same night he committed suicide. It is rumored that his cabinet had turned down his proposal to reject German demands and that he had not been able to bear the ignominy of attacking a country with whom his government had concluded a pact of friendship five months before. However, there is reliable information to the contrary. The cabinet did not desert the premier, but he had been shown proof of an understanding between the German and Hungarian general staffs, thus confronting him with a fait accompli.

I have already mentioned that General Gombos was an ardent admirer of the German army. When he was prime minister, he had packed the general staff with young officers of the same creed and Horthy, relying on the old traditions of absolute loyalty and discipline, had signed those nominations. These men, not familiar with the world abroad, could not understand Horthy's and the government's hesitation to join with Germany. This, they thought, was Hungary's great opportunity. Hungary's entry into the war against Yugoslavia was really the work of an officers' junta, something previously unheard of in the country's history. Count Teleki simply broke down when the disaster was revealed to him. This was no longer his world. He used a pistol, but it was the bitter realization that he had signally failed that killed him.

Count Teleki died a martyr. I should like to say that he was a great statesman, but I am sorry that I cannot. That he did not know what was going on in his general staff is sufficient proof of his weakness. He considered himself very clever. Often he mentioned his Greek grandmother, always saying, "You know, the Greeks are a clever people," and then recalled his ancestor who had been prime minister of Transylvania and had dealt cleverly with the Germans on one side and the Turks on the other. Count Teleki thought he could do the same, and this accounts for many of the things he did and said which were entirely contrary to his cherished beliefs. When he wired Hitler congratulations and spoke exultingly in parliament of the fact that German soldiers were guarding the grave of the Unknown Soldier in France; when he went to Gombos' grave and to that of the Unknown Soldier in Hungary and announced the great German conquest -he was acting in the way he thought his Transylvanian and Greek ancestors would approve. When I remonstrated with him, he said it was cheaper to give bouquets to Hitler than bread. As I knew his intense hatred of national socialism and all it represented, I said nothing further, although I considered then and I consider now that his overconfidence in his own cleverness had much to do with what happened later.

Faced with the situation which had confronted Teleki and the crisis created by his suicide, the Regent appointed Foreign Minister Bardossy as premier and tried to make the best of a desperate situation. Such leadership as he previously had was taken away from him now, for he faced accomplished facts. So he proclaimed that Hungary welcomed the liberation of Croatia, which had announced her independence on April 10, 1941, and that it was Hungary's "imperative duty to take into her hands the security of that part of Yugoslavia which was cut off from her in 1918 and where such great masses of Hungarians are living."

It was through the activities of General Werth, the chief of the Hungarian general staff, that Hungarian troops participated in the occupation of Bacska, a northern province of Yugoslavia. Hungary was deprived at Trianon of a general staff and of a school for officers. The result was that in order to maintain her army she had to get leadership from without her borders. General Werth, a good soldier, was however, not a Hungarian. He was brought up in the German tradition, and he betrayed Hungary. Incidentally, we are apparently doing the same thing in Japan today. When the time comes for Japan to be our ally -as she might well be in the East- she will have to call upon her old militarists rather than a young modernly trained corps of officers.

After the German attack on Yugoslavia the question was who should occupy Bacska, formerly a valuable province of Hungary, the German or Hungarian army? Apart-from the considerable Hungarian minority inhabiting that territory, the Serbs, themselves, preferred Hungarian occupation. Thus, except for one incident, when Hungarian troops in Novi Sad (Ujvidek) at the order of the German High Command committed cruel excesses against the population, that territory escaped the brutalities inflicted by German troops of occupation in other parts of Yugoslavia. It also must be noted that the Hungarian government applied reprisals against the military commanders guilty of the Novi Sad massacre. Four of the responsible high officers were condemned to death but were abducted by the Germans before execution and given full rank in the German SS -proving in whose behalf they had acted.

Shortly after Teleki's suicide, General Werth was dismissed and replaced by General Szombathelyi, an able officer, who later succeeded in limiting considerably Hungarian co-operation with the German army. The planned German occupation of Hungarian key positions was restricted to the passage of German troops; and Hungary merely took possession of part of the area of which she had been deprived in 1919, from which Yugoslavia had already withdrawn her troops.

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