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10: Regent of Hungary

<< 9: Counter-Revolution.I am Appointed Minister of War and Commander-in-Chief || 11: Attempts at the Restoration of King Charles in 1921 >>

Regent of Hungary

The very thing I had tried so hard to avoid had happened: I found myself caught in the maelstrom of politics. In a country which at first was only half freed from occupation, its sovereignty restricted by the Supreme Allied Council in Paris and the Interallied Military Mission in Budapest, its government without a parliamentary mandate, and which was still suffering from the ravages of revolution and counter-revolution, the Army was more than the military defender of the nation. It embodied the power of the state. Even at Siófok, it had been my task to bring about the re-establishment of the civil authority in the liberated areas by appointing men suited to civic office. I had called men who were specialists in constitutional law to my headquarters to prepare the transition to a new order, for it was not enough merely to repeal the measures introduced by the Communists. To further these preparations, I had aimed at turning the Allied Mission in Budapest from an antagonist into an ally, insofar as that was possible. My new, unsolicited and, in many ways, unwelcome role in politics, therefore, sprang largely from the fact that excellent working relations existed between myself and the Mission. I was on particularly good terms with Sir George Clerk, the British representative, who found it preferable to come to me with the political instructions he received.

As yet, the Friedrich Government had not been recognized by the Allies. Archduke Joseph's abdication from his position as Regent at the end of August had been due to direct Allied intervention; upon the insistence of Benes(1). He had stated in a letter to the Paris Peace Conference that a Habsburg as Regent was bound ultimately to lead to a restoration of the monarchy, which would be regarded by the Czechoslovak Republic as a direct menace to its existence. Corresponding instructions had been drawn up which had to be implemented by the Military Mission.

The slogan of the First World War had been to make the world safe for democracy. From this sprang the insistence that Hungary should institute a government supported by representatives of all parties, oblivious of the fact that Social Democrats and Communists had merged so that, after the downfall of the Kun regime, the people held all representatives of the Workers' Party responsible for the terror. At the request of Sir George Clerk, on November 5th, 1919, I declared myself willing to enter into discussions with the representatives of the Left. I gave the men who assembled at the Zichy Palace the assurance that I was not planning a military dictatorship and that I would not countenance any anti-Semitic persecution.

A second similar discussion, again at the insistence of Sir George Clerk, was held on November 22nd, after the Army's entry into Budapest. The British representative issued an ultimatum in the most courteous form: Hungary was to form a parliamentary government, the elections for which could not be held under the Premiership of Stephen Friedrich (who was regarded in Allied circles as representative of 'feudalistic traditions'). If this wish of the Supreme Council was not met, he, Sir George, would have to leave Budapest and with his departure all foreign supplies of coal and raw materials would cease. After Count Albert Apponyi(2) had given a faultless translation of this speech, Sir George Clerk left the room to allow free discussion. Differences of opinion were violent. Even those who had not forgiven Friedrich for having originally collaborated with Count Michael Károlyi could hardly agree to the Premier yielding to foreign pressure. But what would a gesture of pride have availed us? That I, a military man, should advocate moderation and prudence made its impression. My proposal that Stephen Friedrich should resign from his present office and take over the Ministry of War was readily accepted. Huszár(3), the Minister of Education, was elected Premier in his place. Furthermore, a representative of the Social Democrats was co-opted into the Cabinet in which Count Somssich(4) remained Foreign Minister. On the following day, this Cabinet was recognized by Sir George Clerk on behalf of the Allied Powers. Hungary at last had an accredited government which could begin to combat misery and want and to hold elections at home, and could wage the battle of the Peace Treaty abroad. Now that a Second World War lies behind us, even those who have not experienced the economic collapse and the years of famine following upon the First World War should be able to form some idea of the conditions prevailing at that time. Even the refugee problem is familiar to us today(5). I need therefore only say that of the forty thousand people who had fled to Budapest from territories occupied by the Czechs, Rumanians and Serbs, thousands had to camp in railway trucks during the bitter cold of winter. But even worse than the physical destitution was the demoralization of the people. Four years of war, ending in the debacle of defeat, followed by a Communist regime, had undermined the will to work and the sense of community. Party struggle was waged with hitherto unknown ferocity. Right-wing radical circles laid all blame on Jews and Communists. Admittedly this coincided in many cases. Meanwhile, the Communists refused to accept defeat. In December, 1919, a few Communists, who had been sent by the Viennese central organization to blow up the Royal Palace in which were the headquarters of the International Military Mission, the Ministries and my headquarters in the Hotel Gellért, were arrested(6). There were frequent outbreaks against Communists and Jews, which was regrettable(7).

I should never have dreamed that I might one day take up a role resembling that of an itinerant preacher. But as the people knew that I was not speaking to them as a party politician, that I had no dictatorial ambitions and that I was averse to radicalism in any form, left or right, they listened to me, and from all quarters I received invitations and requests to speak. One of my tours took me to Kaposvár; there a delegation insisted on my meeting Nagyatádi-Szabó(8), the leader of the recently founded Smallholders' Party, a man who had been described to me as a rabid revolutionary. Contrary to my expectation, I found him to be not only an intelligent man but a true representative of the patriotic, upright and conservative Hungarian peasantry.

In the field of domestic politics, it was soon clear that the former Premier could not reconcile himself to his diminished status. He was making things difficult for his successor, who was demanding the conclusion of the Peace Treaty so that Hungary might know where she stood and could devote herself wholeheartedly to reconstruction. Friedrich was of the opinion that the states upon our borders would rapidly crumble into their component parts and that we had therefore only to wait. The terms of the peace treaty that had been handed to our delegation, headed by Count Apponyi, in Paris on January 15th, 1920, seemed utterly fantastic to me. I was convinced that the day would come when our neighbours would regret having made such inordinate claims. Yet I did not suffer from the illusion that the near future would bring a collapse of Czechoslovakia or of the federation of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes(9).

The first task of the Parliament which met on February 16th, 1920, was to clarify certain points of constitutional law. The crowned King had not relinquished his rights. He could be deposed only by a revolutionary measure. He had been so deposed, but to every constitutionally minded Hungarian, the proclamation of the Hungarian Republic was invalid, and the Friedrich Government had always considered it so. On the other hand, Archduke Joseph, not for personal reasons but because he was a member of the House of Habsburg, had been forced to resign by the Allies.

The National Assembly, being the guardian of national sovereignty, solved the problem by taking a decision that accorded with the facts: that the Union with Austria and the 1867 Compromise should be dissolved and that the King's rule should be considered to have been dormant since November, 1918. Until such time as it could once more be openly exercised, a Regent of the State was to be appointed.

On grounds of foreign policy, neither Archduke Joseph nor Archduke Albrecht was eligible for the Regency; Archduke Joseph withdrew on February 2nd, 1920; the Allies had issued yet another formal declaration that the return of the Habsburgs would not be tolerated. It was now that my name began to receive public mention as a candidate for the Regency. Neither the Prime Minister nor any of the leading politicians discussed this idea with me. I hardly need to say that it was not a subject I was likely to broach myself. I was hoping that Count Apponyi, one of the worthiest and most brilliant figures in our public life, would be chosen. Instead, I was unexpectedly elected Regent of the Realm on March 1st, 1920, by 131 votes out of 141. A delegation, headed by Bishop Prohászka(10), called on me to tell me the result of the voting, and to ask me to go at once to the Parliament Building, there to take the oath.

I thanked my visitors for the great confidence that had been shown in me, but declared that I was not in a position to accept the high office to which I had been elected. Out of deference, however, to the National Assembly, I was prepared to acquaint its members with my decision in person. But before I appeared in front of the Assembly, I was implored to change my mind. The members of the government, the party leaders and other prominent political figures gathered in a large room of the Parliament Building. They used every argument to persuade me to reconsider my decision. When I persisted in my refusal, the government was censured for not having ascertained my willingness before electing me. The assembly then broke up into small groups for discussion. As an officer, I had sworn an oath of loyalty to His Majesty. As Regent I would have to swear a new oath to the constitution and to the nation. Was there not a danger of a conflict of loyalties? Such considerations I could not easily voice and I was well aware that, at this grave stage in the peace negotiations, appeals were bound to be made to my patriotism. I put forward the objection that the rights of the future head of the state, as they had been given in the press, were inadequate. He would not even have the right to prorogue Parliament, and certainly not to dissolve it.

Another short discussion followed my statement. Then the President of the National Assembly, Stephen Rakovszky(11), sat down at a desk, took up a pen and said: "Please dictate your demands. Parliament will agree to them."

I composed another subterfuge. A matter as serious as this could not be decided without mature reflection nor without the advice of experienced legal minds, I declared. Thereupon, the proposal was made that the Regent should be given the general prerogatives of the King, with the exception of the right to name titles of nobility and of the patronage of the Church. What objection could be made to that? I was cornered. I accepted the election and we entered the vaulted hall where the representatives had been waiting over an hour. In the presence of these elected representatives of the Hungarian people, who had chosen me in the name of the sovereignty of the people whom they represented, I swore the oath as Regent.

The Regency was no new phenomenon in Hungarian constitutional life. As far back as 1446, John Hunyadi(12) had been Regent until 1452 while the son of Albert I, Ladislaus Posthumus was a minor. To the office was attached the title 'Fôméltóságú', meaning literally 'High Dignitary', corresponding to the English 'Serene Highness', the French 'Altesse Serenissime' and the German 'Durchlaucht'. The Regent is head of the state and exercises the prerogatives pertaining to the sovereign. In accordance with the law of 1920, he is Supreme Commander and therefore Commander-in-Chief of the Honvédség, the National Defence Force. Declaration of war and conclusion of peace need the sanction of Parliament. The Regent represents the country in international relations; he sends out ambassadors and receives the ambassadors of foreign states. He exercises his executive powers through the Ministry appointed by him. He has the right to convene Parliament, to prorogue it, (the prescribed maximum period fixed originally at thirty days was abolished in 1933), and to dissolve it. He does not possess the right of veto, but has the right of initiative and the right to submit an accepted Bill twice for renewed consideration; if it is again accepted, he has to promulgate it. The person of the Regent is inviolable. The original clause stipulating that he could be called to account should he infringe the constitution was rescinded in 1937.

The law of 1920, which was passed in the expectation of an early return of the King, contained no enactment for a successor to the Regent. Not before 1937 was this law modified by an enactment which empowered the Regent to hand a sealed letter to the two Keepers of the Crown containing the names of three candidates in the event of his death or abdication. Parliament was not, however, to be bound by his nominations.

That the Regent should not have the right to create nobility was a welcome restriction to me. Less welcome was the restriction concerning the patronage of the Church, a privilege which had belonged to the Crown for a thousand years and which now was ceded to the Pope. A solution which gave the Regent this right should have been found, for the appointment of bishops includes not only their membership of the Upper House but also considerable transfers of property. A ruling could have been made that a Protestant Regent must consult the Catholic Prince-Primate.

The government instructed me to take up residence in the Royal Palace. This was a necessary step, as the Regent's Cabinet and Military Chancelleries would require space for the incessant political, civil and military traffic that passed through them, and the Guards attached to the Regent would have the duty of mounting guard over the Palace and its many treasures. Naturally, I did not install myself in His Majesty's former apartments. For my residence, chancelleries and audience chambers, I occupied what were known as the visitors' quarters in the new wing of the Palace.

The choice of a Regent had been made, as I pointed out, during the 1919 course of the peace negotiations. There was nothing particularly attractive about assuming office in these circumstances. Not even the boldest ambition would aim at presiding over the partition of a thousand-year-old state. And yet, the country was in dire need of a head whose patriotism stood above reproach. I considered my task that of a pilot who had to steer his ship in the teeth of a violent typhoon.

In consideration of the Paris negotiations, on March 15th I entrusted Alexander Simonyi-Semadam(13) with the formation of a small and powerful Cabinet.

"The peoples of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity of autonomous development." This was the text of the tenth of the Fourteen Points announced by President Wilson in his speech to the American Congress on January 8th, 1918. On the basis of which the Austro-Hungarian

Government had offered, on October 7th, 1918, in a Note to the American President, to conclude an armistice and to enter into negotiations for peace. It is a well known fact that President Wilson confirmed and restated the validity of his Fourteen Points as a basis for negotiation (compare his Note of May, 1919, to the German Peace Treaty Delegation), and that the Peace Treaties disgracefully ignored them. A line of demarkation was drawn separating the peoples of Austro-Hungary into Austrians and Hungarians on the one side, and Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Italians, Rumanians, Serbs, Croats and Slovenes on the other. A line separating the conquered from the conquerors, the disinherited from the favoured sharers in the fruits of victory. The Hungarians suffered the greatest humiliation. It is not my task, in this book, to write the history of the Treaty of Trianon. Skilled pens have done so already. There were no negotiations. Our government had formulated objections, point by point, to the draft submitted to it on January 13th, 1920, indicating the political and economic injustices and follies it embodied, but in vain. Count Apponyi had made his masterly speeches before the Supreme Allied Council in Paris in French, English and Italian, defending the Hungarian point of view, to no avail. The fate of Hungary had long been decided, on the basis of falsified statistics and maps drawn up by Benes and of political accusations of 'Hungarian war guilt', accusations that have long since been discredited by historians and students of international law. Though Lloyd George(14) and President Wilson had repeatedly asserted, even while the war was still being fought, that the Austro-Hungarian monarchy should remain in being, the secret treaties, understandings concluded with Italians, Rumanians and Czechs had already dismembered Hungary. Even the Treaty of Versailles foresaw plebiscites in some of the areas that were to be taken from Germany. The Hungarian proposal that the peoples who had until then belonged to the realm of St. Stephen's Crown should be given the right of self-determination was not accepted in a single case. (The plebiscite that was held in 1921 in western Hungary, in Burgenland, was the outcome of a later decision.) Only the Croats and the Rumanians had left Hungary of their own free will; the Slovaks, Ruthenians, Transylvanian Saxons and the Germans of the Banat and the Bácska would have pronounced by an overwhelming majority in favour of remaining within Hungary, as later the German-speaking population of Sopron (Ödenburg) did.

On May 5th, the Hungarian Government received the final text of the Treaty. It contained the identical terms of the draft of January 15th, except for two minor alterations in the question of optants, and with regard to the Danube catchment area, points that I had discussed in detail with Sir George Clerk. On June 4th, 1920, the Treaty was signed at the Trianon. Hungary, which, before the war (excluding the crown lands of Croatia-Slavonia), had extended over an area of 203,000 square miles and had counted 18.3 million inhabitants, lost by this Treaty more than two thirds of its land, and 58 percent of its inhabitants, 10.6 millions. Not only were the nationalities, which over the centuries had entered and become part of the Hungarian kingdom, united to their countries of origin, but, as Lord Newton(15) wrote, "what is worse, more than 3,000,000 Magyars were handed over to nations of different race and lower cultural level with an utter disregard of the sacred principle of self-determination". The Czechs were allotted Slovakia, together with large tracts of upper and western Hungary, including the ancient coronation city of Pozsony (Bratislava. The Danube became the southern frontier of Czechoslovakia and the walled city of Komárom (Komorno), with its purely Hungarian population, was therefore partitioned into a Czech and a Hungarian town(16). In total, an area of 40,000 square miles and a population of 3,517,000 was incorporated in Czechoslovakia.

Rumania, whose army had been utterly routed during the First World War, received the major portion of the booty. The whole of Transylvania with its neighbouring territories and part of the Banat with Temesvár (Timisoara), altogether 64,000 square miles and a population of 1,509,000. Serbia was given the rest of the Banat together with the rich granary of Hungary, the Bácska, which included the important towns of Szabadka (Subotica), Ujvidék (Novi Sad), and Versecz: 12,500 square miles with 1,509,000 inhabitants. This area was combined with Croatia-Slavonia, Dalmatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Monte-negro and the one-time Kingdom of Serbia to form a large South Slav state: Yugoslavia. Austria, which had made no territorial claims, was given Western Hungary, called the Burgenland, with an area of 2,000 square miles. To Poland, 390 square miles were allotted. By D'Annunzio's(17) coup de main, Italy helped herself to the old Hungarian harbour city of Fiume (Rijeka).

"The central Danube basin," so it was once put by our foremost geographer, the future Prime Minister Count Paul Teleki, in a lecture given at the University of Berlin, "is a geographical unit in that it has in the main a clearly demarcated boundary and a clearly marked centre, while the component parts within its confines complement each other in their harmonious economic functions(18)." But in Paris no one bothered about the ethnic problems that are raised when a state loses fifty-nine per cent of its population and sixty-eight per cent of its area. No one considered the structural modifications of agrarian and sylvan economy. Hungary lost eighty-eight per cent of her forests and more than ninety-seven per cent of her fir-woods. These are timbered areas which were of importance not only as sources of building material and fuel but were also vital for the regulation of the irrigation of the Hungarian plains, for which reason Hungary had always exercised great vigilance over her deforestation. The neighbouring states to whom these forest areas were given did not adhere to the conditions laid down by the Peace Treaty. They recklessly cut down timber, so that in spring Hungary endured floods and in summer droughts. Hungary also lost eighty-three per cent of her iron ore and nearly fifty percent of her ironworks.

Hungary, like Germany and Austria, had to pay reparations. Like Germany and Austria, she had to sign a declaration of war guilt, even though the Hungarian Prime Minister Count Tisza had vehemently opposed the ultimatum to Serbia. A military restriction was laid on Hungary by which she could maintain a standing army of only 35,000 men(19); her thorough demilitarization was carried out by a deservedly unpopular Allied Control Commission.

Admittedly, Millerand(20), the successor as Chairman of the Peace Conference to Clemenceau, signed a letter of May 6th, 1920, known as the Lettre d'Envoi, in which hopes of a revision of the Treaty were held out. But beyond this gesture, nothing was ever done; the letter lay as dead as Article XIX of the League of Nations Covenant.

From June 4th, 1920, all flags in Hungary were flown at half-mast. Eighteen years were to pass before once more they could be fully hoisted.

Count Apponyi had resigned when he saw the futility of his efforts in Paris. The Simonyi-Semadam Government also resigned after it had submitted the Treaty to Parliament on July 26th.

On July 19th, 1920, I appointed as Prime Minister Count Paul Teleki, who had been Foreign Minister at Szeged. The fragment of Hungary that remained endeavoured as best it could to resuscitate its mangled body. Slowly, slowly, apathy and work-shyness receded. The harvest had to be brought in, the fields tilled afresh. Hungary was still an agricultural country and the rhythm of peasant life penetrated the whole nation as it derived strength from its soil. Plans were put in hand for financial reconstruction, for new industries to combat the problem of unemployment. It looked as if we were following the right course.

And then came the surprising news of the return of His Majesty King Charles.

1. Eduard Benes (1884-1948) Czech politician and statesman. Together with Thomas G. Masaryk (1850-1937), he established the Czechoslovak Foreign Committee on November 14, 1915, and began a vigorous propaganda activity to influence the politicians and public opinion in France toward in favor of destroying the Monarchy. Interestingly, earlier in his doctoral dissertation (Univ. Dijon, 1908) he wrote that "one can not think seriously of an independent Czech state since the third of the population (the Sudeten Germans) would determinedly resist it and would not consider it legal." (Miksche, F.O.: Danubian Federation, London: Kenion Press, 1952.) Q. E. D.

2. Count Albert Apponyi (1846-1933) politician, was the Chairman of the Hungarian Peace Delegation in Paris. Later, he represented Hungary in the League of Nations. His speaking knowledge of foreign languages was truly amazing.

3. Károly Huszár (1882-1941).

4. Count Joseph Somssich (1864-1941), diplomat.

5. These memoirs were completed in 1952.

6. See p. 299 of Gen. Harry Hill Bandholtz: An Undiplomatic Diary, New York: Columbia univ. Press, 1933.

7. Zoltán Vas, one of the Muscowite ministers during the Communist Reign of Terror in the 1950's described the intensive covert subversive activities of the suppressed Communists in this period. He also laments the lack of popular support of the Communists, and blames this on their caste-like behavior. Vas, Z.:Horthy. Op. Cit.)

8. István Nagyatádi-Szabó (1863-1924).

9. Indeed, it took some 75 years to happen.

10. Catholic Bishop Ottokár Prohászka (1858-1927).

11. István Rakovszky (1858-1931), Legitimist Party politician.Legitimists supported the reinstatement of the Habsburg dynasty.

12. John (János) Hunyadi (1385-1456), Hungarian national hero, leader of the resistance against the Turks. He won numerous victories against them. His fight was a Christian crusade aided by Pope Calixtus III. With John Capistran, who was sainted later, Hunyadi in 1456 defeated the Turks at Belgrade (then a Hungarian border fort) and thus staved off the Turkish conquest of Hungary by 70 years. His younger son became king as Matthias Corvinus. (Quoted from Columbia Encyclopedia, 1950).

13. Alexander Simonyi-Semadam (1864-1946).

14. David Lloyd-George (1863-1945), British Prime Minister.

15. Lord Newton, Thomas Wodehouse Legh (1857-1942), British politician.

16. This is like placing an international boundary between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

17. Gabriele D'Annunzio, Prince of Montenevoso (1863-1938), Italian writer, poet, and politician. With his armed band he prevented the opening of Fiume as a free port in 1920, and succeeded in annexing it to Italy.

18. For example, in the past Slovak mountaineers earned their whole year's wheat supply by assisting in the harvest on the Hungarian plains.

19. In contrast, the combined military strength of the successor states exceeded 600 thousand men, a twenty-fold superiority.

20. Alexandre Millerand (1859-1943).He was France's minister of war during WW1. Later, he was the president of France from 1920 to 1920.

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