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12: The Road to Freedom

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The Road to Freedom

The attitude of the Successor States during the two attempts made by King Charles to restore the monarchy had drastically shown Hungary how powerful were the walls of the prison that Trianon had built round the country and how eagerly her neighbours constituted themselves her gaolers. Benes had gone so far as to demand monetary reparations for the expense Czechoslovakia had incurred by her partial mobilization in October, 1921. Plainly, my task, therefore, was the consolidation of domestic politics and the economy of the country in order to clear the road to freedom. A kindly Providence had given me a colleague in whom I could put full trust, confident that he would put into practice the projects I had in mind: Count Stephen Bethlen, a man of outstanding mental power and of fine character. Upon the retirement of Count Teleki in April, 1921, I had appointed him Prime Minister. The Bethlens belonged to the old Protestant nobility of Transylvania. Throughout the centuries, many men of eminence in Hungary have borne that name. Bethlen possessed that happy combination of a conservative background with liberal ideas of reform. His knowledge of the world and his innate political talent made him able to seize and even create those opportunities in foreign politics which aided Hungary in gradually regaining her independence.

The first opportunity arose when the west-Hungarian or Burgenland question became acute. In the Treaty of Trianon, western Hungary had been promised to Austria with the primary intention, it was thought, of providing Austria and Hungary with a bone of contention. The secondary intention was, allegedly, of laying the foundation for a future Slav corridor between Czechoslovakia and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. The date by which this region, the population of which was largely German-speaking, was to be ceded had not been stated in the Treaty. Just like in eastern Upper Silesia, where German partisans were active, partisan bands had sprung up in Hungary under the leadership of Prónay, Colonel of Hussars. They were fired with the determination to prevent their fatherland from being whittled away any further. The Czechs were insisting on partition and offered Austria military support. This offer, made at the meeting of Hallstadt on August 10th, 1921, by the Czechoslovak President to the Austrian President, was confirmed on December 16th by the Treaty of Lana. I have already mentioned the fact that the presence of Hungarian units influenced the choice of landing ground for the aeroplane in which King Charles had arrived to make his second attempt to regain the Hungarian crown. When the Prague Government sent us a Note demanding that we hand Burgenland over to Austria. This Note roused great indignation. A conflict seemed inevitable. In the then existing circumstances, it could only have had results disastrous to us. But Count Bethlen succeeded in securing the support of Marchese della Torretta(1), the Italian Foreign Minister, who, for obvious reasons, was opposed to the formation of a Slav corridor. With his consent, an international conference was held in Venice at which, on October 11th, the region in question was divided into two zones, A and B. A plebiscite arranged for Zone A, to which belonged the town of Sopron and fourteen villages. The result of the plebiscite was that seventy-five per cent of the population elected to remain Hungarian. A yet more important outcome was that Hungary had shown her willingness to revise her frontiers by peaceful means. Thus the Venice Conference made the first breach in the wall that had been thrown up round the country.

At my request, Count Bethlen had again assumed office, after having handed in the resignation of his whole Cabinet when Parliament, on December 3rd, 1921, had been forced by Allied pressure to pass the Bill enacting the dethronement of the Habsburgs and the annulment of the Pragmatic Sanction(2). His action had been a demonstration against this blatant interference in the internal affairs of our country, an interference that could scarcely redound to the credit of the democratic powers, and which impelled the Hungarian Parliament to emphasize in the preamble to the Bill that the law would not have been passed had it not been for external pressure.

Problems of domestic politics were coming more and more to the fore. While still a Member of Parliament, Bethlen had succeeded, on July 13th, 1920, in bringing about the amalgamation of the chief political parliamentary parties: the United Christian National Party, and the Smallholders' and Agricultural Labourers' Party. The name of the new party thus formed was changed repeatedly and even its component elements varied greatly at times, but, until 1944, it remained the political backbone of the country. At the elections of May, 1922, which were held after an electoral reform, there were already in Parliament not only representatives of the bourgeois opposition but also of the Socialists. Upon Bethlen's decision, taken in order to obliterate all internal dissensions remaining from the days of revolution and counter-revolution, to allow trade union organization, to assure the liberty of the press, of speech and of political meetings, and to effect a general political amnesty. This conciliatory course, which had my fullest approval, was followed also in the treatment of those who, in October, 1921, had supported the attempted restoration. Even those who had taken part in it under arms, were not indicted.

As neither the Upper House, the House of Magnates, which in its old form corresponded more or less to the British House of Lords, nor the unicameral system was to be recommended for our domestic conditions, the Bethlen Government, in 1926, introduced legislation for the creation of a reformed Upper House. The old Upper House had consisted of the senior members of the higher nobility who paid a certain minimum land tax. The new Upper House consisted of four groups of mainly elected members: members of the House of Habsburg Lorraine, provided they were able to speak the Hungarian language, and the representatives of the higher nobility, these families electing their own representatives, numbering half as many as the representatives from towns and counties; the holders of certain functions and offices, among whom were the Catholic bishops, the representatives of the three Protestant Church communities, the Chief Rabbi, and the President of the High Court; representatives of the rural and municipal councils, universities, academies of art and music, and the professional representatives of trade, industry, agriculture and the free professions; and finally forty-four members whom the Regent had the right to nominate.

The Upper House with 244 members and the Lower House with 245 members, who were elected anew every five years by universal suffrage, open ballot in rural districts and secret ballot in towns, together formed the Parliament(3) which exercised the legislative powers. Even declarations of war and the conclusion of peace needed the assent of Parliament in conformity with the provisions of the Constitution. As Regent of the Realm, I had, as I have already explained, the right to object to any Bill twice, but a third passing of a Bill with a simple majority set aside my objection. The Prime Minister and the Ministers were appointed by me, but were responsible to Parliament.

We Hungarians are as proud of the antiquity of our unwritten Constitution as the British are of theirs. This Constitution goes back to the Golden Bull of 1222. In no Continental country has constitutional and parliamentary thought played so prominent a part as in Hungary and Poland. Also, nothing is further from the truth than to call Hungary a 'feudal' country. The part played by the nobility, which was represented in the Upper House ipso jure by thirty-eight members chosen from the highest families, was comparatively less important than it is in England, where the King has the right to create new titles of nobility, a right, which as I have already stated, I did not possess. Nor is it true that the major part of the land was in the hands of a small class of great landowners. Seventy-five per cent of all arable land, according to the 1935 statistics, belonged to small farmers and owners of medium-sized properties of 2000 holds' or under. (One Hungarian cadastral hold equals 1.43 acres.)

This does not mean to say that either I or the governments in power during my Regency regarded the agrarian problem as solved. Legislation for the breaking up of certain large estates had to be drawn up with great circumspection. The great density of the population and the relation between the number of people and the area of arable land rendered it impossible to solve the agrarian problem by simply dividing up the land, especially as for a country such as Hungary, which bases its economy on the export of agricultural produce, efficiently run large estates are a necessity. It must not be forgotten that our country has been greatly impoverished by the loss of its most valuable mines and forests, by the cost of warfare and the subsequent payment of reparations. Expropriation without compensation similar to that which was carried out in certain neighbouring states, mainly at the expense of national minorities, would have run counter to our traditions and to our sense of justice. Our task was, therefore, to bring a policy which was necessary from social considerations into agreement with economic and financial conditions and with the dictates of justice. And that is what was actually done. After the Land Reform Act of 1920 had shared out more than a million holds, the Settlement Act of 1936, to anticipate later developments here, and the Land Reform Acts of 1940 and 1941 divided up another nine hundred and thirty thousand holds. This apportioning of landed property to the extent of two million holds amounted to two-thirds of the large estates of more than a thousand holds in private possession. In total, there were created, by 1940, 412,537 new small holdings, 251 model farms and 55 estates of medium size.

As by origin I belong to the land, I was familiar with the disastrous results of the liberal right of inheritance. An equal division of a farmer's estate among his heirs leads not only to the creation of increasingly smaller holdings but also to the limitation of families. I had long borne in mind a statement made by Lord Castlereagh at the Congress of Vienna; in agreeing to peace terms for France. These, in his opinion were too favourable. He remarked that the laws of inheritance under the Napoleonic Civil Code would render France harmless from the military point of view within a hundred years.

It was not, however, feasible to introduce sufficiently radical changes in long-existing rights of inheritance. As a solution, I created a military Order of Merit: all Magyars and those also of other origin who had displayed great military bravery and were of unblemished character became entitled to a 'hero's estate' of approximately sixteen holds, including house, stable, two horses and a cow. Members of the Order who already possessed land could have it registered in total or in part as a hero's estate. The right to inherit such an estate belonged solely to the eldest son. For the first three years of ownership, an estate of this kind was altogether tax free; after that period of time, amortization had to be paid, payment to be spread over thirty years or more. In total, some three thousand such estates were set up, the necessary means of tilling the soil being provided by the state, by voluntary endowments and from the fees collected from those who were given commemorative war medals.

I need hardly say that the raising and training of an army was a subject close to my heart. We studied the work of German General von Seeckt(4) to advantage, for the peace treaty had limited us to keeping a regular army of not more than 30,000 men.

My efforts to improve the standard of education were implemented most ably by the Minister of Education, Count Klebelsberg(5), whose fame had spread far beyond our national frontiers. In 1920, 12 percent of the population over the age of six was illiterate; by 1930, this figure had been reduced to 9.6 percent. By 1941, in the same area (excluding, that is, the territory that had meanwhile returned to us), it shrank to 4 percent. During the twenty years from 1918 to 1938, the number of primary schools was increased from 5,584 to 6,899, the number of primary school teachers from 14,400 to 20,149. In country districts, special aptitude tests were given so that the gifted children of poor parents could be selected to receive the assistance necessary to enable them to go to secondary school and university. Attending our universities were 10,000 students in 1918; in 1938, the number of students had risen to 18,000. In 1937, the government established the Nicholas Horthy Scholarships in my honour, which annually enabled several hundred students of limited means to go to the university. The former universities of Kolozsvár and Pozsony were transferred to Szeged and Pécs respectively.

Like many other countries, we also had suffered from inflation in the years after the First World War. The partition of Hungary, the payment of reparations, and the burdens of the aftermath of war made it impossible for us to stabilize our currency unaided, for our most valuable assets were in pawn to our creditors. Before we could obtain a loan from abroad, it was necessary to reclaim these securities. To this end, we joined the League of Nations on September 18th, 1922, thereby laying ourselves under the supervision of the League of Nations Finance Commission. The loan of two hundred and fifty million(6) gold crowns we used to such good purpose that the Finance Commissioner, Mr. Jeremiah Smith(7), on the eve of his departure to Geneva on June 30th, 1926, after a two-year sojourn with us, was able to declare that we had carried out our obligations and had balanced our budget. The following year, our currency was changed from crowns to pengôs, the Hungarian word for 'clinking', a pleasing appellation reminiscent of the ringing sound of coins(8).

Mr. Smith, an American and a reliable friend of our country, placed the whole amount of his fees at the disposal of Hungarian students in America. He also gave us much good advice later. Only once did he put me in an awkward position. When the time came for him to leave us, we wished to show our appreciation in the shape of the present that would give him the most pleasure. On my enquiry, he asked for both more and less than I had expected: he said he would like to see St. Stephen's Crown. To us the holy relic is not a showpiece, as the Papal Secretary of State Pacelli(9) felt when he was Papal Legate at the Eucharistic Congress of 1938 and, kneeling, prayed before it. The three keys of the chest in which it was kept were in the trusteeship of the Prime Minister and the two Keepers of the Crown. The key to the vault in which the chest was housed was in the keeping of the Commander of the Crown Guards, with the rank of colonel. The Crown Guards, all ex-NCO's, wore special uniforms: a white cape and helmets with heron feathers.

To comply with Mr. Smith's request, I had to lay the proposal before the Privy Council. A solemn procession to the vault was ordered and there the chest was opened. Mr. Smith stood speechless before this product of a Byzantine goldsmith's art, its cross bent as it was when it was dug out of the ground after being buried during disturbances in the Middle Ages. Mr. Smith called on me again and declared: "I understand now. That wasn't the crown. Saint Stephen's Crown is Hungary herself."

I have already stated that my aim was to achieve the revision of the Treaty of Trianon by peaceful means. The friendship with Germany, of which Field Marshal von Hindenburg, whom I held in great respect, had been elected President, was to us, during the early years after the First World War, largely a matter of sentiment. Our slogan "Nem, nem soha!" ("No, no never!") with which our nation had answered Trianon found a strong echo in Germany. But at the time, the German Reich had its own cares and, in the councils of the nations, its voice went unheeded time and time again. Wise statesmanship, with an eye to the future, would have paid attention to the German proposals concerning a revision of the peace treaty. A small country, encircled by a hostile outer world, Hungary had to seek friendship with all the leading powers.

Our friendship with Poland after the Polish-Soviet war, discussed earlier, meantime had little effect. The close relations between Warsaw and Paris relieved the Polish-Czech tension which had been potentially useful to us. The first treaty of alliance concluded by Hungary was with Turkey in 1923; our relations with that country had rapidly developed since the creation of a Turkish national state under Kemal Atatürk. As the Little Entente had expressly joined forces by treaty against Hungary (and only secondarily against Bulgaria), my main concern was with our southern neighbours. In the past, I had learned to know and appreciate the Croats as fine sailors and naval officers. I was fluent in their language. The military gallantry displayed by the Serbs during the war led me to think that a frank talk as soldier to soldier might well meet with understanding. Therefore, I availed myself of the opportunity offered by the celebration of the quatrocentenary of the Battle of Mohács. This battle that had brought, for a century and a half, the Hungarians and Serbs the same fate, a yoke that the Serbs had had to bear yet longer after the Battle of Kosovo. I referred, in my speech made on August 26th, 1926, to "the ancient friendship and the ancient confidence" that had existed between us. Turning to the Turkish Ambassador, who was present at the celebrations, I said that we Magyars had taken the lessons of history to heart and that "the enemy of the past has become the friend of the present". And I continued: "Unfortunately, we are at this moment separated by a deep-rooted difference from those with whom we, in the past, jointly defended the southern frontiers of these lands. I hope and believe that it may not be long before we shall be reconciled."

Yet it was not Belgrade that drew practical conclusions from these words but Italy, to which a Hungarian-Yugoslav reconciliation would have been most unwelcome while the cries of "Mare nostro" and "Nase more" resounded from the opposite shores of the Adriatic. A few months after my speech, Bethlen was invited to Rome to sign a pact of friendship with Italy. This implied the resumption of historic relations and assured us of the support of one of the victorious nations in combating the stubborn anti-revision policy of the Little Entente and of France. The effects of this pact, signed by Mussolini and Bethlen on April 5th, 1927, were soon made manifest: five months later the Control Commission was terminated.

During the following years, Count Bethlen went on missions to Berlin, Paris, London and Madrid. Economic factors, proceeding from the great south-east European agrarian crisis after 1928, led to the strengthening of our relations, especially economic, with Germany. She was the only country offering us a large market for our wheat and corn.

Another sign that the road to freedom was opening lay in the fact that Budapest was once again being visited by eminent foreign statesmen. Thus, in 1929, we welcomed Grandi(10), the Italian Foreign Minister, and Zaleski(11), the Polish Foreign Minister, and in 1931 Ismet Inönü(12), the Turkish Premier and his Foreign Minister, Rüstü Aras(13). Our thoughts go out in gratitude to Lord Rothermere(14), who was the first person in England to insist in his newspapers in 1927 on justice for Hungary, after Lord Newton had exposed in the House of Lords the follies and injustices perpetrated by the Treaty of Trianon upon its ratification. Lord Newton, Sir Robert Gowert and Lord George Sydenham(15) were presented with honorary doctorates in the University of Budapest in recognition of their services to the cause of justice.

The intervention of Lord Rothermere and his clarion call for justice came at a moment of national despair and found a spontaneous response throughout the land. Immediately after it had been proclaimed that an address of gratitude was to be sent to Lord Rothermere, crowds of people assembled to append their signatures to the document. Within a few days, 1,200,000 people had signed it and the sheets of names were bound in twenty-six volumes. If a date had not been fixed for dispatch, it is certain that the whole nation would have signed their names.

The inclusion in these memoirs of an account of the festivities held in connection with the tenth anniversary of my election as Regent of the Realm is made in order that I may express my gratitude to my friend and collaborator, Count Bethlen, (who was taken as prisoner to Russia in 1945), and to the Hungarian Parliament, which unanimously passed a Bill bestowing a number of honours on me. It is impossible for me to forget the vast procession that marched to the Palace in February, 1930, and the chanting of our national anthem by a choir of eighteen hundred singers. My greatest pleasure on that day was the fact that the pacification of the country, that had gone forward in the ten years of my Regency, enabled me to pardon a number of political prisoners.

After Count Bethlen had borne the burden of the Premiership for ten years, he asked me to relieve him of his office. It was with the utmost regret that I parted with him. His retirement gave rise, at the time, to considerable speculation. People refused to recognize the plain fact that his resignation was a normal step to take. In view of the difficulties arising from the agrarian crisis and the widespread world depression, Bethlen himself thought the time ripe for a change in the political leadership of the country.

On August 24th, 1931, I appointed Count Julius Károlyi, the former chief of the Szeged opposition government, Prime Minister. Károlyi concentrated his attention on financial and economic measures. In his economy drive, he even went so far as to take their official cars away from Ministers of State, himself setting an example by walking from his home to his office. From the beginning, we were in full agreement that he was to remain in office only during the transition period. Differences with the Government Party, which threatened to culminate in a split, induced Count Károlyi to resign on September 21st, 1932. Our close friendship survived; with his fine, reliable character, he remained one of my most valued advisers.

A new man was now at the threshold, Julius Gömbös. With him a new period opened, not so much due to his own activities as because conditions within Germany had by this time changed fundamentally, taking a turn that was to have the most far-reaching effects on our country and eventually on the whole of Europe and the rest of the world.

1. Count Pietro Paolo Tomasi della Torretta (1873-1962).

2. A law, dating back to 1713, assuring Habsburg hereditary succession in Hungary in the female and not only the male line.

3. In contrast, no more than a third of the British Parliament is composed of elected members.

4. Gen. Hans von Seeckt (1866-1936), organizer of the German armed forces.

5. Count Kuno Klebelsberg (1875-1932). He has established Hungarian cultural centers abroad, and strengthened provincial universities.

6. The estimated value of goods looted by Rumanian occupation forces from Hungary was over four times this amount.

7. Jeremiah Smith, Jr. (1870-1935), American financier, law counsellor of the J.P. Morgan banking house's Boston office.

8. János Bud (1880-195?), Bethlen's financial advisor, economics professor, was Minister of Finance between 1924 - 1928. The Hungarian National Bank was created under his direction. He deserves credit for Hungary's economic reconstruction.

9. Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (1876-1958), became Pope Pius XII in 1939.

10. Count Dino Grandi (1895-1988).

11. August Zaleski (1883-1972), historian and diplomat.

12. Pasha Ismet Inönü (1884-1973), Turkish statesman.

13. Rüstü Aras (1881- ?), Turkish physician, politician.

14. Lord Rothemere, Harold Sidney Harmsworth (1868-1940), publisher of the Daily Mail, politician. His article, "Hungary's Place under the Sun" was published on June 21, 1926. One of the consequences of this article was the establishment of the Revisionist League (July 27, 1926) in Budapest, under the titular chairmanship of writer Ferenc Herczeg, a confidant of Horthy. It was a covert international public relations organization that paralleled Hungary's diplomatic service. Under the direction of Dr. Endre Fall, vice president of the national insurance organization OTI, the R.L. maintained 'secretariates' in several major western countries.

15. Lord George Sydenham (1848-1933), British politician.

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