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13: The Rome Protocols and the Rome-Berlin Axis

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The Rome Protocols and the Rome-Berlin Axis

When I look back, after the passing of two decades and with the understanding brought us by the terrible events of the Second World War, upon the part played by my country during the thirties, it is the inevitability of the historic process that has left the most profound impression on me. By this phrase, I do not mean merely the self-evident necessity of judging events and incidents in their contemporary setting. It is of greater importance to realize and admit that the freedom of action of a small country such as Hungary, wedged between the formidable might of Germany and that of the Russian colossus, was extremely circumscribed. Time and time again, we tried, and with greater energy and tenacity than did others, to retain what freedom of action we could while pursuing a course in the interests of keeping the peace. We had every reason to aim at a change in the so-called 'order' of which we were the innocent victims, since we had opposed the Viennese ultimatum to Serbia in 1914. We could have availed ourselves of many opportunities to exploit the internal difficulties of our neighbours. This we never did. We tried instead to be a stabilizing force in the Danube Basin, the key to which, as I have always contended, is to be found in Budapest. But even our circumspect policy could not wipe out the now generally lamented folly of the dismemberment of the old Austro-Hungarian monarchy. It was inevitable that the Great Powers should try to turn to account the dissensions of the states in the Balkans and south-east Europe, some of which were newly created, others considerably enlarged or correspondingly reduced. If the other states had shown at least as much wisdom as we had in making the influence of the various Great Powers cancel out, had they come to an agreement with us, history might have taken a different course.

Hungary has always known that, in Italian policies, she was intended to play an anti-Yugoslav and anti-French part in the first place and in the second to serve as an obstacle to German southeastern penetration. We knew the Germans well enough to be chary of too close a friendly embrace, though we gave due recognition to their military, economic and scientific achievements. Nor were we oblivious of the third factor, the menace of which, after our experience of Communist revolution, we Magyars knew more than most: Soviet Russia. Diplomatic relations with Russia were not resumed until April 12th, 1934(1), after the United States of America, the last of the Great Powers to recognize Soviet Russia, had preceded us in taking this course on November 16th, 1933. What surprise, then, can be felt or what offence can be taken at the fact that we, cautiously and circumspectly, should have adapted ourselves to the changes in the European political constellation of 1933? The first treaties with Hitler were concluded by the Vatican and Poland(2). With mounting concern we watched the attempts of the National Socialists to undermine from within the independence of our neighbour Austria, attempts which led to the murder of Chancellor Dollfuss(3). Our relief was great when the energetic action taken by Mussolini in 1934 foiled the attempt at annexation. We watched with bewilderment as the Western democracies, with surprising weakness and lack of unity, permitted the re-arming of Germany and the re-militarization of the Rhineland, while practically driving Germany and Italy into each other's arms by opposing with sanctions the Italian East African colonization plans. Had their intention really been to halt Mussolini, his oil supplies should have been cut and the Suez Canal closed to him. While that was not done, it would have been better to avoid taking measures that did not help the Negus(4) and merely pointed the contrasts between the haves and the have-nots, as they were called at the time. His discussions with Laval(5), in January, 1935, justified Mussolini in his belief that France approved of Italy's expansionist energies being directed at the distant, scarcely civilized Abyssinians. Even at the Stresa Conference, which dealt with the German entry into the Rhineland, the British had refrained from raising their voice against the unmistakable trend of Mussolini's claims, so that he believed he could at any rate count on British neutrality. Since, meanwhile, the relations between Hungary and Italy had been placed on a yet firmer footing by new treaties. Hungary had no reason to join in imposing sanctions. This put us in the black books of Mr. Eden, who ignored the fact that several of those nations who had agreed to apply sanctions continued to trade with Italy as before. When the 'Rome-Berlin Axis', a phrase first used by our Premier Gömbös, came into being and Mussolini found himself agreeing willy-nilly to the Anschluss. The situation was again very different, from the Hungarian point of view. Not only had we as our neighbour the Greater German Reich, but we had lost the possibility of playing Berlin off against Rome by referring political requests from either to the possible objection of the other. But I have gone ahead of my story in pursuing this point and shall therefore pick up the thread where I dropped it, at the change from the Károlyi to the Gömbös Government.

Julius Gömbös had been Assistant Secretary in the Ministry of Defence when I took over the Ministry at Szeged. Our first meeting was in the year 1919. Count Francis Hunyadi had stopped me in the street to tell me a mysterious story of a conspiracy fomenting against the Michael Károlyi Government. As this was plainly not a topic to be discussed in the open street, I suggested we should adjourn to a hotel. There, some twenty people gathered, all displaying great patriotic fervour but showing singularly little insight into the real factors governing such an undertaking. I was struck at the time by Staff-Captain Gömbös, whose answers to questions of a practical nature were precise and who was as free from false illusions as I was. From the earliest days of our collaboration, I was aware of the good qualities of Gömbös, and also of those qualities in him which were not so good. He was an excellent officer; as a politician he was inclined to be flamboyant. A gifted orator, he indubitably gave a new impetus to our domestic politics. That, under his predecessors had shown a tendency to 'stagnate', as critics put it, though this supposed stagnation had more advantages than those critics were prepared to admit.

For all his undoubtedly well-intentioned efforts, Gömbös often overshot the mark. I had always held that nobody should be prevented from expressing his patriotism by giving his name its Magyar form, but I opposed compulsion. Gömbös occasionally acted arbitrarily in this matter in the cases of officers and civil servants. As a professional soldier, Gömbös was naturally more interested in the German than in the Italian Army. However, by promoting very many and often very young people who shared his political views, he encouraged tendencies which I found difficult to reconcile with my own policy(6). In the long run, he did himself a disservice. His friends did him more harm than his enemies. Gömbös's nature was fundamentally autocratic and the example set by Hitler and Mussolini made a profound impression on him.

It was, therefore, with a certain hesitation that I decided on October 1st, 1932, to invite him to assume the Premiership, but Count Bethlen and a number of other leading politicians throughout the country had strongly recommended him to me. The scales were tipped in his favour by his undeniable achievements as Minister of Defence. He retained this Ministry when he became Premier. Another factor favouring his choice was his ninety-five-point programme, including a plan to change the national defence from a costly regular army to an army based on general conscription, which contained many excellent ideas. In the next two and a half years, Gömbös manifested certain dictatorial tendencies in home politics. In his foreign policy he sought increasingly closer contact with Germany, a policy which met with resistance on account of its one-sided bias. On both counts, he roused the opposition of the re-formed independent Smallholders' Party and of Count Bethlen.

Loyalty towards the new Premier led me to agree to his request that Parliament should be dissolved after Count Bethlen, the leader of the Government Party, and Tibor Eckhardt, the leader of the Smallholders' Party, had gone over to the opposition. A Premier must have his majority and Gömbös secured this when, at the next elections, a number of valuable politicians, to my regret, lost their seats. The victory struck me as being more of a quantitative nature than of a qualitative one.

Relations between the Premier and Koloman Kánya, the Foreign Minister, could not be called cordial. Kánya, cautious and fundamentally sceptical, did not at times take kindly to the sweeping plans and views of the somewhat cynical Gömbös. The strengthening of relations with Italy and Germany was, however, their joint achievement, even if the one acted with great enthusiasm and the other with a certain resignation, aware of the consequences such alliances might bring. It was certainly due to the initiative of Gömbös himself that he was the first foreign Premier to call on Hitler after visiting his counterparts in Ankara, Rome and Warsaw.(7)

On March 17th, 1934, the Hungarian Premier Gömbös, the Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss, and Mussolini signed the Rome Protocols, which in a sense represented the answer to the Pact of Organization recently concluded by the Little Entente, and to the equally anti-revisionist Balkan League that had been signed on February 9th of that year. Apart from economic clauses, these protocols also contained arrangements for consultation on all questions of a general nature, especially those touching the interests of the three states concerned. There were, however, no secret clauses of a military nature. Rome and Vienna would have liked to have amplified the Protocols in this way, but we declined military commitments(8). In view of the tension between Germany and Italy at that time, the Germans commended our restraint.

The annals of that dark year which saw the murder of Dollfuss and the bloodstained days of the thwarting of the Röhm Putsch contain also the assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia. He, together with the French Foreign Minister, Louis Barthou(9), fell victim to a Macedonian terrorist on the Marseilles Cannebiere on October 9th. I had met King Alexander once, and that only in passing during the period of his Regency. He was in the ante-room when I left the council chamber in which the discussion with Premier Protic, to which I have already referred, took place. Later we were in personal communication through his Adjutant-General, Admiral Prica(10), a Croat of the orthodox faith, with whom I had been friendly ever since my naval apprenticeship. Prica called on me twice on the King's behalf. Although the initiative I had taken in 1926 had had no tangible results, yet I had adhered to Hungary's publicly expressed readiness to come to an understanding with our southern neighbour. Questions referred to me by the Yugoslavs I invariably dealt with sympathetically. I had every reason to believe that King Alexander would, as soon as circumstances permitted, accept the proffered hand of friendship. His tragic death I therefore deeply regretted as much on political grounds as from personal sympathy. The same can be said of all responsible Hungarian statesmen, however critical their attitude was of conditions in the one-time Hungarian territories of the Bácska and the Banat, and of the oppression of the Croats by the pan-Serbian policy of Belgrade. Hungary's intense anger at being accused of having had a hand in the organization of that assassination can easily be understood, especially as its protagonists were Croat emigrés.

The accusations levelled against us were concentrated on Jankapuszta, an agricultural estate in south-west Hungary near Nagykanizsa. The Hungarian authorities set this place aside for those Croats who had fled to Hungary for asylum as political refugees with neither means nor identity papers. A Yugoslav memorandum, handed in at Geneva on November 2nd, demanded, on the strength of Paragraph II:2 of the League of Nations Covenant, that the question of support given to Croat terrorists in Hungary should be placed on the agenda of the League's Council. For, as the memorandum stated, "it is a case of the training, on the territory of a foreign country, of professional criminals whose task it is to carry out a series of assassinations and murders for certain definite political ends". The answer of our government to these fantastic accusations was to demand that the Council should at once convene to discuss the matter. At the same time the British and American Ministers in Budapest were invited to go to Jankapuszta to personally inspect conditions there.

I do not wish to describe at length the discussions that were held at Geneva, the report of which was drawn up by the British Foreign Secretary, Mr. Eden(11). All those who had taken part in the investigation were agreed that Belgrade, in accusing Hungary, was beside the mark. The man who later boasted of the murder, Dr. A. Pavelic(12), was arrested at Turin shortly afterwards, but Italy refused his extradition. Our League of Nations representative, Tibor Eckhardt(13), moreover, noticed that a photograph, included by Belgrade as part of its documentation for the accusation and purporting to be one of shooting practice at Jankapuszta, had mountains in the background. This meant that the photograph could not possibly have been taken in the south-west regions of Hungary(14).

Laval at that time was preparing for his journey to Rome; Italy had therefore to be placated. When Laval showed the Hungarian Foreign Minister a draft of the final report, Kánya rejected it forthwith as it set forth that the Hungarian Government had had knowledge of the plans for the assassination. An hour later, Laval returned with a new text, admittedly toned down but still unacceptable. When Kánya thereupon declared that he would leave Geneva that evening, Laval brought forth a third formulation. As Kánya told me later, he handed it back to Laval after reading it with the utmost care, saying, "I find it utterly incomprehensible," whereupon Laval smiled and exclaimed, "Excellent!" He had purposefully drawn up the new text in such a way that no one could make head or tail of it. On May 25th, 1935, Eden proposed that the proceedings before the Council should be suspended.

The politicians who shared my views were becoming increasingly estranged from Gömbös. Kidney trouble was sapping the Premier's energy, and it was becoming more and more difficult for us to work together. The day came when I invited him to Gödöllô in order to advise him, in a friendly way, to hand in his resignation. As he entered the room, I realized that here was a man whose days were numbered. I could not bring myself to speak of his resignation but advised him to go straight to a hospital for treatment, which he did. But though he consulted a famous kidney specialist in the vicinity of Munich, his life could not be saved. Julius Gömbös died on October 6th. Hitler, who held him in high regard, travelled to Munich to follow his bier to the railway station and sent Göring to the funeral in Budapest as his representative.

The successor of Gömbös was the Minister of Agriculture, Koloman Darányi(15), an intelligent and reliable if not brilliant man. He retained his former portfolio so that the measures I had initiated for raising the efficiency of our agriculture could be carried out with no break in continuity.

Our soil is, as is well known, extremely fertile, and its products are famed for their particular excellence. This applies especially to our wheat, which on one occasion was awarded first prize in New York in competition with American and Canadian varieties. Hungary's major problem is the shortage of precipitation, and for this reason I directed the attention of the government to irrigation and canal-building projects.

In spite of limited finances, a series of pumping stations was built and the water supply was regulated. In the County of Békés alone the cheaper transport by water led to the saving of approximately a million pengôs a year. Rice-growing also became possible over a much larger area(16). I am familiar with Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Italian rice, but I find Hungarian rice has more flavour. Apart from that, its financial yield was a multiple of that of wheat. The outbreak of war in 1939 prevented the completion of my plan to link the Danube and the Tisza by a canal. Even our horse- and cattle-breeding made great progress during these inter-war years, as I was able to judge by the developments on my own estate. To rejuvenate the stock, we imported blood stallions and mares from England and from the studs of the Aga Khan in France; from Switzerland came Simmental bulls and cows. Kállay(17), the later Premier, did much to improve the country's agriculture when Minister of Agriculture.

I have mentioned elsewhere the measures taken in the matter of land reform. To that I must here add that, during the agrarian crisis of 1931, the Károlyi Government, by prohibiting compulsory sale by auction and by arranging the easier conversion of debts, must have saved some half a million people from ruin. As early as 1923, a law on minimum wages for agricultural labourers had been passed, though it applied only to casual labour; in 1940, wages were legally fixed for all categories of labour in agriculture. Between 1936 and 1939, laws were passed providing for old-age insurance for estate managers, for old-age pensions for agricultural labourers and for the insurance of employees' widows.

Peculiar to Hungary was the Health Service, founded in 1940 by Keresztes-Fischer(18), the then Minister for Home Affairs, under the name of the Green Cross, for the purpose of serving distant and sparsely populated areas. Special attention was paid to marriage guidance, advice on careers, instruction on hygiene, pre natal and infant care, and the supervision of infants and primary school children, and to the fight against contagious diseases. In 800 health districts, there were 2,100 advisory bodies and 1,200 Green Cross nurses, who had passed through a course of training lasting several years.

Important as was the part taken by the rural population and by agriculture in Hungary's progress, yet in the inter-war years the contribution made by industry and trade came to constitute the larger part of the national income. The development of industry had proceeded apace, for owing to the restrictions imposed on our economy by the Treaty of Trianon, new sources of national income had had to be devised. From 1913 to 1938-39, the share of industry in production rose from thirty-three to forty-seven percent. As a result, we were confronted by many new problems. In their solution, we were helped by the fact that Hungary had always been particularly enlightened in these matters. Child labour had been strictly regulated since 1840. From 1872, the employment of children under twelve had been altogether prohibited. From 1911, night work for women had been abolished. Compulsory health insurance of labourers was introduced in 1891, only seven years after similar legislation had been passed in Germany and three years after in Austria. During my Regency, a law of 1927 introduced compulsory insurance for illness and accident; that of 1928 the compulsory insurance of invalids, widows and orphans. Other laws were concerned with the limitation of working hours, minimum wages in industry, holidays with pay, family allowances, the necessity to register large-scale dismissals and the regulation of the length of notice required to terminate employment. The income-tax legislation provided for a steeply rising scale of contributions, up to eighty-four per cent. Considerable attention was paid, in this respect, to the care of dependent relatives.

In connection with transport, the creation of an international free harbour on the Danube(19), which I had proposed, proved extremely valuable. We had seaworthy ships built on the model of the German mine-sweepers in our yards to ply between Budapest and Alexandria. These gave me my first experience of a broadside launch, for had the ships been launched stern first, as is customary, they would merely have run aground on the opposite bank.

I must refrain from going into detail to show the extent of cultural life in Hungary. I shall limit myself to a few indications, for it is common knowledge that numbers of Hungarian plays and books have been translated and produced and read abroad. Hungarian singers have been called to the world's most famous Opera Houses. Our own Budapest State Opera House and State Theatre, as well as other theatres, have won considerable fame; we had an excellent Philharmonic Orchestra and Academy of Music. Whatever repute modern music may have, it cannot be denied that such Hungarian composers as Hubay, Bartók, Dohnányi and Kodály have contributed much to its development. Our painters and sculptors also have given proof of Hungary's high position in art, and the labours of our scientists have been rewarded by two Nobel prizes.

We can say with a clear conscience that the injuries done to Hungary released the inner strength of her race. In all fields of culture, economics and politics, a noble competition sprang up. Even in sport, we had fine achievements to record. At the Berlin Olympic Games held in 1936, we gained third place among all the nations. We seemed then to be on the road that would bring Hungary, by peaceful labour and prudent foreign policy, not only to a established but also respected place in the world, and enhance the general welfare of the country.

1. Although Bethlen strongly suggested it as early as in 1926. Bethlen's reasons were economic: Hungary needed the huge market offered by Russia.

2. These were the July 20, 1933, Vatican 'concordate' guaranteeing the rights of the Catholic Church in Germany, and the January 26, 1934, non-agression pact with Poland.

3. Engelbert Dollfuss (1892-1934) Austrian Christian-Socialist politician. From 1933 he introduced an autocratic Fascist-oriented government and resisted German intentions of joining the two Germanic countries.

4. Abyssinian (Ethiopia) Emperor Haile Selassie (1892-1975).

5. Pierre Laval (1883-1945), French statesman. He was executed after the war for his collaboration with the Nazis.

6. "In the old days he had been Horthy's favourite, but the Regent had grown more sedate with the passing years, and Gömbös' radical tenets, good and bad, were now alike repugnant to him." From C.A. Macartney: Hungary, a Short History, Edinborough University Press, 1962.

7. Gömbös was vilified on account of his policies toward Nazi Germany, and blamed by the Communist regime for everything that went wrong in Hungary. In historic perspective, however, he may be put in a more positive light. A 1993 essay on this subject by Károly Dékán is included in the Appendix.

8. According to Oxford historian C. A. Macartney: "the chief raison d'etre [of this treaty] was precisely to thwart Hitler's ambitions." (p. 224 of Macartney, op. cit.)

9. Jean Louis Barthou (1862-1934) was a noted man of letters. He propagated a policy of extending France's influence in Eastern Europe.

10. Dragutin Prica (1867-1960) was Rear Admiral in the Austro-Hungarian navy, Yugoslav Admiral and Chief Military Aide of the king.

11. Sir Robert Anthony Eden (1897-1977) resigned his cabinet position in protest to Chamberlain's appeasement policy toward Hitler in 1938. After WW2 he became prime minister.

12. Ante Pavelich (1889-1959) was the founder of the Croat Ustasha movement. He was the president of war-time Croatia, and escaped to Argentina from a Yugoslav death sentence in 1945.

13. Tibor Eckhardt (1888-1972) Smallholders' Party politician, former representative to the League of Nations. One of the founders of the Revisional League. In fact, he was sent to the United States by Horthy and Teleki to lobby on behalf of their government. His trip was financed by the Hungarian National Bank. His twenty page report, sent from Washington on July 1, 1943, contains an excellent detailed analysis of the domestic and international situation, and the potential (dismal) choices available to Hungary to bail out of the war. At the time Horthy wrote his memoirs, he must have had compelling reasons to keep this confidential.

14. It was alleged later that during this crisis the Little Entente planned to invade Hungary. Gömbös made plans to transfer his government to Austria. Hungarian border guards were withdrawn to avoid any possible border incidents. When Mussolini got wind of the plans of invasion, he exerted his influence to halt it. Regardless, Yugoslavia expelled several thousand Hungarians as punishment.

15. Kálmán Darányi (1886-1939).

16. Horthy was so convinced of this fact that his own land comprised over fifty percent of the country's rice fields in 1944.

17. Count Miklós Kállay (1887-1967) war-time prime minister, founder of the 'swing politics".

18. Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer (1881-1948).

19. A Convention on the internalization of the Danube river was signed on July 23, 1921.

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