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
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
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
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
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
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
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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