The Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990 Bringing you digitized history, primary and secondary sources
HTA Home Page | E-books | Europe | The Second World War; Hungary's Non-Belligerence

16: The Second World War; Hungary's Non-Belligerence

<< 15: Friction With Hitler || 17: Hungary Enters the Second World War >>

The Second World War; Hungary's Non-Belligerence

The politics and attitude of Hungary in the Second World War can be understood only if sufficient weight is given to the fact that conditions differed fundamentally from those existing in 1914. In the earlier war, the anger roused by the infamous assassination of the heir to the throne, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and the Russian inspired conspiracies aiming at the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was so great that it left no room for doubt that the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was justified in taking energetic defensive measures. Recalled from my position as aide-de-camp, I had rejoined the fleet, fully convinced that war was inevitable, and that it was a defensive war, as we had been challenged without provocation. Our alliance with Germany had come into being decades before 1914, so that a strong comradeship existed between the Austro-Hungarian and German armies and navies.

Hitler's entry into Poland could, from no point of view, be called 'defensive', even if the frontiers established by Versailles were admitted to be unjust and in need of revision. I had clearly stated this during my visit to Cracow and Warsaw. The Russian threat which had played so great a part in 1914 was admittedly even more menacing in 1939. However, Hitler was not waging war against the Soviet Union. On the contrary, in August, 1939, he had concluded his notorious pact with Stalin, that caused utmost consternation in Hungary.

Yet perhaps more imporant was the change that affected political and psychological relations between Hungary and Germany. The First World War, which they had both lost, the Treaties of Versailles and Trianon, had admittedly engendered certain similarities in the views of both countries. But Hungary and Germany had reacted differently to defeat. Opposition in Hungary was directed against the countries of the Little Entente, not against the Great Powers, from whom Hungary was hoping to obtain rectification of injustices. The Germans, on the other hand, saw in the Great Powers their oppressors.

Apart from this, the friends of Germany in Hungary, among whom I counted myself, even though I refused to relinquish the right to maintain friendly relations with other countries, had to distinguish between 'Germany' and the 'Third Reich'. The pseudo-philosophy of the National Socialists and the methods of Hitler were profoundly repugnant to me. This feeling was enhanced by the infiltration of Nazi ideology into Hungarian politics, leading to the formation of a political party(1) which aimed at the overthrow of our traditional political structure.

The Germany of Bismarck and the Germany of Emperor Wilhelm II had never attempted to assail our liberty and our independence. Hitler and his followers never hid their opinion that Hungary constituted part of the German Lebensraum. That we adhered strictly to constitutional and parliamentary institutions, that we did not indulge in the madness of racial theory, that we did not wish to leave our Polish friends in the lurch when they were in trouble, and that we had many friendly ties, even family ties, binding us to the British and the Americans, all these were heinous crimes in Hitler's eyes. The matter was all the more complicated by the policy of the Western powers, which, by saddling us with the Treaty of Trianon had placed us in an untenable position, nationally, economically and politically. Even after the first Vienna Accord, millions of our countrymen were still living in territories outside our borders. Our concern with their fate was a matter of self-preservation. Without our intervention, the conditions under which they lived would have become more and more restricted.

Also, I must stress that there never was an alliance between Hungary and the German Reich comparable to the Triple Alliance(2) between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, or to the German-Italian Steel Pact(3). The Three Power Pact which Hungary joined on November 20th, 1940, obliged her only to render assistance if one of the signatories were attacked by a power not belligerent at the time of signing.

Last, but not least, the following points must be taken into account. For geo-political and economic reasons, Hungary was a necessary factor in Hitler's warfare. The manner in which Hitler dealt with countries whose railways or raw materials he needed, or whose territories he wanted, not necessarily for immediate military purposes but to prevent them falling into other hands, was shown in the cases of Denmark, Norway, Holland and Belgium. On the other hand, we had also seen that the guarantees given by Great Britain to Poland, Rumania and Greece were of no practical value. We lacked a fulcrum on which to rest a policy other than a purely realistic one.

It is easily said that we should have preferred to engage in a hopeless struggle rather than to submit to Hitler's demands, and such a view reads well on paper. In fact, it is total nonsense. An individual can commit suicide, a whole nation cannot. For Hungary's tragedy was that, for the first time in her history, she saw herself simultaneously threatened on all sides. And the fate that overtook the Hungarians, who, as has been confirmed by subsequent events, made a correct estimate of the Communist peril, was the same as that which overtook those who allowed themselves to be misled into sharing Roosevelt's illusion that the Soviet Union was developing into a "peace-loving democracy" and would, after the war, collaborate loyally and peacefully with the Western powers(4).

I have pondered a great deal upon the policy we followed during the war. I have not lacked opportunities for meditation, first while under German arrest, then while in an American camp and finally while in exile. I cannot see how fundamentally we could have acted differently. No one in his senses can deny that our fate would in any case have been the same; Poles and Czechs have fared no differently from Hungarians, Rumanians and Bulgarians, whichever side they chose in Hitler's war.

The 'misunderstanding', to call it that, between Hungary and Germany became apparent in the early days of 1939.

The dissolution of Czechoslovakia had been made inevitable when Hitler neutralized the external forces supporting the Prague Government. The root of the matter is to be found in the false idea of Czechoslovakia as a national state. She was, rather, a state of several nationalities in which all non-Czechs (with the exception of the Slovaks) had fewer rights than the same nationalities had had in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. The Hungarian question had been dealt with at the Munich Conference and a solution found that was the logical outcome of the exposure of the fallacy. We could therefore not accept the view that we had 'a bill to pay' for the Vienna Accord, as was the unabashed suggestion of the semi-official German 'Diplomatic-Political Information Service'. In a statement made on January 20th, 1939, it made an attack on "supporters of the Volksfront, Jews, reactionaries, and other malcontents" in Hungary, which was an unjustified interference in our domestic politics. The fact that this occurred after the visit to Berlin of Csáky, our Foreign Minister, to sign the Anti-Comintern Pact, was a bad omen.

The express mention of Jews in the 'Korrespondenz' issuing from the Wilhelmstrasse leads me to make some comments on the Jewish question, which was becoming the touchstone of friendship in Hitler's foreign relations. The relatively strong Jewish element in Hungary was a particular thorn in his flesh, especially as many Jews were eminent in Hungarian finance, commerce and industry, in the press and in the professions. Of course, the bourgeois middle classes cherished a feeling of resentment that the executive posts and the offices in the liberal professions most in demand were in Jewish hands. The Jews supported each other with the solidarity of their race and earned more than twenty-five percent of the national income. After the First World War, there had been a wave of open anti-Semitism in Hungary. Even writers with left-wing sympathies have pointed out that nine-tenths of the higher positions of Béla Kun's regime were filled by Jews. It was, therefore, humanly understandable that the crimes of the Communists were attributed to the Jews. But the innate Hungarian sense of fairness and justice, strengthened by the efforts of both Catholic and Protestant Churches to suppress all forms of racial prejudice, soon re-established good relations between Jews and non-Jews.

After the Austrian Anschluss, German pressure was brought to bear yet more heavily on us. The government decided to allay German insistence. The preparation of legislation circumscribing the civic rights of Jewish citizens, in itself a protection, was put into the hands of Dr. Béla Imrédy, former Minister of Finance and later President of the National Bank. On account of his work in the economic section of the League of Nations, he was on particularly good terms with the British and the Americans. Moreover, as a financier, had close connections with Jewish circles. This law, which was passed by Parliament in April, 1938, while the Darányi Government was still in power, differed fundamentally from the Nuremberg laws in that it was based on religion and not on racial origin. Jews who had been baptized before 1919 or who had fought in the First World War were not affected by the law. The law introduced a numerus clausus (quota) of twenty per cent for the employment of Jews in certain occupations(5). This was not to take immediate effect; the purpose of the law was that banks, limited companies, etc., should be given five years in which to comply with the terms of the law, the authors of which, with Darányi, the Prime Minister, reckoning that general conditions were likely to be radically altered before 1943. The numerus clausus put no restrictions on the independent activities of Jews in commercial life.

To my regret, premier Darányi, whose health was failing, had to ask to be relieved of his office. For reasons for which to this day I have no satisfactory explanation, after becoming Premier in 1938, his successor Imrédy, hitherto Anglophile and by no means anti-Semitic, changed into a rabid anti-Semite and became an advocate of the German political theories. Did he think he could only retain his position if he made sure of German support? The violence of the German reaction to the interview he gave to the Daily Telegraph, in which he proudly stressed the fact that we had not yielded to Hitler's wishes on the occasion of my visit to Germany, must have made a deep impression on him.

Imrédy's appointment was generally welcomed. Congratulatory telegrams poured in, even from England. His predecessor, Darányi, had been a rather colourless personality. Much was expected of the new man whom Sir Montagu Norman(6), the Governor of the Bank of England, had called one of the ablest of European financiers. My visit to Germany and the first Vienna Accord, by which areas inhabited by Hungarians had been returned to Hungary, seemed to justify these expectations in the eyes of the world. In reality, however, it was soon apparent that our views often differed. When, therefore, in December, without having previously consulted me, he introduced new legislation concerning the Jews, in which not only was the numerus clausus reduced from twenty per cent to six per cent but the race(7) principle replaced the criterion of religion. His propose roused strong opposition, and I began to seek a suitable opportunity for dismissing Imrédy(8).

I did not have to wait long. In February, 1939, Count Bethlen informed me that a Budapest newspaper was about to publish proofs that a great-grandfather of Imrédy was of Jewish descent. Wishing to avoid a scandal, I called Imrédy to the Palace and showed him the document, which had been procured in Czechoslovakia. I asked him whether the information contained in it was true. He was upset to the point of collapse and immediately asked me to accept his resignation. It is more than likely that he himself was uncertain about his ancestry; since the publication of the original edition of this book, documents have been submitted to me which cast considerable doubt on the Jewish descent of even this one great-grandfather. In any case, neither the choice of Imrédy as Prime Minister nor later his dismissal was based on his ancestry. It was, I repeat, not his hypothetical Jewish strain that led me to accept his resignation but his rabid anti-Semitism.

Our interview took place on February 12th, 1939. On the 16th, Count Paul Teleki was appointed his successor; he was one of the noblest and most outstanding personalities in Hungarian politics.

The elections, which were held in May, 1939, during his term of office, gave the Government Party, then known as the Hungarian Life Party, 183 out of 260 seats; twelve more, that is, than in the 1935 elections. But, for the first time the Arrow-Cross Party gained seats to the number of thirty-one, and representatives of other smaller National-Socialist parties were also elected. The Arrow-Cross men were later to play a fateful part in Hungarian politics. Their leader, Ferenc Szálasi(9), of mixed Armenian, Slovak and German descent, he had one Magyar grandparent, was a man given to mystical fanaticism. A certain intelligence and strength of will power cannot be denied; from simple origins he had passed through the military academy and risen to the ranks of the General Staff. On account of his political activities, however, he had been dismissed from the Army and later had been sentenced by a properly constituted tribunal to several years' imprisonment. This was to have an effect on him as significant as Hitler's Landsberg(10) period had on the Fuehrer. It was him who introduced National-Socialist propaganda methods into Hungary. Szálasi's ambition was unbounded, as was his belief in his own infallibility, qualities which often embroiled him with members of his own party.

In a speech of January 30th, 1939, in which two very cool references were made to Hungary, Hitler termed the German-Polish friendship "one of the more reassuring phenomena of European political life". Today, we know that he genuinely hoped to achieve a peaceful conciliation with Poland in the face of the Soviet danger. In the anticipation of a lasting period of peace, we were also comforted by a statement made by Mussolini, who, in Rome on April 20th, 1939, had said to Teleki, our Prime Minister, and to Csáky, our Foreign Minister, that "all Germany and Italy want is a few years of peace and we shall do all we can to achieve it". Teleki and Csáky received similar impressions during their official visit to Berlin subsequent to their visit to Rome. I myself, after the return of Ruthenia, which had been torn from Hungary by the Treaty of Trianon, had sent a telegram to Moscicki, the Polish President, to declare that our new common frontier "would be the basis of friendly collaboration in the spirit of ancient traditions and would assure a happy future to both our countries."

The dismay that was felt throughout Hungary when the first signs of Hitler's warlike intentions towards Poland were discerned can be understood. We had been prepared in some important respects to fall in line with Axis policy. We had signed the Anti-Comintern Pact (which had caused Russia to break off diplomatic relations with Hungary), we had recognized Manchukuo, and we had left the League of Nations(11). But our main interest was nevertheless to avoid war and to keep out of it should it break out after all. Obviously, Hungary, as a small state, could not take the initiative in advocating a peace move, a fact on which I laid emphasis in my speech on the occasion of the opening of the new Parliament on June 14th. The happiest solution, I said at the time, would be for the highest and most selfless forum in the world, the Pope, to lay a proposal before the Great Powers. The Holy Father, then Cardinal Pacelli, at the Eucharistic Congress in Budapest 1938, as Legate of Pope Pius XI suggested a discussion of explicit questions. When this suggestion passed unheeded, and the signs of impending war were multiplying, Count Teleki informed Berlin and Rome, in the early days of August, that Hungary, despite its fundamental agreement with the Axis policy, made reservations in the case of an attack on Poland. Or, in clearer language, that Hungary was not going to march against Poland. Later in that month, an unsuccessful attempt was made at Salzburg to persuade Csáky to change his mind.

It is worth recalling the fact that at this moment, August, 1939, Arthur Henderson, the prominent Labour M.P., arrived in Budapest. It was arranged that I should receive him on the 26th. That morning the announcement came of Ribbentrop's flight to Moscow. Subsequently, we had an enquiry from Henderson whether I was going to see him notwithstanding the dramatic new development. I naturally saw no grounds for changing the arrangements, and received him with pleasure and interest.

On September 7th, our Foreign Minister was again summoned before Ribbentrop, who asked him whether Hungary had any territorial claims against Poland.To this question Csáky naturally gave a reply in the negative. He had hardly returned to Budapest by air before Ribbentrop telephoned him to demand the use of the Kassa (now Kosice, Slovakia) railway for an attack on Poland from the south. With Mussolini's concurrence, this demand was refused.

I would sooner have died on the scaffold than have permitted Hungarian territory to be put to such a use. I issued orders that, should the march through be attempted, all bridges were to be blown up. Showing his clear estimate of the relations then existing, Count Ciano, referring to Csáky's reply to Ribbentrop in his diary, had added, that the Germans were not likely to forget this refusal and were certain to inflict retribution one day.

As it happened, no necessity for action on our part arose. The Blitzkrieg on Poland came to a speedy end owing to the Russian support of the Germans and the lack of effective help from Great Britain, terminating in the complete and tragic defeat of poor unfortunate Poland. The British then withdrew the guarantee they had given Rumania. (See: Grigore Gafencu: Prelude to the Russian Campaign, 1945.)

The readiness with which Hungary admitted civilian and military refugees from Poland was indicative of her mood. Large-scale assistance had to be organized. Many of these refugees later joined the Polish Army in exile. Equally indicative of Hungary's attitude was her eagerness to lend assistance in the form of an auxiliary brigade to the racially cognate Finns, who had been attacked by Soviet Russia.

Hungary's mood underwent a rapid change with the Blitz campaigns in Norway and in the West, campaigns in which Hitler, to the amazement or dismay of the whole world, obtained military sway on a scale never previously reached by Germany. This would have been the last possible moment to stop the war before its extension in space and time turned it into a general catastrophe. In fact, Hitler, on June 30th, 1940, had a Note drawn up by General Jodl(12) in which, objectively considered, some very sound proposals were made to England. When this Note was transmitted by the Papal Nuncio in Berne to the British Government, Churchill, as he himself has stated, sent the Note to Lord Halifax(13), the Foreign Secretary, with the comment that he hoped it would be made clear to the Nuncio that the British had no questions to ask about Hitler's peace terms and that their representatives abroad had been strictly warned against accepting proposals of this nature. Hitler had lost all credit in the West. The attempts of the German opposition to establish contact with the Western powers similarly failed. Meanwhile Roosevelt, as has been disclosed in published documents and journals, was preparing to enter a war with the purpose to annihilate of Hitler.

In Hungary, at this time, many voices demanded that we should follow Italy's example. Throw off our non-belligerence and enter openly into alliance with Germany. Chief among those advocating this policy were the officers whom Gömbös, while Minister of War and Prime Minister, had placed in leading positions. These demands could not be lightly set aside. To the Hungarian heart, all territories taken from Hungary by the Treaty of Trianon were equally dear. But one of them, Transylvania, was in a special position, for, according to our statistics, it was the home of 1.7 million Magyars, and, according to Rumanian statistics, of 1.4 million Magyars(14). Transylvania, during the hundred and fifty years of Turkish domination, had been the hearth where the sacred flame of the national spirit had been kept alight. The leading men of Transylvania, the Bocskays, the Bethlens and George Rákóczi, had succeeded in neutralizing the power of the Turkish overlords by their shrewd policy. On the other hand, Transylvania had been the mainstay of the struggle for self-assertion against the Habsburgs. In the picturesque language of the time, Cardinal Pázmány(15), a leading figure in the Counter-Reformation, had declared, "We need Transylvania to prevent the Germans from spitting down our necks." Towards the end of the seventeenth century, the Principality of Transylvania had ceased to exist, but the Székelys(16) in south-east Transylvania had continued to be reckoned among the finest of the nation.The share taken by the Transylvanian Magyar nobility(17) in the affairs of the state was a large one. The historical and especially the social and economic development of this region had unfortunately caused the territory occupied by a purely Magyar people to be overrun by Rumanian shepherds(18) and agricultural labourers, so that an area of predominantly Rumanian settlement lay between the compact area of Magyar settlement in Hungary proper and the equally compact Magyar settlement in Transylvania.

In the disturbed times of 1939 to 1940, with on the one hand our fellow countrymen under Rumanian rule impatiently pounding on their prison bars and demanding for themselves the liberation that the Magyars of Slovakia had achieved. On the other hand Rumania opposing these demands with increasing ruthlessness. Incidents of all kinds multiplied, and it was rapidly becoming imperative to find a solution. On either side of the frontier, troops were being concentrated; a spark would have ignited a military flare-up. But that conflict would have been as little to the advantage of Germany and Italy as it would have been to the Hungarians themselves. Hence, as has been stated in Ciano's diaries, Teleki emphatically declared in Rome, on March 25th, 1940, that he did not wish to take responsibility, either directly or indirectly, for launching operations against Rumania which would bring the Soviet Union in and throw open the gates of Europe to her.

When Moscow issued its ultimatum to Rumania on June 26th, 1940, by which the cession of Bessarabia and Bukovina was demanded within twenty-four hours. Germany had no other course than to advise Rumania to accede to the Russian demands. She now began sending her troops across Hungarian territory into Rumania, as had been agreed in the previous spring. The troops were mainly sent at night, as inconspicuously as possible, in sealed wagons.

To prevent an armed conflict, the Axis powers informed us and the Rumanians that the Transylvanian question was to be settled by negotiation. In fact, that question could have been settled peacefully only by the formation of a Hungarian-Rumanian federation. Berlin was well aware of that. Later events were to show that the Transylvanian settlement was used as a bait held out alternately to the Hungarians and the Rumanians. When the direct negotiations which were opened with Rumania in August led to the anticipated deadlock, Rumania was induced to ask the Axis powers for their arbitration. The scene was once more set in the castle of Prince Eugen in Vienna. To here on August 30th, 1940, Ribbentrop and Ciano invited, or should I say summoned, Teleki and Csáky, our Foreign Minister, Manoilescu(19), the Rumanian Foreign Minister, and Valeriu Pop, the Rumanian Ambassador. Ribbentrop's attitude to our representatives was aggressive to the point of insult. He tried to nonplus them with a long list of Hungarian misdemeanours, including even our denial, in May 1940, of the existence of a Hungarian-German military alliance. Teleki was highly incensed when the German Foreign Minister suddenly alleged that his request of September 9th, had referred only to hospital trains, whereas he had in fact demanded facilities for a military march on Poland. Count Ciano, on the other hand, was more conciliatory and defended the Hungarian interest at the Conference(20). The Rumanians were to be persuaded to accept the decision of the arbitrators by a German-Italian guarantee of the integrity and inviolability of the remainder of the Rumanian State. As the map showing the new frontier was put before him, Manoilescu fainted. For that matter, neither were the new frontiers bringing about a partition of Transylvania any more satisfactory from our point of view(21). The only members of that conference who were satisfied, apparently, were Messrs. Ribbentrop and Ciano, who, the day after they had announced their arbitration decree, went off hunting together.

In conformity with the arbitration, the towns of Máramarossziget, Szatmárnémeti, Nagyvárad, Kolozsvár, and Marosvásárhely(22) were re-united with Hungary, altogether 17,000 square miles with approximately 2.5 million inhabitants. On the other hand, the towns of Brassó, Nagyszeben, Segesvár, Arad and Temesvár were retained by Rumania. The second arbitration decree included the clauses of the first. The jubilation on either side of the old frontiers was great. The people could not know what odious intentions were behind this plan. Even the obvious absurdity of frontiers which cut across roads and railways, separating towns from their ancillary services, could not worsen the joy of the first moments. When I entered the liberated towns in September at the head of my troops, I did not foresee that we should again lose this part of Transylvania nor in what tragic circumstances.

Was it necessary for Ribbentrop to offer an arbitration decree with one hand and a treaty with the other, practically compelling us to set up a state within a state? How great a lack of tact and political psychology was patent in the German demand that the German national group in Hungary should be allowed an autonomous organization which, though this was not expressly stated, was clearly to follow instructions from Berlin.

Two and a half months later, we received an 'invitation' to join the existing Three Power Pact. Considerable efforts were made to make it appear that a signal honour was being paid us in allowing us to join Germany, Italy and Japan as a fourth partner, but a hint was also dropped that should we hesitate to accept it, Rumania would be given this 'place of honour'. The Three Powers Pact of September 27th, 1940, was, as I have already stated, by no means an unconditional alliance. The signatories undertook, according to Section 3, to support each other with all political, economic and military means, should one of the signatories be attacked by a foreign power which was not at that moment involved either in the European war or in the Sino-Japanese conflict. Judged by its phraseology, this pact's chief aim was world peace, and an attempt to prevent the spread of the war. Ribbentrop stressed this in his greeting to Hungary as a new member of the pact on November 20th. In the declaration which Csáky read on behalf of the Hungarian Government, this very idea was brought to the fore: "Germany, Italy and Japan have entered into an alliance to restrict the spread of war and to bring to the world as speedily as possible a lasting and just peace." Csáky stressed the fact that Hungary had brought about the revision of the Treaty of Trianon "without shedding blood and in a peaceful way" and that she was filled with the desire "to maintain good relations with all her neighbours". In his report on his return from Vienna, Csáky stated, he is, alas, no longer alive to confirm this, that Ribbentrop had given him the express and official assurance that the signatories retained full freedom to decide what form the support they gave their partners in the pact should take should the necessity arise. In the event, this turned out very differently(23).

In the Foreign Affairs Committees of the Upper and the Lower Houses, the agreement of Hungary to join the Three Power Pact was sharply attacked by the leader of the Smallholders' Party, Tibor Eckhardt. Count Bethlen was in agreement, though he was fair enough to grant that the government, faced with a choice between two evils, had, humanly judged, chosen the least of them. It is very probable that refusal on our part would have entailed an immediate German invasion of Hungary. By joining the pact we postponed that invasion for three and a half years. To gain time seemed our wisest course. Rumania(24) and Slovakia joined the Three Power Pact three months after us.

Section 5 declared that the agreement "in no way touched the political status existing between any signatory and Soviet Russia", but I had my doubts on the permanence of this point. Our military intelligence kept us informed of disturbing Soviet military preparations, and this information was passed on to Berlin.

The fateful infiltration of German influence into our internal politics was made manifest in July, 1940, when a plot hatched by the Arrow-Cross movement was discovered. Their plan was to free by force of arms the leader of their party, Ferenc Szálasi; who was at that time in prison, to assassinate Keresztes-Fischer, the Minister for Home Affairs, and to force me to resign in favour of Szálasi. In the course of the trial that was held in December, after the parliamentary immunity of those of the plotters who were Members of Parliament had been suspended, the Arrow-Cross man Wirth(25) and fifteen of the twenty-three accused were convicted of high treason and sentenced to terms of imprisonment with hard labour.

With Italy's attack on Greece on October 28th, the danger of the war spreading through south-east Europe became acute. We bent our heads to the storm and concluded a pact of friendship with the Belgrade Government in an attempt to avoid finding ourselves in a position towards Yugoslavia comparable to the one we had been in with Rumania. Even under Premier Cvetkovic(26), the successor of Dr. Stojadinovic(27), and Cincar-Markovic(28), the Foreign Minister, Yugoslavia pursued its policy of maintaining friendly relations with Germany. Our pact with Belgrade was, therefore, in keeping with the general trend. It had the added advantage, in the opinion of its originators, Count Teleki and Count Csáky, that there would be no possibility of one country being played against the other, once Hungary and Yugoslavia had come to an understanding. The pact, which was the somewhat tardy outcome of my speech of August 26th, 1926, was signed in Belgrade on December 12th, 1940.

The Italian campaign in Greece put Yugoslavia in a difficult position. Whether it would have been possible to keep Yugoslav politics in line with the Axis powers if Berlin had not stiffened its attitude in demanding that Yugoslavia too should sign the Three Power Pact, I cannot judge. In retrospect, it does not seem probable, since Roosevelt, by freezing Yugoslav assets in the United States of America on March 24th, that is, before Yugoslavia had signed the pact, and by other means, exerted a considerable pressure on Yugoslavia. This has been stated by Cordell Hull, the American Secretary of State, in his memoirs, and likewise by K. Fotic, the Yugoslav Ambassador in Washington, in his book, 'The War We Lost'. In any case, American support was undoubtedly a contributing factor in the coup d'etat that was carried out by Air Force General Simovic(29) on March 26th, 1941, three days after the Three Power Pact had been signed by Cvetkovic(30). This, though hailed with great jubilation, was the starting point of irreparable tragedy. In no other sector of the vast front of the Second World War was the war fought with such primitive hatred and savagery as in Yugoslavia. Not only was the war waged with a foreign enemy: a fratricidal war developed between Serbs and Croats. Meanwhile a murderous conflict sprang up between the royalist adherents of General Mihailovic(31) and the Communist partisans of the future Marshal Tito(32).

Hitler's information concerning conditions in Yugoslavia must have been singularly poor, for, as he himself told the Ambassador, Count Schulenburg(33), the coup d'etat took him by surprise. At first, he had thought the news was a joke in bad taste. His fury, when he realized that it was true, knew no bounds, for it upset his plans at a particularly sensitive point. Plan Barbarossa, the attack on the Soviet Union, was to have been launched in May. He gave orders, therefore, that Yugoslavia should be "wiped out as a military and national unit" with the utmost despatch. General Sztójay(34), our Ambassador in Berlin, was sent by air to demand of me "an immediate aflirmative answer" in my own hand to the demand not only to allow German troops to pass through Hungary but also to throw Hungarian troops into the onslaught on Yugoslavia. The German attack was to be made, not from Hungary, but from the Rumanian-Serbian Banat. Hitler proposed that we should take back all the Magyar areas which Hungary had, in 1919, lost to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

This letter, which I at once put before the Privy Council(35), forced a particularly difficult decision upon us. We had refused to allow the passage of German troops to attack Poland; we had allowed the passage of German troops to Rumania, which we had regarded as a defensive measure. Now we were asked not only to allow offensive preparations to be made on our soil but were also asked to take an active part in the attack on a country with which we had concluded a pact of peace and friendship, the pact having been ratified four weeks previously on February 27th. Hitler was convinced that we would eagerly seize the opportunity to recapture southern Hungary. This war, he had told Count Schulenburg, "will be very popular in Italy, Bulgaria and Hungary". But with these words, Hitler showed how mistakenly he read the situation. The same error was no doubt made by all Germans. There were, of course, certain groups in Hungary, and not only the National Socialists, who had long since openly adopted the German line of policy. To these people Hitler's words might have applied. But the responsible leaders of the state had to weigh the consequences of Hungary's entry into the war. Teleki, our Prime Minister, had, soon after the outbreak of war between Germany and Poland, given me a message he had received from his sister-in-law, who had visited England and France in August, 1939. Owing to her excellent connections, she had heard the views of the leading men in those countries. Germany, she had been told, will gain victory upon victory during the first two years, then she will meet with the same fate that befell her in the First World War. Hungary was no longer Austria-Hungary; she now had the opportunity of acting independently, and her choice should be neutrality. This information strengthened Teleki's own views. Even among those who desired the victory of German arms, there were many who, taking into account British determination and the anticipated intervention of the United States of America, doubted the probability of such a victory. What widened the rift still further was the uncomfortable feeling that we ourselves had little to look forward to in the event of a German triumph. The bitter words which, so I was told, went the rounds in Italy, "If England wins, we lose; if Germany wins, we are lost," could be applied to Hungary. That other nations might be thinking along these lines was impossible for the Germans to believe or comprehend.

On April 3rd, 1941 Premier Teleki, unable to see any other way out, took his own life. He saw that to refuse Hitler's demand would bring about the immediate occupation of Hungary. He had little hope of success deriving from some 'exiled government' such as Tibor Eckhardt, who had gone to America, envisaged in founding a "Committee for an Independent Hungary". When he heard that our Chief of the General Staff had already come to an agreement of a technical nature with the German General Staff behind his own government's back. When London threatened Hungary with a declaration of war, he decided to end his life rather than pronounce a "Yes" which would have defied the dictates of his own conscience in view of the pact we had so recently concluded with Yugoslavia.

Teleki once made his expectations from the Nazis clear in a conversation with Ciano. In March, 1940, he had asked the Italian Foreign Minister if he could play bridge. "Why?" "So that we may have something to do when we are together in Dachau."

That Teleki intended his suicide as a protest against the pressure being brought to bear upon us is beyond doubt. The farewell letter that he wrote to me as his friend and leader would have proved this today had it not been lost with the rest of my private papers. I can no longer recollect the exact wording(36), but I remember that he wrote, "We have allied ourselves to scoundrels." As Premier, he felt responsible for permitting this alliance to have been made, and thus for having allowed his country's honour to be lost. "With my death," these words I remember very well, "I may be able to render my Fatherland one last service." It was in that spirit that the Anglo-Saxon world regarded his death at the time. A few days later, Sir Winston Churchill declared in a broadcast that this sacrifice should not be forgotten in the peace negotiations of the future. "At the Conference table we shall place a chair for Count Paul Teleki. That empty chair will remind all who are there that the Hungarian nation had a Prime Minister who sacrificed himself for that very truth for which we too are fighting."(37) In the third volume of his memoirs, Churchill again speaks of the sacrifice of Teleki in words that must acquit him and his people of guilt in the German attack on Yugoslavia, and he adds: "It clears his name before history. It could not stop the march of the German armies nor the consequences." Of the 'empty chair' no more was heard, though, when that third volume went to press, the 1947 Paris Peace Conference had already been held.

Friends who saw and spoke with Count Teleki a few hours before his death had the impression that the telegram from our Ambassador in London(38) was the final blow that drove him to his decision. He was already in a state of depression owing to the steady accumulation of bad news and to the fact that his beloved wife was ailing. To receive a threat in place of a message of understanding from his English friends at the very moment that he found himself faced with insuperable difficulties was more than he could bear. The threat was obviously intended only as a warning, for it was not until December, and then only at Stalin's urgent request, that Churchill decided to declare war.

With the death of Count Teleki, Hungary lost one of her foremost statesmen and I personally one of my most valued friends. It may well have been Count Teleki's tragedy that he was born too late. His sensitive, scholarly nature, his vast knowledge and his outstanding ability to foresee political developments would have enabled him to play a leading part at the Table of the 1878 Berlin Congress. He was not a man who could combat the ruthless totalitarian forces that were shaping the destinies of nations in his lifetime.

The suicide of the Premier, which, in spite of a vaguely worded communiqué, was soon known in Budapest, caused great excitement. The question of a successor was urgent and, therefore, on April 4th, 1941, I appointed Ladislas Bárdossy(39), hitherto Foreign Minister, to the Premiership. My decision was based not only on his former diplomatic career, he had been our Minister in Bucharest. On Teleki's advice, I had appointed him Foreign Minister upon the death of Count Csáky on January 27th, 1941, but on the more important fact that he was not allied to any party in internal politics. I knew him only slightly, but he was extremely popular among his fellow members of the Cabinet, also in Parliament, and in political circles generally. It is not easy to judge his achievements, and many of his actions remain inexplicable to me to this day. After the war, Ladislas Bárdossy was tried as a 'war criminal'. The Americans, after imprisoning him in Austria, delivered him into the hands of the Hungarian Communists. Before he was shot, he exclaimed, "God preserve Hungary from this rabble." Only he who thinks that, throughout his life, he has never made a political blunder, is in the position to cast the first stone at Ladislas Bárdossy. By his brave death, he has joined the ranks of Hungarian martyrs and his name will live in the hearts of the Hungarian people.

With the death of Count Teleki, Hungary's period of non-belligerence was ended. The war now engulfed her.

1. The Arrow Cross Party, established on October 16, 1937. There were several other Nazi parties in Hungary. To limit their influence, Interior Minister Ferenc Keresztes-Fisher issued an executive order (No. 3844/1938) on June 24, 1938 forbidding civil servants, and employees of state owned companies, to hold membership in eleven Nazi organizations.

2. The Rome Pact, signed on March 23, 1936.

3. "Pact of Steel", German-Italian Friendship Treaty, May 22, 1939.

4. Horthy's view on this matter was fully corroborated forty years later in "FDR & Stalin, a Not So Grand Alliance, 1943-1945" by Amos Perlmutter (Univ. of Missouri Press, 1993.)

5. "Despite the fact that Jews represented only 6 % of the population of Hungary, by the early twentieth century they had achieved a dominant position in Hungarian banking and industry and a leading role in such fields as medicine (59.9 % of doctors), law (50.6 %), journalism (34.3 %), engineering (39.2 %), and music (26.6 %)." ( Ezra Mendelsohn: The Jews of East Central Europe between the World Wars, Bloomington: Univ. of Indiana, 1983, pp. 100-102.)

6. Sir Montagu Collet Norman (1871-1950) was governor of the Bank of England for an unprecedented twentyfour years. He was a strong proponent of the gold standard.

7. Imrédy would have approved affirmative action programs and quotas on overqualified Asian-American students at some of America's elite campuses.

8. Horthy's personal views on Jews was clearly expressed in an audience with Antal Náray on his appointment to the chairmanship of the Hungarian Radio and MTI news service. Náray's memoirs, written in the spring of 1945 and hidden in Passau until 1982 quotes Horthy as saying on January 26, 1942: "Summary judgement of the Jews is totally incorrect. There are many honest people among the Jews. Many Jews like Leo Goldberger and Manfred Weiss have done single-handedly more for Hungary's economy than all the right wing rabble together". [Goldberger: textiles. Weiss: manufacturing.]

9. Staff-Lt. Col. Ferenc Szálasi (1897-1946), Hungarian Nazi leader. His original family name was Salosjan. He was born in Kassa, his father, Karl Salosjan was born in Vienna.

10. Landsberg prison.

11. April 11, 1939.

12. Gen. Alfred Jodl (1890-1946).

13. Edward Frederick Lindley Wood (1881-1959).

14. In 1995 there were 2 million Magyars in Transylvania.

15. Cardinal Péter Pázmány (1570-1637) managed to re-convert most of Western Hungary to Catholicism.

16. Seklers, Hungarian speaking Transylvanians claiming independent heritage.

17. Bethlen, Teleki, Bánffy, and other aristocratic families.

18. Contrary to claims of Rumanians being the original inhabitants of Transylvania, the earliest written document reporting the appearance of Vlach shepherds in Transylvania is dated 1206. (Haraszti, E.: Origin of the Romanians, Astor, FL: Danubia Press, 1977.)

19. Mihai Manoilescu (1891-1950).

20. It is referred to as the Second Vienna Accord.

21. However, the fact was that the new frontier separated the two nations in such manner that equal number of Hungarians ended up under Rumanian rule as Rumanians under Hungarian rule. In 1996, there are two million Hungarians living in Rumania, while only 9 thousand Rumanians live in Hungary.

22. Sighet, Satu-Mare, Oradea, Cluj, Tirgu-Mures, in Rumanian.

23. German views on this may be portrayed by Goebbels' note in his diary on November 22, 1940: "We will never get anywhere with Hungary. One day we will have to crush it." (Page 163, Ranki, G: In the Shadow of the Third Reich, Budapest: Magvetô, 1988, in Hung.)

24. Horthy errs here. Rumania joined on November 23, only three days after Hungary.

25. Károly Wirth (1909- ?) Member of Parliament.

26. Dragisa Cvetkovic (1893-1969).

27. Milan Stojadinovic (1888-1961) Yugoslav prime minister between June 23, 1935 and February 3, 1939.

28. Aleksandar Cincar-Markovic.

29. Gen. Dusan Simovic (1882-1962), chief of staff of the Yugoslav army. After the coup, he led the Yugoslav government in place of King Peter who was yet a minor.

30. On March 27 Prince Paul of Yugoslavia was deposed by this coup d'etat.

31. Gen. Draa Mihajlovic (1893-1946) the emigrant Yugoslav government's Minister of War in London. He turned against Tito's Communists and was executed in 1946 upon the dubious charge of cooperating with the Germans.

32. Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980), Communist President for Life of Yugoslavia.

33. Count Friedrich Werner von der Schulenburg (1875-1944).

34. Major Gen. Döme Sztójay (1833-1946), prime minister during the German occupation. Executed after the war.

35. There is a detailed description of this in the memoirs of Gen. Antal Náray (1893-1973), who took the minutes on the Privy Council meeting on April 1, 1941. Náray wrote his memoirs in the spring of 1945. It was hidden in the archives of the bishop of Passau under seal for 38 years. (Memoirs of Antal Náray, 1945; Budapest: Zrinyi, 1988, in Hung.) The four hour Council meeting was attended by Horthy, Teleki, Bartha, Werth, Bánffy, Reményi-Schneller, Keresztes-Fischer, Laky, Bárdossy, and Radocsay. The pro-German proposal lost by a vote of seven to four. Horthy in his closing words emphasized that no military measures are to be taken before Yugoslavia, as a legal entity, breaks up, and that Hungarian military occupation should not extend beyond Hungary's former borders (i.e. North of the Danube and Drava rivers).

36. Teleki's letter to Horthy:

"Your Serene Highness:

We broke our word, - out of cowardice - , with respect to the Treaty of Permanent Peace outlined in your Mohács speech. The nation feels it, and we have thrown away its honor.

We have allied ourselves to scroundels, - since not a single word is true about the alleged atrocities. Not against Hungarians, not even against Germans. We will become body-snatchers! A nation of trash. I did not hold you back. I am guilty". Signed: Paul Teleki (Gosztonyi, Peter: Air Raid, Budapest! Op. Cit. p. 17. In Hung.)

37. This has been reported in the Hungarian newscast of the BBC World Service at the time.

38. Britain threatened with withdrawal of diplomatic recognition if Hungary got involved against Yugoslavia.Teleki received the news from Ambassador György Barcza (Barcza, G.: Diplomatic Memoirs, Budapest: Europa Historia, 1993, in Hung.). Interestingly, Hungary and Britain had just signed a Pact of Friendship on February 27, 1941.

39. László Bárdossy (1890-1946) escaped with his family to Switzerland at the end of the war. Rather than staying quietly in a protected refugee camp, he claimed diplomatic status and insisted on his freedom. By calling attention of the highest authorities to his case, he was handed over to the Allieds on May 4, 1945. He was executed in Hungary on January 24, 1946.

<< 15: Friction With Hitler || 17: Hungary Enters the Second World War >>