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17: Hungary Enters the Second World War

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Hungary Enters the Second World War

As the German troops were passing through our country to their offensive bases in the Banat even before we had given an official answer to Hitler's demand, we were faced by a fait accompli. If we had not marched, a vacuum would have been created in the area of the Bácska, which had been by-passed by the Germans.The ethnic Hungarian groups in that region(1) would have been defenceless against the attacks of the Cetniks, the Serb partisans. After the First World War, the Serbs had settled large numbers of their demobilized volunteers in this region, 'Dobrovolci', mainly Montenegrins and Macedonians. These were unlikely to wait for orders to attack minorities(2).

On the other hand, we had to take into account that had we refused to comply with Hitler's request, refused, that is, to occupy the Bácska, the German Army would have felt justified in occupying that region with its own troops to safeguard its own supply routes through the 'recalcitrant' hinterland. This would have meant that the Germans would have occupied the area around Budapest lying between the Danube and the Tisza. That, we all realized, would have meant the end of Hungarian independence. It was therefore necessary for us to take energetic measures to prevent such a calamity.

Moreover, the protection of our fellow countrymen south of the frontier established by the Treaty of Trianon was to us a matter of self-preservation. But I was in favour of limiting Hungary's belligerence to advancing our troops as far as Hungary's erstwhile borders and not a step beyond.

The collapse of Yugoslavia was very rapid. On April 6th, German troops crossed the Yugoslav border. On the 8th, a series of Yugoslav air-raids was made on Hungarian towns, including Szeged, Pécs and Körmend. On April 10th, the independent state of Croatia was proclaimed. At the same time we received a growing number of reports of acts of violence perpetrated by local partisans on the Hungarian people on Yugoslav soil. Wishing to end the ravages of anarchy, I only then gave orders to my troops to occupy the Bácska and to protect life and property of the large number of Hungarians living in this area, which had been torn away from the Fatherland in 1918.

On the same day, I issued a proclamation, in which I could not, of course, state what the fate of Hungary would have been had we refused to meet Hitler's demands. From the moment that war had flared up in Europe, my one desire had been to protect Hungary from more bloodshed and suffering, after her grievous loss of blood in the First World War. I was convinced that the injustices imposed by the Treaty of Trianon could and would be amended without war and bloodshed along lines of justice and negotiation. It was in this spirit, I said in my proclamation, that the pact of friendship had been concluded in December, 1940, with the Belgrade Government, which was then desirous of peace, solely in order to fortify peace in the Danube basin. It is the duty of every government to protect all minorities living within its frontiers from the assaults of its own national majority. This was, throughout, the criterion of friendly relations between Hungary and Yugoslavia. After the Government of General Simovic had come to power in Belgrade, Yugoslavia had, alas, lamentably failed in protecting the Hungarian minority.

On April 24th, I was received for a short interview by Hitler at his headquarters. We discussed the military and political situation in the south-east(3). Our Minister in Moscow had recently given us unmistakable evidence of the growing tension between the German Reich and the Soviet Union. He had taken up his duties in September, 1939, upon the re-establishment of our diplomatic relations with Russia, which had been broken off when we joined the Anti-Comintern Pact. Vyshinsky(4), the acting Comissar for Foreign Affairs, had on April 12th declared to Kristóffy(5), our Minister, that the Soviet Union "could see no justification for the action of Hungary against Yugoslavia". Threatening words had been uttered to the effect that Hungary also might be in trouble one day and find herself "torn to shreds".

But Hitler too was dissatisfied with us(6). He would have liked us to take part in the Balkan War. I refused to comply with his demand by referring to the attitude of the Soviet Union. On all sides our political horizon was darkening.

In his memoirs, (Erinnerungen, Munich, 1950) Ernst von Weizsäcker refers in a charming passage to the day that he and his wife spent with us at Kenderes, early in June, 1941. In the open, peaceful setting of the Hungarian countryside, it would have been easy to surrender to an illusion of universal peace; but we shared our guest's anxious mood. I can still see Herr von Weizsäcker standing at the edge of our swimming pool; the rest of us had already dressed, and his wife urged him to hurry. He replied, "I don't think I ever want to dress again." However banal these words sound, they were a sincere expression of his profound depression, comparable with Count Caulincourt's(7) state of mind as he pleaded with Napoleon on the eve of the Russian campaign of 1812.

For we were at this time approximately in the same position as was Rumania. Grigore Gafencu(8), the Rumanian Ambassador in Moscow, aptly summed up our situation:

"The rupture between the Reich and the U.S.S.R. drew Italy, Rumania, Hungary, Slovakia and Finland into the war against the Soviet. . . . Germany had succeeded in imposing her will on the peoples she held in her power; she had driven some into the war and forced others to make a gesture of solidarity.... Their participation in the war by the side of Germany had an entirely different significance. In the first place, it was the expression of a necessity from which they could not escape. The occupied countries paid their tribute of blood to the new master of Europe. This participation was also, in one sense, a precautionary measure, because the 'allies' had no wish to disappear in the storm unleashed by Hitler, as had Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Going to war alongside Germany was paying an insurance premium to preserve the right to live. Fear and resignation were the motives animating the auxiliary troops. The 'crusaders' ranged under Hitler's orders were scarcely more enthusiastic than were the little German princes who followed Napoleon to Russia: like them, they realized that the victory was not their victory, and that the only privilege they would share with the elite troops of the Grande Armee was the honour of dying in battle." (Grigore Gafencu: Prelude to the Russian Campaign, 1945, pp. 215-214.)

Save Europe from Communism? We might have believed that, we would readily have believed it had Hitler entered Russia as a liberator(9). But the annexation programme decreed in Mein Kampf had demonstrated the falsity of that illusion. The first measures taken in Russia left no possibility of doubt concerning Hitler's real intentions.

We had avoided, until now, entering into full alliance with Hitler. Even after June 22nd, 1941, we tried to follow rather than co-operate. Immediately after the German attack had been launched, I received another of those hand-written notes from Hitler, which I opened as usual with a sinking heart. This one demanded that we should declare war on the Soviet Union. At the next Cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister, Bárdossy, would not even assent to the breaking off of diplomatic relations with Moscow. He has put forward the argument that we could justify this attitude in German eyes by pointing out that our Moscow Legation would provide us with an excellent source of information. When this came to the knowledge of the German Minister, through the Press Service of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, he at once called on Bárdossy and told him that breaking off diplomatic relations was the least that Berlin expected of the Hungarian Government.

On June 23rd, another Cabinet meeting was held to consider a letter from Werth(10), the Chief of the General Staff, to the Prime Minister in which an immediate declaration of war was demanded. Rumania had already entered the war, so that Hungary risked being left behind in the race should she hesitate any longer, and, instead of securing the whole of Transylvania, would perhaps lose even those parts of it that had been returned to her by the Vienna Accord. Bárdossy refused to be moved by this argument. He voted against a declaration of war and was supported by the other members of the Cabinet with the exception of General Gyôrffy-Bengyel(11), who was standing in for Bartha(12), the Minister of War, and spoke in his chief's name. It was decided that we should break off diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union; but beyond that we would not go(13).

I sent Hitler an answer, acquainting him with our decision and pointing out that Hungary was not in a position to declare war unprovoked on the Soviet Union. Considering the weakness of the forces at our disposal and the disparity in size between the two countries, such a declaration of war would have been ludicrous.

On June 26th, I received the startling news that Kassa and Munkács had been bombed. The investigation that had been immediately set on foot showed that the attack had been made by Russian planes, according to the message sent me by Werth. Marks of a Leningrad factory had been found on bomb fragments. This constituted provocation. On June 27th an official announcement was made: "Hungary, as a result of repeated air attacks made, contrary to international law, by the Russians upon Hungarian sovereign territory, considers herself in a state of war with the Soviet Union(14)."

I cannot, however, exculpate Bárdossy from having suppressed a telegram from our Minister in Moscow, which he received during these critical days. I heard of it for the first time three years later. On being charged with the suppression, Bárdossy reluctantly admitted it. That telegram contained a message from our Minister Kristóffy that Molotov(15) had promised us Russian support in the Transylvanian question, on condition that Hungary remained neutral. To give weight to this offer, our Legation had received permission to continue sending out coded telegrams to Budapest in the usual way for eight days after June 23rd. Moscow, moreover, energetically denied that the 'provocation' raids on Hungarian towns had been carried out by Russian planes. The promise made by Molotov to Kristóffy was, in any case, of problematical value. The Great Powers are always very generous when they are trying to involve smaller countries in their quarrels or to induce them to stay neutral, especially if the reward promised is to be made at someone else's expense.

The Moscow denial, however, was true enough. Also, the message from our Chief of the General Staff was not in accordance with the facts. I find myself forced to this bitter conclusion by information given me in 1944 by the Prime Minister's parliamentary secretary, Bárczy(16), who revealed to me the details of a plot that I could not have believed possible. From his own knowledge of events, Bárczy told me that Air Force Colonel Ádám Krúdy(17), who was in command of the Kassa airfield, had written to Premier Bárdossy to say that he, Krúdy, with his own eyes had seen the German planes dropping the bombs. But by the time Bárdossy received this letter, Hungary had already declared war on Russia. Bádossy had therefore replied to Krúdy, asking him to keep silent on the matter if he wished to avoid personal unpleasantness. He also imposed silence on his staff. Colonel Krúdy repeated his original statement under oath in 1946 during the trial of Bádossy in Budapest.

It is, theoretically speaking, within the bounds of possibility that Colonel Krúdy was mistaken in what he thought he saw on June 26th, 1941. However, for two reasons this is unlikely. Our Chief of the General Staff had, as I have stated, urged us to take an active part in the war against Soviet Russia in compliance with Hitler's wishes. He was, as was Hitler, an interested party. Therefore both had interest in causing the 'provocation', on the absence of which I had based my refusal to declare war on Russia, in my reply to Hitler. In the second place, the weakness of the Russian Air Force, especially in those days of rapid Russian retreat, is well known. The few planes at the disposal of the Russians at that particular time would more probably have been used to halt an enemy advance than to bomb the cities of a state whose continued neutrality was undoubtedly to Russia's advantage.

This, therefore, is the story behind our entry into the war against the Soviet Union. I have not recounted this story to belittle the bravery of those men who, in the belief that they were defending their Fatherland, gave their lives in battle. Nor can anyone contend with certainty that Hungary, even without the existence of the plot, could have followed the same course as Bulgaria, which did not declare war on the Soviet Union. That course, in the long run availed Bulgaria little, as Moscow, during the armistice negotiations of September, 1944, suddenly presented Sofia with a declaration of war. But the facts should be laid out, if only to make clear, yet again, the nature of the 'alliance' in the name of which Hitler made ever heavier demands on us.

In his book, Hungary: The Unwilling Satellite(18), the former American Minister in Budapest, John F. Montgomery, whom I have mentioned before, makes the perceptive comment that, in wars of alliances, any belligerent nation may be at one and the same time on the 'right' and on the 'wrong' side:

"As Soviet imperialistic designs are now revealed, it is apparent whether or not we wish to admit it that, by sending a few troops against Russia, Hungary fought on the wrong side as Hitler's ally, but on the right side as an opponent of Soviet Russia."

Montgomery portrays the position we were in at the time remarkably accurately. We had reason to desire neither a German defeat nor a Russian victory, and he goes on:

"Woodrow Wilson's postulate in 1917 that the war should lead to a peace 'without victors and vanquished' was one of the wisest of his utterances. When Russia entered the war, that was the desire of most Europeans. Today Americans might well ask themselves whether our own country would not be safer now if our victory had been just sufficient to establish German democracy and reliable control of German and Japanese research and production, without depriving twenty nations of the four freedoms for which we supposedly fought the war. The catchwords 'unconditional surrender' put Stalin on Hitler's throne and have prevented us from devoting constructive thought to the future."

These are singularly astute admissions. If I add that Montgomery's book was published as early as 1947, while the dismantling policy was still in process in Germany and Japan, and the peace treaties with Germany's former allies were playing into the hands of Soviet domination, the American's comments will be seen to be even more clear-sighted.

Sir Winston Churchill was the only statesman on the other side who, if not always consistent and above all not always stressing the most cogent point, tried to bring a touch of realism into Roosevelt's policy of unlimited appeasement towards Stalin. Let me remind the reader of his efforts to avoid a British declaration of war on Finland, Rumania and Hungary in spite of Russian insistence. On November 4th, 1941, he wrote to Stalin that these countries had been overwhelmed by Hitler and that in them were many good friends of England. Nor did he think Hitler should be encouraged by creating what had the semblance of a solid continental coalition. But Stalin would not give way, beyond agreeing that the declaration of war on Hungary and Rumania could be postponed for a time(19).

The exiled Czech Government under Benes, having been recognized by Great Britain on July 18th, informed us that the frontiers decreed by the Treaty of Trianon would again be imposed on us. On December 7th, 1941, the British declaration of war on Hungary was finally published as being effective from December 6th.

In July, 1941, Hungary had sent approximately 30,000 men to the Eastern front, of which Hitler, at my personal request, permitted part to be sent home in October. During the first months of the war, Hitler had gained a series of resounding victories over the Red Army. However, he made a blatant strategic mistake in ordering an attack on Moscow in defiance of the advice given by his General Staff to form a defensive line. The severe check he received before Moscow shook the general faith in the invincibility of German arms.

The attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7th, whatever its precoursors may have been and however great were the losses inflicted upon the Americans, must be counted a serious mistake on the part of Japan, by drawing the coalition facing the Axis more firmly together. Prime Minister Bárdossy decided to forestall the inevitable German demand. I had just entered a clinic to be treated for a stomach infection, and without consulting me and without asking Parliament for its assent, broke off diplomatic relations with the United States of America. Berlin, and Rome, declared this insufficient. Hence Bárdossy thereupon did what was required of him. He summoned the American Ambassador and on December 12th informed him that Hungary considered herself at war with the United States of America. In his conversation with Mr. Pell(20), who tried to offer a golden opportunity for Hungarian neutrality, Bárdossy pretended that Hungary was acting of her own free will. It was a serious error of judgment. As Hungary was acting under pressure, it would have been wiser to admit it openly. Bárdossy, apparently, found it inconceivable even to suggest it.

The departure of the American Ambassador and his wife caused a political demonstration, from which the representatives of Germany and Italy could have learned much concerning the true feelings of at least some prominent Hungarian circles. Since the Berlin Government held the view that it was no more than Hungary's plain duty to wage war by Germany's side, the flowers and presents that were lavished on Mr. and Mrs. Pell must have been ascribed to Hungarian unreliability.

As Cordell Hull(21), the American Secretary of State, records, Roosevelt decided, on December 13th, that he would not ask Congress to declare war on Germany's allies, "for it was obvious that these governments were Hitler's puppets and had to dance when Hitler pulled the strings."

In April, 1942, Washington made one more unsuccessful effort to try to persuade us, together with Rumania and Bulgaria, to limit the assistance we were prepared to give Germany, but no reference was made to the Allied war plans. Then, on June 5th, Roosevelt signed the American declaration of war on us.

In spite of the traditional forms with which the Foreign Minister, von Ribbentrop, was welcomed on January 6th, 1942, on the occasion of his first visit to Budapest, it was clear to those behind the scenes that there was a considerable gap between the contribution Hitler demanded of us and that which we were prepared to make. He who relies too much on propaganda tends to take for propaganda the truth that is put before him. We were not fully convinced that the Allies, as Ribbentrop declared, "had gone so far in their reckless indifference as to promise the Communists a free hand in Europe in order to encourage the Soviets to make greater sacrifices". When Field Marshal Keitel came on a visit to our Minister of War, Bartha, towards the end of January, he received the promise that a second army of 150,000 men under the command of General Jány(22) would be raised after Keitel himself had promised to equip it with the necessary transport and armoured vehicles. This material was given us neither before our troops set out nor, in spite of renewed assurances, upon their arrival at the Eastern front. As a direct result our troops suffered exceedingly heavy losses in the autumn fighting in the Voronezh sector. When the facts of Keitel's visit leaked out, a macabre joke went the rounds. "What has Keitel brought us, do you know?" "A film." "Yes, Deadly Spring." This was the name of a Hungarian film then being shown in Budapest.

It must be recorded here that, with our occupation of the Bácska in January, 1942, several regrettable excesses were perpetrated. The town of Ujvidék (Novi Sad) in particular suffered, hundreds of innocent people being killed and thrown into the Danube. The number of victims(23) was later estimated to be about 1,300: Jews, Serbs and a few Magyars. The military commander, Feketehalmi-Czeidner(24), succeeded in suppressing all news of this holocaust. However, as soon as the first rumour reached Hungary, questions were asked in Parliament(25) and the Prime Minister, Bárdossy, agreed to an enquiry. He had as yet received no official information. I had heard even less than what he about it. The first investigation proved fruitless as both investigator and investigated did their utmost to hush the matter up. The Serbian partisans were blamed on the grounds that it had been necessary to take "exemplary action". Public opinion refused to accept this explanation. The next Premier, Nicholas Kállay, vigorously urged a new investigation by the military authorities. By this time, I was convinced that the reports sent in by the military were, to put it mildly, somewhat one-sided. I instructed Szombathelyi, the new Chief of the General Staff(26), successor to Werth, to hold an enquiry, and to make full use of the penalties prescribed by law. As a result of this second enquiry, four of the accused were condemned to death, twenty got prison sentences ranging from eight to fifteen years. The death sentences could not be carried out as the culprits were abducted by the Germans and taken out of the country. These men later joined the S.S., and when the Arrow-Cross Party seized power in 1944 they were placed in high positions.

No one could more deeply regret the crimes of Ujvidék than I, who had invariably done my utmost to keep the name of the Hungarian Army undefiled. Immediately after the war, during the days of the Nuremberg trials, my attitude was vindicated by the Americans. They, after a full investigation, refused to comply with Tito's demand for my extradition as a war criminal for complicity in the Ujvidék atrocities.

1. Some 600 thousand strong at the time.

2. This, in fact happened in 1944-45. Some 20 to 30 thousand Hungarians were summarily executed by Titoist partizans in Voivodina in 1945. (Cseres, T.:Titoist Atrocities in Voivodina, 1944/45, Hamilton, Ont.:Hunyadi Press, 1993)

3. Answering Horthy's direct question concerning Soviet-German relations, Hitler flatly stated that there is no German threat against the Soviet Union. Six days later, the day of the German attack was set. (Gosztonyi: Air Raid... op. cit.)

4. Andrej Januarjevich Vyshinsky (1883-1954), Soviet chief state prosecutor, later foreign minister.

5. József Kristóffy (1890-1960), Hungarian diplomat.

6. In Hitler's recorded monologues, published in 1980, his antipathy in regard to Hungarians is repeatedly displayed. (Monologues in the Fuehrer's Headquarters, 1941-1944, Munich, 1980. In German.)

7. General Count Armand Augustin Louis, marquis de Caulaincourt (1773-1827), French diplomat. He was Napoleon's aide de camp, then ambassador to Russia, then foreign minister of France after Napoleon's reign.

8. Grigore Gafencu (1892-1957), Rumanian journalist, politician, foreign minister.

9. Regardless, on June 28, Horthy wrote to Hitler: "For the great struggle that Your Excellency started against Bolshevism, this Asian danger, not only Hungary but the whole Europe will forever be indebted to you. ... I am happy that our weapons, shoulder to shoulder with the glorious and victorious German army, take part in the destruction of the Communist den of danger and in the Crusade for the defense of our culture..." (Gosztonyi: Air Raid..., op. cit.)

10. Infantry General Henrik Werth (1881-1952). As Werth's assumption, that the war will last no longer than six weeks, was proven to be false, Horthy dismissed him on September 4, 1941. He was a prime example of the many ethnic Germans in Hungary who saturated the professional officer corps of the army. Most expressed strong sympathies toward the Nazis. Later, he was quoted as saying to a colleague: "For me the most important thing was that we do not stay out of this war".

11. Gen. Sándor Gyôrffy-Bengyel (1886-1942), politician, later minister.

12. Gen. Károly Bartha (1884-1964). Minister of Defence between Nov. 15, 1938 and Sept. 24, 1942.

13. According to reports, Bartha and Werth threatened Horthy with a rebellion of the officer corps if Hungary does not enter the war, saying that "the honor of the army is at stake". (Gosztonyi: Air Raid..., op. cit. p. 46.)

14. This, however, was never submitted to the Hungarian parliament, as required by the constitution.

15. Vyacheslav Mihailovich Molotov (1890-1986) Soviet foreign minister.

16. István Bárczy (1882-1952), deputy minister, Chief of Protocol in the Foreign Ministry.

17. Colonel Ádám Krúdy (1907-1973).

18. Op. Cit.

19. Eventually Britain declared war on Hungary, Rumania, and Finland on their refusal to withdraw from the war on the USSR on December 5, 1941.

20. Herbert Claiborne Pell (1884-1961). Father of the U. S. Senator.

21. Cordell Hull (1871-1955).

22. Gen. Gusztáv Jány (1883-1947) commanded the Hungarian Second Army that was completely destroyed on the Soviet front. He willingly returned to Hungary after the war, tried and convicted to death. He did not appeal the verdict, and was executed by the Communists on January 26, 1947.

23. Official figures give 3,309, including 147 children.

24. Gen. Ferenc Feketehalmy-Czeidner (1890-1946, original name was Zeidner) was appointed by Szombathelyi, after the interior minister, Keresztes-Fischer reported to Horthy that the police is powerless in face of the mounting partizan actions. Others responsible for the atrocities were Col. József Grassy, Col. László Deák, and Gendarmerie Colonel Dr. Márton Zöldi (1912-1946). They were tried and executed by the Yugoslavs in 1946.

25. Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, MP, who was later executed by the Nazis, informed Horthy about the matter.

26. General Ferenc Szombathelyi (1887-1946) was one of Horthy's most trusted man. He was instrumental in the attempts to arrange Hungary's surrender to the West. After the war he was put to trial and received the relatively light sentence of ten years in prison. The 'people's court' intended to dismiss all charges but they were advised that "Gábor Péter" (Muscovite Secret Police chief) "would not like it". In an illegal manner he was extradited soon after by Hungary's Minister of Justice István Riesz to the Yugoslavs. Fittingly, Riesz himself was beaten to death in Vác Prison by the Communist secret police in 1950. After a show trial, Szombathelyi was executed in Ujvidék (Novi Sad) on November 4, 1946.

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