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