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18: Appointment of a Deputy Regent

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Appointment of a Deputy Regent

During the war years, with their doubled and trebled burdens, I began to feel the weight of my advancing years more heavily than would have been the case in times of peace, when 'ruling' and 'governing' are so much more clearly defined in a strictly constitutional sense. Nor could I eliminate the possibility of a protracted illness. The 1920 law on the Regency contained no provisions for such a contingency. The 1937 law, with my retirement or death in view, provided that I could deposit a sealed letter with the two Keepers of the Crown in which I could nominate three candidates for the Regency, though Parliament would not be limited to my nominations. That, however, was not the consideration that worried me, although the problem of succession had been in my thoughts. I was constantly being advised that I should delegate at least part of the burden of running the state, and that a law should be passed creating the post of Deputy Regent. This way, should I be prevented from carrying out all or part of my duties for any cause, there would be a responsible person to whom I could entrust certain of my functions. After exhaustive discussions with the various officers of state, a suitable Bill was framed which was put before Parliament by Bárdossy early in February, 1942. It was passed with large majorities by both Houses on February 10th and 14th respectively. By this law, as the Premier phrased it to the parliamentary committee for constitutional affairs, "an institution sui generis" was created. The law empowered the Regent to propose three candidates for the office of Deputy. Parliament could appoint another candidate only if I approved their choice. Section II emphatically stated that the former arrangements for the appointment of a successor to the Regent remained unchanged. The function of the Deputy Regent would cease to exist immediately after a new Regent had taken the oath. The powers of the Deputy Regent were to be formulated in detail by the Regent in consultation with the Prime Minister; the law itself merely decreed that in the absence, illness or other incapacity of the Regent, the Deputy Regent should be empowered to act with the full powers of the Regent. If this law is compared with similar ones in canon law, one great difference emerges: the Deputy did not have the the right of succession.

This law had been passed in conformity with my express desire. The discussion concerning the Deputy Regent began with a survey of possible candidates. I wished the choice to fall on a man of strong character, a man who could make a stand against the ever increasing German pressure. The name of my eldest son Stephen(1) was put forward. After giving the matter considerable thought, and having ascertained that all the former Prime Ministers, the Prince Primate Serédy(2) and the President of the Curia, our Supreme Court, Dr. Géza Töreky(3), considered my son a suitable choice, I agreed.

My hesitation had been twofold. I had no wish to lay myself open to the accusation that I was trying to found a dynasty; and I had to think of my son's own life, a consideration that in a father cannot be taken amiss. Stephen was thirty-eight, and I wondered whether so young a man ought to be asked to give up his personal freedom, especially as he had recently embarked on a harmonious married life with Ilona, Countess of Edelsheim-Gyulai(4). At heart, I was convinced that my son was the only one who could really assist me and lighten my burdens. The legislators of 1920 had plainly had no wish for dualism in the Regency. However, the element of danger that such a dualism entailed would be minimal in the appointment of a man so closely in accord with me as was my elder son. I could assure myself without undue parental pride that with regard to character, training and political views, he would contribute all that so high an office would demand of him.

The tragic ending of the First World War had cut short his career, for Stephen had chosen to follow my profession, and the Austro-Hungarian Navy had been lost. He finished his schooling in Budapest and then studied engineering at the Technical University of Budapest. After some practical work and after his military training, he had become a first lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve in 1929, he went to the United States of America and worked as a labourer in the Ford works at Detroit. Returning to Hungary, he entered the state railways' iron, steel and construction works(5), which at that time was a subsidized concern. Specializing on the export side, he visited a number of countries, making use of his excellent knowledge of English, French and German. It was due largely to his activities that the factory was able to enlarge its staff from 5,000 to 22,000 and before long had become a paying concern. To give an example of his methods: when the possibility arose of considerable export to India, knowing that to go by sea would take too long, my son immediately set off for Bombay in his small Arado-79 sports plane. It was a bold undertaking, for it meant flying four thousand miles solo. The Chief of our Air Force begged me to forbid him to make the 'suicide trip', but I felt that my son knew his own capabilities well enough. We did, however, keep his flight a secret from his mother.

When the directors of the state railways asked for a large subsidy to repair damage sustained in the First World War, the Minister of Finance agreed to give it to them on condition that my son was made President. After long hesitation, he accepted the position, and then set to work in earnest. His achievements were to the entire satisfaction of the management, the investors, the staff and even to the Minister of Finance himself.

On February 19th, 1942, the Speaker of the Upper House, Count Bartholomew Széchenyi(6), chaired a joint session of the two Houses, 203 members of the Upper House and 280 of the Lower House being in attendance, many more, that is, than was required by law. Before he had even explained the method by which the candidate had been nominated, the name of my son was called out. In conformity with tradition and law, Stephen Horthy was elected Deputy Regent of the Realm by acclamation. The session was then interrupted while my written consent was obtained. After another pause, my son was called before the members. Wearing his Air Force uniform, he took the oath with solemnly raised hand.

Congratulations flowed in from all parts of the country and also from friendly states, especially Italy. Only German officialdom remained aloof. On February 4th, Goebbels(7) had already noted in his diary that the choice of my son was a great misfortune, as "this son is even more friendly to the Jews than Horthy himself". A similar, even more malicious entry was made on February 20th, the end of which reads: "But we are keeping hands off. . . this isn't the time to bother about such delicate questions. . . . After all, we must have something left to do after the war!" As evidence, that is clear enough. My son, those who elected him were aware of it, was of the opinion that the superiority in men and materials of the Allies had been so great from the outset that Germany had no chance of success. To the Nazis my son appeared as their determined antagonist. His file in the Reichssicherheits-hauptamt(8), to which a friend once chanced to gain access, was exceedingly voluminous.

My son was not a man to be swayed by the opinions of others. He wished to see for himself how matters stood at the front. A few weeks after his election, during which time he had already relieved me of much work by receiving diplomats and politicians, and by going on inspections and performing a number of representative duties, he went to the front as a fighter pilot. The government did not approve of this step, but Stephen found he could not endure the thought that his position should be regarded as one that released him from his obligations. In this I agreed with him. On August 22nd, 1942, on St. Stephen's Day, he crashed shortly after takeoff.

Years have gone by, but the grief of the parents who had now lost their third child, and of his young widow who was left with her eighteen-month-old son, is undimmed. Nor have those years brought us the answer to the riddle of his death. I should like, however, to contradict the vicious and slanderous rumours that were spread by the Hungarian and German Nazis. Nor can I confirm the rumour which was current in Hungary that only sabotage could have caused so experienced an airman to crash. The secret transmitter, Radio Kossuth(9), declared that Gestapo agents had placed a time-bomb in the plane(10). I shall confine myself to inserting a statement written by my daughter-in-law, who was with her husband two days before his fatal accident:

"After my training as an surgical nurse, I was directed to a Hungarian military hospital at Kiev and arrived there on a hospital train. My husband was given three days' leave, which we spent together in the house of a German General who happened to be away. The natural joy at our reunion after so long a separation was somewhat marred by my husband's dark, almost despairing mood. He was fully convinced that the war was lost, and his experiences at the front had strengthened this belief. He was harassed by the problem of how Hungary, situated as she was between two enemies, as he put it, could possibly be saved. He had made up his mind to discuss the matter thoroughly with his father as soon as he returned home. We openly talked on this subject without thinking that our conversation might be overheard. Later I was told that microphones had been installed in our rooms. My husband also complained about the Italian fighter planes he had to use, saying that they were inclined to slip in rapid turns. That had once happened to him, but fortunately at a height of 13,000 feet so that he had had time to regain control of the machine. He promised me that after that experience he would guard against a repeat performance most carefully. On August 18th, I accompanied my husband to the Kiev airfield, from which he and his orderly flew back to the front. This same man told me later that my husband and the other officers of his squadron went to bed early on the 19th in order to be fit and fresh for an attack planned for the next morning. When he was woken he did not even wait to drink the coffee his orderly brought to the plane. 'He'd slept well and was full of energy,' the man said, 'he waved to me and shouted that he'd have the coffee when he came back.' But hardly had the plane taken off before it crashed and burst into flames. His comrades declared later that my husband had made too steep a curve and that his plane had slipped as a result, but this would seem to be in contradiction with the assurance he had given me at Kiev. I received the news of his death as we were celebrating the feast of St. Stephen(11) at the hospital on the morning of August 20th, 1942."

To this I must add that my son had already been recalled; several Members of Parliament and members of the government had insisted on his return. On August 20th, he was to visit the Hungarian troops in his sector of the front, after which he was intending to return to Budapest to resume his functions as Deputy Regent.

Whether the conversations between Stephen and his wife were overheard or not, my son's views were generally known in German circles, as is evident from the unambiguous entries in Goebbel's diaries and writings. I need not dwell on the distress caused me by the German display that marked his death. The German Reich had not seen fit to congratulate him on his election to the Deputy Regency; he had never received any form of military award during his lifetime. But now Herr von Ribbentrop arrived in person to confer two high posthumous orders. I was too shattered by my bereavement to realize to the full the diabolical hypocrisy of the German condolences.

In connection with these funeral rites, certain foreign publications have spoken about negotiations going forward at that time to crown King-Emperor Victor Emmanuel with St. Stephen's Crown. As a similar story had already been circulated about the Duke of Aosta(12), the Italian General in the East African campaign, I must give the facts here. If such plans did exist, I was never consulted about them; nor was I likely to have initiated them, since in no circumstances would I have been prepared to countenance them. This statement is not intended to reflect on the personality of either the Italian monarch or of the Duke of Aosta. The latter I had met while I was on holiday at the Villa d'Este on Lake Como, and I had liked him very much. I gather that when Mussolini was told of these plans, he emphatically rejected them.

It might be thought that the people who asserted that I wished to see the establishment of a Savoy monarchy would have realized that this assertion was in conflict with the accusation that I was striving to secure St Stephen's Crown for the 'House of Horthy'. Yet there are publications imputing both schemes to me simultaneously. The truth is that I had no dynastic ambitions and I can therefore only regret that I seem to have been suspected of having them in certain Hungarian circles. The choice of my son to be my deputy, and I repeat: without the right of succession, was due to unusual circumstances. It was the outcome of the particular political views held by my son and of the remarkable coincidence of our opinions. As it proved impossible for me to find such another, his place remained vacant.

In October, a law was passed to honour my son in bestowing upon him the title, 'Hero of the Nation'. To his memory are dedicated the words, spoken on August 26th, 1942, before Parliament by the Hungarian Prime Minister, Nicholas Kállay:

"As Prime Minister, I speak not only on behalf of the Cabinet and of my own party, but also on behalf of all political parties represented in Parliament. I believe that I can say this, for I feel it, I know it: every true Hungarian, throughout the country, is at this moment in full agreement with me. Since this tragedy on the Eastern front overwhelmed our nation, the country has been in mourning. It mourns the Deputy Regent of the realm, his loss to the country, it mourns a soldier who died a hero's death. It weeps for a glorious young life and shares in the sorrow of a father. For glorious indeed was the man who embodied the flower of Hungarian manhood. Outstanding in mind and body, stately, healthy, strong and noble, he was a courageous fighter. Stephen Horthy was a man able to think profoundly and constructively concerning the problems of life and the problems of his country.

Perhaps too few of us knew him well enough to grasp the great qualities of his mind, the range of his intelligence and the strength of his sense of duty. In the whole of my life, I have met but few of our countrymen who were his equal. Now he is no longer with us, I can say this openly. Had he been with us to hear these words, they would have embarrassed him. In his relations with his fellow-men, he always did his best to put others at ease; never did he trade on his birth and position. For months, he worked in the United States of America in the guise of a simple labourer, and, unknown, a man among men, he felt contentment in his independence. Those who knew him well loved and respected him. He was called to high office by the nation, though he himself never wished to have it thrust upon him. He accepted the task entrusted to him only when an appeal was made to his sense of duty.

Modesty, comradeship and a sense of duty were the fundamental traits of his character. As a labourer, as an official, as President of the Railways, he was conscientious and zealous in his work. When he presented himself for military service, he did so as a first lieutenant of reserve, the first reservist in the Air Force and perhaps the oldest among fighter pilots; his qualities, and, above all, his unusual degree of courage, were impressive.

On St. Stephen's Day, he set out on his hundredth flight, his twenty-fifth combat flight. He was our best fighter pilot, yet he fell a victim to his heavy task. As always, he was flying unaccompanied. He went forth alone. Today, the whole nation accompanies his remains."

1. István Horthy (1904-1942).

2. Justitian Cardinal Serédi (1885-1945), pre-ecclesiastic name: György Szapucsek.

3. (1873-1961).

4. She stayed with the Horthy's until their death. On Horthy's request to arrange for their burial in Kenderes after the last Russian soldier leaves Hungary, she arranged their reburial on September 3, 1993. Her recollections are included in the Appendix.


6. Count Bertalan Széchenyi (1866-1943).

7. Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) Germany's Minister of Propaganda.

8. Headquarters of German Security.

9. Radio Kossuth was the official Hungarian language Soviet broadcast manned by Hungarian Communists under the direction of Ferenc Münnich and Imre Nagy. Both of them were in the Communist leadership in Hungary in the 1950's.

10. In Hitler's monologues, published in 1980 (op. cit.), not even a trace can be found supporting the rumor that Horthy Jr. may have been murdered by the Germans.

11. August 20th, St. Stephen's Day is Hungary's primary national holiday commemorating Stephen I (969-1038) of the House of Árpád, who was the founder of Christian Hungary.

12. Amadeus, Duke of Aosta (1898-1942).

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