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19: The Search for the Way Out

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The Search for the Way Out

Information sent me by my son Stephen from the Eastern front shortly before his death gave me a very sombre picture of the situation. The deadlock of Stalingrad and the defeat of El Alamein were clear evidence that the tide had turned. In Germany itself and even more beyond the German borders, belief in a German victory was rapidly dwindling. Everywhere, even in Germany, people were beginning to speculate on the possibility of ending the war. Mussolini tried to convince Hitler that he ought to conclude peace with Stalin; the invariable answer to this frequently reiterated advice was a stereotyped, "The East is a military problem."

The appointment of Kállay to the Premiership brought a change that was in close inner relationship with the change in the whole military and political situation.

On March 10th, 1942, I called upon Nicholas Kállay, a leading figure in our political world, to take over from Bárdossy. Foreigners have been inclined to regard his well-defined features: high forehead, bushy eyebrows, prominent cheekbones, aquiline nose and firm chin, as the fundamental traits of the Magyar. Kállay was certainly an embodiment of the traditions of our race, of a people that, encircled by inimical foreign races, had been forced to fight for self-preservation throughout the centuries.

As Minister of Agriculture Kállay had rendered his country meritorious service, but not until he attained the Premiership did his talents find their full outlet. He combined a penetrating intelligence with a shrewdness that knew when to use cunning in the face of overwhelming odds; when no other method was appropriate.

His aim, as Premier, was to regain Hungary's freedom of action and to return, if possible, to a state of non-belligerence. War fatigue was growing. Apprehension of the might of our eastern neighbour, heightened by historical and geographical considerations, was intermingled with a growing distaste for the totalitarianism of the Third Reich and with esteem for the Western powers and their democratic forms of government. These tensions were becoming increasingly obvious in the domestic politics of Hungary. The extreme right wing of Parliament, which consisted of the former Premiers Bárdossy and Imrédy and their adherents, and of course the Arrow-Cross disciples, demanded an intensification of the war effort. Meanwhile the left wing, consisting of the Smallholders' Party under Bajcsy-Zsilinszky(1) and the Social Democrats, demanded more or less openly that we should withdraw from the war. In addition, the first pamphlets of a Communist underground movement were being circulated.

Kállay took these trends into account while outwardly pursuing the policy of his predecessor. Between him and myself, there was an unspoken agreement that he should have a free hand without referring details to me in taking measures that would, while safeguarding our relations with Hitlerite Germany, draw us closer to the British(2) and Americans without entailing active support of the Soviet Union. This was a delicate problem, and in face of Roosevelt's policy with regard to Stalin an insoluble one. The secret agreement that we entered into with the Western powers that we should allow their planes to fly over Hungary unmolested provided they refrained from bombing Hungarian towns was not entirely to the disadvantage of the Germans, in that it left important railway links and war factories undamaged. In the summer of 1942, our first contact was made with Great Britain(3). However, more than a year passed before the talks could be arranged. Kállay and Szombathelyi, the Chief of the General Staff, took charge of these(4).

In July, Kállay had been received by Hitler for military discussions at his headquarters. Our Premier raised the special problems of Hungarian-Rumanian relations. Hitler seems to have regarded this as an evasive measure, judging by a comment that appeared in his 'table talks'. (Henry Picker: Hitlers Tishgespräche in Fuehrerhauptquartier 1941-42, Bonn, 1951.) Nor could Hitler approve of our preoccupation with a reform of our Upper House and with other problems of a domestic nature during the emergencies of war. When our Premier, in a speech made in the Upper House on December 17th, 1942, stressed the "emphatic demands of Hungarian national sovereignty and independence", what he meant was clear enough. This statement went far to increase the mistrust Hitler had felt for Kállay from the outset.

Hitler's exalted mood was very obvious to me during a visit I paid him at Klessheim from the 16th to the 18th of April, 1943. Immediately before my arrival, Mussolini, together with Bastianini(5), Ciano's successor, and the Rumanian Marshal Antonescu(6), had called on him and told him bluntly that he should sue for peace. Mussolini, who, as soon as the loss of the whole of North Africa was certain, was becoming apprehensive about the approaching invasion of Sicily. He had again insisted that the Axis should come to terms with Stalin. Antonescu, on the other hand, thought that all forces should be marshalled to stem the tide from the East and was in favour of coming to terms with the Western powers. Hitler's hysterical excitement had mounted in face of their 'defeatism', to use a favourite Nazi expression of the time. After his efforts to instil some confidence into them, his excitement had by no means ebbed away by the time I arrived. No doubt it had its effect on the way he received me. Even Goebbels, who had always been ill-disposed towards me and Hungary, wrote in his diary: "The Fuehrer minced no words and especially pointed out to Horthy how wrong his policies were.... The Fuhrer was very outspoken." Well, Goebbels was not present at that conversation, which was entirely private, and it is unlikely that he was told that I vigorously countered Hitler's accusations and demands.

Hitler declared that the Hungarian troops had fought badly during the previous winter offensive, to which I replied that the best of troops cannot put up a good show against an enemy superior in number and arms; that the Germans had promised us armoured vehicles and guns but had not supplied them; and that the heavy losses of our troops were the best testimony to the strength of their morale. Then Hitler went on to lecture me on the Jewish question, shouting that "the Jews must either be exterminated or put in concentration camps". I saw no reason why we should capitulate to Hitler and change our views on this subject, especially as in October of the previous year we had introduced a special levy on Jewish capital as a 'war contribution' and had also restricted the Jewish tenure of land. Although these were measures that had been taken by the Kállay Government, Hitler proceeded to vilify Kállay, declaring that he was preparing a Hungarian defection. He demanded that Kállay be dismissed from the Premiership. I refused categorically to yield on that point and asked Hitler to refrain from interfering with my official functions. A Prime Minister, and above all a Chief of State, must be at liberty to gain information of the position and views of his opponents by all the means at his disposal.

In our afternoon discussion, Hitler was in slightly better control of his emotions. We talked, among other things, of the German element in Hungary. I told him plainly that during recent years the friendly relations between Germans and Magyars had been ruined by the interference of German official bodies in Hungarian affairs. Hitler reverted to the subject of Kállay, who, he said, should be dismissed "in the interests of German-Hungarian friendship". I again rejoined, "I see no reason whatever for his dismissal." Hitler apparently was under the illusion that his Lebensraum doctrine entitled him to decide who should be appointed Prime Minister of an allied sovereign state.

We parted with no trace of friendliness. Subsequently no joint communiqué was issued. The versions that were published in Berlin and in Budapest were utterly at variance. As to Hitler's real thoughts, we must again turn to Goebbels as the most reliable witness, for, after a statement concerning my "humanitarian attitude" in the matter of the Jewish question, he wrote in his diary, "From all this, the Fuehrer deduced that all the rubbish of small nations still existing in Europe must be liquidated as fast as possible." And that was to be done by the Germans, who could consider themselves fortunate that "in the future organization of Europe" they would have to fear "no serious competitors" in the Italians. No one was ever so explicit to my face, nor to any other Hungarian. Nor was it necessary, what Hitler meant was clear enough.

We were not at that time to know that even the Western democracies would be unwilling or unable to prevent the 'organizing' of Europe by Stalin on similar and even more radical principles though under different auspices. In his memoirs, Cordell Hull notes a remark made by Roosevelt on February 12th, 1943, to the effect that all nations that had fought on the side of Germany could be dealt with only under the Casablanca formula, unconditional surrender. In June the London Times expressly stated this in a leading article on the Hungarian peace attempts. At the Teheran Conference of late November to early December, 1943, and even later, the British had been in favour of establishing a second front in the Balkans, if only to create a diversion during the invasion of France. I am firmly convinced that an invasion of the Balkans in 1943, in view of the German dependence on Rumanian oil, Hungarian bauxite and Yugoslav ore and on the food supplied by the countries of south-east Europe, would have hastened the end of the war. I admit that we could hardly have envisaged Great Britain totally relinquishing her interests in our part of Europe. And so it came about that our government, though without my knowledge, established radio communication with the Allied Headquarters at Cairo. Before my visit to Klessheim, Prime Minister Kállay had called on Mussolini in Rome and had made a proposal to him of joint action by Italy, Hungary and Rumania with, if possible, the support of Greece and Turkey. Mussolini, however, wanted to see first how events would develop before he was prepared to come into the open. Apparently he believed that an attempt to invade Sicily could be beaten off. A few months later(7), the Duce was deposed, by his closest collaborators, the Fascist Grand Council, with the support of Badoglio(8) and the Italian Royal House.

In Budapest, no one doubted that the arrest of Mussolini would bring about the passing over of Italy to the Allied camp. It seemed as if a landing on the Dalmatian coast were imminent. These expectations were not realized. The Germans seized their opportunity to stabilize themselves in Italy. With the Italian capitulation on September 8th, they had expected the immediate seizure of Rome by the Allies, if not an Allied landing in the Pisa - La Spezia area.

A fact that is no longer in dispute is that the demand for 'unconditional surrender' put forward by Roosevelt at Casablanca, and agreed to by Churchill, enabled Hitler to protract the war for nearly two years after defeat was a practical certainty. The prospect of having to surrender, of being at the enemy's absolute mercy, inspired the German people and the German troops to fight with the courage of despair. Even in our country, certain elements, either in a spirit of defiance, feeling that they had gone too far to withdraw, or from fear of Communism, wished for the first time to throw all our resources into the German effort(9). I had, at Kállay's suggestion, prorogued Parliament on May 4th for an indefinite period, but that did not succeed in suppressing the agitation of either the extreme right or the extreme left wings. The Smallholders' Party drew up a memorandum on July 31st, 1943, demanding that "everything possible should be done to regain Hungary's independence, freedom, and neutrality in the war", if necessary by fighting on the British side. The Hungarian Second Army, under the command of General Jány, had arrived back from the Eastern front to Budapest. Both the government and I thought it essential to have troops of our own at hand for any eventuality. For this reason, I did not comply with Hitler's request that three Hungarian divisions should be sent to the Balkans, where German troops were being increasingly harried by partisans. However, at the Germans' strong request I allowed some forces to remain in Russia guarding the lines of communication.

Premier Kállay was also in charge of Foreign Affairs. At his suggestion, I appointed Jenô Ghyczy(10) Foreign Minister on July 24th, 1943, and Andor Szentmiklóssy(11) as his Parliamentary Secretary. Ghyczy was in Kállay's confidence and was useful in drawing away some of the German fire.

Relations with Berlin deteriorated from month to month as the foreign press reported Hungarian approaches to neutral countries and, incorrectly, Hungarian efforts to obtain a separate peace. A separate peace was not feasible as all our frontiers were at too great a distance from the frontiers of the Western powers(12). It was undoubtedly on account of these press reports that Ribbentrop sent a special envoy on a secret mission to Budapest at the end of the year. Information sent him by his Minister, von Jagow(13), seemed to him either inadequate or unreliable. The special envoy, Dr. Edmund Veesenmayer(14), hid his political activities behind a feigned interest in the Hungarian oil industry, and engaged in discussions with the former Premier, Imrédy, and his group. We were not accustomed to these unofficial methods in diplomacy, and I demanded and achieved the recall of Dr. Veesenmayer. This affair and other matters I discussed with von Papen, the German Ambassador in Ankara, who had accepted an invitation to a hunting expedition in December. On that occasion, I showed him a document sent by the German Volksbund to Neubacher(15), the German economic attaché to the south-east, outlining a plan to divide Hungary into its ethnic units and incorporate these on a federal basis in the National-Socialist Reich. Von Papen knows that I made no secret of this in giving the Germans my views on it. Later I was accused, so I heard, of having secretly conspired behind the Germans' backs. Von Papen's son has, since the war, kindly supplied me with a transcript of the letter which his father sent in December, 1943, to Werkmeister, the German charge d'affaires in Budapest. Von Papen wrote that his personal impression was that much could be gained by re-establishing cordial relations with Hungary. The conviction that we were in the same boat and must sink or swim together was general, he said. So was the feeling of despair and fear of what the future might bring, especially since victory by force of arms was no longer considered possible. In this letter, he also stated that, with regard to the feelers which Hungary had put out abroad, I had often discussed these with him and had stressed their usefulness in obtaining information, as it was essential for Hungary to know the British or American views. On December 12th, the American Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, had addressed a 'warning' to the governments of Hungary, Bulgaria and Rumania. In this he said that it must now be clear to them that they would have to share the results of the crushing defeat that the United Nations were preparing to inflict upon Germany.

But how could mutual trust between us and the Hitler Government have been re-established after Hungary found herself on the Nazi list of condemned countries? Between the realization that, in the reorganization of Europe, no matter what form it took, we should be made a vassal state and our determined will to defend Hungary's right to independence, no compromise was possible.

Yet, simple as the situation appears now, at the time it was far from simple. The complexity of our position led to a harsh clash of opinions in our country. I cannot conceal the fact that every man in a responsible position felt within himself the conflict of conscience. The right wing of the governing party had, in February, 1944, submitted a memorandum to the Prime Minister, questioning the belief that the British had already won the war. A victory of the joint enemy coalition, the memorandum argued aptly enough, would not eliminate the Communist menace. "If Germany suffers a defeat, Communism will triumph, and then woe betide Europe."

Conditions in southern Italy had led to the deposition of King Victor Emmanuel III. In Yugoslavia, the British had disowned Mihailovic and had recognized Tito. Russia had broken off diplomatic relations with the Polish Government in exile. The signs of the times were not heartening. These omens could not be dismissed as trivial, though the left-wing opposition tried to dismiss them as such, for which they were severely criticized in the memorandum. The promulgators of the memorandum did their cause considerable harm, however, by a threatening insistence that the German armies should at least retain their defensive positions in our country, if not as allies, then as an occupying force. It was precisely this that our government and I wanted by all means to prevent. The German course, to give that name to the policy advocated in the memorandum, was made none the more commendable by its implication to the infamous 'final solution' of the Jewish question. That is, that we should agree to the extermination of some 800,000 Jews. I made a personal effort to make the situation clear to Hitler, both in conversation and in a letter I wrote him, pointing out that a violent solution which, in any case, would be contrary to humanity and morals would not only undermine law and order but would have a deleterious effect on production.

Our small ship of state was tossing between Scylla and Charybdis. Our Premier, Kállay, did all he could to gain time. I devoted my main attention to military matters so that we should not be caught unprepared, from whichever direction danger loomed.

"Hungary," I wrote to Hitler in approximately these words, "gazes anxiously upon her troops, stationed so far from home, mindful as she is of her heavy losses(16) in the 1942 winter campaign through the Hungarian Second Army being badly equipped in its severe contest far from its homeland. The historical and spiritual ties binding Hungarians to their native borders are strong. Those frontiers are the limits of their political ambitions, the limits also of their spiritual strength. For Hungarians to fight their best, those frontiers must be near. The recall of these troops has become necessary for yet other reasons. The scene of war is shifting nearer Hungary and these troops will soon be needed for the defence of their own land. Our light materiel can be used effectively only in the Carpathians. I need not repeat that we are firmly resolved to defend our country against every attack with all our strength. Moreover, it is important that we should stand alone in defending our borders, taking all responsibility upon ourselves. That we owe to our nation. One of the most painful experiences of 1918 was absence of Hungarian troops for the defence of our own land. Now we are being threatened from the East. The front is drawing ever closer. We need our army and its equipment, for they can render Hungary and our common cause a greater and more valuable service at home than abroad. Their recall is for Hungary's defence."

In the same letter, I went on to say that the Hungarian participation in the occupation of south Transylvania proposed by Germany would be of doubtful value in face of the hatred of the Rumanian people for Hungary, fanned as it had been by propaganda. A possible rising of the Rumanians both there and in north Transylvania would have to be taken into consideration. We had been informed of the communications passing between Benes and Julius Maniu(17), the Transylvanian leader the Rumanian Agrarian Opposition Party, and of Benes's reassurances that Soviet Russia would help the Rumanians regain Transylvania. Finally, in that letter to Hitler, I stressed our anxiety concerning Budapest, which was the absolute "spiritual, political, economic and also war-industrial center" of the land, so that we dare not endanger it by consenting to a concentration of German forces near it, since that would without doubt attract heavy air-raids.

I waited in vain for Hitler's reply. My letter had been the signal for him to set into operation the Plan Margarete I: the military maneuvre that was "to secure Hungary". We heard that German troops were being concentrated in Burgenland, and, far from denying such rumours, the German Minister, von Jagow, confirmed them when he called on Ghyczy, our Foreign Minister, to protest vehemently against the slanderous imputations that they were gathering there in readiness for the occupation of Hungary. In its original form, Plan Margarete I, as I was to learn later, was based on joint German, Slovak and Rumanian military action and aimed at getting rid of me in the political field.

That a decision had to be taken became clear when the German Minister von Jagow, a party member who had replaced Herr von Erdmannsdorff(18), the last of the professional German diplomats, called on me at the Palace late in the evening after I had attended a performance at the Opera on our national holiday, March 15th(19), to transmit to me a message from Hitler. The message was to the effect that Hitler apologized for having been unable to answer my letter earlier owing to indisposition. The questions I had raised would be settled at Klessheim and, as Hitler was in a hurry to return to his headquarters, he requested me to go and see him at Klessheim within forty-eight hours.

1. Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky (1886-1944) was arrested by the Gestapo after a fire fight on March 20, 1944 upon the German occupation of Hungary. Before he was shot and captured, he succeeded in making a phone call to Dr. Endre Fall, anti-Nazi director of the Revisional League, to warn him of the Gestapo attack. Fall escaped to Kisujszállás and went into hiding. He survived the war. Bajcsy-Zsilinszky was executed in Sopron-Kôhida prison on December 24, 1944.

2. Attempts to establish covert contacts with British diplomats in neutral countries were coordinated by the executive director of the Revisional League, Dr. Endre Fall. Starting with Ambassador Aladár Szegedy-Maszák in Sweden in 1942, Hungarian diplomats Dezsô Ujváry and László Veress, newspaperman András Frey, and Nobel Laureate Albert Szent-Györgyi relayed Hungary's interests in an armistice in Istambul in May of 1943. Similar feelers were made in Switzerland, and Portugal. However, the British government opposed any direct contacts. Indirect contacts were made with officers of the Special Operations Executive, (SOE), their interests, however, was in generating partizan activities behind German lines. (Bokor, Peter: Endplay by the Danube, Budapest: RTV-Minerva, 1982, transcript of TV interviews with participants. In Hung.)

3. Through friends in the Polish government in exile, Andor Wodianer, Hungarian minister to Lisbon made the first contact with the British government in January, 1945. To avoid German intelligence, the negotiations were transferred to Turkey. Kállay also enlisted the help of Archduke Otto Habsburg in March, 1943, who was well connected with Roosevelt. These contacts were broken with the German occupation. (Vigh, Károly: Jump into the Dark, Budapest: Magvetô, 1980, p. 111. In Hung.)

4. At the request of British diplomats in Turkey, Szombathelyi sent Lt. Col. Otto Hatz to Istambul on Dec. 16, 1943. During his return trip, Hatz, former military attache to Bulgaria, contacted Otto Wagner German Counter-Intelligence officer in Sofia and briefed him on his mission. This report was in Berlin before Hatz arrived to Budapest (Gosztonyi, P.: Ferenc Szombathelyi's Memoirs, New Brunswick: Occidental Press, 1980. In Hung.)

5. Giuseppe Bastianini (1899-1961)

6. Marshal Ion Antonescu (1882-1946). From 1940 the Fascist Rumanian regime's leader ("Conducator"). He was responsible of massacres of Jews in Rumania with some 350 thousand victims. Executed as war criminal in 1946. In the early 1990's he was rehabilitated in Rumania, there are streets named after him.

7. On July 26, 1943.

8. General Pietro Badoglio (1871-1956), formerly viceroy of Ethiopia, was the chief of the Italian general staff. After the fall of Mussolini he became the premier of Italy, and he negotiated the armistice.

9. The Stalinist massacre of 4,800 Polish officers at Katyn was well known by all army officers fighting on the Russian front, whether they were German, Rumanian, Italian, Slovak, Hungarian, Finnish, Croatian, or something else. They were ill disposed to surrender to the Soviets unconditionally. It may be surmised that Roosevelt and Churchill, with their Casablanca Accords, extended the war by two years, causing the death of millions. The condition was later relaxed for countries other than Germany and Japan. The requirements and procedures set for armistice arrangements were, inexplicably, never communicated to the governments in question.

10. Jenô Ghyczy (1893-1982). He was instrumental of initiating several 'feelers' through Hungarian legations in neutral countries to seek an armistice.

11. Andor Szentmiklóssy (1893-1945). Former Minister to Brazil, Deputy Foreign Minister. He was arrested by the Germans and died at the Dachau concentration camp.

12. In July, 1943, Horthy told Col. Gyula Kádár, chief of the military intelligence: "Many people advise me to bail out of the war, but no one tells me how. I can not step out to the balcony of the palace and shout: I changed sides! The Germans would bring in Szálasy in 24 hours". (Gosztonyi: Air Raid.., op. cit.)

13. SS General Dietrich von Jagow (1892-1945). He was Germany's ambassador to Hungary between 1941 and 1944. Committed suicide at the end of the war.

14. SS Colonel Edmund Veesenmayer (1904-1977). Earlier, he was German Plenipotentiary to Slovakia and Croatia, setting up the Nazi puppet regimes. He was convicted to twenty years in prison in the Nuremberg Trials but was paroled soon after. In a 1962 interview he stated that "Horthy was irreplaceble in Hungary and he knew it" (Gosztonyi: Air Raid... op. cit.)

15. Hermann Neubacher (1893-1960).

16. In the Battle of Voronezh, commenced on January 22, 1943, the 200,000 strong, ill equipped Second Hungarian Army lost 147,000 men.

17. Iuliu Maniu (1873-1953), mentioned earlier in connection with Francis Ferdinand.

18. Otto von Erdmannsdorff (1888-1978). His unpublished memoirs contain many quotations from Horthy. A review was published by P. Gosztonyi in "Air Raid, Budapest, op. cit.. For instance, after the attack of the Soviet Union, Horthy is quoted as saying: "After 22 years of waiting for this day, I am happy. Mankind will be grateful to Hitler for this deed. 189 million Russians will be freed from the yoke forced on them by two million Bolsheviks. This decision of Hitler's will bring about a peace. England and the United States will have to realize that Germany can not be conquered militarily".

19. March 15 is the anniversary of the beginning of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-49.

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