The Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990 Bringing you digitized history, primary and secondary sources
HTA Home Page | E-books | Europe | Counter-Revolution.I am Appointed Minister of War and Commander-in-Chief

9: Counter-Revolution.I am Appointed Minister of War and Commander-in-Chief

<< 8: Revolution in Hungary: From Michael Károlyi to Béla Kun || 10: Regent of Hungary >>

Counter-Revolution.I am Appointed Minister of War and Commander-in-Chief

I had witnessed the sad effects of the revolution from the seclusion of Kenderes, to which I had returned with my family in November, 1918. It was no easy task to see one's way clearly in these changing circumstances. Budapest, as we saw it on our journey from Vienna to my father's estate, was unrecognizable. The reins of order were trailing; hooligan bands roamed the streets, led by men in filthy uniforms flourishing red banners. The citizens were terrorized; shops and offices, with few exceptions, were closed. The people were in despair, fearing that a bad today heralded a worse tomorrow. We were relieved when the city lay behind us. But even Kenderes was no longer the comfortable home(1) it had been; though it had never been luxurious, there had never in the past been want. War service had denuded the estate of servants and horses; barns and store-room were empty. Since the death of my father(2), the estate had been run by a bailiff, and in recent years I had had less and less time and opportunity to supervise his management. This, I thought to myself, should be my first task and I exchanged my uniform for the garb of the estate-owner. It was consoling to find the peasants on the estate still so faithful to their master(3). Making a common effort, we set to work to repair buildings, machines and tools, and to prepare for the spring, in so far as that was possible. I occasionally visited Budapest to see my friends and call on those whose political views I shared, knowing that they too were longing to put an end to the intolerable conditions then prevailing. But though many of their plans were bold, they were also often impracticable, and it was a long time before action could be taken.

My delight and gratification can be imagined when a messenger from Count Julius Károlyi arrived at Kenderes with the request that I should raise a new national army on behalf of the opposition government Almost simultaneously; a courier arrived from Vienna from Count Bethlen with a similar petition; for Bethlen and Károlyi have agreed that the liberation of the country from the terror of the Bolshevists and the encroachments of our neighbours would never be achieved by diplomatic means alone.

I was eager to answer the call at once, but it was not in practice a simple matter. Kenderes, where I was living with my wife and children, lay between the two danger zones of Red supremacy and Rumanian occupation. On receiving the news that Count Károlyi had succeeded in entering Szeged and had there held his first Cabinet meeting, which was attended by Count Paul Teleki(4) from Vienna, my determination was set. I travelled by car as far as Mezôtúr, and thence by rail to Szeged, arriving there on June 6th, 1919.

My short civilian interlude had come to an end. My career entered a new phase. At the request of Károlyi, I took the portfolio of war and issued a proclamation for the formation of a Hungarian national army.

To issue the proclamation, I needed the assent of the French, who were at that time occupying Szeged. Only after laborious negotiations did I succeed in obtaining it. Unlike General de Gondrecourt, Colonel Betrix, the French town commander, and General de Lobit, the Commander-in-Chief of the French troops of occupation, were not at first inclined either to permit or to support a Hungarian national movement. Not that they were in sympathy with the Bolshevists, far from it. They were on the side of the Rumanians and were therefore prepared to recognize only the Béla Kun regime.

When diplomacy is deficient and power lacking, stratagem must be resorted to. From our only aeroplane, I had leaflets strewn over the Red troops and I had the satisfaction of seeing a fully equipped squadron of hussars draw up before my house the following day. From all corners of the land, officers arrived, from among whom Colonel Prónay(5) and Major Ostenburg(6) formed officers' companies. Ex-servicemen rallied from the Szeged region, and before long we had the nucleus of a well-disciplined, reliable troops. Couriers from Vienna had brought us money, appropriated from the Communist Hungarian Legation in a bold coup de main by a group of Hungarian officers under the blind eye of the friendly Viennese Chief of Police Schober, and with the aid of the Vienna correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, Ashmead Bartlett. Several millions had been deposited there for propaganda purposes.

Our freedom of movement was curtailed, and not only because of the hesitant attitude of the French and the pressure of the Rumanians. To launch a military attack on the Red Army, we had to secure the railway to Transdanubia, which was in Serbian hands. We knew that Belgrade was strongly anti-Bolshevist. King Peter was related to the Tsar's family through his Montenegrin wife; their son, the then Regent Alexander(7), had been trained in St. Petersburg as a cadet. In Belgrade the Imperial Russian Embassy still enjoyed all diplomatic privileges and had become a centre for White Russian refugees. With Count Teleki, I travelled to Belgrade to open negotiations with the Serbian Prime Minister Protic.(8) He gave me the desired assurances, with the proviso that the French raised no objections, and consented to accredit a representative of our government in Belgrade. This was the first diplomatic recognition of our Counter-revolutionary Government. Our mission, therefore, had some success, though we were unable to avail ourselves of his good will without the agreement of the French.

Count Bethlen was also sending us encouraging reports from Vienna concerning the British attitude; the passes with which Hungarian officers and couriers had travelled to Szeged had been personally signed by the British representative, Sir Thomas Cunningham, who, moreover, had sent Colonel Alexander Fitzgerald as a liaison officer to our Counter-revolutionary Government. We also received support from Admiral Troubridge(9), who was in Belgrade. I had known him in the past when he was naval attaché at the Court of Vienna. The attitude of the French remained exceedingly reserved. Their ostensible neutrality could only be to the advantage of the Bolshevists. The French at Szeged were bound by their instructions from Paris. Clemenceau(10) was known to be an avowed enemy of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.

Unfortunately, the conflicting policies of the two main partners of the Allied Powers had their repercussions also within the Hungarian Cabinet. The Minister of Trade and Commerce, Varjassy(11), an adherent of the left-liberal element, used the French attitude as cover. It was never made clear what part he played in the removal from Szeged by the French of my Deputy Secretary, Staff-Captain Julius Gömbös(12). The French insisted on the formation of a 'democratic' government, a government, that is, consisting of all parties and colours. Against my emphatic advice, Károlyi submitted to this demand. Under the leadership of the former parliamentary representative Dezsô Ábrahám-Pattantyus(13), a new government was formed on July 12th, 1919. I refused to take office as Minister of War in this Cabinet, though I remained Commander-in-Chief of our new National Army, on receiving assurances that it would on no account be used for political party battles. I had but one wish: to free Hungary from the Communist terror, for the atrocities and crimes of the Communists were daily augmenting and I felt that the cleansing should be done by ourselves and not by a foreign power.

This was by no means in agreement with the French, and even less with the Czech, point of view. Though the troops at my disposal at Szeged were ready for action, I dared not as yet march to Budapest, in spite of the fact that Béla Kun's Government was forced to resign under the pressure of the Rumanian Army and the ultimatum of the Supreme Allied Council in Paris. Béla Kun himself fled to Vienna, taking with him the country's finances; the mass-murderer Szamuely was shot by a gendarme while attempting to cross the border(14). A new, Social-Democrat Government under Peidl(15) was overthrown by a coup d'etat on August 6th, 1919. The new Prime Minister, Stephen Friedrich(16), formed a provisional Cabinet, declared the Republic abolished and proclaimed Archduke Joseph(17), who during the break-up of the monarchy had been made Homo Regius, i.e., the King's representative in Hungary, as Head of the Hungarian State.

There were thus two governments in existence, both with their hands tied, and with the Allies still insisting that a Hungarian government must consist of representatives of all parties. The Rumanians, meanwhile, had entered Budapest the day after Friedrich had assumed control, and refused to withdraw in spite of orders sent by the Supreme Council in Paris. There is no need for me to describe the activities of the Rumanians in detail. General H. H. Bandholtz(18), the American representative of the quadripartite Allied Military Mission in Budapest, has given an account of the looting and dismantling of factories in his memoirs, 'An Undiplomatic Diary' (New York, 1933). If he had not appeared in person at the Royal Palace, his riding crop(19) under his arm, the Palace would have been sacked. He also saved the National Museum by sealing its doors in the name of the Allies in the nick of time, as lorries were already waiting outside to carry off the booty. Archduke Joseph confirmed my appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the Hungarian Army and I used my position to demand that Prime Minister Ábrahám should make this command independent of the Ministry of War. At the same time, I planned the movements of the units at my disposal. I was faced with a difficult problem, as a narrow strip lying between Serbs and Rumanians had to be crossed. When I was sent a message on August 12th by the Archduke that the President of the Interallied Military Mission had demanded that the entire operation should immediately be countermanded and the troops be withdrawn to Szeged. I realized that he was not identifying himself with these orders which, were we to obey them, would retain us in the power of the French and would make all action impossible. On the excuse that there was no means of communicating with the troops already on the march other than by dropping a message from an aeroplane, I offered to undertake the task myself. I flew from Szeged in the sole company of my aide-de-camp, Major Magasházy(20). He came by the ruse of leaving the government and turning in his resignation, and the French was left in the belief that I would return. Once in the air, however, I turned the plane towards Lake Balaton, where we landed on a stubble-field near the bathing resort of Siófok, which then was the headquarters of the Bolshevist forces. The mere sight of the eagle-feather on the cap of my aide-de-camp, indicating his status as an officer of the National Army, sufficed to make the Bolshevists take to their heels. Within two days, the last Red sympathizers had fled. The Chief of their General Staff and several other officers were glad to be able to show their true colours and put their services at our disposal. When I called at the General's headquarters, an order given by Major Magasházy brought the Red Guard to attention and impelled them to present arms to the representative of the National Army. On the third day, we were joined by Colonel Prónay's company of officers.

I aimed at creating a barrier from Lake Balaton in the south to the Danube in the north, and to move this to Budapest, but as things were then, this was a diplomatic rather than a military task. Sir George Clerk, the representative sent by the Allies to Hungary, dispatched a British officer to Siófok to inform me that he intended to visit me there. As I was eager to go to Budapest to make contact with the government of Friedrich and meet the Allied representatives and the Rumanian Commander-in-Chief, I proposed that I should call on the chargé d'affaires. Within a few days, I received an invitation from him and travelled by car unmolested straight to Budapest. I asked Sir George Clerk to have the Rumanian advance halted; I told the Rumanian General Mardarescu(21) my intentions and showed him, on the map, the line my troops would occupy.

"And what if we cross that line?" he asked.

"Then we fire," I replied.

There were a few minor skirmishes but nothing more serious In Budapest, I was staying at the town house of my brother who, before the war, had been in command of a regiment of hussars at Székesfehérvár. After a discussion with Friedrich, the Prime Minister, and supper with Sir George Clerk at the Zichy Palace, I returned home about midnight, and had the delightful surprise of finding my wife there. The happiness of our reunion was enhanced by the fact that since I had left Kenderes we had had no word of each other. I had heard that there had been some fighting in that region. My wife told me that she had fled with the children in a cart to Debrecen as the thunder of guns and the rattle of machine-guns drew near.

She had at any rate been spared the sight of the second looting of our property, this time by the Rumanians, the first having been by the Bolshevists. All the furniture was smashed, mattresses and feather beds were ripped open in the search for money and valuables. My wife had given our three children, we had lost our eldest sixteen-year-old daughter that spring, into the care of the Catholic priest and had herself travelled on to Budapest in the hope of obtaining some news of me there. After an adventurous journey, she had arrived on my first day in the capital. I was now able to offer her a new home at Siófok.

I myself, however, had frequently to go to Budapest to beg the Military Mission over and over again to persuade the Supreme Council in Paris to agree that the Rumanians should actually withdraw to the line along the Tisza river agreed to by Clemenceau. In these negotiations, I gratefully remember not only the help given me by Sir George Clerk but also the support of Admiral Troubridge, who, as Chairman of the Danube Commission, had moved from Belgrade to Budapest. The Rumanians made difficulties whenever they could in order to have as good a bargaining position as possible at the coming peace conference. Not before mid-November did they evacuate the Hungarian areas west of the Tisza. On November 16th, I made my entry into Budapest at the head of my troops.

It was a rainy morning, but all the streets were packed with excited, jubilant people who hailed us with enthusiasm, happy in the knowledge that their sufferings under the Red terror were ended. The official welcome to the troops by the Mayor of Budapest took place outside the Hotel Gellért. My reply, which still strikes me today as the expression of the general sentiments of the time, ran as follows:

"Mr. Mayor! In the name of the Hungarian National Army, I offer you my sincere thanks for your warm words of welcome. Today, on the threshold of this city, I am not prepared to speak in conventional phrases. My sense of justice compels me to tell you plainly what is uppermost in my mind at this moment. When we were still far distant, when our hope of returning to this poor, ll-fated city, arms in hand, was the merest glimmer, we cursed and hated her, for from afar we saw oniy the mire into which she had sunk and not the persecution and martyrdom which our Hungarian brethren were suffering. The Hungarian nation has ever loved and admired Budapest, this city which, in recent months, has been its degradation. Here, on the banks of the Danube, I arraign her. This city has disowned her thousand years of tradition, she has dragged the Holy Crown and the national colours in the dust, she has clothed herself in red rags. The finest of the nation she threw into dungeons or drove into exile. She laid in ruin our property and wasted our wealth. Yet the nearer we approached to this city, the more rapidly did the ice in our hearts melt. We are now ready to forgive her. We shall forgive this misguided city if she will turn from her false gods to the service of the Fatherland, if with all her heart and soul and strength she will return to her love of our land in which the ashes of our ancestors rest and which our brethren till with the sweat of their brows, if she will revere once more the Holy Crown, the Double Cross, the Three Hills and the Four Rivers, in short, our Hungarian Fatherland and our Hungarian people. My soldiers, after they had gathered in the harvest, took up arms to restore order in the Fatherland. Now their hands are held out unencumbered to you in friendly greeting; but these hands remain ready to mete out punishment and to strike blows should need arise. May God grant that this need shall not arise, that the guilty, having seen the error of their ways, may strive to play their part in rebuilding a Budapest that shall embody the best of Hungarian virtues. We extend to our fellow sufferers, who have endured so much tribulation and who yet gave us their sympathy, our heartfelt salutation."

We then marched across the Elisabeth Bridge and along the Ring to the Parliament Building. On Freedom Square Prime Minister Friedrich expressed his thanks to the Army. After my reply, I dismounted and ascended the steps of the building. An altar had been set up, at which Prince-Primate Csernoch celebrated Mass and blessed the splendidly embroidered banner of the National Army presented by the eminent authoress, Cecile Tormay, as President of the League of Hungarian Women.

A year had had to pass before Hungary, though not yet at peace, for the armistice was still in force, could feel secure in having once again a national army within the walls of her capital. A year of revolution, of Red Terror and, as certain historians will have it, of the reprisals of the White Terror. I have no reason to gloss over deeds of injustice and atrocities committed when an iron broom alone could sweep the country clean(22). A German officer who, during the Second World War, had fought against the Communist partisans in Serbia, once told me of the hatred he and his men had felt on seeing, along a country road, rows of their comrades hanging from trees, their eyes gouged out their bodies bestially mutilated: at such moments, the most ardent lovers of peace are transmuted into bitter avengers. I considered the disbanding of units which had been spontaneously formed throughout Hungary to combat the Red Terror, and the transforming of them into well-disciplined units of the new National Army, one of my main tasks. The headquarters of this army never issued a bloodthirsty order(23). But I do not hesitate to endorse what Edgar von Schmidt-Pauli wrote about this period in the book he has written about me:

"A troop of soldiery, hurling itself forward to create order at the risk of life, the fighting spirit and will to sacrifice having to be maintained at all costs if the leader is to achieve the great task he has set himself, cannot be reprimanded for every trifle; the officers who exceed their competence cannot always be shot or even disciplined, not, that is to say, if the danger of mutiny, or worse, is to be avoided. In times of disturbance, the military cannot be too softhearted. Hell let loose on earth cannot be subjugated by the beating of angels' wings." (Schmidt-Pauli: Nikolas von Horthy. Hamburg, 1942. p. 10.)

And the Communists in Hungary, willing disciples of the Russian Bolshevists, had indeed let hell loose. It took time for the stormy waves to subside, and for law and order once more to prevail throughout our land, in keeping with our ancient traditions.

1. A forty room baroque mansion surrounded by a fifty acre park. Currently it houses an agricultural technology school.

2. 1904.

3. Horthy enjoyed enormous popularity in Kenderes (still is). According to the commander of the detachment of gendarmes assigned to guard him (Major András Pallós; personal communication) the most difficult job at guarding was to hide the gendarmes lest Horthy might notice them as he did not believe he needs protection. He freely walked the town, talking to people like old friends. One typical anecdote: Horthy went riding and fallen off his horse. When he went to the doctor's office to have his bruises treated, he waited at the end of the queue of patients till his turn came.

4. Count Paul (Pál, in Hung.) Teleki (1979-1941) professor of geography, statesman.

5. Cavalry Col. Baron Paul Prónay (1875-1945), commanded a detachment of officers who later committed atrocities against suspected Communists. Prónay and other rogue officers, such as Iván Héjjas, Mihály Francia-Kiss, Jenô Ranzenberger were responsible for what was later called: White Terror.

6. Lt. Colonel Gyula Ostenburg-Moravek (1884-1944?).

7. Alexander Karadjodjevich (1888-1934), later he became King of Yugoslavia.

8. Stojan Protich (1857-1923) Serbian politician.

9. Sir Ernest Charles Troubridge, British Admiral, 1862-1926.

10. Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) French Premier between 1906 and 1909, and between 1917 and 1920. In 1920 he lost in the presidential elections and retired from politics. Hungarians considered him to be the prime mover behind the unfavorable Trianon peace treaty. Official French documents released in 1994 absolved him from some of the blame.

11. Lajos Varjasy, mayor of the city of Arad.

12. Gyula Gömbös (1886-1936) captain, Nationalist politician. One of the leaders of the Anti-Bolshevik Committee in Vienna.

13. Dezsô Ábrahám-Pattantyús (1875-1973). Politician, member of Parliament since 1909.

14. He was detained by Austrian gendarmes and may have committed suicide.

15. Gyula Peidl (1873-1943), printer, one of the leaders of the Social Democratic Party. In emigration between 1919 and 1921. Elected to parliament in 1922.

16. István Friedrich (1883-1951) Christian - Liberal politician, first elected MP in 1912, served until 1939, parliamentary critic of the extreme right politicians.

17. Archduke Marshal of the Army Joseph August Habsburg (1872-1962). In October 16, 1944, he has warmly greeted the Nazi takeover by Szálasi.

18. (1867-1925).

19. It is now displayed in the National Museum in Budapest.

20. Major László Magasházy (1879-1959), later became general.

21. Gen. G. D. Mardarescu (1866-1938).

22. According to Communist sources, there were 626 documented executions: 329 of these were on formal convictions. Of the latter victims 32 were of Jewish origin. In a post-Communist review of this era by a pre-eminent historian in Hungary (Nemeskürty, István: Glance of Farewell, Budapest: Szabad Tér, 1995, in Hung.) the expression of "white terror" insn't even applicable for what happened. There was general lawlessness, a major crime wave, the suppression of which, and the reestablishment of law and order, took considerable time.

23. This was proven by the fact that during forty years of Communism not one trace of such order was found either in the archives or by recollection of witnesses. However, according to the fine biography of Horthy by Thomas Sakmyster, he has tacitly supported the right wing officer detachments who committed these atrocities. (Sakmyster, T.: Hungary's Admiral on Horseback: Miklós Horthy, 1918-1944, Columbia Univ. Press, 1993.)

<< 8: Revolution in Hungary: From Michael Károlyi to Béla Kun || 10: Regent of Hungary >>