Hungary in the interbellum and in WW II: The “other Versailles treaty” and the Horthy regime

As I started plotting the sequel to Operation Flash (which will either be Episodes 4-6, or Book Two) one country that loomed large was Hungary. Science-fiction and fantasy author Yakov Merkin actually wrote his Master’s Thesis in History on the Horthy regime: this was a good jumpoff point.

(1) What came before: genesis of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy

  • The Hungarian Revolution of 1848

The lands of the Crown of St. Stephen (Szent Istvan) had been under Habsburg rule for some time (part since 1526, the formerly Ottoman part since 1699) when the “Year of the Revolutions” 1848 rolled around. The incapacitated Habsburg emperor Ferdinand I abdicated in favor of Franz Josef, who had just turned 18 (and would eventually rule until 1916 !). However, the Hungarians refused to let him have the Hungarian crown in personal union. When Franz Josef tried to impose his will on them, and even tried to dissolve the Hungarian Diet (which had sat since the 12th Century), Hungarians under Reichsverweser [acting head of state] Lajos Kossuth rose up and declared their independence. At first the Hungarians were able to keep the Austrian troops at bay, until Franz Josef pleaded with Russian Tsar Nicholas I to pull his chestnuts out of the fire. With the help of Tsarist troops, he was able to suppress the uprising, and Hungary remained under military dictatorship for almost two decades. Some senior Hungarian leaders were executed, others exiled. [Musical note: Their fate inspired the great Hungarian-born composer and piano virtuoso Franz Liszt’s piano fantasy “Funérailles”:]

What put an end to this situation were two humiliating Habsburg defeats in as many wars: the first in the Second Italian Independence War of 1859 (where Austria lost its possessions in Northern Italy), the second in the Seven Weeks War against Prussia in 1866. As I have explained before, the main reason Prussia did not conquer Vienna outright and create a “Grossdeutschland” there and then was that Prussian (later German) Chancellor Otto von Bismarck threatened to jump out the window if that happened: he preferred a Little Germany with a Prussian Protestant complexion over a German superstate where Catholics would be too numerous.

• The Great Compromise of 1869

At any rate, Austria found itself flat broke and on the brink of national bankruptcy. Franz Josef saw only one way out: ending the conflict with the Hungarians. This led to the 1869 Ausgleich (freely: Compromise), which created the Dual Monarchy of Austro-Hungary with two nominally co-equal partners in “real union”, not merely “personal union”.[*] The historical constitution of the Kingdom of Hungary was restored, and 10 of the “12 points” of the 1848 Hungarian revolutionaries were adopted. The border between the Austrian (“Cisleithanian”) and Hungarian (“Transleithanian”) portions of the dual monarchy was demarcated as in the Middle Ages, i.e., at the Leitha/Lajta/Litava river (names in German/Hungarian/Czech, respectively), a tributary of the Danube.

• Hungarian Jews: more Magyar than the Magyars

Hungarian Jews had enthusiastically embraced the Hungarian nationalist cause: after the Ausgleich, this only intensified. Three expressions of this can be seen:

1. The vast majority raised their children as native Hungarian speakers. (Not the easiest of languages, to put it mildly.) In the 1910 census, 77% of Hungarian Jews listed Hungarian as their mother tongue

2. Widespread magyarization of surnames. About this, here is a semi-popularized article:

Indeed, later antisemitic persecutors would express their frustration that “you can’t tell Jews from their surnames in Hungary”. Kohn became Kun, Kovacs (=smith), Kalman,…; Weiss became Feher (=white); Schwarz became Fekete (=black), Gross became Nagy(=big), Klein became Kis(=short), Wolf became Farkas, Weissberg could become Feherhegy or rather Fehervar (Weissburg, an actual town in the Hungarian Kingdom), …

Many Jews adopted Hungarian toponyms (names based on places, e.g. Somogyi, Komaromi, Erdelyi=Transsylvanian,…), exonyms or ethnonyms (Nemeth for German/Deutsch, Horvath for Croat, Lengyel for Pole/Pollack, Szekely=Szekler, Toth=Slovak, Olah for Wallach) that were already common among the Magyar majority, or occupational names (Kovacs, Lakatos=locksmith, Szabo=tailor,…) that likewise were just as readily found among the general Magyar population.

3. A minority of Hungarian Jews converted to Christianity. (One family known to us actually converted twice, so “former religion” would not be listed as “Mosaic”.) Those who remained in the Jewish faith were split between three denominations: 1. Neolog, a form of Conservative Judaism that commanded the loyalty of the urban middle-and upper-class Jews; 2. Orthodox secessionists who rejected Neolog reforms and indeed in large measure modernity itself, turning toward Chareidi (“ultra-Orthodox”) Judaism; 3. “Status-Quo”: a small denomination that tried to walk a middle path, and which also included what we would today call modern-Orthodox congregations.

(2) The Trianon Treaty (1920)

Rivers of ink have been poured onto pages about the 1919 Versailles Treaty and how it sowed the seeds for World War Two. Comparatively few people are even aware that, at the Grand Trianon Palace in the Versailles compound, another treaty was concluded on June 4, 1920 that disposed over the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian double monarchy. Prior to World War One, the “Crown Lands of St. Stephen” (or Szent-Istvan as the Hungarians would call him) encompassed a vast territory from present-day Slovakia (to this day, Slovakia has a nontrivial percentage of native Hungarian speakers) down to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, not to mention Transylvania. Triple city names like Bratislava (a.k.a. Pressburg a.k.a. Poszony), Cluj (a.k.a. Klausenburg a.k.a. Koloszvar), … give the reader more clues: Romania has Hungarian- and German-speaking minorities in Transylvania (a.k.a. Siebenbürgen a.k.a. Erdély) to this day. See the map below [“Ruthenians” is an obsolete collective term for Ukrainians and Belarusians]:

To cut a long story short: at this conference, the borders of Hungary were redrawn based on ethnic composition. The much-reduced territory of Hungary now included a solid majority of Hungarian speakers (the criteria used for ethnicity were basically linguistic), although the areas ceded to Rumania and the newly created Czechoslovakia, in particular, included enclaves where Hungarian was the majority language.

This had some fateful consequences for Hungarian politics in the years to come. The massive loss of territory and the cession of majority-Hungarian enclaves like Szekely Land created strong irredentist sentiments. In addition:, where the Austro-Hungarian empire, for better or for worse, had been a polyglot, poly-ethnic state par excellence, little Hungary now had an overwhelmingly Magyar population. Just two medium-sized minorities remained: ethnic Germans (about 7%) and Jews (about 5%), plus about 1.8% Slovaks. Almost 90% (including essentially all the Jews) spoke Hungarian as a mother tongue.

Much of the commercial and professional class — especially in Budapest — was Jewish. While this created resentment of an economic nature, Hungarian Jews had been particularly eager to embrace Hungarian nationalism, and were considered well-integrated.

But Hungary had now staggered through the one-two punch of first the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic, then the massive territorial losses of the Trianon Treaty. Jews, as the most visible minority left (at least in the large cities), were a convenient scapegoat, particularly as the Hungarian Communist leader Béla Kun (born Béla Kohn) was of Jewish birth. [Kun fled to Austria, then was traded to the USSR in a prisoner exchange. He was active then in the Comintern until arrested and executed in 1938 during the Great Purges.]

The Red Terror of Bela Kun begat a White Counterterror. Eventually, on March 1, 1920, the National Assembly of Hungary re-established the monarchy. However, as the Allies would never consent to a return of king Karl/Karoly IV (who had also been the last Austrian emperor Karl I in personal union), the de facto head of state became a regent. In an overwhelming 131-7 vote, parliament elected as Regent the last commander of the Austro-Hungarian fleet, Vice-Admiral Miklos Horthy.

(3) The Horthy regime in the interwar years

The last Habsburg emperor (and hence last king of Hungary in personal union) Charles/Karl/Karoly could not come back to Austria, as the country had become a Republic in the meantime. But Hungary had not abolished the monarchy, and indeed had appointed Horthy as Regent, as we saw in Part 1. So in 1921 Karl actually tried to return by slipping into Hungary incognito and showing up at Horthy’s palace. To Karl surprise, Horthy was unwilling to aid in his restoration to the throne except by consent of the Allied powers, and eventually he had to leave unfulfilled. He tried once again to return to the throne, this time without approaching Horthy for help, but was expelled from Hungary and spent the last year of his life on Madeira.Notice however that, while Miklos Horthy’s Hungarian title is usually translated as Regent in English, the German translation (which Horthy himself used) is Reichsverweser, i.e., an acting head of state during an interregnum. (German reserves the word “Regent” for one ruling on behalf of a minor or incapacitated de jure monarch.) At the beginning of his 24-year tenure, Horthy relied much on two moderate figures: Pal Teleki and Istvan Bethlen, both prime minister at various times. Horthy was impetuous and burst out in radical speech at times, but was willing to defer to his more seasoned advisors.The far right, which had helped propel Horthy into power, quickly became alienated by him.

Yakov Merkin sees the infamous “numerus clausus law” of September 1920 (which limited the percentage of Jewish college students to their proportion in the population, i.e., about 6%) as a sop to the far right “to take the wind out of their sails”, and claims the law was only laxly enforced: two years later, the proportion of Jewish college students was again >13%, not to mention the richer families sending their children to Austria, Germany, … to study. [* ] Still, the percentage of Jewish students at the two main Budapest universities (Eötvös L. and TU Budapest) dropped from one-third in 1913 to about 8% in 1925.

Yet Merkin does see a sinister, foreshadowing aspect to the law: that for the first time it defined Jews as a separate race, and no longer as Magyars. (I.e., a transition from a cultural to an ancestral definition of “Magyar”.) Nevertheless, he stresses that people like Bethlen and Horthy strictly saw the world in terms of class rather than race: they had more of a common language with the rich Jewish industrialists and merchants than with working-class Magyar antisemites. Indeed, they distrusted the common people to such a degree that they reformed the electoral laws to limit suffrage to about one-quarter of the population, and from 1926 the Upper House of parliament was no longer elected directly but its members appointed as representatives of the nobility, the religious denominations, economic interests,… and direct appointees of the Regent. Paradoxically, these anti-democratic reforms slowed the rise to power of the far right.

Bethlen coopted Christian nationalist rhetoric while at the same time refusing to impose further disabilities on the Jews, and generally maintaining good relations with the business elite (including the Jews among them).

* The Great Depression and the rise of the Arrow Cross

The Great Depression saw the country unable to pay its creditors, and eventually Bethlen and his brief successor Karolyi were forced to resign in favor of the radical rightist Gyula Gömbös (who ironically was not of Magyar but of ethnic German descent). Gömbös tried to create a military alliance with Fascist Italy and newly Nazi Germany, while Horthy remained an Anglophile, and the old guard in general became wary of Germany following the assassination of Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss in a Nazi coup attempt. Upon the death of Gömbös in 1936, his successor Daranyi had little luck on the foreign policy front, and was eventually ousted by Horthy for being too accommodation to the Arrow Cross, the fairly newly established Hungarian Fascist party led by future dictator Ferenc Szalasi. Darany’s successor Bela Imredy actually put Szalasi in prison, which only made him more popular with his supporters. At the same time, Imredy passed (under German pressure) the first of three anti-Jewish laws. Eventually he was forced out after political opponents went Alinsky on him and produced alleged proof that Imredy himself was of Jewish ancestry, at which point he was forced to resign.As Merkin describes it, support for these laws was strong among nationalist Hungarian professionals (for whom they created economic opportunity). Yet some of the old guard nationalist politicians disliked them as “creating a double standard” as no comparable law was applied to the other principal minority (ethnic Germans, also known as Danube Swabians)! While the laws were inconsistently enforced, and the Jewish business elite suffered little damage, many lower class Jews lost their livelihood. In 1939 a further disability, and humiliation, was added that forced Jews out of the military proper and into unarmed “labor battalions”.

(4) Hungary enters WW II on the side of the Axis

Hungary becoming a military ally of the Axis paid off in terms of territory, with areas of Czechoslovakia, Romania (specifically, Northern Transylvania), and Yugoslavia being returned to Hungary. In July-August 1941, Hungary handed over about 10,000-20,000 Jewish refugees to Nazi Germany (they were transported to Kamenets-Podolsk and massacred there). It however refused to hand over native Hungarian Jews as long as Horthy was in power (deportations would only start in May 1944, after Nazi Germany had invaded Hungary and deposed Horthy). When the Wehrmacht crossed Hungary on its way to invading Yugoslavia (without the consent of its nominal ally), Prime Minister Pal Teleki committed suicide on April 3, 1941, leaving a suicide note saying, among other things:

We broke our word, – out of cowardice […] The nation feels it, and we have thrown away its honor. We have allied ourselves to scoundrels […] We will become body-snatchers! A nation of trash. I did not hold you back. I am guilty.

He was succeeded by the strongly pro-German Laszlo Bardossy, who brought Hungary into the war against the USSR and enacted the third anti-Jewish law — modeled on the Nuremberg Laws — which came into force on August 8, 1941. Eventually, Horthy dismissed him on March 7, 1942, in the face of mounting losses on the Eastern Front and opposition to Horthy’s plan to anoint his own son as his successor.

The new prime minister, Miklos Kallay, was more wary of Germany and sought contacts to the Allies. These efforts were intensified after many Hungarian divisions were wiped out during Operation Uranus (the Red Army pincer movement that created the Stalingrad cauldron).

And this is the situation on March 21, 1943 — the day Timeline Valkyrie 1943 forks off.

In our own timeline (I will devote a future blog post to these developments), Hungary was occupied by Nazi Germany on March 15, 1944 in Operation Margarethe, in order to forestall Hungary’s defection to the Allies. One consequence was the beginning of the Shoah in Hungary.

[*] These expat students include some scientific household names like Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann… Indeed, the broader group of expatriate Hungarian scientists and mathematicians, many of them Jewish, was sometimes jocularly referred to as “The Martians“.