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1931-1945 - Radical Right in Power

In 1929 the New York Stock Exchange crashed. As a result, world grain prices plummeted, and the framework supporting Hungary's economy buckled. Hungary's earnings from grain exports declined as prices and volume dropped, tax revenues fell, foreign credit sources dried up, and short-term loans were called in. Hungary sought financial relief from the League of Nations, which insisted on a program of rigid fiscal belt-tightening, resulting in increased unemployment. The peasants reverted to subsistence farming. Industrial production rapidly dropped, and businesses went bankrupt as domestic and foreign demand evaporated. Government workers lost their jobs or suffered severe pay cuts. By 1933 about 18 percent of Budapest's citizens lived in poverty. Unemployment leaped from 5 percent in 1928 to almost 36 percent by 1933.

As the standard of living dropped, the political mood of the country shifted further toward the right. Bethlen resigned without warning amid national turmoil in August 1931. His successor, Gyula Karolyi, failed to quell the crisis. Horthy then appointed a reactionary demagogue, Gyula Gombos, but only after Gombos agreed to maintain the existing political system, to refrain from calling elections before the parliament's term had expired, and to appoint several Bethlen supporters to head key ministries. Gombos publicly renounced the vehement anti-Semitism he had espoused earlier, and his party and government included some Jews.

Gombos's appointment marked the beginning of the radical right's ascendancy in Hungarian politics, which lasted with few interruptions until 1945. The radical right garnered its support from medium and small farmers, former refugees from Hungary's lost territories, and unemployed civil servants, army officers, and university graduates. Gombos advocated a one-party government, revision of the Treaty of Trianon, withdrawal from the League of Nations, anti-intellectualism, and social reform. He assembled a political machine, but his efforts to fashion a one-party state and fulfill his reform platform were frustrated by a parliament composed mostly of Bethlen's supporters and by Hungary's creditors, who forced Gombos to follow conventional policies in dealing with the economic and financial crisis. The 1935 elections gave Gombos more solid support in the parliament, and he succeeded in gaining control of the ministries of finance, industry, and defense and in replacing several key military officers with his supporters. In September 1936, Gombos informed German officials that he would establish a Nazi-like, one-party government in Hungary within two years, but he died in October without realizing this goal.

In foreign affairs, Gombos led Hungary toward close relations with Italy and Germany; in fact, Gombos coined the term Axis, which was later adopted by the German-Italian military alliance. Soon after his appointment, Gombos visited Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and gained his support for revision of the Treaty of Trianon. Later, Gombos became the first foreign head of government to visit German chancellor Adolf Hitler. For a time, Hungary profited handsomely, as Gombos signed a trade agreement with Germany that drew Hungary's economy out of depression but made Hungary dependent on the German economy for both raw materials and markets.

In 1928 Germany had accounted for 19.5 percent of Hungary's imports and 11.7 percent of its exports; by 1939 the figures were 52.5 percent and 52.2 percent, respectively. Hungary's annual rate of economic growth from 1934 to 1940 averaged 10.8 percent. The number of workers in industry doubled in the ten years after 1933, and the number of agricultural workers dropped below 50 percent for the first time in the country's history.

Hungary also used its relationship with Germany to chip away at the Treaty of Trianon. In 1938 Hungary openly repudiated the treaty's restrictions on its armed forces. With German help, Hungary extended its territory four times and doubled in size from 1938 to 1941. It regained parts of southern Slovakia in 1938, Carpatho-Ukraine in 1939, northern Transylvania in 1940, and parts of Vojvodina in 1941.

Hitler's assistance did not come without a price. After 1938 the fuhrer used promises of additional territories, economic pressure, and threats of military intervention to pressure the Hungarians into supporting his policies, including those related to Europe's Jews, which encouraged Hungary's anti-Semites. The percentage of Jews in business, finance, and the professions far exceeded the percentage of Jews in the overall population. The 1930 census showed that Jews made up only 5.1 percent of the population but provided 54.5 percent of its physicians, 31.7 percent of its journalists, and 49.2 percent of its lawyers. Jews controlled an estimated 19.5 percent to 33 percent of the national income, four of the five leading banks, and 80 percent of Hungary's industry. After the depression struck, anti-Semites made the Jews scapegoats for Hungary's economic plight.

Hungary's Jews suffered the first blows of this renewed anti-Semitism during the government of Gombos's successor, Kalman Daranyi, who fashioned a coalition of conservatives and reactionaries and dismantled Gombos's political machine. After Horthy publicly dashed hopes of land reform, discontented rightwingers took to the streets denouncing the government and baiting the Jews. Daranyi's government attempted to appease the anti-Semites and the Nazis by proposing and passing the first socalled Jewish Law, which set quotas limiting Jews to 20 percent of the positions in certain businesses and professions. The law failed to satisfy Hungary's anti-Semitic radicals, however, and when Daranyi tried to appease them again, Horthy unseated him in 1938.

The regent then appointed the ill-starred Bela Imredy, who drafted a second, harsher Jewish Law before political opponents forced his resignation in February 1939 by presenting documents showing that Imredy's own grandfather was a Jew.

Imredy's downfall led to Pal Teleki's return to the prime minister's office. Teleki dissolved some of the fascist parties but did not alter the fundamental policies of his predecessors. He undertook a bureaucratic reform and launched cultural and educational programs to help the rural poor. Illiteracy dropped to about 7 percent by 1941. But Teleki also oversaw passage of the second Jewish Law, which broadened the definition of "Jewishness," cut the quotas on Jews permitted in the professions and in business, and required that the quotas be attained by the hiring of Gentiles or the firing of Jews. By the June 1939 elections, Hungarian public opinion had shifted so far to the right that voters gave the Arrow Cross Party--Hungary's equivalent of Germany's National Socialist German Workers' Party (the Nazi Party)--the second highest number of votes.

In September 1940, the Hungarian government allowed German troops to transit the country on their way to Romania, and on November 20, 1940, Hungary signed the Tripartite Pact, which allied Germany, Italy, and Japan.




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