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1939-1945 - Hungary in World War II

Hungary allied with Nazi Germany early in the war. From 1939 on, Germany allowed Hungary to share in some of her booty. Hungary profited from the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia; she obtained a slice of Rumania; and she participated in the invasion and subsequent partition of Yugoslavia (1941). On November 20, 1940, Hungary joined the Tripartite Pact and the following June Hungarian forces joined the Germans in invading Russia and began enacting some anti- Jewish laws.

In December 1940, Teleki signed a short-lived Treaty of Eternal Friendship with Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav government, however, was overthrown on March 27, 1941, two days after it succumbed to German and Italian pressure and joined the pact. Hitler considered the overthrow a hostile act and grounds to invade. Again promising territory in exchange for cooperation, he asked Hungary to join the invasion by contributing troops and allowing the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) to march through its territory. Unable to prevent the invasion, Teleki committed suicide on April 3. Three days later, the Luftwaffe mercilessly bombed Belgrade without warning, and German troops invaded. Shortly thereafter, Horthy dispatched Hungarian military forces to occupy former Hungarian lands in Yugoslavia, and Hungary eventually annexed sections of Vojvodina.

Horthy named the right-wing radical Laszlo Bardossy to succeed Teleki. Bardossy was convinced that Germany would win the war and sought to maintain Hungary's independence by appeasing Hitler. Hitler tricked Horthy into committing Hungary to join his invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, and in December 1941 Hungary formally entered the war against Britain and the United States. While these events were taking place Germany increased its financial and economic presence in Hungary. The Dresdner Bank obtained direct control of 16 percent of the capital stock of the Hungarian Credit Bank of Budapest, which was by far the most important commercial bank in the country. The Germans also made direct investments in existing firms and created new firms. The timber industry, for example, was developed by joint Axis and Hungarian firms. The bauxite and aluminum industry was largely German-controlled. There were also some German interests in the oil, coal, and power industries. I.G. Farben gained a foothold in Hungary's chemical industry. The Germans also obtained large interests in the Hungarian oil industry, the bauxite mines, the aluminum manufacturing facilities, and the aircraft works.

In July 1941, the government deported the first 40,000 Jews from Hungary, and six months later Hungarian troops, in reprisal for resistance activities, murdered 3,000 Serbian and Jewish hostages--near Novi Sad in Yugoslavia. By the winter of 1941-42, German hopes of a quick victory over the Soviet Union had faded. In January the German foreign minister visited Budapest asking for additional mobilization of Hungarian forces for a planned spring offensive and promising in return to hand Hungary some territory in Transylvania. Bardossy agreed and committed onethird of Hungary's military forces.

Horthy grew dissatisfied with Hungary's pro-German Prime Minister Laslo Bardossy, who resigned in March 1942, and named Miklos Kallay, a conservative veteran of Bethlen's government, who aimed to free Hungary from the Nazis' grip. Kallay set about disentangling Hungary from the war. Kallay faced a terrible dilemma: if he broke with Hitler and negotiated a separate peace, the Germans would occupy Hungary immediately; but if he supported the Germans, he would encourage further pro-Nazi excesses. Kallay chose duplicity. In 1942 and 1943, pro-Western Hungarian government officials promised British and American diplomats that the Hungarians would not fire on their aircraft, sparing for a time Hungarian cities from bombardment.

To Hitler, the Hungarians, who were removing troops from the Russian front and not willing to deal harshly with the Jews, seemed more like a neutral than Germany's ally. Kallay refused to deport Jews to Poland when requested to do so. In April 1943 he summoned Horthy to his presence and severely criticized him, explaining Hungary's obligations to Germans and the need to eliminate the Jews.

In January 1943, the Soviet Red Army annihilated Hungary's Second Army during the massive counterattack on the Axis troops besieging Stalingrad. In the fighting, Soviet troops killed an estimated 40,000 Hungarians and wounded 70,000. As anti-Axis pressure in Hungary mounted, Kallay withdrew the remnants of the force into Hungary in April 1943, and only a nominal number of poorly armed troops remained of the country's military contribution to the Axis Powers.

Prime Minister continued his policies and in August 1943 broadcast a peace speech following Mussolini's overthrow. In March 1944 Hitler again summoned Horthy, and his cabinet, to meet him. Hitler informed Horthy and the other Hungarian leaders, minus Kallay who refused to attend the meeting, that Germany, not being able to trust Hungary, was going to occupy it.

Within days, on March 19, 1944 the Germans occupied Hungary, and on March 22, a new government was established under Prime Minister Dome Sztojay, formerly the Hungarian minister in Berlin. Aware of Kallay's deceit and fearing that Hungary might conclude a separate peace, Hitler ordered Nazi troops to occupy Hungary and force its government to increase its contribution to the war effort. Kallay took asylum in the Turkish legation. Dome Sztojay, a supporter of the Nazis, became the new prime minister. His government jailed political leaders, dissolved the labor unions, and resumed the deportation of Hungary's Jews. The real power, however, resided with the SS and Reich Plenipotentiary Edmund Vessenmayer.

While Kallay was prime minister, the Jews endured economic and political repression, but the government protected them from the "final solution." The government expropriated Jewish property; banned the purchase of real estate by Jews; barred Jews from working as publishers, theater directors, and editors of journals; proscribed sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews; and outlawed conversion to Judaism. But when the Nazis occupied Hungary in March 1944, the deportation of the Jews to the death camps in Poland began. Horthy used the confusion after the July 20, 1944, attempt to assassinate Hitler to replace Sztojay in August 1944 with General Geza Lakatos and halt the deportation of Jews from Budapest. Of the approximately 725,000 Jews residing within Hungary's expanded borders of 1941, only about 260,000, mostly from Budapest, survived.

In September, Soviet forces crossed the border, and on October 15 Horthy announced that Hungary had signed an armistice with the Soviet Union. However, the Germans abducted the regent and forced him to abrogate the armistice, depose the Lakatos government, and name Ferenc Szalasi -- the leader of the Arrow Cross Party--prime minister. Horthy abdicated, and soon the country became a battlefield. Hungary was sacked first by the retreating Germans, who demolished the rail, road, and communications systems, then by the advancing Soviet Red Army, which found the country in a state of political chaos. Germans held off the Soviet troops near Budapest for seven weeks before the defenses collapsed, and on April 4, 1945, the last German troops were driven out of Hungary.




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