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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. [On 17 January 2014, in an interview with the National News Agency, Sandor Szakaly, director of the government-sponsored Veritas Institute for Historical Research, called the 1941 deportation of Jews to then German-occupied Ukraine a “police action against aliens” because the persons expelled did not have Hungarian citizenship. His statement was harshly criticized by domestic and foreign historians, who emphasized that some 18,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in Kamyanets-Podilsky, Ukraine, not long after their deportation.]

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. On March 19, 1944, Adolf Eichmann and a group of SS officers arrived in Budapest to take charge of Jewish matters and ten days later anti-Jewish legislation was enacted, calling for the expropriation of Jewish property. Eichmann then set in motion machinery to round up and deport the Hungarian Jews to extermination camps. Between May 14 and July 18, 1944, over 430,00 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 48 trains. Most of them were gassed.

More Jews would have perished had not it been for the efforts of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who arrived in Hungary on July 9, 1944 with the mission of saving as many Jews as possible. By various means, including issuing special Swedish passports and bribing guards and officials, as well as setting up a program for feeding the Jews of Budapest, it is estimated that his actions saved between 30,000 and 100,000 from extermination. In September 1944 he was forced to go into hiding to avoid the Gestapo.

Learning in July of the actions against the Jews, Horthy ordered the deportations to stop. Prime Minister Lakatos asked the Germans to removed Eichmann's men and the Hungarians lifted some of the restrictions on the remaining Jews.

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. By one estimate, of the approximately 725,000 Jews residing within Hungary's expanded borders of 1941, only about 260,000, mostly from Budapest, survived.

With the Germans suffering military setbacks, Sztojay resigned on August 30, 1944, and Horthy replaced him with Geza Lakatos. In September 1944, Soviet forces crossed the border, and it appeared to the Germans that Horthy was about to ask for an armistice. On October 15 Horthy announced that Hungary had signed an armistice with the Soviet Union.

The SS under Vessenmayer then kidnaped Horthy's son and held him under threats of dire consequences if Horthy to did not comply with the Nazi's wishes. 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. Some 35,000 Jews were rounded up to be sent to Auschwitz, but since that camp was being liquidated, the Jews were used as slave laborers. The remaining 160,00 Jews in Budapest suffered at the hands of the Arrow Cross, with about 20,000 perishing during the winter because of cold, hunger, disease, and Russian bombardment. In all, it is estimated that 450,000 of Hungary's estimated 650,000 pre-Final Solution Jewish population were exterminated.

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. Szalasi could not gather support to stop the oncoming Russian Army, which by November 1944, controlled two-thirds of Hungary and were on the verge of taking Budapest. Germans held off the Soviet troops near Budapest for seven weeks before the defenses collapsed in February 1945 , and on April 4, 1945, the last German troops were driven out of Hungary.

On 23 January 2014, Csaba Korosi, the country’s ambassador to the United Nations, apologized publicly for the first time for the role the country played during the Holocaust. He stated, “We owe an apology to the victims because the Hungarian state was guilty for the Holocaust. Firstly, because it failed to protect its citizens from destruction, and secondly, because it helped and provided financial resources to the mass murder.” In a letter marking Holocaust Remembrance Day, Prime Minister Viktor Orban wrote “the Hungarian Holocaust cannot be regarded as anything other than the tragedy of the whole Hungarian nation…We cannot and do not tolerate the branding, humiliation, or mistreatment of anybody because of their religion or ethnicity. That is why the government has introduced a policy of zero tolerance.”

On 16 April 2014, the president stated at a Holocaust memorial ceremony, “the murderers were Hungarians, the victims were Hungarians. It can and obviously must be said that it happened during the time of the German occupation, but that is only an explanation, not an excuse for the actions of the Hungarian government at the time.” On April 28, the president joined the annual March of the Living event commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust at the Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland and gave remarks in which he described the site as Hungary’s third-largest cemetery and reminded the gathering that every third victim murdered there was a Hungarian Jew.

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Page last modified: 06-03-2016 19:37:16 ZULU