Hungarian historians discuss Horthy’s breakout attempt 70 years ago

October 17, 2014


A historical seminar at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences marked the 70th anniversary of Regent Miklós Horthy’s diplomatic attempt to break out from the Nazi alliance and make a pact with the Allies at the very end of the Second World War. On 15 October 1944, after a long series of defeats, Horthy announced a unilateral armistice and reached out to the Soviet Union with an offer of peace. His attempt was discovered by Nazi intelligence and foiled by special forces, which forced Horthy to rescind the armistice and resign in favor of pro-Nazi Ferenc Szálasi.

Could this last-ditch attempt on Horthy’s part to dissociate himself and Hungary’s elite from the Nazis have been successful? Could a negotiated peace have prevented the physical destruction of much of Budapest and the violence which ensued? Historians still differ as to Horthy’s intentions and chances.

Present at the 14 October 2014 discussion were a number of representatives of the younger generation of Second World War historians. They discussed problematic questions, facts and myths around Miklós Horthy’s breakout attempt. Historians agree that Horthy’s attempt to negotiate a separate peace came very late (Soviet troops had already occupied the eastern part of Hungary), and that his long political association with Hitler and the Nazi elite, as well as the continuous participation of the Hungarian army in the war on the side of the Germans, made the October discussions very difficult. Even though Horthy had long intended to discuss Hungary’s defection from the pro-Nazi axis alliance, it was not until October 1944 that negotiations between Hungarian and Soviet officials took place.

On 15 October 1944 a radio announcement by the regent was repeated three times. It informed the soldiers and citizens of Hungary that the country was quitting the Nazi war effort and negotiating with the high command of the Soviet army. Minutes after the announcement hundreds of Jews flooded the streets tearing off the yellow stars from their overcoats. Their joy was premature.  Later that day Horthy resigned all of his positions and Hungary’s Fascist Arrow Cross party and its leader, Ferenc Szálasi, took over as both head of state and head of government. The result was three months of government-sanctioned mass murder of Budapest Jews and a devastating Soviet siege.

What happened over the course of the day was the topic of a lecture given by Horthy biographer Dávid Turbucz.  According to Turbucz the German Abwehr military intelligence was already well aware of plans by Horthy to end the war in Hungary.  The German high command activated a military plan prepared especially for such an event.  Within the framework of Operation Panzerfaust, German commandos kidnapped Horthy’s only surviving son, Miklós Jr., as well as the mastermind of the breakout plan, Szilárd Bakay.  Told his son would be killed unless he rescinded the armistice and transferred power to Szálasi, Horthy did as instructed.

According to Turbucz’s evaluation, Horthy was quite unprepared for such a diplomatic breakout and overestimated his influence over the profoundly pro-Nazi Hungarian military elite, who refused to obey his armistice order.

Krisztián Ungváry, historian of the 1944-45 Soviet siege of Budapest, commented that, while Hungarian military officers were mostly German-sympathizers, this was usually not because they shared Hitler’s ideology or objectives, but because they were more afraid of Soviet retaliation than of German repraisals. Twenty-five years of official state propaganda had demonized the Soviet Union during Horthy’s reign.  And for this reason even in 1944 the traditional Hungarian elite regarded Soviet rule as much worse than the Nazis.

According to Rudolf Paksa, a young historian specializing in Twentieth Century Fascist groups and political parties in Hungary. profound fear of the Soviets made any plans by Horthy to reconcile with them impossible to carry out.

Tamás Stark, historian of the House of Terror Museum, agreed that had the breakout been successful, Hungary would have faced much less damage during the rest of the war, as the Soviet army would have passed through the country unopposed.  It also would have enabled the Hungarian capital to avoid the terror and mass murder caused by the Arrow Cross Party between October 1944 and February 1945.  However, such a breakout would not have brought about a change in Hungary’s geopolitical situation, according to Stark, and the country would still have had to endure the Stalinist terror and totalitarianism after 1948.

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