Rewriting the history of the Hungarian Holocaust

April 15, 2014


Hungarian Holocaust survivors and other protestors dismantle a fence in Budapest where the nationalist conservative government of Viktor Orban is erecting a controversial memorial to the victims of the German invasion of 19 March 1944.

(Hungarian head of state Admiral Miklos) Horthy and the political elite were perfectly aware from the summer of 1942 that the Germans were killing the Jews in the areas they occupied. 

What is happening today with regard to the German invasion of Hungary of 19 March 1944 is the realization of the national conservative and Christian historical narrative. Everything that is anti-communist is praised, and everything that is anti-Fascist, be it communist, social-democrat, or bourgeois liberal is as though it doesn’t exist.  The anti-communists are being raised to the national Christian pantheon, and what disturbs this picture no longer has a place there.

                                                                                                   – Laszlo Karsai, Historian

The erection of a memorial to the victims of the German invasion of 19 March 1944 is a clear attempt on the part of the government of Viktor Orban to whitewash history. Hungarian historian Laszlo Karsai tells Magyar Narancs why.


It has been seventy years since the Germans invaded Hungary.  According to the Basic Law it was at that time that we lost sovereignty.  But did we really lose it then? And did the German invasion really amount to enslavement for the majority?  We spoke with the department head of the Szeged University.

Magyar Narancs:  To what extent was Hungary an independent and free country before 19 March 1944?

Laszlo Karsai: Germany had been Hungary’s primary economic partner since the 1920s. When Hitler declared in 1933 that it was necessary to do away with the system imposed after the first world war, the partnership took a new direction.  It was not by chance that (Hungarian prime minister) Gyula Gömbös was the first foreign statesman to visit Hitler after 1933. The connection became really close from that point on.  But the return to Hungary of Felvidék (southern Slovakia), Kárpatalja (eastern Slovakia, now western Ukraine), in 1938 and then the return of northern Transylvania in 1940 fatally chained Hungary to Germany.

MN: Under these circumstances would it have been possible for Hungary to conduct a different kind of politics during the Second world War?

LK: When Hungary signed the Anti-Comintern pact it became a member of an alliance and, as such, undertook obligations.  However, nobody forced Hungary to join the war against the Soviet Union in 1941.  The German military and political leaders did not even calculate with Hungary’s participation, but we did not want to be left behind the Romanians and the Slovaks.  There was no other reason for us to go to war.  It was clear that giving up neutrality for an active military participation that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers and forced (Jewish) laborers expelled from the nation was a catastrophic decision.  Being in a military alliance and a combatant was especially harmful to state sovereignty.   After 1941 industry and economy worked entirely in accordance with the Germans’ needs, and the most important resources were produced for the front.

MN:  But the German-Hungary relationship during the prime ministership of Miklos Kallay between 1942 and 1944 was hardly free of conflict.

LK:  At that time Horthy could still have done, and did do, a lot, primarily to protect the Jews.  For example, when in October 1942 an official communique arrived from the German foreign ministry, demanding the Hungarian government take action with regard to the Jewish question in an extraordinarily impolite manner, the Hungarian government only responded in December:  Prime Minister Kallay informed them that they would not fulfil the Germans’ wish.  It is not by chance that, when Horthy met Hitler on 16 April 1943 in the Klessheim castle, it was only because Kallay had opened peace negoatiations with the western allies at Horthy’s instruction that Horthy had to stand on the edge of the carpet, but because of his „Jewish protection” policies as well.

MN  Is that really what it was?

LK:  Horthy and the political elite were perfectly aware from the summer of 1942 that the Germans were killing the Jews in the areas they occupied.   The Germans had massacred about four million Jews by the end of 1942, and this was not entirely concealed from the Hungarian media.  It is telling that when the chief editor of the governing party paper Pester Lloyd, György Ottlik, asked Dömé Sztójay while ambassador to Berlin in the autumn of 1942 what the Kallay government could do to regain the Germans’ trust, Sztójay answered that they should deport 300,000 Jews and then a little later negotiate this down to 100,0000.   “When I noted”, wrote Ottlik, “that this meant the death of 100,000 people, Sztojay answered yes”.  Now if Sztojay and a reporter from Pest were also clear in this matter, then the foreign minister and, of course, Horthy himself should have known about it.

MN:  And that was already too much for him?

LK:  Horthy wrote a letter to Hitler telling him that nobody should teach him anti-semitism when he showed Europe a sample in 1920 with the numerus clausus (act limiting the number of Jewish students that could attend unviersity-ed.), that anti-semetism ranked as an official state policy with us and was already in force when the Nazis were still dreaming in a beer hall.  Furthermore, Kamenyec-Podolszkij and the massacre in Novisad had also proven that we can not only pass laws about Jews but deport them in the tens of thousands.  There was international and foreign policy reasons why the radicalization of the persecution of the Jews stopped in 1942.  Jewish capital was necessary for the development of the Hungarian economy and its operation.  In Autum 1940 Horthy wrote to (prime minister) Pal Teleki that he would not tolerate unwarranted violence against the Jews so long as they needed them.  The first half of the statement is acceptable. The second part not so much since it means that if they don’t need them then anything can happen.  Mussolini’s policy of protecting the Jews could have been Hungary’s policy.  Not only did Mussolini not give the Italian Jews over, he did not order deportations from the territories occupied by Italy in Greece, Jugoslavia, and Albania.

This clearly made an impression on Hungary. In fact, after the 1943 meeting at Klessheim, Kallay immediately travelled to Rome to obtain Mussolini’s support in protecting the Jews, and was sucessful.  In Hungary Jews only came under mortal threat after 25 July 1943, because Mussolini was brought down, and with that the protection of a great power towards Hungary that existed until then.

MN:  Why did the Germans tolerate Kallay’s “swing” policies?

LK:  The separate peace negotiations took place in such an amateur manner that it was not possible to take them seriously.  When they contemplated in Berlin how dangerous it would be for Hungary to follow the Italian example, they concluded that it wasn’t dangerous at all.  They knew at the same time that the heads of the Hungarian Army, the state apparatus, not to mention the majority of governing party representatives, were devoted and convinced friends of Germany.  But Horthy himself did not want to finish the war by surrendering to the Soviets, even though he communicated to the western allies through Kallay that there was no other possibility.  Horthy in 1943 was only prepared to jump out of the war if he received assurances that the returned territories and his own regime could be preserved.  Nobody was willing to promise that.

MN:  Although the Margarethe plan to invade was ready by Autumn 1943, the Germans took their time.  If they were so certain about Hungary’s allegiance, why was the 19 March invasion necessary?

LK:  The German politicians and military leadership did not know when and where the Allies would open the second front.  One of the most important deceptive actions was the “Bodyguard” campaign which the allies spread the rumor that the second front would be somewhere in the Balkans in Jugoslavia.  The Germans believed this in the Fall of 1943 after Italy left the war, and they terribly overestimated Hungary’s geostrategic position.  I believe the rumor that the Allied forces might come from the south reached such a critical mass, that Hitler decided to put the wavering ally in its place.

MN:  What role did Hitler’s supposed fear of the Hungarian “Jewish masses” play in the invasion?

LK: In 1943 Edmund Veesenmayer (Hitler’s plenipotentiary in Hungary after the invasion) prepared a lengthy study of Hungary.  He met with many politicians and opinion leaders, and then delivered a long report to the German foreign ministry, which outlined what was to be done in the case of an invasion.  Veesenmayer mentioned—with exaggeration–1.1 million Hungarian Jews, and added that the 1.1 million Jews were spies and saboteurs, moreover that at least twice that number supported them.  He believed that behind Kallay’s peace negotiations and the collapse of the Hungarian army was “Jewish mine laying.”  At the same time, Veesemayer recommended that Horthy remain in his place and that he name the new government.

MN:  Hitler once again summoned Horthy to Klessheim on 18 March 1944 and informed him what was happening the next day.  At first the leader wanted to resign but then accepted the German plan or at least that he remain leader and that he name the new government.  How was Horthy blackmailed?

LK:  Hitler threatened that Slovak and Romanian groups would also occupy Hungary.  That must have frightened Horthy since no greater shame was imaginable.  At the same time it was important to Germans that he remain in his place because his person guaranteed the peaceful transition.

MN:  Was Horthy left with any room for manoeuvre after 19 March?

LK:  It is not true that after 19 March 1944 only the will of the Germans was realized.  Horthy rejected the Germans’ first candidate for prime minister, Bela Imredy, especially with the exclamation “that Jew?”  Later he also rejected the appointment of extreme right wing politicians Jeno Ratz and Jeno Ruszkay. On the other hand he proposed Dome Sztojay, or in that the ambassador to Berlin became prime minister was expressly the realization of Horthy’s will.  The word on Sztojay was that he would rather represent Germany’s interests in Hungary than Hungary’s interests in Berlin,.  Horthy, on the other hand, tried to inform domestic and foreign public opinion that the government had been formed under German pressure.

MN:  Isn’t it obvious if a country is invaded?

LK: At best, Hungary lost the apparence of soverenity on 19 March 1944.  It was not true that up until then Hungary could change its foreign and domestic politicies however it liked, at best it became even more obvious that it was not simply an ally of Germany but, as Gyorgy Ranki put it, we were their hesitating servant.  The propaganda of the time did not regard the Germans as invaders, but friends, brothers in arms, allies, and this is how they were received.  It is not by chance that they did not use significant force in Hungary, and that they did not employ first rate, battle ready troops.  There was no resistance.  After the Germans arrived, the Hungarian police got into their cars and, accompanied by Gestapo detectives, collected the few dozens of anti-German representatives, politicans, and journalists.  Bajcsy-Zsilinkszky was the only one to take up arms.  Every one else accepted that they had invaded us, and many were very happy about it.  With the exception of the bombings, the invasion did not mean anything bad to the average Hungarian citizen.  The Germans were not violent, aggressive, and during the invasion only the Jews were endangered.  In any case I do not agree with what was put into the preambulum of the Basic Law from Gabor Bethlen’s Jobbik election program.  Anyway in the Bethlen program they write “The German invasion of 1944 diverted Hungary from the path of legal continuity”.  However, it just appeared that way.

MN:  Can it be said that Horthy stuck his head in the sand on the Jewish question?

LK:  Worse.  Not only did he appoint the unconditionally pro-German Sztojay, but the openly anti-semitic Andor Jaross became Minister of the Interior.  Nor is it an excuse that when Horthy personally received the state secretaries responsible for the deportations, his old defenders Szeged, Laszlo Baky and Laszlo Endre,  he told them that they must execute everything that the Germans demand with regard to the Jewish question because the return of Hungarian Sovereignty is more important than anything.  Horthy probably wanted to strike a deal with the Germans:  He gives them the Jews in exchange for which Germany withdraws the invading troops.  He also told Baky that he could take all of the country Jews, the “Galician Jews”, but not the rich Jews such as a “Chorin” or a “Vida”.  Laszlo Endre told the people’s court the exact same thing independent of Baky.  These people were determined anti-semites, but I don’t believe that in this case they would have lied.  Horthy also stated that he did not want to see a single Jewish statute before hand, although he would have been acting within his rights to return them to parliament for further deliberation.   With this he did not simply give the Sztojay government a free hand but blessed the execution of everything the Germans demanded in this matter.  However, that the Sztojay government vastly exceeded the expectations of the Germans is perfectly clear today.  Eichmann, who was personally directing a deportation on site for the first time in his life, was proud until the end of his life that he achieved a “European record” in Hungary.   He was not the only one surprised by the tautness of the Hungarians, but nearly everyone, including Rudolf Höss the commander of the Auschwitz camp.  The Germans simply did not calculate with such enthusiasm and so many trains.  They would have been satisfied with one train a day.  However, the gendarmes, the state apparatus, and the trains organized the deportations so wonderfully that there were days when five trains left, each carrying 2500-3000 people.  Auschwitz’s capacity was less than this and the crematoria could not bear the strain.  That is why they dug huge ditches and burned the dead in them. I am not saying that the Hungarian Jews could have escaped had it not been for such enthusiastic Hungarian participation.  But even with just a little more resistance a lot of people could have been saved.  One of the paradoxes of the Hungarian Holocaust is that we protected the Jews while they were being destroyed elsewhere, and then delivered them to the death factories in previously unexperienced numbers when Germany had obviously lost the war.

MN: Was this not apparent to the majority of decision makers in Hungary?

LK:  I have an even worse opinion of the Hungarian political elite.   A number of neutral diplomats spoke with Sztojay after he was named prime minister, and he said that he wanted to serve that alliance to which he had devoted his life, because if the Germans lose, then it is over for him, they will hang him.  In my opinion the Hungarian political elite, including the military forces, simply did not want to acknowledge that they had lost.  And they didn’t want to acknowedge this because the other side could not offer anything that could have inspired them.  So it was not only a question of loyalty to anti-communism and their German brothers in arms but also that of once against losing northern Transylvania, Felvidék (southern Slovakia), Kárpátalja (western Ukraine) and Délvidék (eastern Croatia, western Romania).

MN: Horthy stopped the deportations on 6 July 1944.

LK:  But before that elevated Sztojay to the rank of “Defender of the Realm” (Vitez)!  What did Sztojay defend between 19 March and 23 June?  Was it with the Jewish question that he did something worthy of the high honor?  However, by the beginning of July 1944 the successful allied landing at Normandy was obvious, and in the east the Bagratyion military campaign, and that the German collapse was only a question of time.  It is not true that Horthy suspended the deportations in order to protect the Budapest Jews.  Between July 6 and 9 there was not sufficient capacity for trains to depart from settlements in the region of Pest.  Moreover, he issued a permit in August for the deportation of the Budapest Jews also, and only stopped this action on August 23rd on receiving news that Romania was out of the war.

MN:  Can the Hungarian invasion be compared to that of other European states?

LK:  I would compare it to the France of Marshall Petain.  Petain had some freedom of movement:  he could change and suspend governments, but he, as opposed to Horthy, significantly slowed down the deportations.  74 percent of french Jews survived the Holocaust.  More than 60 percent of Hungarian Jews were destroyed.  If Horthy had acted with half the spine in this matter as Petain, then we too could have had a 60-70 percent survival rate.  In France one train a week was the average.  In the six weeks’ time that six trains departed in France, 147 departed here.  Between 14 May and 9 July 1944 437,000 people were deported.

MN:  What can be the reason for the Orban government wanting to erect a statue to the victims of the invasion, but at the same time make no mention of who opposed the German invasion?  There has been no mention of Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, Janos Kiss, or Vilmos Tartsay.

LK: What is happening today with regard to the invasion is the realization of the national conservative and Christan historical perspective. Everything that is anti-communist is praised, and everything that is anti-Fascist, be it communist, social-democrat, or bourgeois liberal is as though it doesn’t exist.  The anti-communists are being raised to the national Christian pantheon, and what disturbs this picture no longer has a place there.  Already in 1990 Kalman Keri called our attack on the Soviet Union as an ally of the genocidal Germany an “anti-communist crusade” and the perspective of the right wing has not changed to this day.  And it is not possible to celebrate those who who rose up against our allies in an anti-communist Christian campaign.

MN:  And Miklos Kallay?  He was prime minister for two years which was a very long time.  He went to Musslini in order to save the Jews.  He wanted to leave the war. Moreover, he was a convinced anti-communist, who had to go in hiding after 19 March.

LK:   The current trend is to love the victors or those able to show great deeds.  Kallay is not one of them.  He struggled from defeat to defeat, and it was during his time that the Don catastrophe happened.  What can certainly be said about Kallay is that he was a faithful and loyal executor of Horthy’s actual foreign and domestic politics.  Though he was never far from a model like his supporter Istvan Bethlen, he and Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer minister of the interior were the most important representatives of that policy, which can be considered in part protective of the Jews, and in part an attempt to stop Hungarian politics from drifting to the far-right.  But the majority of the representatives in the Hungarian parliament did not stand behind Kallay.  It is no wonder that he suspended parliament for long months at a time, because he could not be certain when the representatives, including his own, would turn against him and take the side of an Imredy-caliber politician.  Incidentally those deeds, the improvements of the conditions of the forced laborers, or saying no to the Germans with regard to the deportation of Hungarian Jews, the current ideology does not consider to be among the things worth celebrating.  Furthermore, if they were to acknowledge Kallay’s policies of protecting the Hungarian Jews, then the main argument of Horthy apologists –that Horthy stopped the deportations on 6 July 1944 because he only then learned what was happening in Auschwitz—is reduced to a lie.  And if this goes by the wayside, then Horthy is left as he was: an opportunistic politician driven exclusively by his own interests with regard to the Jewish question.  If necessary, then he threw the Hungarian Jews to the dogs. And when he thought that other points of view might also be realized, then he suspended the deportation.

Referenced in this article:

Translation of interview with Hungarian historian Laszlo Karsai appearing in the 20 March 2014 issue of Magyar Narancs under the title Legfeljebb a szuverenitás látszata veszett el”  (“At most the appearance of sovereignty was lost.”)