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Conference Remembering World War II German Occupation

Hungary Today 2024.03.19.
A German tank at the Fishermen’s Bastion in Buda Castle in 1944.

On the 80th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s occupation of Hungary on March 18, the Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC) held a history conference in Budapest, during which speakers described the German invasion of 1944 as “inevitable.”

At the event, historian Sándor Szakály, Director General of the VERITAS Historical Research Institute and Archives at the MCC, described the Hungarian revisionist policy between 1938 and 1941, as a success story, saying that it would have been political suicide if Hungary had not made use of the territorial expansion opportunities of the time. At the same time, it resulted in a total commitment to Germany, and from then on Hungarian foreign policy was compelled to follow a forced course, its room for maneuver significantly reduced. However, following the disaster of the Second Hungarian Army in Don in Russia, the Hungarian leadership tried to orient itself towards the Western allies, primarily the British, and Miklós Kállay, the Prime Minister appointed in 1943, played the most important role in this, which was unacceptable to the Hitlerite German leadership, he added.

German troops near today’s Széll Kálmán Square, 1944. Photo: Fortepan

With the occupation of Hungary beginning in March 18, 1944, the Germans wanted to achieve, in addition to Kállay’s dismissal, a “solution to the Jewish question.” As the Director-General put it, the Jewish population of about 800,000 Jews in Hungary had until then been able to live in relative safety and security, despite the Jewish laws already in force, and their existence was not threatened. However, after the occupation, the rounding up and deportation of rural Jews began almost immediately, he added.

Destroyed anti-aircraft battery in Budapest, 1944. Photo: Fortepan

One of the main reasons for the occupation, Szakály said, was that

the Germans felt that Hungary was not participating fully on their side in the war.

In his view, there were already signs leading up to March 15 – the historian referred to the military exercises taking place at the time – that the invasion might take place, but it was finally decided at the meeting between Hitler and Miklós Horthy in Klessheim on March 18, to which the governor was reluctant to go for a long time and Kállay did not want Horthy to go to see Hitler. The Director-General of VERITAS, however, stressed that there was no chance of armed resistance and that talking the Germans out of the occupation was a hopeless task.

According to Pál Pritz, a historian and doctor of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA), Hungary had finally sided with the Germans by joining the so-called Tripartite Pact in 1940. Hungarian foreign policy at the time tried to convey to the West, through the increase in territory agreed upon during the peaceful revision, that this could resolve the conflicts that had existed in Central Europe since the First World War, so this was essentially a kind of dialectical approach to relations, he stressed.

Asked whether Horthy could have resigned as governor after the occupation, Szakály said that what happened in October 1944 – the historian was referring to the Arrow Cross takeover – would have happened much earlier.

It was thanks to Horthy that a large part of the Jewish population in and around the capital was saved, and paradoxically, today it is those whose parents and grandparents owe their lives largely to the governor who are the most critical of Horthy’s legacy, he added.

Asked whether Hungary could have counted on any help from the West in the face of the German invasion,  Szakály said that the Americans and the British had little information about Hungary. At the time, it had already been decided that

the Allies would land in Normandy, hence they had no interest in preventing the Germans from invading Hungary, since this would have allowed them to tie up considerable troop resources in Central Europe.

The two historians agreed that the fate of Hungary had already been decided at the 1943 Tehran Conference, when the will of US President Roosevelt and Soviet leader Stalin prevailed almost exclusively. He called British Prime Minister Churchill a third-rate figure at the conference, as the spheres of interest were already decided, which the victorious powers then adhered to until the period of regime change in Central Europe in 1989.

According to Pritz, Horthy’s later perception by historians would have been different if he had resigned and retired to his Kenderes estate during the German occupation. He added that it was a mistake to define the period between 1920 and 1944, as the Horthy regime, as it was more an authoritarian system established by István Bethlen with limited parliamentarianism, in the spirit of a liberalism that was the “sister of nationalism” at the time, and which is in stark contrast to the neoliberalism of today. Pritz described the period as an era of extremism, even in global terms.

The ruins of Budapest in 1945. Photo: Fortepan-red army

The attempt to escape in October 1944, as Pritz put it, culminated in a tragicomedy, and the two historians agreed that the Soviet invasion in 1945, was also an occupation, which at the same time liberated the country from another German occupation, and for the Jews and the Hungarian left, it could indeed mean a kind of liberation.

At the conference, the historians argued that the emphasis should be on the politics of history rather than the politics of memory, and that the events of 80 years ago represented Hungary’s defeat in military terms by being occupied by a foreign power. This was inevitable, but its effects could perhaps have been mitigated, the historians concluded.

Foreign Minister Warns of a Direct Threat of World War
Foreign Minister Warns of a Direct Threat of World War

He hopes that his European colleagues will not continue to play with fire, so to speak. Continue reading

Via MTI; Featured Image: Fortepan

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