Hungarian news outlet Magyar Nemzet published an interview with famed historian Ignác Romsics, in which they asked the scholar about his views on Regent Miklós Horthy, who ruled Hungary from after the end of the First World War until nearly the end of the Second, as well as about the ways in which Horthy has been viewed in the decades since his rule.
Magyar Nemzet’s discussion with Romsics also comes a week after Prime Minister Orbán’s controversial speech in which he referred to Horthy as “an exceptional statesman.” These comments drew condemnation from politicians and Jewish groups alike, who criticized the Prime Minister for ignoring the “horrors that Admiral Horthy inflicted on the Jewish community of Hungary by stripping them of their rights and their humanity.”
Horthy in the Public Sphere
For the historian Romsics, however, Horthy is a much more complex figure, with a legacy far murkier than pundits and politicians on either side of the aisle would like to admit. When asked about current efforts to install statues of Horthy in public spaces, and the protests and condemnations that have accompanied these attempts, Romsics pointed out that, in these arguments, both sides generally have a kernel of truth.
At a recent statue unveiling, the right-wingers behind the event discussed “how Horthy saved the Jews of Budapest, while the speaker at the DK [Democratic Coalition] protest talked about how Horthy bears responsibility for the deportation of the Jews.” According to the historian,
“both of these assertions are true, but both are also only partial truths. The full truth is made up of both assertions. Politicians dealing in memory, however, don’t like these sorts of ‘complications’. Rather, they—unlike historians—like to populate the past with angels and demons.
Romsics also discussed the reasons behind the extremely differing views of Horthy today, views which, in his view, are deeply rooted in Hungarian history. As the award-winning scholar points out, 1918-19 was a period of great trauma for Hungary; first the democratic Chrysanthemum Revolution brought changes which “offended” elites. This was followed by the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic, led by Béla Kun, which sought to deprive the middle class and wealthy peasants of their property. This, combined with the Soviet Republic’s “internationalism and anti-clericalism, attacked the feelings and beliefs of simple religious and patriotic people. And for these reasons, when Horthy defeated the Soviet Republic
Horthy was greeted as a Messiah
and people were even willing to ignore the atrocities committed by some of the Regent’s soldiers.
For this reason, according to Romsics, right-wing and center-left papers were quite positive in their evaluation of Horthy, and would often compare him to earlier Regents such as János Hunyadi and Lajos Kossuth. At the same time, and for the same reasons, left-wing democrats and communists saw him as “a monster, bloody-handed murderer.”
As the war grew closer, and Hungary was granted more of its former lands back, Horthy was praised between 1938 and 1941 as the “expander of the homeland.” All of this naturally changed after 1945, when, following the defeat in the war, Horthy was painted as the man responsible for the “defeat of the nation,” and further as
one of Hungarian history’s most negative figures.
The end of the Communist era allowed for an intellectual and political pluralism that has, in Romsics’ view, allowed for the building up of “cults and anti-cults” of Horthy. Today, in his view.
Right-wing radicals respect him; the left despises him. The center, which makes up the majority, either is unsure or doesn’t care. The more educated, and the more historically literate, know that our future is not dependent on our view of Horthy.
Horthy in his Time
Romsics discussed the fact that Horthy’s nearly quarter-century long reign as Regent was “not at all legal,” considering the fact that his appointment as regent was meant to be temporary, until a new King could be crowned. Despite this fact, the great powers were extremely unwilling to allow a Habsburg to sit the throne; it was chiefly for this reason, according to Romsics, that Horthy remained in power—for lack of an alternative.
The historian also discussed the fact that Horthy was deeply unpopular among Europe’s rulers, to the extent that, until the mid-1930s,
not a single European head of state invited or received him, nor did any of them visit Hungary.
According to Romsics, this was no accident: the violence of the White Terror (carried out by forces loyal to Horthy), as well as Horthy’s role in using force to prevent King Charles IV’s return to Hungary and the subsequent dethroning of the Habsburg family, made him persona non-grata among “Europe’s high society circles.”
This would change in the 1930s, as Hungary grew closer to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Following a visit to Hitler in 1936, Horthy would visit Mussolini, Victor Emmanuel III, and Pope Pius XI. For Romsics, this shows that
from the middle of the 1930s, Hungary became ever more closely tied to Nazi Germany, both economically and politically. And while this could have been moderated or mitigated, it could not have been avoided.
Horthy and Democracy
Like most of his fellow conservatives, Horthy distrusted the masses and widespread democracy; according to Romsics, he “didn’t have much of an appreciation for parliamentary rule either.”
At the same time, however, Horthy understood that a country as small as Hungary had become could ill-afford to buck European trends. In other words, “he could not go against the prevailing current [of democracy], and could not institute a dictatorship.”
In addition, Horthy had no love for either fascists or communists. At one point, he told radical right-wing confidantes of his that
This country needs order, and I will keep it. I will shoot the disorderly, and if the disorder comes from the right, the only difference is that I will shoot them with a sad heart, while I would shoot a potential left-wing disorder with passion.
Horthy and Trianon
While Horthy, and all of Hungarian society, despised the Treaty of Trianon, which saw the country cede over two-thirds of its territory and roughly 64% of its population (including over 30% of ethnic Hungarians) to neighboring countries, the Regent was not truly responsible for the territorial revisions that occurred between 1938 and 1941. Rather, these were the results of the ever-changing international situation.
What Horthy was skilled at, however, was in “tying these achievements to his own person.” As Romsics points out, the Regent “took part in every parade, gave talks in Kassa, Kolozsvár, and a few other larger cities. The press deified him, Hungarians cheered him.”
But while he may have succeeded in mining these successes for political capital, Horthy failed quite miserably at preserving any of these territorial gains. In Ignác Romsics’ view, in this regard the Regent should have done a number of things differently. For one, he should not have “hurried into battle with the Soviet Union.” In addition, he
should not have allowed the Germans in as ‘guests’ in March of 1944, and he should have jumped out of the war like Romania did. Naturally, such moves would have come with sacrifices, but we sacrificed anyway. We were the only ones at the Paris Peace Conference of 1946 who essentially had no way to excuse ourselves.
Magyar Nemzet asked Romsics if there were “any parallels” that could be drawn between the Hungary of Horthy, and in fact the Europe of the interwar period, and today. In response, Romsics told the newspaper that, in his view, “the Horthy era is a period of Hungarian history that has come to an end, and interwar Europe is not going to return either.” He expressed his belief that, in Europe today “there is no new Hitler, new Mussolini, or new Franco, and I don’t see a new Horthy in Hungary either.”
At the same time, the historian points out, the EU exists with democratic France, Germany, and Italy as its members. These are signs, to Romsics at least, that there is no need to fear in a new descent into fascism. He does admit that, “populist demagoguery has grown—in Hungary as well—and authoritarian attempts to weaken parliamentary democracy have appeared too. In Romsics’ view, however,
Without powerful outside support these will recede, sooner or later, and we will once again see that there is no better or more humane social or political system than the one built on the foundation of enlightenment principles.
Images via mno.hu, MTI, and Wikimedia Commons