The Waffen-SS and Hungary

Soldiers from 22.SS-Freiwilligen-Kavallerie-Division Maria Theresa.

1945, February, Budapest. M15 from 22.SS-Freiwilligen-Kavallerie-Division Maria Theresa. During the battle the division M42 fought as part of the SS-Panzerjäger-Abteilung 22, along side with the division’s Hetzer and with those of the 8.SS -Kavallerie-Division Florian Geyer

From 14 April 1944, based on the third agreement on SS recruitment in Hungary, signed by Minister Csatay and plenipotentiary Veesenmayer, the Waffen-SS could freely recruit Hungarian citizens, who considered themselves as ethnic German, into its ranks from the territory of occupied Hungary. Those draftees who previously had lost their Hungarian citizenship now had it restored. The Germans sought the recruitment of up to 80,000 men, hoping to raise several Hungarian SS divisions. Service in Waffen-SS units, instead of in the Honvédség, became mandatory for all men over seventeen years of age for Hungarian citizens of German ethnic background – the so-called Volksdeutsche. Those who did not show up for recruitment were taken by force by members of the local Volksbund organization. By 25 August, some 42,000 young men had been incorporated into the Waffen-SS. However, this number was deemed by SS-Obergruppenführer Berger, Chief of the Waffen-SS Main Office, as inadequate. Therefore, the recruiting drive was intensified, often taking young men by force. Indeed, many of these ethnic Germans did not wish to serve under a foreign flag and chose instead to enrol into the Honvédség. Eventually, only three such Waffen-SS divisions were actually formed – the 18. SS-Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Horst Wessel’, the 22. SS- Kavalleriedivision ‘Ungarn’ (later ‘Maria Theresia’) and the 31. SS-Grenadierdivision (unnamed). These main units joined the already existing 8. SS-Kavalleriedivision ‘Florian Greyer’, 2. SS-Panzerdivision ‘Das Reich’ and 16. SS-Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Reichsführer SS’, made up also by Hungarian volunteers of various ethnic backgrounds, among other ethnics. Finally, from 19 February 1945, a newly created 37. SS-Kavalleriedivision ‘Lützow’ located in the Bratislava area, incorporated the surviving elements of the 8. and 22. Kavalleriedivisionen. In total, approximately 122,000 Hungarian citizens of German ethnic origin served in the Waffen-SS until the war’s end.

Parallel with the recruitment of Volksdeutsche from Hungary for the Waffen-SS, under the auspices of what the Germans from late 1944 called Totaler Krieg (Total War), plans were drawn to establish four foreign Waffen-SS divisions to be manned by ethnic Hungarian soldiers. The manpower would be drawn primarily from Honvédség troops within the Third Reich, both volunteers and recruits. These high units were to be equipped exclusively with German weapons and would be trained by German officers, according to German war doctrine. The uniforms would also be German, with a distinctive unit patch being worn on the right sleeve. However, the divisions’ proper names would be Hungarian, the commanding officers would be also Hungarian and the command language Hungarian as well.

The first such unit – the 25. Waffen-Grenadierdivision der SS ‘Hunyadi’ (ung. Nr. 1) (after the great Hungarian medieval commander from Transylvania, John Hunyadi) – was formed in late October 1944 following an order signed by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, the chief SS leader. It was followed by the 26. Waffen-Grenadierdivision der SS ‘Hungária’ (ung. Nr. 2), formed in late December. Honvédség Lieutenant General, SS-Brigadenführer and Waffen-SS Major General József Grassy (born Grasch) and Honvédség Colonel and SS-Standartenführer Zoltán Pisky were selected as commanding officers of the two new SS divisions. To co-ordinate the forming and training of these high SS units, the XVII. Waffen-Armeekorps der SS was established at Neuhammer, in Silesia, on 1 January 1945, under the command of Honvédség General, SS-Obergruppenführer and Waffen-SS General, Ferenc Feketehalmi-Czeydner (born Zeidner), one of the perpetrators of the Újvidék (Novi Sad) massacre of January 1942, who escaped the death penalty by fleeing to Germany. On 4 February, he was replaced by Honvédség General, SS-Obergruppenführer and Waffen-SS General Jenő Ruszkay (born Ranzenberger). On 15 January, Ruszkay was promoted Chief Inspector of all Hungarian Waffen-SS units. The forming of two other planned Hungarian Waffen-SS divisions, tentatively called ‘Gömbös’ and ‘Görgey’, did not actually take place.

The first combat assignment of these Hungarian Waffen-SS divisions was against Soviet troops advancing into Silesia in March 1945. Their combat record was mixed: some units fought bravely, while others seemed to be less motivated.

Besides the ‘Hunyadi’ and ‘Hungária’ SS divisions, there was another Waffen-SS unit formed by Hungarian volunteers. It was the 61. SS-Grenadierregiment, led by Honvédség Colonel and SS-Standartenführer László Deák. Another ad hoc unit was the so-called Ney-Regiment, under the command of Honvédség Major in Reserve and SS-Obersturmbannführer Dr Károly Ney, a lawyer in civilian life. Finally, there were two other SS units worthy of mention – the SS-Schi-Battalion 25 and the 1st Hungarian Assault Battalion, both subordinated to higher SS units. These units took part in combat against Soviet units in western Hungary, Silesia and southern Germany until Victory in Europe (VE) Day. It has to be noted that none of these Hungarian manned Waffen-SS units were actually part of the Honvédség, their existence and activity being merely tolerated by the Hungarian government. Therefore, their activity will not be detailed in this volume.

Apart from the Hungarian SS units, there were two obscure and minor right-wing military organizations formed close to the war’s end and active until VE Day and beyond. The first one was the so-called Hungaristic Legion (Hungarista Légió), while the second the Kopjás Movement, the latter being formed as a Hungarian version of the subversive German ‘Werewolf ’ guerrilla bands, with the task of harassing the occupying Soviet forces. Neither formation saw any notable activity, however.

The Siege of ‘Fortress Budapest’

The day following the last wartime Christmas Eve, Soviet troops completely encircled the Hungarian capital. Hitler named SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS und Polizei Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch the commander of the IX Waffen SS Alpine Corps, as commanding officer of what he had earlier declared ‘Fortress Budapest’, which had to be defended at all costs. Besides approximately 800,000 civilian inhabitants and refugees, Budapest was defended by less than 100,000 armed men. To the 51,000 regular Hungarian and 41,000 German soldiers, several hundred policemen, gendarmes and guards, approximately 2,000 men of Arrow Cross special detachments as well as party members can be added, the number being completed by ad hoc defence units formed from the civilian population. Soviet Army commanders trusted with the speedy capture of Budapest seriously inflated the number of defenders, mentioning 188,000 combatants, to better explain to Stalin the reason for the long siege of over two months, and in order to justify the considerable number of civilian citizens taken prisoner, or pressed into forced labour after the fall of Budapest (a total of 138,000 prisoners were reported taken during the fight for Fortress Budapest, exceeding by far the total number of armed men, about half of which died or were wounded during the fighting). The defenders faced a total of approximately 157,000 Soviet and Rumanian soldiers, assembled in the ‘Budapest Group’. Additionally, a similar number of other Red Army troops were also indirectly committed to the assault.

There was a small group of 2,534 Hungarian volunteer soldiers who fought alongside the Soviets in capturing the western district of Budapest. Six hundred additional soldiers joined them later on. These men, mainly former prisoners of war and deserters, were assembled in the ‘Volunteer Regiment of Buda’ – the only Hungarian unit that officially fought alongside the Allies against the Axis – placed under direct command of the Red Army and not the pro-Allied Interim Hungarian government, formed earlier at Debrecen. These Hungarian volunteers, led by former Lieutenant Colonel Oszkár Variházy, suffered appalling losses. Over six hundred men, representing almost one quarter of the regiment’s initial strength, were killed, and many more wounded. Ironically, after the siege of Budapest ended, most of the pro-Soviet survivors were disarmed by the Soviets and transported into the USSR as prisoners of war, along with Budapest’s surviving defenders and captured civilians.

Despite stiff resistance offered to the attackers, failed repeated German counter-attacks from the west and the desperate efforts to supply the Axis troops with ammunition and other supplies via a massive air bridge, the defenders’ situation became desperate by mid-January 1945. The last Axis troops withdrew from Pest to Buda, the capital’s western district, and blew up behind them all standing bridges spanning the Danube river. Soon, most of Buda also fell to the Soviets. On 11 February the survivors finally decided to defy Hitler’s order and tried to break out of the encirclement. The desperate attempt was a complete failure, as communication had either been intercepted, or someone had betrayed the plans to the Soviets, who massacred most of the weakened escapees. Eventually, of the approximately 14,000 German, and 2,000 Hungarian soldiers, along with about 2,500 Arrow Cross members and civilians who attempted to break out, only 785 people managed to escape death or Soviet capture and reach the Axis lines. The actual fight for the Hungarian capital ended on 13 February.

German and Hungarian military losses were high, with entire divisions having been eliminated. The Germans lost all or most of the 13th Panzer Division, 60th Panzergrenadier Division Feldherrnhalle, 8th SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer and the 22nd SS Volunteer Cavalry Division Maria Theresa. The Hungarian I Corps was virtually annihilated, as well as the 10th and 12th Infantry Divisions and the 1st Armored Division.

During the fifty-one days the actual operation to capture Budapest lasted, more than half of the capital’s armed defenders were either killed or wounded. Officially, 19,718 inhabitants died during the siege and 32,753 houses were destroyed. The attackers lost an estimated 75–80,000 soldiers.

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