The Waffen-SS and Hungary

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 Last Months of the War

The territory taken over by the Soviet Army and the so-called Ideiglenes Nemzeti Kormány (INK, Interim National Government), was formed on 22 December in Debrecen, eastern Hungary. The members of the new pro-Soviet government were chosen from leftist politicians, high-ranking officers who had earlier defected to the Soviet side or had been sent by Horthy to negotiate the failed armistice, as well as respected local personalities who were willing to deal with the Soviets. Initially, the communists – some in exile in Moscow for many years – received only second-ranking portfolios. However, they had the real power behind the scenes. General Béla Miklós became the prime minister, General János Vörös the Minister of Defence with Colonel Kálmán Kéri the Chief of Staff, General Gábor Faragho the Minister of Public Affairs, and Ferenc Erdei the Minister of the Interior. In its first public declaration, the INK ascertained legal continuity with Horthy’s deposed old government. The next major step was to declare war on Germany. This bold declaration – most probably made under Soviet pressure – was, in fact, hollow, as the INK did not possess any troops. Moreover, even the so-called ‘democratic Hungary’ was technically still in a state of war with the Allies for a short while, as the official armistice between Moscow and Debrecen was signed only on 20 January 1945. The actual forming of the envisaged new Hungarian armed force, officially known as Magyar Honvédség (thus devoid of the royal appellation) – what the left-wing press called ‘Democratic Honvédség’ – could thus only be started after the armistice became official.

Building, training, arming and then engaging in combat, the new army took high priority for the Interim National Government. The Hungarians hoped that by taking an active part in the closing stages of the anti-German war they could obtain favours from the Soviets, and could thus influence the final outcome of the Hungary’s post-war status – particularly her borders. However, Stalin was not interested in a rapid building of a ‘democratic’ Hungarian Army, so the efforts by members of the INK were in vain. Unaware of the Soviet dictator’s intentions, the Hungarian delegations signed the armistice, which stipulated, among other things, the forming of eight heavily equipped infantry divisions. However, this was quite unrealistic, as the chance of enlisting approximately 150,000 men in a war-ravaged country – half of which was still in Axis hands – was virtually impossible. Nevertheless, Vörös, Kéri and other high-ranking officers in charge started fervently to raise the first two divisions (the 1st and the 6th) in early February 1945. Both new divisions were formed at Jászberény, some 120 kilometres west of Debrecen and 70 kilometres east of Budapest. The 1st Infantry Division was placed under command of Colonel Tibor Szalay, while the 6th Infantry Division was commanded by Colonel László Székely. The soldiers came from various prisoner of war camps and local volunteers. Soon, more than 50,000 men had been assembled under the flag of the new Magyar Honvédség. Therefore, the INK started to form two additional divisions. The main problem now was not the manpower, but the armament, supposed to be delivered exclusively by the Red Army. However, deliveries did not arrive, being delayed for various reasons. When some armament finally arrived in March, with further time necessary for training, the first combat-ready units started to deploy to the front, already located in Austria, only in mid-April. By the time the Hungarian soldiers arrived in the actual front zone, the war was over. Therefore, they saw no combat, and thus could not achieve any war merits on behalf of the new ‘democratic’ Hungary.

Parallel to the forming of the new ‘democratic’ Honvédség, the old Royal Honvédség still held under its control the western part of Hungary and kept fighting the intruders. Of the three armies, only two existed in mid-February: the First Army under the command of General Dezső László, deployed in the area north of Danube, in the Felvidék region, and the Third Army, under the command of General József Heszlényi, controlling parts of the Transdanubia (western Hungary). At this stage, the total manpower of the Honvédség stood at less than 210,000 men, down from the over one million soldiers available prior to Horthy’s proclamation of armistice.

Following the fall of Budapest, the increasingly irrelevant Hungarian Parliament sought refuge in Sopron, the last major city in western Hungary, located just a few kilometres from the Third Reich’s borders. The office of the prime minister and the Ministry of Defence relocated to Kőszeg, while the Ministries of the Interior, External Affairs and Finance moved to Szombathely, also close to the German borders. Szálasi set up his quarters at a villa close to Velem village. From there, he regularly toured the remaining areas of Hungary still under Axis control, trying to persuade the soldiers and civilians for continued resistance to the ‘Soviet menace’. Despite these desperate measures, defections among the rank and file were commonplace. Many soldiers, mostly from the First Army, tired of the war, believed the Soviet propaganda and crossed the frontline, in hope of a quick return to their homes. However, despite the Soviets’ promise, most found themselves in closed railway cattle cars on the way to the USSR as prisoners of war.

In the meantime, Hitler decided on a last stand in south-western Hungary in early March. The Axis counter-attack between Lake Velence and Lake Balaton, known as ‘Operation Spring Awakening’, was to be the last large Axis offensive and the last major tank battle of the war. The goal was to secure the vital oilfields in Zala County and cut the Soviet frontline in two. A total of 140,000 German and Hungarian soldiers, supported by an impressive one thousand tanks and assault guns, 3,200 guns and mortars, as well as around 850 aircraft, were amassed for Hitler’s last large-scale offensive. The attack, launched on 6 March, initially surprised the Red Army. However, after a promising start for the Axis, the operation proved to be a failure in less than two weeks. Although an armoured spearhead did reach River Danube at Dunapentele, one of the offensive’s main goals, it could not keep this achievement due to lack of sizeable supporting infantry. After only eleven days, the Germans were driven back to the positions they held initially.

The failed offensive was followed by a hasty retreat beyond the Reich’s borders, into Austria (Ostmark). Hungary’s second largest city, Győr, fell on 28 March. A day earlier, the last Crown Council was held on Hungarian soil. The Minister of Home Defence, Beregfy, was still optimistic, although his troops controlled only a fraction of the country. Next day, Szálasi and his government abandoned the headquarters and moved it into German-held Austria. On 12 April 1945, the last shots were fired in Hungary proper. Hungary was completely overrun by the Red Army.

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