The Arrow Cross Regime
Following the failed armistice and his initial refusal, Horthy – practically being in Waffen-SS custody – was eventually persuaded by the Germans to name Ferenc Szálasi as the new prime minister. Soon after the new prime minister was officially inaugurated in power, he and his new Minister of War, General Beregfy, reviewed the first Honvédség unit which had changed allegiance to him, greeting the troops with the straight-arm Nazi salute. Soon, other units of the Budapest Garrison pledged allegiance to the new leader. Only sporadic fights took place between German and Hungarian units due to improper information flow, mostly in countryside, with few casualties from both sides. The political and military takeover in the Honvédség was carried out smoothly, as the Hungarian soldiers were educated not to mix with politics and to strictly follow orders from their official leaders.
Immediately after the Arrow Cross takeover, reprisals followed. Colonel General Lajos Veress, commanding officer of the Hungarian Second Army, an old fashioned Szekler officer loyal to Horthy, was arrested on the orders of Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici, commander of the 1. Panzerarmee stationed in Hungary, and interned. Veress had earlier been nominated by Horthy as Homo Regius, i.e. the King’s Trustee, in the event that the Regent was incapacitated, to perform the duties of the head of state, and thus it was important for the Germans that he be quickly eliminated. Command of the Second Army was taken over by Major General vitéz Jenő Major (born Mayer), commander of the 1st Armoured Army Corps and Chief Inspector of all armoured units. The commanding officer and the Chief of Staff of First Army, Colonel General Béla Miklós and Colonel Kálmán Kéri, avoided arrest only by crossing the frontline over to the Fourth Ukrainian Front. Command of First Army was taken over by Lieutenant General vitéz Dezső László (born Laucsek), while Colonel László Csettkey was hastily named to the position of Chief of the General Staff. The commanding officer of the Honvédség’s last army, the Third, Lt. Gen. vitéz József Heszlényi, was a well-known nationalist and anti-Soviet. Therefore, he was not even initiated by Horthy into his plans. Upon hearing the Regent’s proclamation, he took a firm position against switching sides and co-operating with the Soviets. Therefore, Heszlényi was the sole army commander allowed by the Germans to retain command of his army after 16 October. He was even promoted to full general (colonel general) on 1 November.
Besides the key military men, many political figures were also arrested and thrown into jail – often trading places with freshly released Arrow Cross and other far-right sympathisers as well as common criminals. A total of ten Honvédség generals were arrested, including retired high officers – Vilmos Nagy and Ferenc Szombathelyi, former Minister of Defence and Chief of Staff of the Honvédség – Horthy’s trusted men, known also for their pro-Western stances. Others, such as General Lajos Csatay and his wife, committed suicide while under arrest. Some others, such as General János Vörös, managed to avoid arrest by defecting to the Soviets. Finally, there were a handful of officers who, as a protest against the new rule, asked to be relieved from their respective posts and placed in reserve. Their wish was duly granted. Most Honvédség officers, however, obeyed the new leader’s orders, and believed that their country must be defended against the Soviet Army at any costs. They reluctantly pledged allegiance to Szálasi and carried on with their respective duties after taking a new oath, mandatory from 20 October. It has to be stressed again that even if most Magyar officers continued to serve under Szálasi’s regime, it does not necessarily mean that they were Nazis or extremists – a notable exception being Colonel General Beregfy, the new Minister of War, an open follower of the Nazis. As officers, they were educated not to mix with politics, and to follow the orders given by the country’s rulers. They were also ready to continue to defend their country until the very end, as this was their duty.
Szálasi’s new Government of National Unity – which proclaimed him Nemzetvezető (the Nation’s Leader), on 3 November – was made up by fifteen people. Theoretically, the government was a coalition of four far-right parties; however, practically all powers were concentrated in the hands of Szálasi. All but five were Arrow Cross and so-called Hungarist Movement members. The role of deputy prime minister (without portfolio) was taken over by Jenő Szőllősi (born Naszluhácz), a pharmacist from Makó, and Szálasi’s long-time follower. Gábor Vajna became Interior Minister.
The young baron Gábor Kemény was charged with Foreign Affairs. As mentioned, Colonel General Károly Beregfy took over the Ministry of Defence as both commanding officer and Chief of Staff – a novelty in the Honvédség. The economic portfolio was handed over to Lajos Reményi-Schneller, a long time Member of Parliament, who was always Germany’s trusted man in the Budapest Parliament. Szálasi’s right hand, Emil Kovarcz, headed a new institution, tasked with the ‘nation’s total mobilization for war’. Colonel General Vilmos Hellebronth was tasked with organising the (war) industrial production. The Kingdom of Hungary was renamed the Hungarist Labour State (Hungarista Munkaállam) and restructured, liberally intertwining far-right (fascist and nationalist-extremist), as well as left (socialist) and far-left (communist) ideologies. The Germans did not assist Szálasi in his political restructurings, being interested only in the total military mobilization and economic exploitation of Hungary for the joint war effort. Berlin had no particular interest in the ‘specifically Hungarian fascism’.
Along with the traditional national red–white–green flag, the Party’s red–white striped flag – based on another traditional Hungarian symbol, the so-called Árpád-striped flag, in use from the eleventh century by the House of King Árpád – with the four-arm Arrow Cross symbol in its centre became official. Even the country’s traditional coat-of-arms was changed to reflect the new reality, introducing an Arrow Cross and a large ‘H’ for ‘Hungarism’.
As Hungary’s new leader, Szálasi became the head of the Honvédség as well. He did not assign any rank to himself, calling himself a rank-less Honvéd or private. In fact, he was a well-decorated officer in the First World War, who achieved the rank of major. He renounced his rank in 1935 when he entered politics. Accordingly, when he first visited Hitler in Berlin in December 1944, he showed up in a common Honvéd’s uniform, with no rank or decorations – in sharp contrast to most other foreign dignitaries. This attitude was reportedly appreciated by Hitler, who also did not take any military rank, or wear any medals except the few ones he was awarded with during WWI. Despite the first positive impression, Hitler was unimpressed by Szálasi and his incoherent line of thought. Nevertheless, he had no choice but to deal with him on the few issues he wanted to share with the Hungarians.
Under the direct supervision of Szálasi, the Honvédség was fundamentally restructured. In direct contrast to the army’s traditional non-political stance, emphasis was placed on the soldiers’ ideological re-education, in line with the new doctrine. The Honvédség Headquarters’ 6th Department was reorganized and charged with controlling printed media (censorship) and spreading party propaganda. The usage of the word ‘Sir’ and all other ‘old-fashioned’ courteous appellations – many dating from the k.u.k. Austro-Hungarian Monarchy era – were abolished, every soldier being called only by his rank. From late December 1944 on, the straight-arm Nazi salute was ordered to be used in the army, along with shouting a slogan, ‘Persistence! Hail to Szálasi!’ (Kitartás! Éljen Szálasi!). However, this order had little, if any, effect among the Honvédség rank and file. In many units it was not even officially announced, let alone applied. This Nazi salute was therefore used only by a handful of party members and ardent followers of the extremist ideology. It has to be noted that a few progressive elements were introduced in the army as well. Among them was a more significant emphasis on the NCOs, offering to the worthy and skilled a better chance for promotion to officer rank. Their living conditions improved somewhat as well. Several anachronistic traditions were also abolished. These few progressive steps were overshadowed by the retrograde manner of Szálasi’s vision, however.
In late October 1944, a new government office was established to oversee the total mobilization of industry and agriculture on behalf of the war effort, headed by Colonel General Ferenc Farkas. As of 10 December 1944, a general mobilization was proclaimed. Later on, with the war situation turning to the worse for Hungary, all able-bodied men between fourteen and seventy were ordered for duty, most employed as workers in the ‘Hungarist Labour Army’, established on 15 February 1945. Selected men were sent to Germany, to be trained in German-style warfare and equipped with modern German weapons. Szálasi and his entourage envisaged raising not less than twenty new army divisions, placed under direct command of the party – denoting their deep distrust of the traditionalist Honvédség. In parallel – as detailed earlier – in accordance to Berlin’s wishes, four Hungarian Waffen-SS divisions were to be raised as well. The Germans promised to use these main units solely on Hungarian soil, against the Red Army. Needless to say, these grandiose plans lacked any substance, as there was no manpower left in the still unoccupied part of Hungary to man these ‘paper’ divisions.
Under the leadership of opposition leftist Parliament Member Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, a new underground resistance organization called The Liberation Committee of the National Hungarian Uprising (Magyar Nemzeti Felkelés Felszabadító Bizottsága) was formed on 9 November 1944. The organization was made up of the left-leaning parties, which had earlier united in the so-called Patriotic Front, as well as a variety of leftist civilian and military resistance groups. The military wing of the committee was led by Lieutenant General (retired) János Kiss, a pre-war infantry commissioner assigned to the Honvédség’s commanding officer. The committee’s intention was to issue a proclamation to the nation, the Soviet government and the Allies and to establish contact with Red Army commanders approaching the Hungarian capital. The resistance movement’s final goal was to persuade the Honvédség to turn arms against the Germans and to assist the Soviets in taking over Hungary. This ill-organized group lacked any proper support; thus it was doomed from the start. Csendőr detectives of the National Accountability Detachment (Nemzeti Számonkérő Különítmény) soon begun to track its members’ movements. In the end, the committee was betrayed by one of its members. The leaders, including Lieutenant General Kiss, were captured on 22 November and hanged on 8 December following a court-martial. The resistance movement’s leader, Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, was executed on Christmas Eve at Sopronkőhida, after the Parliament refuged at Sopron revoked his immunity.
On 4 December, the Hungarian leader, accompanied by the Hungarian Minister of Home Defence and the Foreign Minister and other officials, paid an official visit to Berlin. Initially, the Führer was visibly relieved to welcome the new Hungarian leader instead of Horthy. He shared with them his unabated belief that soon there would be a sharp turn in the war’s outcome with the introduction of the so-called wonder weapons, including the V1, V2 and the mysterious V3. Hitler reaffirmed his trust in Hungary and his plans for a massive counter-attack in south-west Hungary, which would drive the Red Army out of the country. However, the series of talks, which also involved von Ribbentrop and Guderian, ended with no concrete results, Hitler not promising anything to the new Hungarian leader. At the end, both men had developed mistrust in each other. Nevertheless Szálasi sought a new round of talks in April–May 1945. He also planned to meet Mussolini in February–March 1945, which obviously did not materialize either.
Despite the disappointment on a personal level, the Hungarian leader left Berlin firmly trusting in the ‘final victory’. However, by then, the Red Army was already at the gates of Budapest.
Army Group South. 29 October-30 December 1944
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 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 A xis – 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.
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.
Officially, Soviet (and contemporary Russian) history, along with a handful of current Hungarian left-leaning politicians and historians, label the fall of Budapest as a ‘liberation’. In fact, for most Hungarians, it was merely an occupation – one occupying force being replaced by another one. However, while the German occupation lasted only one dreadful year, the Soviet occupation of Hungary lasted until 1991.
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.