Hitler and the OKH were determined to hold Hungary within the Axis. Hitler was personally fixated on the oil fields at Nagykanizsa, and he was in any case committed to a Haltebefehl strategy in the east in 1944. Operation MARGARETHE thus brought German forces into Hungary on March 19, while the Red Army was still advancing through Ukraine. The main results of this operation were to bring Hungary’s 400,000 Jews within reach of the Schutzstaffel (SS) and to ensure that Hungary would become a battleground that fall and over the next winter. Adolf Eichmann personally led a new Einsatzgruppen that entered the country and began deporting Jews to Auschwitz . As the Red Army approached Budapest, Eichmann hoarded transport and men to ship Hungarian Jews to the great death camp in Poland. When that ceased to be possible, he took tens of thousands on death marches into western Hungary.
Operation « Margarethe » Panzer IV “Panzer-Lehr-Division”
Meanwhile, another Hungarian Army was destroyed during Operation BAGRATION in June–August, 1944. As the center of the Eastern Front collapsed and the Red Army moved into Rumania and Bulgaria that summer and fall, Hungary sought unsuccessfully to negotiate a separate peace with Moscow. In the “Debrecen offensive operation,” Soviet forces penetrated to the Pustyna plain starting on October 6, 1944. The Red Army penetrated nearly 80 miles in two weeks, against strong opposition. On the 11th a secret ceasefire was agreed. Horthy announced publicly on the 15th that he was seeking a permanent armistice with Moscow. That provoked a coup by the domestic fascist organization Arrow Cross, which was supported by German special forces. The internal conflict briefly threatened to split apart the 25-division strong Hungarian Army. One commander went over to the Soviet side, but his officers did not follow. Most Hungarian troops continued to fight alongside the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS against the Red Army. In part, loyalty to the Axis was sustained by the fact that an ancient enemy, the Rumanian Army, had already switched sides and sent troops into Hungary in the company of the Soviets.
The defence lines of Hungary 1944-45
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.