21 September 2019

The Controversy about July 1944

"There were rumours in town that the pro-Nazi and rabidly anti-Semitic State Secretary László Baky was planning a coup to remove the Regent and to continue the deportations. Koszorús, having received an order from Horthy, entered Budapest with his troops and sent a courier to Baky threatening him with military action unless the gendarmerie was evacuated. Baky had no alternative but to comply. This action foiled both the coup (if that was really planned) and the continuation of the deportations."

The following essay was prompted by a savage attack on the recently published book, July 1944: Deportation of the Jews of Budapest Foiled, and its editor Géza Jeszenszky, academic historian and Foreign Minister (1990–1994) as well as Hungary’s Ambassador to the US (1998–2002). The author of the attack, Hungarian-American historian Peter Pastor published his acrimonious review in the annual online journal Hungarian Cultural Review. Even if published eventually by the journal’s editors, the Jeszenszky rebuttal will have to wait for publication for next year’s issue while the slanderous critique will continue to reach readers widely and without a chance of proper repair for many months. Therefore Hungarian Review decided to publish the Jeszenszky essay herewith, with an added introductory section and some revisions. We believe in the high moral standard and historical expertise of the book’s authors, and we also published an earlier, shorter version of Géza Jeszenszky’s excellent essay in the book, “Hungary in the Second World War: Tragic Blunders or Destiny”. Moreover, Professor Jeszenszky used the occasion of his defence to raise the issue to a higher level from the personal, enriching our view of the events of 1944 with an even larger horizon, and further facts. All this justifies our publication of the Jeszenszky response – in fact another invaluable essay on the subject.

The Editors

 

Last year a selection of essays was published by Helena History Press on how Jewish Hungarians of Budapest escaped the deportation to their likely death in July 1944.* With the Nazi occupation of Hungary on 19 March 1944 there was no longer any obstacle preventing the realisation of the devilish plan to exterminate the Jewish population of Hungary too. By the end of June, with the supervision of Eichmann, the authorities of the puppet government imposed upon the prostrate country transported half a million Jews to the German-run concentration camp at Auschwitz. The aim of the book edited and partly written by myself was to shed light on a little known controversy about this enormous tragedy: was it really a unit of the Hungarian Army which prevented the deportation of the remaining close to 300,000 Jewish Hungarians who were living (or were hiding) in Budapest? Their temporary escape raises another question: was the Regent, Admiral Horthy, an accomplice in the murder of half a million Hungarian Jews, but also the saviour of the remaining 300,000?

It is an undisputed fact that Colonel Ferenc Koszorús used the 1st Hungarian Armoured Division under his command to force the removal of the gendarmerie loyal to the pro-Nazi puppet government and ready to carry out the deportation of the Jews from Budapest. By that time Horthy, under international pressure and also learning from the Auschwitz Protocol, a testimony written by two Slovakian Jews who escaped from the camp in Spring 1944, of what was in store for the deported Hungarian nationals, ordered the ending of the deportations. There were rumours in town that the pro-Nazi and rabidly anti-Semitic State Secretary László Baky was planning a coup to remove the Regent and to continue the deportations. Koszorús, having received an order from Horthy, entered Budapest with his troops and sent a courier to Baky threatening him with military action unless the gendarmerie was evacuated. Baky had no alternative but to comply. This action foiled both the coup (if that was really planned) and the continuation of the deportations. The Jews of Budapest were thus temporarily saved, and Wallenberg and many other individuals and groups could help them survive the war until the Soviet Army liberated and occupied Budapest.

A Hungarian historian, László Karsai in a long article in the weekly Élet és Irodalom questioned the scholarly credentials of the editor and some of the other authors, also charging the book with an attempt to acquit Horthy from responsibility in the murder of half a million of his fellow citizens. My answer was followed by Karsai’s rejoinder and my response. Then a Hungarian-born American historian, Peter Pastor came out with an even harsher review of the book in the electronic journal of the American Hungarian Educators’ Association, Hungarian Cultural Review (http://ahea.pitt.edu/ojs/index.php/ahea/article/view/355).

Since the latter questioned the intentions and even the academic standard of the whole book, I addressed a detailed rebuttal to my fellow authors as follows.

 

Dear Colleagues and Friends,

As many of you may have seen this preposterous, largely personal attack on our joint publication, let me share with you my reaction to this deliberate misinterpretation of our honest intentions. We (including Pastor) know that in the 1930s Hungary and so many other European countries had little choice: either accept Hitler’s growing influence over their country or resist it at the price of war. Hungary had an additional predicament: its justified claim for border revision was supported only by Italy and Germany. In August 1938 Hungary, and personally Regent Horthy turned down Hitler’s offer to attack Czechoslovakia with German help and thus annex Slovakia, the territory which had been part of the Kingdom of Hungary until 1919. In 1939 Hungary refused to support the Nazi aggression against Poland, and accepted well over a hundred thousand refugees from that traditional friend, now prostrate. Subsequently, however, facing bad and even worst choices (collaborating with Nazi Germany or share the fate of Poland) Horthy and most of the Hungarian public opted for the former, also attracted by the territorial rewards going with that. Putting aside the reservations, Hungary joined the world war on the side of the Axis. By hindsight that was an obvious blunder, but with mitigating circumstances. Recognising the enormous mistake by March 1942, Horthy and his trusted new Prime Minister, Miklós Kállay, tried to approach the British and the Americans in order to make them understand the precarious position of Hungary and to offer a break with Germany as soon as that becomes militarily possible. No one described Hungary’s war participation better than F. J. Montgomery, Roosevelt’s former envoy to Hungary, as “the unwilling satellite”. There is no denying, however, that a large part of Hungary’s public was ignorant, misled and blindly pro-German, also motivated by a justified fear of Communism and the Soviet Union. The pro-Allies political and economic elite had to move carefully on that account too, and even more under the investigating eyes of German diplomats and spies. All that was changed by the German occupation of Hungary on 19 March. The puppet government installed by Germany and the majority of the state administration, including the army, police and gendarmerie, hid the fact that Hungary was no longer master of its fate. The terrible crimes committed after the occupation, the Hungarian holocaust, belong to the blackest pages of Hungary’s history. Those who participated in them were duly punished and deserve the contempt of posterity.

 

I think all the authors of July 1944. Deportation of the Jews of Budapest Foiled agree with the above summary. Contributing to the book they certainly did not try to reduce the responsibility of the guilty and of those who made decisions which turned out to be fatal. An honest historian cannot and should not make hasty judgements. We all have to bear in mind how trying those times were and recognise those who proved courageous and were ready to risk their lives for the persecuted ones.


Peter Pastor, known to me and many other Hungarians as Pásztor Péter, wrote a devastating attack on our recently published collection of studies which attempted to answer how in July 1944 Jewish Hungarians living in Budapest escaped the fate that had befallen on half a million of their compatriots after their deportation to the German-run “death factory” at Auschwitz. Pastor alleges that the anthology edited by me tries to falsify history by trying to rehabilitate Admiral Horthy, Hungary’s Regent in 1920–1944, and making the Hungarian army colonel, Ferenc Koszorús, a hero whose military action contributed to the saving of close to 300,000 Hungarian Jews.

However I must state that all these charges, and many more advanced in Pastor’s “review” go in the face of known facts and the integrity of historical scholarship and amount to the deliberate distortion of the contents and message of the book.

Even if Pastor had not known me for decades, had not been guest to my home several times, had not read my historical works and were not aware of my past and present political views, it would be a preposterous and prejudiced misreading of my Introduction and my essay on Hungary’s wartime foreign policy to suggest that the book has anything to do with present-day Hungarian politics. Nothing is further from me than an attempt “to advance the rehabilitation campaign” allegedly conducted by the Orbán government, to whitewash Horthy and to acquit those roughly 200,000 Hungarian collaborators of the Nazi-imposed puppet government from their responsibility for the crimes committed following the military occupation of the country by Nazi Germany on 19 March 1944. An objective reading of the book would acknowledge that like any scholarly work it is open to criticism but it is an honest attempt to answer very difficult historical and moral questions in connection with the tragic events that took place in Hungary in 1944.

Pastor’s first misstatement is that “this book is a compilation of essays by authors who were previously published elsewhere”. Not that it were improper or superfluous to republish studies which had appeared in different works at different times, but in fact four pieces out of eight were written specifically for this book, two were translations from the Hungarian, and the selected documents in the Appendix translated from the German originals have until now been published only in Hungarian.

It is the reviewer’s mistaken assertion that the “main focus of the book is on Ferenc Koszorús”. As I stated in my Introduction, the main purpose of this collection was to offer an answer to several historical controversies. “Should Horthy be praised for defying the Nazis in July 1944, or condemned for not having prevented the crime earlier? Or there is the larger controversy: as a result of the German occupation did Hungarian sovereignty come to an end and so the responsibility for the ensuing horrors rests entirely with Nazi Germany? Or perhaps the whole Hungarian nation is guilty because of the active collaboration of many Hungarians? [...] No political agenda should lead to overlooking the historical facts, either to the whitewashing or to the blackening of the record. This is an extremely hot subject, after all it is about the deliberate murder of more than half a million innocent people. Here the attempt for historical accuracy runs parallel with understanding the sentiments of the survivors, those related to the victims, and indeed of all decent people. The present collective volume cannot answer all the historical questions and settle the debates; the purpose is only to show what really happened in the crucial days in early July.” Clearly the focus was not how much Colonel Koszorús was a hero, rather how and why Regent Horthy could stop the deportations in early July if he could not or did not do that when the Hungarian puppet government started them on 15 May.

I cannot but quote again from my Introduction, where I stated my agreement with the judgement of the late Randolph Braham and several other authors who wrote about the Holocaust in Hungary, including the late György Ránki, a distinguished Hungarian historian, who at the age of fourteen himself was a survivor of Auschwitz. As I wrote, “[t]he new, blindly pro-Nazi members of the typically puppet-government imposed on the country betrayed their Jewish compatriots and surrendered them to Nazi Germany. […] The Sztójay government, the Hungarian civil service and the Hungarian gendarmerie facilitated the deportations with decrees and with their merciless action […]. Those who were responsible for taking Hungary recklessly into the war, and who issued the orders for the deportations and carried those orders out, were tried in Hungary after the war. Between 1945 and 1949 59,429 persons were tried by specially created ‘people’s courts’ and 26,997 were found guilty. 477 were sentenced to death, and actually 189 were executed, including four heads of government and several ministers. Compare that to relevant figures in other countries occupied by Nazi Germany, or even to Germany itself – Hungary cannot be charged to have been lenient towards its war criminals. Those were indeed traitors to their nation, aiding the death of almost five per cent of their compatriots and blackening the reputation of Hungary.” Does it require further proof that the aim of the book was not falsifying history and exonerating the collaborators of Nazi Germany?

It is hair-splitting to count how many German soldiers were present in Hungary at various moments of the occupation. For a serious historian it should be evident that the crime of the deportations could not and would not have taken place but for the military occupation of Hungary, which put an end to the two-year efforts of the Kállay government to leave the German camp and to conclude an armistice with the allied united nations. How many Soviet soldiers kept Hungary in the Soviet bloc for decades? Maintaining a regime by terror does not require a huge army.

Horthy must have suspected that Hitler’s aim was the extermination of the Jews, as I pointed that out in my Introduction, saying “[c]ould he believe that families with old people and children were just taken to Germany to work in fortifications and factories? Surely he did not know exactly what went on at Auschwitz, but he should not have watched passively the systematic mass deportation of Hungarian citizens, starting on 15 May.” I also emphasised the Regent’s responsibility for washing his hands like Pilate over the inhuman anti-Jewish decrees introduced by Hungary’s Quisling government, then the ghettoisation and the deportation of Hungarian citizens who expected protection from the head of state.

Pastor goes out of his way to question that Horthy demanded the stopping of the deportations at the Crown Council held on 26 June. But it is Randolph Braham who says that, as I quoted reproducing Horthy’s words. “I shall not tolerate this any further! I shall not permit the deportations to bring further shame on the Hungarians! Let the Government take measures for the removal of Baky and Endre! The deportation of the Jews of Budapest must cease! The Government must take the necessary steps!”1 Horthy had no legal to order the government to carry out any measure, but here comes Colonel Koszorús, Pastor’s anti-hero, and his armoured unit. It is of secondary importance if State Secretary Baky really conspired for a coup d’état to remove Horthy or that was only a rumour. The 3,000 gendarmerie illegally brought to Budapest in order to carry out the rapid deportation of the Jews of Budapest was a fact. A fact it was that Horthy did give an order to Koszorús to force out the gendarmerie. We may not know whether the colonel just blindly obeyed the commander-in-chief, or also thought of the Jews facing immediate deportation. What mattered was the evacuation of the law-enforcement units which were under the authority of the Minister of the Interior and directly Baky. No historian questions that the Jews living (and many hiding) in Budapest were saved, at least until the 15 October coup of the Hungarian Arrow Cross led by Szálasi. The Hungarian rabble was released by the Germans to foil the armistice Horthy had concluded with the Soviets and had announced through the radio.

In a recent essay of mine which appeared in the Hungarian journal Magyar Szemle in January 2018 (Horthy és a magyar zsidók deportálása [Horthy and the deportation of the Hungarian Jews]) I did my best to give an impartial and honest answer to Horthy’s responsibility. I concluded: “Neither a historian nor the administration of justice in this world can settle whether the (temporary) saving of over quarter of a million Hungarian Jews counterbalances Horthy’s partial responsibility in giving up half a million of his fellow-compatriots to the Germans.”

Only malice can purport an aim to “minimise Hungary’s war guilt” when I compare the passivity of the average Hungarian during the deportations (and let me add watching the arrest of thousands of non-Jewish Hungarians suspected of pro-Ally sympathies) to a similar attitude during the Communist terror. “Many Hungarians gave vent to their anti-Semitic prejudices and happily participated in steeling the properties of their deported or hiding Jewish compatriots, while the majority of the population just watched the cruel removal of their Jewish neighbours passively. (Like a few years later they were paralysed with fear as the terror imposed by the Communists raged, persecuting hundreds of thousands of innocents.)”

It was an American diplomat, Roosevelt’s envoy to Hungary, F. J. Montgomery, who called Hungary “the unwilling satellite”. It is enough for substantiating that claim by reading the brave and good Hungarian-American journalist-historian Charles Fenyvesi’s Három összeesküvés [Three conspiracies],2 or numerous studies by György Ránki and Gyula Juhász, particularly the latter’s collection of documents Magyar-brit titkos tárgyalások 1943-ban [Hungarian–British secret negotiations in 1943],3 and his introduction to that in English: “The Hungarian Peace-Feelers and the Allies in 1943”,4 and of course my essay in the book under discussion, “Hungary in the Second World War: Tragic Blunders or Destiny?” to at least ponder if Hungary was really more than a nominal ally of Nazi Germany.

Pastor, who can read the mind even of the deceased, asks: “Had Ránki lived past the 1989 regime change, would he not have revised his essay?” – and answers his own hypothetic question by saying that probably he would not have offered his essay for this publication. Thirty-seven years after the first publication Ránki would certainly have revised it for a new book, but he, the true historian, would not have done it due to the 1989 political changes. Apparently it is the good Pastor whose historian’s vision is marred by recent political developments in Hungary. It was my duty as editor to add a few notes to Ránki’s essay, informing the reader about persons mentioned in the paper, whose names are likely to be unfamiliar, but it was indicated that they came from the editor. Nowhere did I take “issue with the dead Ránki”. It is true that Ránki’s essay dealt with Hungarian–German relations starting in 1933 but only as the antecedents to the war period, so I did not mislead anyone by writing that the essay “is a summary of Hungary’s conduct during the Second World War”.

Pastor’s comments on my essay which speaks about the serious blunders committed by Hungary’s leaders leading to participation in Hitler’s war try to question my whole approach, yet his many quotes rather confirm my highly critical remarks. Any unbiased reader of my contributions to the present volume (Pastor is clearly not one) would see how far I am from using history for political purposes, that I am an opponent of national or religious prejudices. Contrary to Pastor’s assumption I strongly disagree with those who think that the 1919 Hungarian Soviet Republic was a Jewish affair and hence that justified any anti-Jewish measure. It is simply a stupid assumption that I “grieve for the Horthy regime”. I leave it to the reader to decide if my 40-page long piece sounds fair or faulty. Let me just mention one point which reveals Pastor’s inexplicable opposition to all actions of inter-war Hungary. Pastor questions Hungary’s sincerity that it wanted to revise Hungary’s post-Trianon borders by peaceful means. His “proof” is that in 1921 it was the armed action of Hungarian militias which led to a plebiscite that kept the town of Sopron and its vicinity within the borders of “rump” Hungary. His other argument is that the return of Subcarpathia and a railway on Slovak-inhabited territory in 1939 was achieved by military action. Apart from the fact that fighting in that action and losses were minimal, both Britain and the United States preferred those territories under Hungarian rather than pro-Nazi Slovak control.

The rest of the so-called review, dealing with the other studies appearing in the book, is also using selected and distorted quotations from the various authors to undermine their credibility. Pastor has one strange aim: to make the gloomy record of Hungary in the Second World War look even gloomier, disregarding the fact that in Hitler’s Europe it was only the Poles who resisted heroically, and their fate was rather a warning for the other countries of the consequences of standing up to the Nazi state than an encouragement to follow the example. It does not reduce Horthy’s responsibility that compared to the other satellite leaders the Hungarian head of state stands out as far from being servile in the talks with Hitler, as testified in the documents originally edited by the German historian Andreas Hillgruber, Staatsmänner und Diplomaten bei Hitler5 and brought out in Hungarian with a detailed, exemplary introduction by György Ránki, Hitler hatvannyolc tárgyalása 1939–1944: Hitler Adolf tárgyalásai kelet-európai államférfiakkal [Hitler’s sixty-eight negotiations in 1939–1944: Adolf Hitler’s negotiations with statesmen of Eastern Europe].6 That publication shows that Central and Eastern Europe was indeed “between the devil and the deep sea” between 1938 and 1944, and it was not possible to escape a terrible fate, but Hungary, unlike Slovakia and Romania, still tried to keep its contribution to the German war effort as low as possible. So a true historian should present the reasons why Hitler could induce Romania and the Slovaks, owing so much to France and Britain, and even a fraction of the Serbs to serve his aims. Hungary’s conduct should be studied in a comparative way.

It is inexplicable what drove Pastor to mislead his readers so much about a book which tried to provide a balanced picture of how Jewish Hungarians of the capital escaped deportation and almost certain death in July 1944. The present book is not a history of Hungarian anti-Semitism, but provides the background to the foiled Nazi attempt to annihilate the Jewish population of Budapest. It does not try to exonerate the Hungarians from any ill deed, but neither does it want – unlike the reviewer – to burden Hungary and the Hungarians with collective guilt. While many Hungarians deplore and condemn any barbarity committed by Hungarians and, sadly, so many others, we must hold out the example of those who tried to mitigate the disaster in 1944. The thousand Righteous Hungarians and the heroism of Wallenberg’s Hungarian helpers should also be given due recognition.

I sincerely hope that the readers of the online journal of the American Hungarian Educators’ Association will see that Pastor was directed not by professionalism, dedication to historical truth, but by malice and personal bias.

 

* July 1944. Deportation of the Jews of Budapest Foiled. Edited by Géza Jeszenszky. Foreword by Charles Fenyvesi. Helena History Press Reno, Nevada, 2018.

 

 

Notes:


1 Randolph Braham, The Politics of Genocide. The Holocaust in Hungary. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981, 2 vols.; condensed edition by Wayne State University Press, 2000, Vol. 2, 873.

2 Budapest: Európa, 2007.

3 Budapest: Kossuth Kiadó, 1978.

4 Acta Historica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, Vol. 26, No. 3/4 (1980), pp. 345–377.

5 Frankfurt am Main, 1967–1970.

6 Budapest: Magvető, 1983.






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