My most vivid glimpse of Domokos Szent-Iványi dates from the second half of 1947. We are making our rounds, deep in conversation, side by side in the enclosed courtyard of the Central Collecting Prison of Budapest. It is a huge redbrick complex situated, quite fittingly, next to the city’s biggest cemetery in Rákoskeresztúr, in a far corner of which Communists would bury their executed adversaries in unmarked graves. Within the complex, we were sequestered in the legendary separate section called Kisfogház, the Little Prison, housing some 400 inmates, all of them political convicts.
Our trials consummated, our sentences handed out – many years of incarceration – we were allowed by our guards to choose our partners during the walks. But few dared to team up with the elegant and athletic figure of Szent-Iványi, whose appearance was also distinguished by an aquiline nose and high forehead and temples. He was respected and treated with nervousness even as a convict in this high security institute for prominent political prisoners – an inscrutable and serene intelligence, whose examining officers had to be changed frequently, since they were unable to cope with his quiet superiority and poise, even in that situation. Like all the prisoners, he was handled roughly by our interrogators, and drugs and subtle psychological techniques were used on him too, but his prison term, ten years, was relatively short in the end for an alleged master plotter. Szent-Iványi was apparently a man to be spared, a player whom a resourcefully Machiavellian Stalinist imagination wanted to keep under watch and save for a different season, perhaps. Also, he was too famous, in Hungary and also in the West, with excellent contacts in the Anglo-Saxon countries.
In the previous two years, 1945–1946, Hungary to outward appearances had not yet embarked on the road to Stalinism. The signals were mixed. The Smallholders’ Party – a pro-Western democratic party, in opposition before the Liberation of 1945 – scored a sweeping victory, an absolute majority of 57 percent, in a fair democratic election in November 1945. The Smallholders were forced to create a coalition with the minority Communists (17 per cent) as well as the Social Democrats and the National Peasant Party – yet the Prime Minister, Ferenc Nagy, was a Smallholder, and the President of the Republic, Zoltán Tildy, likewise. Even with an imposed coalition, this was an exceptional democratic arrangement in the region after 1945 – with an ominous sore point: the portfolio of the Interior, together with the security forces, had to be conceded to the Communists, who had anyway seized it from the start in the provisional government created in Debrecen in January 1945. The architect of this enforced coalition and its distribution of portfolios was the Allied Control Commission, which in Hungary was presided by the occupying Soviet power, with Marshal Voroshilov at its head. It is all a familiar pattern to students of history – the first step of the famous salami tactics that everywhere in Eastern and Central Europe began with the seizure of the security forces by the Communists.
Walking with Szent-Iványi in the prison courtyard, and talking to him, could bring with it the removal of some of those little favours that made an immense difference in the quality of one’s prison life, little nuances a free man would perhaps never notice. Because I kept loyal to my walking companion, I was sacked from the prison workshop where we had been carving and turning wooden toys, and I was not allowed to do any kind of work in the prison for a while – later I became the stoker of the prison’s heating boilers, for want of another husky candidate, hardened by work on the fields. Initially Szent-Iványi was not allowed to work at all – even though engineers among the prisoners had been commissioned to draw up designs for an industrial plant – for which the respective technological handbooks and other professional tools were all provided by our keepers.
Still, I kept faithful to Szent-Iványi. As our conversations went on, it slowly downed on me that I became one of the elect – I was chosen as a disciple by an extraordinary master. These conversations became the Senior Common Room of my life, and the things we talked about continued to reverberate in me for the decades to come, long after Szent-Iványi died in exile in Heidelberg in 1980. He was a depository of top political secrets of the inter-war era – yet, characteristically for him, the main subject of the conversations was the future: Hungary’s future in the Soviet orbit. And in what a manner a politician who is a Hungarian patriot with an international outlook, should think and act, if given another chance. To sum it up, the subject was the entire horizon and the human condition. By then it was clear to us that we were at the mercy of a political power that knew few rules of legality. Yet we were happy then and there, two men in a free exchange of ideas that seemed harmless among those high brick walls, as the Stalinist system rose to its zenith in Hungary.
The walks were short in the walled courtyard, and a question I asked one day might be followed by an answer on the next day. Once I was allotted a bed in the same cell with Szent-Iványi, together with two other inmates, for several months. This gave us more opportunity for conversation – even though we were aware that moles may have been planted among us, and wiretapping was also employed by our keepers.
Szent-Iványi spoke six languages, owned some eight degrees (earned in Hungary, France and North America) and had an immense stock of experience – a man of the world, but also a perfect scholar and the grey eminence of anti-Nazi politics in the political establishment of Hungary in the last ten years. I wanted to learn from him all I could. He, for his part, was happy to share his wisdom with me. I met other famous figures in the prison, too – for instance Béla Lukács, the brother-in-law of Regent Horthy, once a Minister of State, president of his Party of Hungarian Life, a relaxed and seasoned man, who entertained me with intimate family assessments and gossip about pre-war politicians and their human weaknesses – or the famous historian Bálint Hóman, who grotesquely ended up as a Minister of Culture in the Hungarian Quisling government of 1944. In the prison I also met my interrogator from 1944, a Hungarian gendarme officer employed by the Gestapo, who bore the honourable name of Dr Bálint Balassa, our great 16th century poet. “You have botched it all beautifully”, he said to me bluntly, probably hinting at the Communist takeover. “It was you who had botched it all”, I answered. That was all we said to each other. I was twenty-six at the time, one of the youngest Representatives in Hungary’s democratic National Assembly of 1945, a member of the Smallholders’ Party.
Szent-Iványi was fifty, already a veteran of diplomacy, who did not accept the position of Foreign Minister in the provisional democratic government of January 1945, even though the Soviets wanted for this position a man with perfect democratic credentials who had been prominent in the anti-Nazi coterie of the Horthy family. Moreover, Szent-Iványi had been secretly sent by Horthy as one of the three-man delegation to Moscow to negotiate an armistice with the Soviets in September 1944. He therefore represented continuity, both formally and informally, with the legitimate 1944 government before the Nazi coup, and also with the best democratic elements of the inter-war period.
Szent-Iványi and myself were both arrested in late 1946 and early 1947 as suspects in what came to be called the “Conspiracy Against the Republic” – the first show trial staged by the Communist-controlled Interior Ministry in post-war Hungary. True, we both had been members of the Community of Hungarian Brotherhood, the ostensible target of the trial. But in fact our connections with the Brotherhood were recent and superficial. Certainly, neither of us had been initiated into the intricate upper structure of the Community. In the Communist scenario of the trial we became implicated with friends who had been activists of Szent-Iványi’s perfectly organised network, the anti-Nazi Hungarian Independence Movement. But neither of us was aware of our friends’ connections to a Brotherhood – simply that the two anti-Nazi networks often overlapped in their members.
Moreover, as revealed even by the heavily biased trial proceedings, the Brotherhood never planned to upset the Hungarian government or the State. There had been a network, yes, with some members who were over-zealous – but there had been no plot. When I and my political friends read in the press of the first arrests in late December, and the news of a “conspiracy”, it all sounded absurd, a nonsense. But then friends began to be caught in the net, and soon we, too, got arrested. In time we realised what the game was about. It was a stratagem of the Communists to weaken the Smallholders’ Party mortally.
The trial was intended to benefit the Stalinist hard core of the Hungarian Communist Party, all of them veteran Muscovite exiles: Rákosi, Gerő, Mihály Farkas and Révai. In mid-December 1946, at a closed meeting of the party’s leaders, its press chief, Márton Horváth conceded that new elections would bring an even more humiliating defeat for them than the debacle of late 1945. Their No. 1 man, Mátyás Rákosi, knew that Stalin was ruthless: a second debacle would cost him his office, and probably more than that. So by the time Horváth gave his evaluation, the first arrests had taken place for the “Conspiracy” trial. This was the moment when the idea of the Hungarian Community trial was hastily taken off the shelf, its script probably having been in the works for a good time.
The trial and the hysteria that was to be whipped up around these arrests by the Communist press in preparation for the trial worked well. The Hungarian public at large was not familiar with the Soviet practice of show trials, and the brutal and subtle interrogation techniques they involved. Few in Hungary were prepared to treat the news of the “conspiracy” with the necessary scepticism, even though distrust of the Soviets was already deeply ingrained. To many people even in the centre Right, therefore, the charges initially carried some credibility.
Events accelerated when on 25 February 1947 – linking him with the “Conspiracy” – Soviet officers arrested Béla Kovács despite Parliament’s refusal to suspend his immunity. Kovács was soon to disappear for many years into the Soviet Gulag. To many, this unparalleled intervention in interior affairs has ever since marked the end of Hungary’s short lived post-war democracy – though the democratic props seemed to remain in place for a further year and a half, and the Smallholders and their splinter parties even won the rigged elections of 1948. That was one last strong testimony of the resistance to Communism by the majority of Hungarian voters.
Soon after Kovács’s arrest, in May, Prime Minister Ferenc Nagy used the pretence of a trip to Switzerland to go into political exile, seeking asylum in the US. The Speaker of Parliament, Msgr Béla Varga, also a Smallholder, and a mastermind of a ring hiding tens of thousands of Polish, Jewish, French and other refugees during the war under the eye of the Nazis, followed him in June. They were joined by a significant number of pro-Western Hungarian democrats of all hue and colour, who were able to sneak out through the closing borders to Austria, and by diplomats who asked for political asylum in their Western postings. Only Zoltán Tildy, a dogged adherent of Realpolitik, held out heroically in his post as President of the Republic, until he was arrested by the Communists and removed in 1948 when the “People’s Republic” was inaugurated, and his son-in-law executed under pretext of high treason.
In the meantime, in prison in 1947, we were evaluating the events in preparation for the trial. At the beginning many of us, including Szent-Iványi, were furious with the leaders of the Community for not showing prudence in their otherwise harmless secret activities, and thereby giving the Communists a pretext to whip up a trial. Szent-Iványi, a born grey eminence and intelligence chief, was especially enraged. But by the time of our prison walks we became more seasoned. It had transpired to us by then that the trial would have happened in any case, under any pretext. The larger script had been written by the Soviets, doubtless prompted by their impending break with the Western powers. Taken together, about 700 people were accused in the many sub-chapters of the “Conspiracy” trial.
Not surprisingly there was room for improvisation in the first and largest of Communist show trials in Hungary. The many death sentences to be handed out were reduced to one in the end, that of György Donáth, a former deputy chairman of Horthy’s Party of Hungarian Life, who established his innocence in an impressive three-hour defence speech to the court. That was probably the last instance of such a speech in post-war Hungary. Later the choreography of all trials – even those not held in public – was scripted down to the last detail, the defendants drugged, intimidated or blackmailed by threats and promises. One of the principal targets of the trial, our brilliant young friend Kálmán Saláta, a middleman between Szent-Iványi and the leading Smallholders, on hearing of the arrests, escaped with borrowed clerical clothes and false papers, to surface in the West a few weeks later.
Otherwise, there were few slip-ups in the script of the “Conspiracy” written by the prosecutors. The Communists needed some big fish to be caught. They were, first of all, Col. Gen. Lajos Dálnoki Veress, the homo regius – that is to say, the general whom Regent Horthy nominated as his deputy in the position of head of state, in case he lost his ability to act freely when carrying out his planned break with the Germans on 15 October 1944. The second big fish was Szent-Iványi himself, after him Major General Sándor András, also a general staff officer and Air Force chief in the new Hungarian Army, and government Minister for Reconstruction, Endre Mistéth.
Besides the big names, preferably with past links to the Horthy regime, the Communists targeted the young intellectuals and political organisers of the Smallholders’ Party headquarters, people who were the backbone of the Party’s resistance to a Communist takeover, and who had regular contact with the bravest leaders of the party, Premier Nagy, Secretary General Kovács, Speaker Varga, and the Foreign Affairs Commissioner of the Party, Ambassador Pál Auer. They were Sándor Kiss, head of the Peasant Alliance, Kálmán Saláta, Bálint Arany, István Csicsery-Rónay and myself, people who also had good contacts to the Western diplomats.
It is interesting to note that among the arrested it was Szent-Iványi who belonged to both of the above groups. Contrary both to the expectations and the intentions of Premier Nagy, he had received no more offers of a government post, and he became the Foreign Policy Adviser of the Party after 1945, building up particularly good relations with Nagy, Kovács and Saláta. We also have to note that none of these arrested personalities belonged to the leadership of the Community of Hungarian Brotherhood – but all of them were prominent, as I said, in Szent-Iványi’s anti-Nazi Hungarian Independence Movement during the German occupation of 1944–45. In other words, the objective was not only to break the backbone of the Smallholders’ Party through the “Conspiracy” trial, but also to imprison able and independent-minded patriots who might be an obstacle to the planned gradual introduction of the one-party system.
And so it was natural that so many of us ended up in that trial – and looking back at it in retrospect, despite the immense damage that prison did to our individual lives, it was a mark of distinction to be there. Many of these comrades and co-conspirators from the anti-Nazi resistance again were to have major roles in the leadership of the Hungarian Revolution of October 1956. And most of them, again, including myself, were to choose exile in the West after the defeat of the Revolution and the re-occupation of Hungary by the Soviet Army in November 1956 – not to save our skins but to do something sensible for Hungary’s free spirit in the Western world.
Among the reasons I was picked for the trial were, no doubt, my late dinners with Mátyás Rákosi. I was seen, apparently, as one of the promising people whom the future Stalinist dictator, a devious and smooth operator, had selected for wooing away from the democratic parties. As a young first generation politician of peasant origin, although one with a degree in economics who also happened to be popular in Budapest’s working class 13th district, I was repeatedly invited for dinners to his home, where only his Uzbek wife, whom he had married in Moscow, was present. And she hardly ever spoke. The fact that the dinners had proven wasted, as far as Rákosi’s political plans were concerned, clearly contributed to my fate taking a bad turn.
Yet the enticements followed in captivity, too, this time from my interrogating officers. I soon came to realise that the interrogation techniques of the Muscovite Communists, learned at top level Soviet NKVD courses, were far superior to those of the Gestapo. When I was arrested by the Nazis in late December 1944, with my resistance group of twelve, I was severely beaten before being handed out a death sentence – but they did not manage to learn anything about my connections. Thanks to my strong physique, I survived the beating – and an Allied air raid on the confused German military command gave us the opportunity to escape from the gendarmerie trucks which were carrying us for execution in Sopron, where the fugitive Nazi government convened.
We were all members of a resistance group under the auspices of the Szabad Élet Diákmozgalom (“Free Life Student Movement”) which had secret links to the Hungarian Independence Movement masterminded by Szent-Iványi. Characteristically, I did not know then of Szent-Iványi’s work and had never met the man himself – he was known among us there at the grass-roots level as Count Pál Teleki’s close collaborator, a good anti-Nazi at the top of government, that is all. Our liaison to his deputy in the movement never talked to us of the link. Operationally, our leader was my close friend Sándor Kiss, who communicated with Bajcsy-Zsilinszky.
A Hungarian Communist resistance activist had his bed besides mine in the Nazi prison. He was dying from the beatings of the Gestapo – but he was eager to give me good advice even in his mortal weakness. “When they beat you, always say suddenly: yes, I seem to remember something. And tell them one true thing, possibly harmless, on each occasion. But never the whole story. Because when you have nothing more to tell, you are finished.”
I tried to follow his advice now with my Communist interrogators. I wrote up for them long stories from my activities in the resistance. How I was travelling to the Plains city of Kecskemét by train during the German occupation, with a leather portfolio full of anti-Nazi leaflets. How the two of us, myself with chaplain- poet friend Rezső Sédy-Lengyel (a latter-day incarnation of the camp chaplain of György Dózsa, the 16th century peasant revolutionary) travelled together. How my pastor pal in Budapest, András Hamza reinforced our activities. But the interrogating officer soon said, “No more stories, man. We want serious stuff.” I was determined not to give him any significant detail. He burst out one day to me. “We Communists are in mortal danger, here in Hungary. The imperialists have butchered one million of our comrades in Iran, you know. That is what they want to do with us here, too. You, personally, may be a sincere democrat, and you may not have any anti-Communist hatred in you. But that is unique. We are surrounded by enemies. Your place is with us, among us. That would be the solution for you.”
Then, if you did not speak, they would beat you, they would smuggle drugs into your food and drink. That was the first trial investigation in which they used chemicals that alter your consciousness – also a Soviet method.
While I was stubbornly attempting to refuse co-operation, Szent-Iványi apparently developed a different reaction to the situation as the trial unfolded. He always took a bird’s eye view, and read far more from the signs than I was able to. He conceded that for the moment shows of resistance were futile, the entire political game was lost for the while, and the outlook for democracy in Hungary was worse than we had ever imagined during the previous two years. During the interrogations he even grew indifferent to his personal destiny. He thought that martyrdom was an apt fate for a Hungarian patriot in this unfortunate age – as indicated by the deaths of the two most prominent anti-Nazis, the desperate suicide of Prime Minister Pál Teleki in 1941 and the execution of MP Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky in December 1944. He tried to kill himself in his cell during the interrogations – cutting a vein on his wrist with the metal window-frame.
After his recovery, however, he came to the conclusion that our duty was to survive and wait for world politics to take a better turn. President Tildy had thought of our captivity in the Soviet orbit in terms of a seventy years Biblical period. He also thought that the Smallholders had won the 1945 elections too well with their 57 per cent. That was why he was so worried, and looked so appeasing to the Communists in our eyes. The best possible outcome he expected for Hungary was Finnlandisation – sometime in the future. The West would and could do nothing for us, he held.
Szent-Iványi, who was personally not close to Tildy, but had always been a man of Realpolitik, saw our situation in similar terms. He behaved with courage at the second trial, where he rejected all his earlier testimonies exerted under the effect of drugs, and the psychiatrist diagnosed him as suffering from a serious case of hysteria – which if it were true, would have been an effect of the Soviet drugs. But on the whole he saw the situation as very bleak – not without distant rays of light, however, after Stalinism crashed. We had to prepare for that moment, he thought, when a new policy of Finnlandisation might allow Hungary more elbow-room in the Soviet orbit.
Szent-Iványi was a man whose standing only grew in my eyes during the prison years. From the start of our conversations I was putting together the many fragments that by then had accumulated about him in various compartments of my memory, plus the few glimpses of his past that he revealed to me. His poise and serenity were uplifting. And I was amazed by the extent that he saw his responsibility as belonging to the future rather than to the past. He was almost fifty, as I said, and in possession of an immense knowledge of history, but he looked forward toward some meaningful future. Not with a bland and superficial optimism either. He knew that another failed attempt for independent politics, or a Soviet occupation extending beyond his lifetime were also in the cards. Indeed, apart from the twelve days of the Revolution of 1956, Szent-Iványi was never again in his remaining long life to see the chance to re-enter politics.
This forward-looking attitude, not frequent in Hungarians with our inclination to fatalism, must have had a formative effect on me. I developed the same attitude, I believe, when I resumed my political career after 1956 in the US. And I have kept to this attitude ever since, now sitting for the fifteenth year in the Hungarian Parliament today, at the age of 92. When I am searching for the factors that have gone into the making of this activist stance in me, the example of Szent-Iványi seems as important as genetics, or the self-confidence so innate to my second home, the United States.
Thinking back, Szent-Iványi’s knowledge and mental make-up must have prepared me for my American years in other ways, too. With all the differences in temperament and education between the two of us, I dare to say in hindsight that we both were made for the American experience, but also radically shaped by it. Between 1927 and 1935 as a young diplomat, Szent-Iványi had spent eight years in North America – in the United States and Canada – also pursuing there what today would be called graduate studies, at Western Reserve University, Northwestern University, and at the University of Manitoba. He served in the US as consul and consul general in Cleveland and Chicago, and on the threshold of the Second World War, in 1938, already a senior foreign service officer, he was sent by the Cabinet back to the United States on a four months’ confidential fact finding mission, to explore the prospects of the near future in the darkening world theatre. He came back with a bonanza of information, including an 80 page memo on the coming shake-up of the world and its distinct future stages. The clairvoyance of that forecast gives us the eerie feeling that Szent-Iványi was not only a man of great learning and excellent connections but also someone who operated with a sixth sense in the world. At the time when Hitler and Stalin were forging an alliance and the US wanted to live in peace, his forecast was that war was a mere half year away, that the US would eventually join in on the side of Britain and France in Spring 1942, that they would form a coalition with the Soviets, that Hitler would lose the war, and that after the great conflagration of Europe, the US and the Soviet Union would remain standing as the only Great Powers. Who else saw it with such clarity in early 1939? No wonder some of the five leading politicians (among them three PMs) who received the unregistered secret document were greatly impressed by its contents, and a couple of them all but knocked out.
Szent-Iványi was a man, as I liked to say, who riding a camel in a desert would stop suddenly at a nondescript place and find a treasure hidden in the ground.
Inevitably, the war years were also a subject in prison discussions among the like- minded members of the “Conspiracy”. We regarded the war as the unfortunate overture to the present condition of our country, and of ourselves there in the Little Prison. We thought of the war years as an immense historical tragedy for Hungary, for Hungarian independence, for Hungarian statehood, for our unfolding modernisation and reform, and more starkly, for the victims among our brethren: the hundreds of thousands of enrolled soldiers who were obliged to fight on the wrong side in the Soviet Union, for the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews deported to Auschwitz and for the uncounted civilian victims of the Nazi and Soviet onslaughts in the last year of the war.
We saw three decisive turning points in that story. The first was the suicide (some thought murder) of Prime Minister Count Pál Teleki, the mentor of Szent-Iványi, but in a wider sense of many others in our group, on 3 April 1941. Teleki had to die because he was unable to block the consent of Hungary to the German Army’s use of its territory in invading Yugoslavia, with whom Teleki had forged cordial relations not long before. When Teleki died, blood froze in all right-thinking Hungarians, from Budapest to the smallest village: we knew that after that symbolic event, and with the departure of that courageous man, the worst would likely follow. And indeed, soon afterwards, in late June 1941, Teleki’s hapless successor, László Bárdossy gave in to German pressure over an alleged Soviet provocation to join the war on the Soviet Union – without even asking for the consent of Parliament, as his constitutional duty required.
Of course, in the background of both events loomed the responsibility of the general staff of the Hungarian Army where a pro-German leadership had taken the upper hand. Regent Horthy himself, an old style pro-Western gentleman, had his share of responsibility. Horthy, with silent backing from the majority of his citizens, chose, as a general strategy for the unwanted war, the moderate drifting along with Germany as an “Unwilling Satellite” (the title phrase of the memoir by John Flournoy Montgomery, the US Ambassador to Hungary), rather than risk the immediate German occupation of Hungary. That fate became an all too real alternative in Hitler’s thinking after the Annexation of Austria in 1938. Hitler offered a prize that Teleki abhorred: the partial re-adjustment of Hungary’s borders that would reclaim some ethnically Hungarian territories that the unfortunate Treaty of Trianon had ceded to its neighbours in 1920. In all fairness such re-adjustments were justified, as Teleki and a few clear-sighted Western politicians saw, but from the hands of the Führer they were a curse to Hungary.
The third decisive blow to Horthy’s strategy of moderate drifting was the halting of the belated Allied offensive at Monte Cassino in December 1943. Churchill had thought that an Allied sea landing in the North of Italy – the soft underbelly of Europe, as he called it – would have been the right course. Even if it had been pursued, however, the time lost in Italy not only made possible Germany’s occupation of Hungary but also determined an ominous future for the whole of Central Europe, as the chances of an Anglo-American liberation dwindled ever smaller.
“Monte Cassino was our end”, repeated old Miklós Kállay in our regular conversations in exile in America. Kállay was Horthy’s most trusted man, whom he made Prime Minister in early 1942, to replace Bárdossy. Kállay’s anti-Nazi policies, among them his refusal of German demands for the deportation of Hungarian Jews, and his undercover negotiations with the Allies about Hungary’s switching sides directly prompted the German invasion and occupation of Hungary on 19 March 1944.
Searching for more culprits and scapegoats among the political elite of the Horthy regime seemed therefore more or less pointless to us in these discussions – even for the likes of me, who as a young Smallholder stood in political opposition to Horthy’s governments. In our prison the representatives of the best of that elite – Dálnoki Veress and Szent-Iványi, and of the best of the new and transient post-1945 democracy, people like Sándor Kiss or Endre Mistéth, agreed that geopolitics and power relations weighed so heavily against Hungary and the entire region that a different outcome could not have been expected even from a much more able political leadership.
Quite simply, the odds were against us. We thought that the region as a whole had been donated to the Soviet Union when the Allies changed their war strategy after their victory in North Africa. Indeed, as the witty adage says, in the end the Poles and the Czechs received as a gift what Hungarians received as a punishment: a Soviet occupation and Stalinist dictatorship, a terrible regime that Western and Central Europe did not even have the experience and imagination to foresee in its full reality. As we saw it, the Franco-British idea that had given birth to the botched Versailles Treaties of 1919–20, namely that a zone of new small nations would be able to withstand either a German drive for revenge or an aggressive Bolshevik power, had proven a total failure, and brought division, weakness and disaster to the whole of Central Europe.
We often thought about Roosevelt’s reasons for a change of strategy in 1943, bringing in the obscure Eisenhower who was to make so many concessions to the Soviets as commander-in-chief. I know that near the place where I was to live in Indiana after 1956, during the early years of the war a 650 strong special unit made up of Hungarian-speaking soldiers was receiving training at Camp Atterbury. The theme would deserve more research by historians – excellent people like the exiled poet György Faludy were trained there. The creation of such a force – and its ultimate disbanding – clearly indicates a change of strategy midway in the war. In good faith one may speculate that Roosevelt had apprehensions that Stalin might side with the Japanese at a later juncture, just as he had made a transitory alliance with Hitler when it had suited his interests. It could have been this fear that dictated to him so many of the steps that ultimately sealed the fate of East Central Europe for more than half a century, throwing the region into the arms of Stalin.
But let me return to Szent-Iványi, and pinpoint some of his other achievements, both before the war and after it, those that I was able to see or know about from close contact.
The mentor of Szent-Iványi was Count Pál Teleki, a Transylvanian aristocrat and scholar who received the best possible education that the early 20th century could offer to a gentleman of means. In mid-1920 Teleki accepted the job for Prime Minister for the first time, doing a great deal to stabilise the new Horthy regime. He firmly prohibited the anti-Communist violence that had broken out in late 1919, after the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. At the same time, exploiting his own good international reputation, he initiated significant steps to re-establish Hungary’s foreign relations in a radically new situation: the country had been freed from its dependence on Habsburg Austria but it had also been isolated as a result of the cordon sanitaire that the French invented, under the Versailles Treaty, to contain the alleged culprits of the First World War.
After less than a year at the helm of government, in April 1921, Pál Teleki, who was a man of deep public commitment but had no interest in power, returned to research and teaching. He left the brunt of stabilisation to his friend Count István Bethlen, another Transylvanian aristocrat, Prime Minister until mid-1931. Teleki and Bethlen both belonged to the close circle of Regent Horthy throughout the inter-war period, representing a nationalist and moderate liberal conservative political orientation.
Teleki and Bethlen were Anglophiles. They abhorred the emerging Nazi regime from its very beginning, just as they abhorred Soviet Bolshevism. They wanted to establish good relations with Britain, the USA and France, to balance the potential and real threats that the two totalitarian regimes meant for Hungary and Central Europe. Unfortunately – and tragically for the story of the Second World War – the British, and especially the French, did not regard seriously these overtures, rigidly keeping their allegiances to the fragile new countries that they had created around Hungary and Austria in 1919–1920.
As a Professor, Teleki regarded it his duty to build up a well-educated and committed body of young civil servants for the newly independent country, including many first generation intellectuals who would be participating in an effort to modernise the country. As early as 1922, Pál Teleki invited Domokos Szent-Iványi to be his Assistant Professor at the University. Born in 1898, the young man already had degrees in law, economics and chemical engineering, to which he soon added historical and diplomatic studies in Paris and Vienna. Besides these scholarly achievements Szent-Iványi was a passionate sportsman and a born talent for communication – clearly a man who was destined for an active life as much as contemplation. Soon he passed the demanding entrance examinations of the Hungarian diplomatic service, and in 1927 his eight American years followed. Szent-Iványi became an admirer of America and its political system, and he returned to Hungary full of new ideas, from international relations to image-making, from political theory to economics. His outlook was certainly more democratic and modern than that of his mentor, and that remained no secret between the two of them.
One of the great qualities of Teleki was that he always encouraged such differences of opinion, and was eager to bring new blood to his Institute, a veritable coaching ground for young sociologists, political scientists and would-be democratic politicians. As a born teacher, he was open to the ideas of young people to the end of his life, and curious enough to regularly exchange opinion with them. This was how, in fact, I got to know him in person. Teleki met, informally, with some regularity, with a circle of younger people who called themselves Fiatal Magyarság (“Young Hungarians”). Several of them were close to the opposition Smallholders’ Party, of which I was a member. I was 19 or 20, and the Prime Minister was there, sitting with us as one of a circle, and asked us questions about policy: how would you go ahead with that?
In 1938 Horthy asked Pál Teleki to prepare to take over the helm of government once more. That was the time when Szent-Iványi – on the recommendation of Teleki and Bethlen – was sent on his fact-finding mission to the USA. There was serious trouble in the Hungarian Parliament. In the aftermath of the Austrian Anschluss a large group within the Unified Party, together with Prime Minister Béla Imrédy, drifted to an aggressively pro-German position. Horthy, in a devious and tough manner, managed to force Imrédy out from the Prime Minister’s seat, making place for Teleki to come in in March 1939. At the time, Szent-Iványi was passing a few months as Political Counsellor at our Berlin Embassy, sounding the intentions of the Nazis and the state of mind of prominent Germans on the spot.
As Prime Minister, Teleki took a brave stance. In September 1939, on grounds of sovereignty and the age-old friendship between Poland and Hungary, he rejected Hitler’s demand to allow the German Army to march on Poland through newly regained Hungarian territory in the Northeast. When Poland fell, he opened the Hungarian borders to the stream of military and civilian refugees, some 100,000 people according to estimates. Many of the soldiers were to be smuggled out of Hungary toward the South, so as to be able to join Polish troops in the British armed forces. A large number of them survived the war in Hungary, where they lived under false identities, and were even provided with schooling in Polish for their children in Balatonboglár. On instructions from Teleki, through Minister of the Interior Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer and his special commissioner József Antall Sr, through Szent-Iványi, and the Hungarian military intelligence, down to many officials, a secret group in different government departments worked together with many civilians to set up and maintain this network.
So it happened that through our debating group, I met Prime Minister Teleki some six years earlier than his grey eminence Szent-Iványi. The latter did not participate at these monthly conversations. He was pre-occupied with foreign policy, and especially with Teleki’s stratagems to keep Hungary out of the war. For this confidential work, Teleki created a special Department, PMO IV, for Szent-Iványi at the Sándor Palace, the Prime Minister’s seat, ostensibly for press relations and contacts with Hungarian minorities outside the borders.
During his second premiership Pál Teleki adopted some of the policy proposals of the opposition Smallholders, though never so far as to give a green light to the general and comprehensive land reform that in a mainly agricultural country like Hungary would have pushed the peasantry towards becoming a strong middle class. Nevertheless, it was no accident that after his death, in 1943, Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer as Minister of the Interior, not only permitted but informally helped the establishment of the Peasant Alliance: a political school and think tank for the young elite of the Smallholders’ Party. This gained importance when it became the venue of many of Szent-Iványi’s confidential talks in 1945–46. It was also the place where the two of us had come to know each other initially.
Though I have limited space in this essay, it is enough perhaps to establish that Count Pál Teleki was seen by us and by international opinion, not least by Winston Churchill, as the most prominent anti-Nazi in Hungary. Another was the Smallholders’ eloquent parliamentary leader, Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, who tried to organise an anti-Nazi national uprising with high level officers in the Hungarian Army in the late autumn of 1944. When the Gestapo came to his arrest in March 1944 for the first time, he opened fire from the doorway of his apartment. Ultimately he was executed by the Nazis on Christmas eve, 1944. As I said earlier, Pál Teleki and Endre Bajcsy- Zsilinszky, these two martyrs, were the twin lights of Hungarian Independence for us.
I should not avoid responding, at least briefly, to some of the criticisms of his policies and character. How can I, as a modern democrat, an anti-Nazi and an anti-Communist, account for apparent blemishes and weaknesses in the image of my hero, a statesman who in very different conditions had to steer a ravaged country through the lethally dangerous waters of the inter-war years? Today an occasional allegation against Pál Teleki is that he was an anti-Semite. This charge was rarely raised against Teleki while prominent Jewish contemporaries were alive. As for Hungarian Nazis – they saw Regent Horthy, Pál Teleki and István Bethlen as nothing less than “Jewish hirelings”.
Was then Teleki an anti-Semite? No, he was not. In our debating circle, I never heard an abusive sentence or even an ambiguous slur about Jews from him. Anti-Semitism was simply not present in the Teleki family. Teleki’s only son, his loyal political heir, Géza, had a Jewish wife. And it is a telling argument that the single Hungarian official who did most to save Jews from deportation and death in 1944, namely Géza Soos, was Szent-Iványi’s deputy both in their office and in the secret Hungarian Independence Movement. And he was a man belonging to our circle of younger people.
It was Soos who got hold of the Auschwitz Testimonies written by two Slovakian Jews, who had been able to escape from the death camp in early 1944. He had it translated by his secretary, and sent it to diplomats and Jewish leaders abroad and in Hungary, as well as to Regent Horthy’s daughter-in-law Ilona. This was the first time – it was as late as spring 1944 – when political leaders in Europe and America read authentic personal testimony about systematic Nazi extermination going on in Auschwitz. The saving of most of Budapest Jews was made possible by Horthy’s personal reserve corps, the elite armoured battalion of Esztergom marching on Budapest on 5 July under the command of Colonel Ferenc Koszorús, dispersing and disarming pro-Nazi “gendarmerie” units. This was a direct result of Horthy’s stunned reading of the Testimonies.
Moreover, the government officials who from his arrival in July 1944 provided the martyred Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, with thousands of personal identity papers and “letters of relief”, as well as with personal co-operation from the Hungarian counter-intelligence, were the same network of people whom Teleki and Keresztes-Fischer had assigned for the operation of saving Polish and other war refugees from autumn 1939.
But two unsettling questions remain: the first is the two sets of “Jewish Laws”, one passed in 1938 under Imrédy’s Premiership, the other in 1939 when Teleki was Premier. Any late analyst with a reasonable knowledge and judgement recognises that in both cases, especially the Second Law, the legislation was a surrender to German pressure. It disappointed German expectations at a time when risking a German invasion from Austria was a possible consequence of displeasing Hitler. The anti-Jewish laws were not meticulously executed in Hungary, and more often they were sabotaged by the citizens and the Hungarian authorities, to the dismay of Hungarian Nazis and Hitler’s fifth column in the country. And, finally, it was one aspect of a strategic calculation or miscalculation: the expectation of Horthy’s circle and of most Hungarian patriots in the democratic opposition as well as Jewish leaders in Hungary was that Hitler would meet his end by late 1943, and the nightmare would be over – a small country like Hungary might therefore sit out things while resisting evil. Things, tragically, did not turn out that way, as we know.
The second question concerns the numerus clausus Pál Teleki enacted during his first premiership in 1921 which set a quota for Jewish students in the universities equal to the proportion of Jews in the Hungarian population. This law was clearly born during the violent backlash against the Hungarian Commune where intellectuals of Jewish background had a dominant role. The law helped to pacify the popular sentiment of the moment. It was paralleled by similar laws brought in by democratic countries at the time, including quotas employed by American universities. And such laws curtailing the academic and economic opportunities of Jews and other minority groups must be seen in a different light before and after Auschwitz. Auschwitz is a political, moral and metaphysical dividing line in history.
A humane and moral man like Pál Teleki would have been unable to imagine, much less accept the Satanic plan of the Holocaust, even given all the evil of Nazi slogans and Nazi violence projected before the war. A famous newsreel shows Teleki, the Prime Minister, as an official visitor on the grandstand at a Nazi mass celebration. He stands there in utter loneliness, visibly dismayed and horrified by Hitler’s parade and the mass hysteria surrounding it. His face and entire figure show a fine and definite contrast with the event and its implications. In another film clip his very different expression and posture can be seen as he greets Jewish Boy Scouts and chats merrily at their camp fire, on the event of the World Jamboree at Gödöllő in 1933.
From our post-Auschwitz perspective, the so-called Second Jewish law Teleki approved was a moral error. It harmed his reputation; it crops up in every assessment of his record and it is sometimes cited, unfairly, as a version of the Nuremberg Laws. But this should not negate the man’s fundamentally moral character and his otherwise liberal statecraft. The tragedy is that his Law failed to achieve its tactical objective; if it had been successful, most of us would judge less harshly his concessions to the then prevailing racist political climate.
My knowledge of the details of the Moscow armistice negotiations of September– November 1944 comes as much from Pál Teleki’s son, Count Géza Teleki, as from Domokos Szent-Iványi, and to a lesser extent from the head of the delegation, Lt. Colonel Gábor Faragho. We met regularly with Géza in our exile in the US after 1956. By then fortunes had turned in ways only imaginable in mid-century East Central Europe. Faragho had been allowed by the Communists to retire in anonymity and peace on a farm on the Hungarian Plains (though under ban to leave his house). Szent- Iványi remained in Budapest, a modest pensioner who gave language classes for a living – but in fact writing his memoirs and preparing for his final departure for the West.
The delegation that Horthy sent secretly to Moscow in mid-September 1944 had the best credentials. They carried a letter from Regent Horthy to Marshal Stalin which offered to end hostilities from the Hungarian side and to turn Hungarian troops on the country’s eastern borders against the Germans. Faragho was head of the Hungarian military intelligence; it was his deputy Lajos Kudar – later to be executed by the Gestapo – who arranged the car drive of the three anonymous gentlemen for a hunting trip to a Hungarian estate in Slovakia, near to which a Soviet military plane in the liberated zone waited for them. Faragho had served as military attaché in Moscow, spoke Russian, and was on excellent terms with several Soviet leaders. Géza Teleki, a geographer like his father, and a committed man of enormous knowledge, also embodied the continuity with his father’s anti-Nazi heritage. Szent-Iványi was by then the actual head of the secret Special Bureau in the Royal Palace, the Regent’s seat, planning the entire attempt of Hungary’s break with the Axis.
The three men got on very well, and reached all decisions jointly in the course of the protracted negotiations, for which materials had been prepared under the direction of Szent-Iványi. Regular communications with Budapest were impossible, which increased the responsibility of the three men. The armistice was signed on 12 October, and Horthy announced in a radio broadcast Hungary’s intention of leaving the German alliance and stopping war on the Soviet Union on 15 October. Horthy and his family were immediately arrested by the Germans, and transported to an isolated place in Germany – his son Miklós Jr taken to the Mauthausen concentration camp. Hungarian troops under pro-German generals did not follow Horthy’s command – and it also turned out that the Soviets were not keen to accept Hungarian military participation where the commanders offered it. A puppet government under the Hungarian Nazi leader Ferenc Szálasi introduced martial law, and for Hungary the worst five months of the war followed. German troops held out to the last bullet in Budapest, at the Führer’s unrelenting command, with the city all but destroyed by street fighting and air raids.
All three members of the armistice delegation were offered positions by the Soviets in the planned new Hungarian government, together with two generals of the Horthy army who arrived in Moscow after signature. Béla Dálnoki Miklós was to become Prime Minister, János Vörös the Defence Minister. As I mentioned, Szent-Iványi did not accept a position. The negotiations were chaired by Marshal Voroshilov – and the two top men of the Hungarian Communist exiles in Moscow, Mátyás Rákosi and Ernő Gerő sat at a corner of the table silently. When Géza Teleki asked occasionally what the two gentlemen thought about a question, Voroshilov answered for them: “We know what those two gentlemen think.”
While his companions travelled back to the city of Debrecen where the provisional democratic government was to be inaugurated in December 1944, Szent-Iványi remained alone in Moscow until mid-January. The long time, some six weeks, he spent there must have confirmed his feeling that the first government would be about haggling with Gerő and with Rákosi’s men, including infighting in the Communist Party. Perhaps he speculated – like many others – that his time would come after a peace treaty was negotiated, with – it was to be hoped – the Soviets leaving Hungary. Or he may have had middle to long range plans in the event of a lasting Soviet occupation. In any case, he decided to keep the gunpowder dry for a while.
After he arrived back in Hungary, he found that air had begun to cool around him. Neither General Dálnoki Miklós nor the Smallholders’ Chairman Tildy was keen to include him in government plans, even though an informal alliance between the Hungarian Independence Movement and the Smallholders’ Party had grown up during the final years of the war. Waves of the distrust felt towards Szent-Iványi by the Soviets and the Communists may have reached cautious politicians by then. In the end he was appointed Ambassador Plenipotentiary and given a room in the Foreign Ministry, where he wrote analyses on Hungary’s role in the War.
Thus it was that Szent-Iványi became an official foreign policy adviser for the Smallholders’ Party, where he enjoyed the personal trust and friendship of Ferenc Nagy and Béla Kovács. Beyond more private briefings, he participated in discussions of policy in small groups at the Peasant Alliance. On these occasions I knew him as the man who was the last to rise to speak. An elegant and relaxed figure, he listened, and never lost his cool. When someone asked me whether Szent-Iványi must have ever thought of becoming Prime Minister, I said that he would have accepted the job under pressure, but he was not keen to have it. So it seemed to me.
Among other things he worked on two confidential papers during 1945–46 that must have enraged the Communists if they learned about them – and surely they did, through wiretapping and the immense web of informers that they already had built up by the time. One of the papers, of which only one copy survives, and that in the archives of the secret police, was a sixty page memorandum written for the American and British Embassies in Budapest, on the country’s situation after the war and the prospects of the future. Szent-Iványi concluded in his appropriately complex analysis that for Hungary’s social and economic development, the influence of the Allied powers and of the Soviets was equally desirable. This conclusion, however moderate, was far less than the Soviets wanted for themselves.
The other paper was an analysis of the situation facing the Smallholders’ Party in the autumn of 1945, when the Soviets and Communists tried to force a joint election list on the Party. Kálmán Saláta, the young and fervent party strategist, organised the party leadership to put pressure on the cautious Zoltán Tildy and the vacillating Ferenc Nagy to reject the offer, and at the same time he and his diplomatic aides alerted the American and British Ambassadors in Budapest, who then protested with the Soviets against the plan as a curbing of the parliamentary system. This was the overture to the sweeping victory of the Smallholders in the national elections. Szent-Iványi was one of the authors of the confidential situation paper, and no doubt his diplomatic contacts were also involved in the outcome of the crisis.
In his ambassadorial room at the Ministry, Szent-Iványi was fervently working on his history of inter-war Hungarian diplomacy, based on confidential documents that he studied and partly copied in the government archives during the war, in preparation for an eventual post-war peace conference. A special value of his work is that it is only here, in Szent-Iványi’s 1000-page compilation, that the texts of many classified documents survived the destruction of the government archives during the siege of Budapest. The other book he worked on at the time was the first version, in Hungarian, The Hungarian Independence Movement. Before his arrest he was able to place in safety the typewritten four copies – one set of which was smuggled out to Britain, while a second one landed ultimately, again, in the archives of the political police.
I have told the rest of the events of 1946–47 at the beginning of this essay. Szent-Iványi was released from prison in mid-September 1956, hardly a month before the outbreak of the Hungarian Revolution. In the few victorious days of the Revolution, when Anastas Mikoyan of the Soviet Politburo conducted a negotiation with Tildy about the re-establishment of the 1945 coalition democracy in Hungary, his name again cropped up as candidate for the position of Foreign Minister. But all came to an end in the winter of 1956–57. It turned out that the Soviets and János Kádár did not want a compromise or co-operation but terror. At 58, Szent-Iványi may have reflected that his last chance in politics had been lost – and worse, the cause of Hungary’s freedom lost too.
The rest of Szent-Iványi’s tale came to me from friends, and above all from his widow, Ágnes Szent-Iványi. Quiet years of resignation and dogged work followed for him – first of all, his health had to be repaired after the malnutrition and maltreatment of ten years in the prisons of the Communists. A doctor whom he married took his rehabilitation into her hands. Owing to her care, his good genes and his sportsman’s spirit, recovery was successful, and he even survived her, although he was the older of them.
In 1970, in a hospital room, he met an enthusiastic, beautiful young woman, Ágnes Pongrácz, who became entirely smitten by the old man’s chivalrous charm and his immense knowledge and wisdom. Also, coming from a similar middle- class background, Ágnes became fascinated by Szent-Iványi’s life of dedication to national causes, which she was to learn in great detail in the following years. Szent-Iványi wanted to leave for the West, to be able to complete the writing in English of his memoirs and books on recent history.
In 1972 they asked for passports separately, so as to evade suspicion, and travelled separately to the West. A Danish diplomat stationed in Vienna, one of Szent- Iványi’s friends from his youth, picked up documents and manuscripts hidden in suitcases at the Budapest apartment of a friend, and drove them to safety in Vienna, where later Domokos and Ágnes re-united and married. After three years they moved to Konstanz, and again three years later to Heidelberg. During these last eight years of his life, no doubt with Ágnes as a Muse and a nourishing protector, Szent-Iványi tirelessly worked on his four voluminous books, which could not be opened before 2005 according to his will.
The Hungarian Independence Movement is his first English manuscript to be published as a book, thanks again to the dedication and tenacity of Ágnes. The editors asked me to contribute an introduction, a testimony about the man and his work. I felt honoured by the invitation. As it may have become obvious, I have a deep respect and love for this great forgotten figure, and I believe that the first-hand accounts of events that he lived through are not only vividly authentic, but they may also cast a new light on the interpretation of the era.
Recorded from conversations with Nóra Szekér and Gyula Kodolányi, translated into English and composed by Gyula Kodolányi.