DOMOKOS SZENT-IVÁNYI AND HIS BOOK: AN INTRODUCTION – PART II

Part II

Even after Teleki’s tragic death it remained politically practicable for politicians in the highest places to organise both secret foreign policy and Hungarian anti-Nazi resistance while at the same time behaving as allies of Germany. As British historian C. A. Macartney remarked with much insight: “the fact there was a need for such a winding road illustrates the special and complicated situation in which Hungary got to”.1

After Prime Minister László Bárdossy (Pál Teleki’s successor) took office in mid- April 1941, Szent-Iványi found himself in a rather complicated situation too. As far as the new Prime Minister was concerned, Teleki’s rule “say what dictators want [us to say], but do nothing [of the sort]” no longer applied. Pressure from the Third Reich at the height of its success was growing, and Bárdossy, following his own odd tactics, was leaning to German demands rather than discreetly disobeying them as his predecessor had done. As a consequence Hungary became increasingly subordinate to the interests of Nazi Germany, drifting into war and within barely half a year making enemies of Britain, the US and the Soviet Union. This context hence necessitated a much deeper level of anti-Nazi activity by the  Hungarian  Independence  Movement  (MFM),  the  network  Szent-Iványi had been organising while in charge of ME-IV, the Information Department of the PM’s office. Aside from his crucial activities in MFM, another point of historical significance from this period of Domokos Szent-Iványi’s life emerges from the publishing of the first of his memoirs. It was in that period that he began researching confidential Hungarian government archives, with the aim of writing the diplomatic history of post-Trianon Hungary. After Miklós Kállay, the new antiwar and anti-Nazi Prime Minister replaced Bárdossy in March 1942, his research became officially endorsed although invariably secret, and Szent-Iványi was authorised to access all confidential and classified material from the inter-war period. His mission formed part of Kállay’s preparation for future peace talks: formally, Domokos Szent-Iványi was assigned to put together all the documents that could prove Hungary’s exigency at any peace conference in the future, and prove its sympathies lay with the Allied Powers beneath its surface pro-German policies. Though his work Csonka-Magyarország külpolitikája (The Foreign Policy of Rump Hungary) in the end was unable to meet its objective, it is thanks to Szent-Iványi’s study that many important and significant documents that were lost in the Allied bombings of Budapest are known to us today as a result of reliable quotations in his mighty compilation. This work, and the similar records made by his friend Permanent Under Secretary of the Cabinet István Bárczy, also were used by the People’s Courts after 1945 to establish political responsibility for Hungary’s entry into the War.

During Miklós Kállay’s premiership (9 March 1942 – 19 March 1944) an extensive campaign of secret activities was launched to prepare Hungary’s exit from the war. Contacts in this early phase were made exclusively with the Anglo-Saxon powers. The failure of these attempts stemmed from the fact that by then the Soviet Union demanded a decisive role in the fate of the region for itself. Western diplomats coordinated all such Hungarian diplomatic efforts with the Soviets. Hungarian policy makers, however, were averse to doing so because they viewed Stalin’s Soviet Union – as history later proved absolutely not without reason – no less a threat to Hungarian sovereignty as Hitler’s Germany.

In this very sensitive activity Szent-Iványi was again given a part. But, as is evident from his memoirs he had reservations about the way Kállay put together his teams to prepare for leaving the Axis. As the virtual intelligence chief of Premier Teleki and mastermind of the MFM, he felt that Kállay’s people violated the basic rules of conspiracy. He considered it a grave mistake to include such well-known anti- Nazi public figures as Nobel-Laureate biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi and his likes, who clearly featured in the Nazis’ bad books and were surely under constant German counterintelligence surveillance.

His criticism of Kállay, however, appears to ignore the political necessity of building a wide base of public support for such a radical change of policy as switching sides to the Allied powers. Also, he downplays the uncertainties and pressures Kállay faced, which were part and parcel of how mediation and communication worked in 1943–44 when diplomatic channels had been almost closed down. Szent-Iványi regretted that many key threads in Kállay’s cobweb of conspiracy were either people of Jewish origin, or politicians and businessmen registered by the Nazis as philo-Semites because of their Jewish wives, all of which led to attention from German intelligence. In Szent-Iványi’s view these strategic errors would directly lead to the unveiling of the conspiracies and provoke Hungary’s occupation by Germany.

It is important to note here that Szent-Iványi’s disapproval of the Jewish element in the diplomatic channels of the Kállay government does not equate to anti- Semitism on his part. It was rather the pragmatic analysis of a man grounded in realpolitik, who had given ample evidence of his high moral and political standards. We must remember that in a multi-ethnic Hungary talk of ethnic background was a natural theme of everyday conversation, which since the liberal mid-1800s had not carried negative undertones. It was with the emergence of Nazism that ethnic and racial connections took on ominous connotations going beyond political discourse to a matter of life and death. In the 1930s Jews began to feel threatened by the rhetoric and violence of Nazis not only in Germany but throughout East Central Europe. The threat was all the more real, since, as Szent- Iványi discusses in several passages in his book, the Nazis had recruited a fifth column from among ethnic Germans and middle-class people of German family background in Hungary, and planted agents and sympathisers in all spheres and levels of social and political life.

During the war, prominent Jews became particular targets of German intelligence gathering and surveillance. At the same time, many ethnic Germans, called Swabians by Szent-Iványi in accordance with Hungarian custom, became a liability and even threat at high levels of the Hungarian administration, and especially those of the armed forces. Szent-Iványi dwells at great length, repeatedly, on the German background of soldiers like Chief of Staff Henrik Werth, whose blind belief in German military supremacy led to a fatal political commitment, a blindness that led to duplicity or outright treason by many commanding officers, and ultimately thwarting Horthy’s attempt to exit both the war and the Axis camp in October 1944.

Again, Szent-Iványi should not be labelled as an anti-German racist for focusing on ethnic German backgrounds. It is a fact relatively unknown that the Nazis also claimed that Germans in Hungary were an oppressed minority, whom they promised to liberate from Hungarian rule – as they did in the “liberated” regions of Yugoslavia.

With the German military occupation (Operation Margarethe) on 19 March 1944 Hungary lost its sovereignty, and both Hungarian foreign and internal affairs fell under German control. Arrests of many members of the anti-Nazi circles followed immediately, and Eichmann was sent to Budapest by Hitler in order to organise the “final solution” for Jews in Hungary at last, which Hungarian governments had opposed and sabotaged for many years. Any political attempt to challenge Hitler’s intentions meant an imminent risk to one’s life. In this situation the Hungarian Independence Movement pursued two main goals: on the one hand to save people’s lives, which primarily meant saving Hungarian Jews. On the other hand the preparations for the exit from the Axis continued in Horthy’s circle, and now extended to talks with the Soviet Union.

MFM’s life saving efforts were coordinated by Szent-Iványi’s deputy Géza Soos, while Szent-Iványi himself once again supervised the exit plans. For the latter, with the Regent’s personal authorisation, he created the umbrella organisation of the so-called Special Bureau, which officially administered the affairs and businesses of homecoming Hungarians. The Regent’s son Miklós Horthy, Jr was made formal Head of the Bureau, whose operations were managed by Szent-Iványi. Regent Horthy chose to stay in office after the German occupation, but his presence meant more than the maintenance of the semblance of legitimacy. He realised that in the occupied country he remained the only independent authority, with at least limited power to rally resistance. As a result, in this period of unfolding events, most anti-Nazi forces from Hungary’s political elite gathered around the Regent, also advising him on his precarious course. Through Miklós Horthy, Jr and the Regent’s daughter-in-law Ilona, the widow of István Horthy, Domokos Szent-Iványi maintained personal contact with the Regent at this time. Although Horthy, Sr believed that extending the Soviets’ influence to Hungary was fatal, he could still be convinced at this point that making an armistice with the Soviets was inevitable, and so he gave the special mandate that guaranteed the legitimacy of the men he secretly sent to Moscow in September 1944.

The armistice delegation of Gábor Faragho, Domokos Szent-Iványi and Géza Teleki left on a perilous journey to Russia on 28 September, and managed to sign a temporary ceasefire with Soviet leaders on 11 October in Moscow. But Horthy’s ceasefire announcement was immediately followed by the Nazi-backed coup of the Arrow-Cross Party on 15 October. After the forced resignation of Regent Horthy on 16 October the ceasefire was not able to come into force.

The members of the delegation, all anti-Nazi experts from Hungary’s political elite, formed the so-called Moscow Hungarian Committee and continued negotiations with the highest circles of the Soviet government about Hungary’s post-war political structure, the Provisional National Government and the Provisional National Assembly. The details of these Moscow talks form one of the most exciting parts of Domokos Szent-Iványi’s memoirs, revealing many important facts published here for the first time.

Domokos Szent-Iványi was the last member of the delegation to return to Hungary on 20 January 1945. In early 1945 Hungary seemed to have a chance to (re)build its political system on democratic grounds. The Yalta Declaration, the seemingly moderate touch the Soviets applied to domestic politics at the beginning, and the massive American military presence in Europe all gave rise to such hopes. Concerning the latter, most pro-democracy Hungarian politicians believed that US military might be a guarantee to keep dictatorial Soviet intentions at bay. History would soon quash those hopes, giving only two short years to Hungary to savour democracy. American forces were quickly reduced in size and fatally withdrawn from Europe, to the dismay of those who saw all too clearly what would follow.

The Horthy system did not establish modern democracy despite some reforms in the Thirties. It unfortunately delayed the pressing transformation of the old elites, and was slow in abolishing the built-in brakes of political change, including restricted election rights and aborted land reform. In the Horthy era real democracy was made impossible by the fact that the system preserved to a large extent the ill- proportioned “semi-feudal” social structure of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire, where one third of the population lived in poverty and had no civil rights. With the collapse of the system in 1944, post-liberation, the time had come for the opposition democratic forces of the Horthy era to establish a modern parliamentary structure and a more equitable social system. It was to the credit of these politicians that in a rather short period of time they could build a democratic system, and establish a party structure in the late 19th-century Hungarian and Western tradition. The deep-rooted nature of this democratic structure was clearly shown by the fact that during the short-lived 1956 Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence this party system could be reactivated in a matter of a few days.

Yet it is not by chance that this era is called the “menaced democracy”. Although the Soviets allowed Hungary to have one entirely democratic free election and let the resulting multi-party parliamentary system function, in the background they had already made preparations for the seizure of absolute control and power. All the organs of Hungarian state security came under the control of the Soviet- backed Hungarian Communist Party that had already started supervising and terrorising Hungarian citizens.

Domokos Szent-Iványi did not play a prominent part in the new democracy. He rejected the Soviets’ offer to become the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Provisional National Government; he was also a candidate to become Speaker of the House, but political haggling changed the outcome intended by Ferenc Nagy – and so he stayed in the background as an advisor on foreign affairs for the Independent Smallholders’ Party. He belonged to that group of politicians who believed that Hungary would have to adjust itself to the fact that it had ended up within the Soviet sphere of influence, and who at this time still saw a chance for preserving the country’s democratic framework and relative independence via political compromises. For this modus vivendi, however, having the West by their side was vital, as only the West could guarantee the sovereignty of the region. Having these principles on his mind he wrote a 50-page memorandum, and passed it to the English and US embassies. In his work he summed up the tendencies that had evolved in Hungary’s internal affairs, and made concrete suggestions on the prospects of Hungarian–Western economic and cultural cooperation.

In these post-war years Szent-Iványi was still in touch with the members of MFM. A few people in a fraternal inner circle of friends regularly met to discuss actual political issues. During their friendly discussions they came to the conclusion that to balance Soviet influence in Hungary the contacts and associations they had made in the anti-Nazi struggle of MFM might prove useful. Yet no concrete actions were taken.

During this period, however, Szent-Iványi concentrated on writing his manuscript. On 24 December 1946 while working in the Library of the Parliament he was arrested by state security agents, and so ten years of imprisonment began.

The arrest of Domokos Szent-Iványi came as part of preparations for a grandiose chain of show trials. State security wanted to eliminate the secretly operated Community of Hungarian Brotherhood (Magyar Testvéri Közösség, MTK) that had several prominent public figures among its members, including MPs and influential politicians from the Smallholders’ Party. The pretext for Szent-Iványi’s arrest stemmed from the fact that the inner circle he discussed current political affairs with was also formed by MTK members.

For the Hungarian Communist Party the uncovering of an illegal network that fomented conspiracies was a perfect opportunity to eliminate its greatest political adversary, the Smallholders’ Party. In their script for the trials, MTK mobilised not only members from the Smallholders’ Party but also “reactionary forces” (i.e. prominent members of the Horthy establishment). The Hungarian Communist Party and its prosecutors stumbled upon a fantastic bounty in MTK: by distorting and sensationalising facts they transformed the meetings of a fraternal society with close ties to the Smallholders’ Party into a conspiracy to overthrow the state. A scenario of high treason against the young Hungarian Republic was soon put together by prosecutors, and the series of arrests of MTK members was launched on 16 December 1946. On 6 January 1947 Szabad Nép, the daily newspaper of the Communist Party informed its readers as follows: “This conspiracy aimed […] to overthrow the Republic and its democratic system by force. They made preparations to come into power by raw force and tried to secure achieving their goals by sparking off an armed military rebellion.”2The indictment claimed that the governing body of the plot was the so-called Vezértanács (Council of Leaders, a name invented by the creators of the trial) – consisting of exactly the same group of people who invited Szent-Iványi to join them. Just a few days later on 17 January Szabad Nép was already wondering whether Prime Minister Ferenc Nagy and Béla Kovács, the General Secretary of the Smallholders’ Party, were involved in this conspiracy. Within months these suggestions led to serious consequences: Béla Kovács was deported to imprisonment in Russian Siberia on 25 February 1947, Ferenc Nagy was forced to resign on 1 June 1947, and eventually the Smallholders’ Party was removed from power.

The series of MTK-related show trials, comprising 227 defendants in seven legal proceedings, was a turning point in Hungary’s post-war history. Aside from the fact that these trials meant the Communists could defeat and fatally weaken the Smallholders’ Party, it also became clear that instead of a democracy a ferocious dictatorship was evolving. The means applied by the Soviet-controlled Communist Party clearly demonstrated that in the Hungarian political game the rules of democratic checks and balances were working no longer. From this moment on Hungary’s political life became subordinate to the logic of totalitarian systems, in which even the suspicion of a view or a standpoint differing from the official stance brought with it the threat of being accused of high treason.

In this choreographed political drama the role of the Fascist and the Reactionary was given to the MTK, which Szent-Iványi professed he came to know of only after the War. What kind of movement was the MTK? No doubt it was a real network working in secret, following the rules of conspiracy. Most likely it was rooted in a historic Transylvanian secret society. Its aim was to bring together and support – in MTK’s own words – “good Hungarian men” dedicated to promote “the cause of the Hungarian people”. The aim, however, is not further elaborated by MTK. The Community had no detailed ideology defining the right way to promote Hungarian interests. It did not link its actions either to specific political or ideological views, or to some specific social class. MTK was doing exactly the opposite: it aimed to represent itself in all – social, economic, intellectual and political – walks of life, backing all tendencies that advanced Hungarian interests. Hence it was open to any tenets not threatening Hungarian sovereignty.

This “idea of independence” and the fact that since the 1930s MTK had considered Nazism to be the greatest threat to Hungarian interests created a platform for cooperation between them and the Hungarian Independence Movement (MFM). Yet, while MFM was rather a coordinating body with no real members, MTK was cellularly built, and its underground operational methods and wide scale of social connections made it the most important anti-Nazi social network within MFM – without their organisational existence being known. What a strange irony, to MFM and its mastermind Szent-Iványi.

The accusation that MTK was a meeting place for pro-Nazi (in contemporary Hungarian phraseology: pro-Fascist) individuals and an umbrella for their activities proves how unfounded and grotesque this show trial was. Defendants in the trial had nearly all risked their lives in the anti-Nazi resistance of MTK and/ or MFM. And yet these people were convicted of pro-Fascist activities and forced to bear this mark for a lifetime, as they remained under police surveillance even during the Kádár era, to the end of their lives.

Domokos Szent-Iványi was released from prison on 21 September 1956; by then he was very sick. After his release he led a modest sequestered life, living from translations and language teaching. After all the hardships and tortures he went through, besides being completely ignored (except by the secret police), he still had a life goal to pursue: to finish his memoirs and to secure and preserve them with all the other documents he collected throughout the years. János Kádár’s Hungary, however, was not a safe place for manuscripts defying the Party’s official version of history. Szent-Iványi as an “enemy of the regime” was not allowed to travel abroad for many years, and was kept under surveillance, so he would have been unable to smuggle out his papers. In the spring of 1971 it happened by mere chance that he was able to send his writings abroad. John Knox, a veteran diplomat, whom Szent-Iványi met and befriended during his first mission to the United States, was on an official visit to Budapest when they bumped into each other. Knox was Ambassador of Denmark, and the doyen of the diplomatic corps in Vienna at the time. One day Knox’s Viennese car, with diplomatic exemption, stopped at a previously agreed location and safely spirited abroad suitcases full of manuscripts, documents and photographs. In September 1972 Domokos Szent- Iványi followed his life’s works: he made it out to Vienna and spent the rest of his life in exile, working strenuously – with the assistance of his dedicated second wife, Ágnes – on his memoirs.

***

This vision of an integrated Europe is the pillar of the political thought of Szent-Iványi. The other pillar is implied in the title of this book: the drive for independence and sovereignty, which the iconic statesmen and thinkers of Hungary never abondoned since the Mohács debacle of 1526, during the more than 150 years of Ottoman occupation in the heart of the country, and then the much longer period of varieties of Habsburg rule and cohabitation. Both pillars – integration and sovereignty – were significantly consolidated by the Revolution and the War of Independence of 1848–49, whose spokesmen were László Teleki and Lajos Kossuth. Teleki stressed the importance of cooperation with the nationalities and neighbours of Hungary. Kossuth was one of the few politicians of the past that Szent-Iványi quoted in this book, and during his long life in exile Kossuth never gave up the idea of a Danubian confederation – stretching from Southern Germany to the Danube delta, to supersede the obsolete Habsburg monarchy and to create a Central Europe of freely associated peoples.

However, even from this deliberately restrained and unemotional book, it becomes clear that the Europe Szent-Iványi envisioned had become a mirage by the Second World War. He was profoundly disappointed by British foreign policy between the two Wars – and when in 1939 he spoke of his vision of a Europe in ruins after the war to come, he thought of Europe as a spiritual and intellectual entity too. Added to his intimate personal knowledge of the United States, this conviction made him one of the first Hungarian politicians who had a modern Euro-Atlantic outlook based on shared cultural values. His forerunner was Pál Teleki, but Szent- Iványi was even more modern in outlook than his mentor.

Yet a Euro-Atlantic outlook was little help for Szent-Iványi when he was finishing his book in 1977. The last notes of the book are uttered in two voices. His almost mystical faith in the survival of Hungary goes hand in hand with reflection on his miraculous escapes from the deepest troughs of his own life, and the emergence of its redeeming figures, his two wives, Margit and Ágnes.

At the same time, his perception of the strength and spirit of the West of the day is revealingly reflected in his recommendation that we make peace with the Russian presence and with a János Kádár who, however unwholesome, had made life “liveable” in Hungary, after the extremities of Stalinist oppression in 1948–1956, and his own campaign of terror between 1956 and 1963.

The resilience, the perseverance and the spiritual energy of Domokos Szent-Iványi made him an extraordinary actor among his contemporaries. Without these qualities, he could not have written his book. But, more importantly, he could not have endured the historical events that he recorded in the book. After all, the book is the story of a national tragedy, of a debacle, where even good and sound strategies came to little or nothing, because of human weaknesses and because of the harshness of the larger historical context. We have to remember that this book is recounted by a patriot, the protagonist of an endgame, who had to negotiate a harsh armistice with mighty victors, and had to sign that document in the name of his nation – while his share of the responsibility in that debacle was little or nothing.

Szent-Iványi died on 19 July 1980. For more than three decades, he lived a harsh life with no success or public recognition. In the prison he was nicknamed the “White Pope” because of his silvery grey hair and the calm his person radiated. His five volume work proves that he was a man with a calling, taking the back seat behind the cause he served, choosing to testify for the fight for Hungary’s sovereignty in a modern democratic Europe.


Translated by János Kávássy and Gyula Kodolányi

 

1 C. A. Macartney: The Premiership of Pál Teleki 1939–1941, Occidental Press, Budapest, 1993, p. 43.

2 In István Csicsery-Rónay – Géza Cserenyey: Koncepciós per a Független Kisgazdapárt szétzúzására [A show trial to crush the

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