On 17 March 1944, the Regent travelled to Klessheim at Hitler’s request. He was accompanied by Minister of Foreign Affairs Jenő Ghyczy, Minister of Defence Lajos Csatay, and Chief of the General Staff Szombathelyi. In Klessheim, they met for talks with Hitler and the German leaders on 18 March. Hitler reproached Horthy for the conduct of the Kállay government. He tried to prove that the Hungarian government was playing a two-faced game, for while it strove to convince the Germans that it was remaining faithfully at the side of the Axis powers, it was seeking to establish ties with the Western powers. The Hungarian government, in his view, was winking at the left-wing, and preparations were underway for a left-wing putsch in Hungary. In order to prevent this putsch, he had already ordered his troops to occupy Hungary and help the Regent ensure that a government would be formed in Hungary that was reliable from the point of view of the Germans.
This was the account given by the Regent to Mihály Arnóthy-Jungerth, the permanent deputy to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, of his meeting and confrontation with Hitler. (Mihály Arnóthy-Jungerth told me this himself, when he and I spoke in the camp in Pocking about the events that brought about the country’s fall.)
When Horthy entered Hitler’s reception room on 18 March, Schmidt, Hitler’s translator, was also present. When the Regent noticed this, he expressed his disappointment that someone else was going to be present for the conversation. He asked Hitler to confer with him one on one. Hitler sent Schmidt out of the room. Hitler then reproached Horthy, contending that the Hungarian government was in talks with the Anglo-Saxons and wanted to abandon the Germans. The Regent protested against this accusation.
Hitler, however, stubbornly insisted on the accusations, claiming that he had proof. Horthy was consistent in his insistence that this was not true. He also gave his word that, as long as he was Regent, Hungary would not abandon the Germans. Even at this, Hitler was not willing to change his view. He announced that he had already taken the preparatory measures to send German soldiers to Hungary. In the meantime, he placed a document in front of the regent according to which the German soldiers had marched into Hungary with the consent of the Regent.
Horthy pushed this document to the side. He protested against the occupation of his country and also against the fact that Hitler had stuck to his accusations even though he had given his word that the accusations were baseless. He insisted that Hitler had no right to doubt his words. Then he left Hitler’s room.
After he had left, he recounted the events to the members of his entourage. It was then announced that they should go to the lunch, to which the Regent said that he would not take part in the meal. He wanted to have lunch in his room.
The members of his entourage tried to dissuade him, saying that this would be an insult to their host, Hitler, and they asked the Regent to take part in the lunch. They managed to prevail on him to join the others for lunch. The mood was tense and cold. After the meal, Horthy and Hitler conferred again in the room next to the dining hall, but they could not arrive at any mutual understanding, for Hitler stuck to the accusations. Horthy eventually brought the debate to an end by saying that he would withdraw to his quarters and depart immediately.
In the course of the next discussion, which was between Hitler and Szombathelyi, the chief of the General Staff strove to make amends and remedy the situation, which threatened to culminate in a complete rift, for Hitler wanted to have the Regent arrested. Szombathelyi told him that this would be the biggest mistake he could make. It would cause a scandal so far-reaching that Germany would lose Hungary once and for all. He would give the Allied press a wonderful propaganda opportunity were he to do this. Hitler did not easily give up the idea of having Horthy arrested. (Szombathelyi told me all this himself in the course of one of our walks in Sopronkőhida.)
Horthy gave in to his entourage, and he gave up his resolution not to name a government. Ribbentrop first suggested that Horthy name Szombathelyi prime minister. Szombathelyi, however, recommended Sztójay instead. Later, Szombathelyi also informed me that Hitler had told him that he only sought to acquire a political guarantee, since he was not satisfied with the conduct of the Kállay government. In spite of the warning that he had given the Regent in Klessheim in April 1943, no changes had taken place in Hungarian politics. He had no ill-will against Hungary. It was in Germany’s interests that a strong, independent Hungary stand at its side. He knew that Hungary had always been an independent kingdom, and not simply a part of the Austrian empire, like the Czech lands. At the moment, it was simply a matter of his troops, which were on the advance, marching into and occupying Hungary. Then, once he had reached his goal, within two or three weeks he would make the country free again.
Thus, the Regent and his entourage left Klessheim with this agreement in mind. The first wave of outrage, regrettably, subsided. The Regent had given in and accepted the suggestions of his advisor, who counselled restraint, and he had not broken ties with the Germans. Horthy now knew that he could not do anything to prevent the occupation, for in the meantime the armoured divisions had crossed into Hungarian territory. In the morning hours, an order was issued from his train instructing the Hungarian authorities not to resist the Germans, because that would have meant bloodshed. However, there was resistance in some places. There could be no talk of direct opposition, however, because according to the chief of the General Staff, part of the army and, in particular, part of the officer corps was completely under the influence of right-wing politicians, and there would not have been a show of unified opposition even if an order to oppose the Germans had been given. In his view, the army was completely supportive of the Germans, and it was only waiting for the political leadership finally to end up in the hands of the extreme right-wing parties. It would not have taken up the fight against the Germans, as indeed proved true on 15 October 1944. The Regent had lost. He had to confront that, and this was why he had given an order to avoid a show of opposition to the Germans.
If one considers the events that took place in Klessheim and the conduct of the people who were there coldly and objectively, from the perspective of the likely fate of the nation, one must concede that in Klessheim Hungary’s fate was sealed, because they failed to take advantage of the moment at which they had every reason to break once and for all with the Germans and withdraw from the war. Kállay’s government had failed, and Horthy, as Hitler’s captive, could proudly have said that he had saved Hungary’s future at the cost of his own liberty and possibly life.
As Szombathelyi said, the reason for the occupation “was to be sought in the politics and personal conduct of Kállay”. It had been a mistake, in his view, for Kállay to have avoided all personal contact with the German leaders, since he might have achieved more had he had a personal relationship with them. After the scolding that Horthy had been given by Hitler in 1943, he should have woken up, and he should have realised that the Germans were not guided by the subtle tools of diplomacy, but rather by the brutal use of force without scruple, and it was this force that had to be thwarted. Horthy, alas, did not realise this.
I often got information concerning the events in the world and the fluctuations in politics from Pál Fodor, the editor of Kis Újság [Little Newspaper]. I knew what was taking place in the political swamps. I learned of all of the government’s important plans. This was how I knew that the Regent had travelled to Klessheim on 17 March 1944. Fodor informed me that major events were approaching, and the occupation of Hungary by the Germans was imminent. I learned of the news concerning this in a definite form on 18 March. I also learned that the chief of the General Staff had instructed Colonel Bajnóczy to interrogate the German military attaché. He had denied, however, that the German divisions that had advanced on Hungary’s borders had any kind of aggressive intentions. They were only performing exercises. The idea of an attack against Hungary was a fairytale at most. My informant, however, insisted in spite of this that the Germans were going to attack Hungary. The people in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had come to this conclusion as well, even if the ambassador in Berlin, Sztójay, had not said a word about it, though he had now been in Vienna for weeks.
In the late morning hours of 18 March, I received a telephone call from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I was informed that the German troops had already reached Győr and were on their way to Budapest. I was told to leave Budapest immediately, since as a consequence of the impending German occupation I would no longer be safe. There was good reason to fear that the Germans would arrest me. I did not, however, take this advice. On Sunday 19 March, in the early morning hours I again received reports on the basis of which I could tell that the news was true. The Germans had crossed into the country and indeed were already in Budapest. They took control of the general headquarters, the castle district and the Hungarian Radio. In other words, they were the rulers of the land.
They said that Minister of Internal Affairs Ferenc Keresztes- Fischer, his younger brother Lajos Keresztes-Fischer (the Regent’s Adjutant-General), parliamentary representatives Károly Rassay, Károly Peyer and Géza Malasits, Count György Pallavicini, Count József Somssich and many other leading politicians had been arrested by the Germans. Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, who had put up armed resistance, had been shot. I later learned that he had not been killed, but rather had only been seriously wounded in the firefight that had broken out when they had tried to apprehend him.
I was enraged by this. This is how our ally treats us? It seems that Germany sees itself as our enemy? We must break all ties with it! We must draw the far-reaching conclusions that this brutal attack entails. We must withdraw from the war! God himself has given us a last chance, served up on a silver platter! The regent must resign, or at the very least he must not appoint a new government. If they occupy Hungary completely and they appoint a new government, it is now clear that as far as we are concerned, the war is over. There are more than enough examples of this. The case of Norway, of Belgium, of Denmark. The Germans occupied these countries. They even appointed governments, but these countries nonetheless had not submitted to them. We would do this as well. No more Hungarian blood would flow for German interests. The world would see that we were not willing to lie down in front of the German boot of our own will. This was how I spoke with the people who asked me what would happen now.
The Regent and his entourage had not yet returned from Klessheim. Some people even said that the Germans had arrested them. This, however, was not true. The Regent’s special train arrived in Budapest in the morning hours. By that time, the city and the administration was already in the hands of the Germans. Kállay had resigned, and he had taken sanctuary in the Turkish Embassy. Thus, the Germans were unable to arrest him.
After the Regent had returned from Klessheim and appointed the Sztójay government, Mihály Arnóthy-Jungerth had an audience with him. As I have already recounted, the Regent brought up the events in Klessheim, and he asked Arnóthy-Jungerth whether he could have done anything other than appoint Sztójay Prime Minister. To this, Arnóthy-Jungerth replied that he could have done something else. There was the example of the Danish king. By this, he meant that Horthy should not have appointed Sztójay, and he should have resisted the German demands. Perhaps he even should have stepped down. At this, the Regent struck the elbow rests of his armchair with both hands and said the following:
“I do not insist on this chair, I will leave, but I cannot watch idly as Archduke Albrecht or Szálasi himself takes my place!”
Nonetheless, it would have been better to have followed the example of the Danish king, for not only did the occupation of the country become permanent, but soon the Regent was removed from the seat that was then taken not by Archduke Albrecht, but by the far more dangerous figure: Szálasi.
Sztójay was not eager to accept the mandate concerning the restructuring of the government, because he felt he was both old and sick. The Regent, however, essentially compelled him to, justifying his insistence with the contention that Sztójay had the complete trust of the Germans. Under Sztójay’s leadership, the country slipped completely to the right, to the edge of the precipice. The German occupying forces put every sign of life in the country under their control. Ministers and politicians who were not faithful adherents of the Germans were arrested or were compelled to flee or go into hiding. The arrest and deportation of Minister of Internal Affairs Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer and his younger brother, the Regent’s Adjutant-General Lajos Keresztes-Fischer threw open the gates and a series of arrests followed. The arrests of Károly Rassay, Count György Pallavicini, Count György Apponyi, Károly Peyer, Géza Malasits, Dezső Laky, Lipót Baranyay, Károly Huszár, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Andor Szentmiklóssy, and diplomat Aladár Szegedy-Maszák showed clearly that the Germans were conducting themselves as if they were in an enemy country, and the Hungarian government was a craven servant of the German commander.
Now I was earnestly advised to flee Budapest immediately. At this, my wife and I left for Klotildliget to stay with our daughter.
After a week of labour pains, the Sztójay government was formed. The appointment of this government was an enormous mistake. First and foremost, Sztójay was not suitable, as a person, to lead Hungary’s government in such difficult and dire times. His outlook, which was widely known as pro-German, and his political inexperience essentially put him in the hands of the politicians who were under Imrédy’s control and who had no aversion whatsoever to having Szálasi take over leadership of the country in Horthy’s place. They were the politicians who, not considering the strategic situation and misjudging the abilities of the Germans, not realising that Germany had reached the limits of its strength and was approaching the bottom of the slope, still believed that they could win this war. They counted on the conflicts that allegedly had arisen between the Anglo-Saxons and the Russians. These conflicts, however, were not so deep that the Anglo-Saxons and the Russians would part ways before achieving victory. These politicians did not consider the actual situation or the tremendous numerical superiority of the allies. They believed that it sufficed to proclaim, as Sztójay said during his first speech to the parliament, that “we will triumph, because we must triumph, and we want to triumph!” Sztójay, however, did not speak about whether or not the preconditions for this desire to win had been met: the strength, the necessary materials and the psychological endurance. It does not suffice to proclaim the desire to triumph, for if one does not have the necessary strength, this proclamation becomes an empty phrase, and it only fools people who are unfamiliar with the situation. They completely misled the Hungarian public, which was kept unaware of the magnitude of the global war. It did not fathom the strength of the allied great powers or the unflinching determination with which almost every people of the world supported them against Germany, which had been utterly abandoned, and Japan, which was fighting in the Far East and proceeding down its own, separate path.
One of the first acts of the Sztójay government was to issue a decree compelling Jews to wear a yellow star. It closed Jewish businesses and declared that all Jewish property was being taken by the State. It began to steal from and deport Jews on the basis of the German model. For a long time, I had managed to hinder efforts to send the people in the labour units beyond the borders of the country and pull workers out of economic life, but this now came to an end once and for all. The deportations began. Every effort of the people in the government was intended to eradicate the Jewry from the country as quickly as possible. Andor Jaross, László Baky and László Endre were the loudest voices. The newspapers which had always done little more than incite hostility offered the most fervent support for their policies, and they attacked people – including me – who did not have the heart to be inhumane.
They rounded up the Jews in the areas of the country outside of Budapest. First, they set up ghettos in all of the cities, into which they mercilessly crowded these unfortunate people. Then the deportations out of the country began, in part to Galicia and in part to Germany. The brutality with which the deportations were conducted went beyond anything imaginable. 70–100 people were crowded into a train car designed to transport 40 people, and then the doors were closed. Eyewitnesses told me of how the henchmen who were working under the leadership of László Baky and László Endre carried out their orders with a brutal pitilessness that could not have been more merciless. The doors to the cars were only opened when the trains had reached their destinations, and whoever had survived could get out. The saddest thing was that not a single leading politician or member of the government raised a voice in protest against these atrocities. They washed their hands. The Christian Churches warned Sztójay of the likely international consequences of the deportation of the Jews and, in general, the inhumanity of the treatment to which the Jews were being subjected. The government, however, took care to ensure that news of these steps would not reach the Hungarian public. People spoke only in secret about the protests, which, however, had virtually no effect whatsoever.
When the bombing of Budapest began as the first repercussion of the appointment of the Sztójay government and the measures that had been taken against the Jews, the sound of people crying out for humane compassion became audible. The newspapers spoke out. The enemy bombers were accused of cruelty, of murdering children, women and the elderly.
The brutal German supreme authority became increasingly visible from behind the Sztójay government. On 17 April, the Gestapo arrested General Staff Colonel Gyula Kádár, leader of the second division of the directorate of the General Staff. They had compiled an indictment against him consisting of 66 points. It made clear that the Germans knew the most carefully guarded secrets of the directorate of the General Staff. It also made clear that there were people in the immediate surroundings of the chief of the General Staff through whom the Germans had acquired knowledge of the most secret affairs.
Later, General Staff Colonel Ottó Hatz was arrested too, the former military attaché in Sofia. However, in the end they were compelled to release him, because they could not prove any of the charges against him.
On 18 April, at the request of the German ambassador, Horthy relieved Szombathelyi of his position. In order to avoid arrest, he too went into hiding. He was brought before the court of the General Staff directorate under the accusation of having been one of the people who tried to establish ties with the Western powers. The military tribunal acquitted him of this charge, but the proceedings against him were still underway when Szálasi came to power. In any event, the example of Szombathelyi should have served as a warning to all of the pro-German politicians and officers. He had been a faithful adherent of the Germans for some time, but as it became clear, even this was not merit enough. The Germans dropped Szombathelyi, and they contrived the most serious accusations against him.
At the request of the Germans, Lieutenant General János Vörös was appointed new chief of the General Staff. First, the regent had appointed Colonel General Géza Lakatos chief of the General Staff. However, under pressure from the Germans he had been compelled to withdraw this appointment even before it had been announced. The German ambassador had wanted János Vörös to serve as chief of the General Staff. At first, the government had not wanted to give in to the German demands, but after five days of wrangling they were compelled to accept the German wish.
The Germans seemed to be satisfied with the internal affairs situation in Hungary, because they had received a guarantee that the Hungarians would now be the dutiful servants of German interests. János Vörös even introduced himself at the German headquarters, where they discussed military questions, equipment and organisation, and they also agreed that the first cavalry and seventh light infantry divisions would be sent to the eastern front and Hungary would put one battalion at the disposal of the Germans to be sent to Greece to secure the train line.
After returning to Hungary, the new chief of the General Staff János Vörös wrote a letter to Field Marshal Keitel in which he thanked him for his kind reception. Among the things he wrote was the following: “I would like to express my most sincere thanks to Your Honour for the very kind and friendly reception you gave me, and for acknowledging our particular situation and the financial support you have promised in connection with this. The days I spent at the headquarters of the General Staff at the beginning of the beach landing will remain an unforgettable time in my life.”
“Having returned to Hungary, I immediately reported for an audience with the Regent and informed him of my visit to the headquarters. In particular, I enlightened the Regent as to the situation and the likely developments on the eastern front, which was presented by the leader with such extensive knowledge of the details.”
He then repeated the Regent’s request that the cavalry division be removed from the frontline to rest once the rainy season had begun. He then continued: “In accordance with Your wishes, I have ordered that we ascertain the superfluous manpower. I hope that, in the interests of sharing the burdens of war, we will be of some assistance in this sphere as well, to the extent that circumstances permit.”
Only some of the occupying soldiers left Hungary, Hitler’s promise not- withstanding. While internal affairs were dominated by the bloody elimination of the Jews, in the military sphere the Sztójay government put itself completely at the service of the Germans, who gave the Hungarian General Staff no say whatsoever in the oversight of military operations. Having promised everything, the Germans kept not a single one of their promises.
Sztójay had no real authority. Everyone did what they wanted. The Minister of Foreign Affairs and his secretaries in particular went their own way.
I lived in complete seclusion in Klotildliget, but I never failed to share my view of the harm that was being done by the Sztójay government with the people who sought me out, and I always emphasised that the Germans were not going to win this war, and we would pay a terrible price for the inhumane measures of this government. Those who survived would pay a high price for the acts of Sztójay, Jaross, Szász, Kunder, Baky, Endre, Imrédy and their ilk.
They had not yet arrested me, but they were keeping me under observation. A German regimental headquarters was set up not far from our villa in Klotildliget.
As the commander of the regiment said once in the course of a dinner at the home of a family, they were watching me. Every day, a car or a motorcycle would pass by our gate. They would stop for a moment, and then continue on. A little while later, they would repeat the game. This lasted for four weeks. Soon, they stationed a German junior officer in my home. The German sergeant behaved perfectly politely, but he asked my servants what was going on and he kept his eye on me. I also learned that two Hungarian detectives were staying with a teacher of German ancestry in the village, and they had also been given the task of keeping me under observation. In the end, I wrote a letter to Deputy Prime Minister Jenő Rátz asking him not to restrict my freedom of movement and not to write about me in the party newspapers, and to give me permission and the necessary papers to travel to Budapest and Ipolyvisk. In his reply, Rátz denied that I was being kept under observation and indeed that any proceedings were underway against me at all. He promised to put a stop to the press campaign that had been launched against me. He consoled me with the assurance that he knew from experience that people who stood or had stood at the forefront of public life had to resign themselves to the fact that they would be unjustly attacked, much as he had been attacked for five long years.
One day, a gendarmerie sergeant came to Klotildliget who presented himself as a delegate of the third division of the General Staff directorate. He produced a document to identify himself that had been signed by Colonel Henkey. He was looking for a friend of mine, József Hartmann. He wanted me to tell him Hartmann’s address, and he tried to trick me into revealing it with the feeble claim that they wanted to protect my friend from the Germans and prevent him from being arrested by the Germans by taking him into protective custody.
Naturally, I did not believe a word of this story, and the man left without having accomplished his task. At the train station, however, he instructed the ticket clerk to call him immediately if Hartmann were to show up in Klotildliget. I was very disturbed by all this, and I wrote a letter to János Vörös in which I protested against the steps they had taken. I wrote that if they wanted to ask me something, they should not send a gendarme to harass me.
The following case offers a good example of how suspicious Hitler was of the Hungarians. Colonel General Géza Lakatos submitted a proposal to the German general headquarters to bring the eighth Hungarian army corps, which was fighting in the area around the Pripet Marshes, closer to the seventh Hungarian army corps in Galicia so that the Hungarian soldiers would be at the disposal of the army general headquarters to defend the Carpathian Mountains. Hitler summoned Lakatos for an audience with him, and he fiercely reproached him with the contention that the Hungarians were untrustworthy. He proclaimed that he had evidence proving that the Hungarians wanted to withdraw from their alliance with the Germans. He, however, would take care to ensure that this would not happen. The Romanians were remaining firmly and faithfully at the side of the Germans. They were a trustworthy ally. To this, Lakatos replied that he had nothing to do with any of this, since he was a colonel general, so he could exert no influence whatsoever on government policy. Having composed himself, Hitler responded that he had received the command’s suggestion and he would take it into consideration. However, he also declared that since there could be no talk of the defence of the Carpathians and the battle there, the proposal could already be considered immaterial, since under no circumstances could it be adopted.
This case illustrates clearly how the German general headquarters treated Hungary, and also demonstrates that they sought at all costs to prevent the Hungarian soldiers from uniting near the borders of the country. Hungarians were suspicious in their eyes, and the Germans feared that the Hungarians would follow the example that had been set by Italy. They sensed the dangerous influence of the continuous German retreat, and they also sensed that the Hungarians were continuously losing faith. In contrast, Hitler was unwilling to acknowledge the negotiations that were being pursued by the Romanians – although these negotiations were almost public knowledge – because he would not have been able to continue the war without Romanian oil. He did not want to consider the possibility that the Romanians might turn on him, as indeed they did on 13 August 1944.
Translation by Thomas Cooper
Note. This excerpt is reprinted from Vilmos Nagybaczoni Nagy, Fateful Years, 1938– 1945. Helena History Press-KKL Publications Reno, Nevada. With the kind permission of the publishers and Katalin Kádár Lynn.