(Excerpts from a book in progress)

Go to, go to;
You take a precipice for no leap of danger.
And woo your own destruction.
Shakespeare: King Henry VIII.

A small nation wedged between the Third Reich and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Hungary joined the Second World War in 1941 on the side of the former and against the latter. Seeing no alternative, some patriotic anti-Nazi Hungarians nursed two illusions. The first posited that Hungary could retain its independence with the help of the Western Allies and might even recover some territories lost to neighbours in the First World War. According to the second illusion, cherished by many of the larger Hungary’s eight hundred thousand Jews and their gentile friends, Jews might perhaps survive the Nazi campaign of extermination because Hungary was fundamentally different from its neighbours and because its Jews, with deep roots in the country and its culture, were also different from their coreligionists elsewhere in Europe – and perhaps even Adolf Hitler would agree that such facts were unalterable. The one Hungarian leader who had the courage of both illusions was blueblood Miklós Kállay.

During the quarter century of his rule over the Kingdom of Hungary as the surrogate monarch called the Regent, the dignified, congenial, but thickskulled Miklós Horthy changed Prime Ministers when prompted by domestic politics. The one foreign factor that affected his calculations was Germany. Horthy grew up respecting the Germans as one would an overbearing older brother, an attitude he learned from Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef, whom the young Horthy served as aide-de-camp. While the emperor remained Horthy’s lifelong father image, Wilhelm Canaris, the head of Nazi Germany’s military intelligence and secret anti-Nazi, became a personal friend and chief wartime adviser. By early 1942, Horthy bowed to Canaris’s argument that Germany was bound to lose the war. He replaced his pro-German Prime Minister, László Bárdossy, with an incarnation of the historic Hungarian rebel, Kállay, who was ready to challenge a powerful adversary even if the cause seemed lost from the outset. Joining the Western Allies was his number one objective, and the arrival of allied troops in Hungary his dream.

The government’s effort to unshackle itself from Germany began in March 1942 with Kállay’s promotion from state commissioner of irrigation canals to Prime Minister. Horthy chose him because of his rock-solid opposition to the Germans. He came from a family and a region, the North-East, that regarded the German-speaking world as the traditional enemy of Hungarian independence. He also opposed Nazism on the grounds of his Roman Catholic faith. He led the country from 1942 to 1944, the two years during which the Nazis consolidated their control over nearly the entire Continent and wiped out most of European Jewry.

Kállay had a gambler’s sang-froid that served him well when he began dodging Nazi demands for Hungary’s “full participation in the war”, demands that included the deportation of the country’s Jews as a top priority. His public policy was to postpone what the Germans called “the Jewish question” until after the war. Privately, he was convinced that the Allies would win and thus “the Jewish question” as defined by the Nazis and their Hungarian cohorts would be dropped. Despite dire predictions to the contrary, Kállay maintained a safe haven of liberal democracy. But he made concessions: additional Hungarian military units marched off to the Soviet Union to support Germany’s conquests and Hungary’s Jews were demoted to second-class citizenship.

 Before Horthy surprised him by offering the premiership, Kállay had not bothered to hide his contempt for Nazi ideology, which he publicly characterized as “un-Christian and un-Hungarian”. Though a staunch anti-communist, he protested against the deployment of Hungarian troops to Russia. But as Prime Minister, he had to deal with the Germans, and he tactfully revised his statements. He no longer stressed his opposition to Hungarian troops fighting outside the country’s borders. Instead, he cited “the growing strength of popular objections” to such an engagement. He did not recant his view according to which Hungary’s Christian tradition was “inconsistent” with such demands as the deportation of its Jews. Instead, he stressed that Jews were too important for Hungary’s economy to be abruptly removed and that a strong Hungarian economy was in Germany’s interest as well. Privately, he assured Jewish leaders that as long as he was Prime Minister he would not allow deportations.

But German officials did not fall for Kállay’s change of tone. In private conversations, they called him “Horthy’s evil genius”. They regarded Horthy as “dashing but dumb”.

I. Hitler the Gracious Host

Berlin did not hide its shock at Kállay’s promotion. “Incomprehensible”, the Foreign Office fumed, neglecting to send the usual congratulatory telegram. However, two weeks after the appointment Hitler invited Kállay for a visit. For their one and only meeting, in April 1942, Hitler chose an unusual approach. Instead of bullying his visitor from the small nation he had derided in “Mein Kampf”, he wooed the patriot by pointing out the historic grandeur of the Hungarian kingdom. Hitler made no secret of his disdain for Hungarians as Asiatic riffraff, and he resented bluebloods regardless of their nationality. Yet for some reason best known to him, he went out of his way to be friendly to Kállay. Departing from his routine of overwhelming a visitor with a nonstop tirade for as long as an hour on a subject such as “the march of history”, Hitler invited the Premier to talk about his country. When Hitler made a few comments, he did not mention what his emissaries to Budapest called “the intolerable abnormality” of an intact Jewish community there. Instead, Hitler observed that while South Slavs, Romanians, and Bulgarians were historically incapable of building a permanent, “consolidated state”, the Hungarians created “a strong, well-organized state”, thanks to “the natural leadership qualities of the old nobility”. Aladár Szegedy-Maszák of Hungary’s Foreign Ministry, who took notes on the meeting, later observed that Kállay appeared pleased with Hitler’s flattery.

While over Hitler’s twelve years in power many Europeans found themselves captivated by his “irresistible”, even “hypnotic” personality, Kállay did not fall under the Führer’s spell. “Few if any Hungarian statesmen paid a call on Adolf Hitler with comparable sang-froid and self-respect”, wrote Szegedy-Maszák, a pro-Allied intellectual and a famously cold-eyed observer. “Kállay did not feel the winds of world history and did not pick up the suggestive individual magic of the man.”

Upon his return home, Kállay wasted no time in launching peace feelers. His secret emissaries ventured out in the early summer of 1942 and targeted Britain, the one great power with which Hungary’s leaders – most of them upper-class men with English manners – felt an affinity. But the emissaries could gain access only to junior officials who proved unresponsive, sloughing off the plea that British rather than Russian soldiers occupy Hungary. They hectored the Hungarians, who requested a reconsideration of the borders drawn by the post-World War I peace treaties, which often ignored large ethnic Hungarian populations. After each secret meeting in neutral Turkey, Portugal, and Sweden, the British informed the Soviets who demurred, demanding Hungary’s immediate unconditional surrender first, and then negotiations. Shrugging off Hungarian fears of Joseph Stalin’s Red Army, British representatives clung to their high imperial ground: as long as Hungary had soldiers fighting any member of the Grand Alliance, it could expect “neither sympathy nor mercy”.

II. Italian Lessons

As soon as Kállay became Prime Minister, he wanted to visit Mussolini. But Hitler, suspicious of his allies plotting behind his back, objected. Nevertheless, in April 1943, Mussolini gave Kállay the green light. The two men had little in common. The child of one of Hungary’s leading families and a man who had studied international law in Geneva, Paris, and Dresden and earned a doctorate in political science from Budapest’s main university, Kállay was a low-key, visceral democrat. The son of a blacksmith and a man who was essentially self-educated, Mussolini was all bluster. Temperamentally autocratic, he was given to pronouncements such as “Fascism believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace. War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have courage to meet it.” Still, the two leaders were of the same generation, raised in the heady spirit of pre-World War I nationalist revival. Kállay was fifty-six, and Mussolini, sixty, and both were immensely proud of their countries’ contributions to European civilization.

In a presentation that went on for nearly three quarters of an hour, Kállay spoke his rebellious mind. He predicted that Hitler would soon lose the war and proposed that Hungary and Italy together bolt from the Axis and coordinate their approaches to the Western Allies.# Mussolini said he found “very interesting” the idea of joining the Hungarians in jumping off the German ship, which, he conceded, was sinking. He promised to get back to Kállay. An optimist, Kállay banked on hope. He counted on Mussolini’s past record of “irresolution and contradictions”, as well as the impact of recent setbacks on the Russian and North African fronts, where combined German and Italian losses totaled half a million men.

In the few months left of the two decades of his rule, Mussolini did not get back to Kállay to discuss joint action. But the Duce did not breathe a word to the Führer about Hungarian intentions to quit the Axis. Somehow, Kállay had succeeded in persuading Mussolini to conduct himself as a gentleman.

Kállay did not abandon hope that he could still count on Mussolini to help in what he called in his memoir “my battle with fate”, the looming disasters of both German and Russian occupations. He also held out the hope that the Western Allies would come to terms with Mussolini. Instead, Allied surprises came in quick succession. In July, 1943 Allied forces stormed Sicily. On 25 July Marshal Pietro Badoglio’s military coup toppled Mussolini. On 3 September the Allies landed on the Italian mainland with an alacrity that impressed Kállay as presaging a quick conquest. Few events in World War II stunned Hungary’s leaders as much, perhaps because they perceived it as a template that was to be applied to their country.

Kállay was both elated and distressed. The Italian generals’ courage to arrest the Duce, who was tied more closely to the Führer than any other foreign leader, persuaded Kállay to stop “waiting for just the right moment” to begin the process of joining the Allies. But within a few weeks, after seeing Badoglio’s failure to win the full confidence of the Allies, Kállay was discouraged. Still, for a while he believed that since “the Italian army greatly outnumbered the Wehrmacht contingent” in Italy and the Germans were “quite unprepared in the Danube Basin”, Hungary too would have “a chance to make the volte face”. Once again, he was banking on hope.

While trying to understand the contradictory lessons of Italy, Kállay embarked on the biggest gamble of his life. In mid-summer, with Horthy’s approval, Kállay entrusted the military’s Chief of Staff, Colonel-General Ferenc Szombathelyi, to turn to the Americans and seek a far-reaching military and political agreement. Szombathelyi ordered his director of intelligence, Colonel Gyula Kádár, to assign officers to conduct the secret talks. Responsibility for the operation rested on the shoulders of Szombathelyi, respected in anti-Nazi circles as an intellectual with a mind focused on exiting from the war. Those who knew him well considered him first and foremost a patriot who, unlike so many of his colleagues in the officer corps, regarded Germany as posing one of the two principal threats to Hungary’s independence (Russia constituted the other).

After the war, Horthy told his family that Admiral Canaris, whom he referred to as “my best German friend”, had advised him to turn to the Americans.# We now know what at the time Horthy may have only surmised: Canaris plotted to bring about Hitler’s downfall and was in touch with the Anglo-Americans.

In the choice of officers to negotiate with the Americans, the ebullient Szombathelyi relied on the introvert Kádár, an infantry man he had put in charge of military intelligence. Kádár was even more fearful than Szombathelyi of Nazi designs on Hungary. The two ponderous intellectuals, weighed down by their responsibility to save their country, picked a very different person as their emissary: their military attaché in Sofia, Lieutenant-Colonel Ottó Hatz. Handsome and dapper, Hatz was a former Olympic fencing champion, au courant with European politics and diplomatic gossip, as well as a quick wit. He had a talent for making friends and was a first-class comedian. His imitation of Hitler, performed when among anti-Nazi friends, is said to have been worthy of the stage.

Neither Szombathelyi nor Kádár paid attention to the fact that Hatz was a big spender and an avid womanizer always short of cash and that the military attachés of various governments frequently dined and wined him. Or perhaps they knew, but they decided to ignore Hatz’s lifestyle, typical of his peers. More importantly, the two leaders agreed on putting their trust in a smart, ambitious forty-one-year-old officer whose company they enjoyed and whom they regarded as a staunch patriot. “Though trained in the infantry, which usually attracted stolid, down-to-earth types, Hatz impressed one as a daredevil hussar out of the pages of Hungarian history”, said Baron Károly Bálintitt, Hatz’s subordinate in Istanbul. “Ottó was every man’s good friend and the kind of man every woman falls for.”

“Kállay, Szombathelyi, and Hatz were all handsome and well-bred, elegant and youthful”, recalled a woman who knew them all through her job in the Hungarian Foreign Ministry but who preferred anonymity. “In every situation they knew what to say – and in several languages. They had class, and they excelled in what the English call ‘deportment.’ They inspired confidence – including mine. These men may just save our country, I thought.”

Kállay conducted negotiations with the Americans, aware that sooner rather than later the Germans would find out about them and he would become an assassin’s target. He and the men he entrusted with the mission were courageous, well-mannered, multilingual, and handsome. They were fine horsemen and sparkling conversationalists. In a romance novel they would have triumphed.

III. Appointment in Istanbul

In early September 1943 Hatz travelled to the annual commercial fair in Izmir, better known by its Greek name, Smyrna. He spotted the American officials and engaged them in conversation that quickly turned serious. It did not matter to the Americans that he spoke no English. His German was excellent, and he introduced himself as Otto von Hatz with an emphasis on “von”, thus signalling that he belonged to the nobility. The Americans lost no time in complying with his wish to bring him together with the right people, who, they decided, must hear him out. They arranged an appointment in Istanbul a few days later.

The contact was made as planned. Hatz went out for a stroll, taking in the soft sea air and the unique view of both Europe and Asia from Istanbul’s Galata Bridge. A car pulled up alongside him. Seated in the back was an old friend, András György, who invited Hatz to join him. The car drove to a safe house, where György introduced Hatz to a group of American officials as Hungarian Chief-of-Staff Szombathelyi’s special emissary.

Hatz might not have known that György was also an OSS* operative, alongside his job with Hungarian military intelligence. “It was hard to tell in those days and especially in Turkey who worked for whom on the side and who received instruction from – or gave information to – a military attaché from one embassy or another”, says Bálintitt, Hungary’s assistant military attaché in Ankara at the time. “But we had all kinds of clandestine meetings arranged in the greatest of secrecy with representatives of the so-called enemy that did not necessarily mean that we also signed up as agents and got paid for our services.”

A trader in gold, diamonds, Oriental carpets, and foreign currencies, György was a busy man who operated in several countries. “He was extremely skillful at his business and was using his missions to make himself a fortune on the side and to work for various [intelligence] agencies”, wrote Arch F. Coleman, the Number Two at OSS-Istanbul. Coleman suggested that although the Hungarian General Staff had no more confidence in György than did the OSS, György was used because of his ability “to do certain things” by bribing the Gestapo.

“Those professional spies, who worked for several intelligence agencies trading information, were adventurers, engaged in the game for the thrill of it and for the money, and maybe more for the thrill than the money”, recalls the woman from Hungary’s Foreign Office.

His credentials certified by György, Hatz assured the Americans that Szombathelyi was “sincere” in his determination to cooperate with the Allies. The Americans cautioned that they were not in a position to make political decisions but only those that touched on intelligence and military matters. Discussions followed, with the Americans doing much of the talking.

On 1 October Hatz received a document that summed up the points agreed upon, most, if not all of which, had been initiated by the Americans, entitled “Proposed Agreement with Representatives of Hungarian General Staff Concerning Cooperation in the Sphere of Intelligence”. The OSS identified the premise of the document as “a firm and sincere determination to collaborate unreservedly and unhesitatingly with the Allies in all spheres removed from direct German control and supervision.” Similarly complex lawyerly phrases conveyed a blunt message: the more intelligence the OSS received from Hungary, the more likely that Hungary would get better terms in a peace settlement.

The document began with a reference to Hungary’s repeated “unofficial overtures” to the British and the “failure” of its attempts to secure political assurances as to the future borders and its choice of an occupying power. But, the text emphasized a crucial difference: Hungary’s current emissaries traveled to Istanbul “in order to prepare for a close connection by their readiness to part with military information”. Upon the emissaries’ “clear admission of official readiness to collaborate with the Allies” and the clarification that the initiative for the overture came from Szombathelyi, “the American representative decided to hand the Hungarian spokesman a provisional outline” to be forwarded to his Chief of Staff.

Following this preamble were “the preliminary conditions under which, after the American side had satisfied itself as to the sincerity of the Hungarian initiative, a scheme of cooperation might be arrived at”. In the first paragraph, the OSS characterized “the effort of the supreme military authorities in Hungary to enter into contact with the Allies” as evidence, as we have seen, of “a firm and sincere determination to collaborate”. The words “firm and sincere” as well as “unreservedly and unhesitatingly” were strong, reflecting the Americans’ gungho spirit. Driving a hard bargain, they made it clear to Hatz that their collaboration “shall not be made conditional upon previous concessions, territorial, political, or other, to be made by the American side, since no such assurances can be given by any single Allied military or political agency”. Nevertheless, the Americans did not want to see Hungarian hopes wilt. In the delicately phrased, serpentine sentence that closed the first paragraph, the Americans agreed to recognize that “active Hungarian collaboration with the Allies in the sphere of military and political intelligence constitutes a positive contribution by Hungary to the cause of the United Nations, and shall be acknowledged as the only adequate expression of Hungary’s sympathy for the Allied cause until such time when Hungary will be able to declare her open adherence to that course”.

The second paragraph explained that on the basis of the understanding summed up in the first, “the Hungarian representative will be given a radio transmitter and the necessary codes to maintain a continuous and direct connection with the American side”. (Making use of the privilege of the diplomatic pouch, Hatz took the transmitter with him to Budapest.)

The third paragraph provided for the arrangement, “as a preliminary proof of the official backing enjoyed by the negotiators”, of a purely formal meeting between the Hungarian military attaché in Sofia and his American counterpart in Ankara. (According to the document, the meeting was to take place on 29 September.)

The fourth and final paragraph laid out the rules for the exchange of messages on the airwaves via the radio stations in Algiers and Budapest, with texts previously agreed upon and the times of the announcement set, “thus giving a convincing indication that the contact established by the American negotiators has the knowledge and approval of the competent American authorities”.

On 5 October, 1943 Hatz flew to Budapest. On 8 October he reported to Szombathelyi, handed over the text of the agreement, and negotiations ensued. Plans called for the US–Hungarian alliance to become public following an American landing at an airport near Budapest, supported either by a significant US force or by a Hungarian military unit.

IV. Coded Broadcast from Algiers

On 13 October, 1943 at 11:33 p m, the US-controlled radio station in Algiers, known as United Nations Radio North Africa, broadcast what the announcer called “a special personal message” for a person identified only as “Trillium”. The words were French and were repeated twice: “Sincérité avant tout”, meaning “Sincerity above all”. The message was aired again twice more at five-minute intervals.

The following day at 10:00 in the evening, Budapest state radio broadcast what must have struck ordinary listeners as a news item of no great importance. It was repeated at ten-minute intervals, first in German, then English, and finally French. “It is gathered from the Turkish press that the Smyrna fair may be accounted a full success for Hungary”, the English text said. “It is hoped that Hungarian–Turkish trade relations will be steadily intensified in future.”

Transcripts of the two broadcasts are among the hundreds of thousands of wartime documents kept secret for forty-seven years, until June 2000.# Other documents in the bulging folder explain that the message from Algiers was designed to reassure Hungary’s “supreme military and political leaders” that the US government stood behind “a scheme of cooperation” discussed a few days earlier in Istanbul. Similarly, the coded words of the Budapest broadcast certified that in agreeing to “collaborate unreservedly and unhesitatingly” with the Allies and to share intelligence, Hungary’s emissary had spoken for his government.

The texts of the two broadcasts and the cooperation agreement, as well as Hungary’s delivery of intelligence data to the United States in the months to follow, were revealed for the first time in files now open to researchers at the US National Archives. The files also disclose that the Hungarians used their diplomatic pouch to import wireless transmitters that assured direct contact with the wartime US intelligence service, the OSS, and to export data requested by the OSS to the OSS station in Istanbul.

The exchange of messages on the airwaves were substitutes for the normal protocol of documents signed in the two capitals by representatives of two governments, followed by vigorous handshakes and the clinking of glasses filled with champagne. The coded broadcasts launched a clandestine partnership that linked the OSS – tasked by President Roosevelt and his Joint Chiefs of Staff to encourage anti-Nazi resistance throughout Europe – and Hungary’s leaders, anxious to break loose from the pact that Germany had foisted on them. In his memorandum to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, OSS Director William Donovan quoted Hungary’s delegate as having promised “detailed military intelligence concerning the German Army and German operations” and pledging “active military aid” to an Allied landing on Hungarian territory.

The agreement launched in September 1943 constituted the only accord of its kind that the United States is known to have reached with a government formally allied with Nazi Germany. As for Germany’s most important European ally, Fascist Italy, the military leaders who arrested Mussolini on 25 July and formed a new government were poorly prepared to frame an agreement with the Anglo-Americans, who did not see a reason for haste. It took them until 8 September to sign an armistice. The uncertainty during those six weeks allowed the Germans to boost their strength in Italy to sixteen divisions and, even worse, as British historian Alan Bullock noted, they were able “to disarm the much more numerous Italian formations and to seize the key positions, including control of Rome, without meeting any serious resistance”.# This was not the finest hour, either for the Allies or for their Italian friends.

(To be continued)

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