To fight for your country to your last breath: Is it a heroic act?
I think it is time to take a closer look at the historiography of the destruction of Hungary’s Second Army. I decided to stick with Jano’s helpful comment on what destruction in military terms means. By that definition the Second Army was destroyed.
Since yesterday the debate about the military and political aspects of this calamity has been going on, not only among commenters on Hungarian Spectrum. It is also a topic in the Hungarian media, on Facebook, and in private correspondence. The author of one of the e-mails I received found it disturbing that none of the official speeches and writings in connection with the commemoration mentions that Hungary was at the time an ally of Nazi Germany. The answer from the right was that anyone with “a modicum of education based on high school textbooks certainly knows that this was the case.” I wouldn’t be so sure. Often history classes don’t even get to World War II and, even if they do, the most popular twelfth-grade history textbook leaves a great deal to be desired as suitable material for the new generation of Hungarian democrats. But more about this particular textbook at some other time.
Here instead I would like to concentrate on how Hungarian historians treated the topic in the second half of the 1970s. I’m using the last volume of The History of Hungary (Magyarország története, 1919-1945 [Budapest: Akadémiai kiadó, 1976]). I assume that this is the picture the historians Pál Fodor and Sándor Szakály want to change. This particular chapter of the book was written by the late Gyula Juhász, whose works on Hungarian foreign policy are still highly regarded. Gyula Juhász agrees with most of you that the Battle of Stalingrad was a turning point in the history of the war.
As for the military situation along the Don River. The Hungarians were in charge of a territory about 200 km wide. The soldiers arrived at the Russian front at different times. The first group fought alongside the Germans in the vicinity of Oryol and Kursk and immediately encountered a loss of 15-20% of their manpower. They moved the fighting toward Voronezh up to the Don River. The second and the third transport arrived in the area without any fighting but after more than a 1,000 km march. To their north there were German and to their south Italian soldiers. At the Don there were three bridgeheads in the hands of the Soviets that the Hungarians tried to occupy without success during the months of August-September 1942. During these battles the Hungarian forces lost about 30,000 fighting men. They were either dead or wounded. In addition, the Hungarians lost 40% of their artillery supply.
In addition, the Germans didn’t fulfill their promise to equip the Hungarians troops with heavy armament and anti-tank guns. Supplies of armaments, food, and clothing didn’t get to the troops. Moreover, there was not enough manpower to relieve the exhausted troops. Then, on December 27, Miklós Horthy forbade the troops to retreat. It was a request from Hitler which, it seems, Horthy didn’t hesitate to fulfill.
The January 12 and 14 attacks came as a total surprise to the Hungarian military leadership. The Soviets broke the Hungarian lines at two places. A German armored division nearby couldn’t come to the help of the Hungarians because the German leadership was concentrating on an orderly retreat of their own troops under the cover of the Hungarians. The resultant losses were staggering. Between January 12 and February 9 the Second Army was destroyed. Out of the 200,000 soldiers 40,000 died, 70,000 were wounded or became prisoners of war, and 80% of the equipment was lost.
So, in the second half of the 1970s Hungarian historiography found several reasons for the debacle. Poorly trained and equipped troops, a breach of the German promise of necessary equipment, and Horthy’s order to stand strong to the very end. You may have noticed that Miklós Horthy’s share of the blame for the fate of so many lives was not mentioned in the official communiqués and speeches.
Meanwhile the hyperbole on the heroism and patriotism of the Hungarian soldiers goes on. It wasn’t the political elite that was responsible for Hungary’s participation in the war against the Soviet Union; it was the “homeland” (haza) that called for the soldiers’ sacrifice. A high-ranking Hungarian officer said farewell to the dead soldiers this way: “Sleep, soldiers of God!” a line from Gyula Somogyváry, who wrote second-rate poems about the brave soldiers of World War I. (Those Hungarian soldiers were victims and not God’s soldiers. They had to fight an unholy war.) The high-ranking officer in his speech proudly called attention to the “heroism” of the soldiers who kept fighting until “the last minute of the second world war.” As if they had any other choice. Moreover, the fact that Hungary fought to the bitter end alongside Hitler’s army is nothing to be proud of.
György C. Kálmán, a literary historian, tried to figure out the meaning of a sentence by Szabolcs Szita, the head of the Budapest Holocaust Memorial Center, who talked about the heroic stance of those who took part in the battles. At the same time he warned that “one must explore the losses with a sense of devotion.” Not surprisingly, Kálmán couldn’t make head nor tail of that sentence. Neither can I. Kálmán recalled an article he wrote thirteen years ago during the first Orbán government when there were signs already of a call for absolute devotion to the country, right or wrong.
What prompted Kálmán’s article was the statement of some high Catholic prelate who claimed that regardless of the circumstances we must consider all soldiers who gave their lives for the homeland heroes. So, it seems, Kálmán continued, in this view “there is no such thing as meaningless killing, needless bloodletting, murdering the innocent, soldiers recruited to become cannon-fodder. There is only the sacred cause, fatherland, homeland, heroism, devotion, patriotism, and self-sacrifice. German soldiers alongside Hungarian Arrow Cross men fought for Hungary and the Second Army fought for our beloved country at the Don. The sacrifice was not for naught.”
And let me quote a passage from the minutes of a high-level meeting that took place on April 1, 1941 when the decision was made to allow the German army to move across Hungary to attack Yugoslavia. It was after that meeting that Pál Teleki committed suicide. László Bárdossy in his capacity as foreign minister said the following: “I want to warn everybody that in case of British-American victory Hungary would lose all its territories that it had managed to get back up to now and our position will be worse than it was at the time of Trianon.” This passage appeared in a high school textbook, part of a very long quotation that most likely the students simply skip. But surely this is a crucial sentence. Unfortunately, among the questions at the end of the chapter that are supposed to test the students’ understanding of the material there is nothing that would call their attention to it. Instead the textbook sends students to a historical atlas to follow the battles of 1942 and 1943. This way there is no hope for a more enlightened Hungarian society.