Csaba Hende, minister of defense, has been striving to reinvigorate (and laud) the Hungarian military tradition, and that unfortunately has led to a glorification of the Hungarian military between the two world wars as well. The Hungarian right in general rejects the standard academic view that Hungary’s political elite, because of its revisionist aims, committed the country to the German war effort and thus dragged it into a hopeless war against the Soviet Union and the Allies.
Until now those historians who were less critical of Hungarian foreign policy were usually content to point out the very difficult situation in which the country found itself. It was inevitable, they argued, that sooner or later Germany would occupy the country. The policies the Hungarian governments pursued managed to postpone an early occupation that would have had grave consequences, especially for the Hungarian Jewish population. But now, it seems, some Hungarian politicians and historians are going further: they practically declare that Hungary’s pro-German orientation was logical and justified.
What prompted the articulation of these extremist views was the Ministry of Defense’s decision to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the tragic fate of the Second Hungarian Army near Voronezh, where the Don River takes an abrupt turn eastward.
In January 1942 the Germans demanded more troops from their Hungarian and Italian allies because the Soviet troops had pushed their armies back about 200 kilometers during the last months of 1941. The Hungarian government obliged and created a separate unit called the Second Army, drawing soldiers from all over the country. Their numbers reached about 200,000. Ten percent of them were unarmed Jews serving in labor battalions. The troops left the country on April 13, 1943.
The Orbán government’s commemoration of the Second Army began already on that day in 2012 when Csaba Hende and others visited the Hungarian Central Military Cemetery in Rudkino, near Voronezh, where the minister delivered a eulogy during the reburial of the fallen soldiers. This military cemetery, by the way, was erected between 1999 and 2002, that is, during the first Orbán government. One can read more about it here.
Just as in all other matters connected to Hungarian history, there is no consensus about the destruction of the Second Hungarian Army. Until recently the mainstream historical assessment of the event was that the Hungarians were simply not ready for the task because they were sent to Russia with inadequate supplies, clothing, and arms. The commander of the Army, Gusztáv Jány, torn between unquestioning obedience and his worries about the troops, became paralyzed and ordered withdrawal too late. By that time the Hungarian troops were almost encircled by the Soviets. The troops eventually fled in disarray, at which point Jány unequivocally condemned his soldiers. A few days later he withdrew his statement. Shortly after the calamity he resigned from the army. After the war he was executed, but the Military Tribunal of the Supreme Court rehabilitated him in 1993.
In Hungary the soldiers and their commander are pictured as innocent victims of German pressure. The fact remains, however, that they treated the local population very harshly. According to historian Krisztián Ungváry, during the occupation of the Soviet Union the Hungarians were second only to the Germans in civilian executions. The Hungarian troops also burned more than 1,000 villages in search of partisans.
According to Sándor Szakály, a military historian, of the 200,000 Hungarians at Voronezh, 42,000 were killed, 26,000 became prisoners of war, and 28,000 were wounded. It is therefore surprising to hear him declare that it is a mistake to talk about the destruction of the Second Army. Well, I guess total destruction would have meant the death or capture of all 200,000, but I consider losing half the troops devastating enough. Other estimates talk about higher numbers. Szabolcs Szita, a historian of the Holocaust, at the same conference mentioned 235,000 officers and soldiers and 39,000 men serving in the labor battalions, most of whom were Jewish.
Despite all the accounts of the inadequate clothing and weaponry of the troops, Pál Fodor, who is the head of the Center for the Humanities of the Hungarian Academy, claims that “the soldiers serving at the front received everything that the country could have given them.” Let me add parenthetically that Pál Fodor is a historian who studies the minorities of the Ottoman Empire. When he became an expert on the military history of World War II I have no idea.
In any case, there is just too much evidence that the soldiers suffered terribly because of the cold. The boots they got were not high enough, so during the summer they were filled with sand and during the winter with rain and snow. There were problems with the food supply; what they received from the Germans was both poor and insufficient. I think that the following picture gives a fair idea about the state of affairs. I might add that the Second Army also had a unit of soldiers equipped with bicycles.
Szakály and Fodor agree: the Second Army “received everything they could have gotten.” This is naturally a meaningless statement. Whatever that “everything” was, it wasn’t enough. In addition, some sources reveal that neither the ordinary soldiers nor the officers were exactly eager to fight because they didn’t feel that war in the middle of the Ukraine was their own.
And here we come to the real dividing line between the differing interpretations of Hungary’s role in World War II. Csaba Hende in his eulogy talked about the soldiers “who carried out the duty that the fatherland demanded of them. In fact, they did more: everything that was possible.” The war was in defense of Hungary. Historians not committed to the rehabilitation of the Horthy regime see it differently. It was a war the Hungarian government willingly entered, mostly because of Miklós Horthy’s fierce anti-communism, and the consequences were tragic for the country and its people.
Perhaps the most outrageous statement came from Pál Fodor: the rectification of the Trianon borders could have been achieved only with the assistance of Germany and Italy. Therefore, the Hungarian political leadership couldn’t afford to refuse participation on the side of Germany in the war against the Soviet Union.