Political controversy over the role of Regent Miklós Horthy (1920-1944)

Sunday marked the unveiling of a bronze bust of Admiral Miklós Horthy. The bust is located on the property of a Hungarian Reformed Church in Budapest, but it is visible from the busy Szabadság tér. The minister of the church is Lóránt Hegedüs, whose wife is a Jobbik member of parliament. This is not the first time that Hegedüs has prompted controversy with his extremist political views and actions. A few years back there was already a more modest Horthy bust, but that one was by and large hidden from public view.

The main reason for Hegedüs’s admiration of Horthy is the governor’s alleged role in regaining some of the territories Hungary lost after World War I. We mustn’t forget that November 2 was the 75th anniversary of the First Vienna Award negotiated with the assistance of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. As a result of the Award, Hungary regained a sizable portion of Slovakia. Less than two years later, on August 30, 1940, the Second Vienna Award, also arbitrated by Germany and Italy, granted Hungary some of the territories lost to Romania.

Lóránt Hegedüs in front of the controversial statue of Admiral Miklós Horthy / Népszabadság, Photo Árpád Kurucz

Lóránt Hegedüs in front of the controversial statue of Admiral Miklós Horthy
Népszabadság, Photo: Árpád Kurucz

Naturally, Horthy is only a symbol of these apparent successes of Hungarian diplomacy. The negotiations themselves were done by the Hungarian government, but Horthy was the one who as head of state rode on his white horse into the larger cities of the regained territories. It is this Horthy that the Hungarian extremists who gathered around the statue admire.

One often hears people who admire Horthy say that the admiral was responsible for Hungary’s relatively fast recovery after the war. These people don’t know that, although the whole interwar period is named after him, Horthy’s power was constitutionally extremely limited. Especially in his first ten or twelve years or so in office he had little say in the everyday running of the government. In the thirties, unfortunately for the country, he insisted on and received increased political power. Horthy knew practically nothing about politics before he became governor, and his skills didn’t improve greatly during his twenty years in office.

What these extremists admire most, his alleged skill in recovering former Hungarian territories, was actually his and the country’s undoing. For the good offices of Nazi Germany in November 1938 and August 1940 Hitler demanded loyalty from Horthy and Hungary. It was difficult to say no to the benevolent Führer who took Hungary’s side during the negotiations with Slovakia and Romania.

The other issue is the anti-Semitic nature of the Horthy regime and Horthy’s personal responsibility for the Holocaust in Hungary. It is undeniable that the interwar Hungarian governments actively helped the Christian middle classes achieve economic  and intellectual prominence to the detriment of the Jews. The numerus clausus (1920) that restricted the number of Jewish students at the universities was intended to further that aim of the government. Anti-Semites of those days talked about “the changing of the guard,” meaning altering the composition of the economic and intellectual elite. Most leading Hungarian politicians, including Horthy, would have liked to see a Jewish-free Hungary, but they knew that shipping out all the Jews would have terrible economic consequences. Yes, there was pressure from Germany, but many people in the government actually welcomed that pressure since it would facilitate the “changing of the guard” which hadn’t proceeded as rapidly as they would have liked.

As for Horthy’s personal responsibility for the expulsion of the Jews, I have to side with the majority of Hungarian historians who blame him for what happened. First of all, Horthy was not powerless even after the German occupation on March 19, 1944. He could have forbidden the Hungarian administration to make the necessary preparations to send about 600,000 Hungarians to Auschwitz. Because everything that was done was done by the Hungarian authorities. If he could stop the transports in July, he could have ordered the ministry of interior to refuse to cooperate with the Germans earlier on. The Germans simply didn’t  have the personnel or the know-how without Hungarian help to organize such a mass expulsion. Without the assistance of the Hungarian Railways, for example, no transport could have left the country. It was only when Horthy received threatening calls from all over the world in July 1944, including Great Britain and the United States, that he decided to act.

Finally, I would like to touch on the Orbán government’s position regarding the Horthy regime and Horthy himself. An unfolding Horthy cult is undeniable. It started with Jobbik, but eventually Fidesz decided not to try to stop the tide. Viktor Orbán himself didn’t promote the erection of Horthy statues or naming streets after Horthy, but he didn’t stand in their way either.  Just yesterday in parliament he quite openly admitted that what he wants are the votes of those who voted last time for Jobbik. And if that is your aim you don’t condemn the Horthy regime’s foreign policy or admit its responsibility for the deaths of Hungarian Jews.

Even today, after the unveiling of the statue and after outcries from the Hungarian and the international Jewish community, Fidesz refuses to take a stand. János Lázár already announced that it is the job of historians to determine Horthy’s role. As if historians hadn’t done their job already. Although no full-fledged biography of Horthy has yet been written in Hungary, Thomas Sakmyster’s book, Admiral on Horseback: Miklós Horthy 1918-1944. appeared in English in 1992 in the United States. Since then we have even more information on that period, including archival material that indicates that Horthy most likely knew about Hitler’s plans for the extermination of the Jews much earlier than the summer of 1944.

An incredible number of documents have been published ever since the 1960s on German-Hungarian relations. Selected private papers of Horthy were published in English.  Documents from the Hungarian Foreign Ministry were also published in several volumes between 1962 and 1982. Hundreds of articles appeared on different aspects of the Horthy regime. So, those Fidesz politicians who urge historians to work harder should first sit down and read a few books and articles which are readily available. Then they can decide whether it is appropriate to embrace the Horthy regime or not.

The time has come, I think, for the Orbán government to announce unequivocally that it does not seek its forebear in the different governments of the Horthy period. Not even the Bethlen governments because Prime Minister István Bethlen was an arch-conservative whose ideas were behind the times even then, and in the twenty-first century they have no place in a country that belongs to the European Union.

It seems that the Hungarian Reformed Church at least has finally taken action. The church is beginning disciplinary action against Lóránt Hegedüs. I don’t know whether they will have the guts to defrock him, but in my opinion that man has no business whatsoever leading a spiritual community.


  1. Little correction: not all of the 600,000+ murdered Hungarian Jews lost their lives in Auschwitz. Think of Kameniec-Podolsk, Soviet front, concentration camps, executions inside Hungary, etc.

    The 600,000 number is actually conservative. It comes from the difference between the 1941 census numbers and the number of survivors. I did not find a single source that would have included the natural growth of the Jewish population between 1941 and 1944.

    Re: Horthy

    He is responsible for the
    1. White terror in 1919-1920
    2. Creation of a non-democratic state in the 1920’s
    3. Entering the war, which resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian civilians and soldiers
    4. Deportation of the Jewish population

    They praise him for “saving” the Jews of Budapest. I quoted the German source in the previous blog that he actually agreed in the deportation of most Jews of Budapest in August.
    It was the Romanians that saved the Jews of Budapest.

  2. I was not precise enough:
    It was the switch of Romanians that saved about half of the Jews of Budapest.

  3. Perhaps it should also be emphasized that the Horthy Regency was an era of complete cultural and economic standstill. There were indeed great intellectual achievements by Hungarian scientists, but these scientists by and large had to study abroad and did their work abroad. The greatest composers of the era all made their careers abroad as well, But what are the great works of architecture, the monuments, the works of art or literature of the Horthy regency? A week of walks through Budapest will amply demonstrate that the greatest and most lasting periods of construction and development in Hungary occurred in the most liberal eras — before the first world war, and in the first decades after the end of the Soviet block era. The current regime is wrapping itself in nostalgia for Hungary’s weakest and most mediocre period. Why do they hate Hungary so much?

  4. The head of HÖKm, which is the national university student organization, has Miklós Horthy’s painted picture on the wall of his office.

    As it was mentioned here, due to lack of care in the more liberal students, HÖK is lead by right wing/extreme right wing students and the organization acts as a breeding ground for these kids, before they enter proper party politics (and they are mentored/controlled by fidesz and jobbik politicians, they do not just exist by themselves, they are too big for that).


  5. Is there any other Nazi-collaborator head of state in Europe who has a similar – state sanctioned – renaissance and cult in their own country?

    Fidesz obviously pushes the Horthy-cult, although with more subtle means (e.g. the reconstruction of Kossuth tér to look as it did in 1944, sans destruction I guess, or using Horthy-era names of politicians to brand various government programs), after all it needs the votes of Horhy-fans, but I wonder whether there is such a politician anywhere in Europe who is still held in such high regard by so many as Horthy is?

    The “more moderate” mainstream conservatives in Mandiner and other media seem to be pretty apologetic about him, they don’t dare to be openly promoting him, but feel they have to be defending him nevertheless. Does something like this happen elsewhere in Europe?

  6. “The “more moderate” mainstream conservatives in Mandiner and other media seem to be pretty apologetic about him, they don’t dare to be openly promoting him, but feel they have to be defending him…”

    Intimidation by the manic, mentally-challenged, hordes that Orban and his thugs have created. Another 10 years of this and the country will have nought but sycophants and madmen. Come to think of it, that’s what today’s Hungarians are…

  7. To take Horthy seriously as a great leader is simply amazing to me. As I discussed in another post his heroic record in the Empire’s navy has to be questioned. Really Horthy’s claim to fame was one raid against the French/Italian blockade of the Adriatic Sea in May 1917 when Horthy’s battle cruisers sunk two allied destroyers and several smaller ships. Horthy then slipped back to port. In June of 1918 Horthy tried another raid and lost massively including the sinking of the Empire’s largest fighting vessel. A Lord Nelson Horthy was not.

    Horthy bears some responsibility during WWII for the Hungarian 2nd Army getting sent into the battle of Stalingrad with only weeks of training and openly using 50,000 forced Jewish worker to build defensive positions. Of the 2nd Army 100,000 were killed and another 35,000 wounded at the gates of Stalingrad. To turn Horthy into a military hero is from my perspective to dishonor the memory of the many Hungarians killed in two very tragic conflicts for no purpose what so ever.

  8. Awionnnoiu :
    Is there any other Nazi-collaborator head of state in Europe who has a similar – state sanctioned – renaissance and cult in their own country?

    Not quite the same but not without controversy either, Hindenburg has a major street named after him in Hamburg.

  9. It is about time that the Reformed Church hierarchy take action. I seem to remember that Hegedus’ father was previously sanctioned by the Church for expressing similar types of views. Like almost every other aspect of Hungarian society, and as you have written about previously, the mixing of religion and politics/government has of course brought low much if not all the moral authority of various religious instituitions in Hungary.
    I am not a Catholic, but it would be very welcome for the new Pope to make a visit to Hungary. His understanding of the role of religion (and his church) and the duties of the clergy would be a welcome message in Hungary.

  10. LwiiH :

    Awionnnoiu :
    Is there any other Nazi-collaborator head of state in Europe who has a similar – state sanctioned – renaissance and cult in their own country?

    Not quite the same but not without controversy either, Hindenburg has a major street named after him in Hamburg.

    Better late than never!

    I am happy to (partially) correct you here:

    Part of the Hindenburgstraße in Hamburg was renamed to “Otto Wels” leader of the German Social Democrats, one of the few members of parliament who voted against Hitler’s empowering law in 1933.
    Part of the street is still named after Hindenburg – against the wishes of the Gren Party who wanted Hindenburg’s name to completely disapper.

  11. I forgot:

    This just happened in September this year …

    Many (most) German cities gave new names to all the streets named after military leaders from WW1 – or gave them back their old names from before.

  12. Re Istvan’s comment on Horthy as a “Great military leader”:

    I’ve already written about this some time ago. There’s a very interesting documentary film (which we watched on tv arlier this year) about that mission when the battle cruiser St István was sunk by a torpedo from a small Italian boat. Because Horthy was so sure he’d break the blockade of the Italians he even had a professional camera crew on his flagship …

  13. Horthy is no hero, to be sure. He led the country into a disastrous war. He could be compared to Churchill. A reactionary and an archconservative, he led Britain into a war, impoverishing his country, losing the Empire, and creating an enemy in the East more dangerous than Hitler was, if that is possible. Except that history has been kinder to Churchill than to Horthy,

  14. Churchill only became Prime Minister nearly a year after the war began, so not quite sure how he “led Britain into a war.” He was in the wilderness effectively. There aren’t many wars that I would defend but I lose no sleep over Britain declaring war on Hitler and while it is true that we emerged impoverished and “lost the empire” morally they were prices worth paying. And Churchill, for all his many faults, was not wrong about Hitler.

  15. Joe Simon :
    Horthy is no hero, to be sure. He led the country into a disastrous war. He could be compared to Churchill. A reactionary and an archconservative, he led Britain into a war, impoverishing his country, losing the Empire, and creating an enemy in the East more dangerous than Hitler was, if that is possible. Except that history has been kinder to Churchill than to Horthy,

    Churchill and Horthy are not remotely comparable. Upon reading reports of Auschwitz in July 1944 (when the Hungarian state was busy doing its work), Churchill put the following on record. Can you find me just one similar remark from Horthy, before, during or after his time in office?

    Churchill: “There is no doubt this is the most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world, and it has been done by scientific machinery by nominally civilised men in the name of a great State and one of the leading races of Europe. It is quite clear that all concerned in this crime who may fall into our hands, including the people who only obeyed orders by carrying out the butcheries, should be put to death after their association with the murders has been proved.”

  16. Comparing Horthy with Churchill is also totally appropriate because the nature of their respective power was quite different. Horthy was essentially a king, with the right to appoint and dismiss prime ministers, and he commanded the armed forced. Churchill was elected as an MP, was appointed by a broad coalition to be prime minister during time of war, but voted out of office before the end of the war in the 1945 general election when the British people decided they wanted to a new direction for the country. During the war, Churchill had to face various votes of confidence and had he lost, would have had to resign. Horthy had no such inconvenience.

  17. Bowen: Not to contradict you, but your post reminded me of a letter from István Horthy to his father shortly before his death (in 1942) (copied from Wikipedia):

    “[…] Yet another sad topic: the Jewish companies, as I hear, -there 20 or 30 000 [men]-, are at the mercy of the sadist’s passions, in every regard; the stomach of man gets ache [looking at this]; it is abhorrent, that in the 20th century, it happens at us, too… […] I fear, we will pay for this very dearly once. (Is it possible to take them home to work there?) Otherwise, in spring, only a few will be alive. […] ”

    This is by the way yet another reason why I’m not buying it that Miklós Horthy didn’t know that whatever the Jews were sent towards was truly horrible and inhumane. I might believe that he didn’t know the exact nature of the horrors, but does that really matter? He certainly couldn’t have thought that they were going to be accommodated in the local Hilton of Krakkow. He probably eased his mind that it’s still better for them with him than without him under an earlier German occupation (and he in fact had some arguable point there), but what did he think was going to happen on the long run?

  18. OT: The most recent issue, Nov 11, of The New Yorker has Anne Applebaum’s Letter from Budapest, titled “Anti-Semite and Jew”, about Szegedi Csanad.

  19. I would like to call attention to letter to the editor of Die Welt by Krisztián Ungváry, the Hungarian historian. It is an answer to some criticism of one of the editors of Die Welt in connection with an interview of his in the same paper.

    In this answer Ungváry corrects some of the misconception of the paper’s editor who claimed that Hitler himself insisted on the destruction of the Hungarian Jewry. This was not true, claims Ungváry who just came out with a massive volume on the subject. The only thing Hitler insisted on was sending 100,000 able bodied men to Germany where they were needed in the weapon factories and on other military projects. But the Hungarian collaborators were so eager to get rid of the Hungarian Jews that they sent so many people every day that the German leadership in Auschwitz couldn’t handle them.

    So, the Hungarians were asked to slow down and send only 3,000 people every third day. One of the Germans at Auschwitz actually visited Budapest to talk over the matter. Eventually the Hungarians agreed on two transports a day (each with 3,000 people) instead of the three they were sending earlier. So, all that nonsense about German pressure is humbug.

  20. A fasizmus 14 fő szerszámainak használata amit minden szélső jobbos diktátor követ, így a Stadionos viktor is ezt használja és hű minden betűjéhez.

    1. Erős és folyamatos nacionalizmus.
    Nacionalista képek, szólamok, dalok, történelmi képek, hivatkozások.

    2. Az alapvető emberi jogok mellőzése, elvetése.
    Az ellenségtől való félelem miatt és a biztonság érdekében, az alapvető emberi jogokat fel lehet függeszteni, az ellenségnek nevezettekre nem vonatkoznak az emberi jogok, bebörtönzés, kínzás, kivégzés, alkalmazható.

    3. Az ellenség, a bűnbakok megnevezése, a közös ellenség egyesít.
    A nacionalista tömeg a megnevezett kisebbségek, bűnbakok ellen fordul, a zsidók, cigányok, vallási felekezetek, etnikumok, bevándorlók a hibásak mindenért.

    4. Elszabadult szexizmus.
    Férfi domináció és a nők elnyomása, munkára, szülésre szorítása. A nő arra való, hogy gyereket szüljön és neveljen, a férfi irányít mindent.

    5. Államilag irányított média.
    Cenzúra és a hírek állami ellenőrzése, kreációja. Állami propaganda és hírgyártás, a kormány munkájának dicsőítése.

    6. A nemzeti biztonság iránti megszállottság.
    Mindenki ellenség, de a kormány megvédi polgárait ellenük.

    7. Az állam és egyház egybefonódása
    A kormányt támogató egyházak állami finanszírozása, az államokat nem támogató egyházak, vallások elnyomása, megsemmisítése.

    8. A nagyipar és oligarchák támogatása
    Az iparmágnások az államtól kapják a munkát megbízásokat, cserébe a támogatásért. Kéz kezet mos.

    9. A szakszervezetek, munkás csoportok elnyomása, kiiktatása.
    Munkás szakszervezetek és egyéb érdekcsoportok szervezkedhetnek, elnyomásuk, megfigyelésük szükséges.

    10. Az értelmiség megosztása, támogatók érvényesülése, ellenzék megsemmisítése.
    Aki nincs velünk, az ellenünk van és meg kell semmisíteni, el kell űzni.

    11. A bűnözők megbüntetésével való megszállottság.
    A rendőrség korlátlan hatalmat kap. Akiket bűnösnek gondolnak, könyörtelenül megbüntethetik, kínozhatják, megölhetik, ha kell.

    12. A korrupció és ismeretségi érvényesülés elburjánzása.
    Aki lepénzeli a kormányt az munkát kap, aki jó ismeretségi körrel rendelkezik, az érvényesül.

    13. Választási csalások.
    Baján és az egész országban.

    14. A hadsereg fejlesztése.
    No ebben lemaradt a Stadionos viktor, de majd lóhátról, megfutamodást színlelve fog győzelmet aratni, ideológiai ellenségén az USA-n.

  21. I just can’t stop wondering, how in high Heavens the question like the “role of Regent Miklós Horthy” could ever come up in a seemingly European and a seemingly civilised country?
    At all, I mean?
    Is anyone sane is still there in mainland Hungary, or all of those managed to escape in good time and ‘only the rest’ remained?

    Is there a loophole/wormhole in time (right in Felcsut?) and they’ve managed to fall back, or they are just working on it to create one for the same purpose?

    Come on, people, the time is moving on, the time is moving away from you – and it’s a one-way affair, you know, the bygones isbygones, whatever you do!
    Better to remember this part – in case you planning to remain a part of Europe – that is.

    Otherwise it’s a free pass to oblivion – vote for Orban and be part of the unpleasant history of the civilised world.

    – And YES, I am fully aware of the implications, so don’t bother, please, to enlighten me.

  22. Horthy is no doubt a controversial person at least, and one good action does not wash away all the bad he has done. I’m not in favour of erecting statues of him, or naming streets after him, but I think it’s wrong to paint him like the devil. Let’s not forget that Hungary regained its soveregnity and independence in 1918. After the 133 days of bolshevik terror, he stepped up as a leader, and the independent, sovereign nation-state of Hungary was born under him. He’s the most apparent and important person of that time period. The institutions, attitudes and culture of modern Hungary took shape during his time. We had a rough start for sure, and it only became worse after WW2 because of the communists.
    You can blame him for a lot of things, but you should be consistent. It is true that he gained more and more influence during the 30’s, but just as Ms. Balogh said, he was generally a weak politician, the prime ministers and ministers shaped policies more than he did. If there’s one thing you cannot blame him however, is accepting the Vienna Awards and entering World War 2. After the Great War, the country was in ruins, 2/3rd of its territory lost, millions of ethinc Hungarians found themselves in a previously nonexistent country.
    You can’t really blame people and politicians for the general sentiments. The Vienna Awards were seen as a just and peaceful solution to the problem created in Paris. Hungary refused to let the Germans use its railway system in 1939 when they invaded Poland. The early German successes made the German-loving army officials and military men cocky, their pressure coupled with the pressure by the Nazis, and the bombing of Kassa made it virtually impossible to stay out of the war. Horthy, Bethlen, Teleky and Kállay tried to clean up the government several times, when Nazi-loving ministers would seem to gain the upperhand. The Governor was a man who could be easily influenced, his weak character and old fashioned thinking was the stem of most of the crimes he committed. I know that in history there are no “what if” questions, but after a little thinking, we can all aggree, that the outcome couldn’t have been much different with anyone else in power. Hungary had some clear interests, those interests were most effectively backed by the Germans, and the historical tradition of being natural allies also kicked in. World War 2 started as a Central European war, and it ravaged the area more than it did say Denmark or the Netherlands. Horthy is too controversial to have a statue. It’s a stretch to regard him as a hero, even if he is the father of the modern, independent Hungary, but it’s also a strongly biased stance of opinion, when people say that he was as bad as Hitler.

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