István Deák is perhaps the best known Hungarian-born historian in the United States. His first book dealt with Weimar Germany (Weimar Germany’s Left-wing Intellectuals ). He then moved on to Lajos Kossuth and the 1848 Hungarian revolution (The Lawful Revolution, 1848-1849 ). His next book was on the Habsburg military (Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps, 1848-1918 ). He also wrote about Europe in the 1930s (Essays on Hitler’s Europe ). He edited and partly wrote, together with Jan T. Gross and Tony Judt, a book entitled The Politics of Retribution in Europe: World War II and Its Aftermath, published in 2000. His latest book which will appear sometime soon is entitled Europe on Trial: Collaboration, Accommodation, Resistance, and Retribution during and after World War II. István Deák is Seth Low Professor Emeritus at Columbia University. I should also mention that he was one of the readers of my Ph.D. dissertation.
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When German troops marched into Hungary, in March 1944, they did so primarily to prevent the Hungarians from breaking away from Germany. Miklós Kállay’s government under Regent Miklós Horthy was not alone in preparing for a breakaway. Among Germany’s European comrades-in-arms, Finland, Romania, and Bulgaria were getting ready to take the same step. Italy had preceded all of them by almost a year, if not quite successfully, and only the Slovak and Croatian governments made no attempt to capitulate. However, in the spring of 1944, the Slovak military leadership was already preparing to turn against the Germans and its own government, and the Croatian fascist Ustasha regime was steadily losing its power and importance while Tito’s Communist partisan army was gradually taking over. By the summer, it already came to fighting between the Germans and the Slovak insurgents; civil war was raging in Croatia and Romania; Finland and Bulgaria had not only left the German alliance but by September were waging war against the Third Reich. The three countries together sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers to fight against the Germans.
The Hungarian breakaway attempt failed because neither the social elite nor the majority of the people wanted it to happen; the invading Germans were welcomed everywhere in March 1944. That there was no armed resistance was not only because instructions to that effect came from Regent Horthy or from the government but also because the Hungarians regarded the Germans as old and loyal allies against Bolshevism, the Slavic and Romanian neighbors, and the Jews. The current Hungarian government’s contention that the occupying Germans oppressed the Hungarian people, that the country became a victim, and that it lost its independence is a rekindling of the same false Communist propaganda that excused “the people” and put all the blame on the “traitor landlords and capitalists.”
Following the arrest of a few hundred liberal, conservative, and other anti-Nazi politicians, the invading German army units were able to continue their march toward the Russian front, while in Hungary the new Sztójay-government, consisting largely of veterans of earlier Horthy-regime cabinets, mobilized the population, industry, and agriculture for the final showdown in the war. At the same time, the new government, drawing on the technical advice of a tiny SS detachment, embarked at a dizzying speed on the drastic solution of the “Jewish Question”, i.e. the humiliation, segregation, despoliation, and deportation of eight hundred thousand Jewish citizens. The deportation of the Jews to Auschwitz allowed for the largest redistribution of wealth in Hungarian history, shortly to be followed by the Communists’ even greater wealth redistribution.
Such sporadic and hesitant steps as the suspension, in July 1944, of the deportation of the Jews of Budapest and of the Jewish labor servicemen, and Regent Horthy’s surrender attempt in October, did not change the determination of the country’s political and military elite to remain loyal to the German alliance. This explains why they complied even with such outrageous German wishes as that, in order to delay the Red Army’s advance toward Vienna, the Hungarian army participate in the defense and thus the destruction of Budapest; also that the Hungarian government voluntarily hand over to the Germans a significant proportion of the national wealth. To regard all this as suffering brought upon the Hungarians by German oppression is absurd and a falsification of history. It is wrong to speak simultaneously of Hungary’s and Germany’s heroic struggle against the Bolshevik enemy and at the same time complain about German oppression.
The planned monument to the German occupation and the underlying notion of self-justification can cause serious damage to the country’s image. It is true that Hungary is not alone in suffering from a mania of self-pity and self-justification: the Ukrainians, Romanians, Czechs, Slovaks and Serbs did not get much further than that either. However, what is going on in Hungary today, where the official leadership both apologizes for the sins committed by the Hungarian state against the Jews and points an accusatory finger at everyone but its own country, creates an impossible and dangerous public mood. It is infantile to perpetually accuse the West of conspiracy, to attack the United States with arguments once used by the nationalist Horthy and the Communist Rákosi regimes, and to harbor perpetual grievances. The West is not rushing towards intellectual, moral, and financial bankruptcy; its main concern is surely not how to put the Hungarian people in chains.
A more rational attitude on both sides is, of course, warranted: so long as this article can appear in Hungary, and while the Hungarian ambassador to the United Nations asks for forgiveness from the Hungarian Jews on behalf of the Hungarian state, one cannot speak either of political dictatorship or of official anti-Semitism in Hungary. Would that the government and its faithful followers remind themselves not to engage in collective hysteria!