Admiral Miklós Horthy

What happened in Kamenets-Podolskii in 1941?

It would be utterly foolish to attempt a thorough description of what happened in Kamenets-Podolskii (or, in Ukrainian, Kamianets-Podilskyi), today a fair sized city in Ukraine. In earlier times it was an important Jewish center of learning, but even in Soviet times it was a multi-ethnic community of Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews. Internet descriptions of the city’s history always mention that Kamenets-Podolskii was the place where “one of the first and largest Holocaust mass-murders” took place. They usually also note that most of the 23,600 victims were Hungarian Jews.

Luckily there are some excellent English-language sources dealing with the subject. Among them is a volume devoted solely to the topic: Kinga Frojimovics’s I Have Been a Stranger in a Strange Land: The Hungarian State and Jewish Refugees in Hungary, 1933-1945 (2007), which is still available through Amazon. Randolph L. Braham’s monumental The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary, 2 vols. (1994) can still be obtained in an abbreviated edition. In Hungarian Tamás Majsai wrote a book about the deportations that took place in July-August 1941. I learned a lot from Mária Ormos’s Egy magyar médiavezér: Kozma Miklós, 2 vols. Kozma served at that time as a kind of governor of the territory, acquired in March 1939, which was known in Hungary as Kárpátalja or, in English, Carpatho-Ruthenia.

Yesterday I wrote that Sándor Szakály, the new director of the Veritas Historical Institute, called the deportation and murder of about 25,000 people a simple “police action against aliens.” It was not part of the Hungarian Holocaust. Why is it so important for Szakály and therefore, I suspect, for the Veritas Institute and the Orbán government to disassociate the 1941 atrocities from what happened after March 19, 1944, when allegedly Hungary lost its sovereignty? The answer, I think, is obvious. No one, not even far-right historians of Szakály’s ilk, can claim that Hungary was not a sovereign state in 1941. And yet with the approval and support of Miklós Horthy, László Bárdossy, the prime minister, Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer, minister of the interior, and Miklós Kozma, one of the promoters of the idea, all agreed to begin the deportation of Jews who had escaped from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria and after 1939 from Poland as well. In fact, although the official record of the cabinet meeting doesn’t indicate it, the whole cabinet gave the plan its blessing. The evidence can be found in notes jotted down by Miklós Kozma, who was present.

One must keep in mind that the northeastern corner of Greater Hungary was an underdeveloped region with a very large Orthodox Jewish community who were, especially in smaller towns, quite unassimilated. They were the ones Horthy hated most and wanted to get rid of. Kozma’s aversion to these people was most likely reinforced by living in the area. There were places where there were more religious Orthodox Jews than non-Jews. So, already in the fall of 1940 he entertained the idea of deporting them at the earliest opportunity, which came when Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. When Hungary joined the war effort on June 27 of the same year, conditions were ideal for the mass deportation of the unwanted Jews, foreign as well as domestic, because Hungarian troops were temporarily in possession of territories just across the border.

Hungarian gendarmes collected the victims, who were allowed to take along only 30 pengős and food for three days, herded them into cattle cars or in a few cases trucks, and took them to Kőrösmező/Yasinia, still inside of Hungary. The first group started to move across the border to Galicia and Ukraine on July 14. In the next few weeks 13,400 people were deported from Carpathian Ruthenia and 4,000 from other parts of the country, including Budapest. The majority of the deportees were taken to Kamenets-Podolskii by Hungarian soldiers, who took over the job of the gendarmes. Once there, the deportees were left to their own devices. No shelter, no food, no nothing. The few Jews in town tried to help, but they themselves were poor.

Soon enough the conditions became indescribable. Yet more and more transports arrived daily. Finally the Germans had had enough; they asked the Hungarian government to stop the deportations. In response, Keresztes-Fischer temporarily halted the deportation of Hungarian Jews, but the others continued to arrive daily in Kamenets-Podolskii. It was at that time that the Germans decided to “solve the problem.” They simply killed them and buried them in common graves. Some were still alive when they were thrown into the pit. A few Jews survived and even managed to get back to Hungary, although the Hungarian authorities doubled the number of gendarmes in order to prevent their return.

Deported Jews from Hungary in Kamenets-Podolskii / Source: www.memorialashoah.org

Deported Jews from Hungary in Kamenets-Podolskii / Source: http://www.memorialashoah.org

Yes, at the end of August the deportations stopped, but the Hungarian government didn’t give up the idea of resuming the deportations, especially from this particular corner of Hungary. László Bárdossy announced that because of the German request they halted the action but they have every intention of continuing it when the situation in that part of Galicia and Ukraine improves enough to accept the deportees.

Kamenets-Podolskiii was a dress rehearsal for the deportation of over 600,000 Hungarian citizens. Gendarmes were employed to gather and herd the victims into cattle cars in both cases. In 1944 as in 1941 the Hungarian authorities were the ones who seemed most eager to get rid of their Jewish citizens, and in both cases the Germans were the ones who tried to slow down the transports because they were overburdened.

So, it’s no wonder that the current Hungarian government wants to transform Kamenets-Podolskii into an innocent police action against illegal aliens. Sándor Szakály and the Orbán government are a perfect fit, and I’m certain that his Veritas Institute will do its level best to whitewash the Hungarian governments of the interwar period and make sure that Governor Miklós Horthy, whom Szakály seems to admire, is portrayed as an innocent victim of circumstances. And since soon enough all school books will be published by a state publishing house, I have no doubt that Szakály’s version of Hungary’s modern history will be the “true and only one.” After all, he is heading an institute called Veritas.

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.