Mkiklós Horthy

Randolph L. Braham: The Reinterment and Political Rehabilitation of Miklós Horthy

It was twenty years ago, on September 3, 1993, that Miklós Horthy, regent of Hungary between 1920 and 1944, was reburied in Kenderes, the Horthy family’s ancestral home. The reinterment was controversial, mostly because half of the cabinet of Prime Minister József Antall attended the ceremony as “private persons.” 

Since then there have been sporadic efforts to rewrite the history of the Horthy era. In the last three years the Hungarian government has upped the ante, quietly but steadily encouraging a full rehabilitation of Miklós Horthy despite official denials of any such attempt. About a year ago in Washington Foreign Minister János Martonyi categorically denied any attempt at a rehabilitation of either Horthy or his regime. But the rehabilitation continues. For example, the twentieth anniversary of the reburial was remembered in Kenderes a couple of weeks ago. On that occasion Sándor Lezsák, deputy speaker of the Hungarian parliament, gave a laudatory speech about the former governor. According to him, “The [1993] reburial was a historical atonement, but we cannot be satisfied with that. Even after twenty years, the results of the hypnotizing effects of the poisonous lies of the socialist-communist four decades are still with us.” In his speech Lezsák accused “the historical criminals” who are back and who tried to remove important documents from the archives in an attempt to falsify history. He suggested setting up a research institute for the study of Miklós Horthy and his family. The institute would be a central depository of all documents relating to the Horthys.

Below is a short article by Randolph L. Braham, the renowned historian of the Hungarian Holocaust, entitled “The Reinterment and Political Rehabilitation of Miklós Horthy.” It appeared in Slavic Almanach, vol. 2, edited by Henrietta Mondry and Paul Schweiger (Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand, 1993), pp. 137-40. Professor Braham predicted twenty years ago that the full rehabilitation of Miklós Horthy would occur not too far in the future. I thank Professor Braham for allowing Hungarian Spectrum to republish this article.

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The remains of Miklós Horthy, the former Regent of Hungary (1920-1944), were brought back from Portugal and reinterred in his hometown of Kenderes on 4 September 1993, together with those of his wife and youngest son.* Hungarian nationalists all over the world will undoubtedly hail the former head of state as a patriot who successfully championed the twin causes of anti-communism and revisionism. They will recall that during his rule, the country evolved along a nationalist-Christian line and made great strides towards the reestablishment of Greater Hungary by reacquiring some of the territories that were lost under the peace treaties of Trianon (1920). But was he really a patriot?

Horthy and HitlerHorthy was a representative of the conservative-aristocratic elite that perpetuated an anachronistic semi-feudal class system. His domestic policies aimed at preserving the privileges of the landowning aristocracy and stifling the aspirations of the peasantry. In foreign affairs, his primary objective was to bring about “the revision of the punitive peace treaties”–a policy that led to Hungary’s adherence to the Axis and the establishment of an authoritarian proto-fascist regime. Horthy’ s Hungary embraced Hitler’s revisionist ambitions and was the first among the Nazi satellite states to sign the Tripartite Pact (20 November 1941). Having joined the Axis aggression first against Yugoslavia (11 April 1941),and then against the Soviet Union (27 June 1941), Hungary soon found itself at war with the Western democracies as well. After the crushing defeat of the Hungarian and German armies at Voronezh and Stalingrad early in 1943, the Horthy regime aimed to bring about the gradual extrication of Hungary from the Axis Alliance. But the pursuit of unattainable goals–the retention of the reacquired territories, the avoidance of a Soviet occupation, and the possible preservation of the “traditional system”–led to disaster: Hungary was first occupied by the Germans (19 March 1944) and then by the Red Army. Horthy himself was ousted on 15-16 October, in a coup engineered by the Hungarian Nazi radicals acting in conjunction with the Germans. Under the new “Hungarist” regime, Hungary became the only Nazi satellite to fight to the very end and, consequently, once again emerged as a major loser after World War II.

Disastrous as Horthy’ s domestic and foreign policies may have been for the country at large, they proved catastrophic for Hungarian Jewry. They contributed to, if not actually determined, the virtual destruction of the loyal and highly patriotic Jewish community that contributed disproportionately to the modernization of the country. It was during Horthy’ s tenure that the once flourishing Jewish community was subjected to increasingly severe discriminatory measures that led to its decline and eventual destruction. Like the other members of the aristocratic-conservative elite, Horthy was a “civilized” anti-Semite, who was particularly scornful of the “Eastern,” unassimilated Jews. Shortly after he was named commander-in-chief of the counter-revolutionary national forces in 1919, several units of the army engaged in pogroms that claimed thousands of Jewish lives. Almost immediately after his inauguration as Regent, Hungary adopted the first anti-Jewish law in post-World War I Europe (22 September 1920). This was followed by increasingly harsh laws in the late 1930s. In the summer of 1941, from 16,000 to 18,000 so-called “alien” Jews were deported to near Kamenets-Podolsk, where most of them were slaughtered by the Nazis. Early in 1942, close to one thousand Jews were murdered in the Bácska area by Hungarian gendarmerie and military units. Tens of thousands of Jews later died while serving in forced labour companies.

While it is true that in contrast to those in Nazi-ruled Europe, the Jews of Hungary were relatively well off, the ever harsher anti-Jewish measures of the late 1930s prepared the ground for the acceptance and successful implementation of the Final Solution programme after the German occupation. During his Schloss Klessheim meeting with Hitler on 18-19 March 1944, Horthy gave his consent to the delivery of several hundred thousand “Jewish workers” to Germany. The German and Hungarian experts on the Final Solution took full advantage of this agreement to carry out their ideologically defined racial objectives. After the inauguration of the Horthy-appointed government of Döme Sztójay, the Jewish community of Hungary was subjected to the most ruthless and concentrated destruction process of the war. With the instruments of state power at their disposal, the Nazis and their Hungarian accomplices succeeded in “solving” the Jewish question at lightning speed. The isolation, expropriation, ghettoization, concentration and deportation of the Jews–anti-Jewish measures that took years to carry out in Poland–were implemented in less than four months. On 7 July, Horthy halted the deportations (they in fact continued until 9 July), but by then all of Hungary, with the notable exception of Budapest, was already Judenrein. The Holocaust in Hungary claimed close to 600,000 victims.

Horthy’ s admirers will, no doubt, remember primarily his halting of the deportation in connection with the Hungarian Holocaust. But even at that late hour, Horthy apparently did not act on his own initiative. He was subjected to great political and moral pressure by Pope Pius XII, King Gustav of Sweden, and other Western leaders who were informed of the grisly details of the Holocaust in Hungary. Influential as these pressures may have been, perhaps the determining factor that induced Horthy to act was the rapidly deteriorating military situation. The Red Army was fast approaching Hungary, and the Western Allies were already fanning out in France after their successful landing in Normandy. While the Jews of Budapest may have been saved by Horthy–a credit also claimed by the Raoul Wallenberg myth-makers and even by the German and Hungarian Nazis–the Jews of the Hungarian countryside, including those of the territories acquired from Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia, were liquidated during Horthy’ s tenure. And this took place on the eve of Allied victory, when the secrets of Auschwitz were already widely known.

Hungary’s disasters notwithstanding, contemporary chauvinists will continue to remember-and admire Horthy’ s blend of conservative anti-communism and militant nationalism. The reinterment of his remains is likely to emerge as the first step towards his full rehabilitation as a “patriot” who tried to advance Hungary’s best interests as he perceived them to be. In a series of interviews, Prime Minister József Antall identified Horthy as a “Hungarian patriot” who should be placed into the community of the nation and the awareness of the people.” The national mint issued a commemorative medal with Horthy’ s likeness. The reburial ceremony was attended by tens of thousands of Hungarians, many of whom were presumably longing for the return to the “good old days” of the Horthy era. Among those attending as “private citizens” were four leading members of the government, including the Minister of Justice, István Balsai, and the Minister of the Interior, Péter Boross.

Judging by the events surrounding the reinterment of Horthy’s remains, rehabilitation will probably be all but complete in the not-too-distant future. It is the task of objective historians concerned for Hungary’s soul and democratic future to keep the record straight.

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*Miklós Horthy died in Estoril on 9 February 1957, at age 88. His son, Miklós Jr., died on 28 March 1993, at age 86. They were buried together with Mrs. Horthy, who died in 1959, in the English Cemetery in Lisbon.