By Eliezer M. Rabinovich
In 1944, Hungarian Regent Miklós Horthy saved more Jews than anyone else in the world. Yet today, next to the efforts of heroic diplomats like Carl Lutz and Raoul Wallenberg, Horthy has become a forgotten footnote to history.
The reason? At first glance, Horthy—a self-proclaimed anti-Semite and anti-Communist—was not exactly a hero for the textbooks. But the truth isn’t so simple. Closer examination shows that Horthy paid lip service to the Nazis while privately strategizing how to prevent deportation of the Jews. Horthy defied Hitler, took back partial power and forbade further deportations, ultimately preventing a quarter-million Hungarian Jews from perishing in the Holocaust.
According to the Treaty of Trianon signed on June 4, 1920, Hungary was deprived of two-thirds of its territory and one-third of its Magyar population. On March 1, 1920, the National Assembly voted to restore the Kingdom of Hungary, but the victors did not want to hear about the return of the Habsburgs, so the Assembly offered Admiral Horthy the position of the Regent, or the Governor.
During this period, Hungary became madly anti-Semitic. When the country allied with Germany, the anti-Jewish measures became a part of the package. The Germans demanded limiting Jewish rights across the board, so Horthy and his conservative circle believed that by instituting some anti-Jewish measures, the Hungarian government could prevent Jews from being deported; many Jews shared this opinion. Two laws prepared by rabidly anti-Semitic Bela Imredy aimed at reducing the Jewish part in the economy were passed by the parliament in 1938-1939. In general, these laws, though bad, were frequently ignored, and, as Istvan Deak wrote, even in March of 1944, “many Jewish factory owners and bankers in Budapest had made immense profits from manufacturing arms for the German and Hungarian armies.”
Was Horthy personally an anti-Semite? It seems that he unequivocally answered this question in his private letter to Prime Minister Teleki dated October 14, 1940:
“As regards the Jewish problem, I have been an anti-Semite throughout my life. I have never had contact with Jews. I have considered it intolerable that here in Hungary everything, every factory, bank, large fortune, business, theater, press, commerce, etc. should be in Jewish hands, and that the Jew should be the image reflected of Hungary, especially abroad. Since, however, one of the most important tasks of the government is to raise the standard of living, i.e., we have to acquire wealth, it is impossible, in a year or two, to replace the Jews, who have everything in their hands, and to replace them with incompetent, unworthy, mostly big-mouthed elements, for we should become bankrupt. This requires a generation at least … I cannot look with indifference at inhumanity, senseless humiliation, when we still need them.”
But again, the bare facts prove misleading. Horthy’s statement that he had “never had contact with Jews” is laughable; he played bridge with them, invited them to his table, and encouraged them in commerce. But in this particular moment of history he was a leader of the nation that had chosen anti-Semitism as a way of life. In the 1939 elections, “The Arrow Cross” and other right-wing parties received a quarter of the votes. So is it possible for the leader of an anti-Semitic democracy not to at least pay lip service to anti-Semitism in order to protect the Jews?
Let’s take a closer look. Hungarian historian Krisztián Ungváry wrote: “Proposals to place the entire Jewish population in ghettos had been floated in Parliament as early as 1941, and it was only the tactical maneuverings of Prime Minister Miklós Kállay and Miklós Horthy, the head of state, that had stopped the proposals coming to a vote.” No doubt the letter to Teleki was a part of these “tactical maneuverings.” (A minor error of Ungvary’s: Kallay assumed premiership in March 1942.)
On June 7, 1942, Hungary joined Hitler in the war with the USSR. Believing it was a fault of his prime minister Laszlo Bardossy, in March of 1942 Horthy approached a liberal friend Miklos Kallay and asked him to take over the government. Kallay asked the leaders of the Government Party on what conditions they would support him governing. They replied that their views were “dominated by a desperate fear of the Soviet Union and so these people wished for a German victory … That fear was the basis of their attitude towards the Jews, too. If Germany won the war, and we continued our tolerance towards the Jews, the Germans sooner or later would treat Hungary as a Jew-ridden enemy country … The Western powers … would hand us over to the Soviet Union …” It would be wrong to say that these leaders were mistaken in their fears. Therefore, the conditions of their support were that Kallay “made concessions to public opinion on the Jewish question” and “made a pro-German declaration.” Kallay reluctantly promised.
On April 16, 1942, Kallay visited Hitler. He told Der Führer that in Hungary, with 10% of the population being Jewish, their elimination from the economic life could be achieved only gradually. Upon return, Kallay made a report to the party committee coordinated with the leader of the Jews that “a final settlement of the Jewish problem could only come after the war, when the only solution would be to expel the 800,000 Jews.”
What this really meant, of course, was that until the end of the war the Jews were safe.
On August 15, 1942, the Hungarian ambassador to Germany, Döme Sztojay, reported that Hitler disagreed with postponement and demanded immediate anti-Jewish actions, and on October 8 and 17 Joachim von Ribbentrop, Germany’s foreign minister, elaborated German demands in a letter and an official note sent to Kallay. On December 5-14, 1942, the Hungarian government flatly rejected the demands.
On April 17, 1943, Hitler summoned Horthy and demanded that Kallay be dismissed. Horthy firmly rejected. Kallay wrote: “Horthy declared … once and for all, that just as he had never dreamed of trying to influence Hitler or the German government in their choice of ministers so he would accept no prompting, nor even the expression of a wish or an observation, that his premier, who enjoyed his full confidence, should be replaced.”
On March 18, 1944, Hitler summoned Horthy again and told him that he had ordered the occupation with the purpose of dismissing Kallay and installing a friendly (read: obedient) government. Horthy understood that in case of his resignation, the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross party would be immediately put in charge. Germans occupied without resistance, and only then Horthy was allowed to depart.
On March 19, Kallay met the Regent at the station. The leaders assembled the Crown Council where the Regent told the ministers about his trip. Hitler gave him two reasons for the occupation: “reluctant, indeed sham military cooperation” and that “Hungary is not taking the necessary steps against the Jews. Our crime is, therefore, that I have not fulfilled Hitler’s wish, and have not allowed the Jews to be massacred.”
After that the two exhausted men had a long talk. The Premier was convinced that the Regent was making a grave error agreeing to stay in his post. There was no Parliament, and Hungary had ceased to be a constitutional state. Kallay “begged him to abdicate as a demonstration.” “I cannot,” Horthy said, striking his chair, “leave this chair empty … I have sworn to this country not to forsake it … Who will defend the Jews or our refugees if I leave my post? I may not be able to defend everything, but I believe that I can still be of great, very great, help to our people.”
Randolph Braham noted that “the occupation virtually ended Hungary’s existence as a sovereign state.” The next day Kallay found refuge at the Turkish legation. Horthy remained completely alone. He had no choice but to appoint a pro-German government headed by Sztojay. That Horthy was very difficult for the Germans to deal with we see from the German ambassador Edmund Veesenmayer’s telegram to Ribbentrop where he described the Regent as “a liar, physically incapable of discharging his responsibilities, constantly repeating and contradicting himself, and at times speaking haltingly.”But he was mistaken: Horthy biographer Thomas Sakmyster wrote that Horthy knew how to deceive and to create an impression described by Veesenmayer if he wanted to avoid a discussion; he could even bring up his poor hearing.
Adolf Eichmann arrived in Budapest the next day and immediately started organizing the deportations. Sztojay appointed Andor Jarossas as his Minister of Interior and László Endre and László Baky as his two deputies. The speed of the process was amazing. Starting on May 14, four trains with 12,000 Jews on board departed daily from Hungary; 437,000 thousand were sent out of the country in 145 trains by July 6. Upon arrival in Auschwitz, 10-15 percent of them were selected for work; the rest were sent directly to the gas chambers. Eichmann had only a small group of Germans with him, and they could not have done the job if not for active help from the Hungarians under the command of Jarossas, Endre and Baky. Istvan Deak stated that nearly 200,000 Hungarians helped deport the Jews. On the other hand, as Deak wrote:
“Considering, however, that in Budapest most everyone was capable of detecting a Jew and also that most of those in hiding were not denounced, it is likely that at least a hundred thousand Gentiles gave active assistance to the Jews, while many more simply looked the other way.”
The utter stupidity of killing people instead of using them for labor in the war time was incomprehensible, and people refused to believe. Hitler told Horthy that he needed the Jews for the building industry. Still, Horthy tried to stop the deportations. On June 25-30 he received pleas from Pope Pius XII, President Franklin Roosevelt, and King Gustav of Sweden to stop Jewish deportations, and on June 26 he shouted at the Crown Council meeting:
“I shall not tolerate this any further! I shall not permit the deportations to bring further shame on the Hungarians! Let the Government take measures for the removal of Baky and Endre! The deportation of the Jews of Budapest must cease! The Government must take the necessary steps!” All was in vain. Nobody obeyed the Regent. On July 2 the Allies bombed Budapest, in vain.
In April of 1944, Walter Rosenberg and Alfred Wetzler escaped from Auschwitz and wrote a detailed report with drawings of the gas chambers, called “Auschwitz Notebook.” Here we encounter a terrifying detail that makes one’s hair stand on end: the Budapest Jewish Council headed by Samu Stern received “Auschwitz Notebook” no later than beginning of June, and they hid it from Horthy and the Jews until the end of June. A Hungarian biologist George Klein, then a teenager in Budapest, received the report in early June and showed it to his uncle, a well-known physician, who almost hit the youth for spreading such “non-sense.” Author Sándor Török, a Christian member of the Jewish Council, said: “I visited various leading people with our documentary material… most had the opinion that they were not true, merely ‘Jewish exaggerations.”
On July 3, Sandor Torok found a reader who believed him instantly.
Horthy’s daughter-in-law countess Ilona Edelsheim-Gyulai (Mrs. Ilona Bowden) recalled:
“Sándor Török … brought all kinds of news with the purpose of informing the Regent. Fortunately, I wrote a diary, in which the memorable day is marked: on July 3rd, 1944, he delivered the ‘Auschwitz Notebook’ to me. I read this tremendously shocking description of the gas chamber-equipped extermination camp in his presence. One could feel that every word of it is true, as something like this could not be fabricated. I immediately brought this to my father-in-law’s chambers. Three days later, on July 6th, the Hungarian Government halted the deportation of the Jews.”
This is how it was: she believed immediately, and she brought it to the Regent’s attention immediately. How many more lives could have been saved had Torok come to the countess 10 days earlier?
The Admiral understood that without a military showdown nobody would listen to him. On July 4, he found a loyal military unit commanded by Colonel Koszorús, who confronted Baky and stopped the deportations on July 6. A quarter-million of the Budapest Jews were saved at that point. Later it became known that Eichmann planned to deport all of them over just two days starting that day. With his iron will, the Regent restored partial power and influence, and we may say that nobody in the world saved as many Jews as he did. In Sakmyster’s words: “Horthy’s action was unprecedented in the history of the Holocaust: never before had a leader successfully used the threat of military force to halt the deportation of Jews to the death camps.”
Wallenberg arrived in the city on July 9. If not for Horthy’s actions, he would have had nothing to do: all the Jews would have already been deported by that time. He understood it well, and on July 29, 1944 reported to his government: Horthy’s “position is illustrated by the very real fact that the deportations were canceled per his order, but also by a number of smaller interventions. Among them, two verified instances of trains loaded with prisoners being ordered to turn back just before reaching the border.”
In the Budapest suburb of Kistarcsa the Germans set up a camp for the Jewish intelligentsia whom they deported from there. The Hungarian commandant Vasdenyei helped the Jews as much as he could. A witness on the Eichmann trial, Dr. Brody, testified:
“Vasdenyei notified me on the evening of 12 July, in confidence, that on the 14th of the month the Germans were preparing to take an additional 1,500 persons from Kistarcsa, and that the Germans had ordered a special train to Kistarcsa … When I got to know about it, I got in touch, that same evening, with the directors of the Jewish Council … The Regent gave an order that the train should not proceed. Since the train had already left, the Regent ordered a major of the gendarmerie, Lullay, to halt the train while it was still in Hungarian territory … This was the sole deportation train in the eleven years of Nazi domination, ever to be turned back in its tracks.”
The Germans demanded the resumption of the deportations and Horthy, conspiring with the Budapest Jewish council’s leader Sami Stern, seemingly agreed for a deportation on August 25. However, the Regent again assembled loyal troops and cancelled the deportations for good. On August 24, Horthy executed a coup: he dismissed the Sztójay government and appointed anti-Nazi general Geza Lakatos as his new prime minister.
On October 15, 1944, Horthy attempted capitulation to the Soviet Army but was overthrown and arrested. The fascist “Arrow Cross” party took power. Eichmann came back on October 16, but he already had no way to murder on the previous scale: on October 6th Auschwitz stopped gassing–Horthy had managed to save the Budapest Jewry up through that moment.
A ghetto near the central synagogue was established. It was intended for 200,000 people, but during 50 days of its existence only 70,000 to 80,000 Jews moved there. Bandits of Arrow Cross killed 10,000 to 15,000 Jews near this place, and most of them were buried in the cemetery next to the synagogue. The Red Cross and the diplomats Carl Lutz, Raul Wallenberg, and many others tried to help; many books have been written about this. It is likely that 80-90 percent of Budapest Jewry survived.
Had we been secretly present at conversation of Horthy and Kallay on March 19, we would have thought that Kallay was absolutely right, and the vain old man simply didn’t understand the situation. Of course, he should have accepted the advice of his friend and used the opportunity to retire with honor at his age of 77!
But had he done so, an additional quarter-million Jews would have become Holocaust victims and the majority of the Budapest Jews would not have survived the war. Had he done so, the actions of the diplomats and the righteous people in the Arrow Cross government’s period would have been fruitless; there would have been no Jews left to save.
“What Horthy did,” noted George Friedman, “was the dirty work of decency.” But perhaps American prewar ambassador John Montgomery best articulates Horthy’s true place in history: “This world would be a better, more decent place, if the leaders of the English-speaking nations developed a tiny part of the courage shown at that time by Admiral Horthy.”
This article is adapted from a longer piece published in Russian in “Evrejskaya Starina” (“The Jewish Antiques”), #1, 2014, pp. 4-102.