Hungarian Conservative

‘I will wipe the city off the face of the earth’ – The Serbian Occupation of Baranya

PHOTO: FORTEPAN / LAKATOS MÁRIA
If one spends some time in Hungary, one may come to the opinion that the Serbs a ‘stubborn’ and ‘rather barbaric people’. This kind of anti-Serbian language dominated contemporary British reports.

In 1921, the right-wing journal Gondolat proposed that, in addition to the revisionist statues in Szabadság Square inaugurated at the beginning of the year, the streets of Budapest should be given new names, reminiscent of the lost territories: Károly Avenue should be called Kolozsvár Avenue, Vámház Avenue should be Transylvanian Avenue, the bridges should be Pozsony bridge or Délmagyarország bridge, and Fő street in Buda should be Pécs street.[1]

This last suggestion may be surprising for readers, since Pécs is now part of Hungary. The city, together with Baja and the areas between it, was occupied by Serbian troops at the end of the First World War, in October 1918, and remained under Serbian rule until August 1921. However, the Treaty of Trianon left the area within the boundaries of Hungary, so the first success of the revisionist policy can be linked to its recapture (although the terminology might not be precise, as it was the observance of the treaty that handed the settlement back to Hungary).

According to a contemporary report, the Serbs had the Hungarian street names erased, although the roads were dirty and the Serbian authorities did not invest in the upkeep of the city, as they could not yet know whether it would remain theirs or not.[2] However, in addition to neglect, atrocities also occurred. The occupiers did not hide their violent predisposition from the start: in January 1919, city commander Lt. Col. Stevo Radovanovich announced to the residents of Pécs in a Hungarian language poster that if they resisted, he would ‘not spare anyone’s life’, and he would ‘wipe the city off the face of the earth.’[3] The Serbian occupiers took away several priests: Géza Fridrich, parish priest from Baranyavár, the parish priest from Püspökbogád, a local chaplain and cantor, as well as János Alagics, parish priest from Hercegszőlős – the latter was also physically abused.[4]Civilians were often punished with caning, but there were also reports of sexual violence.[5] The resisting Hungarians were tortured more than once. In 1931, on the ten-year anniversary of the liberation of Mohács, several local residents – such as Ödön Wolf and Margit Inkei – were approached by the Hungarian National Association to provide documents and information about the beating of their relatives.[6]

The Serbian police simply refused to investigate such incidents

One of the most notorious atrocities took place on 10 November 1919, when Serbian troops looting in Drávatamási shot the landowner Jenő Thassy and his four-year-old child, Endre dead. They also tried to kill his wife, Ladiszla Inkey, who was three months pregnant, but she and her foetus survived the attack.[7] There were examples of murders even later: in July 1921, on the Serbian-Hungarian demarcation line, two Hungarian women were shot for no reason by a Serbian soldier, in front of the young children of one of the victims. The Hungarian investigators noted that ‘similar cases occur day after day.’ [8] The Serbian police simply refused to investigate such incidents.[9] According to a summary drawn up shortly after the liberation of the county, during the 33-month occupation, the Serbs caused about 54.4 million crowns in damage.[10] Typically, the state wine cellars were all looted.[11]

The Kingdom of Serbia-Croatia-Slovenia, dominated by Serbs, did everything it could to keep Pécs, and to this end even made an alliance with the émigré bourgeois radicals: one of the dark chapters in the history of the Hungarian left was the so-called Baranya-Baja Serbo-Hungarian Republic, the South Slavic socialist puppet state that existed for about a week (between 14 and 21 August 1921) with its centre in Pécs. The formation, which was not recognized by anyone, was created with socialist and bourgeois radical leaders, primarily on Serbian payroll. There was, of course, something ironic about the Serbian-Socialist alliance, since the South Slavic kingdom was a nationalist and authoritarian state, similar in many respects to the Hungary of the 1920s, and also a monarchy, which could find little common ground with the supporters of the republican idea.

The left-wing leadership in Pécs found it difficult to accept that the West had chosen right-wing Hungarian Governor Miklós Horthy in their place, and that their communist ties played a significant role in this decision. The British ambassador in Belgrade, Alban Young, drove away the social democratic politician Béla Linder, who was afraid of the Hungarian invasion, saying that he did not want to see communists in Pécs.[12] Linder’s fears may have been well-founded: in his report to London, the British ambassador in Budapest mentioned – without any kind of comment – that he had heard that Linder would be exhibited locked up in a cage in Hungary if he ever returned home.[13]

From the South Slavic side, the English were regularly accused of being anti-Serbian, and the documents of the British Foreign Office sometimes seem to confirm this. William Strang, the second secretary of the British embassy in Belgrade, for example, did not deny the accusations. If one spends some time in Hungary, one may come to the opinion that the Serbs a ‘stubborn’ and ‘rather barbaric people’.[14] This kind of anti-Serbian language dominated contemporary British reports. 

Colonel Gosset’s report on the ‘Evacuation of the Occupied Territories of Southern Hungary’ focused primarily on the Hungarian grievances. As he wrote, the Serbian authorities supported the cause of communism, socialism, were anti-Hungarian and anti-British, and they almost shot an Entente officer in Pécs. The report highlighted that ‘white newspapers’ are subject to censorship and that the Serbs leave behind only ‘a legacy of hatred’ and pillaging. Gosset later also met two representatives of the ‘independent’ Republic of Baranya, whom he described as ‘well-trained demagogues’. They apparently recited the ‘usual nonsense’ about being ready to die for their freedom – Gosset summed up the meeting.[15]

On 19 August 1921, the socialist leadership forcibly gathered the residents of Pécs in the main square, and in a final speech promised that there would be no exodus there. At the same time, the left-wing press wrote that Horthy was coming ‘with Turanian pride, tenderized meat under his saddle, and gallows under his arm’.[16]One socialist told a ‘white Jew’ that he, a ‘Horthy-loving Jewish scoundrel’, will yet meet his end at the ends of the Socialists.[17] After that, the entire left-wing and pro-Serb leadership left the city and fled to Eszék (today Osijek in Croatia).

Observers competed with each other in describing the overflowing joy with which the Hungarian army entering the city the next day was received. ‘Pécs is welcoming the soldiers with a shower of flowers. This city has never truly moved away from us,’ wrote Budapest publication Az Est. ‘The public showers our soldiers with flowers, the church bells are tolling, the brass band is playing, and the national army is celebrated with stormy cheers,’ reported A Nép. The Jewish Múlt és Jövő wrote of ‘joy on the faces of the residents, tears in the eyes’.[18] In his memoirs, Hungarian Foreign Minister Miklós Bánffy recorded that so many flowers and cigars were thrown at the horse of the advancing commander of the military district of Kaposvár, Lieutenant General Károly Soós, that it almost became frenzied, and by the time it reached the main square, the poor animal looked ‘like some giant bush – luckily it was a tolerant horse’. Colonel Gosset did not hide his joy in his report either: he wrote of happy masses, celebrating people of all ethnicities, so very different from the mass protests of the previous Socialist regime.[19]

Horthy himself personally participated in the celebrations

Lieutenant General Soós told the workers that the military would ‘embrace them as brothers’.[20] It is a fact that they soon set up a soup kitchen for the poor, returned the local press to the socialists, and even allowed back into the county some of the left-wing workers who had fled for fear of retaliation. (While earlier it was the Hungarian loyalists who fled Baranya, according to Serbian data, approximately four thousand people left after the Hungarian return.) Minister of the Interior Gedeon Ráday, who was also the local government party representative candidate, visited the Jewish women’s association in Pécs in the spirit of tolerance, where he spoke about ‘not looking at what separates us’ , but instead, at what brings unity. A Jewish observer even noted about the speech of Jesuit friar Béla Bangha, who was also traveling to Pécs, that ‘he spoke with infinite liberality and honesty’.[21] Later, Horthy himself personally participated in the celebrations: he arrived in Pécs on his private train, the Turán. The programme included a parade, a dinner, a sports ceremony, then a theatre performance, and finally a serenade. Among the documents of the governor’s entry into Pécs –which meticulously planned everything to the tiniest detail, from the positioning of the theatre bodyguard to how rioters would be dispersed – it was also stated that the city was to receive decorative lighting.[22]

Today we know that the returning of the city to Hungary did not only have a bright side, but a darker one as well: atrocities were committed, Serbians, socialists and Jews were beaten, although no murders have been uncovered as of yet.[23] Border conflicts, changes of city ownership and political violence as a rule promise few merry chapters in history, but all the more bloody pages. Yet, it is fair to say that while the Hungarian re-occupation of the city involved violence, the Serbian occupation produced more extreme atrocities. All in all, at least the country was spared one more territorial injustice, as the city (and other neighbouring towns) with a strong Hungarian majority was not forcibly annexed by another country. Also, the dark pages of the two nations common history no longer overshadow the present-day good Hungarian-Serbian relations. 

[1] Gondolat, 1921/9.

[2] Az Est, 10 Aug. 1921 and 2 Sept. 1921.

[3] Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Baranya Megyei Levéltára (Pécs, hereon cited as MNL BML)IV.1406.n. 

[4] Tengely Adrienn, ‘Egyházak a szerb megszállás alatt Baranyában’. Pécsi Szemle, 2004/4. p. 57.

[5] Dévavári Zoltán, ‘Kék és vörös terror. Intézményes erőszak a Délvidéken (1919–1925). In: Müller Rolf, Takács Tibor, Tulipán Éva (eds.), Terror, 1918–1919. Forradalmárok, ellenforradalmárok, megszállók, Budapest, Jaffa, 2019, p. 88.

[6] MNL BML, V.73.h. 

[7] Dunántúl, 11 Nov. 1919 and Uj Somogy, 23 Nov. 1919. 

[8] Hadtörténelmi Levéltár (hereon cited as HL)HM ELN D 1921 22172.

[9] Ernyes Mihály, ‘Szerb impérium Baranyában, 1918–1921,’ Rendvédelem-történeti Füzetek, 2009/19. p. 22.

[10] Kaposi Zoltán, ‘Pécs gazdasági helyzete a szerb megszállás idején (1918–1921)’, Pécsi Szemle, 2011/2. 68–70, p. 76.

[11] Pécsi Napló, 5 July 1925. 

[12] National Archives (Kew, hereon cited as NA), FO 371/6131. 

[13] NA, FO 371/6133. 

[14] NA, FO 371/6133. 

[15] NA, FO 371/6133. 

[16] Salamon Konrád, Nemzeti önpusztítás, 1918–1920. Forradalom-proletárdiktatúra-ellenforradalom, Budapest, Korona, 2001, p. 244. 

[17] Székely Nándor, ‘A felszabadult Pécs’, Múlt és Jövő, Sept. 1921. 

[18] Az Est, 25 Aug. 1921.; A Nép, 24 Aug. 1921.;  ‘A felszabadult Pécs’.

[19] NA, FO 371/6133.

[20] Az Est, 7th Aug. 1921. 

[21] Schweitzer József, A pécsi izraelita hitközség története, Budapest, MIOK, 1966, p. 88.; ‘A felszabadult Pécs’.

[22] HL, Personalia VII.186. 206.d. 

[23] László Bernát Veszprémy, ‘Events of the White Terror in Baranya and Western Hungary in 1921’, in Róbert Barta (et al., eds.), Trianon 1920–2020. Some Aspects of the Hungarian Peace Treaty of 1920, Debrecen, Universitas Debrecen, 2021, pp. 101-116.

If one spends some time in Hungary, one may come to the opinion that the Serbs a ‘stubborn’ and ‘rather barbaric people’. This kind of anti-Serbian language dominated contemporary British reports.

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