Hungarian Conservative

‘The Brothers-in-Law are Coming’ – How did Hungarians See the German Occupation in 1944?

German soldiers in Budapest, 1944
PHOTO: FORTEPAN / FORTEPAN
The question was posed as follows: was Hungary truly occupied, or did enough of Hungarian sovereignty remain to label the country “independent”?

It is not particularly surprising that the historical and public debates in later years could not reach a consensus on the nature of the German occupation of Hungary in 1944. The question was posed as follows: was Hungary truly occupied, or did enough of Hungarian sovereignty remain to label the country “independent”? As far as the specific date when German troops entered Hungary, the rainy Sunday 19 March is concerned, far-right politician Ferenc Rajniss was certainly not wrong when in his diary, he said: ‘Volumes could be written about the history of this single day.’[1]Despite the dark spectacle of the marching of 120,000 German soldiers into the country, people started debating what exactly took place that very day, and not only on the Hungarian, but also on the German state’s part. Interior Minister Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer, who, shortly after the invasion, was deported to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Germany, and died soon after the liberation of the camp by the American troops, claimed at the last government meeting that ‘the Gestapo has no regard for the country’s sovereignty.’ [2] In the absence of widespread armed resistance, the Germans themselves decided on troop withdrawals already on 20 March, which the new German imperial ambassador to Hungary, Edmund Veesenmayer immediately protested at: as he said, the occupation was not a ‘bluff’ at all.[3]

A significant part of the population–mainly Jewish Hungarians–sensed that changes had begun. The “Anne Frank” of Újpest, Éva Pesti, noted in her diary that ‘Our street is full of Germans on motorbikes, there are tanks lined up all along Csokonai Street.’ [4] Éva Rózsa similarly recalled ‘that there were Germans everywhere’ in the city.[5] Indeed, it was not only the memory of the two young Jewish girls that magnified the visible presence of the Germans. Mrs. Sándor Dévényi, an adult, also saw that ‘German military guards are cruising everywhere.’[6] It was only in smaller villages that many perceived the occupation the way a Jewish resident of Enying did, who said that on 21 March, the Germans ‘simply marched through the village.’ [7] But the recollections of Sarolta Wolf (Drori) from Ungvár (now Uzhorod in Ukraine) and Sándor Paszternák from Miskolc are more typical. Wolf recalled: ‘The Germans came in. Terrible chaos in the city. The Germans occupied the hotels and began to blackmail. First, they rounded up the Communists, then the Jews.’[8] Paszternák also highlighted something that essentially every other recollection also remarked on: the rumbling sound of German tanks. ‘The endless German tank and cannon columns poured in, their terrifying rumble shook the buildings. They came from Pest, and from Slovakia, in incredibly long, unending lines.’[9]

‘They came from Pest, and from Slovakia, in incredibly long, unending lines’

The non-Jewish population was also shocked by the German occupation, which was most interpreted as an attack on Hungarian sovereignty. According to Count Ladomér Zichy’s memoirs, when he stepped out into the street early in the morning, he was ‘horrified to notice the long, snake-like line of German tanks’ heading towards him, adding that the sight of German soldiers was ‘breathtaking’.[10] Gyula Tóth, a Hungarian soldier from Miskolc, felt similar consternation over the occupation: ‘Infinite’ crowds of Germans arrived in the city, he recalled, ‘loud German commands drowned out the voices of the boys selling newspapers in the streets and squares.’[11] If we compare this to the impressions of Paszternák from Miskolc, which we cited above, it is interesting that an armed Hungarian soldier and a Jewish citizen were equally in awe of the demonstration of German military power. Kálmán Shvoy, a politician from the Southern town of Szeged, wrote about the same on 19 March: ‘The brothers-in-law are coming… on Petőfi avenue, German troops…tanks, then battalions, motorized troops, infantry.’[12] Similarly vivid is the diary of an unknown Hungarian girl from a Catholic family, who recorded her thoughts about the events, obviously seen through the eyes of a child, on 21 March: ‘Poor [governor Miklós] Horthy was beaten thoroughly by Hitler…They took over the country. I think this is terrible impudence.’[13]And at the beginning of April, she also referred to the changed scenery of the city: ‘Somehow, Pest has completely changed, it is not what it was a few months ago. There are a lot of people in the streets, those strange yellow stars, a lot of German soldiers, a lot of tanks, booming cannons.’ [14]

All of the above serves to illustrate the public perception of the German occupation, and the reactions of ordinary people. However, it is unclear what conclusion people could draw from what they experienced. It is possible that SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann’s claim in his oft-cited memoirs that part of the population actually welcomed the German troops, is not unfounded.[15] SS-Obersturmbannführer Hans Bobermin also testified in Nuremberg that ‘I personally got a very welcoming reception when I went to [Hungary] and that, according to him, ‘the Hungarian population” ‘wanted [the Germans] to stay there.’ He even said: ‘I don’t really know if this can be called an occupation at all.’ [16] Considering the retrospectively self-justifying nature of German memoirs, it is especially painful that historians practically only quote from them.

It is important to note that the Germans at the time saw things quite differently. Contrary to the propagandistic image of Hungarians throwing flowers at the feet of the German troops as they marched in, they wrote about something very different. German General Maximilian von Weichs noted that the population is generally indifferent’,[17] the Szeged Gestapo reported in April that ‘in the beginning the population was averse to the German authorities’,[18] and Veesenmayer himself admitted to collaborationist Minister of the Interior Andor Jaross that ‘for no Hungarian, I believe, can it be pleasant that Hungary was occupied by German troops.’ [19] Veesenmayer should have been aware of this mood because right-wing Hungarian politician Bálint Hóman said in a private letter addressed to him that ‘generally, public opinion learned about the entry of the “allied” forces, the fact of the occupation and the excesses of German troops with the greatest shock, pain, indignation and shame.’ The excesses he mentioned probably referred to the requisitions of the German army, as already in the spring Hungarian administrative reports from the Great Hungarian Plain (Alföld) reported that due to the confiscation of crops, ‘the antagonism between the Hungarian population and the German occupiers are constantly growing’.[20] These are far from being the only contemporary Hungarian sources revealing the anti-German mood of the population. The ‘very strong’ anti-German sentiment of the masses was also discussed at the August general meeting of Ugocsa County.[21] Some rural newspapers even dared to say publicly that ‘the wave that started on 19 March resonates to this day’, ‘the majority is worried about what happens after 19 March.’ [22]

The recollections of members of the Hungarian elite at the time, such as the memoirs of Ilona Edelsheim-Gyulai, the widowed wife of the governor’s son István Horthy, are undoubtedly subjective. But what she wrote is rather unambiguous: The Nazis thought that the country was waiting for them with joy. They were disappointed in this, the people did not wave at them or greet them. Several people told me that on this day you could see the offense taken and the disgust in people’s behaviour.’ [23] The memoirs of Prime Minister Miklós Kállay– who was removed from his position after the occupation and subsequently deported to Mauthausen and then Dachau–also made similar claims.[24] On the other hand, the presence of celebrating masses was described by many Jewish observers in Budapest, Kassa (Kosice), Nagyvárad and Győr.[25] One did not have to be a Jew to see the real presence of support for the Germans: Lieutenant Colonel Pál Lieszkovszky, assistant chief of staff, wrote in his memoirs that after the occupation ‘a considerable part of the country remained pro-German and did not stand on the side of common sense.’[26]

So, some memoirists we have quoted maintained that there was no support for the Germans, while others claimed that there was. What could be the reason for the discrepancy? One popular idea is that only the Hungarians of ethnic German ancestry were happy about the occupation. This view was spread by Communist historiography. This might have been true in some places. It was recorded in the historia domus– i. e. essentially the ‘house history book’ – of a Catholic church in Kőszeg in Western Hungary, that the local German youth celebrated in the street: ‘Suddenly the German blood stirs in them, and they rise to demonstrate.’ [27] It is worth looking, however, also at the sources that report on the resentment of the ethnic German (Swabian) population towards the occupiers, especially due to forced conscription into the German army. At a council of ministers in June, it was said that the Swabians in Baranya and Tolna Counties were in a very bad mood because of the drafting,[28] while in Kecskemét a German crowd of 150 people protested against the conscriptions, and the demonstration was finally broken up by German special police.[29] The Swabians of Elek and Paks were reported to be ‘very disheartened’,[30] and a German report in May also had the following to say about the Swabians of Transylvania: ‘The third SS draft in the vicinity of Marosvásárhely is received with particularly mixed feelings by the population of German origin in the villages’, who ‘do not possess a particularly solid German consciousness.’ [31] All of this does not mean that German popular organizations, such as the Volksbund, which were openly pro-Nazi, did not participate in helping the occupation and the Holocaust. However, the ethnically-biased argument that all of those celebrating the Nazi occupation were people of German ancestry does not hold up either.

‘Anyone who is hostile to current German activity will be mercilessly exterminated’

The reason for the difference in opinions about whether the occupation was celebrated or not in Hungary can perhaps be found in the fact that pro-Nazi people felt confident and powerful after the occupation, while anti-Nazi people did not, and thus the voice of the minority was much stronger. People were intimidated by the official propaganda as well. For example, shortly after the occupation, the Budapest radio aired an announcement calling on the population ‘to be friendly to the German troops. Anyone who is hostile to current German activity will be mercilessly exterminated.’[32] Sándor Leitner, the president of the Orthodox community in Nagyvárad, wrote in his diary that only the pro-Nazis (the Arrow Cross supporters) could feel that ‘their triumphant hour had finally arrived.’[33] It seems fair to say that the majority could feel that the time of extreme, radically pro-Nazi elements had come. The Transcarpathian Hungarian newspaper editor R. Vozáry Aladár, whose wife was Jewish, wrote in his diary that ‘those who were still bowing before me on 18 March, [now] don’t even want to notice me.’[34] The German authorities were also aware of the fact that they could not be sympathetic in the eyes of the majority, because they distributed leaflets from the tanks, addressed ‘to the Hungarians’, saying that they had come as ‘comrades’ against the Jews.[35] Meanwhile, nationalist–and often antisemitic–Hungarian youth organizations such as the Turul produced pamphlets of a completely different kind: the leaflets, which were finally confiscated, read: ‘We will not tolerate the German occupation!’[36]

The data above present a complicated picture of the first few days of the German occupation of Hungary in 1944. Some onlookers may have interpreted the German occupation as a positive thing, but others–perhaps many more–saw it as the beginning of the country’s ruination. The pro-Nazi people’s voice was amplified by the collaborationist press, while those who opposed Nazism chose to remain silent, especially after witnessing the mass arrests (the story of which we have not sufficient space to describe in detail here). The fact that Hungary was indeed occupied by Germany does not mean that Hungarian sovereignty ceased to exist in all fields, or that the contemporary Hungarian state had no responsibility in the Holocaust. Yet interpreting the above sources, which are infrequently quoted by historians, allows us to have a more balanced understanding of the history of the German occupation of Hungary. 

[1] Sipos Péter, ‘Rajniss Ferenc naplója’, in Glatz Ferenc (ed), ‘Az 1944. év históriája’, Budapest, História, 1984, pp. 137-140.

[2] Szekeres József (ed), ‘Források Budapest történetéhez, 1919-1945’, (Budapest: BFL, 1972), vol. 3. 528..

[3] Ránki György, Március 19. Magyarország német megszállása, Budapest: Kossuth kiadó, 1978, p. 136.

[4] Josef Lustig, ‘Az „újpesti Anna Frank”: Pesti Éva naplója’, Újpesti Helytörténeti Értesítő, 2004/2, p. 13.

[5] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Washington, D. C.), RG-50.233*0117.

[6] Huhák Heléna, Szécsényi András (eds.), Kismama sárga csillaggal. Egy fiatalasszony naplója a német megszállástól 1945 júliusáig, Budapest, Jaffa, 2015, p. 24.

[7] DEGOB, 3562. (http://www.degob.hu

[8] Yad Vashem Archives (Jerusalem, hereon cited as YVA), O.33/4941. 5.

[9] YVA, O.84/259. 1.

[10] Hadtörténelmi Levéltár (hereon cited as HL)TGY 2831. 11-12. 

[11] HL, TGY 2875. 1.

[12] Perneki Mihály (ed), Shvoy Kálmán titkos naplója és emlékirata, 1918-1945, Budapest, Kossuth kiadó, 1983, p. 276.

[13] Kunt Gergely, ‘A nyilasterror hatása egy kamaszlány előítéleteire’, in Bódy Zsombor, Horváth Sándor (eds.), 1944/1945. Társadalom a háborúban. Folytonosság és változás Magyarországon, Budapest, MTA BTK TTI, 2015, pp. 35-52. 

[14]  ‘A nyilasterror hatása egy kamaszlány előítéleteire’, p. 38, p. 41. 

[15] Kádár Gábor, Vági Zoltán, A végső döntés. Berlin, Budapest, Birkenau 1944, Budapest, Jaffa, 2013, p. 151.

[16] Wiener Library, London, 1655. Nuremberg Military Tribunalvol. 4. 6013-6015. (Pohl Case).

[17]  ‘Weichs vezértábornagy 1944-es naplója’, in Gosztonyi Péter (ed), Légiveszély, Budapest! Budapest, Népszava, 1989, pp. 106-122.

[18] Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amtes (Berlin, hereon cited as PAAA)R100.892 2282.

[19] Sipos Péter, Imrédy Béla a vádlottak padján, Budapest, Osiris-BFL, 1999, p. 240.

[20] HL, TGY 3372. 22.

[21] Kárpátaljai Területi Állami Levéltár (Beregszász, hereon cited as KTÁL)258.1.872. 61.

[22] Szigetvári Hírlap, 29 April 1944.  

[23] Gróf Edelsheim Gyulai Ilona, Becsület és kötelesség, 1918-1944’, Budapest, Európa kiadó, 2001, vol. 1., p. 228.

[24] Kállay Miklós, Magyarország miniszterelnöke voltam, 1942-1944, Budapest, Európa kiadó, 2012, vol. 2., p. 296.

[25] Kismama sárga csillaggal, p. 29.; Schmidt Mária, Kollaboráció vagy kooperáció? A budapesti Zsidó Tanács, Budapest, Minerva, 1990, p. 250.; Munkácsi Ernő, Hogyan történt? Adatok és adalékok a magyar zsidóság tragédiájához, Budapest, Renaissance, 1947, p. 13.; YVA, O.84/221, 3.; Lőwy Dániel, Az úri város zsidó lakosai. A nagyváradi zsidóság története, Budapest, MUEME, 2015, p. 295.; YVA, O.33/2436.

[26] HL, TGY 2833. 2:63.

[27] Horváth Ferenc, L. Kiss Csaba (eds.), Végjáték a határon. Kőszeg 1944-1945, Gencsapáti, Szülőföld, 2015, p. 38.

[28] Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Országos Levéltára, K27. 1st June 1944. 2.

[29] PAAA, R100.892 2283. 

[30]  Március 19. Magyarország német megszállása, p. 196.

[31] PAAA, R100.892 2283. 

[32] Benoschofsky Ilona, Karsai Elek (eds.), Vádirat a nácizmus ellen. Dokumentumok a magyarországi zsidóüldözés történetéhez, Budapest: Magyar Izraeliták Országos Képviselete, 1958-1967, vol. 1. pp. 41-42.

[33]  Az úri város zsidó lakosai, p. 295.

[34] Halmos Sándor, Adatok Bereg és Szabolcs vármegye zsidósága történetéhez a letelepedéstől napjainkig, Budapest, Barankovics István Alapítvány-Gondolat, 2009, p. 91.

[35] YVA, O.84/259. 1.

[36] Kerepeszki Róbert, A Turul Szövetség, 1919-1945. Egyetemi ifjúság és jobboldali radikalizmus a Horthy-korszakban, Máriabesenyő, Attraktor, 2012, pp. 233-234.

The question was posed as follows: was Hungary truly occupied, or did enough of Hungarian sovereignty remain to label the country “independent”?

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