On Miklós Horthy's Responsibility

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This article was originally published in Hungarian (Nyolc pont Horthy Miklós történelmi felelősségéről, 06.30.2017). Ádám Kerpel-Fronius is research fellow at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Ferenc Laczó is assistant professor in history at Maastricht University.

1. Horthy's Personality

Miklós Horthy wasn´t planning on becoming a politician; his political interests and abilities were rather limited. It was the collapse of Hungary at the end of WWI that unexpectedly brought him to power. Even though he took power in the age of ideologies, Horthy did not possess a coherent political ideology himself; he was the representative of an illiberal and ethnically-based but otherwise rather confused conservatism. A Hungarian brand of conservatism opposed to modern revolutions and also to ideas of democracy and equality. His leadership cult notwithstanding, Horthy was an impressionable and opportunistic politician rather than an assertive statesman with a clear vision.

2. Horthy's Regime

The Regent was not a dictator with absolute power. The authoritarian regime named after him was a typical product of inter-war politics with many parallels in other European countries. The country may have significantly modernized under Horthy´s regency, but its officialdom was characterized by reservations and resentments towards basic features of the modern world. The Regent did not build a fascist system, nor did he desire to lead a mass movement. Both were foreign to his views and ideals. He was a counterrevolutionary rather in the 19th-century sense of the term: to him, counterrevolution meant the rejection of the accomplishments of modern revolutions, not their right-wing mirror image. He may have been an ethnicist but was not a populist. However, in the second half of his rule, his regime radicalized ever further. It makes no sense to sharply divide the quarter of a century under Horthy's rule to a before and an after: it is precisely the process of radicalization between 1919 and the fall of 1944 that deserves our attention. 

3. Anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism was a constant feature of the epoch. It was an integral and explicit part of the views held by those in power. The discrimination of Hungarian Jews was legally enshrined as early as 1920 through a numerus clausus law targeting university admissions. This was followed by a plethora of anti-Jewish laws and decrees. Particularly after 1938, anti-Jewish policies became ever more exclusionary and drastic. Horthy did not oppose them in any sense. The genocide committed during WWII did not directly and inevitably follow from the opinions and attitudes toward the Jews that were articulated in previous years. What is more important though is that there was no serious tension or contradiction between such opinions and attitudes and the ensuing crimes against humanity either.

4. The pursuit of Border Revision

The revision of Hungary´s new (‘Trianon') borders belonged to the primary goals of Horthy´s regime. In this respect, Horthy accomplished partial and temporary successes. Aiming to achieve an ethnically based revision of the country´s borders amounted to a consistent policy. However, it was based on the ideal of the ethnically homogeneous nation state and would thus contribute to the strengthening of ethnic radicalism. Hungary substantially expanded its territories between 1938 and 1941 but excluded significant parts of its own citizens at the very same time. Horthy was not committed to the restoration of the historical-multiethnic country (such a goal might anyway have been unrealistic in the age of the nation state). He has ultimately also failed to expand his state's borders to the ethnic ones. 

5. War Crimes before 1944

The regime led by Horthy was responsible for several major crimes during WW2 already prior to 1944. The most outstanding of these are the deportations from Hungary, which were initiated by Hungarian authorities and led to the mass murder carried out by the Nazis at Kamianets-Podilskyi in 1941; the massacres in the Bačka in early 1942; and the atrocities committed by the Hungarian occupying army on Soviet territory, including their participation in the mass murder of local Jews. The institution of labour service provided an additional setting for the practice of radical anti-Semitism in the frame of which tens of thousands met their violent deaths. The history of the institution is somewhat ambivalent though since more than a few Hungarian Jews eventually escaped the deportations and thus their almost certain death as a result of their enrolment in the labour service. 

6. Hungary and the Holocaust

At the beginning of 1944, Hungarian Jewry was the largest Jewish community surviving in Central Europe. Most of its members hoped and trusted that they would survive the war. Only half a year later, murdered Hungarian Jews constituted the single largest victim group in the entire history of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Hungary was responsible for the persecution of Jews in a manner comparable to its neighbours Slovakia, Romania and Croatia. Slovakia was the first, Hungary the last country to carry out mass deportations – when it comes to the question of responsibility, one cannot and should not differentiate based on this fact.

When expanding eastward at the early phase of the war against the Soviet Union, the Romanian state authorities murdered hundreds of thousands out of their own will and through brutal means of their own choosing. Still, the Romanian government did not hand over Jews living in the core territories of Romania to the Nazi leadership. The role played by Hungarian perpetrators is significantly different: while the number of murders committed directly by Hungarian hands was smaller, the number and the ratio of victims were higher than in the Romanian case. 

This difference is well illustrated by the fate of many thousands of Hungarian-speaking Jews in Transylvania. While their overwhelming majority welcomed the arrival of Hungarian troops in the fall of 1940 – not least because of the even more radical and violent anti-Semitism in Romania – they soon had to realize that the Hungarian state was far from identical with the essentially liberal half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Due to the anti-Jewish laws, Jews in Northern Transylvania they found themselves at the periphery of society from one day to the other. Until 1944, however, they remained confident that they were more secure in Hungary than in Romania. Then, in the spring of 1944, the vast majority of Jews from Hungarian-ruled Northern Transylvania was murdered, while the Jews in Romanian-controlled Southern Transylvania survived.

7. Horthy in 1944

The German occupation of Hungary in March 1944 was a milestone in Horthy's personal story. He continued to serve as Regent of the country and and didn't act to protect the Jews, thus legitimising the German intrusion and the ensuing deportations too.

Without the German occupation, the large majority of Hungarian Jews would probably have survived the war but their mass deportation would have been impossible without the active role played by the Hungarian side. The plunder of Jews and their subsequent deportation both proceeded like well-oiled machinery, with the Hungarian state apparatus and large parts of Hungarian society taking an active part in it. The deportations were not stopped until July 1944. By then, more than 437,000 people had been deported, most of them directly to their deaths in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Horthy stopped the deportations above all for tactical reasons. There is no trace of empathy or a feeling of responsibility awakening in him; what was happening was a result of unprincipled wishy-washy tactics in foreign policy. With the Arrow Cross Party taking power in the middle of October 1944, Horthy's direct responsibility came to an end – his responsibility for the final phase of the Hungarian Holocaust was at most indirect. That doesn't change the basic facts: despite all the grotesque acts of cruelty committed by the Arrow Cross in the months that followed, their overall responsibility for the Hungarian Holocaust is less central than that of the Sztójay government appointed by Horthy in the spring of 1944 and only dismissed by him at the very end of August.

8. Horthy's Responsibility 

There is no reason to demonise Horthy's role. In many ways, the banality of evil thesis suits his personality and acts better than that of Adolf Eichmann. The refusal to demonize him should, however, not lead to unprincipled balancing acts: the key questions on which to evaluate Horthy's historical role remain his policy during WW2 and his role in the Holocaust. When it comes to dealing with modern Hungarian history, a critical study of his role belongs to the minimal requirements. The clarification of his role is an essential social needThe genocide became conceivable as a result of the spirit of exclusion dominating his quarter-century reign. The by far most important chapter of the Hungarian Holocaust was carried out under his reign and in his very name; it was carried out with his silent, but decisive consent. The ‘final solution' had been initiated by the Nazi German leadership, but Horthy's Hungary proved to be a willing partner in its implementation. Horthy's policy of border revision proved to be unsuccessful. His country eventually fell into the hands of the Soviets, the enemy he most vehemently opposed and waged war against in alliance with the Nazis. His moral and his political performance deserve to be assessed in the same unambiguous manner.

Cover photo: FORTEPAN.