Because there has been so much talk lately about the growth of the Hungarian radical right, about paramilitary organizations and the young and not so young waving Árpád-striped flags associated with the Arrow Cross movement, it may be time to say a few words about Ferenc Szálasi (1898-1946).
Perhaps no one will be surprised to discover that the man who came up with “Hungarism” wasn’t an ethnic Hungarian. His original name was Szalosján. His fraternal ancestors came from Armenia and settled in Transylvania, but Szálasi was born in Kassa (today Kosice in Slovakia) where his father was a noncommissioned officer in the Austro-Hungarian army. On his mother's side he was of Slovak origin.
His father was a strict disciplinarian, and most likely it was he who decided that his son should follow a military career. As a young child he was sent to military academy in Wienerneustadt from which he graduated in 1915 with the rank of lieutenant. He was immediately sent to the front where he served to the bitter end, spending altogether 36 months in the war zone. What he did during the turbulent years of 1918-1919 is not known, save for the fact that he left Kassa/Kosice and moved to Budapest where he managed to get a job as a courier for the Ministry of Defense. In 1923 he was sent to General Staff College where he apparently excelled. After a two-year stint at the College he graduated in 1925, moved up the ladder to the rank of captain, and worked for the general staff until 1931.
His promising career ended abruptly when it was discovered that he was dabbling in politics, an activity forbidden to members of the military. He was transferred to a remote garrison somewhere in the provinces where he had plenty of time to “study” political theories. He apparently read Marx, Trotsky, Bebel, Lenin, and Kropotkin with such gusto that he could recite whole passages from their works. His “philosophy” was an amalgam of his readings and his own ideas. He apparently prided himself on “working out his theory all by himself” with the help of textbooks on history, ethnography, geography, Hungarian grammar, as well as the Old and New Testaments. (Miklós Lackó, Nyilasok, nemzeti szocialisták, p. 44). There is also reason to believe that Szálasi was under the strong influence of an army doctor friend of his, Henrik Péchy. Péchy was a clairvoyant and astrologist who wrote a prophetic world history based on mathematics. He predicted coming wars, revolutions, and events in general “with mathematical accuracy." (Ibid., p. 62)
What was Hungarism? Hard to tell. The book in which he outlined his ideas (The Way and Aim) explains: “Hungarism is an ideological system. It is the Hungarian practice of the nationalistic view of the world and the spirit of the age. It is neither Hitlerism nor fascism, nor anti-Semitism, but Hungarism.” Well, that is not much, and further excerpts would lead one to ask whether Szálasi was not a bit mad. Here are some samples from Hans Rogger and Eugen Weber’s The European Right: A Historical Profile: “Social Nationalism is life’s only genuine physics and biology. The true individual forms matter with his soul; his hand is but an instrument. And since this is so, the formed matter is not a value but a ware. Social Nationalism is therefore the nation’s biological physics and not its historical materialism.” Or (this time from Lackó, p. 234): "The East-Westerly orientation of our Fatherland broke down and died away with a shocking suddenness; and without transition it became the border interest-sphere of Europe’s Northern and Southern life-sphere.” As Nicholas Nagy-Talavera said in his book Green Shirts and Others: “Szálasi was superbly oblivious about such minor details as intelligibility.” No wonder that he got nowhere as a practical politician. His many parties’ failures attest to that. His briefly successful Arrow Cross party wasn’t really his creation; some of his followers organized it while he was in jail.
As for what we can find out by wading through all this gibberish. (1) He was apparently genuinely concerned about the welfare of the broad, dispossessed lower classes. (2) He had a rather original plan for maintaining Hungarian supremacy in the Carpathian Basin. (3) His ideology lacked apocalyptic images or a call to violence or terror. Initially at least he wasn’t an anti-Semite but, again as Nagy-Talavera called him, “an a-Semite." Later he moved in the direction of outright anti-Semitism.
Of these three, the most detailed are his ideas about Hungarian supremacy in the Carpathian Basin. Szálasi’s Hungary encompassed the historic lands of the Holy Crown of St. Stephen, including Croatia, Slavonia, Dalmatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Within the non-Croatian part he wanted to grant the nationalities autonomous rights but only in territories where their majority was absolute or an overwhelming 80-90%. The non-Croatian part was to be called Magyarföld (Magyar Land) within which there would have been Ruténföld (Ruthenian Land) and Tótföld (Slovak Land). Today’s Burgenland (Austria) was to be called Nyugat Gyepű (March of Hungary) and Erdélyföld (Transylvanian Land). And there would have been the Horvát-Szlavonföld (Croatian-Slavonian Land). The whole area, instead of being known as Hungary, would have been called Kárpát-Duna-Nagy-Haza (Great Carpathian-Danubian Fatherland). However, the Hungarians’ supremacy within this Great Carpathian-Danubian Fatherland was never questioned. The only official language would have been Hungarian and the political leaders would all come from the Hungarian political elite. One more thing to keep in mind: this new state was to be established by the Hungarian Army, which would have enjoyed preeminence in order “to force the nations back to the shaken pillars of Religion, Patriotism and Discipline.” He planned an “industrialized, highly developed peasant state.” Hungarian society was to be classless. There would be three groups: the “peasants who support the nation,” the workers “who build the nation,” and the intelligentsia “who lead the nation.”
Some who studied Szálasi’s “ideology” claim that in comparison to other Hungarian national socialists he was actually quite moderate as far as the “Jewish question” was concerned. He felt that the Jews as a nation were “capable of founding a home,” and once they found it, they should leave Hungary. He was ready to let them take their property with them. However, he believed in the “Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion” and considered Jews to be the chief culprits of both capitalism and Marxism, which he often called Judeo-Bolshevism. In matters of religion he was a devout Christian but his Christianity was to be a Turanian (?) one and not a corrupted “Jewish version of Christianity.” He even came up with the idea that Jesus was of the “Godvanian race” (whatever this means), which is related to the Hungarian (Lackó, p. 54).
How this man ever achieved any fame and position is hard to fathom. He certainly had a following, and even his boss, Gyula Gömbös, minister of defense and later prime minister, predicted that one day he would be prime minister of Hungary. What a prediction! But I don’t think that Gömbös, who died in 1936, could have envisaged the circumstances under which his prediction would become reality.
Tomorrow I will talk about Szálasi’s political career from his first attempt to establish a political party in 1935 to his disgraceful role in 1944-45 and his death sentence and execution for war crimes.