Miklós Horthy (1868-1957) was not a politician and thus he couldn't have been a statesman either. His education certainly didn't prepare him for a political career. At the age of fourteen he entered the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy's naval academy in Fiume (today Rijeka). It was a fairly unusual career choice for the son of a Calvinist family because Hungarian Calvinists usually voted for the Party of Independence and were no friends of the dual monarchy as it emerged in 1867, just a year before he was born. The official language of the academy was naturally German as was that of the entire Austro-Hungarian army. As a result Horthy spoke with a slight but distinct German accent all his life.
Horthy was good looking and personable but he didn't excel at the academy except in horseback riding and fencing. On the other hand, he was good in languages and thus served for many years at various Austro-Hungarian embassies as military attaché. At one point he was aide-de-camp of Emperor-King Franz Joseph whom he greatly admired.
How did he end up in politics? That is one of the mysteries of his life. After the war ended and there was no longer either a dual monarchy or an Austro-Hungarian navy, he retired to his modest family estate in Kenderes where he was born. However, after the Hungarian Soviet Republic was declared on March 21, 1919, he left Kenderes and went first to Arad (today in Romania) and later to Szeged where a counterrevolutionary government in exile had been formed under reluctant French tutelage. Since he was the only military man in the group he was made minister of defense.
Horthy is usually described as "a conservative who was distinctly inclined toward the right of the political spectrum." But the real problem was that he was a man who could be easily influenced. As a Hungarian diplomat observed, Horthy's political views could change within hours. It depended on who talked to him last. His other weakness was his great attachment to military men who especially after 1918 were steadily drifting toward the extreme right. Right-wing army officers left the Hungarian Republic in droves and gathered in Vienna or later in Szeged. The so-called National Army was made up exclusively of officers. These officers, unlike Horthy, were savvy when it came to politics and they decided that if they wanted to have a say in the politics of the future they should promote Horthy, who could represent their views against the politicians whom they detested.
Their job was made easy by the total lack of political understanding among the counterrevolutionary politicians after the fall of the Soviet Republic in August 1919. The Entente Powers demanded a "coalition government" that represented all segments of society. That included the Social Democrats. But the Social Democrats, who held all the cards, demanded a major share in the government which the politicians on the right were unwilling to grant. Almost five months went by and there was still no government that the Great Powers would recognize. And as long as there was no officially recognized government, no peace treaty could be signed.
As it turned out, in this chaos the only man who had any power behind him was Miklós Horthy. He had the National Army, and at one point the officers were ready to arrest all the politicians and establish a military dictatorship. Eventually a representative of the Great Powers was sent to Budapest to assess the situation and assist the Hungarians in the formation of a viable coalition government. The representative, Sir George Clerk, recognized that Horthy was the man who was capable of keeping order because he was the only one with an army behind him. Clerk therefore suggested him as the man the Entente could trust. From there on, with Clerk's and the officer detachments' help, Horthy marched toward eventually being "governor" of the country.
Hungary was declared to be a republic in 1918, a status the counterrevolutionaries who came to the fore after the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic couldn't imagine. But the Habsburg king in exile couldn't occupy the Hungarian throne because neither the neighbors nor the Great Powers would allow Charles IV's return. Moreover, the Hungarian ruling class was split on the person of the king. Not everybody was a fan of the Habsburg connection. One could actually say that the "loyalists" were in the minority and the majority (the free electors) would have opted for a national king. The best thing was to postpone the whole issue by appointing a governor who would rule while there was no king on the Hungarian throne. Thus Hungary again became a kingdom but without a king.
Because Horthy was the only man who had power there was no question that the new parliament that came into being after elections in the western part of the country (the eastern part was still under Romanian occupation) would vote for Miklós Horthy, the darling of the National Army and the far-right. The parliament itself was mostly made up of men of fairly extreme views. Before the actual vote long and difficult negotiations took place between Horthy and the new Hungarian government. As one of the politicians openly admitted, they had to agree to Horthy's demands because otherwise Horthy's army would have taken over power forcibly.
Horthy was advised by men such as Gyula Gömbös who later as prime minister was hard at work trying to introduce a fascist type regime in Hungary. Only his sudden death prevented him from doing so. I wrote about Gömbös several times in the last couple of years since upon studying Gömbös's politics, historians find more and more resemblances between Gömbös and Viktor Orbán.
One more thing about this early Horthy. Horthy has never been found to have personally engaged in White Terror atrocities, but he "tacitly supported the right wing officer detachments" who carried out the terror. Horthy himself declined to apologize for the savagery of his officer detachments, writing later: "I have no reason to gloss over deeds of injustice and atrocities committed when an iron broom alone could sweep the country clean." And he endorsed Edgar von Schmidt-Pauli's poetic justification of the White reprisals ("Hell let loose on earth cannot be subdued by the beating of angels' wings") remarking, "the Communists in Hungary, willing disciples of the Russian Bolshvists, had indeed let hell loose."
Tomorrow I will show that the Horthy of White Terror notoriety was tamed by 1922, in large part by Prime Minister István Bethlen (1921-1931). The statesman was not Horthy, whose duties were mostly ceremonial, but Bethlen, who managed to achieve considerable economic progress and succeeded in convincing Europe and the United States that Hungary's murky past was no more.